Thursday, February 12, 2009

"All My Bags are Packed, I'm Ready to Go..."

Well, here it is, the final entry from the other side of the world. Kind of never thought we'd get here, to this point. Not that any disaster was going to befall us, just that it seemed like such a strange undertaking that the thought of actually completing it never really occurred to Ed or I. But here it is: the last few hours. For any John Denver fans amongst you, I hope you can complete the next part of this entry's title.

At any rate, it is time for a brief review of the day's events and then, as must be the case with these kinds of things: reflection.

Today Dad and I headed out to the Summer Palace on the outskirts of town. It was an overcast and drizzly day, which I guess suited us Seattlites just fine. This rain was, in fact, the first time I'd seen rain in over a month. Amazing how much someone can miss rain...and amazing how much I didn't. But it was good conditioning for my return to the 206. The palace itself is a series of buildings, bridges and temples which wrap around a large lake. At the head of the lake a man-made hill was assembled for the emperor and a top it were placed more buildings, bridges and temples. Upon reaching the summit Dad pointed out how, if this was an artificial hill, he'd really rather not be on it during an earthquake. Now, it's stood up to a few of those before, but I share his sentiments completely. All of that aside it was a very beautiful place, and I'd imagine even more so during the summer. Yet, there was something nice about the mist (real mist, not smog) creeping across the lake and seeing the hills and trees with water upon them. Though these weren't the views a Chinese emperor took in (summer does not equal mist here, per se) it was cool to see what it might have looked like when no one was there (not mentioning the hundreds of staff who lived there permanently).

After that we headed to the Beijing Zoo to see the giant pandas. Ok, truth is: not that big. Really cool to see, and I took some videos of it, but still, they aren't that big. Dad and I then had a bit of an adventure as we trekked out through the streets of Beijing to find the nearest metro stop which, like everything in this city, is deceptively far away. We finally found our way into the subway system and then learned how things are done here. I can still safely say that Moscow dominates the competition when it comes to mass underground transportation, but the Chinese do have one very cool feature. In the tunnels between stops there are a series of TV's lined up and synced to be just off of each other so that as the train enters the tunnel and pics up speed they combine to be one continual advertisement, just like watching a commercial at home. How cool is that?

Dinner was glorious. We went back to Made in China, and I realize this shows a lack of variety on our part, the meal is just so damned good. We ordered the exact same things as last time: Peking duck, honey glazed prawns and eggplant. The duck is painfully good and the prawns, which are eaten whole, have some of the most amazing flavors I've ever found combined in a seafood dish. Now many claim that the Peking duck is the restaurant's premier dish, and while I won't disagree, I will offer up the eggplant. It is baked (I presume) with a few different kinds of peppers and seasoning, and during this process it essentially melts. The eggplant dissolves in your mouth and the entire dish resembles a stew. Pour over steamed rice...delicious.

Now for a brief introspection segment, I promise a full analysis from the comfort of home, but this will have to do as we are waking up in 5 and a half hours. Bummer.

I've learned a lot on this trip, not only about other cultures but also about myself. I'm not going to claim that it was one of those life changing experiences like climbing Mt. Everest or anything so extreme, but over the course of the past 32 days I have noticed a subtle series of changes within me, affecting both my opinions and viewpoint. A lot of what Ed and I have done has been within the safety of Mir's travel guide work. We always had someone waiting for us when we got off the train. We had people to give us important documents and walk us through the processes. We always had a hotel room. We lived out of suitcases, not backpacks, and we ate at good restaurants, not buffets. This trip could have been done in a much more hardcore fashion, as the Lonely Planet originally intended for it, but it was still an adventure nonetheless. Edward and I became proficient travelers and learned to just enter a city, with no real idea of which way was north or what the really meant, and just headed out. We would walk down streets, regardless of their names or directions. We marched through Mongolian slums, Siberian housing districts and Moscovite shopping promenades; all with the same determination to see where it would lead us - without concern for our surroundings, merely a genuine curiosity.

The other day Ed and I were having a discussion about America and its place in the world and he brought up an idea that has been voiced by people who study cultures and nations. The idea is this: that Americans are, by now, genetically predisposed to willingly take risks with little regard for personal safety, that they are literally made, from conception, to head forward into the unknown and not look back. The theory behind this being that all the people who have come to America over the centuries have been risk-takers. The first pilgrims uprooted everything, climbed in tiny boats and sailed across a huge ocean, not knowing how long it would take or what would happen when they got there. The colonists tore themselves away from the awe-inspiring might of the British Empire and forged a new name for themselves. Over the decades people from all walks of life and every corner of this earth of left everything they've known and loved and feared, to head to America, for a chance at freedom. All of this means that, as we've grown in size, our second and third and fourth generations have been bred from people who blindly set forth towards an idea, and achieve there what cannot be achieved anywhere else, wherever there may be.

Does this mean Ed and I marched across frozen tundra with nothing but a small light at the end of an impossibly long tunnel? No. Did we brave the elements or live in hostels or sleep on people's couches? No. Did we discover new lands or alien cultures that civilization has yet to meet? No. We were two Ivy-League educated guys with suitcases and a pre-planned itinerary, knowing exactly where we'd begun and exactly where we'd end. But within that we had room to wander, to explore, to discover things which were new and alien to us. We learned of the backwards nature of the Russian culture, of the oppression of both Tsarists and Soviets alike. We saw what can happen to a people who are ever looking over their shoulders, trying to climb back into the womb of comfort and consistency they once knew. We drank with these people. We ate with this people. We danced and talked and shared jokes with these people. We quietly observed their ways and mannerisms. We began to understand, or at least tried to understand, how an entire country could claim they were having fun, while not smiling; or glare at strangers from behind suspicious eyes. This is a nation that has been so beaten down that they really have no future as we Americans see it. They don't follow their hopes or dreams because to do so would be pointless. They don't move away from religion (as many countries do) but have run back into its arms. They don't want capitalism to breathe new life into their economy, they want to all have 40 sq. meter apartments and job security and no need for personal responsibility. Everything about us is the antithesis of everything about them.

Our journey took us to a dirt-poor 3rd world country which is one of, if not the only, true democracy on the planet. The capital city is a polluted waste where people live in tents and shit in the street. Where cheap coal is burned in small metal stoves to heat people's homes. Where one US dollar can by 1500 units of their currency. And yet...these people are ever-smiling, always ready to say "hello" and simply wanting to talk or share something. Unlike here in China where if someone notices you speak English they are probably trying to sell you something upon approaching you, there in Mongolia, people just like people.

Beijing, Xi'an. Both great capitals of the ancient and modern world. The people here, while raised in a totally different world than my own, are emotive and smiling, wearing Nike and forging a culture of their own amidst Communism and Capitalism, between the East and the West. Unlike in Russia where everything current in media, culture and art is taken directly from the West, here people are making their ethnicity and their style match in a way. Even though the Chinese are wearing Western styles and listening to Western music, they do it their way.

And though more will follow in this reflective narrative of mine, for now, it is time to go. "Little Wing" by Jimmy Hendrix just came on, and I have to appreciate it fully.

From Beijing: Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening, and Good night.

Last Pictures from Beijing

Dad standing infront of the Seventeen Archway Bridge in the Summer Palace. Oh Chinese people...always with the inventive names.

The view above from halfway up the massive man-made hill which rests at the head of the lake in the Summer Palace. Remember what I said about an Emperor's ability to move heaven and earth with a word? Yeah...that.

Dad halfway up the man-made hill with a good sized courtyard in the back which lay to the left side of the main way up. The black thing in the center is an all-bronze temple.
Me standing in front of a courtyard which was a mirror image to the one behind Dad in the previous picture. The difference being his were square buildings and mine were octagonal.

Me making a face in the main level of the Summer Palace, one of the hundreds of Guardians scowling down at me.

This is For Fun

Here Dad displays a certain lack of understanding in the realm of technology when he tries to take a picture of me in front of something.

Then I go and do the exact same thing about an hour later...

Technology: 2

Dad: 0

Armen: 0

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Confucius Says: Today Held a Gong, a Brit, a Lama and a Departure.

Ok, so the last few entries I've stated somewhere in the first couple sentences that it is going to be a brief article, and inevitably it isn't. This one will be.

Today we got to sleep in (til the gloriously late hour of 9 am) and the three of us grabbed a small breakfast. The Raffles does a really good job of just about everything and as a result, their breakfasts are amazing. The Chinese do a mean croissant. At any rate we did that, showered and helped Edward pack all his stuff into his bags. They are literally in danger of just exploding at any moment. There is so much pressure in the duffel bag that when it goes off, he might create a miniature universe with the force of the blast. Either that or all his boots and cashmere gifts will be scattered across the tarmac at Shanghai International. Really hoping it's the former because at least then he can feel proud of his work as opposed to feeling shitty about the vehicles driving over his stuff.

Dad headed off to Prince Gong's Palace while Ed and I caught the world's third longest cab ride (as measured by time spent not moving rather than physical distance) to the British Consulate. There we met Grahame (a guy from the train) who is England's 1st Secretary of Education and English in China. This means he's a diplomat even though he was a mere University professor a year ago. He is very funny and entertaining and the three of us had a good time eating at a local place. He was disappointed he didn't get to meet Dad but settled on talking to the two of us for awhile.

Dad, Edward and I reconvened at the Hotel in the early afternoon and set off to the Lama Temple to take in the sight of (among other things) an 80' tall, 10' wide statue of Buddha carved from a single Sandlewood tree. Very impressive. The video attempts to capture it, and fails. Points for effort though, right?

It was after finishing the Lama Temple that a very sad thing happened, Edward got in a cab and headed for the airport. This marks the end of his and my 31 day adventure together. must go on and so too must touring.

Dad and I hit up the Confucius Temple (not nearly as cool as the Lama) and then walked to a park. Park...not so interesting on account of everything worth seeing being closed. So we cabbed it to this very pretty area around a lake near the Forbidden City, grabbed coffee at the world's most perfectly positioned Starbucks and toured about another pagoda. We watched the sunset form on top of this tall island in the middle of the lake. Beautiful beautiful scenery. And, as we all know, a natural sunset isn't nearly as pretty as a sunset working it's way through pollution, therefore the sunsets here are amazing. See, there's a silver lining to the dark, oppressive cloud that is the Beijing air.

Dinner consisted of a great meal at the Crystal Jade Palace (where they do this playful little dish consisting of fried chicken - a la Peking duck - goose liver and mango, all held together in a small cup of lettuce and eaten like a taco). I'm beginning to really dig how they do things in this country, minus the fact that no one except hotel staff seem to speak English, which is fine until you actually need something...

And this is how we ended up here, on the brink of sleep, with only a few words to say on the day.

From Beijing: Good night.

Some Pictures from Today

Prince Gong's Palace.

Starbucks: Because they're everywhere.

Another part of Gong's humble abode.

Dad in the Lama Temple compound.

The last picture of Ed and I on this month-long odyssey. He caught a cab about ten minutes later, headed to Shanghai.

Another Panorama

This is us at the Lama Temple. Sorry about the shift of quality from 21st century digital to the sudden appearance of a 1970's documentary, the change in light sort of freaked the camera out.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Well Today I Learned What it Feels like to Smoke 3.5 Packs of Cigarettes...

Hello from the other side of tomorrow.

It's now just past midnight here in the Middle Kingdom (a name still used by Chinese today to refer to themselves) and I am going to fire out a quick entry telling everyone what happened in the last 48 hours.

Monday, February 9th, was an opportunity for the three of us (Ed rejoined the group) to experience first-hand the majesty of the Forbidden City. The Royal Palace of the last two Imperial Dynasties (circa 1400-1911) was home to the Emperor, the Empress, multiple concubines, a veritable army of maids and, of course, eunuchs. Bummer. Castration aside the palace is an enormous masterpiece. The compound has always been at the center of Beijing and is nearly 1 square kilometer. Every single building has a specific purpose and its rank within the palace is designated by the number of animals on the corners of the roofs. The places which belonged to the Emperor himself had 11 animals, other important officials/royal family members/the Empress had 9, concubines between 5 and 7, and everything else seemed to have 3. But, of course, there were many holy temples or sacred constructions which had 9 or 11 animals but were used only once or twice during an Emperor's reign.

Each building in the Forbidden City has a truly impressive name, such as the Palace of Condensed Beauty or the Temple of Accumulating Purity. This led Edward and I to naming every building we arrived at the most obscene string of nonsensical titles we could achieve at the given moment. Example: The Temple of Everlasting Glory to the Eastward-Facing Dragon of the Half-Impregnated Flowering Lotus Belonging to the Inner Sanctum of Expansive Knowledge, Inner Harmony and Dancing-Confucius Dreaming Ancestral Spirits of the Terrestrial Moon-Shaped Singing Orchid. This...never got old.

Our childish yet witty antics aside, the Forbidden City is an astonishing place, and it is sort of numbing to try and conceive of what it would be like for this Emperor, a living god, to go about his day-to-day life. There were countless stone carvings or jade sculptures which took hundreds of horses and thousands of workers a number of decades to drag from one end of the country to another. A seemingly endless series of vignettes were related to us by the audio guide about how no one could cough or twitch or look back or stand or scratch themselves while standing near the Emperor during long meetings...or how one concubine would become jealous and murder all the sons born of other concubines...or how the Empress Dowager Cixi did something cruel and controlling to yet another individual. But the simple fact remains that the man who lived at the center of this palace, rarely ever leaving, was revered by half a billion people as a god and his word was absolute law. If he wanted to have a thousand people beheaded for his own amusement (didn't happen), all he had to do was ask; if he wanted a new concubine or wife or temple erected in his honor, all he had to do was tilt his head slightly and hundreds of thousands of lives would be changed instantly (did happen).

As one might expect of a compound this size, it took us the better part of a day to go through it. We were left with little time but Dad still had an agenda. So what did we do? We raced to the Children's Palace and the Imperial Park located outside the Forbidden City, then caught a cab up to the Drum and Bell Towers. While we were in the first tower we were able to witness a performance of musicians working the massive drums. It was really cool and should be in video form in the post below. At any rate, as this day progressed we noticed the continual creep of a fog-like substance until, by nightfall, it was impossible to see more than 1/2 a mile. This fog-like substance is referred to by the Chinese as "mist" and by the rest of the civilized world as "smog" or "pollution" or "lung-scorching-asthma-inducing-headache-causing-slow-acting-death-clouds". That last one was another one of those naming tangents courtesy of Sixer and I. But the point remains the same. Ed - being asthmatic - has been complaining of the effects the pollution was having on him for the last two days but Dad and I had yet to experience this. Yesterday, however, gave us ample opportunity. The symptoms include a burning sensation down one's trachea, a tightening of the lungs and a dull-ever-present headache in the back of the skull, plus a sort of stupefying sensation behind the eyes. Experts say that Beijing is the most polluted city in the world and that an average day is equal to smoking 70 cigarettes in 24 hours, but it was definitely worse than an average day on Monday.

Evening brought to us dinner at a Taiwanese dumpling restaurant which was Delicious (yes with a capital "D") and a fireworks show of epic proportions. If anyone wants to know what a city experiencing heavy urban warfare sounds like, hangout in Beijing during the celebration of the New Year or of the end of the Spring Festival, which Monday was. We were also treated to the sight of the 40+ story Mandarin Oriental Hotel going up in flames as we drove past in a cab. So...not exactly an average day at all.

Today we woke up entirely too early after all three of us got shitty, brief sleeps and caught a cab to the airport. (Oh PS - Ed has moved in down the hall in the Raffles). We got China Air Flight 1231 to Xi'an and found ourselves 595 miles Southwest of Beijing before 10 am. A guide named "Sarah" picked us up at the airport and led us on a tour of the ancient capital of China, home to 8 million people and the 8,000 Terracotta Warriors. But, like all good guides in China, our excursion didn't really begin until after a "tour" of the Terracotta Replica Factory which, coincidentally, was also a fully functioning store selling everything from life size warriors to lacquer boxes to carpets. Industrious people.

The self-proclaimed 8th Wonder of the World is...really impressive. The first pit is home to over 6,000 warriors and is several times the size of a football field. These eternal soldiers stand in battle formation, 1.3 kilometers east of China's first emperor, facing away from him, ready to protect his earthbound soul for as long as they exist. This emperor was a really big douchebag though so it's no wonder he built an army of soldiers to guard him in the afterlife. During his reign it took 720,000 "labourers" 38 years to build his burial complex which remains, to this day, the largest tomb ever constructed. It's not that the tomb itself is the largest (the pyramids dwarf it), but rather that the entire amount of land given to this emperor's final resting place, and the number of buildings and walls that marked it, take up the most amount of space. It is true that the three of us agreed these warriors could be presented to the public a little better; that aside it was amazing to not only get the chance to see these ancient warriors but to act upon it.

Following the tour of all 3 pits and a library, we headed to the Pagoda of the Bigger Wild Goose. What is the Pagoda of the Bigger Wild Goose you might ask?'s a pagoda (which I take to mean - in this case - a large tower) which has been turned into an upscale version of another such model found in India. The original was simply the Wild Goose Pagoda, so when a Buddhist master came to China, this one was erected in honour of that. The Buddhist lama who this particular tower was built for was one of the many who worked their way Eastward. He was the type of guy who had hundreds of disciples and untold thousands of books, all of which he brought on this journey to China. Of course, as any good Buddhist teacher would do, he tossed all these books in a river one day causing his students to nearly drown themselves in an attempt to save these holy texts. The point here was undoubtedly to prove the fragile nature of life.

When this Buddhist lama arrived in Xi'an he asked the Emperor to build him a tower akin to one from India in order to house his many volumes. This was done and, in the 7th century, the Pagoda of the Bigger Wild Goose was completed. The lama himself was one of those self-righteous types who insisted everyone fast constantly and beat themselves with sticks and pray to the gods by sliding his body up and down against hard rocks. He was also one of those lamas who, before dying, asked his students some mind-bending question such as: "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie-pop?" The top 13 lead disciples, who had been with him the longest were so worn down from swimming after books and starving and stick-beating, that this last meaning-of-life question caused them all to simultaneously suffer brain aneurysms. However, the looks of exasperation on their faces were mistaken for looks of understanding and it was said that they had all achieved Nirvana.

Is any of this true? Hard to say, I totally zoned out during the guide's speech and just got lost staring at a carving of some monks swimming after books and about a baker's dozen of bald dudes lying in peaceful poses. I do know for certain that the PBWG (as we shall call it) was built after the smaller WGP in India and that it was built to hold some Lama's massive book collection. The rest, while the brainchild of a tired and under-caffeinated 22-year-old American tourist, actually doesn't sound far off the truth, so we're going to go with it.

As for the rest of the day: we hopped a flight back at 7:30 pm, arrived at 9 and, after a failed attempt to see how impressive the mag-lift train was, ended up getting home at around 11...Edward, I'm looking at you here for this whole train-taking idea.

Also in other news Edward and I are now clean-shaven, no longer having need for extra-warmth on our faces. The result? We look like overgrown 12 year-olds.

Well everyone, it's late here and I think that spinning feeling in my head means it's time for bed. Either that or a tumor is forming from all of the pollutants I have been sucking in for the last few days. I'm going to go with the former for now but I think Beijing will be lung-cancer central in the next ten years. Also, according to the same fanciful-half-checked-out 22 year-old mind, it will be like some terrible futuristic dystopia with continual acid-rain and mile-high towers, where only the rich can see above the layer of smog and everyone else lives miserably short lives, never having seen sunlight. But as I've said before, there are 1.3 billion people here, they can stand to lose a view to Vitamin D deficiencies.

On that cheery note: I wish you all a good day.

From Peiking,


PS - Everyone should go back to using the British names for places, Beijing to Peiking, Mumbai to Bombay, France to Le Land de MIlitarie Failures etc. They sound so much more Romantic...except for that last one, that kind of sucks...sorry France.

Drum Performance

This is a pretty cool show put on by 5 drummers atop the Drum Tower, north of the Forbidden City.

A Varied Assortment of Pictures from Peiking

Edward and I hanging out in front of an inspirational temple (according to the audio tour) in the Palace Gardens. Apparently it inspired us to strike mirror-image poses without intending to.

Dad and I infront of one of the many hundreds of walls and buildings within the Forbidden City.
Oh. My. God. The smog here is terrible; as a point of reference that very tall hill is only 1 km away.

Dad and I hanging out with a few 2,000 year-old statues...No big deal.

Edward has achieved a false sense of superiority because he happened to choose the Emperor statue, whereas I chose the General statue. This incident was immediately followed by a very successful coup de tĂȘte.

Panoramic of the Forbidden City

This is a panoramic of the Outer Palace courtyard.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

For the Quick Viewer

If you want to skip past that lengthy entry you can scroll down to the pictures and video clip miles below.

Big Walls, Tons of Walking, a Couple Restaurants and a Chinese Guy Named Henry

Hey Everyone,

It's Sunday here in Beijing and it has been a very busy day for us. Dad had some serious goals in mind and, for any of you who have travelled with Dad, you understand how determined he can be to meet these goals...But before I get into what happened today I have to review where we've been so far. Here goes:

We all arrived safely in Beijing on Friday, February 6th and moved into our respective hotels. Edward, Dad and I went for a lengthy walk through the backstreets of the city (also known as the hutongs) and took a self-guided, completely aimless tour around Hou Hai lake which is in the middle of the town, near the Forbidden City. This walk ended in a rather amusing rickshaw ride, one in which the driver of the rickshaw had clearly failed to accurately calculate the combined weight of three men, all of whom are well above 6 feet tall. We have a combined weight of roughly 600 pounds and our driver probably tipped the scales at about 63 take that, divide by three, carry the two and you get that he was totally outmatched...give or take a few pounds. First of all we barely fit, but that aside the poor guy's bike practically broke in the process (though I am not an expert on bicycles, I do know that chains should not make a retching, snapping noise every two minutes). We had yet to figure out the tipping system in China and therefore gave the guy a few dollars extra, which he demanded between big gulps of air. Call me crazy, but aren't you not supposed to actually ask for tips? Like, aren't they supposed to be one of those things that the patron does on their own, without your guidance? Oh well, totally worth hearing him demand, "Tippy tippy...deep breath, deep breath...tippy tippy...deep breath deep breath...TIPPY!"

For dinner we met up with Ed's friend and current host Alessandra at the "best" restaurant in Beijing, conveniently called: "Made in China". Unbelievably good. Their Peking Duck dominates the field of competitors. It was good. Even though it has the name it does and even though it is located in a Western hotel, it is almost unanimously considered the best place to go for dinner and duck in particular, anywhere in Beijing. Alessandra herself was a God-send for the three of us with her ability to speak Mandarin Chinese fluently. It was during dinner that Ed and I had a debate about exactly what "fluent" meant. One point of view is that fluent means being able to read a newspaper cover to cover, another is that fluent means being able to talk for an hour without a hitch. We decided, in the end, that fluent means when you have the vocabulary to ask a waitress, "Do we need to shell these prawns ourselves, or do they come whole and if the latter is the case, can you please crack them for us...oh, by the way, how sweet are these honeyed shrimp?"...Which coincidentally is exactly what Alessandra asked our waitress.

Dad faded out post-meal (this being Seattle + 16), leaving Edward, Alessandra and I to head out for the night. We toured a couple of expat bars and had a few beers in the process. Alessandra bemoaned the cost of 3 quai (RMB/yuan) per bottle of Tsingtao at a corner market, insisting that was 2 yuan more than what should be charged. For the record, it takes 6.81 quai to make up $1. If any of you know anywhere in the Western world where I can buy a large bottle of beer for about 48 cents...please let me know. This was one of many examples we discovered that night of cost differences between Asia and the United States. Another striking example being the $2 cab fare for a 15 minute ride. Little fact for you all: there are 96,000 taxis in Beijing, which, after some quick math, Edward decided was 3 times the number of cabs, per capita as in New York.

Beijing itself (educational time here) has a population of around 12 million in the metro area and 17.5 million in the entire municipal district. The Beijing Municipal District is roughly the same size (square miles) as the sovereign nation of Belgium. Big, big city. The name itself means "North Capital" (Bei - North, Jing - Capital), which I have to say is a pretty good example of how unimaginative the Chinese are when it comes to naming things. Any form of alcohol ends in the word "Zho" meaning alcohol, as in "white alcohol" (national equivalent to Vodka), "yellow alcohol" (white wine), "red alcohol" (red wine), "brown alcohol" (beer), etc etc. Other examples of this distinct lack of imagination came from our guide, Henry (yes, his name is Henry) who told us about a "cypress tree in the Temple of Heaven which looks like 9 dragons wrapping their way around each other, we call this 'the 9 dragons wrapping around each other' tree." He looked so proud when he told us that too...Another example is a piece of jade, which is white and nearly translucent, they call it...can you guess? That's right, "white and nearly translucent jade". So whenever you see a Chinese name written out for you, don't worry, it literally means whatever it says.

But back to our night out.

Edward and I experienced what might have been the strangest sight we have seen on this entire journey on Friday evening. Alessandra eventually took us to an expat club that was having Bob Marley night. What this means is that there we were, in Beijing, the capital of China, surrounded by Westerners and all 11 black people in the Beijing Metropolitan Area, jamming out to an all-Chinese band (complete with dreadlocks, Rastafarian colours and grungy clothes) which was singing "Buffalo Soldier" very very strange.

The next day Ed and I worked our way to Dad's hotel (The Raffles Beijing) and experienced a breakfast unlike any we had yet to experience. Not that either of us has had a bad experience on this trip, but if you'll remember the Irkutsk entry, it's not as if every room we've stayed in has been particularly...gracious. Totally different story here at The Raffles. So after this glorious breakfast we headed off to the Ming Tombs. These were cool. Dad ran into a couple people who worked in Radiation Oncology at Virginia Mason. Go figure.

After Ming Tombs, Henry took us to the unscheduled Jade Factory, where we were given a tour of their facilities which conveniently ended in their massive in-factory store. We shared a lunch after Dad bought a couple of small things (impossible to leave there without buying something...they really follow you around like flies) and then left after Henry collected his commission (he receives something for every tourist he brings).

This brought us to the Great Wall. For those of you who have never climbed the Great Wall it is a very, very cool experience. For those of you who climbed it pre-2008, it's a bit different now. Example: the massive "Beijing 2008: One World, One Dream" sign that is perfectly positioned to end up in EVERY photograph taken when one faces East. Another example is the absurdly tacky Chinese music blasted from speakers the entire way along. But, take heart, at some point the music stopped and was replaced with an announcement about times to see movies at the base of the wall, which alternated between an English and Chinese version.

This little rant aside, the Wall was very impressive and we took it in greedily. We walked a long ways out and climbed up some very steep slopes and stairs. (Thank you Cyrus for the leg workouts). Several pictures were taken and several street-hawkers were dodged. Finally Dad gave in and bought this pretty cool graphite engraving of the Great Wall from a guy who hadn't learned the value of haggling. Originally someone had offered us one for 50 yuan and this second guy stated it was 150. Ed didn't even have to mention the other guy he just "Fifty" and the guy goes, "OK!". Maybe it had to do with the police who were coming to clear these illegal vendors off the Great Wall...

After this we drove back to the city and got a look at the Bird's Nest and Water Cube from the Olympics. Both very cool.

Edward headed off with Alessandra after this and I am now no longer able to report on his whereabouts or activities. I can tell you, however, that Dad and I went to a very good restaurant for dinner last night and had a cool walk about one of Beijing's main shopping districts.

Today was a trip to this huge out door market that has something like 4,000 stalls and sells everything from high quality prints/baskets to total shit. But it was packed with people (being a Sunday) and was a ton of fun to walk about, looking at stuff, bartering with a few sellers, buying an abacus, walking around some more...all in all a good time and very cool experience. We hopped a cab to the Temple of Heaven park afterwards and spent the next 4 hours walking all over this massively-sized area devoted almost entirely to the 4 days of activity that occurred every year before the harvest. We wandered through several buildings and ceremonial sites, but in large part just took the place in. Eventually we left and headed along a major street up to Tian'namen Square, toured about that for a bit then worked our way to the hotel.

I think we walked about 6 or 7 miles today which was a fair amount of hiking about to do.

Tonight holds dinner (provided Dad wakes up from his nap soon) and then after that Edward and I might rendez-vous with several of the people we met on the train...hopefully...or I might just be going to sleep early. Tomorrow will be another big day which will include the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Lama Temple and possibly a trip to the zoo (yay pandas).

Until next time.

Us Atop the Great Wall

A view from the Great Wall, equipped with the sounds of a man trying to sell a plaque to Dad and Edward, a brief commentary from me, and that terrible terrible music being piped out to everyone visiting that day.

Round 3 of Pictures from Beijing

The Hall of Abstinence in the Temple of Heaven (a truly massive park).

Dad on top of The Circular Mound Alter, with the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest in the background.

This is what your streets look like when you have 1.3 billion people.

Me at the north end of Tian'namen Square. If you Google Tian'anmen Square Protest of 1989 while in China, you discover that all of the websites which relate to this subject matter are blocked...ahh Communism.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

More Pictures from China

The Ming Tombs, a view up.

Edward and I "coming back" to the world of the living, after departing the Ming Tomb's land of the dead.

Ed and I on the Great Wall.

Dad, conveniently placed to hide some scaffolding.

The three brave explorers on top of a wall no Westerner has EVER seen (please ignore the lamp post in the back ground).

Pictures from China

Edward and I in one of the many passages of our hotel (that we were only at for one night).

A little shopping street at dusk.

The Drum Tower from the base of the Bell Tower.

Lanterns lit up at night.

Photos from Mongolia

The Gandan Monastery in the heart of Ulan Bator. Our guide, Bator is on the left and Ed is on the right. Bator means Hero and Ulan means Red, so when the Soviets arrived they changed the old name to something more suitable: Red Hero.

A wood plank bridge we drove over several times. Mostly this picture is to show the different landscapes of Mongolia.

The view from the monastery up in the hills.

Ed inside the horse-wrangler's ger or yert.

Ed and I and the wild dog in front of a totem for travellers. Dozens of these dot the road (this being one of the most famous) and people will stop on their journeys and offer a stone to the pile, then walk around it clockwise three times. This is us post doing that (the dog still has one more lap to go).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

One of Those Brief Updates from Another Country

Hello from Beijing.

So, quick little post here. Dad arrived in Beijing late last night and has done a bit of walking about today, as I write this he is on his way to the hotel Ed and I are checked into (Bamboo Garden). We got in about an hour and a half ago after a very pleasant train trip from the UB. But I need to briefly tell y'all about what we did on our last day and will go into greater depth and add photos tomorrow.

First we got picked up by our guide Bator and awesome driver Tok-Tok and they took us out to a ger in the national park. It was the home of a horse/sheep herder that they work with in the summers and he welcomed us in and introduced me to Mongolian tea. Now there are two kinds of tea in Mongolia, one is made with some sort of fermented milk and tastes vaguely like rice; the other is - as far as I can tell - a simple saline solution designed to leave a person working the facial muscles required to NOT grimace in the company of his host. The purpose here is to test the guest and see if he or she is capable of mainting a calm/pleasant look; if the individual passes this test, great, welcome to my abode, if not...well they're a very friendly people so I'm not sure anything would happen.

After this we went out into the mountains and climbed up to a monastery. It was very very cool and the pictures I took cannot possibly do justice to the beauty of the mists rolling across the rocky hills. But...I took them and they'll have to do, so those will go up tomorrow as well. Following this we had lunch and...

Dad just got here.

This will be continued later.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

For the First Time in 3 Weeks I Knew What Meat I Was Eating Today!!!

Greetings from Mongolia!

Well this morning, after a relatively uneventful train ride and 6-hour, dual border crossing, Ed and I arrived in Ulan Bator (also spelled UlaanBaatar for the benefit of tourists). The city is different than Ed described it to me a couple main reasons, but other than that is pretty much a classic capital of the 3rd World. Some changes have occurred since Sixer was last here (4-5 years ago), the largest being that several very modern buildings have gone up. The tallest construction in Ulan Bator had been, for the longest time, one of the few hotels here (at no more than a dozen stories) but some of these new "skyscrapers" reach 30 stories or so in height. Our guide this morning shared Ed's opinion that UB (as expats call the city) is growing too fast and needs to slow down. But this is all stuff I will talk about in greater detail in the second half of this message, first I have to discuss our last 24 hours in Russia.

So, Ulan Ude. Capital of the Buryat Republic (an unofficial "country" so named because of the 3 million Buryats - semi-Mongols - who inhabit the region). The area is home to the only Buddhist monastery in Russia and also the largest concentration of Russian "Old Believers" (who I previously mentioned...I think). The city itself is pretty nice and the hotel was a definite step up from the 4'x4' cubicle/bedroom/bathroom Edward and I had previously shared in Irkutsk. Our guide, who's name I never fully caught as it seemed to be about 18 syllables in length, was a very nice young woman (22 and freshly married) who was a native to the region. Our driver, who's name I do remember (Andrei) was equally nice and both were fluent in English. They picked us up (after letting us have an all-too-brief nap) and took us out to the Datsan Monastery. This place is home to the famous Khambo Lama who "died" in 1927. As the story goes he was teaching a class one day and asked his students to begin singing a death prayer for him. They refused and he ordered them all to leave. After sometime they decided they should go back and when they re-entered the room they found him dead, sitting in the lotus position. He had left a will that requested he be exhumed from his grave in 30 years' time (it also had a few eerily true prophecies). At any rate, they dug him up in 1955 and to everyone's shock it was discovered that he had not decomposed at all, in fact, apparently he still looked "fresh". So, they reburied him (or something to that effect) and then in 2002 they yet again disturbed his resting place. Again...he looked as though he hadn't aged a day and was still totally fresh. Scientists (of course) descended on the scene and took samples of his hair, blood, skin, nails etc etc; to their shock...he was still...sort of...alive. His skin cells have remained alive and continued to regenerate and apparently his blood is ever sssoooo sloowwwwlllyy moving throughout his body. Buddhists believe he has reached some sort of outer stage of Nirvana and will reawaken some day to pass on his wisdom before finally achieving the ever-sought-after-but-rarely-attained state of a band from Seattle in the early 90's.

Regardless of that whole story that Datsan Monastery was a beautiful, albeit cold, place to visit and both Edward and myself were struck with the beauty of the open countryside which stretches out from Ulan Ude. Our guides then drove us out of the city about 90 minutes to a small village of Old Believers. But we weren't there to see the village, we were there to see the villagers. We were taken into a home (this was clearly prearranged) and fed a traditional Siberian meal by an old couple (80 and 77) plus their lifelong friend (who had the hots for Ed). The women were once in a travelling folk band which performed the traditional songs and dances of Russian old believers...they were veritable rock stars. They welcomed us in and began doting on us like...well...grandmothers. They insisted we eat everything and would not take "No, please, I couldn't possibly, I'm so full" as an answer to their continual attempts (or rather successes) at refilling our plates/glasses/cups. They also insisted on toasting to something or another every 2 minutes. Can you guess what they toasted with? That's right ladies and gentlemen, vodka. And do you know who had to drink this vodka? All of us. And do we all remember the story I told about Edward, myself and this vile five-letter word? Yeah...nearly threw up.

But, thankfully we discovered you can simply take a tiny sip and it isn't necessary to drain the entire glass each time. Thank. God. However, they were absolutely amazing and hilarious people. They spoke NO English and we spoke NO Russian (well OK, we have a few handy phrases) but somehow we managed to laugh the entire time (translators help). They insisted on getting us matched up with good, local women for marriage and that there should be no delay. They had, as I mentioned, a great sense of humor. The two women asked if we were brothers and jokingly I responded, "No, I'm too handsome to be related to Ed." This was translated and the ladies looked at both of us and replied, "Da", then fell about laughing and kissing Edward to make up for it. I took a photo about a second too late of one of the ladies planting a big kiss smack on Sixer's lips...I thought this was HILARIOUS...until she gave me the same treatment.

We were there for a couple hours and shared a great deal with this elderly yet lively trio. The women sang us several songs and we were forced to perform one in return. Had we had a guitar Ed and I would have sung "Way Over Yonder (in the Minor Key)" written by Woody Guthrie and performed for the first time by Billy Bragg. But, since we didn't have one of those handy we had to settle on "Happy Birthday", which was fitting given that Anatoli (the man) was turning 80 in a couple days. For the record he was not apart of this folk band, he was a soldier. He actually reminded me a lot of Grandpa (Harold), though I don't think Grandpa ever drank as much vodka in his life as Anatoli did in two hours.

As the afternoon waned we said our goodbyes, took some photos, dodged and then succumbed to several kisses and headed off on our way back to Ulan Ude. Our day finished with a brief walking tour of the city and with Edward and I passing out at around ten (for the record we had gotten NO sleep the night before, no good reason, just hadn't slept). The next morning provided for some entertainment however. After waking up at oh...ten, we attempted to exercise. The fitness room of the Geser (pronounced Gezzer) Hotel was located deep in the bowels of a Soviet Era basement/bomb shelter. As we were led into the low-ceiling-prison of the hotel Ed remarked that every time he goes somewhere like this he's worried he'll wake up in a bathtub of ice missing a kidney. The fitness center which we were both excited to use was...well...not really a fitness center. Yes, it did have a weight machine, but it didn't work. Yes, it did have an exercise bike, but it broke as soon as Ed sat on it. Yes, it did have a free weight bar, but it totalled about 15 pounds. We gave up on that really fast.

But that was not the excitement of the morning, no no, that came later, when we went to catch the train. Before I go any further let me just state that the word "excitement" should never be used in the same sentence as the phrase "to catch the train", but you will note, both that word and that phrase came in the same sentence. Everyone on the same page? Ok great, here goes. So we got picked up at the hotel but left a little late as we needed to eat breakfast, or rather lunch. The hotel was exactly 200 meters from the train station so it wasn't like needed the 15 minutes to get there. Which, we didn't. We had plenty of time to catch a train by the time Andrei pulled up in the parking lot. We got out our luggage and our several shopping bags of valenki boots that we'd bought at the factory there and began a slow walk to the terminal. Our guide (who's name I never caught) told me to give her the tickets and she would go find out where the train was. Andrei, Edward and I, in the meantime, casually strolled through a tunnel and out onto the platform. The only train there was two tracks over, but this was no big problem as the tracks run sequentially without platforms so one could simply walk over the tracks (as about 50 people were doing). But...the lady and our tickets were not with us so we had to wait. No problem. Until a new train came along and cut us off from our train. For the record, the scheduled departure time was 1:30 pm local time and it was exactly 1:28. Now...where was that guide of ours and more importantly...where were those tickets?

She came around the corner (having learned nothing of the train) but managed to stop and listen to the intercom, which was informing us that the last call had been made for train 6 to Ulan Bator on Track 3. It was now 1:29. Shit. The good news: there was an overpass that one could take to get to Track 3. The bad news: one had to go around the building and up an obscene number of stairs to reach it. Also for the record, this overpass had been built under the impression that the QE2 would sail under it, not a 12-foot tall train. I have never run so fast in my life while carrying two pieces of luggage. The four of us literally sprinted out through the tunnel, up some stairs, into a building, up some more stairs, through a pair of doors, past some slow moving group clearly going nowhere fast, up some more stairs, along another tunnel, up some more stairs, across the overpass, up some more stairs (which were there as a final insult) and then down a long haul of icy stairs. Every door on the train was closed save ours and the provodnitsa was frantically waving us towards her. At this point we had run a couple hundred meters while breathing in 5 degree air. I could barely see. Ed almost had an asthma attack. BUT....we made it!!! Literally threw our bags onto the train and leapt aboard. I was hanging on to the side, throwing our tip at the guides as the train began it's lurch forward. To put it mildly, as Edward did, that was close.

Our provodnitsa was a lovely lady who thought the whole thing was hilarious and was ecstatic at the arrival of the "American boys". She spoke no English but somehow we managed to have a few conversations over the time we were aboard. The trip was pleasant, except for one some people stole my iPod while Ed and I grabbed water (you can't lock your cabin and they found my iPod under the sheets). The border crossing itself was extremely long...and so was the second one. Because yes, Russia, it is totally necessary to search people leaving your country and scrutinize them as though they were wanted criminals...Mongolia was fine but slow because, well, everything in this country kind of is.

And this brings us to Ulan Bator. The name of this city means "Red Hero" and you can guess who named it that...yes, it was the Russians. The city is definitely firmly established in the 3rd world; there are chunks of road missing in the street and manholes don't have covers, there are rundown buildings in one area and surrounding the city are slums of yerts where people defecate in the street. The plumbing here can't handle toilet paper so every room comes equipped with a small bucket next to the toilet and the water for the entire city is pumped in from some Soviet designed (therefore impractical) central heating system. Ed told me a story of how during the summer the plant was closed for an annual cleaning and so the entire city is without hot water for 3 weeks...good job Soviets...good job. The place looks like it shouldn't function and to some extent doesn't; the buildings are shabbily constructed and drivers go whenever they want. The State Department Store is pretty much the only place in the whole city to buy things and it doesn't look capable of supporting the 1 million inhabitants...then again most of them are so dirt poor they can't afford anything anyways. The dollar can buy you 1400 togroks (Mongolian currency) and nothing is ever very expensive by our Western standards. Yet, many people in this country live in yert villages way out in the countryside and have no way of making a living, yet they must still buy things. As a result of this NGO's have been set up to get these "peasants" (for lack of a better word) to knit the wool caps they always knit, or make the sandals they always make, but in bulk. Then the NGO buys these "authentic Mongolian goods" and sell them to tourists in the cities. Correction: city, Ulan Bator is the only major center of any consequence.

Mongolia itself is about the size of Alaska (so over a third the size of the US) and has 2.8 million inhabitants (less than 1% of the American population) and with over a million of these people living in UB, that leaves a lot of empty space available to people. Finding someone outside of the capital is harder than finding a needle in a haystack. But it is a beautiful countryside and the people here are some of the nicest I have ever met. Everyone smiles. If you make eye contact with someone long enough on the street they say "Hello" as if you were a ray of sunshine. Everything about Mongolia seems so incredibly cultured and civilized after our 23 days with the unsmiling, oppressed Russian people. As Ed put it: "That country had so much potential until some Bolsheviks came along and decided to try The Great Experiment...and totally fucked the people." Which is true, the people of Russia, especially in comparison to their southern neighbors are terribly oppressed, even today. Their media is censored and if something gets printed the government doesn't want, they fine the daylights out of the offensive paper. The only channels people get on basic cable are all government channels which provide government-approved news. Police have total power and soldiers walk through the streets with AK-47s on their shoulders, or sometimes casually pointed at you. A passport is necessary for external travel but another one is needed for inside the country, so are driver's licences and about a half dozen other forms of ID. The police can stop and ask for these at any time and fine or imprison you for not having them. In theory every time someone goes to a new city they need to register. But to make matters worse, they have no means of making it under capitalism. The average person gets paid shit and yet are charged Western prices. Moscow is the most expensive city in the world to live in and yet only a couple hundred families capable of paying for it do in fact live there.

The Russian people hate the rich (one of our drivers spit on the ground in disgust after a clearly wealthy man went by), and they call the successful "Oligarchs". And, while many of them are definitely guilty of some crime or another, the only crime each and every rich person in Russia is truly guilty of is having an imagination. When the state privatized business after "the fall" they were the ones with the foresight or innovation to buy up stocks or create companies. It's no wonder that people don't smile there as so few of them have much to smile about. Over and over again we'd hear about how "at least under the Soviets everyone had a home". Most of the country wishes they were still ruled by Communists. There is actually a lot I can say about the Russian mentality but dinner is soon calling so I will wrap this up.

Edward and I hadn't heard English spoken on TV, or by people (except for guides and a couple tourists), or seen it printed in a couple weeks. Which, again, let me stress: isn't a problem because we need it, but it's a lonely experience to be unable to communicate with people, or hear your native tongue or read the newspaper. So, when we arrived to Ulan Bator and checked in, we were ecstatic to discover that 12 of the 20 channels on TV are in English and that there are two English-printed expat newspapers in circulation and that EVERYONE speaks English with great ease (it's the second official language here). Everyone knows we're foreign (way more obvious here than in Russia) but instead of drawing stares or bewildered looks, as we did throughout the past 3 weeks, we draw smiles and "Hellos" and cheerful waves from children. Also, after 3 weeks of eating Russian cuisine - which consists of cabbage soup, beet soup, mystery meat in everything and vodka, we were so so so so so happy to go to Millie's for lunch. At this expat cafe we were able to order a proper Greek salad, soup NOT made from beets or cabbage, a BLT, fries, a burrito, and lemon pie...heavenly. Given that Mongolia isn't known for it's stellar style of food, we have forgiven ourselves ahead of time for frequenting Western restaurants for the next couple meals.

I hope everyone is doing well, whatever corner of the earth you are inhabiting.

From Ulan Bator, I wish you all a good morning, a good afternoon, a good evening and a good night.

Oh Yeah, and This One

Edward rebounding from The Kiss.

The Last Photos from Russia

The building which holds the still-living-dead-Lama in the Datsan Monastery compound.

Oh Siberia...

Edward and I, having conquered a hill in the Buryat Republic.

Andrei, Me, Anatoli, his wife, the woman who loved Ed, and Sixer himself. Their house is to the left. Their tractor is behind us. Very very nice people.