Cambodia Journals

I spent about 15 days in Cambodia, where I met Jay and Gibby in Siem Reap, marveled at the glory of Angkor Wat, then headed down to Sihanoukville, over to Kampot and Kep, and ended in the crazy capital Pnohm Penh.  I didn’t write very much there, but now wishing I would’ve because it is one of my favorite countries I’ve been to.  I’ve never seen so many smiles in my life anywhere else in the world.  After everything the Khmer people have been through, especially the Pol Pot Regime, they seem very warm-hearted and resilient.

On the other hand, they are also very hard to understand; as Serge Thion portrays in his book Watching Cambodia:  “The country is like a labyrinth. . .But there’s no final word, no hidden truth at the end.  That would require entering all the gates of the labyrinth at the same time.”  From my short-lived experience there, to me, the Khmers are a mystical people.  Of course they are living in the modern world, but it’s as if they transported from the distant past into it.  This might have something to do with their strong beliefs in reincarnation and superstition.  There’s a very supernatural quality about them, something almost untouchable or at least unfathomable through western eyes.

And the music.  The music is a great example of this mysticism.  I picked up a Cambodian rock box-set about a year and a half ago, and every time I listen to it I’m taken to another plane of audio existence.  In the late 60s and up till the Khmer Rouge years, dozens of Khmer artists shaped rock music into an almost tribal, yet ethereal mix with traditional Khmer rhythms and scales.  Add on the garage-rock rawness of the recordings and it’s something completely rewarding. 

One of my favorite moments of the trip was when we travelled from Sihanoukville to Kampot in a hour-long taxi.  The driver was playing some CDs on his stereo and I asked him if he had any Sinn Sinsamouth, the king of Cambodian rock.  No doubt he did.  He just smiled and popped the CD in.  There we were, cruising with the ghost of modern Khmer music as a soundtrack to the idyllic scenes and people of the southern stretched countryside.  Plowing water buffalo, palm trees lining the horizon, half-naked children staring into distances, and the King crooning over it all.  It was a drive I’ll never forget.

This first entry was written in Siem Reap, but is actually about southern Laos.

 

Siem Reap, Cambodia – July 31, 2010

Got up yesterday at 6:45 am to catch a cross-border bus to Siem Reap.  But first, let me tell you about Pakse, Laos.  I rented a 150cc Suzuki motorbike and rode around the Bolaven Plateau, a large rural area full of waterfalls and untouched countryside spotted with small farming villages.  It was incredible.  I had no idea how to get there because the edge is about 70 km outside of Pakse, so the kind lady at the motorbike rental gave me a map and just pointed down the main street and said, “Go this way.”  OK, simple enough. 

So I hopped on and set off through the congested motorbike traffic, which is more akin to a line of ants stopping, swerving and merging into one another.  I had little experience riding a motorbike, but I learned very quickly going through the no-right-of-way and no hesitation swarms of the gasoline clusters.  The fuel tank was a little under half full when I left so about 40 km outside of town I stopped at a filling station.  I was greeted by three shyly smiling children waiting at the pump.  A small, about 10 yr old girl with long black hair pulled out the nozzle and put in 20,000 kip worth to fill it up (3 liters at $1 each).  The other kids just stood there looking at me with curious intent.  It was completely quiet there, a peaceful quality you would never associate with a filling station.  I gave her the money and with a quick ‘Kop jai!’ (thank you), I set off down the road again.  Although I had the map, I still had no idea where I was going or what I would run into along the way, but I didn’t care.  The sun on my arms, road breeze on my face, and the grass hut lined road was all I needed to enjoy the complete sense of unknown freedom.  I couldn’t help gunning the throttle every now and then while letting out a loud hoot and holler to let the world ahead know I was coming.  This is what Kerouac must have felt as he aimlessly hitched across America in the 50s.  I had to honk and swerve around dogs sleeping in the road, cattle leisurely walking across, and the occasional pig heavily trotting along. 

I was completely free.

 

Coast of Kep, Cambodia – Rabbit Island Beach – August 8, 2010

My paper is bright white today with clear sunshine on my chest and sand under my toes.  Almost a week since the last entry because I haven’t had much down time.  Not a bad thing because every moment has been ridiculously beautiful.  To back up a little, Jay and Gibby arrived at the airport in Siem Reap and I was there to pick them up with Kresna, our tuk-tuk driver.  I met Kresna that morning in the guesthouse I stayed at.  Turns out, he was also the young man who was sleeping on the pool table and watching midnight soap operas while I was on the lobby computer the night before.

I told him I wanted change guesthouses and go to go to the 13th Villa Guesthouse.  I figured he worked at the one I stayed at the night before, but found out he had no affiliation with that guesthouse, they only let him sleep on the pool table.  Interesting.  Anyways, he didn’t know where the 13th Villa was, but there was something about him that told me he was a cool guy.  So I showed him a map and we set off.  Keep in mind, this is the place that Jay had booked on the internet for the three of us to stay at. 

We headed along the Siem Reap river, bypassing small tin-roof shacks with people selling mostly fruits, drinks and cigarettes.  After driving around for about 30 minutes and winding down muddy alleys looking for it, we finally found the 13th Villa.  It was dark inside and I asked a man about booking a room and he said they were closed.  I told him I had a friend who booked a room here over the internet, but he just said, “Sorry, we are closed for remodeling.”  So Jay booked a room for a non-existent guesthouse and they were supposed to pick him and Gibby up from the airport later that day.  So, Kresna, being the great soul that he is (I knew it), said he could bring me to a better guesthouse that was closer to the old market area. 

We went on down the river again and arrived at the #10 Lodge Guesthouse.  I told Kresna I needed to go to the airport to meet my friends and he said no problem, he could take me there and pick them up.  Anyways, when we got to the airport it was a hilarious scene.  About 15 Khmers, all dressed in formal wear, were waiting at the exit holding up placards with various Korean names and tour groups.  At least I knew the plane from Korea hadn’t arrived yet.  And of course they would be there, because Koreans almost always travel in huge groups doing the safe, comfortable, “mega-tours”.

So, to fit in, I got some paper and a pen and made my own sign in Hanguel, complete with my buddies’ names on them.  They finally arrived and of course were the last ones to get out because, as some of you know, Koreans take no time in getting off an airplane.  I knew it was the first sight of the next nine days to come of debaucherous enlightenment.

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Laos Journals

I spent about ten days traveling from the north all the way to the south of Laos.  Most of the time I was alone, except for some cool English guys I met in Vang Vieng.  Laos is the most peaceful and quaint country I’ve been to.  Time seems to slow down when you’re there and the people are very humble and kind. 

 

Luang Namtha Bus Station – July 23rd, 2010

Left Jinghong at 6:40 this morning on a bus going across the border into Laos and arriving in  Luang Namtha.  While waiting for the bus to leave I met a man from Singapore named Roland that was also taking the same bus, but he was heading to Huayxai, and then on to Thailand.  He was telling me that the food sucks in Laos, but the people and scenery are great. 

The road to Mengla, a sleepy town on the Chinese side of the border was more like a wash since it was downpouring the whole time and there were some areas where the cig-smoking driver had to swerve to miss a fallen rock slide.  On the television, he was screening back to back Jet Li flicks for the duration of the seven hour trip.  There were only two other foreigners on the bus who were French, but they were in the back so I nodded off, sometimes being jolted awake by the blare of the driver’s horn. 

Outside my window, we passed heavy jungle vegetation with big groves of bamboo, palms, and thick undergrowth.  Rice terraces marked the hills like green steps leading up to the gray sky.  We finally arrived at the border town of Mohan to go through the checkpoint and as soon as I stepped off the bus, there were older Chinese women holding folds of Laos Kip (money) saying, “Take your money!  Take your money!”  Yeah right.  When have you trusted a complete stranger who says that?  I went through the Chinese immigration smoothly and caught an 8 yuan taxi to the Laos border-check.  It’s important to point out that the Chinese side was a brand new, high ceiling, tile floored building that looked as if it was just built.  Yet the Laos side had much more character.  The building was more like a glorified shack and as I was filling out my Visa on Arrival forms (37 USDs), the man behind the counter was busy typing away on a dusty computer that looked like it was from the mid-nineties. 

 

Luang Prabang Restaurant on the Mekong River – July 24th, 2010

I was sitting at the Luang Namtha bus station as I was writing the last entry but was cut-off when my bus to Luang Prabang pulled up.  I decided to skip the stay in Luang Namtha because of my deadline to get to Siem Reap to meet my buddies Jay and Gibby, who were coming in from South Korea.  So it’s going to be a mad dash to get there and I’d asked for advice from two different veteran travellers I’ve met on the way.  One, an Irishman named Brian, told me I could get stuck for weeks in Laos trying to get down to Cambodia because it’s the wet season and the roads in Laos can be pretty treacherous, causing the buses to stop if it rains heavy enough.  He suggested cutting through to Thailand via the border in Vientiene because the roads in Thailand are much better, then crossing from outside Bangkok into Siem Reap. 

On the other hand, I asked a Frenchman at the Mekong Cafe in Jinghong about my dilemma and he said going the Laos route would be much better.  In his words, “If the roads are flooded, they’re flooded.  It doesn’t matter where.”  He reckons I could get from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap in 7 days.  Who do you trust?  An Irishman or a Frenchman?  Besides, I already paid $37 to get my tourist Visa for Laos (which I might say is the coolest looking Visa I’ve seen so far: full-page, complete with handwriting and a signature from the official himself) and I think it would be a waste to only stay a few days.  Plus, I’ve already been to Thailand and as of now, I can say I prefer Laos over it. 

There’s also the adventure factor to think about.  Going through Thailand will probably not be as exciting as going through Laos because here, there’s the unknown and that’s what makes me want to travel most.  So, in the end, it’s not a question of trusting either man, it’s a decision of instinct.  I’m going through Laos.

Now, I just went through a ten-hour bus ride from LNT to LPB and it was awesome.  I took a VIP bus, which is merely a regular coach bus but is a luxury compared to the retro jalopies that most locals take, and hauled through the mountainous jungle.  Through hair-raising turns and bumpy dirt roads, we passed small grass huts with children walking beside the road looking up at the bus as if they’d never seen one before.  A younger local girl sat beside me the whole way and kept falling asleep on my shoulder.  At first, I tried to push her away but after many attempts to no avail, I gave up and fell asleep too.

 

Barely in Vang Vieng – July 25th, 2010

Crazy day today.  Caught the 2pm minibus (van) from LPB to Vang Vieng.  It was only supposed to take 5-6 hours, but about two hours into the trip we came upon a long succession of cars backed up along the mountain road.  After not moving for about 20 minutes, many of us got out and started to walk up to see what was happening.  It rained heavily the night before and there was about 2 inches of mud all along the road.  When I finally reached the beginning of the traffic jam, the problem came into view.  A semi-truck was stuck in a large mudslide that came down off the side of the mountian.  Now I knew what the Irishman was talking about.  There was also a backhoe trying to dig out the mud from under the truck while hundreds of other people, locals and travellers, looked on.

After about an hour of watching this, the truck backed up and tried to plow through the mud, but again became stuck.  Then, the backhoe started to come around the back of the truck and put its arm down to push it through from the rear.  To the side of the truck was a cliff dropping about 50 meters down into a ravine and the only image I could think of was the truck tumbling down the side.  With luck, the backhoe successfully pushed it through to everyone’s applause.  We went back and piled into the van to start moving again, but since we were so far back in line, it took another two hours to get up to where the truck was.  Every car, bus, and van had to try and gun it through the half foot of mud that was still across the road.  When it finally came to our turn it was well past dusk and there was about 15 or so local men who were pushing each vehicle through the mud to get to the other side.  We all watched in anticipation as each car weaved and slid down towards the cliff, barely making across to safety.  Finally, we were up next. 

The driver floored it and we immediately started swerving towards the cliff, everyone’s knuckles white from gripping the seats.  We came to a stop, shortly relieved, in the middle of the muck and all the local men surrounded the vehicle.  It was a bit terrifying having all these strangers looking into a van full of tourists, and I couldn’t help but think they might try and get some money out of us.  On the count of three the driver gunned it again and the men started heaving and pushing as mud sprayed in their faces; some of them even slipping and falling down.  This is it! I thought, We’re going down!  The van moved even closer to the edge and everyone was screaming, C’mon! C’mon! Go! Go! Go!

Breathing sighs of relief, we made it to the dry side.  The local men didn’t ask for anything, they just smiled and turned around to help out the next vehicle in line.  They were completely caked in mud from head to toe.  Amazing.  Like I said, complete hospitality.  All in all, what was supposed to be a 5 or 6 hour trip, ended up taking about 9 hours.  It was a perfect example of the unknown happening.  I didn’t care, I was just grateful I wasn’t at the bottom of the cliff.

 

Pakse, Southern Laos – July 29th, 2010

I had to get the hell out of Vang Vieng.  As one guy described it, “A Disneyland for twenty-somethings.”  It truly is and I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.  I met five British guys who I ended up staying and partying with.  Went tubing down the Nam Song river which is probably one of the most insane/ridiculous things I’ve ever experienced.  Free shots of whiskey in bottles stuffed with dead King Cobras, rope swings from trees flying off into the rushing river, and drunk backpackers straggling down the river on tractor tubes.  Since it’s wet season, the river was flowing fast and strong and I believe anywhere else in the world jumping into, let alone tubing, a river would be unheard of in this situation.  It is also said that if you don’t get off your tube at the right time, there is a waterfall near the end where you could kiss your wet ass goodbye.

Supposedly a couple days before I arrived, a Laotian man, whom owned one of the riverside bars, swung off one of the swings and never came up from the water.  They found his body a few kilometers downstream.  I guess on an average year, 5 or 6 people meet the same fate.  So, with that said, yes, I did partake for two days in the outrageous mayhem.  My body was bruised and beat up, the soreness begging me to catch a bus and get the hell outta dodge.  I left on the third day and never looked back.  My advice, do it once and you’re gloriously stupid.  Do it twice and you’re swimming with the grim reaper.  Although there were a few backpackers working there who swore they had been tubing for over 300 some consecutive days.  Whatever floats your tube, dude.

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Professional Procrastination for Southeast Asia

These are the words of the world’s worst procrastinator when it comes to writing.  How long has it been?  Almost 8 months?!  You could probably say that’s long enough to drop my account, but here I am, back and ready to do some much-needed back peddling on Living in the Red.

Where to begin?  First, I’ve got some handwritten journals from my summer trip to Southeast Asia that I’m digging to share.  So, without further ado and haste, here you go.

I started the 6 week journey in mid-July and had a very loose itinerary for wearing out my shoes from Yunnan province, South China, down to Laos and on to Cambodia, then back up through Vietnam and across again into China through the Guangxi province.  For only six weeks and that much ground to cover, I should’ve known it was going to be far too much to handle.  And it was my first time travelling alone for an extended period of time, although I was never without friends and fellow travellers.  Here’s my first journal entry.

 

Dali, Yunnan province, South China – July 17th, 2010

I arrived in Dali yesterday with my friend and fellow Aussie co-worker Bernie.  We flew from Shenzhen to Kunming instead of taking the originally planned 26 hour bus ride.  Needless to say, the two-hour flight was much more comfortable than 26 hours of smelly feet and disaster driving on the smoky sleeper buses (yes, you can smoke on some).

After getting to Kunming, we took a five-hour, 138 yuan ($20) bus ride northwest to Xiaguang.  All along the highway we passed small farming villages scattered throughout a long valley.  The houses were painted on the sides with various pictures of cartoon-like dinosaurs, mushrooms and potatoes.  The first leg of the trip were the dinosaurs, then, after about 70 km or so of the reptiles, the mushrooms came with their bright red and whites.  I started to ponder the meaning of these designs and I couldn’t help but think the inhabitants of these small houses were known to each other as the “Mushroom People” or “The Potato Gang”, something to that effect.  There were also houses with circular emblems painted with bright blues, reds, and yellows that reminded me of Central American art.  These villages belonged to the Bai, an ethnic minority who dress in traditional blue clothing that is as simple as it is sharp.  The women wore various styles of wrapped hats with embroidered flowers.  The men also wore blue hats that reminded me of the workers’ hats commonly associated with communism.  Between the highway and their small homes, you could see them tending their corn and rice fields which were dotted with water buffalo and scarecrows. 

After about six hours, we finally came up Dali.  The old town of Dali sits between a steep range of mountains and China’s second largest lake Erhai-hu, which is long and stretches out for 50 or so km.  The town itself is surrounded by a square wall with one traditional styled gate on each of the four sides.

Almost forgot, even though our bus said Dali as the destination, it actually only took us to Xiaguan, which is also known as New Dali.  Bernie and I got off the bus wondering how the hell to get to Old Dali because in his edition of the backpacker’s glorified brochure, Lonely Planet, it didn’t show exactly how to get there.  I asked the clerk at the bus station and she said to take the local bus #2 and pointed us in the direction of the stop.  We found the bus stop, but the sign didn’t list a #2 bus.  Bernie and I, in our broken Chinese, tried to ask some locals where the bus was and they told us to stay there at the same stop.  Finally, after some wild body-language attempts and laughter, a woman in her thirties came up to us and asked if we needed help in clear english.  Turns out she was also an english teacher from one of the local schools.  She said we had to transfer from bus #4 to bus #2 at a different stop and even got on the bus with us to show us.  The more I travel around Asia, the more I’ve learned that if you’re lost or aren’t sure where to go, the best thing to do is just look as completely stupid and lost as you can and eventually help will show up (may not be wise in certain areas of Cambodia).  The Chinese are very hospitable to foreigners, which makes it easier in spite of the language barrier.

Back to Dali.  We checked into a hostel called “The Hump,” which is one of the nicest I’ve stayed in and for only 30 yuan a night for a dorm ($4).  I met my other co-worker and fellow American Blake there too. 

 

Jinghong, South Yunnan, China – July 22nd, 2010

Ended up staying five nights at The Hump because it was such a chill place.  The main bar area even had a band stage with a drum kit.  The first night I stayed there, there was a musician playing named Nevada (John) who was originally from Minnesota.  He played a few country and blues numbers and I asked the manager if it was cool to play a few songs.  “Of course,” he said.  “It would even be encouraged.”

So, after a couple more songs, Nevada invited me up on stage to play.  I ended up peforming another night there and filled out a six-song set including a couple of my originals and Bowie’s “Man Who Sold The World” and Dylan’s “Stuck in The Middle With You”.  The only kind of dissapointing thing was I later found a sign posted at the hostel that read you could play and stay for free, yet I didn’t even get a free drink while I was there, let alone get a night knocked off the bill.  Oh well, can’t complain at $4/night and it was a pleasure just playing for a completely random audience of people from all over the world.

On the third day in Dali, I rented a mountain bike and rode half-way up Lake Erhai, then slowly meandered my way back through a long row of old villages that hugged the water’s edge.  The villagers were mostly traditionally dressed in their light and dark blue simple styles, with the women wearing flower embroidered sashes around their hips and a tartan/flannel styled matching blue and white head-dress.  The narrow winding streets were mostly car-less, with children playing and shouting, including some young boys carrying a plastic M-16 and unloading a few, fake lip-blattering rounds into me as I rode by.  I laughed and clutched my ribs; they got quite a kick out of that.

Although the village along the lake appears to be one big town, I found out it was actually a string of small villages lined up along the water.  Every 10 or 20 minutes of riding south along streets, I came across a village center: a crowded intersection full of farmers and the elderly selling and bartering green onions, cabbage, corn and a lush and colorful variety of other produce. 

As I was riding east towards the lake, I found a dead-end where the road led to a trail ending in the water.  I stopped to take a few pictures (I lost all my Yunnan photos on my separate flash card somewhere in Laos) and I noticed this short, hunched-over old woman with a cane lurching towards me.  I couldn’t help but stare in amazement because she looked to be at least 90 or so years old.  She kept coming with her head down the whole way and as soon as she was close to the corner, she reached down and tried to move a brick cinder-block with her free hand.  I was frozen in the moment and thought to myself, Should I help her? But for some reason, I couldn’t get myself to go over to her.  I thought maybe I would scare her, of course because she probably doesn’t see too many white faces, and I was mesmorized as she ever so slowly, inch by inch, moved this cinder-block around the corner of the building to a different spot.  Then she carefully turned around and slid her feet back down the walk-way to her door.  It’s still a lucid memory in my mind, the image of someone who would normally be in a nursing home somewhere hooked up to a few tubes, staring mindlessly at afternoon talk-shows, yet she was out here scooting around with her cane and doing some “heavy” labor.  Actually, it’s something I’ve noticed about China: the elderly really get out and do activities or they hang out with other older people in the parks, playing card games or 麻將(Mahjiang).  Their children  take care of them and live with them, so a nursing home is nearly impossible to find.  – End Entry

 

DALI STREET RAIN – July 20th, 2010

The following is a kind of poem I wrote while waiting out the rain after I rode back from the lake villages.  I sat under a store awning on some steps and for about 5 minutes, wrote down everything I could see and hear, trying to connect the moment into a narrative.  I also recorded a reading of this along with field noise/music here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxywKEkvca4

It is as follows:

Square stones wet drops reflections trees in the grey wheels of umbrellas held by wooden bridges blue apron motorbikes walking in high heels tight black jeans we shared a stare down the road keep your yawn under chinese Erhu melodies rain coats riding hands in pockets walking the poodle like a smoking bus passing the gate of history through the eyes of a fart chewing gum and the desire to piss on a fire hydrant beauty scratching its head as the sound of pistons cuts the afternoon chatter and wears a cowboy hat with eyes wearing seatbelts cut the onions and wonder where the cross walk begins to ponder why I’m sitting here on the stained concrete yellow pen still looking for a load image of a tree yawning for the sake of standing still as matter rushes between straddled sandals she’s marked the mole and passed the sun pointing to the grey north of Coca-Cola corn on the cob hips in the street of little red walking hood 1.4 i see the grey and chins count the baskets of white books killing black bugs I got stripes and bowling shoes because my glasses don’t need eyes to see the smile of beautiful wives carrying fruit over their brown shoulders while their babies look left to the tourist future of fake history covering the tragedy of cultural curiosity.

 

 

 

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Roughing It

It’s been awhile since I added a new post.  I told myself I would be good at keeping this blog updated and I’m already slagging off.  One reason was because I think I had some wild Chinese virus that completely crashed and shut down my notebook (couldn’t even turn it on).  So I went with a couple of my students to the computer repair man in the technology district of Huizhou.  It took a couple hours but, while chain-smoking inside the store, he got it back up and running for  a cost of only 50 yuan (7$ USDs).

Anyhow, two Fridays ago they canceled university classes because they had some kind of track meet.  So, I decided to take my first hike in China.  There are not really any mountains within the city limits; I would  call them more like rugged hills with thick vegetation.  I wanted to find Gaobang Mountain and all I had to find my way was a crappy map in Chinese, but there was the international sign for mountain in one corner:  a bold triangle with a 130 m next to it.  Yeah, 130 meters, hardly a hike, but nothing would prepare me for what I encountered at the top. 

On the way to Gaobang, there is a quaint, old-style village that is tucked into the foothills and surrounded by small yet fertile farming patches.  Even though I was still in the city, I felt like I’d stepped into what I’d like to think Huizhou used to resemble before all the modern buildings, apartment blocks, and crazy traffic.

 

As I walked through the fields, I could see the trails zig-zagging across the mountain, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to get to the entrance.  I stood there, tourist map in hand, the only foreigner in sight for miles, and two elderly women came up to me and asked me in Chinese where I was going.  I pointed to the mountain.  “Gaobangshan?” I asked.  They nodded their heads and told me to follow them.  I thanked them and started to walk by their side towards the village and the mountain.  They asked me some questions and of course I had no idea what they were saying so all I said in my best Mandarin was, “I’m from America.  I’m an English teacher.”  They smiled and seemed to understand and beckoned me to keep following them but I still wanted to keep stopping to take pictures.  So, they went ahead but I kept a steady pace behind them and every couple minutes they would turn around and shout something and motion to keep following.  I had to laugh.  Here I was, sort of stalking these two old women, taking pictures of random things they wouldn’t think were interesting, and they kept yelling at me as I trailed behind them.  The other people in the village must’ve been thinking, What the?

 

I had to stop at this little house and take a shot of the flag in the window.  I like how it’s not only hanging from the clothes-line, but for some odd reason it’s also tied off at the window.  Almost all residence windows in Huizhou, no matter how high off the ground, have these steel protective bars over them.  I asked my students why and they said it was to keep out theives.  Funny.  For a place where crime is virtually non-existent, especially compared to the States, they sure keep a cautious attitude.

 

After finally getting through the village’s stray dogs and children, I reached the opening of the trail and my two kind tour guides sent me on my way with some final shouts and outstretched fingers leading the way.  I thanked them and started my “trek” up the trail.

Hiking here is similar to Korea.  Only here people don’t dress like they’re climbing Mt. Everest and the trails, like Korea, aren’t really trails at all, merely concrete or brick paths winding there way up and down.  There’s also bits of trash and cigarette butts scattered along the edges of the path, but surprisingly not as much as I expected.  I passed other hikers, mostly older couples or groups of men, and most of them looked surprised or even a bit bewildered to see me.  A few of them even laughed or gave their best “Hallo!”  It took only about 25 minutes to get to Xiangyun Tower (some kind of large antennae) at the top, but since it was humid I broke a hefty sweat.

This is over looking some of Huizhou City.  You can see West Lake in the distance just before the small skyline of buildings.  It looks a bit hazy, but it was actually a pretty clear day, so you can imagine what it looks like when it’s really overcast.  I wouldn’t say the air is bad in Huizhou, but you definately can’t deny it’s a tad dirty. 

After I cooled off and enjoyed the view,  I started to walk over to a large new temple under construction which sits a top the mountain.  There was a large backhoe dropping chunks of earth and rocks into a dumptruck blocking the middle of the road, so I patiently waited before walking around.  When it was clear, the worker waived me on and I made my way around the truck and kept heading down the dirt road towards the other side of the temple.  Well, the truck started barrelling down the road towards me so I stepped to the side and let it pass, only to have it stop and start backing up right before me; again blocking the road as it dumped all the gravel and dirt.  I didn’t want to wait again, so this time I decided to find a way around the truck.  There was a small ditch to the right of it and it looked like there was a little bit of light colored mud puddled at the bottom.  I figured a little mud wouldn’t hurt, after all, I was hiking and I did take the stairs coming up, so I thought a little mud on the shoes would give the hike a  more rugged feel.  I stepped down.  Whoosh!  My leg shot down into the “matter”, and next thing I knew I was up past my knee into the stuff.  I yelled and quickly pulled myself out of it and climbed up the other side.  I looked down and half my leg was covered in this greenish-brown muck.  “Ahhhh fuck!”  I couldn’t help but shout as I noticed bits of rice and other chunks of what I could only call crap completely covering my leg.  The smell was overwhelming and I turned my head over and puked. 

I immediately thought the worst.  I stepped in a huge vat of shit.  I turned around and the driver was trying to hold in his laughter.  I pointed at my leg, trying to plead for some kind of help.  He pointed over to a building about ten meters away.  I limped over, trying not breath and look down.  I reached a doorway and there was an old woman sitting on a chair.  “Ni hao!”  I said and pointed down at the mess.  She slowly got up and came over to assess my disaster.  She gave me a grimace and said something pointing back to where the pit was.  I nodded my head, confirming what I’d just done.  She plugged her nose and walked over to me, then led me back towards the truck.  I followed her into a dark room where there was a rusty faucet and she told me I could wash it off there, then left me there to clean it up myself.  The Chinese are nice but, of course in my case, not completely hospitable.  I gagged as I untied my Vans and washed away the gunk.  As I watched it drain away, I noticed where it was going:  down a little crevice that led out the corner of the room and back down…yep, into the vat.  I sighed in relief.  It wasn’t the workers digested meals as I originally feared, merely a drainoff where they probably washed their dishes and dumped their uneaten food.  After I cleaned off the bottom of my shorts, my leg and my shoes as best as I could, I put my wet socks and Vans back on and headed out.  I walked by the doorway again, pointed to my leg, and said thank you to the old woman.  She laughed and waved me on.

Even though I got most of the muck off, the smell was still lingering.  Great, as if I wasn’t already attracting enough attention just being a foreigner.  Oh well.  I was only halfway through my hike and I wasn’t going to let some muddy, food-infested vat ruin my fun.  I trekked on.  The thought did cross my mind to take a picture before I cleaned all the muck off, but between holding my nose and gagging, I just couldn’t muster up the motivation.  So here’s a post-cleanup shot.

I squeked and squished my way around to the front of the temple, passing other hikers who for once weren’t gawking at my face for they had something more interesting to feast their eyes on.  I’m sure they were wondering, which trail did he come up?  I came around to the front of the temple and there were droves of families, couples, and some construction workers enjoying a smoke break.  While I was standing at a ledge and overlooking the city, two couples behind me kept trying to take a picture with me in the background.  You know, trying to not make it look like they were taking my picture by staying a few steps away, but it was pretty obvious.  Finally, they came over and asked if I would take a picture with them.  Of course I happily obliged.  Then, I tried to tell them to use my camera too to get the same picture with them, but instead, they stepped away and took one of me by myself. 

Let me give you some background before you see this next shot.  Like Korea and most of Asia, overweight people are few and far between.  It seems for some reason that their diet of mostly vegetables, some meat, and plenty of rice just doesn’t add on the pounds like a Double-Quarter Pounder Value Meal does.  I can honestly say that since I’ve been here for the past two months, I can probably count the hefty people I’ve seen on one hand.  Nevertheless, there are exceptions, and I was almost happy to see a chubby tweenage or so boy hucking down a bag of chips and a liter of soda on a bench at the scenic view area.  I’m not sure where his parents were and it seemed that no one was really looking after him.  Just him, his bag of goodies, the liter, and a grinning crumb-smeared face.  So, I did what the Chinese sometimes do when they see someone who is out of place.  I snapped a picture.

He clapped and jumped up and down when I showed it to him.  After I felt a little guilty, I headed back down a different trail where I was trying to find another temple/palace-like place I’d seen down at the bottom.  While I was walking down there was this little black poodle belonging to an older woman that kept nipping at my heels and barking at me.  Of course it wasn’t barking at anyone else who passed by.  I wondered if it was barking at me because I looked strange or if it was because it got a whiff of my organic leg.  Probably a combination of both.  The old woman could do nothing but laugh hysterically and try to calm it down, but it was no use.  It really wanted to make sure everyone else was aware of the passing intruder.

 

 

After winding through the village again, I found my way to the temple grounds.  It seems that this one was recently constructed too because it didn’t have the splintered wood charm most the older ones have.  It was entirely built out of newly masoned granite and fresh wood but still looked pleasing to my eyes. 

This is outside the main building and like most important buildings and temples in China, it is decorated by a pair of curly-haired Chinese lions.  This one is the female and she is holding her baby down underneath her paw.  Why you might ask?  Well, according to my trusty guidebook, the Chinese believed that lions could secrete milk through their paws.  The male on the other side is usually seen playing with a ball.  Now you know.

 

 

 

While I was wandering around the grounds, a woman with rhinestone-gemmed glasses came up to me and asked me in near perfect English, “Where are you from?”  I told her and she asked a few other of the usual questions about why I’m in China, my impressions, can I use chopsticks, etc.  She told me she was the manager of the place.  Then she asked, “Would you like some tea?” and pointed inside the building above.  At first I said no thank you, thinking it was some tourist trap to get some extra dough out of me.   “It’s OK.  It’s free,” she smiled.  “You can have a try.”  I reluctantly said OK because I still smelled of rotton vegetables and who knows what else, I just hoped she wouldn’t notice.  She led me into the doorway and sat me down at a beautiful table set made completely of what looked like a section of a large tree trunk.  She then introduced me to the tea girl who would be serving me. 

 

I sat there patiently, watching her make the tea and trying to speak to her in my little known Mandarin because, unlike the manager, she spoke almost no English.  As I sat there, I began to wonder if she could smell the after-effect of my incident.  I couldn’t tell because by then, I had grown used to the stench.  It was a pretty awkward moment and I couldn’t wait until she finished making the tea so I could slug it down and get the hell out of there.  She had to of had a whiff.  After a couple minutes she poured me a small cup and I sipped it carefully.  It was awesome.  Just watching the whole experience of her making traditional tea and then savoring it definately made me feel a tad Chinese.  Just then, a group of three older men entered the tea-room.  The girl welcomed them in and told them to sit down.  They took one look at me, paused a moment, turned a slight look of disgust on their face, and then walked out.  Haha!  I’m guessing the reason(s) why, but I didn’t care because I had the whole place to myself.  Just me and my own tea girl and a room full of cultural awkwardness.  Ahh, I soon forgot about the whole incident on the mountain and let my mind wander through the landscape paintings on the walls and the little trinkets on the shelves as I slowly slurped my tea.

I thanked her as I finished up and started to leave.  The rhinestone-rimmed glasses greeted me as I was walking out.  “Did you enjoy?”  she asked.  “Yes.  It was very good,” I replied.  “You can come here anytime you want.  Next time you can bring your friends,” she said as the tea girl came up and stood beside me.  They then had a little conversation and both started giggling.  “I must be going now,” I said.  “OK,” she said, “but before you go, do you think we could take our pictures with you?”  I should’ve guessed.  “Of course!”  I happily obliged.

Can you sense the moment?  She’s leaning in, I’m leaning away.  Which leads me to conclude:  only in China will someone still want to take a picture with you even though you smell like complete shit.  I love it here.

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Strolling Huizhou

It’s exactly two weeks now that I’ve been living in China.  Fourteen days of curiousity, insight, new tastes and smells, trying to remember the names of over 200 students, and walking for at least ten aimless hours around the city.  I dig Huizhou a lot.  The hardest part of living here is not knowing the language, but I’m starting to pick it up at a moderate pace.  Mandarin is not as hard as I thought it would be.  It has very basic grammar, but the pronuciation and rising and falling tones are what can make it difficult.  My mouth and tongue attempting to form new and unusual combinations can sometimes make me sound like a bad Kung Fu flick.  

I’m sore right now from all the walking around I’ve done this past week and I also played some four-on-four basketball with my students for a couple hours.  I haven’t played in a few years and it was funny because I was the only one calling timeouts so I could catch my breath and chug some water.  I was a sweaty mess, but it was fun and a lot of the students would stop and watch a ‘live-real-life-white-man’ in his own sporting element.  I’m sure my ability didn’t quite rise to their expectations.  Some of the students’ love  for basketball here is pretty intense, seeing as the fifteen or so courts here on campus are always alive with the sounds of shuffling sneakers and the constant hollow-air bounce.  

I promised more pictures of the city and I hope my strolling around was able to deliver.  I ran into two of my male students one day at a McDonalds (I was starving with no pictures on menus in sight) and they were able to show me around the city’s famous ‘West Lake’.  There’s an assortment of other pictures here too.  When you don’t have an intinerary, you just have to let your legs and eyes dictate your lefts and rights through the streets.  I’ll let my camera frame do the rest of the talking (with captions).  

Huizhou University Gate/Bus Stop

Huizhou University -- The Sunrise building where I hold my classes

Downtown Plaza where children drive mini battery-powered cars (I was "run over" by one smiling boy)

Riverside Plaza

Looking back from the river bank

Watching the River

No city is complete without a Viking

A True Fisherman

Closed Beer Stand

PBR drinkers of the world unite!

I always thought tennis was funny with all the grunts, weird scores, and...old people?

Southern area of West Lake

Skyline Mirror

Cigarettes and Fish

In need of a frog

Singing and playing the Erhu (Chinese Violin)

Ahoy!

Art and Architecture

Sunset Peacock

One of the main intersections

So there's these three fisherman...

Finishing dinner

Looking across from a bridge over West Lake

An old Temple (Ta)

Bamboo and Lanterns

Lakeside Living

Main West Lake

No...you cannot milk this tree

Standing in front of Sizhou Pagoda (500 yr. old monument to the famous sage Seng Jla)

Pagoda Detail (notice the love graffiti)

Pagoda overview

Pagoda Window

Opposite View

To the blue

Leggy Tree

Light for Sale

Love Boat Corral

Ancient Tree

Calligraphy Museum Entrance

Tim Burton would be proud

Tang Choo Yu (Sweet & Sour Fish) -- most tasty Chinese meal I've eaten so far and only about $3 USDs

Doorway decorations for good fortune

Antiquity Street

 

 

Westlake Bird Peddlers

One of the many developed areas

Night Moves

 

Eat your heart out Huck Finn

I believe I stumbled upon the ever changing houseboat neighborhood

Lollin' on de liber

Suspension Shot

Old Gate

Cruising through

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The Arrival of Smith

I arrived in mainland China after a three hour bus ride from Hong Kong to Huizhou City in the Guangdong Province.  My window was like a vintage television playing a PBS documentary.  I was glued to it the whole drive.  We passed yellow and green farms, dilapidated tin shacks rose out of the fields, and grey smokestacks loomed before lush hills and small mountains.  The further we drove inland, the more excitement I felt.  My jaw dropped several times, especially when the bus nearly took out several fellow motorists blaring their horns and dodging out-of-the-way.  Going through the border, I was a little nervous knowing I was about to enter a self-proclaimed communist country for the first time.  I just didn’t know what to expect.

It was fitting that I was always the last person to get through the different border checkpoints, seeing as I was the only westerner on the bus.   I hadn’t seen another white person, let alone another foreigner since I departed the bustle of  Hong Kong.  When I arrived in downtown Huizhou, the bus driver was supposed to stop at the Noble Jasper Hotel where I was to be met by some of my university students, but he just kept his lead foot going.

I got off at the next stop, which also happened to be a hotel.  It was a little chillier than Hong Kong so I unzipped my suitcase to put on a sport coat.  A bell boy dressed in brown and gold was standing nearby sort of eyeballing me as I put it on.  I was going to ask him about a taxi while I was lifting my suitcase back up, only to have him point as all of my clothes spilled out on the sidewalk in front of the busy street.  In my confused and hasty state, I’d forgotten to zip it back up.  My first of what I’m sure will be many embarrassing moments in China to come.  He helped me scoop it all back into the suitcase and hailed a nearby cab to send me on my way back to the first hotel stop.  Not a word was exchanged by the cabbie and I as he honked and swerved our way through the darting traffic, occasionally missing a head-on motorbike going the wrong way, my white knuckles gripping the front headrest.

Finally, I arrived at the rendezvous and was met by two teenage-looking boys who asked, “Are you Smith?”  I replied, “Well, yes I am.”  Their faces lit up with smiles.  “Nice to meet you,” they both said like a welcoming chorus.  They hailed a cab, which happened to be the exact same one I’d just paid and left.  They called themselves Jason and Richard (English nicknames of course).  “You don’t look like the picture in your passport,” commented Richard in a more-Chinese-than-British accent.  We laughed.  “I know,” I said.  “That’s probably the worst photo I’ve ever taken.”  The cab driver chuckled with us, even though I’m sure he had no idea what we were talking about.

The living room

We arrived at Huizhou University and the two showed me my apartment where I will be living for the next ten months:  a big (by Asian standards) three bedroom space complete with an old living room set of a couch, coffee table, and two large chairs (all wood no cushions), the biggest shower drain I’ve ever seen (my squatter toilet), some red and gold Chinese poster decor on the walls, a kitchen with one stove burner that is fed by what looks like a military issue propane tank, and a small sink with a plastic spicket that only dispenses cold water.  Perfect.  I knew communism had plenty of character.

While sitting on my hardly comfortable furniture, my two students/tour guides and I chatted about music, the plastic beauty of Korean women, Avatar, the government ban on Facebook, and Jack London (communist?) while waiting for a guy to come and replace a burnt-out bulb in my bathroom.  After he fixed the light, we headed out for a stroll through the campus and to go to the university supermarket so I could grab some shampoo.

Just a friendly self reminder on my door to turn off my propane tank

  The layout of the campus is beautiful, reminding me of some lost Soviet University with perfectly squared hedges, students riding side-saddle on the back of bicycles, statues of famous Chinese intellectuals, and the red and gold flag flying high in the center courtyard.  Most of the students passing by smiled, stared, said hello, or an awkward combination of all three. 

Where you can do all your business at once

The university market was a hodgepodge of electronics, cell phones, housewares, and small groups of students browsing through the aisles.  I wasn’t sure exactly how much yuan I’d brought along so I picked out the cheapest shampoo (almond scent), body wash, a bottle of mineral water, and two small juice boxes of milk (neatly stacked in a pyramid without refrigeration).  At the checkout I ended up being 3 yuan short of the total 35 yuan (roughly $5 USDs).  I scrounged through all my pockets as a line of students waited, all eyes on me.  A girl behind me threw down a 5 yuan bill and smiled.  I said, “No, no thank you.  It’s OK!”  but before I could do anything, the cashier scooped up the bill and threw it in the register.  Embarrassing moment #2.  Even though 5 yuan is only about 70 or so cents, I was in awe for the hospitality given to me.

Jason and Richard said they had to go back to their dorms, so we parted ways and I was alone for the first time in a new land as I walked back to my apartment across campus.  There was a pickup basketball game going on between about six male students on what looked like a street court out of 1970’s Queens.  They stopped the game as I passed and gave a chorus of hellos.  I smiled and waved and as I looked over near the building where I would be starting classes in a few days, I saw the bright red and gold flag waving too.  Somehow, I felt at home.

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