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Posted by Alex on Wednesday, October 13, 2010
... and the cute Panda bears in China? I hope you do because had you forgotten and tried to go back and look them up again on the blog over the last couple of weeks, you would've certainly found all of my writing, but not any of the pictures... (Thanks, Lott, for catching this!)Well, the good news i... ... and the cute Panda bears in China? I hope you do because had you forgotten and tried to go back and look them up again on the blog over the last couple of weeks, you would've certainly found all of my writing, but not any of the pictures... (Thanks, Lott, for catching this!)
Well, the good news is last night, I went through and fixed everything, so the pictures are all back. I even tried to fix my spelling and grammar errors - I do tend to proof-read my posts, usually, but it seems I'm still not all that good at it. There is no bad news - everything is just back. There are some boring technical details, which you are welcome to skip, but I'll type up anyway, just in case you care (and because it gives me a forum to bitch at the governments of Burma and China for their idiotic internet policies): Burma and China aren't the types of countries that particularly encourage free and unfettered expression, such as blogging. They attempt to control it by using a standard, heavy-handed, Communist-style approach: you cannot access blogger.com or blogspot.com from a computer in China or Burma. As with most standard, heavy-handed, Communist-style approaches to solving problems that shouldn't really be problems in the first place, the approach doesn't work. I was obviously able to post from Burma and China - all because there's a million proxy servers out there that computer users of China and Burma utilize to get around their respective governments' idiotic restrictions. In Burma, the proxy would usually be already installed on most of the internet cafe machines... In China, they had wi-fi, so I got it on my laptop. There was, however, an issue - routing all your requests to blogger.com through a server in, say, Holland, made your [already slow] internet connection speeds that much slower, so I gave up on uploading pictures to blogger, putting them on my site instead, then simply referencing them from the blog. It actually took a bit of work to get the process all figured out, but pretty soon, I had it down to a science (which makes it kind of sad that I had to spend three hours undoing all of my cross-site magic last night). And this magical science worked great... all the way until last month, until I had to transfer the site from Arnie's server to one of my own - a process which allowed us to discover that when you cancel your account with 1&1 Hosting (whom I'm reluctant to recommend at this point, btw), they insist on hijacking your domain name for a month and using it to redirect traffic to one of the other sites they are being paid to host (and some nice man in Hyderabad, India will be powerless to do anything about it). This, naturally, means that all the images I had uploaded to my site from Burma and Tibet had now evaporated, so the blog posts that were pointing to them were now picture-less... So, that's the annoying technical reasons - if you are unclear on what the hell I'm talking about (or even if you are), never fear - the photos on the blog are all back now! (Unless you are reading this on Facebook, which imports my blog posts, but doesn't update the imported snapshots when I change them, so if you want to take the time to navigate their ineffective UI to get to some of the posts from last February, you will discover these elusive picture-less posts... But you shouldn't do that! You either don't care at all, in which case you should've stopped reading ten minutes ago, or you'll just use the fairly intuitive navigation tools you get at safety3rd.blogspot.com)
And as a reward for indulging me in my little rant, here's a few of these 'recovered' photographs:
Shwedagon Pagoda - Yangon, Burma
The Golden Rock on Burma's Mount Kyaiktiyo at sunrise
A fisherman on Inle Lake
The plain of Bagan just before sunrise
Snake Temple outside of Mandalay, Burma
Cute pandas in Chengdu, China
Tibet's Potala Palace, flanked by the Himalayas
A terracotta general: Xi'an, China
Posted by Alex on Monday, April 5, 2010
The head's all that's left of this Buddha in Ayuthaya, Thailand. It's been here for a few centuries and nature has been trying to re-absorbWhen you go to far East Asia, most places tend to have a lot of Buddha statues. The predominantly Catholic Philippines remains an exception, but 'communist' Chin...
When you go to far East Asia, most places tend to have a lot of Buddha statues. The predominantly Catholic Philippines remains an exception, but 'communist' China is all about getting in on the Buddha bandwagon. And while, I suspect, Buddhism tends to generally discourage competition (especially when it comes to depicting Buddha himself), this hasn't really stopped everyone from trying to build bigger and bigger statues. Some time when I was in Burma (which really likes to build things on a grand scale), I started thinking about some of the biggest statues I've come across. And now that I'm back, and have access to my entire photo library again, let's share what I've come up with with the blogosphere. Note: the list is by no means scientific, and I don't even know the actual measurements of most of these statues, it's just the way I had remembered the Buddhas when I had first seen them... I also like how Lord Buddha looks significantly different as you move from country to country...
So, without further adieu, we'll start with:
#1: The cute and adorable, vaguely life-size Buddhas
#2: Let's see what we find in this cave
A reclining, napping stone Buddha in the Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, India
#3: Bangkok chimes in with an imposing sitting statue
A golden seated Buddha at Wat Suthat in Bangkok, Thailand
#4: Mongolia is also re-discovering its Buddhist roots ever since the Soviet Union has withdrawn its influence
A white stone statue sitting just off the road in Darkhan, Mongolia
#5: reclining Buddhas are hard to judge, since they are not standing up, but they are nonetheless impressive, and giant
This may have been one of the biggest statues of any sort I had seen at the time - a huge reclining Golden Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand
#6: I only spent one day in Sri Lanka, but that was plenty of time to come across a very serene and flexible Buddha
#7: Japan's not to be outdone!
The slightly weathered statue of Amida Buddha on the grounds of Kotoku-in Temple in Kamikura, Japan. This has so far been the only Buddha statue I've been able to walk inside of...
#8: The Burmese love a good competition, especially if the winner is determined by quantity, or sheer size
Things in Bagan, Burma, home of over 5,000 temples, really are on a whole different scale, so this massive Buddha statue, barely fitting inside of the Ma-nu-ha Temple is right at home
#9: Commence the heavy weight division!
Hong Kong didn't strike me as a particularly religious place, but the nearby island of Lantau is nonetheless crowned by a large statue of a sitting Buddha - the Tian Tan Buddha. Hong Kong being Hong Kong, of course, it's mostly just a tourist attraction
#10: Modern Technology to the Rescue!
This is the Naung Daw Gyi Mya Tha Lyaung in Bago, Burma. It was only built in the past twenty years, likely making it a lot easier to construct this giant relic. There was apparently a different reclining Buddha, a mere block away - that one was much older, and slightly bigger, but we didn't expect to keep looking for another huge reclining Buddha after finding this one!
#11: more from Japan
#12: And the winner is...
The 45 meter tall Phra Puttamingmongkol Akenakkiri Buddha on the island of Phuket in Thailand rules over the surrounding islands and countryside. It is not yet quite finished, unfortunately, but it's just the details that remain - the huge structure itself is already in place.
If we were to be a little more scientific about it, things get very complicated very quickly as there are categories for standing Buddhas, and sitting Buddhas, and reclining Buddhas... and some have pedestals, while others do not, so it's hard to judge. The Taliban has also taken the liberty of destroying one of the biggest Buddha statues in the world in the mountains of Afghanistan - the Buddhas of Bamyan. The Leshan Giant Buddha, outside of Leshan City, China seems to be generally accepted as the biggest Buddha statue in the world at 71 meters in height - then again, it's unclear what the criteria are, as on this list it only comes in at number eleven. Everyone does seem to agree that the Maitreya Buddha in Uttar Pradesh, India will eventually become the biggest Buddha statue in the world (152 meters tall), but they are still working on it, and considering that it is India, I wouldn't hold out too much hope for a speedy completion.
In the mean time, if you'd like a Buddha of your own, to, say, decorate a backyard, the Thais have been perfecting their Buddha transportation techniques:
Buddha on a truck in Bangkok, Thailand - getting ready to hit the road!
Posted by Alex on Saturday, March 20, 2010
I didn't think it was possible either - something about a large ocean in between, but then I behind the wheel of a car and well, just did it! All you've got to do is come to Iceland - the place sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, squarely on top of the continental divide:In fact, the North Ame... I didn't think it was possible either - something about a large ocean in between, but then I behind the wheel of a car and well, just did it! All you've got to do is come to Iceland - the place sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, squarely on top of the continental divide:
In fact, the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are drifting apart at the rate of about 2cm a year, which is gradually creating all these crevasses in the center of Iceland
All of this geological activity makes Iceland a fascinating place to see - it's a very young landmass (geologically speaking), and there are geysers, volcanoes, fjords, mountain peaks, glaciers, hot springs, vikings... Ok, the vikings haven't quite been around for the 65 million years that Iceland's been here. The place is the world leader in geothermal power though... which is a good thing as there aren't any other natural resources up here.
The Strokkur geyser gets ready to send up a plume of vapor. Next to it sits the geyser called just 'Geysir' - kind of like Xerox, it's the original geyser...
Snow-capped mountains ringing the fjord leading to the pretty little spec of a town, SeyÃ°isfjÃ¶rÃ°ur (yes, there are some funny-looking characters in the Icelandic language)
They often say Iceland and Greenland are mis-named: Greenland is all covered in ice, while Iceland is quite green. That's not entirely true (as the previous picture might suggest), but there are giant fields of these green rocks in Iceland
As for my adventures in Iceland, I was a little sad to arrive here as it was to be the last stop on my current trip. Getting over myself, I went to wander around Reykjavik. That's the capital, with a population of about 200,000 (which is 2/3 of the entire country's population... Not particularly crowded here), and I've never been to a capital quite like it - the place has this easy and relaxed feel of a small town, punctuated by little stores and boutiques all over downtown selling things to tourists. A tall church steeple rises up in the center of town.
The HallgrÃmskirkja church, the largest in Iceland. A statue (donated by the US) of Leif Ericson, who beat Columbus to America by about 500 years, sits out front
Reykjavik has apparently been growing fairly rapidly over the past 15-20 years, and considering the abundance of space in the country, this has led more to urban sprawl, than to skyscrapers - I don't think there's a building taller than 10 stories in this town...
After being in Iceland by myself for a day, I was joined the following day by Lynn - a friend from back in Seattle, who's currently working in Geneva. I still haven't managed to make it over to Switzerland, but she was excited to visit Iceland
The Reykjavik airport is about an hour outside of town, and in between lies the Blue Lagoon, an over-sized hot spring and spa center. Try it some time for that unmatched baby bottom skin effect. Naturally, we decided it would be a perfect place to meet. And it was.
With both of us now here, we set off to explore Iceland in earnest (as in outside of Reykjavik), starting with the Golden Circle tour the following morning. You do make a loop on the tour taking in a number of attractions, including a geo-thermal plant, a volcanic crater, some geysers, a waterfall, and the national park sitting on top of the continental divide. Trivia time: where is Europe's largest National Park located? Iceland!
The Gulfoss, or Golden Falls. A big waterfall, with water coming down with significant force
This is not Europe's biggest national park, but in addition to the continental divide, it also contains the site of Iceland's first parliament - established in the 10th century!
The weather in Iceland in March, by the way, isn't exactly welcoming - it's cold, it's rainy, it's windy. At higher elevations it snowed a good bit. So, we were pretty lucky to get a nice dry day for the trip, with some occasional glimpses of sunshine even... On the way back we took a more circuitous (and picturesque) route through the mountains, which would have apparently been inaccessible due to snow just a week earlier. On a further bright side, we were far enough from December that there was plenty of daylight each day.
Upon getting back to Reykjavik, we decided that the most expedient way to see the country (all of the country) would be to rent a car and do a three day tour circumnavigating the island, so after finding a place that would rent us a car for half the price of what the agency that the hostel recommended, we were all set to go.
The Chevy was no mini, mind you, but crossing Iceland is also agreeably easier than driving across Eurasia!
Prior to departure, a side note about food: much like everything in Iceland, the food is really expensive - you can expect to pay about double what you'd pay back in the States (apparently it used to be triple before their economy had crashed...), however, the food is really, really good! The local cuisine specializes in lamb and seafood, including both very fresh fish, and crustaceans, like lobster, crab, etc. Unfortunately, seafood also includes whale meat... In the cities (Ok, there's only two of those - Reykjavik, and Akureyri up North, which, with a population of less than 20,000 people, is a city by default only), there's also a pretty good selection of international foods - Thai, Indian, Mexican, etc. There's no Starbucks, however, and McDonald's has apparently ceased operations a couple of years ago when the shipping costs became prohibitive. There are some American chains that are still persevering up here though, including Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, Subway, and the one I was really excited about - Quizno's! So, after grabbing lunch at Quizno's, we headed out towards Europe (Reykjavik is on the Western side of the island, so it's on the North American plate). The first day, we were still seeing a few tourists, and an occasional tour bus, as we passed a landscape filled with mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, and one big lagoon filled with icebergs breaking off from a retreating glacier, and a seal happily swimming around them all.
The SnÃ¦fellsjÃ¶kull glacier - blue ice hiding behind the rocks
Mountains peaking through the fog behind the glacier
Bright yellow grass, contrasted with starkly black dunes
Lynn getting ready to document it all
We finished the day in the town of HÃ¶fn, which is a regional center, but has a population that is yet to reach 2,000. It's tiny. Late Sunday night, we found exactly one restaurant that was open... but the food was very good, as usual - lobster is a specialty in this part of Iceland.
The following day, we had a fairly long drive along the fjords on Iceland's eastern seaboard up to Akureyri. By now, this was definitely no man's land - the road was still pretty good (not as good as before though), but we could easily go 30 minutes without passing another car. We also kept stopping to take in the awe-inspiring scenery all around us:
A large rock sits perched on the waterfront along the Eastern shores. Lynn kept talking bravely about at least touching the water with a bare foot... never happened. I remained equally unwilling to experiment with the frigid waters!
The fjords carving up the landscape further up North, as the day starts to actually turn sunny!
We got to the town SeyÃ°isfjÃ¶rÃ°ur for lunch, which the guide book described as the can't miss Bohemian town in Eastern Iceland. Well, on a nice clear winter day, it's got an amazing location nestled between the fjord and the mountains, but it's fairly empty and un-Bohemian until the summer tourists arrive
Setting sun lighting up the sky as we approach Akureyri towards the evening.
Akureyri, being so far North, is a perfect spot to see the Aurora Borealis, so that was very much our plan. There was exactly one other group renting a room at the guesthouse where we were staying - to my immense surprise, they turned out to be Russian, so we chatted for a bit. They were apparently from Russia's Northern port town of Murmansk, in Iceland on business to purchase a fishing vessel for their company... They also explained that if I wanted to see the Aurora Borealis, I really needed to come to Murmansk, in the dead of cold Russian winter. Well, or at least Alaska. We headed out of town right there in Akureyri, Iceland instead, found a relatively quiet spot a little ways north of town that seemed sufficiently well shielded from the city's lights, and sat there for an hour staring at the night sky... Unfortunately, the night sky was all that we saw. It wasn't a particularly clear night, and the Northern Lights are a natural, unpredictable occurrence and all that... still a little disappointed, guess I'll have to go Murmansk after all! Well, maybe start with Alaska...
The final day was highlighted by more brilliant fjords along the Northern coast, a 6+ km tunnel under a fjord on the outskirts of Reykjaik, and generally unwelcoming weather - rain in the planes and lots of snow in the passes.
Lynn did duly encourage me to drive relatively slowly though
By now, we were between the two major Icelandic cities of Akureyri and Reykjavik, which meant there were more people around and the facilities in the towns along the way weren't all closed until the summer, so we stopped for lunch at a little town on one of the fjords, and I found my meal of lobster bisque soup and scallops with caviar well worth the money. Like I said, the food was quite good in this country - this was probably my favorite meal.
The final day in Reykjavik gave me just enough time to return the rental car and drop by the National Museum. Then, all of a sudden, it was time to get to the airport one last time and complete the final leg of the trip - Reykjavik to Seattle direct aboard Icelandair... Time to start planning the next adventure, I suppose!
* It's true, I didn't actually do the cross-continental drive yesterday - I've now been back in Seattle for a couple of days and that drive was now almost a week ago, but "Five days ago, I drove from Europe to North America" just didn't have the same ring to it, and this post took a while to put together...
Day 113: 18 Mar, 2010, 17:11 GMT
back in Seattle just in time for St Pattrick's Day! Sunny too,as an extra bonus!
Day 113: 18 Mar, 2010, 05:49 GMT
Keflavik airport... it's sad, my last day traveling... this time around anyway!
Day 113: 18 Mar, 2010, 05:47 GMT
back in Reykjavik just long enough to see the National Museum and head off for the airport
Day 111: 16 Mar, 2010, 22:37 GMT
day driving thru Iceland's spectacular East fjords. Sadly, no Norhtern Lights seen tonight, but met 3 Russians @our hotel
Day 111: 16 Mar, 2010, 22:34 GMT
a day of driving past glaciers and waterfalls in amazing Iceland, followed by a lobster dinner here on the East coast!
Posted by Alex on Thursday, March 11, 2010
Sean Connery, born in Edinburgh, Shcotland shpeaks funny. I went to Edinburgh, and it turns out that everyone up there shpeaks funny. But they are harder to understand than our favorite Bond hero...An obligatory shot of Sean Connery, courtesy of wikipedia, looking funny.But eventually, I moved on pa... Sean Connery, born in Edinburgh, Shcotland shpeaks funny. I went to Edinburgh, and it turns out that everyone up there shpeaks funny. But they are harder to understand than our favorite Bond hero...
An obligatory shot of Sean Connery, courtesy of wikipedia, looking funny.
But eventually, I moved on past the funny talk, helped in part by the fact that I was up here to visit Katy and Conor (stars of such previous adventures as South America and Antarctica about a year ago), and they have not so far picked up the Shcottish accent (and likely never will, as they are apparently moving to London soon):
They look reasonably serious and responsible after almost a full year wandering about South America - there's hope for me yet!
And then, of course, there's Edinburgh, Scottish capital, itself - it's a beautiful old city (much like everyone back in London had told me), and an immediate contrast to London, being almost intimately cozy, easy to get around, and filled with ancient buildings wherever you look - London, by contrast, is a bit schizophrenic with its constant mixture of old and new. There's also no Underground in Edinburgh... What there is in Edinburgh is a medieval architect's paradise:
Ok, maybe not actually medieval, but the buildings are either a few centuries old, or built to look like they are
The St. Giles Cathedral, in gathering dusk here, is from the Middle Ages - oldest parts of the building date back to the 12th century
My favorite site in the city though was the Sir Walter Scott Memorial - a towering and imposing Gothic structure in the middle of town
That's just me though (apparently) - certainly the most famous site in Edinburgh is the Edinburgh Castle, sitting resolutely above the city
Sunset over the Castle and the city
Snow-covered mountains encircle the city - also earning bonus points for the place!
This is the newly re-established Scottish Parliament (returning after a 300 year hiatus). It's clearly housed in a rather modern building - I don't know what to make of it, but I don't think it fits in with the surroundings!
Roaming around Edinburgh, I, at one point, ventured into the tourist information center. They had post cards, and here, I learned that a few miles North of Edinburgh lay another site to behold - the Forth Bridge. Completed in 1890, it is apparently often referred to as "the one internationally recognized Scottish landmark." Naturally, I had to go see, it's even lit up at night, so I recruited Katy and Conor to take a drive out there, see the bridge, and have a drink at a bar where Robert Louis Stevenson, of Treasure Island (the book) fame, apparently used to hang out some 130 years ago.
The bridge at night. I was intrigued
Intrigued enough in fact that I made my way back to South Queensferry the next afternoon to see the bridge during the day
To see and to photograph, of course
It is still an actively used railroad bridge - the train, presumably, does not hail from 1890.
And that, sadly, finished my two days in Scotland, so I hopped on an overnight bus to head back to London. The bus reminded me of bus journeys in Bolivia a bit (which is never a good thing!), but only a bit. To be fair, I had wanted to take the train, however...
bus ticket: Â£14.50
train ticket, advance purchase: Â£47.50
train ticket, same day, after the rail network website refused to accept my American credit card: Â£107.
Well, that made the decision in favor of the Megabus pretty easy, and no amount of Bolivia memories was going to make me regret that choice! And a few hours around London later, it was off to one last stop before coming back to Seattle: Iceland!
Day 106: 11 Mar, 2010, 19:28 GMT
Fish and chips, Icelandic style! Tastes great, costs too much... Excited to try and see the Northern Lights up here
Day 106: 11 Mar, 2010, 19:25 GMT
Hello, Iceland! Definitely warmer here than in London... but where are the trees?
Day 106: 11 Mar, 2010, 19:22 GMT
back to London on an overnight bus to have breakfast with Mattson, then on to Iceland!
Day 103: 8 Mar, 2010, 23:21 GMT
And on to Scotland to visit Katy and Conor and see Edinburgh, which everyone I meet seems to find absolutely amazing.
Day 103: 8 Mar, 2010, 23:13 GMT
airport may already be in Scotland considering how long the drive is; why can't we have proper highways!?
Posted by Alex on Sunday, March 7, 2010
that it's a lot easier to find your way around a city in China and Taiwan (and certainly in obsessively user-friendly Japan) than it is in England? It's certainly true! England suffers from a few problems (not including the current frigid temperatures) - first of all, none of the streets are ever st... that it's a lot easier to find your way around a city in China and Taiwan (and certainly in obsessively user-friendly Japan) than it is in England? It's certainly true! England suffers from a few problems (not including the current frigid temperatures) - first of all, none of the streets are ever straight; they wind, they twist, the loop and circle - they are beautiful, scenic, picturesque, and ... difficult to keep a bearing on! And then, there's the street signs - places like chaotic Buenos Aires have very clear street signs (Shanghai's are the best actually - they are not just in English, but they also give you compass points - N/S, E/W, so you know which way to go). Here in England? Well, they do have some street signs. They are never lit up or anything, and are never in a consistent spot. And they seem to really be just reserved for the tiny small streets - the big ones have been here for seven hundred years - everyone knows where this one goes! Oh, tourists... Raaiiight...
So, British streets annoy me a little. No matter, I took a few scenic detours around the towns, and managed to find my friends here in England, and take in a few sights. No thanks to the tourist information offices either - I've seen a few so far, but none that were open as of yet. Union-mandated smoking break, I can only assume... At least the people are happy to help, and speak something that passes for English.
After a day of decompressing back in London, the first stop was Bristol, the home of the intrepid adventurists, as in the people who organize the Mongol Rally and the Rickshaw Run. I did manage to find their office (which wasn't honestly interesting enough to merit any photography...), then headed off to see a bit of the rest of the old town. And to their credit, the English towns (with their winding streets and all) are very pretty - surrounded by rolling green plains of the countryside, and with Gothic steeples of churches and cathedrals poking up all over the place:
The massive center building of the University of Bristol
The Bristol Cathedral in the evening
Bristol seems fairly proud of its Suspension Bridge. Definitely a prime location. Probably an engineering marvel of some sorts too
The following morning, it was time to head back to London, but instead of taking the direct train line there, I figured I'd make a small detour through Salisbury
Salisbury sits in the middle of the afore-mentioned tranquil English countryside
And in the middle of all this countryside sit the 5,000 year old stones that make up mysterious Stonehenge. We still haven't quite figured out why it's here, but it's a cool site to see. Met a tourist from Japan there - we both complained about how cold it is in England!
Back to London, and on to the Tower Bridge
They say it's the most famous bridge in the world - I say San Francisco's Golden Gate could give it a run for its money, but certainly top two!
Just outside of London is Canterbury, home of the Canterbury Cathedral, the home base of the Anglican Church.
The rest of the time here in London has been all about catching up with friends, since most people you meet traveling are apparently Brits. (I can't blame them - it's freezing here!). Lucy patiently explained to me that the Canterbury Cathedral isn't as nice as the cathedral in her home town of Lincolnshire. I felt she may have been exaggerating a bit, and proceeded to explain that I tried to convert the Canterbury arch-bishop to Buddhism...
Re-visiting the Mongol Rally adventures, I visited with Dom and Laurel, whom we had met in Mongolia, while they were driving around the world in a much-too-sensible Toyota Hilux, and Zoran, who made the mini functional enough to, at least, get her on the way towards Mongolia. He was pleased to hear my updates on the poor car's whereabouts.
Dom and Laurel are about (literally within the week) to have an addition to their family. The Hilux is now for sale...
Zoran, the master, is still his rather stern, yet happy self!
And one final takeaway about life in Britain is that the whole country is ... well, apparently in therapy. Or just neurotic, as Jamie puts it. Everything apologizes to me. And no, that's not a typo, I did mean everything, not everyone. When the Underground train gets stuck, a soothing lady comes on saying she's sorry, and we're waiting for a red signal. You are not sorry at all, you are just a recording that's pre-programmed to come on after three minutes to try and make me feel better! At that, by the way, you have failed! On the elevator, in my hostel in Bristol (a nice, if rather sterile and soul-less place):
- doors closing
- car traveling up
- floor three
<by my fourth time riding the lift>: You do realize, recording lady, I will have to strangle you if we ever meet!?
- doors opening
There was also this sign at Stonehenge, which made me burst out laughing (and take a picture), but somebody must have taken all this quite seriously at some point when the sign was conceived:
Well, I suppose, it could be a problem if the shoes you were wearing had nails in place of heels... with the sharp end of the nail pointing down!
Before, we get all smug and over-confident, I'm pretty sure the US is heading down the same over-therapized path, we are just not quite as far along as our Old World ancestors!
By the way, one more thing about London - the underground, the tube, whatever you want to call it. Easily my least favorite of any public transit systems around the world. Not only is there no semblance of trains running on a schedule of any sort, but the trains are constantly stuck in the tunnels, and seemingly half the system is closed for repairs every weekend. Fortunately, half the stations appear to be redundant, so you can still get places (slowly), it's just a bit more crowded.
The standard explanation is always, well, it's the oldest and largest system in the world - it's very difficult to maintain. Pity us! So, I decided to look up some numbers - wikipedia to the rescue:
It is the certainly the oldest system in the world:
#1. London, 1863
I couldn't find a comprehensive list for this (you are dropping the ball here, wikipedia!), but a few relevant ones that I did come across:
#2. Istanbul, 1871, even though that wasn't really a metro line, and bears no resemblance to today's lines
#3. Budapest, 1896 (#'s 2 and 3 were a bit of a surprise for me as well)
#4. Paris, 1900
#5. New York, 1904
But is it the largest? No, not by any measure:
By Length of Rail:
#1. New York: 1056km
#2. Berlin: 483km
#3. London: 415km
#4. Moscow: 340km
#5. Tokyo: 281km
#6. Paris: 211km
By number of stops:
#1. New York: 468
#2. Paris: 368
#3. Berlin: 354
#4. London: 275
#5. Tokyo: 274
By number of passengers (annually):
#1. Tokyo: 3.174 Billion
#2. Moscow: 2.392 Billion (a decline of almost a billion from 1997?)
#3. Seoul: 2.047 Billion
#4. New York; 1.624 Billion
#5. Mexico City: 1.467 Billion
#6. Beijing: 1.457 Billion
#7. Paris: 1.388 Billion
#8. Hong Kong: 1.323 Billion
#9. Shanghai: 1.3 Billion
#10 (finally). London: 1.197
(passenger figures from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_subway_systems_in_the_world, statistics from 2007-2009)
So, London is the oldest, but is neither the largest, nor the most heavily used. Nor is it open 24 hours a day, like New York's. And while it is the oldest, you can't exactly call New York, Paris, Tokyo, or Moscow brand new either. It may very well be the most expensive, and it has to be the least efficient, with long wait times, constant interruptions, and frequent line closures. By my count, I've used subway/light rail systems in about 40 cities around the world. London's probably better than Manila... well, during Manila's rush hour anyway! But, it's got some nice decorations in places:
A clock at the Waterloo Station. Not Moscow Metro nice decorations, mind you, but pretty good
Ok, ok, I'm picking on England a little bit (but it is kind of fun, considering she is a little neurotic), but overall, I'm having a very good time seeing friends here in the UK. The weather has even been un-London-like sunny (still freezing cold though), making for some nice photos. The Underground does still annoy me though. A few pictures from the afore-mentioned sunny days to serve as an addendum:
The Houses of Parliament over the river Thames
Big Ben sitting above Parliament, and the new addition, the London Eye (that's the big ferris wheel) behind it. I took a ride on the Eye - interesting, but I got better pictures from ground level
Dusk falls over the river...
Day 99: 4 Mar, 2010, 16:34 GMT
Back to London, where Jamie informs me that Stonehenge is where the banshees live...
Day 99: 4 Mar, 2010, 16:21 GMT
Morning trip to Stonehenge to see ancient ruins, then back to London. All great and easy except for the Britih rail ticket prices!
Day 98: 3 Mar, 2010, 20:35 GMT
Right, I'm supposed to put a location with that... In Bristol, to visit the Mongol Rally headquarters... Stonehenge tomorrow!
Day 98: 3 Mar, 2010, 19:54 GMT
In Bristol, to visit the Mongol Rally headquarters... Stonehenge tomorrow!
Posted by Alex on Wednesday, March 3, 2010
That's, in part, literal, of course - fresh air is hard to come by in Chinese cities. Tibet was nice enough, but Shanghai? Xi'an? Ugh... Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, on the other hand, is actually pleasant. It's still a big city, so it's not actually clean, but there's a lot of parks, a river, wit... That's, in part, literal, of course - fresh air is hard to come by in Chinese cities. Tibet was nice enough, but Shanghai? Xi'an? Ugh... Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, on the other hand, is actually pleasant. It's still a big city, so it's not actually clean, but there's a lot of parks, a river, with a nice promenade, winds its way through the city, and the air is downright pleasant.
But it goes beyond literal - I was certainly growing tired of China, and I actually found Taiwan really enjoyable. It starts with the people - I'm sure I'm missing all sorts of social nuances and generalizing horribly, but the Chinese people just don't ever seem happy. It's ironic, of course, given their recent respective histories and current world economic standings, but I found the Burmese and the Tibetans to be unfailingly happier than the average Chinese citizen. And just in case you might think it's some sort of an ethnic characteristic, it isn't - the Taiwanese are pretty much the same Han Chinese, ethnically, as the people on the mainland, but, when you meet them, they are far happier, friendlier, willing to help (or wait!). Definitive memory of the people in China: a lady slips and falls to the ground as she's trying to get on a bus in Xi'an. Nobody even attempts to come and help. The woman directly behind her stares in obvious exasperation, then steps around and proceeds to get on the bus. The Taipei metro, on the other hand, has signs encouraging people to give up their seats to those less able, and people actually do it! Willingly and happily... And then, of course, there's the two respective governments... I don't think I have much new insight to add to the differences between them, just suffice to say that both sides are paying lip-service to theoretical unification (Taiwan isn't actually recognized as an independent nation still by most countries, including the US), but after just 50 years apart, the two nations lead such starkly different lifestyles that, to me anyway, any thought of reunification seems far fetched, at best. Well, it's not all that different than re-integrating Hong Kong and Macau into China, I suppose, so we can see how that goes over the next 50 years. I predict, not well. One thing to add about the differences in government and people is the capitalism - in China it is simply characterized by basic, unrestrained human greed - everyone's goal, including the government's, appears to be to extract every last penny from you that they can, rip you off if they can get away with it, institutionalize the ripoff if possible. Which is exactly the atmosphere that seems to contribute to the pervading anger, by the way... In my five days in Taiwan, I got to visit the Taroko Gorge, an incredibly popular (and beautiful) national park, and the Wulai hot-spring, just outside of Taipei, also quite popular. Total spent on admissions: 0. The same happening in China: inconceivable! That being said, Taiwan is certainly more expensive than China, but it feels a lot more worthwhile. (The unrestrained greed, by the way, is quite emblematic of most of these newly free market countries - China, Russia, Vietnam, so it may, admittedly, have a lot more to do with basic human nature than the Chinese government). There's plenty of foreigners in both places, of course - usually there to either teach English or study Chinese, and they tend to fit into the patterns too. The foreigners in Taiwan remained happy, while the longer you stay in China, the more it seems to turn you angry! And speaking of English, it's always an adventure out here - Chinese clearly doesn't translate well, but while it's just amusingly terrible in China (and the people seem too proud/stubborn to ask for help), it's usually relatively decent in Taipei, especially at any official/government places. I wonder if it's just a product of better education, perhaps due to more exposure to foreigners?, or simply a willingness to ask for help... The Taiwanese certainly seem to travel around the world a lot more, which has got to help...
Ok, so I liked being in Taiwan more than I liked being in China (even admitting that China does have some amazing sites to see), but enough with the ranting, time to move on to the actual time in Taiwan, including pictures, of course:
Taipei 101 is over 500 meters tall and absolutely towers over the rest of the city. It has just been surpassed by the very recently completed Burj Dubai as the tallest building in the world.
There are some green, forested hills not far from the tower, which offer some beautiful views of the 101 and the city. Paved, lighted walkways criss-cross the mountains
So, Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, is a rather modern city, with the 5 year old Taipei 101 tower, a source of local pride, clearly serving as a sign of this modernity. While the skyline of places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai is dotted with various skyscrapers, Taipei 101 pretty much has the city all to itself. The other thing you quickly notice is that the entire city is ringed with green mountains. Taiwan, is basically just a big volcano rising from the bottom of the Pacific - it, in fact, is home to the tallest peak in Eastern Asia (Eastern Asia is kinda hard to define, so let's just say, not including the Himalayas).
The people of Taiwan also happen to be the religious sort, so there's a fair number of intricately decorated temples scattered around town. The Chinese themselves, by the way, seem to be re-discovering religion these days too, with some gentle encouragement from the government...
Taipei's Longshan Temple - absolutely crowded on a weekend afternoon. Admission: free...
Candles burning at the Longshan Temple
A memorial pagoda at the 2-28 Peace Memorial Park
Confucius Temple here - most temples tend to be decorated with lots of dragon motives
More decorations at the Bao-an Temple
And after a couple of days, I decided to get out of the city, and see a bit of the countryside - public transport in Taiwan is pretty trivial and well-organized. It helps that the island is pretty small. The well organized part is more about not being China, but enough about that!
My first stop was the town of Hualien (or Who? Alien? as I came to call it) just down the East coast, where I rented a scooter (leaving my PADI card as collateral, after discovering that I had left my driver's license back in Taipei and the lady telling me that my passport and credit card were each too important to leave with her!) and went off to see the Taroko Gorge, Taiwan's premier outdoor attraction. And just in case I couldn't tell how premier it was, all the tourist buses passing me were there to reinforce the point)
The gorge, with the river carving its way through the rocks
A waterfall coming down into the gorge
Hey, remember, the people are nice and speak English - I got somebody to take a picture of me
This is the Changchun Shrine, not far from the park's entrance, commemorating the people who had died while building the road running through it and across the island. The area is regularly subjected to typhoons and land slides, so not exactly a safe work space...
And after coming back to Taipei the next day, I met up with Lin and three of her friends, and we all headed (biked, 'cause we're the stupid, adventurous sort) to the Wulai hotsprings, some 25km out of Taipei. 25km and over some mountains...
The hotsprings are quite hot, so you take a dive into the cold river, then run back to the hot pool and climb back in there to relax... Then you can try the really hot pool, boil for a moment, and dive right back into the cold river!
Well, that was as much of Taiwan as I had managed to see in my five days there. There's a bunch more sites that I would have loved to see, given more time, including a spot down South, where you can go diving with hammerhead sharks, but I only had five days, so it was time to go - hopefully another time!
Posted by Alex on Tuesday, March 2, 2010
I didn't particularly want to be leaving Taiwan, mind you - I had friends here who were showing me around to some excellent places to eat in Taipei, the weather was pleasant, and the people far, far nicer than in mainland China. In fact, Lin and two of her friends were about to take a week-long bike... I didn't particularly want to be leaving Taiwan, mind you - I had friends here who were showing me around to some excellent places to eat in Taipei, the weather was pleasant, and the people far, far nicer than in mainland China. In fact, Lin and two of her friends were about to take a week-long bike trip down the wild and scenic East Coast of Taiwan, and, from the little I got to see of the coast earlier, I think I'd have really enjoyed coming down with them... (more on my life and times in Taiwan in a soon-to-come post... I promise). But, I had a flight to catch out of Hong Kong a day later, so it was time to go.
The whole crew at Lin's apartment in Taipei, huddling around my backpack
Five of us biked up through the hills to the nearby hotsprings of Wulai the day before
My flight out of Taiwan was aboard Cebu Pacific Airlines, a Filipino-based carrier, whom I had grown to sort of like, back when I was in the Philippines in December. It's a budget airline, but they [generally] do budget well: the planes are new, seats are comfortable enough, and, hey, they are cheap! So, while I wasn't exactly expecting a reprise of Eva Air with three passengers on board, I figured I had reason to be optimistic. And the flight to Manila was optimistic enough, as I had a whole row of three seats all to myself. I probably even slept for an hour and a half.
Manila was where things started to get a little more interesting - I got off the plane and headed out to look for my next flight. Encouraged by lots of Transfer signs in the terminal, I skirted around the lines for immigration and ended up at the Transfer desk. Which was empty. Except for a security guard, who called for an agent. We waited for an agent... This was at about 4 in the morning, so my patience wasn't on its best behavior after some 10 minutes. After another 10 minutes and a bit more prompting from me, an agent materialized. And slowly sauntered down the hall. Finally(!), she made her way down to us (another plane had landed in the mean time, and the transfer desk was now home to three of us), and announced that we had to go and get our bags. I was not amused - why!? My luggage tag clearly indicates Hong Kong as the bag's destination. She babbled on about airport regulations. I felt she was full of shit and clueless, but followed.
Of course, between us and the baggage counter lay immigration. I, once again, pointedly noted that I wasn't actually staying in the Philippines, so I didn't need immigration. We went anyway, came around the line, and ended up with a Filipino entry stamp each. I thought about running out of space in my passport, we moved on anyway. Finally at baggage claim, a good 45 minutes after deplaning, I got my bag, and was told to take it over to another transfer desk, this one down on this level. Some more in-decipherable chatting followed, then my bag was taken away again, and my original luggage tag returned. We walked back towards the gates. I inquired as to the whole point of this process, since it seemed completely pointless - they didn't need me to come down to baggage claim, through immigration, just to carry my bags 50 feet. My Cebu agent prattled on about regulations and how new this terminal was. I paid just enough attention to start to gather a picture (in the mean time we passed back through immigration... and didn't stop this time. I knew I probably should have said something, but I didn't really want a Filipino exit stamp for my 3 hour stay at the Manila airport).
Anyway, the picture: the staff at the airport aren't allowed to handle passengers' bags. Security measure, I guess. But, how do you do transfers then? Well, some background - Cebu Pacific has an entire terminal in Manila. Apparently, this terminal was built some 7-8 years ago, then sat unused for about five years, while everybody fought and argued about what should be done with it. Somehow, the argument was never really resolved, and Cebu (which might not have even existed 7 years ago?) ended up with the terminal almost by the default. I suppose they are the 2nd biggest Filipino carrier, after Philippine Airlines. But whereas Philippine Airlines, being a somewhat established carrier, has automated transfer facilities in its terminal, Cebu is a budget carrier, specializing in point-to-point flights, so they do not. The rules still apply though, so if you do end up with an international transfer in Manila, at the Cebu terminal, you have to carry the luggage yourself, all the way to the transfer desk 50 feet away - the staff aren't allowed to touch it, and the machinery hasn't been installed. My sauntering agent-lady claimed it wasn't installed yet, as this terminal is so new, however as the terminal has actually been around (if not used) for a while, I suspect Cebu just hasn't bothered, since they don't get a lot of international transfers. And immigration, of course, expects you to be stamped into their country before you can go to baggage claim.
So, this took an hour and a half in the middle of the night, and I learned a little more than i had wanted about the Filipino Civil Aviation regulations. But, of course, I wasn't actually done with Cebu yet, I still had a flight to catch to Hong Kong. Mine wasn't scheduled to leave till 8, but another departed at 5:45. Agent lady claimed I'd have to rebook (and pay the fare difference in fare) to get on the earlier flight, but now I knew she was full of shit, so I went for the gate and asked about stand-by's. They explained the flight was already over-sold. I sulked a bit, and headed over to find some early breakfast - just as my salmon and cream cheese focaccia was arriving the gate agent came back looking for Mr Alex, and announced that they did have a seat available for me.
I prefer waiting in Hong Kong to waiting in Manila so I went off. My bag, unfortunately, didn't have quite as much free will to direct its own destiny, and, after 10 minutes on the walkie talkie, we decided it was still going to be on the 8 o'clock flight. I didn't really care, so things got interesting. I landed in Hong Kong and confirmed that my bag wasn't joining me, as expected. I didn't really want to hang around for two hours waiting for it though, so I went off searching for another Cebu agent to see if they could help with this situation. An agent was, once again, difficult to locate (I was getting annoyed with them by now... maybe because I had slept for about 3 hours total, all on airplanes), but I eventually found one upstairs by the check-in counters. She considered my situation - I proposed leaving the bag with Cebu till that evening when I would actually need it for my flight to London - and stated that they weren't really allowed to that. However, here's the number for Lost and Found, just go into town now and make sure to call them in a couple hours to verify that they got your bag, and come back to get it a couple hours early. And you didn't hear any of this from me! I considered the solution to be fairly ingenious, in spite of finding a few potential potholes in the execution, so I went with it and got on a bus for Hong Kong. A couple of hours later, a helpful gentleman at Lost and Found confirmed that they had, in fact, located my bag - I promised to come back for it around nine, and they assured me it would be waiting. Well, I actually showed up around 10 (I played frisbee in the afternoon, and felt I deserved an hour's worth of massage before spending a second consecutive night on an airplane; and that was time and money well spent!), but the bag was, in fact, waiting for me, after some 20 minutes of talking, checking and waiting.
Hong Kong wasn't quite this gray and sinister on this day (I did enjoy a few hours of playing frisbee on the beach shortly before taking this picture on the ferry back), but it was rather overcast.
So, finished with Cebu, I now headed over for Qatar Airways, my 5-Star airline destined for London. I continue to suspect that the 5-star rating is self assigned... First, of course, I had to re-pack my bag once again, as Cebu charges for checked luggage over 15kg, so, obviously, I just carried 5 extra kilos of carry-on luggage with me (what, you thought I'd be willing to pay, sauntering agent lady?).
The Qatar flight came in two legs: about 8 hours to Doha, Qatar. Then another 8/9 hours from there to London. My Doha layover could've just been a couple of hours, but I opted for a later flight, spending some six hours in the state of Qatar. I figured I might see something... Well, what I saw wasn't particularly interesting - the Persian Gulf countries are dominated by, well, sand. And flatness. On the horizon, I could see the gleaming towers of Doha. Nearby, I could see dusty two and three story buildings, that wouldn't have looked any different in any other part of the world.
And Doha has this weird water tower thing to greet you...
All the planes I saw on the ground were Qatar Airways. The only other one I saw was from Air Atlanta Icelandic, which seemed horribly out of place here, in the desert. I later learned that it belonged to an Icelandic company that simply leases places around the world. This was likely one of the two they had out on lease to Saudi Arabia
And I had plenty of time to take all of this in, as we landed, deplaned, boarded a shuttle bus, then must have traveled some 20 minutes to reach the chaotic terminal building (dominated by the sprawling duty free store). Considering that the whole country is flat, sandy, and empty (as far as I can tell), I'm not sure why the runway couldn't have been closer to the terminal, but maybe they have a reason... The whole time, I kept expecting Dubai's newly constructed Burj Dubai to poke over the horizon - it's the new tallest building in the world, and at over 850 meters in height (that's almost a freaking kilometer!), it's over 350 meters taller than the 504 meter Taipei 101, now #2 in the world. Alas, it's apparently not quite tall enough to be visible from Qatar. Well, it is almost 400km away... Slightly ruining my pre-conceived notions of the place, was what I could not see around me - not a single mosque... There was one inside the airport, of course, but, I suppose, this isn't Saudi Arabia, so we are probably not quite as fanatically Muslim around here...
As for my 5-star flights? Well, they were nice, albeit not quite overwhelming. I slept most of my first flight, and kept myself busy watching TV and drinking French Syrah on the next one. 5-star or not, but they do provide as much complimentary wine/beer/spirits as you can handle - I landed with a bit of a headache... The food was pretty good, and the entertainment system, of course, absolutely blew anything on an American-based carrier away. But it also lived in a computer box under the seat, which limited my leg room, which I didn't appreciate. All in all, certainly one of the nicer flights I've been on, but Emirates was definitely better, and Thai Airways could probably give it a run for its money!
And four flights and three cities after leaving Taiwan, I finally arrived in London, which was cold, but at least not rainy!
Day 97: 2 Mar, 2010, 00:01 GMT
Hong Kong to London: sleep 6 hours on Doha flight, followed by 8 hours of drinking wine on next flight. Slight headache on arrival!
Day 96: 1 Mar, 2010, 04:57 GMT
Still Asia, but Persian Gulf sure doesn't look anything like China and Thailand! 5 Star(?) Qatar Airways flight was nice enough tho
Day 95: 28 Feb, 2010, 03:41 GMT
thought I'd be making a loop here in Hong Kong, but already happened in Manila. Off to London tonight, aboard 5-star Qatar Airways
Day 94: 27 Feb, 2010, 21:32 GMT
developing unhealthy fascination w/cebu pacific airlines who dont do xfers well, but made up for it by getting me on earlier flight
Day 94: 27 Feb, 2010, 09:49 GMT
thought about going hiking, but was feeling tired and lazy, so a bunch of temples here in Taipei today, then leaving tonight
Day 93: 26 Feb, 2010, 14:00 GMT
An afternoon relaxing at the Wulai hotsprings after a day of seeing the gorge
Day 93: 26 Feb, 2010, 02:08 GMT
fairly quiet town of hualien on the coast for the night. Too bad i don't get to go further south to dive with hammerheads!
Day 93: 26 Feb, 2010, 02:05 GMT
getting out of taipei for a bit to see some of taiwan's mountains
Posted by Alex on Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Airline: Eva Air (Taiwan)Origin: Shanghai,PRC (00:20, that's 20 minutes after midnight)Destination: Taipei, Taiwan (02:10)Airplane: Airbus A330-200A330-200 Seating Capacity: 293 (business class and economy)Cockpit Crew: 2Eva Air air-hostess staff: 10meal: includedNumber of passengers on board: Three... Airline: Eva Air (Taiwan)
Origin: Shanghai,PRC (00:20, that's 20 minutes after midnight)
Destination: Taipei, Taiwan (02:10)
Airplane: Airbus A330-200
A330-200 Seating Capacity: 293 (business class and economy)
Cockpit Crew: 2
Eva Air air-hostess staff: 10
Number of passengers scheduled to be on board: Two (the third had missed his earlier flight due to fog over Shanghai)
Amount of money Eva Air lost on this flight: I don't even want to begin to guess
CO2 emissions a single passenger is generally responsible for producing on a Shanghai-Taipei flight: 0.1 tons (source: carbonneutral.com)
Per person estimated offset amount based on the load of BR1701: Â£83 (well, I thought it'd be more, I suppose it is a fairly short flight)
So, yeah, I've never been one of only three passengers on a flight, not even when flying some ramschackle prop plane around Nepal, and certainly not a brand new Airbus with seating capacity of almost 300. On the bright side, we got 3.3 stewardesses per passenger, and 2/3 of a pilot each...
Our best guess was that Eva must've added some extra flights for the Chinese New Year period, but had apparently mis-calculated the demand rather badly... but, fortunately for me, didn't see fit to cancel the flights, as pretty much every American-based carrier would've done in this case. They did refuse to give me frequent flyer credit for my cheap 'Y class' ticket, so there's a victory for the shareholders, I suppose...
Day 90: 23 Feb, 2010, 02:34 GMT
Good bye, China - Hello, Taiwan! Hello, free usable internets...
Posted by Alex on Monday, February 22, 2010
I took the train from Lhasa, high up in the Tibtan plateau, on the Western reaches of China to Xi'an, an ancient capital sort of in the middle of the country. This took 36 hours - it's a big country. 4th biggest in the world, larger than the continental US (but that's why we bought Alaska...). So, t... I took the train from Lhasa, high up in the Tibtan plateau, on the Western reaches of China to Xi'an, an ancient capital sort of in the middle of the country. This took 36 hours - it's a big country. 4th biggest in the world, larger than the continental US (but that's why we bought Alaska...). So, the land-based transportation really is on a large scale here. Having arrived in Xl'an, I found the scale hadn't really been reduced very much.
The most famous attraction in Xi'an is, of course, the ancient army of terra cota warriors (and horses, as the Chinese name informs you... but nobody cares about the horses!):
A little over 2,000 yeas ago, emperor Qin Shi Huang wanted to have an army around in the next life, so he had one buried with him. A terra cota general pictured here
The actual statues I had somehow found a bit underwhelming - I'm not sure what exactly I'd been expecting, but the warriors get built up so much that actually finding them to be perfectly regular and life-size was a bit of a letdown. I think I had expected some sort of gigantic dragon warrior things... or something like that. This is also first and foremost an archaelogical site, so you generally can't just walk up to a warrior for a photo op. So, the warriors might not be all that intricately designed, what they do certainly have though is scale - China has always known how to build things on an impressive scale!
A group of soliders
You want more soldiers?
How about a few hundred more? This is Pit 1 (of three), it houses over 6,000 warriors (and, yes, horses), and they are still digging for more. The other two pits are a bit smaller - Pit 3 is the command center with only 72 statues, while Pit 2 is estimated to contain over 1,300, but it remains mostly unexcavated still.
The whole thing is the size of a fairly large airplane hangar
The whole thing, by the way, was, of course, a burial sight, so it was, naturally, buried, and lost... for centuries. Until 1974, when a local farmer stumbled onto a piece of Pit 1 while digging a well.
Other emperors of the time weren't to be outdone, and we also visited the Tomb of Emperor Jigdi. This guys really chose to forego artistic decoration of his next-life servants, and squarely focused on the numbers:
There are thousands of warriors, similar to these, that had been buried here, along with cattle, servants, carts, decorations, etc.
Back in Xi'an, the scale shone through some of the ancient city's most famous landmarks:
The city walls, built in the 13th century are still intact and stretch for 14km around the heart of the city
The most famous symbol of the city is the Big Goose Pagoda, which, not so surprisingly, isn't all that interesting in its design, but is quite massive
Nothing to do with scale here - just a nice view of a rack of candles outside the Big Goose Pagoda
The Bell Tower, framed by some early spring blossoms
My favorite bit of the city was actually the giant and frenetic Muslim market (Xi'an was the anceint terminus of the Silk Road, and consequently still has a sizeble Muslim population. Along with a large mosque, which looks absolutely nothing like any mosque I had ever seen, but a lot like a Chinese Temple... hmmm...), the best part of which was the amazing street food being prepared on open flames at every street corner
A food stall at the market
And, of course, Chinse New Year was still in full swing. If you haven't been paying attention to the website (and why haven't you, really!? - http://www.safety3rdblog.com), this was my comment on my second morning in Xi'an
Chinese New Year officially becoming old @9:03 this morning when I woke up to more firecrackers outside... and ensuing car alarms
But other aspects of the New Year were a little more endearing:
The North Tower all lit up with Christmas, uhmm, Chinese New Year's, lights
Decorations around the city
Some sort of an impromptu dance recital in the streets
Probably not professional, but well prepared and rehearsed, judging by the costumes and the general sense of choreography
The biggest problem with the New Year, however, wasn't the firecrackers. It was the fact that everybody goes to travel over the two week holiday - be it visit family, or go sight-seeing, everybody goes, and all the transport is full. I had by now decided that I was ready to leave China behind and booked a ticket out of Shanghai to Taiwan, so this left the small matter of getting to Shanghai... The trains were booked out for seven days in advance, I didn't want to try getting involved with black market train tickets, so I ended up on a bus, as China chose to remind me about scale a little more:
It's a nice enough-looking bus, reminds me of the super-comfy Argentinian/Chilean buses... but that was a mirage
Even though I had already traveled 36 hours pretty much directly due East by train from Lhasa, Shanghai, and the Easternmost border of China was another 18 hour bus ride away. And while the bus looked like one of the nice South American buses, inside the economies of Chinese scale dictated that we squeeze in as many passengers as possible, meaning not just seats designed for relatively short Chinese people, but seats to make even relatiely short Chinese people uncomfortable... I did get my few hours of sleep on the bus, in spite of the appalling lack of leg room, but I'm not feeling all that anxious to take any further bus rides in this country at the moment!
Day 89: 22 Feb, 2010, 01:49 GMT
Shanghai for a day (after a looong bus ride), and on to Taiwan tonight!
Day 85: 18 Feb, 2010, 11:59 GMT
Chinese New Year officially becoming old @9:03 this morning when I woke up to more firecrackers outside... and ensuing car alarms
Day 83: 16 Feb, 2010, 16:41 GMT
36 hours on a train later, and i'm in Xi'an, the ancient army of terracota warriors comes calling tomorrow!
Day 83: 16 Feb, 2010, 16:09 GMT
off the Tibet plateau and back into China - there's actually more snow on the ground here!
Posted by Alex on Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Now truly independent travel in Tibet isn't really possible. You need a special permit just to enter the place, you must be with a guide in order to enter any monasteries or temples, tourists aren't allowed to use public transport, and if you want to venture outside of Lhasa, you need a permit stati... Now truly independent travel in Tibet isn't really possible. You need a special permit just to enter the place, you must be with a guide in order to enter any monasteries or temples, tourists aren't allowed to use public transport, and if you want to venture outside of Lhasa, you need a permit stating your actual itinerary (and, of course, a guide). So, your basic Communist China bureaucracy at work - not sure to what end, as they are not actually preventing tourists from seeing Tibet, just making it difficult enough to drive down the numbers (and revenues), but I'm sure there's a grand plan to all of this somewhere.
I arrived in Lhasa with a permit allowing me to spend exactly four days in Tibet, specifically in Lhasa - this obviously wouldn't do, so I immediately set off in search of other tourists, with whom I would band together to get out of the capital and see more of this vast, fascinating country. All this to the great chagrin of my tour agency, who, I suspect, could get into trouble if I had overstayed my permit. And I had no intention of leaving, so I suppose they had reason to worry. What makes things complicated is that it's cold here in Tibet in February, so there's not a lot of tourists - were this equally frigid Nepal, there'd still be plenty of people, but this is Chinese Tibet... But never fear, by day 4, we had a group of 5 of us booked and ready to take a 4-day drive to Everest. Proper permits and everything! You can stop your worrying, Norbu!
Larry (our driver), Vanessa, Tim, Manuel, myself, and Emma on the way to Everest. Manuel is from Argentina (the 4th South American I'd met in Tibet!), the other three were students from Melbourne, Australia.
Everest is a fairly standard itinerary around here - you leave Lhasa on Day 1, taking a scenic drive to Shigatse, spend a night there, then up to Everest itself for days two and three, and return to Lhasa on day 4. Day 1 was bathed in brilliant sunshine highlighting the lakes and mountains that were passing us by:
Yumdrok Lake and some snow-capped mountains in the background
Cresting a 5,000+ meter pass near the Kharola Glacier. Prayer flags largely a theme in Tibet - absolutely everywhere!
Old meets new - prayer flags adorning a modern high voltage tower
In the evening we arrived in Shigatse, got a quick glimpse of the city, and settled for a perfectly nice dinner at a restaurant where noone spoke English. Side note: all meals in Tibet, outside of Lhasa, consist of noodles and yak meat. Sometimes, you get a menu, other times, you go into the kitchen and point, but the result is always the same. And it is delicious, mind you, but after four days I was looking for a bit of variety back in Lhasa. Lhasa features such exotic varieties as chicken, spaghetti, and Indian food... The conversation over dinner briefly touched on the subject of abortion, which we quickly skirted around, but the subject returned rather unfortunately the following morning, when we were informed by our tour agency's manager that the trip to Everest was going to have to be aborted! Apparenty, another two hundred kilometers West, the weather was quite different - the passes were snowed in, there was no visibility anyway, and the police had closed down the roads. We met three Dutch girls, whose car had attempted the trip a day earlier, before the roads had been closed down, and they seemed rather shaken by the experience on the icy roads - they also didn't actually get to see the mountain. The weather was predicted to remain for over a week, so we reluctantly had to admit that we wouldn't be seeing Everest this time...
On Day 1, we were following the same route as another car heading for Everest. In fact, I had met the people in that car earlier, and they were the back-up plan, if the Australians hadn't turned up. As we later learned, that other car chose to just spend a day sight-seeing in Shigatse - there's apparently an important monastery here, where the early Dalai Lamas had resided. Tibetan monasteries are all more or less the same though, so staying in Shigatse seemed unacceptably boring to us (besides, that other car just wasn't that cool), so we instead got our guide and driver on board to visit Nam Tso lake - supposedly the highest lake in the world, at an altitude of 4351 meters. The guidebooks spoke very highly of it, and even though it'd be frozen over in February, it still promised a spectacular site. And it was only a day's worth of driving away.
The frozen alpine lake did not dissappoint.
Nam Tso, flanked by some 7,000+ meter peaks. Plenty of prayer flags all around too
A pair of oversize rocks guarding the approach to the lake. Prayer flags at the ready
An outline of the edge of the frozen lake from a hill nearby
Getting close to the lake, we found some spectacular ice formations
Emma, striking a pose on the ice
During the summer months tourist season, you can stay right at the lake. Now, all the guesthouses were closed, so we headed back to the nearby town of Damxung for the night, passing more tall snow-capped peaks on the way
So, the lake worked out to be an excellent backup plan to Everest. No signs of the inclement weather showed up here, and apparently, our permits that stated Everest as our destination were good enough for Nam Tso as well. All attractions in Tibet, including Nam Tso and Everest come with an entrance fee, which I wouldn't feel all that bad about if the money didn't go straight back to Beijing... to return in the form of infrastructure imprvements, I suppose, which the Tibetans would like prefer to do without, if it meant independence... But that's a side note. Back on the lake, the only real problem at this time of year is the bitter cold, excerbated by the never-abating winds - it is early February at 4,300 meters above sea level after all.
So, that's me, fully bundled up, yet still a bit chilly at the lake. We would eventually find a nice sunny spot, shielded from the wind, which was a perfect spot for our picnic lunch
After all that cold and wind, we were all too excited to stop by the Yangpachen Hot Springs on the way back to Lhasa on Day 4.
And on the evening of the 12th, we were back in Lhasa, just in time to watch the New Year's fireworks commence. More on those in the previos post - a little follow-up from this morning: today is the actual New Year's Day, both Chinese and Tibetan. It is a little similar to Christmas back home - most shops and restaurants are closed. Today was my designated souvenir shopping day, and I did manage to get what I wanted (somebody is always selling things to tourists in places like this), but the variety was decidedly more limited today than before. Lunch ended up in a Muslim restaurant (still featuring noodles and yak meat, of course) - I've been a bit surprised to learn that there's a sizeable Muslim community here in Lhasa. For dinner, the owners of our hostel have apparently found a Chinese restaurant that's open - just like Christmas back home. Also like Christmas, the people go to church, en masse. Except in this case, everyone comes to Lhasa to visit the Johkang Temple. This is a very large place, and the line to enter wrapped all the way around! I'd have to guess it would take at least three hours to enter the place - nobody seemed to mind. New Year is also apparently the time for new clothes in Tibet, so everyone on the streets was sporting their brand new Sunday best. Conveniently enough, the New Year actually was on a Sunday this time around, so welcome to the Year of the Tiger!
An addendum: I can't believe these facinating Tibetan people stole my fucking jacket! No, I can't help but keep being reminded of Cyrus' post about his granola bars getting stolen in Kazakhstan. And yes, it would've been much less likely to be stolen if I didn't have most of my attentions squarely focused on the very cute Tibetan girl I'd made friends with earlier that evening. And it wasn't even a nice jacket, considering that Buster had bought it back in Kathmandu and given to me in New Zealand, with both of us rather astonished that famed Nepalese quality had lasted quite that long... It is sort of approriate that the jacket should make its way back to the Himalayas to perhaps remain there, I suppose, but that thought fails to make me feel any better (or warmer). Especially considering that instead of the money someone had apparently hoped I'd keep in my jacket, I had my gloves, hat, and ear-muffs in there. And I get the feeling I'll still very much miss those even after I pick up another cheap jacket of questionable quality at the next available opportunity... Well, I still like you, Tibetans - we didn't have to pay for any of our drinks that night on the bright side - but you are trying my patience!
Day 81: 14 Feb, 2010, 03:51 GMT
Back to Lhasa after seeing beautiful frozen Nam Tso lake and detouring to a steamy hotspring on way back
Posted by Alex on Saturday, February 13, 2010
An introduction to life on the high plateau.Let's skip straight to the good stuff:The iconic Potala Palace occupying its majestic seat over the city of LhasaIt's Tibet - everything is surrounded by mountains hereBeen there, done that, haven't bought any t-shirts so farThe Palace lit up night... my c... An introduction to life on the high plateau.
Let's skip straight to the good stuff:
The iconic Potala Palace occupying its majestic seat over the city of Lhasa
It's Tibet - everything is surrounded by mountains here
Been there, done that, haven't bought any t-shirts so far
The Palace lit up night... my camera making it slightly blurry
So, that's the Potala Palace - certainly the star attraction as far as Tibetan architecture is concerned. It's actually a somewhat daunting place as you start at 3,800m, and then end up climbing all those stairs to the top, but it's certainly worth the effort! Inside, it's filled with a variety of relics and memorabilia from the Kings and Dalai Lamas who used to occupy the place bafore the Chinese 'liberation'... But, unfortunately, there's to be no photography inside, so you'll just have to take my word that the golden stuppas and statues inside are awe-inspiring. Side note: paintings can actually be damaged by repeated exposure to flash, yet you can take all the pictures you want in the Louvre, Golden statues, as far as I can tell, are relatively immune to photography, yet the Potala is just one of many places that bans photography. Occasionally, such as in Burma, it has more to do with religious beliefs and traditions, but in Communist-'liberated' Chinese Tibet? <rant over>
The Potala can actually be easily split up into two parts - the White Palace,built in the 7th century, and the Red Palace, added in the 12th century. One of the things that I found the most amazing about the place is that the White Palace was completed in just five(!) years back in the 7th century. Which strikes me as incredibly rapid, considering the immense dimensions of the place.
The rest of the Tibet architecture I did not find quite so awe-inspiring. The buildings tend to be squat and feature thick walls to try and protect against the frigid climates. The highlights - judge for yourself:
Much like neighboring Nepal, there's a lot of stuppas everywhere
Tibet is undoubtedly the land of monasteries (even after the Cultural Revolution had apparently reduced the number considerably) - Drepung Monastery pictured here
And the best part is that there's always an amazing mountain backdrop
Every monastery I've visited has been adorned with a pair of these golden tower things. I'm not sure about the religious significance, but they look pretty cool
The Pelkor Chode Monastery in the town of Gyantse featured this gigantic stuppa - the Gyantse Kumbum
The Kumbum houses an astounding number of deities (and rather scary looking deity-protectors). This one is a deity, but doesn't seem to like you very much, judging by the gesture
Ok, so I wasn't really supposed to take any pictures inside, but I just couldn't resist a shot of Buddha flicking us off. It's not like our guide, who was fairly useless generally, was around to enforce things.
So, if the architecture of Tibet (outside of the Potala) was fairly average, the people are anything but - your average Tibetan does not lead an easy life, yet every one of them appears to always be happy (noticeably more so than the vast majority of the mainland Chinese...), perfectly friendly, and just generally immensely fascinating. Well, especially the ones who speak some English - I've made friends with Permitsering, who had been a monk for 10 years, but has since left his monastery and is now learning English and aiming to become a guide - a fascinating fellow, who will certainly make a better guide than the girl we had for parts of the trip. Pictures, ready to speak thousands of words:
Pilgrims spinning the endless parade of prayer wheels, while circumnavigating the Potala
Cute kids are here to pay respects too.
Insert appropriate comment about pets resembling their masters here
Everyody is excited to get a picture taken with the crazy foreigners.
Lhasa's Jokhang Temple is actually considered the Holiest Place in Tibet (not the nearby Potala), so hundreds of pilgrims arrive daily to ceremonially (and repeatedly) prostrate themselves in front of it
In fact, we passed a few of these of pilgrims on the road out of Lhasa - people go on multi-month treks to visit the holy sites in Lhasa, and on the way you basically take three steps, prostrate yourself on the ground, rinse and repeat. For however long it takes to get to where you are going - food is strictly whatever turns up, often as charity, and sleeping is as often as not just there on the road, wrapped up in a blanket, braving the seriously sub-zero temperatures... Amazing - these people take their religion awfully seriously!
And then, of course, there's the New Year. Chinese New Year falls on Feruary 14th this year. The Tibetans also use the lunar calendar, so you might think Tibetan New Year would coincide with Chinese New Year - you'd be wrong, usually, except for this year, when they do coincide. I agree, it's all very confusing. So how do you celebrate a New Year? Why, with fireworks, of course! And if you want to imagine what fireworks in Lhasa look like, you first have to forget everything you know about fireworks back home. That nice, big, well-organized display put on by the city is here too, but in addition everyone on the street becomes an amature firework operator. For the past two nights I've had a chance to survey the scene from rooftops, and it is simply amazing - there are fireworks going off everywhere you look! Some, simple firecrackers on the street, others, huge displays getting fired off into the air. I understand setting off fireworks is supposed to bring good luck in the coming year, so the more and bigger, the merrier! And this goes on for a good hour! The military, to their credit, doesn't seem too inclined to interfere - there are soldiers with fire blankets and fire extinguishers posted all over, but they seem to just be there in the roles of backup fire fighters, if something goes wrong (or so I'm guessing. The locals, I suspect, would prefer that the soldiers were engulfed in a few of the flames...). Pictures simply can't do the display justice, so I don't have any - this is one of those things you'd just have to experience for yourself!
Day 78: 11 Feb, 2010, 03:56 GMT
Everest inaccessible (and invisible) due to bad weather, so a reroute for Nam Tso lake at 4351m above sea level instead
Day 76: 9 Feb, 2010, 03:56 GMT
off to see more of Tibet, heading for Everest!
Day 73: 6 Feb, 2010, 14:18 GMT
Holy Crap, I'm in Tibet! Flying straight to 3800m not the best idea, so acclimatizing and taking it easy for now
Day 71: 4 Feb, 2010, 14:05 GMT
on to Chengdu for a day to visit with the cute baby pandas
Posted by Alex on Thursday, February 4, 2010
So, January 31st rolled around - I was on my last in Burma, still in Mandalay, and not yet out of cash... At 2:40 in the afternoon, I was getting on my flight for Kunming, in China, so in the morning, I borrowed a bicyle from my guesthouse and headed off for nearby Mandalay Hill.The hill itself wasn... So, January 31st rolled around - I was on my last in Burma, still in Mandalay, and not yet out of cash... At 2:40 in the afternoon, I was getting on my flight for Kunming, in China, so in the morning, I borrowed a bicyle from my guesthouse and headed off for nearby Mandalay Hill.
The hill itself wasn't really all that interesting - a few nice temples and a not particularly exciting view over the city. A few pictures:
A nice golden standing Buddha pointing to a prophecized location of the new capital. Right on prophecized schedule, capital was moved to Mandalay
Morning clouds over the hill
Now, this one was interesting - a sign on the way. Amusing and not particularly well concealed propoganda all the way. In English only, so clearly only targeted at foreigners
The picture might be too small to be legible, so a recap:
* Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views
* Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
* Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state [subtle...]
* Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy
Now, it is somewhat funny, but mostly just very, very sad for the local people who get to live with this...
Well, on this note, I headed back to my hotel and off to the airport. And what an airport it is - big, brand new, shining with glass, and ... completely deserted.
Airport view from the runway - notice anything missing? The airplanes... None are here.
Really, the airport is the microchosm for the state of Myanmar today - even when the government sinks a bunch of money into doing something right, it still goes wrong because nobody wants to deal with the government. For one thing, the airport is an astounding 25 miles outside of town - that's further away than any of the towns I had visited the day before, so not quite a suburb. When I walked in, I found an entire, dimly lit, hall full of checkin counters. One (and only one!) of the, at least, twelve was occupied by my flight - China Eastern Airlines to Kunming, processing the forty odd passengers very slowly. Then the plane was late and I got to wonder what would happen if my flight got canceled - my finances were down to about $30 and $10 worth of Burmese currency, but the plane arrived, parking a loooong way away from the terminal. Maybe because it was Chinese. Maybe it's just the way we do things. Maybe because it was a jet - there were two other planes at the airport at the time, both propeller driven, neither showing any plans to fly; there couldn't have been any more flights scheduled for another 3-4 hours at least... if at all that day.
Eventually, we did all get onboard and depart though. I being the only Westerner on board (and getting English-language instructions all to myself). Everyone in Burma, whom I told that I wasn't leaving via Yangon - local and tourist alike - had been astounded. I don't think tourists know that there's an international flight out of Mandalay.
An hour an a half later, communist China greeted me. It's so Communist that the first thing I did upon landing was go to an ATM, a seemingly rather Capitalist symbol... There's galso a Walmart a five minute walk down from my hostel. I've been in China for four days now - haven't really done much, I've been focused on getting my trip to Tibet sorted out, and I now have, flying up there early Friday morning. I've also learned how to circumvent China's filters just enough to be able to occasionally post... The other thing that struck me about China was that the time was all wrong. At the end of January, sunset is after 7PM, while sunrise is at almost 8AM. I like this schedule actually (except for the persistent bitter cold in the morning) since I'm more likely to be up late at night than up early in the morning, but it is odd. It's just what you get when you give the country the size of China a single time zone, centered on Beijing, of course. So, Kunming, some 2,000 miles West gets to be a little screwy. In this sense, China is still perfectly Communist!
A few pictures from China:
Yuantong Temple in Kunmiing. Side note - in three days in Kunming, I didn't see a single cloud.
A deity at the temple - judging my the large number of hands, looking surprisingly Hindu?
night over Kunming
With the Tibet trip all sorted out, it was off to Chengdu Thursday morning, just to fly up to Lhasa, Tibet on Friday. Chengdu brings faster internet connections than Kunming, and the Giant Panda Breeding and Research station:
A panda muching on bamboo
A baby panda studying the crowds
Playing with the surrounding world
And that's it for now - by the time you read this, I ought to be in Tibet, where internet access will likely be even slower...
PS. As for demographics... the tourists you meet in China are also a different sort - there's a few backpackers, but most people are studyig/working/teaching English in China, just taking a littlef time off to see some outlying parts of the country. This rather more purpose-driven sort of travel appears to attract quite a few more Americans than your standard life of a backpacking vagabond.
Posted by Alex on Thursday, February 4, 2010
You are thrust into the midst of streets of Mandalay, surrounded by maniacal Burmese drivers on all sides, and solemn Golden-domed stuppas further off. Your weapon of choice is a 125cc moped of questionable age an durability, but it still runs, spry as it was on its first day on the streets, in spit... You are thrust into the midst of streets of Mandalay, surrounded by maniacal Burmese drivers on all sides, and solemn Golden-domed stuppas further off. Your weapon of choice is a 125cc moped of questionable age an durability, but it still runs, spry as it was on its first day on the streets, in spite of the odometer being stuck on 99,998.2. Then again, it is stuck, and none of the other gauges work, so it probably has very little to do with the actual distance the bike has traveled.
The challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to canvas the Mandalay vicinity, and visit three memorable sites:
#1: The snake pagoda of Paleik
#2: the ancient royal capital of Inwa, and the ruins scattered therein
And #3: U-Bein Bridge of Amarapura - the 1,300 yard long bridge is the world's longest bridge built of teakwood
I accept! But, it gets better... First, there's the maniacal Burmese drivers - the traffic here is seemingly devoid of all rules and regulations. Your only cue is to simply go with the flow. The driving is aggressive, but not reckless - you constantly have to be aware of where everyone else is, and to some extent, have to be able to anticipate what they will do, which is why the safest way to go is to drive as they do, so you can be predictable. You don't stop - stationary objects remain stationary in this system, while traffic flows around them. Merging, turning, passing, you just keep going with the flow, and dodge the crossing traffic, fortunately you are never alone in what you are trying to do. It's a lot like the traffic in India in its Lone Ranger, Last Man Standing Wins sort of way, except the overall flow of traffic is actually a bit faster (a scary thought - Indian traffic moving even faster...), as there are no cows or infernal push carts blocking the roads. It also doesn't quite have as much reckless, 'Ah, what's my life really worth?' feel to it - everyone is paying attention. There are no soccer moms here - in the time it would take to quell the four kids in the back of the Suburban, the front grille would've collected a half dozen bikers and motorcyclists... The traffic is made up of cars, trucks, and an inordinate number of bikes and motorcycles scurrying in and out between them, never stopping...
Fortunately, aggressive, I can do. Half an hour in, I was zipping in and out of traffic with the locals, giving a wave to the occasional tourist on a bicycle or in the back of a taxi mini-truck, operating the horn with near-local precision: short half beep means 'I'm here - FYI,' while the long, loud beep means 'Get out of my way, inferior creature!' (all who are smaller or same size, but slower than you, are by definition inferior and are expected to clear out of the way). The clutch/gear box and I still had an occasional disagreement, but we worked on our differences, and all came out better for the experience. Well, I did anyway, and I don't think I caused any damage to the gear box.
Second obstacle, which is complicated by the first, is that you don't know where you are going. I eventually learned that the big road for Yangon would pass through Paleik. Where? How? Would I see the snakes hovering over the pagoda to mark the spot when I got there? Noone knew, so I went... and started asking for directions (remembering India and trying to avoid Yes and No questions - "Sir, Yes, sir!"). When three indepenent people agree on a direction, you are probably going the right way, just need to figure out where the next [totally unmarked] turn is going to be. I felt I was uniquely prepared for this challenge as well, so I went - bring it on, Burma! I left the motorcycle shop at about 9:20. The snakes get fed and bathed in Paleik daily a 11, so that was my goal. The guide book claims the bus can get you there in about 45 minutes... I figured I was doing OK. After a few 'exploratory' detours, and some helpful directions from a monk, I stumbled upon Yadana Labamuni Hsu-taung-pye Paya (Snake Pagoda for short) at precisely 11:03, feeling rather surprised to have found it.
Yup, I got there just in time for the bathing and tourist picture taking. Feeding would've been cool to see too, but no feeding today. Maybe it was earlier, but I seem to recall that snakes are generally quite happy eating once a week or so, so maybe feeding just isn't a daily thing...
That's a lot of snake!
So, the story here goes (and this one is, as far as I know, the truth, not legend) that some 35 years three big pythons crawled out of the jungle and headed straight for the temple, where they have been ever since. The monks are more than happy to take care of them, as snakes do feature pretty prominently in general Buddhist mythology, so it's made quite the rock star out of the previously unknown little pagoda in Paleik. Whether or not the three I saw were the original three pythons I do not know, but snakes do live a long time, especially with no predators and daily baths at the temple, so they may well be.
The snakes built up an appetite for me, so after surprising a street side local restaurant by having a foreigner pop in for lunch, I headed off for Inwa. I was actually trying to get to Amarapura, but Inwa was on the way, so I went through it. After Bagan, seeing a few ruins there underwhelmed.
I mean, it's a nice ruin and all, but if you were the capital for some 400 years, couldn't you have built another 5,000 or so?
Trying to cross the river from Inwa to Amarapura and being told that local price is 300Ks, while foreigner price is 1500ks (that's only about $1.50 granted, but no ATM's/credit cards in this country, remember) just confirmed what my guide book said - Inwa is not much more than a tourist trap, so I drove around to cross by bridge, paid 100Ks each at two of the three tolls I had passed (I was still angry about the Inwa boat price when the first one came up, so I just drove through, successfully feigning tourist cluelessness), and arrived in Amarapura a short while later. There's a couple of temples here too, but everybody really just comes for the bridge:
Yes, lots of locals do use the bridge daily, it's not just a tourist attraction. And the locals do tend to carry everything on their heads...
You can bike across the bridge too - it is 1,300 yards after all...
This being the dry season, the water levels in the lake are low, so there's a lot of farming on the temporarily dry land under the bridge
And right around 4:30 in the afternoon, I returned the bike back to Jerry, who runs the rental shop
I'd used, with nary a scratch on the bike, or on me, for that matter. The first few moments getting through the Mandalay traffic were pretty intense, but after that? I've done worse... It's not like it's driving around the 6-lane roundabouts in downtown Paris!
That was my second day in Mandalay. On the first day here, I also left the city, taking an hour-long river cruise up the Ayeyarwady River to the town of Mingun (Mandalay itself, as you may have guessed isn't as interesting as its surroundings). This had two major goals - I wanted to get out on the river a little bit, since I missed out on taking the boat up here from Bagan, and I wanted to see Mingun, famed for its gigantic, albeit unfinished, Paya (pagoda)
Out on the river
The Mingun Paya was supposed to be three times the size of the current (already towering) structure, but King Bodwpaya, whose pet project this was, died in 1819, after 30 years of work had brought it 'only' to the current stage, and noone has picked up the slack since
Other sights in Mingun - the white-washed Settawya Paya
And this is the Mingun taxi service. Note that it does actually say 'Taxi' on the side of the wagon... I chose not to partake.
A few other notes of interest from Mingun:
- the Mingun Bell is the largest un-cracked cast iron bell in the world. The sign here acknowledges that the King Bell in the Kremlin in Moscow is larger, but the Russian one is cracked. This one is not, even after falling off of its supports during an earthquake in 1838. The same eathquake is also responsible for that extra large crack you might spot on the left side of the Mingun Paya
- next to the bell is the Molmi Paya, dedicated to a Buddhist scholar who is in the Guiness World Book of Records for reciting all 16,000+ pages of Buddhist scriptures, in their entirety, in 1954. From memory! Impressive... A statue of the scholar occupies the center of the Paya and is, appropriately enough, adorned with a pair of reading glasses.
- while waiting for my boat back to Mandalay, I tried a glass of the local Spirulina beer - the anti-aging beer! The next day, with my hat mischieviously backwards, and a big python in my hands, I don't look a day over eighteen!
The Mingun excursion doesn't take all that long, so the boat got us all back to Mandalay around 2:30, which, I figured was plenty of time to complete my pilgrimage to the three most revered Buddhist sights in Burma: Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, the Golden Rock on Mount Kyaiktiyo, and Mandalay's very own (ok, seized from Mrauk U in Rakhaing State, but if they really wanted to keep it, they should've fought harder!) Mahamuni Buddha:
I tried long and hard to get a better shot, but the statue is surrounded by hundreds of worshippers. Not because this is Sunday Mass or anything, no, no, it's just 5 o'clock on a Friday. Same as any other time, any other day, I'm pretty certain. The people love their Mahamuni Buddha! And I was trying not to make too much of a nuisiance out of myself.
And that's just about it for both Mandalay and Burma - tomorrow morning I'll have just enough time to climb Mandalay Hill and get some [hopefully clear] views from up there, before packing up and heading for the airport to catch my flight to Kunming, China, where this current adventure is set to continue - hope I still remember how to use my ATM card!
* 'Last Stand,' of course, refers mostly to Mandalay being my final stop in Burma. However, Mandalay was also the last Burmese royal capital before this final part of Burma had been conquered by the British during the Third Anglo-Burmese War, so, historically speaking, Mandalay was also Burma's Last Stand against the British... Just random trivia for your amusement.
Posted by Alex on Thursday, February 4, 2010
I was going to include the following with the last post, but it failed... So, it now gives me a chance to see if email posting actually works...Some blogging statistics/trivia:Â - pictures taken: Jan 23-27 Â - post composed: Bagan, Jan 27Â - text uploaded: Mandalay, Jan 29 (on attempt #4). Up...
Some blogging statistics/trivia:
Â - pictures taken: Jan 23-27
Â - post composed: Bagan, Jan 27
Â - text uploaded: Mandalay, Jan 29 (on attempt #4). Uploading pictures: impossible
Â - arrival in China: January 31. blogger.com blocked
Â - find functioning proxy workaround for blogger: Feb. 3
Â - picture upload still impossible, so pictures are actually hosted on my site
Â - hitting the post button: Feb 3, 9:50PM. Hoping for the best!
Â - hitting the Post button a few more times - it works on attempt #5, but without the stats & trivia addendum
Can I view the finished post? Not really - all blogger sites are blocked in China, including both blogger.com where I compose and blogspot.com where I go to view. The proxy workaround gives me access to blogger.com, but not to blogspot... So, let me know if this works!
Demographics is just more random tourist observations - in general the greatest numbers of travelers I've met have come from the UK, Holland, Australia, Sweden, Ireland, and Israel. In Burma, I met one group from Israel, a Dutch guy, and noone from the other countries above. Instead, I met some Belgians, Norwegians, French, Spanish, Russians, Danes, a few Americans, Japanese, Koreans, and even Italians - I don't think I'd ever met Italian travelers before. And the Russians here were the first Russian tourists I had met traveling to a place that wasn't a beach resort/diving destination. Of course it is Burma, so the sample size is quite small and most of the travelers here aren't backpackers, but still, it's odd. It may have something to do with the fact that there's some organizations who actively discourage tourism to Burma as a way to oppose the military junta government, and this movement is largely based out of England, but, still, no English? Very odd...
The picture included is a funny-looking statue from Mandalay, with a little army of smaller guys following him... It's merely a test to see if I can email posts with pictures and what they'll end up looking like
Day 69: 2 Feb, 2010, 03:49 GMT
In China, where life is so exciting - there are ATM's and my cell phone works again... There's even a Walmart
Day 67: 31 Jan, 2010, 03:16 GMT
back to mandalay again and ready to head off to china
Day 66: 30 Jan, 2010, 03:16 GMT
last stop on the motorcycle adventure is u bein's bridge - a 1300 yard bridge built out of teakwood
Day 66: 30 Jan, 2010, 03:10 GMT
cruising around the burmese countryside on my rental scooter, from one ancient capital to the next
Day 66: 30 Jan, 2010, 02:56 GMT
just in time to see the 3 huge pythons living at the temple get their morning baths. Pics coming, i hope...
Day 65: 29 Jan, 2010, 12:24 GMT
back walking around mandalay to see the major buddhist shrine here
Posted by Alex on Friday, January 29, 2010
Yes, these two do probably deserve a post each, but I'm feeling lazy and tired, and the internet access speeds here in Burma are nothing short of infuriating, so it'll be a one post summary for both... Now to see if I can actually upload 15 pictures. Besides, Inle Lake, while certainly being beauti... Yes, these two do probably deserve a post each, but I'm feeling lazy and tired, and the internet access speeds here in Burma are nothing short of infuriating, so it'll be a one post summary for both... Now to see if I can actually upload 15 pictures.
Besides, Inle Lake, while certainly being beautiful and interesting, wasn't quite the awe-inspiring, can't miss sort of destination, in my mind. The biggest attraction of Inle is, of course, the lake, which is beautiful, a little reminiscent of Bolivia's Titikaka, with the mountains rising up just beyond it. It also has the unique distinction of lacking any actual shoreline - the water slowly morphs into reeds, and tall grass, and marsh-like areas, and eventually, voila, dry land! Beyond the lake though, you get to just see everyday Burmese life (in a very pretty setting, and with a little too much of tourist point-of-sale thrown in), which I didn't find quite as interesting. But equipped with a 300mm zoom lens, I set off documenting said every day life, with the long zoom allowing me to feel mildly less intrusive
The definitive view of Inle - the lake, the mountains, and a lone fisherman paddling a canoe along, with his leg(!)
This fisherman choosing to use his arms to paddle - so much less picturesque!
A lady piloting her boat along, hidden beneath the wide brims of her hat
Not really sure what this was all about, but these guys were all rowing their boats along in the morning. Monks? Students?
Well, I may have lied a bit when I said (only implied, technically) that there were no temples at Inle. There are, but now that I'm in Bagan, unless you built your temples by the thousand, you might as well not have bothered building at all!
Well, Inn Dein, a short canal ride away from Inle, actually comes pretty close, supposedly sporting 1054 Zedi (the pointy-things behind me) on top of a hill. Bagan still scoffs at you, Inn Dein!
So, if Inle Lake can be descibed as 'interesting,' the word that comes to mind for the Bagan Plain is 'jaw dropping' (ok, so, it's two words). The bus ride from Inle to Bagan can, incidentally, be best described as jaw-shattering. During that bumpy ride, I did, however, manage to read a bit of my guide book, learning that the old Bamar Kings had built over 4,400 temples in Bagan over the course of about 230 years (before getting properly beaten down by the Mongols, of course...) to remind the population that they were all Buddhists now, I suppose. Upon reading that, I figured I'd see a few dozen restored temples, and the rest would be piles of rock, sort of like the Inca ruins in Peru, where some archaeologist has authoritatively stated that every single rock you come across is actually an integral part of an Inca Temple... Well, I was wrong:
The plain of Bagan is quite literally filled with thousands of temples - still standing, restored, it's hard to tell the difference, but all unmistakably amazing
Golden domes hiding behind brick domes, as far as the eye can see
So, naturally, the first thing I did upon arriving in Bagan was ... leave. Well, I didn't really live, I just ran into Heinrich and Martina, a Norwegian couple, on my first morning in Bagan, and decided to go with them to Mt. Popa. I'd been hoping to see Mt. Popa anyway, but it's about 50km away, so you have to go with a taxi of some sorts, and having people there already to share the costs with was enough to convince me, so off we went
Mt. Popa, an extinct volcano, rising in the background.
We made a little detour on the way too, stopping to see the locals harvest palm trees and make palm juice, beer, and distill a spirit, which is 45% alcohol by volume... Not the most awful moonshine I've ever tasted either. The mountain itself was highlighted by the monkeys, who inhabit the stairwells leading up, and the nats, who inhabit the temples on and around the mountain. The nats are basically guardian spirits - pre-Buddhist era deities, which were kept around just in case. My favorite was the patron saint of gamblers (who gets whiskey bottles as offerings) - clearly, if you're going to get started in cock fighting, you might as well have your bases covered, since I'm not sure Buddha himself has ever revealed his true feelings on the subject.
Bagan, Day 2: Bring on the temples in full force! I got up, rented a bike, picked up a detailed map, and headed off, camera at the ready. I only returned after the sun had set. Along the way...
The beautiful Ananda Phaya, sporting a Golden Peak
Maha-Bodi Pagoda, closely resembling the one in Bohdgaya, India, at the spot where Buddha achieved enlightenment.
If you have a minor fortune, and remembered to bring most of it with you, in crisp new American dollar bills, to Myanmar, you can afford to take in sunrise over Bagan from a balloon. I was happy to settle for taking pictures of the balloons floating over the Gaw-daw-palin Temple
And then, of course, there is the small matter of the sun - setting and rising, creating a spectacular sight over the temple-filled plains. There is a few temples that you can scale and join a couple dozen other tourists gazing away at the spectacle of the sun coming up and down over the horizon. Snapping away lots of pictures, of course, as was I:
Sunset view from atop the Buledi Temple. That-byin-nyu Temple featuring prominently in the middle
The temples leaving nothing but silhouettes behind as the sun descends
And a little before seven the following morning, the sun comes back up into the sky, basking everything around in a deep red colour.
By the middle of my third (and last) day in Bagan, I was getting a little tired, after spending the previous day and a half on a bike, temple-hopping, and dodging the crowds of souvenir trinket salesmen (sales-children?), not to mention the whole getting up in time to see the sunrise thing. But it's the crowds of souvenir hawkers that really start to wear on you (the locals are clearly keenly aware that Bagan is the prime tourist attraction of their country). So, at about 2 in the afternoon, feeling like I had dodged the crowds enough to see all the temples I had wanted to see, I felt ready to head back and relax for an afternoon. But then I spotted this guy, while at Dhamma-ya-za-ka Zedi
I was intrigued...
The temple was clearly huge, and I was making a point to hit most of the big ones, but they were generally specially marked on my map, and attracted throngs of tourists. This one I was having trouble identifying and couldn't see anyone there. So, I hopped back on the bike and headed in the general direction trying to navigate the sandy goat paths, and remaining glad that I had chosen to pay extra for a proper mountain bike, with its thick spiky tires, and 7 gears. After 15 minutes of traversing the worst goat-paths yet, I arrived, and was greeted by the glorious sounds of ... silence! I had the place (Pya-tha-da Pagoda, as I later identified it by triangulating my position relative to the other big temples I could see) all to myself. No tourists, no salespeople, no shady ruby dealers, no kids following you around the whole temple, offering some postcards (or a copy of Orwell's Burma Days), just Buddha sitting there, in glorious, serene, meditative silence. I was starting to feel like I could relate to Buddha... After making a circle through the temple's interior, I emerged, ready to head home, but now I finally saw somebody stir in the nearby shade - ahh, I wasn't alone after all... I was ready to ignore the man, but instead of coming up to ask "Where you come from?" (the de facto tourist greeting around these parts), he just called out "You want to go?" I had to think about this for a moment, but soon enough the image of the closed off staircase popped into my head
- go up?
- yes, definitely!
So, in summary, Pya-tha-da actually got better at this point, when the gatekeeper let me up onto the roof. Not showing any desire to sell me anything in the process, nor to find out where I come from... In fact, the only desire I was able to discern was to lock the staircase back up after I was done, head back to his spot in the shade, and go back to napping. I liked the guy, and his temple!
Day 65: 29 Jan, 2010, 02:24 GMT
day trip up the ayeyarwaddy river to see the giant unfinished temple here
Day 64: 28 Jan, 2010, 11:13 GMT
fairly comfy train ride from Bagan; glad to find my tix to China here! Hope to fix website again once I get to China's internets
Day 60: 24 Jan, 2010, 14:52 GMT
Burma wins award for most uncomfortable 12hr busride in the world hands down; Now Bagan, ready to be amazed by the ancient temples!
Posted by Alex on Friday, January 22, 2010
Legend states that the boulder maintains its precarious balance due to a precisely placed Buddha hair in the stupa. Apparently King Tissa received the Buddha hair in the 11th century from a hermit who had secreted the hair in his own topknot. The hermit instructed the king to search for a boulder wh... Legend states that the boulder maintains its precarious balance due to a precisely placed Buddha hair in the stupa. Apparently King Tissa received the Buddha hair in the 11th century from a hermit who had secreted the hair in his own topknot. The hermit instructed the king to search for a boulder whose shape resembled the hermit's head, and then enshrine the hair in a stupa on top. The king, who inherited supernatural powers as a result of his birth to a zawgyi (an accomplished alchemist) father and naga (dragon serpent) princess, found the rock at the bottom of the sea. Upon its miraculous arrival at the mountain top, the boat used to transport the rock then turned to stone.
So, naturally, I figured I should go see this Golden Rock of legend for myself:
The Rock at sunrise
To see said rock, you get on a bus in Yangon in the morning, spend a fairly uncomfortable six hours onboard, them disembark at the town on Kinpun to spend a more uncomfortable 45 minutes in the back of a truck going up the mountain, just as soon each and every one of the 48 seats in the back is filled (or, technically speaking, paid for). Then, of course, you have the final 45 minute climb to the top on foot (half way was my hotel - I chose to leave most of my things down in Kinpun). On the way up you see idyllic drawings of what things must've looked like a hundred year ago - a tiny dirt path winding its way up the mountain, with the Golden Rock serving as a lighthouse at the end. Capitalism has put a quick end to all the idyllic settings - the mountain is still here, and is still surrounded by lush greenness. The path, however, is now paved and surrounded by shops, restaurants, and guesthouses (for locals only - foreigners can stay for cheap in Kinpun, or if you want to see sunset/sunrise, you have exactly 3 choices on the mountain, all priced accordingly to the lack of competition). So after all this adventure, I arrived at the top at about 5:30 in the afternoon for the 5:45 sunset, and again early the next morning for sunrise.
Sun starting to head down as I was heading up
The rock in the fading dusk light - I figured framing it with empty space was better than the shops and gaudy temples on the other side
Admittedly, the rock is nicely lit up at night
Dinner at the peak with Roman (Swiss) and his girlfriend, Nun (Thai), the only other foreigners on the full bus from Yangon. Burma is definitely not Thailand when it comes to tourism
So, the next morning, after getting up, oh 5 in the morning, to witness sunrise, we all headed back down the mountain and climbed back aboard the bus (this one said it was the Radisson Hotel Narita Airport - I like that Burma doesn't even bother repainting the buses it gets from Japan, as donations, I presume). I was headed for Inle Lake, Roman and Nun were trying to get to Mandalay - we both had to change buses in the town of Bago, where we had a couple of hours to explore while waiting for the next bus. A quick scan of the guidebook and the tourist advertising at the bus station told us there was a giant reclining Buddha within easy walking distance. It also came with a legend of its very own:
Once upon a time a nasty king, who went by the name of Mgadeikpa, ruled the lands around what is today Bago. His reign was marked by corruption and violence [kinda like the current government...], but one day his son was out hunting in the forest when he came upon a village of Suvannabhumi, where his eye fell upon a Mon girl who caused his heart to flutter. Even though she was a Buddhist and he, like everyone in his father's kingdom, worshipped pagan idols, the two became lovers and married after he promised her that she could continue to practice Buddhism.
Back at the court the king was furious when he discovered this and ordered both the girl and his son executed. Yet, when the new bride prayed in front of the pagan idol it cracked and broke. The king was seized with fear, and realizing the error of his ways, he ordered a statue of the Buddha to be built and the population to convert to Buddhism*
So, we headed for the Buddha, and half an hour later, came upon an appropriately huge and gaudy reclining deity:
Well, it's the biggest reclining Budha, I've ever seen!
After spending 20 minutes marveling at the giant deity (and trying to ignore Ton Ton, who was really intent on selling us on a tour of Bago), we headed back to grab some lunch and catch our respective buses.
With the luxury of 16 unoccupied hours that followed before I arrived at Inle, I reviewed the guidebook some more, and, sadly, discovered that we had photographed the wrong Buddha - the one we found is Naung Daw Gyi Mya Tha Lyaung, built in 2003. The ancient one we were looking for is the Shwethalyaung Buddha, half a block further. Ahh Burma, where every street corner has a gold-domed pagoda or a gigantic reclining Buddha!
* Don't you love that all the sights in Burma come with their very own legends? All legends here are courtesy of Lonely Planet by the way, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy...
Day 57: 21 Jan, 2010, 07:48 GMT
insanely long and overly AC'd night bus over unpaved Burmese roads deposited me in Nyaungshwe, on the shores of Inle Lake
Day 57: 21 Jan, 2010, 07:46 GMT
heading for Inle Lake with a bus change in Bago, home of the biggest reclining Buddha you'll ever see. Only 16 bus hours to go
Day 57: 21 Jan, 2010, 07:44 GMT
Beautiful sunrise over the Golden Rock at the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo. Just wish sun didn't have to rise so damn early!
Posted by Alex on Monday, January 18, 2010
First day in Burma down, and so far so good! So far, while I'm still in the capital city of Yangon, I even have an internet connection. A highly flaky and a lot less than reliable internet connection, but it's something. Specifically, something that may very well be superior to what I'll have in the... First day in Burma down, and so far so good! So far, while I'm still in the capital city of Yangon, I even have an internet connection. A highly flaky and a lot less than reliable internet connection, but it's something. Specifically, something that may very well be superior to what I'll have in the coming few days when I venture outside the capital.
So, a few pictures from today, I spent the day wandering around town, taking pictures of the gigantic golden stuppas that dot the landscape (and arranging for my plane ticket out of Burma in my spare time).
First stop was the Shwedagon Pagoda, which doubles as the symbol of this country
It's a gigantic golden spire sitting atop a hill
There's not a lot of tourists here in Burma (especially compared to Thailand), but I found a couple to take a picture of me with the pagoda
My first reaction to seeing it literally was "Wow!" - it's giant, it's golden, and the pictures really don't do it justice, as it's not just the one stuppa - it's an entire complex of structures occupying this hill. It's the first time I can remember that I approached a local attraction, was told that I had to pay an entrance fee because of being a foreigner, and went 'Yeah, for this one it seems fair!' It does help that the entrance fee was all of $6, I suppose...
After getting my fill of the Shwedagon Pagoda, I went off to see the rest of the town, visiting a couple more pagodas, and some relics of British colonial architecture in the center of town
As far as I understand, back in the colonial days, Rangoon (as it was called then) was a major British trade port, on par with places like Hong Kong and Singapore. Independence clearly hasn't been as kind to the Burmese...
The other surprise in town is the religious diversity on display - just in my few hours walking around I saw plenty of Buddhist structures, of course, but there's also Hindu temples, Islamic mosques, and Christian churches dotting the landscape. The magazine I picked up on the flight claims there's a synagogue someplace too, but I didn't go looking. The religious diversity must be a point of pride as it shows up in the in-flight magazines...
A Cathedral. Anglican, I presume, but then again, Yangon has had plenty of surprises so far, so maybe they've got Catholics too... There's actually two Cathedrals I've seen so far, and a big Baptist church right in the center of town.
In the evening, it was time to go back up to the big stuppa to practice some night photography on the brilliantly lit up sacred sights. The crowds of locals coming to pray and burn incense do not decrease appreciably with the sunset, by the way
The gold of the Shwedagon Pagoda shining brightly at night
Just to underscore the number of Buddhist shrines around town, this is another Pagoda just across the street from the Shwedagon
Tomorrow, I'm off away from the capital to the more outlying regions, first and foremost to see the 'Golden Rock', one of the 'Big 3' Buddhist sights in Burma, along with Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda and another shrine in the ancient capital of Mandalay (my last stop). Odds of internet near the Golden Rock seem pretty slim. Elsewhere where I'll end up around the country? TBD, keep checking the blog!
Day 53: 17 Jan, 2010, 16:27 GMT
Boldly going where I have not gone before (and where my cell phone doesn't work), but others have been here... Burma!
Posted by Alex on Sunday, January 17, 2010
Last time I was in Bangkok, in May of 2008, I went to play frisbee pickup with the locals here. The field they play on is actually on an army base, and that time we got to play with the troops practicing on the firing range next door, which made for some unusual background noises. My two and a half ... Last time I was in Bangkok, in May of 2008, I went to play frisbee pickup with the locals here. The field they play on is actually on an army base, and that time we got to play with the troops practicing on the firing range next door, which made for some unusual background noises. My two and a half day stay in Bangkok this time happened to fall on the weekend, and the Soidawgz (the Bangkok frisbee team) even decided to move the pickup game from Sunday to Saturday afternoon to accommodate me (well, it may have had something to do with the army needing the field on Sunday too...). So, I made my way over to the fields for some three hours of running around in the heat, fully expecting a background serenade of gun fire again. Sadly, the Thai military has apparently relocated the firing range, so, still plenty of troops marching all around us, but not gun fire this time. Frisbee was still a lot of fun - starting to justify dragging the cleats around the world with me. If any of the people from 18 months ago were still there, I failed to recognize them, but they didn't seem to have any trouble accepting me anyway.
Beyond frisbee, Bangkok was more of a business trip this time - I got my visa to Burma, my plane ticket to Yangon, tried (and failed) to get my laptop's keyboard repaired (it now comes with a little roll-up pink USB keyboard) and did get my sandals repaired. This didn't leave a lot of room for sightseeing, and having been to Bangkok on three previous occasions, I didn't really feel like I needed much sightseeing anyway, so here are the only two pictures I took this time through Bangkok:
Minis are everywhere around the world, but I don't think I'd seen one in
Thailand before. Has to belong to an expat...
A summary of Khao San road - we buy things. And we sell things. And, really, we do whatever things you want just so we can be of service and get your tourist money!
So, since there are no more pictures, some random musings...
How do you define irony? Well, there's plenty of ways, of course. My favorite at the moment centers on Burma (or call it Myanmar if you like). In 2003, the G.W. Bush administration declared a trade embargo against Burma - probably sensible, the country is being run by a highly oppressive military junta. Result: no trade with America, so no American companies can operate here (this, sadly includes all credit card companies and ATM networks!). Unintended ironic consequence: the country's currency has effectively switched to the US dollar. Pain in the ass for a tourist: need to estimate how much money Burma will cost, get that in crisp new dollar bills in Bangkok, and bring it with you. Otherwise, no money. Secondary annoying consequence: my cell phone doesn't work, I presume because it's ATT, and American company, and they're not allowed to do business here.
[un] fair trade
I upgraded my Burma guide book back in Bangkok - I had arrived with a guide book in Spanish, which I had ordered by mistake, but figured it was better than nothing, and it was, marginally. In Bangkok, I traded it, along with a few other books I had finished, for a nice new English guide book. I felt a little guilty momentarily when I suspected that the lady running the shop didn't realize that my guidebook was actually in Spanish, not just an older English edition. My guilt quickly dissipated when I opened my 'new' guidebook and realized it's just a very well made photo copy. Incredibly well made, admittedly - properly bound, with all the color photos in the right places and I suspect with the outside cover siphoned from the original factory. But the inside pages are all photo copies. And I'm OK with that, actually - it has everything I need. But it certainly isn't a brand new original edition, so she deserves her Spanish guide book - karma!
Skies over Burma
Adding to my list of exotic airlines: Myanmar International Airways for the flight from Bangkok to Yangon. Actually, a perfectly nice airline, and due to local Asian form, they insist on giving us a meal over the course of the flight, which was barely over an hour in duration. First impressions of Burma upon arrival in Yangon? It's every bit as poor and destitute as you hear - most buildings seem rather dilapidated, while the cars (primarily Toyotas and Mazdas) are uniformly ancient and are in various states of disrepair. The people are every bit as nice as I had heard. At one point, while I was trying to find my hotel, wandering around the streets, a lady (with an iPhone, which I also found astounding) insisted on walking me there. Everybody else on the street had tried to help as well, they just weren't that good at it, since the locals don't need hotels a whole lot, I presume.
As for the unexpected
Burma is positioned right between Thailand and India. And it shows as the way the people look, dress, and act all seems like a combination of the two cultures (I couldn't, of course, tell you how much of this is natural and how much is due to the British, former colonial masters, bringing a lot of Indian laborers over, in their infinite wisdom, but the result is unmistakable). One thing that India and Thailand do have in common however is that both drive on the British (wrong, i.e. left) side of the road. Burma? We drive on the right (as in American) side here! Even though every car I've seen so far has the steering wheel on the right. This seems like one of those snap decisions by the military junta in charge of the place - "starting tomorrow, you will all drive on the right side! Done!" Maybe they're just trying to get closer with China, the other major neighboring nation, but so far they don't seem to have a whole lot in common, other than the side of the road on which they drive.
PS. If you're using the website: http://www.safety3rdblog.com/, I've had some issues recently (in part caused by the painfully slow internet connections here in Burma), and since my next six or so weeks are in Burma and China, there's no guarantees how fast I'll be able to resolve anything. I'll keep making updates though, so for the most up to date location information, you can try checking the twitter feed (http://twitter.com/aslepak), as it will have all of my updates, even should the site itself not process one of them correctly.
Day 53: 17 Jan, 2010, 04:12 GMT
in Bangkok and getting ready to advance on Burma!
Posted by Alex on Sunday, January 17, 2010
The week in Koh Tao wasn't actually entirely unproductive - we met James (who was doing acupuncture treatment at one of the resorts on the island) and his girlfriend, Faie. She had friends back on the mainland who were involved in putting together a two day English language camp for the local kids, ... The week in Koh Tao wasn't actually entirely unproductive - we met James (who was doing acupuncture treatment at one of the resorts on the island) and his girlfriend, Faie. She had friends back on the mainland who were involved in putting together a two day English language camp for the local kids, and they wanted a few foreigners to come and, well, mostly just speak English (they even took the Brits and the Irish with all their funny accents). Spending a couple of days on a beach playing with Thai kids sounded like fun, so a bunch of signed up to go, and a day after getting off the boat from the Similans, I ended up back in Chumphon meeting up with the other volunteers to head off to the camp.
They got things off on the right foot by putting all of us up at the Nanaburi hotel for the night, which, I suspect, is the nicest hotel in town (and most likely the nicest I'll be staying in on the trip). Sadly it was still a Thai hotel, so it came equipped with standard rock-hard Thai mattresses, but I'm learning to live with those... It must be good for your back, or something...
Fancy in Chumphon
The following morning, we were up at 6AM to head over to the train station, where we were suddenly thrust right into the fire, sharing two train carriages with the 170 kids heading for the camp over the next two hours.
We got along with the kids quite well though. They had a good time too!
And pretty soon we were all at the camp
Can't beat the location - at a beach resort, with a big temple overlooking things
It's not exactly all hard work here...
Marina on the guitar
To say that I thought that the camp was well oranized would be a gross over-statement. I'm pretty sure that the staff just figured putting kids next to a bunch of foreigners would cause them to learn by osmosis... or something along the lines. So the teachers would spend eternities listening to themselves speak, while giving the kids lots of useless rules and regulations. Then they'd release the kids on to us, and get out of the way. We, of course, didn't have much of an idea what to do, but improvised pretty well, singing songs, playing games (some that even involved some basic English), and generally being silly. The kids all had fun, regardless of whether or not they learned anything, and the teachers seemed to enjoy pawning the kids off onto us, so everybody wins! (i think we had fun too, not that any of us were particularly inclined to actually become teachers afterwards). One of the problem was actually that the kids didn't really know all that much English, which made explaining things a little tough, so we stuck to simple games.
The morning of the second day, the monks showed up, the kids gave them alms (food), and we all troooped up the hill to visit the temple. More endlessly boring instructions ensued from the teachers (in Thai only, so it's possible they had a sense of humor, and I just missed it, but I doubt it). The monks also lectured/preached, but that seemed a lot more appropriate, since they are, you know, Buddhist monks.
Monks passing by the kids
Getting closer to the temple
It's a big, imposing structure
Not quite so imposing to keep Adrian and the kids from having a good time
After lunch, it was time to draw what we had all seen at the camp
And play a few more games - Monika and I educated/entertained with a cross between hang man and pictionary. Pet, and his hat (in front) is clearly hoping to grow up to be a gangsta!
And that evening, we all gathered together for one last round of boring lecturing and fun singing, with everyone saying good bye at the finale
Dave, taking in the lectures
All of us at the conclusion
And at this point, I promptly hopped onto a bus and headed off to Bangkok and Burma, hoping that something we had done may eventually be useful for the kids. And if not? Well, we all had fun anyway! Having the most fun was probably little Ahm, who is only 12 years old, but appears to be well on his way to growing up to be a ladyboy. Which, I had heard, isn't entirely unusual in Thailand, but was still a little surprsing to see...
Posted by Alex on Saturday, January 16, 2010
Remember me? I used to post, tried to even post frequently. Recently though, I've been spending a lot of my time far removed from such civilized commodities as the internet, and when near the internet, I've been struggling to figure out how to actually use my laptop where half the keyboard works fin... Remember me? I used to post, tried to even post frequently. Recently though, I've been spending a lot of my time far removed from such civilized commodities as the internet, and when near the internet, I've been struggling to figure out how to actually use my laptop where half the keyboard works fine, and the other half is on a 2 for 1 program, as in every time you press a key, two characters show up... Makes for some hard to read writing.
So, now that I've left my poor battered laptop in the [hopefully] capable hands of a technician at Bangkok's very own electronics Mecca - the Panthip Plaza, it's time to start catching up (and hopefully, come tomorrow, I'll have a fully functional laptop back, so when I depart for Burma tomorrow evening, I'll be able to interact with the world at large once more.)
So, Life in the Similans: after a week on Koh Tao, which involved a lot of relaxing and hanging out with friends, and not really a lot of doing much of anything else (I tried to go diving actually, but the dive site I had wanted had excessively bad conditions the day we were scheduled to go), I went across the tip of South Thailand's peninsula to a little touristy town of Khao Lak to board the Manta Queen II, and spend four days diving in the Similan Islands. This was roughly the same trip that Lott had done a couple of years ago, and after hearing him rave on and on about how amazing it was, I figured, I couldn't pass up the chance to go!
Our boat, as viewed from sea level
In the Similan Islands National Park
The trip departed Khao Lak in the evening, and what was to follow was four nights on board, and 14 dives in between. There were 20 divers, along with 5 staff, and the boat's crew. As soon as we got onboard, it was explained to us that our lives would hereby consist of diving, eating, and sleeping. We managed to throw in a little bit of drinking in the evenings, and some relaxing on the sun deck in between the dives, but at four dives and five meals a day, there really wasn't time for much else.
The itinerary included sailing down to the Similan Islands, a few dives there, then dives at Koh Bon, Koh Tachai, an entire day at Richelieu Rock (a so-called 'top 2' dive site in the world... wonder what the others are, I'm sure there's more than two that make this claim), and a wreck dive on the way back.
Following some frantic last-second searching back in Hong Kong, I was equipped with an underwater camera once again, and ready to document the proceedings. Eventually, a full fledged album of my favorite under-water sights is going to materialize on the interweb, but for now, a few highlights:
Fully decked out for life underwater! Maybe not life, but a good 45 minutes to an hour
A shark waiting for us, sleeping on the sandy floor in the Similans
In between dives, a turtle came up to the boat, so we all jumped in to snorkel with it. Eventually, I started to feel bad that the turtle had an entourage of some 10 people with it, but he didn't seem to mind
We have found Nemo!
Some crazy, colorful formations of coral and life underwater
Spotting a manta ray, slowly gliding by us, at the end of the dive at Koh Bon was certainly the highlight of the trip.
Seeing a squid near Richelieu Rock was pretty cool too, as I'd never seen one before
Take a fish's body and give it some of the squid's tentacles, and you get a cuttlefish!
The clumsy-looking boxfish were everywhere, and were not at all clumsy
The remnants of the ship's skeleton at the wreck dive looking like something out of a sci-fi movie
Some hungry monsters living on the wreck
And a video of the turtle hanging out with us. If you can't see the video embedded above, try following this link: http://www.facebook.com/v/1315108111559
And that was our life in the Similans. I came away thoroughly exhausted - all this diving, combined with sleeping on a boat will do that to you, and I even skipped one of the night dives (there wasn't much to see at night anyway). Overall, I definitely enjoyed the trip - the downsides are that you do get exhausted, the dive sites are actually somewhat crowded, and I didn't always see eye-to-eye with my dive guide, even though she was the nicest person in the world... just not the best dive guide I've ever been around. As for the crowds, our group of 20 was split up into 5 smaller groups, and we generally tried to stay out of each other's way. At a few of our dives, we kept running into other groups though, including 20 Japanese divers, all diving together in one group, each with an impressive array of photo and video equipment... On the upside, did I mention 14 dives in four days, including a manta ray, a squid, a leopard shark, snorkeling with a turtle, good company, and being fed (quite deliciously) whenever not in the water? I dare say the upsides more than balance out the downsides! Still, none of the individual dives were as good as Sipidan in Borneo, my favorite dive so far...
And we'll leave you with this:
The cutest creature we saw wasn't underwater - it was a little puppy that one of the crew had. Clearly being a boy-puppy, he attacked Rana's bikini top with due diligence...
Day 51: 15 Jan, 2010, 01:09 GMT
170 thai kids plus dozen western volunteers -a 2 day english camp in thailand. Off to bangkok now
Day 48: 12 Jan, 2010, 06:46 GMT
a new route to Champhong to volunteer at an English language camp here with friends from Koh Tao
Day 48: 12 Jan, 2010, 06:44 GMT
Yeah, I made a circle! Not terribly excited about being back in Phuket though - good thing we're living in less than an hour then!
Day 48: 12 Jan, 2010, 06:40 GMT
back from the trip, how does the real world work again where your days don't just consist of sleeping, eating, and diving?
Day 48: 12 Jan, 2010, 06:34 GMT
It's a 'top 2' dive site in the world,think I'd like to visit the other 7-8? that make that claim...
Day 44: 8 Jan, 2010, 09:09 GMT
just finished 3rd dive in the similans; 11 more to come! So far so excellent
Day 43: 7 Jan, 2010, 08:47 GMT
in Khao Lok, finding lots of German tourists... Off to dive the Similans for four days, leaving in a couple hours!
Day 43: 7 Jan, 2010, 01:35 GMT
Day 42: 6 Jan, 2010, 22:58 GMT
overnight ferry from the islands and going boldly where a thai bus will take me!
Posted by dlott on Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Hello Internets!Itâ??s been a while since I (Lott) posted. Iâ??ve been mostly hanging out in Seattle for the fall and not had exciting stories to share. For Christmas I headed back to Maryland and then up to New York to visit my brother for New Years. I missed the big ball drop in Times Square, bu...
Itâ??s been a while since I (Lott) posted. Iâ??ve been mostly hanging out in Seattle for the fall and not had exciting stories to share. For Christmas I headed back to Maryland and then up to New York to visit my brother for New Years. I missed the big ball drop in Times Square, but can highly recommend the Midnight Run around Central Park.
Sunday morning at 3:30 am I left my brotherâ??s warm Brooklyn pad and plodded towards the train station. The 20 degree night would have been crisp except for the 50 mph gusts of wind that cut to the bone. I hustled into the LIRR and was whisked to JFK. After a bit of a cluster at the American Airlines ticket counter, I was Miami bound and soundly asleep. Landing in Miami, the bright sunlight got me excited for the week ahead, but the over air conditioned terminal almost convinced not change into the shorts Iâ??d stashed in my carry on. Three blissful hours later I was landing in Liberia, Costa Rica. As the waves of warmth and humidity flooded the cabin, I knew Iâ??d made the right decision â?? shorts â?? and more importantly returning to Tamarindo. I cleared customs and walked outside to find Mattson waiting for me with a taxi, and by 3:30 pm we were on the beach and a world away from my blustery New York morning.
Returning to a spot where youâ??ve been before is comforting. Thereâ??s none of the anxiety/adventure of finding a place to stay or an ATM. We already know the best local food is at Red Plastic Chairs, the best happy hour is at Eat@Joeâ??s, and the best way to start your day is bobbing on a surfboard watching the sunrise. No waterproof camera or weekend trips yet, so pictures from last year will have to do: surfing, adventuring, and more adventuring.
Posted by Alex on Tuesday, January 5, 2010
I got to the tiny secluded resort beach on the far side of the island and slowly strolled past the twenty-some people lazing about in the sun on the thin strip of yellow sand, My gaze lingered for a moment on the brunette wearing a dental floss bikini; I carried on. I went up and down the winding li... I got to the tiny secluded resort beach on the far side of the island and slowly strolled past the twenty-some people lazing about in the sun on the thin strip of yellow sand, My gaze lingered for a moment on the brunette wearing a dental floss bikini; I carried on. I went up and down the winding little stair-paths past the beach-front bungalows and into the jungle beyond. I followedthe sometimes elusive path through the jungle, but soon enough it too ran out, so I picked my way through the less dense parts of the underbrush. When I saw the rocks waiting for me up ahead, I knew I was close, as the goal I'd set off with was to reach the rocky outcropping stretching out to the sea, pointing to Shark Island just offshore. I climbed around, then over the rocks, and finally the view in front cleared and the panorama of Koh Tao's shoreline opened up.
shores of Koh Tao
Relaxing in the Sun
A dive boat passing in front of Shark Island
From here on I'm departing Koh Tao tomorrow, after a full beautiful week here, and heading for a 4 day dive trip in the Similan Islands!
Tags: Koh Tao
Posted by Alex on Sunday, January 3, 2010
At around 4 in the afternoon on Friday, Tim and I were sitting at the bar in the uber-fancy Peninsula hotel having a drink. Four hours later, my flight was scheduled to depart Hong Kong for Thailand, so at about 4:30 we paid the bill and headed off to the other end of the spectrum of luxury in accom... At around 4 in the afternoon on Friday, Tim and I were sitting at the bar in the uber-fancy Peninsula hotel having a drink. Four hours later, my flight was scheduled to depart Hong Kong for Thailand, so at about 4:30 we paid the bill and headed off to the other end of the spectrum of luxury in accomadations: the Chunking Mansions where I picked up my things and headed for the airport
At the Peninsula Hotel - dubbed the 'Finest Accomodation East of the Suez' when it was first opened in the 1920's. It's been upgraded since...
The Chunking Mansions may be the other end of the spectrum, but considering the price and [especially] the location in Hong Kong, it's probably a far better deal than the neighboring Peninsula
So, with my bags all packed up, it was time to head downstairs and catch the bus for the airport. Whose schedule I did not know, but figured it would show up soon enough. And the 8 o'clock flight meant there wasn't much of a rush, so...
But this is Hong Kong - things run predictably, efficiently, and on schedule. So, after 10 minutes, my double decker bus pulled up to the bus stop, Tim and I exchanged our good-bye's and I was off to the airport, chatting with a guy on a business trip from the Ivory Coast (that would be a country in West Africa). Sitting on a bus is all about waiting too, but that's fully expected - if I didn't want to wait for the bus, I could've paid two and a half times as much to take the super-fast and efficient subway and avoid all possibility of traffic delays, but I wasn't in any hurry, so I waited on the bus.
Upon arriving at the airport, I was initially taken aback by the discovery (or rather non-discovery?) that my 8:05 flight wasn't on the big Departures board, however, the AirAsia counter was happy to check me in (once I lightened my checked baggage to be reasonably close to 15kg, of course...). Eventually, I found the flight on the Big Board, rescheduled to 8:25... So, a bit more
But waiting at the Hong Kong ariport isn't all bad - you get free Wi-Fi, comfortable chairs, and a variety of over-priced food options (including the Zakuska restaurant serving caviar... Zakuska is the Russian word for snack)
Four hours later, we landed at the Phuket airport in the South of Thailand. I wanted to get to Koh Tao and meet up with friends there. I didn't have a particularly clear idea of how this was going to happen, but assumed I'd find a way. Step 1 seemed to be to get from the airport to Phuket Town, so I ventured out to be confronted by the swarming hordes of taxi drivers vying for the arriving tourists' attentions (and cash). After confirming that there was not going to be a bus this evening (in spite of some ten people waiting - for something - at the bus station), I ventured over to the taxi hordes.
- Where is this share taxi going? (Share taxi is a minivan, which you, obviously, share with others)
- Where do you need to go, sir?
- Where is your taxi going?
- Where do you want to go?
- Phuket City
- Oh no, need a private taxi for that, no van going to Phuket...
- Where are you going then?
- Where do you want to go?
- Are you going to Patong Beach? (I've been to Phuket before, I remember some of the geography)
- Yes, five minutes.
- Ok, I'll go to Patong Beach with you then figure out a way to get to Phuket
- Five minutes, sir...
Another flight arrives, filled with more backpackers coming from Vietnam. I listen to a group of them go through the same Q and A session with the taxi driver horde. They want to go to Phuket as well, are negotiating a price (I have a 150 Baht ticket for Patong at this point)
Eventually, the group from Vietnam are at some sort of an indecision point where they seem to have settled on a price, but don't really know if they are getting ripped off or not, so are hesitating, I confirm that they are in fact trying to get to Phuket, we start talking and eventually they decide to just take the share cab. By the time the four of them, and me, have gotten our tickets for Phuket (Thailand loves giving out tickets for useless things like 30 minute van rides), there's actually six more people needing to get to Phuket, so we are up to a full van. Apparently, the van is going to Phuket after all...
30 minutes later, Phuket, center of town. Nine of us have disembarked from the van and are now searching for the next step. The consensus seems to be that buses and vans for Surat Thani, where we all need to get in order to catch the ferries for the island, won't run till the morning, so we should probably find a place to sleep near the bus station.
A friendly Thai man materializes - I don't actually know where he came from, but seems to have been there ever since we got out of our taxi. He's anxious to help - Where do you need to go? You need a hotel? A guesthouse?
- Well, we actually need to go to Surat Thani, can you get us there?
- I need to check with my driver
- do you think it's possible to go tonight?
- sure [at this point I texted the following to twitter: "Just negotiated a middle of the night ride to the coast, i love that anything is possible in this country!" It's true, anything is possible, but...]
- how much is it goint to be?
- need to check with my driver
So he goes off to look for his driver with one of the guys from the group - a Fin coming from Hong Kong. We discuss how with now 9 of us looking to go (the other two had a hotel reserved in Phuket), anything in the 5,000 Baht range would be reasonable (1 USD ~= 35 THB)
Wonder what's taking so long, hope they're coming back!
Our man is back, with a van, and our Finnish friend - 450 Baht each, we can leave right now. Done! The van is actually surprisingly more comfortable than I expected, and I get some three hours of sleep before we arrive in Surat Thani.
Except this time, we are not in the center of town, we are at the offices of a ferry company that can get us to Koh Samui. But I need to go to Koh Tao? Catch another ferry from Samui... What about a direct ferry? (I'm fairly certain there is one). No direct ferry - need to go to Koh Samui.
Later, reading the guide books while already on the ferry, we learned that there's a couple of different ferry companies - we got taken to the one that does not have a direct route to Koh Tao (but probably does pay the van service to bring it customers). Being roughly 4 in the morning, I am in no mood to argue or even further investigate, so we get our tickets, for the bus (van), which will take us to the actual ferry, another hour away.
Don Suk ar sunrise, departing on the ferry for Koh Samui, after comfirming that the ferry port we just got taken to does not in fact have direct ferries to Koh Tao. Instead they have a 7AM ferry for Koh Samui, arriving there at 8:30AM. They also have ferries from Koh Samui to Koh Tao, departing daily at 3PM, or in the morning at ... wait for it ... 8AM! Convenient...
Leaving for the islands at sunrise. Getting here overnight does seem like an accomplishment already.
A longboat awaits on Koh Samui
It got less exciting from here. Koh Samui:
then a little more
then, an hour and a half later than promised, we left for Koh Phangan, and eventually on to Koh Tao from there, but with no waiting at Koh Phangan, so that's progress. By this time, I was starting to keep track of just how long it had been since I had left Hong Kong - after disembarking in Koh Tao, and catching a taxi with Dave and Diana, the last of our group of 11 from the airport, who were going to Koh Tao same as myself, I walked up to Asia Divers Resort right around 3 in the afternoon, on a hot and muggy day in Southern Thailand.
An extra passenger on the boat to Koh Tao
The ferry arrives in Koh Tao. Several hundred tourists, large backpacks at the ready, emerge
Factoring in the time difference, that gave me a total travel time of 23 hours, including a bus, an airport shuttle, an airplane, three different minibuses, three different ferry boats, and one ride in the back of a Toyota truck, masquerading as a taxi on the islands. And then...
Turns out Dave and Sandra, the friends I had originally met in Peru back in April and was looking to meet up with here, weren't actually at Asia Divers Resort (or their actual house five minutes away), as they had taken a boat trip that afternoon, and weren't due back for another couple of hours. Having Wi-Fi, Thai food, a Thai beer, and no concerns about having to go somewhere else, made the wait a lot easier though!
Life on Koh Tao:
First night on the beach - a fire show
at the Portabello Restaurant for dinner
The very chill Fizz Bar on the beach
Paul dazzling us with Russian dance moves. He's not actually Russian - I might be, but I'm sure as hell not about to try that!
Getting to Koh Tao was interesting alright, but that's not really what Koh Tao was all about - the neighboring island of Koh Phangan is the famous (infamous) home of Thailand's Full Moon Parties, and this year, a Full Moon coincided with New Year's Eve, so after making sure I made it to the islands on the 30th of December, we headed off for a night of, well, I wasn't really sure what, on Koh Phangan on the 31st. We had a group of ten of us - Dave, Sandra, myself, and a bunch of friends they'd made traveling around SE Asia the last few months. The boat got us there by about 4:30 in the afternoon, giving us time to get dinner, stock up on alcoholic beverages from a local 7-11 and find a relatively quiet beach to hang out on until hitting the party in earnest around 11.
At 11, we made it over to Hat Rin beach, the home of the Full Moon party, which was filled with music, people, fireworks, liquor, and general revelry taken to a number of whole different levels. I had assumed that if I brought my camera with me, I'd either lose it or destroy it (and after finally managing to replace my camera on my last day in Hong Kong, I was looking to avoid those outcomes), so I din't take any pictures - Karina, however, was a lot more brave, so some visuals of the Blue Moon Party 2009:
Amelia, Kelly, Sandra, and Karina
Sandra, Karina, Dave, and me
Gary and his favorite bucket
Sandra and Dave early in the night
Sandra, Kelly, and Karina after a few drinks...
I was on the strip in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve to ring in the new millenium, I've been on a cruise-ship over New Year's, I've been to New York's TIme Square - none of those come even remotely close. This was the most wild and crazy place I'd ever seen, and I was barely even awake past about 3 in the morning. In fact, I spend about an hour and half napping on the ground outside of the 7-11 (quite comfortably, by the way) before we all met up there in the morning to head back to the pier and catch our ferry back to Koh Tao, where I was most excited to find a couch to crash on for another few hours!
So, Happy New Year, everybody - hope 2010 is off to a good start for everyone!
Day 37: 1 Jan, 2010, 08:51 GMT
back to Tao after the Full Moon Party... Insanity and exhausted!
Day 36: 31 Dec, 2009, 10:55 GMT
Full Moon coincides with New Year's Eve about once every 19 years, so an extra big party on Koh Pangan - Happy New Year everybody!
Posted by Alex on Thursday, December 31, 2009
It started with Thai boxing back in, well, Thailand. Then I tried rugby (the sevens variety, which is the better kind) in Fiji, and footy in Melbourne (that's Australian Rules Football for those not in the know... or not in Australia), and sumo in JapanI love the man-mountain of sumoSouth America ad... It started with Thai boxing back in, well, Thailand. Then I tried rugby (the sevens variety, which is the better kind) in Fiji, and footy in Melbourne (that's Australian Rules Football for those not in the know... or not in Australia), and sumo in Japan
I love the man-mountain of sumo
South America added tennis in Buenos Aires and futbol (gooooaaaaaalll!) in Sucre, Bolivia. Coming into Hong Kong, I wasn't really expecting any big spectator sports, but I was wrong. There's horse racing over here, and apparently it's a really big deal. So, on a rather gloomy and overcast day I made my way up to the Sha Tin Racecourse up in the New Territories to explore the local sporting obsession
It's all very royal and British around horse racing here
Going into the racecourse
In spite of having lived in the State of Kentucky, which is only slightly less obsessed about horse racing than it is about UK basketball, and even knowing people (ok, a person) involved in the horse racing industry, I'd never actually been to a horse race, so I didn't really know what to expect, nor I can really compare Hong Kong racing against the American variety. So, basic impressions: I don't know anything about horse racing, so there are giant tableaus with all kinds of information, but I don't know what most of it means. As far as the locals seem concerned, there's really no sport here except for the betting - people barely pay attention to the race itself, but everybody bets and focuses on their stat and information sheets. I didn't care to bet. I just figured I'd take some pictures, and hopefully some wouldn't come out totally blurry:
Getting ready for the race
Around the turn they come!
Down the straightaway towards the finish line!
Now closer to the action, armed with my big lens, I got a few interesting shots
Pushing for position to the very end
After three races, I took off to find an ultimate frisbee game in Hong Kong - racing was interesting, but without betting, it doesn't look like you can really get into it. On a nicer day, you can probably just sit around and enjoy the day, but on a rainy day, I figured I'd rather be playing frisbee!
Day 35: 30 Dec, 2009, 10:08 GMT
Now on Koh Tao and enjoying proper Panang Curry and Singha beer... Journey from Hong Kong took a total of 23 hours though...
Day 35: 30 Dec, 2009, 03:21 GMT
on an island in thailand, waiting for next boat to get me to Koh Tao, THE island in Thailand i want to reach. Life is good!
Day 34: 29 Dec, 2009, 18:42 GMT
back in thailand! Just negotiated a middle of the night ride to the coast, i love that anything is possible in this country
Day 34: 29 Dec, 2009, 12:02 GMT
@ HK airport, getting ready to fly to Phuket - getting excited about Thailand and the beaches!
Posted by Alex on Monday, December 28, 2009
or Manila vs. Hong Kong: a study in contrastsManila is the capital of the Philippines, a nation that had been a Spanish colony for three centuries until gaining independence at the start of the 20th century. Hong Kong has been a colony of the United Kingdom since being ceded to the British crown by ... or Manila vs. Hong Kong: a study in contrasts
Manila is the capital of the Philippines, a nation that had been a Spanish colony for three centuries until gaining independence at the start of the 20th century. Hong Kong has been a colony of the United Kingdom since being ceded to the British crown by the Chinese emperor in the middle of the 19th century and until it was formerly handed back over in 1997. Both cities lie in South East Asia, straddling the two shores of South China Sea, and share an extensive history of European influence, so they should have some similarities based on their colonial pasts? Well...
This is Hong Kong
So is this - modernity with a slight nod to old Chinese culture
Season's Greetings, celebrating a Christian holiday, Hong Kong, however, remains almost strictly all business, as the tower in the background might suggest
This, on the other hand, is Manila. The St. Augustin Church in the old town section of Intramuros.
Fort Santiago protecting Manila
So, what does Hong Kong remind me of? Well, a little London, a little Shanghai, a little Singapore, a little New York - a mixture of East and West: a distinctly modern, developed, Western city with an unmistakably Eastern influence. What does Manila remind me of? Certainly nothing in Asia. It's certainly closest to Cartagena, and Cuzco, and Panama City - other Spanish colonial capitals. The church plays a big role in former Spanish colonies, just as long as it's the Roman Catholic church.
The Manila Cathedral - it may have been destroyed a few times (fire, earthquake, WWII), but it'll always be rebuilt!
Hong Kong has a cathedral too - St. John's, an Anglican Cathedral, so not quite acceptable to the Roman Catholics, but close enough for our purposes
Hong Kong is a little more diverse - including several Buddhist temples, such as Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin, pictured here, nestled in between the sky scrapers
Religious insignia inside the Manila Cathedral
And incense burning in Hong Kong
Want more religious symbols? How about a big Buddha on Lantau island
There are no Buddha's in the Philippines
Well, how about just going out on the streets of the two cities? Perhaps some monuments to inspire the local population?
Manila. I don't actually know whom this statue commemorates. I'm going to say she wasn't that good at kung fu though...
Hong Kong celebrates its own heroes - Bruce Lee could take the Spanish down all by himself if he wanted to!
Old and new juxtaposition in Hong Kong at the Kowloon Walled City Park
And something not entirely Spanish, or Catholic, in Manila - not Filipino either though: the Chinese cemetery.
A couple more sights from the streets of Hong Kong
At this point I was going to make a complicated point comparing the different colonial approaches Britain and Spain had taken (Spain: full totalitarian control, flatly imposing Catholicism vs. Britain's more freedom embracing approach, which allowed for the local religions to remain) and the results: the British colonies have, at times, achieved greater economic propsperity (Hong Kong, USA), but the Spanish ones have almost certainly ended up being more stable, easier to govern, and much more similar to the home country in the long run (South America may not seem particularly stable, but it's got nothing on formerly British India and the Middle East). However, I don't like making that point, and I don't really know what I'm talking about when it comes to geo-political issues, and it's not really a true apples-to-apples comparison - after all, The Incas and Aztecs in South America may have been the most advanced local cultures the Spanish had encountered (the Philippines didn't have much of a developed nation-state prior to the Spanish), whereas the British colonies got to deal with long-established cultures like India, China, and the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So, instead, let's just say the two European powers took very different approaches to running their colonies, and the results may be most obvious in the Philippines. This is a country in SE Asia, but it may as well be in Latin America. The currency is the peso, the language has a strong Spanish influence to it (mas barato por favor! = cheaper please! both here and in Bolivia...), the names of streets, towns, and people are often Spanish based (Fort Santiago, Puerto Princessa, etc.), and not only is Christianity (Catholicism especially, even though other branches are popping up, probably due to the last 100 years of American colonial influence) the undisputed state religion, the thing I found to be truly surprising was the almost complete absence of Buddhism, in a region where Buddhism dominates all the neighboring states. Islam, by the way, is present down South, stemming from nearby Malaysia and Indonesia, where Islam is the primary religion (even though there's a lot more signs of Buddhism in both of those countries than there is in the Philippines). The opposing Muslims were apparently quite the annoying discovery to the invading Spanish a few centuries ago, as Spain had just finished fighting off the Muslim forces (the Moors) back in the Spanish homeland and in Northern Africa (this random historical footnote brought to you by Lonely Planet).
Well, that's probably enough geo-political musings and ramblings for the moment. Today is the last of my six here in Hong Kong - tonight I get on a plane bound for the beautiful beaches of Thailand to celebrate New Year's in style. Goals for today are to find a replacement camera (still! Hong Kong's been refusing to repair mine...) and meet up with Tim for more delicious local cusine - the food in Hong Kong is excellent as it is, but yesterday he and his parents took me out to a couple of really good local restaurants (that I would have never picked out myself), and the food gets to be even more amazing when you're with people who know what they are talking about, as opposed to me just randomly pointing at things on a menu!
Posted by Alex on Sunday, December 27, 2009
If Paris is the City of Light, then Hong Kong is certainly the City of Lights, as in lots and lots of brightly-colored neon lights that burn through the night.A skyscraper lit up at nightA night-time overview of the cityAnd a nicely lit fountain near the waterfrontThere's really not a lot of places ... If Paris is the City of Light, then Hong Kong is certainly the City of Lights, as in lots and lots of brightly-colored neon lights that burn through the night.
A skyscraper lit up at night
A night-time overview of the city
And a nicely lit fountain near the waterfront
There's really not a lot of places I've seen that can rival the sheer magnitude and audacity of the neon here. Las Vegas, centered on its big casinos, seems downright organized, almost subdued, in comparison. Tokyo's Shinjuku and Times Square in New York are probably the best comparisons
An overabundance of advertising just off of the main thoroughfare of Nathan Road
Nathan Road itself
It's a neon arms race out here - if you don't advertise your restaurant with a gigantic neon sign, your competitors will just drown you out with theirs
Admittedly, the city is even more lit up than normal (even if that does seem virtually impossible) around Christmas
Hong Kong, generally, is two very distinct cities, separated by Victoria Harbour. There is Hong Kong island - the major financial and business center, with its gigantic high-rises, upscale restaurants, and the atmosphere more reminiscent of New York and London than any part of Asia. And this is really what I had expected of Hong Kong. But, there is the other side of the harbor: Kowloon City and Tsim Sha Tsui - this is the busy, bustling, crowded, fragrant (smelly!) part of town on the peninsula that's connected to mainland China. And it's connected in more ways than one - it's unmistakably Asian. From the 'wet markets' selling fish that's been caught, but hasn't been killed yet to the 'No Hawking' signs on the waterfront, which are quite necessary, as a block away, there are crowds of people trying to sell you anything you can ever imagine. I wouldn't say wish for, because I don't actually wish for a suit or a Rolex knock-off, but I keep being offered them anyway... And, of course, at night, both sides of the harbor are brightly lit up putting up a light show of proportions that can only be measured in Megawatts. Gigawatts?
So, my first impressions of Hong Kong? Well, the very first impression was that it smells! Or specifically, the rooms I had on my first two nights smelled. Especially the first one, but I arrived at 3 in the morning, so I didn't care all that much. I promptly moved to a guesthouse in the ubiquitous Chungking Mansions, where my first room also smelled (but less pungently), and by night 3, I was in an odor-free environment! Chunking Mansions itself defies description - it is a 15 story apartment complex, where each apartment has been converted into a hotel/guesthouse - it is the budget accommodation in the city. It is also quite old, home to a variety of small Indian and Pakistani restaurants downstairs, and generally not all that well maintained. The clientele has a smattering of backpackers lost in a sea of mainland tourists and laborers from India, Pakistan, and a wide variety of other British colonies. This evening I ran into a couple from Bogota, Colombia too (who were trying to find an exit...) - it's kind of like a model UN, except poorly-run former British colonies are over-represented.
All that being said, I'm quite happy with the room, I've finally ended up with - it doesn't smell, I have a window to the outside world (the previous one had a window also, but I'm not sure what it led to - certainly no the outside though), there's hot water, and even constant and free internet access, so not all that bad. As for my overall impressions of Hong Kong - oddly enough, I actually found the place rather relaxing and a little lonely.
The lonely is easy - yes, there's a gigantic, vibrant mass of people populating this town at all hours of the day and night. And some (probably large) number of them are even fellow backpackers, however, lacking hostels and other such obvious ways of meeting other travelers, they immediately blend in and dissipate into the background, and you're back on the street surrounded by locals, mainland tourists, and Indians offering fake Rolexes. Fortunately, I was able to solve this problem first by meeting up with Tim (he of wine tasting in Mendoza last March fame), who's currently in town visiting family, and then further by finding a pickup frisbee game.
As for relaxing? Well, admittedly, I'm certainly in the minority in finding Hong Kong relaxing, but honestly, my concerns in the Philippines included:
- there's Malaria on Palawan, have I taken my malaria pills today yet?
- if I have a flight out of Puerto Princessa at 8, and the bus ride there is supposed to take 7 hours, how early should I leave to account for the inevitable delays and breakdowns?
- the traffic in Manila is so bad, that getting to and from the airport requires budgeting a good two hours extra just for the traffic
Those are potentially difficult problems. Here? The place is tiny - in 7 hours you'd be well into China no matter how many times your bus broke down. The traffic is awful too, but it makes no difference as there's a very fast and efficient (and relatively inexpensive) subway system in place, not to mention the cross-harbor ferries, which don't get you there as fast as the subway, but offer reat views of the harbor along the way. The biggest problem here has really been finding a place to stay that I liked, and I had a ready-made choice of 100 or so guesthouses just here in the Chungking Mansions, along with internet recommendations for which ones people have liked before. The runner-up problem is deciding if I should have Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Indian food for dinner. Maybe it is just me, but I call this relaxing! As for the people persistently trying to sell you something, anything, on the streets (which has been know to annoy people before), I've learned to just take it all in stride by now and laugh about the fact that somebody thinks I'm a good candidate to try selling a Rolex and a suit to! It sure beats the army of Nigerians assaulting you with offers of marijuana and every other substance in the world on every street corner in Kathmandu, not to mention the guys in Cartagena, Colombia, who'll hook you up with a tour, chicas, and cocaina. You decide the order in which you want to prioritize the three! Ok, to be entirely accurate, hashish is on offer here in Hong Kong too, but the would-be sellers, at least, seem a bit surreptitious about it.
Relaxing in Hong Kong!
Day 32: 27 Dec, 2009, 10:42 GMT
horse racing and ultimate frisbee on a drizzly day in HK - excellent day, the rains be damned!
Posted by Alex on Thursday, December 24, 2009
A giant school of little yellow fish, which all got of our way very reluctantlyA colorful fish, which almost looks like a flower. We figured out the name after the dive, I wish I'd remembered it!A little blue eel working his disproportionally large mouth open and closed... unagi us tasty!Found a hum...
A colorful fish, which almost looks like a flower. We figured out the name after the dive, I wish I'd remembered it!
A little blue eel working his disproportionally large mouth open and closed... unagi us tasty!
Found a humangous lobster in a little cave - he was waving all of his claws and antannae around agitatedly. I figured he had come to seek revenge for his brothers and sisters we had for lunch back in the San Blas...
So, I went diving! And took lots of pictures after having invested in an underwater case for my camera. How would you describe diving in El Nido? Well, personally, I like seeing the big things - sharks, eels, turtles, rays, etc. (a place called Donsol, on the East side of the archipelago is a place where you can snorkel with gigantic whale sharks, which reach up to 20 feet in length(!). drooling...). None of those live here on the Northwestern tip of Palawan, so I wouldn't describe it as spectacular (that would be nearby Borneo), however, even a non-spectacular dive site in the South Pacific still happens to be amazing - the coral reefs, the myriads of fish, an occasional surprise like a big, angry looking lobster, beautiful warm waters, I don't know how much else you can really ask for! Of all the places I've dived (and I'm now apparently up to 25 dives!), the South Pacific sites have been unmistakably the best - Fiji, Borneo, Thailand, Japan's Okinawa chain, and now the Philippines. New Zealand is just as good as far as diving goes, but it's quite a bit colder in the water. Vietnam's Halong Bay is crap because there's absolutely no visibility and the dive shop was incompetent (and I didn't like Vietnam...), but I hear there are some amazing sites down the Southern coast. So, really, you have to wonder why you'd dive anywhere else (and I have, and will again, but it just won't be as good). Costa Rica was good - we saw rays and turtles, but it still lacked the ridiculous assortment of fish and coral. Croatia is just crap in comparison, and that's one of the better sites in the Mediterranean... I hear Egypt's famous for the wrecks, but I have a hard time imagining it can match the wildlife. Well, you shouldn't take my word for it, I suppose - I haven't been... you should go and find out, I eventually intend to, even if I don't think it can live up to the South Pacific.
There's also the price - two dives, all equipment and lunch included, here on Palawan was about $60 USD, or at least 40% less than I've paid anywhere else so far! Next time I'm here in the Philippines (and like just about every other place I've been to, I want there to be a next time, even if I don't have any idea if or when it might happen), it'll need to be between March and June, so a trip to the outlying Tubattha reefs will be possible on a live aboard, as those are considered the absolute best dive sites in the archipelago...
In between the dives, we had lunch on one of the islands, where I snuck away briefly to snap a few pictures of the crazy karst formations making up these islands:
So that was the diving. That evening I debated catching a ferry [an expensive ferry] to Coron island the following day to dive its famous ship wrecks, but after some internal debate, I concluded that it would just be too rushed, and El Nido was too nice, and the people running our guesthouse were too friendly, so I stayed for another couple of days. The next day, Till, Hannah, and I met up with Ria, whom I had met on the diving trip, and we went on our little motorcycle tour of the Northern part of Palawan island. I drove one of the bikes, Ria trusted me not to kill her, holding on sitting behind me (and I only dropped the bike once... at slow speed... we were both unscathed!). Till drove the other, and failed to kill himself or Hannah as well, and we all happily returned just in time for dusk. More on all that in a previous post.
The day after, our merry band swelled to five when we ran into Marty (he's in some of those Sabang pictures, as we met him there a couple of days ago and parted ways when he didn't want to pay 2,000 pesos to sail up to El Nido...), and all of us headed back out to the islands for a so-called island-hopping tour - basically a full day spent on the boat and on the islands, visiting some pretty locations, snorkeling, having lunch, and generally enjoying the beautiful day. Pictures are worth a thousand words (and I don't want to write a thousand words):
Five of us walking across the shallows towards the boat
First stop at the Secret Lagoon - a little rock outcropping surrounding a pool about 25 feet squared. You climb through a little opening in these rocky walls to enter
Entrance to the Small Lagoon. Not really all that small actually. Featuring a spectacular cave, skylight included. I didn't bring a camera to the cave though...
Four of us in the bluish-green waters of the Big Lagoon, after we had a bit of an arguement with our boat driver as to whether or not it was possible to get to the Big Lagoon on this day. It was. And they are no match for Till's German bargaining powers!
Ria striking a pose in the Big Lagoon
More islands on the horizon as we sail back
That evening, we all gathered back at the Makulay Lodge, where Hannah, Till, and I were staying for dinner because Rose, the owner had offered to cook us a farewell dinner. The delicious five-course dinner for a grand old total of 200 Pesos (about $4.50) each was very much a perfect conculsion to the week on Palawan.
Cheers! we figured we'd bring some wine for dinner too...
And the following morning, I was on board this here bus heading back South to Purto Princessa in order to catch that evening's flight back to Manila (no jeepney this time for the seven hour journey).
Marty, who was on the same bus, and I deliberated how many breakdowns would be required to cause me to miss my 7:30PM flight (estimated bus arrival: 2PM) and settled on about three (breakdowns aren't all that uncommon as the road isn't all that paved). We arrived at 2 o'clock on the dot. So, I'm actually typing this up at the Puerto Princessa airport where I've got three hours of free time waiting for my flight. Posting will happen eventually later, as there is a Wi-Fi network here at the airport, but nobody knows the password... Later tonight, I'll be back in chaotic Manila, and late tomorrow, I should be in Hong Kong! Where first order of business will be arranging my visa to China, but, unfortunately, a close second will be repairing my camera, which got dipped in the salt water during the island-hopping tour... Considering my underwater case is specifically designed for this camera model, and I fully intend to do more diving in Thailand, Burma, and maybe even Hong Kong itself, I am going to find a way to get it fixed. Fortunately, if ever there was a good place for electronics repair, Hong Kong is it!
* Life Aquatic with Stephen Zissou was a highly underrated movie. Only in small part because Owen Wilson's character dies in it...
Day 29: 24 Dec, 2009, 18:01 GMT
website fully operational again, after some hiccups in the Philippines. Now even w/advanced features like bug reports! Testing's useful...
Day 29: 24 Dec, 2009, 15:51 GMT
first impression of Hong Kong is that it smells! Secondly, we get to it being a pretty and most unusual Asio-European city
Day 27: 22 Dec, 2009, 14:58 GMT
manila's a bit less bewildering when you know where you're going... Traffic still sucks though!
Posted by Alex on Tuesday, December 22, 2009
There are chartered boats that plow the route up and down the West coast of Palawan, offering a more relaxing connection between Sabang, El Nido, and the mid-point station of Port Barton than the jeepney-beast.Wednesday, December 16th@ the boat 'office', which is housed in a beach-front restaurant, ... There are chartered boats that plow the route up and down the West coast of Palawan, offering a more relaxing connection between Sabang, El Nido, and the mid-point station of Port Barton than the jeepney-beast.
Wednesday, December 16th
@ the boat 'office', which is housed in a beach-front restaurant, Sabang, Palawan, Philippines
"the boat is running on Friday. The charge is 1200 Pesos for Port Barton and 2000 Pesos for El Nido. We need five passengers to go to El Nido, we currently have two, if you want to go, that'll make three, and we just need two more"
Sounds good - count me in! I'll talk to my friends about coming, but I'll go to Port Barton too, if you don't go to El Nido, and just catch the bus from there
Thursday, December 17th
@Dab-dab hotel, Sabang, Palawan, Philippines
I'm having a few drinks with Till and Hannah (the German couple from the bus-beast-jeepney from the day before) and Marty, a Canadian we met on the way back from the caves this afternoon, when the guys from the boat company show up
"Ok, if you guys are going, the best price is 1800 Pesos! Otherwise we just lose money on the diesel..."
"How much is the diesel?"
"Dunno, captain says 5,600"
Marty's on a budget, so he declares he's out, Till demands 1,500, and says they'd think about when the price doesn't move off of 1,800 Pesos. I quietly observe and sip my 6.9 percent alcohol Red Horse. Once the boat guys leave, Till and Hannah are in, of course, but prefer to make the announcement the next morning, hoping to finagle more of a discount. Marty says he'll stop by in the morning to say good bye, we all got back to our drinks. I promise to buy Till a beer if and when we actually get to El Nido for 1,800 - I reserve skepticism for all unsubstantiated promises made to foreigners.
Friday, December 18th
@ the boat office, again
"Till, Hannah, you should catch the bus before it leaves - our boat is going to Port Barton"
"What!? But, we're now in for El Nido, which is all you needed yesterday to make the trip to El Nido!?"
"captain says no" [I think the captain may not be of legal drinking age in the States]
"but what about yesterday!? You promised..."
"Well, you see, the French couple canceled yesterday, and if Marty's not going, the three of you isn't enough..."
"That's bullshit! That's not what you said yesterday, and we've made plans based on what you said!"
[sounding conciliatory - good thing we are not in Vietnam or Russia...] "Let me ask the captain..."
captain: "2,000 pesos each"
me [silently], so we've gone from 2,000, minimum five passengers to 1,800 "for you guys", to 2,000 for the three of you? Guess diesel prices have dropped, but I think, overall, my situation has only improved... Tally-ho!
And so that's how Till, Hannah, and I ended up on board of the bangka Sweet Reeza May, having waved good bye to Marty and joined by a couple from the Australia's Northern Territory (where noone else is from, as I helpfully pointed out), and a German tourist filling the role of Sketchy Man - local superhero accompanied by a Filipino girl less than half his age... Of legal age though, I'm fairly certain, so maybe those crazy kids are really in love... Till, who exchanged a few words with our superhero in native German, may have been somewhat more skeptical as he referred to him simply as the "German sex tourist."
After all that negotiation, this was our boat for El Nido
The views of the Bacuit Archipelago on the way do not disappoint!
Our captain hanging out on the side of the boat
Reefs and islands of Bacuit Bay dominating the foreground in front of El Nido
Similar view at dusk, from atop a hill at my hotel, run by the most incredibly friendly couple I have yet to meet! In fact, the Makulay Lodge here in El Nido may very well be my favorite place of any of the lodgings I've tried in almost two years of traveling - highly recommended!
And a solitary patrol boat keeping the peace in the middle of the Bay
After exploring the bay, we decided to rent motorcycles and explore inland a little too
Till getting ready for a full day behind the wheel of a motorcycle
First stop was the Nagkalit-kalit Waterfalls
Hannah getting into the relaxation spirit
Hannah, Till, Ria, and I at the waterfalls. I met Ria the day before on our dive trip in Bacuit Bay - more on that in another post
Further along on the island - it's a beautiful beach you've got there, but I think your bridge might be missing?
Getting up in the mountains up North offered breath-taking views of the islands
Arguably the most famous site in the Philippines is the rice paddies in the North of Luzon island - I skipped those, but I'm not sure these ones are all that much worse!
Day 27: 22 Dec, 2009, 10:08 GMT
back in puerto princessa for my flight to chaotic manila for a nice shower and shave (it's been a while) and off to hong kong!
Posted by Alex on Monday, December 21, 2009
We pulled up to the bus terminal at 11:50 and were greeted by a fire-breathing monster who had assumed the form a of rambling 40-year old bus in its present incarnation, the latest of many, I can only assume. Inside was a lively swarm of people, packed well beyond the intended limits of the manufact... We pulled up to the bus terminal at 11:50 and were greeted by a fire-breathing monster who had assumed the form a of rambling 40-year old bus in its present incarnation, the latest of many, I can only assume. Inside was a lively swarm of people, packed well beyond the intended limits of the manufacturer, but quite at ease in spite of it, squeezing together a bit more to make a sliver of space for me on the bench in the front, inviting me be assimilated into the collective. I did.
The collective consisted of the driver, the conductor in charge of the passengers and cargo, some 50 locals varying in age from about six weeks to, well, elderly, and five of us tourists in the middle of it all - me, a German couple, and a couple from Chula Vista, CA - practically my parents' neighbors in nearby San Diego.
Some fifteen [uncomfortably hot and sticky] minutes later, the monster belched to life and rumbled off towards the jungle. Some 45 minutes earlier, I had just come back to my hostel, having learned that I would not be doing the dive trip I had come looking for (typhoon season!), which got me to trying to reach Sabang, which got me to the fire-breathing monster at the bus terminal. It's supposed to depart at noon, but tends to actually go when full - be it earlier or later, and since this was the last Sabanga bus for the day, I was feeling pretty good about being aboard as it pulled away.
Our driver cajoled the screeching beast along the twisty, surprisingly well paved roads for the next three hours until we reached the far side of Palawan island, and the tourist enclave of Sabang, home of Palawan's signature attraction - the underground river, UNESCO recognized. At one point, the asphalt had abruptly ended just as we passed a sister-beast, heading in the opposite direction, with a dozen people riding on the roof exchanging pleasantries with their comrades on our roof. The beasts merely snorted at each other...
There are no actual bus stops on Palawan, so to get off you just knock on the beast's metal roof, the bus stops and the conductor produces your luggage (or your pack of bamboo sticks... or your live chicken) from the smorgasbord of packages occupying the roof. Since there are no actual stops, everyone expects to be dropped off precisely at their front door, even if we had just stopped 30 meters earlier to drop off your neighbor - walking is so twentieth century! I kept a wary eye on the people and packages getting off, hoping to spot the guy who may decide to take off with my backpack - noone did... Noone took off with the ten packs of bamboo sticks we had loaded onto the roof along the way either - I calmly and pragmatically figured that anything which complicated the situation on the roof also served to reduce the odds of my backpack walking away, so I welcomed the addition of the bamboo.
About two hours into the trip, the beast, bright green in color, sputtered around a sharp corner, and a view of the bay greeted us - a yellow ring of sand hugging the coast where the stately bright green palm trees were coming down to dip their toes in the water, while somber green peaks were rising up meet the sky a bit further beyond the shore. Perfect. Picture-perfect, in fact!
So perfect, in fact, that I'd figured I'd come here to spend my birthday - if I can't be up in Seattle with my friends, I might as well be surrounded by beautiful pristine shoreline here on Palawan instead... A full day here on the beach, including a trip to the nearby caves, which host the underground river, on tap for tomorrow, before catching a boat up the coast for El Nido on Friday, to take in some scuba diving in these beautiful waters.
The locals have given the beast a name: jeepney.
The one on the left was my residence for the two nights in Sabang
The ubiquitous Filipino bangka boat. Low tide.
Hannah, Till, and I getting ready to head off for the Underground River
Have I mentioned the beautiful sandy beaches?
Monitor lizards, harmless, but a rather menacing 5 feet in length, patrol the entrance to the caves
While the monkeys stare at the lizards with mild bemusement
Going into the cave
The formations inside are pretty crazy... A little similar to Halong Bay, but unlike Vietnam, only natural lighting is allowed in, making for a much more peaceful and natural view
They name a lot of the individual formations - this is one is named Bacon... Because they are thinking of you, Lott!
All of us back at the Dab-Dab for dinner that evening
So, have I built up enough anticipation about the fire breathing monster of Palawan yet? A couple days from now, I'll be getting on the same bus/monster/jeepney here in El Nido and making the seven to nine hour journey back to Puerto Princessa to catch my flight back to Manila. I'm hoping to get to ride on the roof!
Day 26: 21 Dec, 2009, 10:31 GMT
decide to spend couple more days in perfect El Nido - amazingly friendly people and great sites. Manila 2mrw, then HK!
Day 23: 18 Dec, 2009, 11:18 GMT
sail nrth in banka boat thru gorgeus Palawan arcipelago Local superhero Sketchy Man along for 1st half A+ lunch: pizza
Day 21: 16 Dec, 2009, 09:05 GMT
celebrating my birthday by enjoying a view of palm trees and waves breaking ashore outside my beach front bungalow
Day 20: 15 Dec, 2009, 10:56 GMT
90 minute flight in the Philippines: $35, it's challenging Bolivia for title of least expensive country to travel in.
Posted by Alex on Monday, December 14, 2009
a few random thoughts as I've made my way down from Japan to the Philippines over the last day and a half...today's weatherSeattle: badTokyo (left) and San Diego (right): betterManila, Philippines: Just right!flying in luxury and styleAdmittedly, I am very much looking forward to my March 1st flight... a few random thoughts as I've made my way down from Japan to the Philippines over the last day and a half...
Tokyo (left) and San Diego (right): better
Manila, Philippines: Just right!
flying in luxury and style
Admittedly, I am very much looking forward to my March 1st flight on Qatar airways, a self-proclaimed 'five-star' airline. Cebu Pacific, a Filipino discount airline which got me from Japan to Manila last night, is admittedly nowhere near five-star status. However, having an exit row seat means plenty of leg room, and not having anyone sitting in the middle seat, means plenty of elbow room as well, so luxury and style! There are admittedly a few limitations to exit row seating - the seats don't recline and your bags all have to be overhead. There's also some limitations to discount airlines - food for purchase and a 15kg luggage limitation, but all in all, it was better than I might have expected!
highway bus vs. the gaijin
Before climbing aboard my Cebu Pacific Airbus, I needed to get from Nagoya to Osaka. This was accomplished by virtue of a Willer Express highway bus - the cheapest, and reasonably convenient, way I've found to get around Japan. At boarding time, they have a full list of all the passengers seats assigned and all. All the names are in Japanese... except for one: Aleksandr Slepak at the top. So, in order to board the bus, I chose to simply smile and point to my name. This was sufficient - no id checks, nobody even wanted to look at my confirmation printout... When you are the only 'gaijin' on the bus, Japan doesn't really want to deal with you, they just hope you won't cause any trouble. I didn't.
what you never expected
I enjoy wine. And I would've been disappointed to have left Mendoza, Argentina, the Napa Valley, or the South island of New Zealand without tasting some (I wasn't disappointed). Somehow, I don't really think of wine when coming to Japan though. Sake? Sure. A bar featuring 300 hundred different types of tequila? I'll introduce you to the Iranian guy running it in Tokyo... Organic French wine? Apparently, you should expect that as well!
A wine tasting in Nagoya, featured organically-grown French wine. The proprietor, dressed more for snowboarding than wine-tasting (but who makes several trips to France to select his wines yearly) may have been the best part...
the industrial metropolis of Osaka
My flight was actually at 7:20 at night, but I arrived in Osaka around 10:30 in the morning, so even after taking a couple of hours to navigate my way around the enormous conglomerate that is the Osaka train station in search of such things as Baggage Storage, tourist information, and lunch, I still had a few hours to play tourist.
The most striking feature dominating the Osaka skyline is the Umeda Sky Building:
The 173 meter building is apparently only the 7th tallest in Osaka, but certainly the most recognizable, with its pair of 40-floor towers coming together to support the floating terrace at the top. It's an exhilarating ride in the glass elevator to the top, where it's capped by an outdoor walkway (which is surprisingly less blasted by the wind than I would've expected). A few views of the building, and of Osaka from the top of the skyscraper:
Up close on a sunny afternoon
View from the top
The Yodo river pulses through the center of Osaka, and is spanned by a variety of bridges
Massive escalators lead to the top
looking extremely symmetrical inside
Industrial achievement, abstract art, or both?
Umeda building posing with a more industrial side of Osaka in the foreground
Just step outside your first airport in any city in SE Asia, and this is what you're confronted with: chaos, but somehow controlled. You are also hit in the face with warm vibrant air, the screams of touts trying to sell you everything under the sun, and more often than not, the scents of exotic cuisine. Manila is no exception, and the contrast is especially stark coming from Japan (Singapore may be renowned for its cleanliness, but Japan is certainly the cleanest country in the world).
My experience started when I landed around 10:30 at night and hailed a taxi to go to the nearest LRT (light rail) station. We arrived 15 minutes later, and chaos immediately ensued. The driver couldn't actually drop me off right in front of the station, as, with Christmas approaching, the market has taken over several adjacent streets, so I walked for 10 minutes through a sea of humanity buying, selling, screaming, arguing - living their chaos. Then I got to the station, discovered that it had actually closed two hours ago, and had to walk back... I do wonder what the cab driver thought of the foreigner who appeared out of the middle of nowhere, with a large backpack on, to hail his cab, but he got me to my hostel 30 minutes later for a price that's still less than an average subway ride in Tokyo.
Navigating around Manila is also a bit chaotic as there seems to always be traffic, and while there are street signs, there seems to be an alarming lack of numbers marked on any (well, most) of the buildings, so finding an address can take a while. While I wouldn't have expected my cabbie to have known anything about the Red Carabao hostel on Felix Huertas street, I was a little surprised when my driver ths morning also had to stop and ask for directions to get to the World Trade Center building, home of Manila's Chinese embassy. Fortunately, Manila seems to be overflowing with guards of various sorts, who, while seemingly not doing much else, are good for providing directions.
What do you get when you take a country, whose population is almost entirely indigenous, have Spain colonize it for a few centuries, then have the US come in and take over in the 20th century? Well, confusion, as far as I can tell. I suspect Manila is not actually representative of the rest of the country, but as that's all I've seen so far, here's what I've found:
- vast majority of signage on the streets (let's say 60%) is just in English. All advertising and street shops are posted in English. At the malls, you often hear English spoken as the first language behind the counters, even though the people on both side of the conversation are Filipino. Most people do speak I language I do not understand, so presumably Tagalog.
- some signs are in English and Tagalog. Safety warnings and instructions and such. I'll give these 35% maybe. That might be generous for the upscale shopping and business neighborhoods, like Makati.
- the remaining 5% is just Tagalog - you have to search for these. They are usually official government signs of some sort
No Spanish you'll note, however, Manila has a distinctly Latin American feel to it, and it's not just the near-tropical climate. The street names are all Spanish, and I can occasionally pick up a word or two in the Tagalog conversation that seems derived from the Spanish language. Catholicism is king, of course, and there's plenty of churches, while the jeepney, the preferred method of local transport, appears to be straight out of Central America central casting:
Santa Cruz vs. Santa Cruz
my hostel here in Manila is in the Santa Cruz neighborhood. When I arrived last night, it immediately struck me that it reminded me of something. This morning, it finally came to me - it reminds me of the hostel I stayed in in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, of course! Both used to be relatively upscale private houses that have been converted to a new life as hostels. The patently un-hostel-like fancy bathrooms are a dead give-away... Wonder what Santa Cruz in California's like?
I've heard loud-speakers at the malls here in Manila (in English, of course) reminding potential customers that Christmas is only 11 days away. Both Japan and the Philippines are fully decked out in Christmas decor - perfectly sensible in a deeply religious Catholic country like the Philippines, a bit strange in a largely secular, and Buddhist, if anything, country like Japan, but I'm only here to observe, not to judge...
The Umeda Building in Osaka wishing you a Merry Christmas
And a display on the street in Manila reminding you how the whole thing got started
This isn't holiday related, this is Gena and Cheburashka, from a Russian children's cartoon, I used to watch growing up. It wasn't even the best Russian children's cartoon, which makes it appearing today in Japan even odder...
Day 18: 13 Dec, 2009, 17:18 GMT
it's nice to be back in the midst of contained chaos that is se asia! Also a lot warmer here than it was in japan...
Day 18: 13 Dec, 2009, 09:44 GMT
managing minor website disaster @Kansai airport: fixed, but cant upload new file on airport network! I didnt really go to Africa..
Day 18: 13 Dec, 2009, 02:59 GMT
couple of days of mongol rally reminiscing with joel in nagoya, now on to a half day in osaka before flying off south!
Day 17: 12 Dec, 2009, 10:08 GMT
website progress: we now have photos! It's not quite the final version (which is to import pictures automatically), but it's a start!
Day 17: 12 Dec, 2009, 06:29 GMT
sushi plus converyor belt = excellent!
Day 16: 11 Dec, 2009, 10:32 GMT
back at Cafe Cornelius here in Nagoya almost a year after watching Joel, Taka, and Marina launch the place!
Day 15: 10 Dec, 2009, 22:57 GMT
2 days in tokyo: saw friends, fixed bugs in website, saw a bunch of skyscrapers. Now on to nagoya for more of the same!
Posted by Alex on Thursday, December 10, 2009
I've added a couple links on the main blog page already, but let's have an official announcement of sorts - I now have a travel website: http://www.safety3rdblog.com/. I had wanted a site that would link together a map of where I'm traveling, the blog, and photos from along the way in some sort of a... I've added a couple links on the main blog page already, but let's have an official announcement of sorts - I now have a travel website: http://www.safety3rdblog.com/. I had wanted a site that would link together a map of where I'm traveling, the blog, and photos from along the way in some sort of an intelligent fashion. Unfortunately, I ran out of time before I could add the photo functionality in, so, I suppose, I'll just have to post links to any future photo albums to the blog. However, if you want to work on your geography based on random places where Alex has been, it's all there for you - so try it, and let me know if it's broken (because on occasion it is...)!
As background, my inspiration was the map sites that the Mongol Rally and Rickshaw Run people had for those events. Our site from the 2008 Rickshaw Run is here: http://rickshawrun08w.theadventurists.com/index.php?mode=team&sub=display&pagemode=ontheroad&name=SafetyThird. I chose to use the Rickshaw Run as my prototype, and here's my version: http://www.safety3rdblog.com/india.php. It's in no way perfect, or even finished, but I like to think it's an improvement on what we ended up with from the adventurists...
Posts without pictures are boring, so a couple of shots from Tokyo:
Megumi, David, and baby Chloe
A skyscraper in Shinjuku, Tokyo
Temples in the sun this morning in Asakusa, Tokyo
Posted by Alex on Wednesday, December 9, 2009
So, I was in San Diego last week. I had my camera with me (because Whistler had found it after I had lost it). I also had a new camera, which was to be the replacement for the lost one. So now, I needed to send the new one back. $8 shipping seemed like a reasonable fine to pay for losing my camera, ... So, I was in San Diego last week. I had my camera with me (because Whistler had found it after I had lost it). I also had a new camera, which was to be the replacement for the lost one. So now, I needed to send the new one back. $8 shipping seemed like a reasonable fine to pay for losing my camera, but since I had a few days, I figured I'd try San Diego craiglist to see if I can get rid of it without having to pay for shipping. So I posted and lo and behold, early the following morning, I had a response from an Angelina Mandy:
i am intrested in your sale kindly mail me back if still available..........
Angelina sounded just a bit fishy, but, why not, I informed 'her' that yes, the camera was still available. Follow-up response:
Thanks for your response.I am located at Waco,tx but presently on Business trip abroad,i gat my cell phone stolen,if not would av rung you,This Item is a replica of what i want for my Brother who is in abroad at the mo. sorting out his project â?¦I will add shipping charges confirm from http://www.usps.com for international shipping making it a total of $250.00 â?¦â?¦.I will make the total payment if youâ??ll kindly help me handle the shipping.You can send me the paypal info and iâ??ll make the payment right away.
Now we know it's a scam, of course, and, these days, I get amused by scammers. I'm not actually sure exactly how this one works, but Paypal does generally operate on the 'protect the buyer, screw the seller' ethos, and craigslist specifically warns not to give out your PayPal info on its scams page, even though I'm not actually sure what our 'angelina' would be able to do with the email address that my PayPal account is registered under, however I didn't want to find that out, but, as I said, I was feeling a little bored, so late the following evening I replied:
That sounds wonderful, unfortunately, I do not have a PayPal account - but, instead, you can just send me your bank account number, and I will authorize my bank to transfer the $250 from your account.
Additionally, I've checked a little with my intelligence contacts, and you have been recommended to me as a very trustworthy person, so I hope you will be willing to help us, as I've been placed in charge of dispersing the funds of the deposed royal family of Myanmar. So, once you send me your bank account number, I have been authorized to deposit an additional sum of 1,000,000 US dollars in your account. The money is perfectly legal, and this is simply a way of preventing the military dictatorship, currently in charge of the country, from illegitimately stealing the royal family's funds. In exchange for your assistance in holding the money in your account for a period of 30 days, you will be rewarded with 10% of the total sum, or $100,000 US dollars.
Look forward to hearing from you,
PS. I had a good laugh at your message, hopefully you have one too, before you fuck off.
I was feeling pretty good about my composition skills, and felt 'angie' could learn something for the her future scams about not always having the inheritance money come from Africa. Sadly, however, my angelina was apparently too busy managing other scams out of the Lagos, Nigeria (I presume) central office, to play along, so the only response I got said:
its a serious buyer....ok
Ahh, 'angie', you are ruining all of entertainment... Oh well, fortunately, I now have Japan's Pachinko parlor Enjoy Spaces to keep me entertained - I just added a few pictures to the last post about Tokyo, which will enlighten you on Enjoy Spaces, Tommy Lee Jones' adventures in Japan, and Buddhist temples, among other things...
Tags: San Diego
Day 13: 8 Dec, 2009, 12:58 GMT
back in Japan - looking forward to seeing friends, good Japanese food (say sushi, on, say, a conveyor belt), and the Philippines
Posted by Alex on Tuesday, December 8, 2009
I'm back in Tokyo! The city of pachinko machines, unnecessarily complicated subways, and home of Sakura hostel, where I stayed before and am staying now. So Tokyo is still much too weird to actually feel like home, but it does feel fairly familiar, even a little comfortable perhaps. The trip over he... I'm back in Tokyo! The city of pachinko machines, unnecessarily complicated subways, and home of Sakura hostel, where I stayed before and am staying now. So Tokyo is still much too weird to actually feel like home, but it does feel fairly familiar, even a little comfortable perhaps.
The trip over here was started with damn near torrential downpours in LA and San Diego (an event that the American Airlines ground crews are entirely unprepared for judging by the fact that my checked bag arrived still wet, twelve hours later in Tokyo). And, of course, I got to re-confirm that 12 hour flights still suck, even if JAL makes it a bit less intolerable than the AA alternative.
Random things I've found/remembered in my first few hours in Tokyo:
- it's true, the Japanese are wholly paranoid about germs. I saw plenty of face masks last year, there's even more of them now, in the face of Avian/swine/etc. flus. Including the guy that was sitting next to me on the flight.
- on the subway, I was reminded of the fact that the people here are either sleep deprived, or just really like to nap in positions I would find wholly uncomfortable while on the subway. Young, old, men, women, everybody's taking naps on the train.
- the iPhones are coming! the iPhones are coming! This one is particularly painful as I left mine behind in San Diego, but it is nice to see some iPhones supplementing the wholly ubiquitous Japanese phones. Not sure if iPhone 3G was even out yet when I was here a year ago, but I certainly didn't see any.
I'll come up with a few more witty observations before I leave Japan, I'm sure, in the mean time, I'm only here for a few days - three nights in Tokyo, two more in Nagoya (meeting up with friends in both places), then making my way down to Osaka for a flight down to Manila, and the tropical warm archipelago that is the Philippines. Started reading the Philippines guide book on the flight over - I wish I had more than 10 days to see the place! Looks like it'll just take it's rightful place along all the other countries that I would like to come back to eventually.
A few pictures:
Sakura Hostel in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo
Asakusa is more famous for the huge temple dominating the neighborhood
The Pachniko parlors seem to be the major attraction for the locals though
The Sunshine Pachinko parlor - your 'Enjoy Space!' I love the Japanese attempts at English translations... People do seem to be ready to enjoy the space though as there was a line of some 20 people waiting outside at 9:45. Presumably, this particular Enjoy Space opens its doors at 10AM
Lively or Apathetic? Well, I just don't know, it sounds more like one of those HSBC ads I see at airports the world over. Sidewalk art murals outside the hostel
Tommy Lee Jones looking very serious as he tries to sell you on Japanese soft drinks... Weird...
Day 13: 8 Dec, 2009, 08:32 GMT
so i'm back in japan, which is still fairly cold. The flight taught me that i still don't like 12 hour flights!
Day 12: 7 Dec, 2009, 18:49 GMT
past security and some vague form of immigration and i'm now staring at my jal plane for tokyo
Day 12: 7 Dec, 2009, 07:25 GMT
its 30 degrees in seattle; 56 here in san diego; and 84 in the philippines. Good thing i'm off for asia tomorrow!
Day 9: 4 Dec, 2009, 04:17 GMT
a four day stoppover visiting with family in San Diego before heading out to Asia again!
Posted by Alex on Thursday, December 3, 2009
So, after getting ourselves (and the 7 dogs) thoroughly satiated with a Thanksgiving meal, it was time for a different Thanksgiving tradition: Whistler! As a matter of fact, Theo and Tina, being clearly much more hardcore than any of the rest of us, drove right up there Thursday night after dinner. ... So, after getting ourselves (and the 7 dogs) thoroughly satiated with a Thanksgiving meal, it was time for a different Thanksgiving tradition: Whistler! As a matter of fact, Theo and Tina, being clearly much more hardcore than any of the rest of us, drove right up there Thursday night after dinner. Chris, Amanda, Tanya, Lott, Mara, and I joined them up there the following day, after taking a somewhat more leisurely drive Friday morning. Upon arriving, we were introduced to some astounding statistics:
- the Whistler resort opened this year a week before Thanksgiving, which is their regular opening weekend
- they opened so early because by November 20th, the mountain had already experienced over 500cm of snowfall!
- I can't remember what the previous record for November was (or what it was for any month), but Whistler set a new record for snowfall for any month before Thanksgiving
- in fact, the 520+ cms of snow they had received by the time we showed up was already more than half of the average annual snowfall that the mountain receives!
So, we were, understandably, pretty excited! To celebrate, we grabbed a few drinks and all climbed into the outdoor hot tub, naturally... Well, first, we made dinner, actually, where Mara discovered a rather amusing label on a Canadian carton of milk:
Homo Milk for the win!
I don't have any pictures from the hot tub, and I really can't see how pictures from that hot tub would've ended well for the cameras, so we'll just skip to the following morning, when we all woke up a little groggy at 7 in the morning, but were quite pleased to be greeted with the sight of even more fresh snow outside:
First thing I saw out the window in the morning was, well... snow!
And more snow outside...
So the build-up was quite exciting. The day on the mountain itself didn't turn out quite as well - it was nice to ride through the fresh snow, but unfortunately, a lot of the mountain was closed due to the high winds at the top, and in a lot of places, the fresh powder was covering over frozen ice underneath. However, Whistler is a huge mountain, and you can have a lot of fun no matter what, so maybe it could've been a little more perfect, but I can't complain:
Lott carving through the fresh snow in the morning
Theo being one with the terrain park
After lunch we got on the new Peak2Peak chair to cross over from Whistler to Blackcomb, watching the gondolas almost get lost in the low clouds before emerging on the other side
Some of the gondolas have a hole (well, window) in the bottom. We waited for one of those and got some pretty views of the snow-covered trees underneath
And then disaster struck!
Well, disaster is admittedly a pretty strong word. What actually struck me was more of carelessness when I took the picture above, put my camera away, and went off for a ride through the terrain park. Yes, things have a magical way of going wrong in the terrain park, but that didn't happen. What did happen was that I missed a step - the one about zipping up the pocket after placing the camera there. And all of a sudden, at the bottom of the run, I discovered that I no longer had a camera, so carelessness! We went back up and took the same run again searching for the camera, and finding absolutely nothing... But! There are pictures in this post, so the camera wasn't lost forever! I had actually already gone ahead and ordered a replacement camera, when I got a call from Whistler informing me that my camera had been found! So, a day later, I had my camera back, and we get this post with lots of pictures. Admittedly, some of the pictures you're actually seeing are from Tina's and Amanda's cameras... So, after all that crazy excitement, a couple more shots from later on Saturday:
Having a drink after the day on the hill. Tina told us all to be ninjas... This is as close as we get.
After dinner later that evening. Most sporting funky scarves...
And after all that, Tina, Theo, and I headed back down to Seattle. Everyone else stayed around for another day, which worked out amazingly well for me as the camera showed up on Sunday... So, a few more pictures from the trip: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2042884&id=1046387715&l=588837c558
Day 6: 1 Dec, 2009, 12:17 GMT
last day in Seattle - off to sunny San Diego tomorrow
Day 3: 28 Nov, 2009, 17:16 GMT
riding through powder in Whistler
Posted by Alex on Friday, November 27, 2009
- "So you killed a guy, then moved cities, and killed another guy? You gotta stop doing this shit, man - they are gonna catch you and put you in the fucking chair!"I think Seattle is a perfectly safe city, but as I've been walking around a lot more lately, occasionally I now get to overhear an inter... - "So you killed a guy, then moved cities, and killed another guy? You gotta stop doing this shit, man - they are gonna catch you and put you in the fucking chair!"
I think Seattle is a perfectly safe city, but as I've been walking around a lot more lately, occasionally I now get to overhear an interesting conversation - the above was one end of a phone exchange. I reflected that it's nice that I wasn't walking anywhere particularly near the guy on the other end of the call. Tina, Bailey, and Brodie felt the conversation needed to be shared with the blog (which we have, admittedly, been neglecting a bit lately), so here it is - an update on the excitement in my life these days!
Speaking of Tina, Bailey, and Brodie, we were having this conversation on the way to Mt. Baker last Sunday, because winter has shown up in Washington State early this year, bringing with it amazing amounts of early snow, and prompting all the local resorts to open operations at record-setting early dates. So, off we went, and wonderful it was! The whole mountain was already open, hardly any lift lines (as is the norm at Baker) and lots of fresh powder, including 11 fresh inches overnight. Yes, the visibility could've been better, but I don't think any of us were about to complain! I've recently concluded that the winter rather sucks in Seattle, what with all the rain, and cold, and wind, but the snow in the mountains does generally make it worthwhile:
All four of us on the lift. Baker finally has quad chairs everywhere....
Tina relaxing in the snow
Bailey plowing on
And beautiful white powder everywhere!
And then Thanksgiving came, bringing with friends, dogs, and, well, lots of delicious food! We were camped out at Jon and Janna's house for about 24 hrs eating, drinking, watching football, playing games, and entertaining the seven dogs in attendance:
Jon, focused on the meat... wonderful, delicious meat...
And that would be a turkey. Wrapped in bacon, of course. Lott's excited
The 12+ hour smoked ham
Meat, as seen through the wine
Alex sharing a moment with Ru
and Ann sharing a couch with three (of the seven) dogs
And tomorrow, in the name of healthiness after all that food, I suppose, or maybe just in the name of the 544cm of snow that they've already received this year, it's off to Whistler!
Day 1: 26 Nov, 2009
Amazing Thanksgiving dinner with friends in Seattle - now getting ready to hit the road again!
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