Location: Tokyo, Japan
I've been in Tokyo for a week today. It's been great to have a chance to decompress from the program (it ended last friday) and Tokyo in spring is probably the perfect place to do that. The cherry blossoms peaked right before I got here, but the climate is still nice and the parks are green. I've been sleeping in and strolling around the city in my free time. Nicki arrives from Nepal on friday and we're going to travel over to Kyoto and visit my host family. That should be quite a good time.
Also, I'm putting more pictures online for everyone to see. Enjoy.
Location: Beijing, China
I'm comfortably settled in at Beijing's very own Capital Normal Universiy. The group is taking a course on modern China and giving their presentations. Each university dorm room is equipped with an internet ready computer and I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or not. My paper is due in a week and I'm working hard on it but at the same slacking off even harder.
It's still mighty smoggy here (oh wait, will the censors let me say that?) but since it's spring there are occassional bursts of blue sky that make the urban jungle a little less depressing. I just heard of a district on the other side of town where there are lots of art galleries and bookstores. Looks like I'll be heading over there a lot.
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Just arrived in Chiang Mai with Elijah from Pac Rim. I've been traveling for three days since I left Hyderabad. The constant movement has really upset my sleep habits and the train ride from Bangkok last night gave me the best night of sleep since I don't know when.
But I'm here and the weather is comfortably warm and I have a week to relax and finish up my research paper.
Location: Hyderabad, India
Back in my ol' stomping grounds. Hyderabad has changed a lot since I was here on exchange four years ago. Everything from the road outside of the train station that I arrived in to the coffee place that popped up next door to my host families house seems so new. The airport that I flew out of will be replaced in two years and almost none of the teachers from my old school are still there.
The one thing that didn't change was my host families' collective hospitality and that made the days of travel totally worthwhile. I'm leaving tonight after only two days of reliving the good times so I'm a little sad that I couldn't get the extension on my Indian visa. It has been great to see everyone again and I look forward to being able to return the favor someday.
Location: Kyoto, Japan
Editor's Note: Jeez it's taken me a long time to get around to finishing this entry. I started it way back in Japan (like over 2 months ago) and got about half-way done before I got distracted. So although the details might be a little rusty, the pictures might compensate for it.
Last week my host father asked me if I wanted to go fishing. I was in the mood for some adventure and I readily accepted. Did I know what I was in for? No. Did I have any clue whatsoever? No.
I figure that if I were interested in being somewhat informed about things that immediately concerned me then I would have stayed at UPS. At UPS I have a schedule and, as a general rule, things follow that schedule.
This Saturday however, I woke up early and shuffled downstairs to get a quick bite of breakfast before I was out the door with my host father (I call him Otto-san). We drove for an hour or two to his friends house, their connection I found out was that they were both in the same fishing club --- they call themselves "The Kyoto Anglers Club."
We picked up some more of my father's friends, who actually didn't look as salty as I pictured most old Japanese fishermen to be. They had a whole minute by minute itinerary planned for the weekend and each of them had an allotment of cash in individually labeled envelopes.
The drive down took most of the day including a lunch stop at a conveyor belt sushi restaurat (don't ask), a walking tour of an aquarium, and a trip to an on-sen, or hot-spring spa, but finally arrived and joined the rest of the club at the hotel by the dock. That evening we feasted on gu-re, the "target fish" as they described it, in order, I hypothesized, to gain enough courage and strength to catch this mildly unattractive (but tasty!) fish. The old guys sipped sake until they were red in the face and then we all went upstairs to our rooms and fell asleep.
In the morning, er, actually, at 3:30 am we woke up and went downstairs to breakfast on rice balls before strapping into our super-awesome life preservers and boarding the fishing boat.
"Oh," I thought, "this fishing on a boat shouldn't be too bad." I was still very sleepy and the idea of slowly casting and reeling in my line at my leisure didn't seem too bad.
But that's not what happened. We started pulling up to big sharp isolated rocks and dropping fishermen and their gear off. My rock (which was shared with Otto-san and his friend) was one of the last that the boat bumped up to with it's three tires roped to the front. We went for it, feeling more or less like soldiers arriving on a beach a la Saving Private Ryan or some other war movie.
It was odd to be stranded out there for the day with only fishing gear and the clothes on our back, but we made. I always figured that castaways who wash up on some deserted island would go crazy, and it may just be a testament to to amicability of the Japanese, but I rather enjoyed my stay on the rock.
We passed the morning hours by fishing, punctuated the rhythm of the casting rods with a lunch bento (delivered by boat!), and then in the afternoon resorted to our sneakiest tricks to catch what we were actually going for in order to not return to the club in shame. No matter what luck and or skill I might have had on my side, the gu-re didn't bite. Yet I didn't mind at all--- I'm a vegetarian.
Location: Kyoto, Japan
I've been in Japan for about a week and a half and have just now gotten the gumtion to update this thing. It's like a weird parallel universe here everything from the crosswalks to the stores to the fashion is similar but eerily different. By the way, I love Kyoto. It's surrounded by verdant green hillsides and on every block there's at least one little Shinto or Buddhist shrine connecting the modern hustle and bustle to older traditions.
My host family is very nice indeed. Yesterday they took me to a Japanese tea ceremony. I sat on my legs for so long that both my legs, all the way up to my hips, were completely numb. It was a little embarassing trying to stand up, but after a couple of minutes of stretching I was ready to go. I guess that's about it for now. Check out the pictures if you haven't already.
Location: Dunhuang, China
This place is great! I just arrived in Dunhuang last night after a 26 hour train ride and 2 hour bus ride across the desert. Dunhuang is an ancient Silk Road pit stop turned toursit destination. It's famous for the Buddhist grottos just outside the city limits that were pilgrimage sites for Buddhist traders I don't know how long ago. I'm going there tomorrow with the group and for today I'm just chilling out and using my limited Chinese.
Anyway, this'll be a short entry because I'm using the only email capable computer to be found in these parts and the others might want their turn too. I'll update you on what I've been doing the past week when I get another chance. Until next time, stay tuned.
Location: Xi'an, China
I woke up early today to get a closer look at the exercises in the park across the street. I saw an old man doing some sort of sword-play and a group of women doing a synchrnonized dance routine while clapping little wooden clackers in their hands. We had class after breakfast amd then I packed my bags and hit the streets one last time to get as much of the city as I could before I had to leave. I headed back to the same park that I had been to this morning and discovered that a group of street musicians had set up a little corner for busking. What could I do but join them? I ran back to my hotel room, grabbed my guitar and dictaphone (to record their songs) and marched back to the buskers. I listened to them while trying to turn my own guitar without disturbing their music. I should have known to tune before hand because within a minute of me sitting down, a large crowd of curious Chinese people had gathered around us, waiting for my turn to play. There were about 70 people surrounding me amd I hadn't really tuned at all when the other players stopped and asked me to play. I'm not a totally extroverted guy, so when I play music I usually like to hide behind the guitar which in turn hides behind the other instruments, but now I was the center of attention. I felt like I had gotten in a lot of trouble, so I closed my eyes and tried to think through the situation. I should have know this was going to happen. I followed the music without thinking through the consequences. Now I had to something, anything. I played the couple songs that I know well and tried to not to let the nervousness in my throat keep me from singing.
During my third song I was saved by the police who had come to break up the crowd. Apparently, while I had been closing my eyes and strumming my numb white fingers off the crowd had grown so big that it was blocking traffic on the road.
So, the guys and I called it quits for a while.
The guitarists and I gathered back in a different, quiter part of the park and jammed and shared some songs that we knew.
My bus for the train station was leaving at 4:00 so at 3:45 I tried to excuse myself so I could head back to the hotel. Some guys from the audience wanted a picture with me so we rushed around doing that stuff for ten minutes. I realised that I had only one pomegranate to sustain myself with over the course of the 26 hour train ride so I ran to the bakery next door to the hotel and bought some pastries and bread. I made it on the bus at exactly 4:00 and we made our way to Dunhuang.
Location: Xi'an, China
We arrived by train last night so today was our first full day here in Xi'an. Also known as Chong'an, Gao, and Xianzhong, Xi'an was a long-time capital of the earlier dynasties that later ones traced their roots to. And I think it was the communists who gave it the current name, Xi'an, which means "Western Peace."
Anyway, I'll save the history lesson, I love this city. I wouldn't mind coming back here to live at some point. We had a guided tour of the emperor Qin Shihuangdi's tomb, you know, the one with all the terra-cotta warriors. After that we went to a silk-carpet factory showroom (an essential stop for any student tour group) amd then to the Wild Goose Pagoda, built by the Chinese pilgrim who went to retrieve scriptures from India.
Our last stop on the tour was the old city wall and we rented bicycles to ride on top of it. It was probably the most fun I've had in China so far because it granted me a little autonomy in my tour of the city and combined that with a little bit of badly needed exercise. The wall is an unrivaled vantage point to see the Xi'an from and the setting sun made it all the more beautiful.
When the ride was done. Rob, Elijah, Nicole, and I hotfooted it to that one amazine meat-on-a-stick stand just east of the bell tower and scarfed down our dinner. For dessert we had some more meat on a stick, but this time to change it up we ordered it to be liver and squid instead of chicken or beef. Quite the taste treat!
Then we walked around the Muslim Market and I bought a pomegranate, the city's emblem fruit.
Location: Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
In two days the group is packing up and heading out. It's been a wonderful opportunity to see Mongolia and meet some interesting people, but I'm a little happy to get moving again. It's actually a little bitter-sweet, but isn't it that way every time that you leave some place? For me it is. I put up some new pictures for all of you who are interested. If you want another source of travel stories from Pac-Rim, make sure to drop by www.planetranger.com/marisaandjohn to hear their side of the story.
Location: Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Here's a little slice of life in the big city:
Ulaan Baatar, with a population just under a million, is by far the largest, most cosmopolitan city in Mongolia. It is the political, economic, and fashion capital and there are numerous affluent, young Mongolians who have been internationally educated. Since our Mongolian is non-existant, we have made friends mainly within the english-speaking demographic. This is how I met Bolt.
Bolt is a Mongolian hip-hop pioneer.
Bolt's group, called "The Crew," was one of the first Mongolian groups to break away from simply sampling stale American beats and adding Mongolian words to it, as had been the style up until a few years ago. "The Crew," while internationally educated in the music industry, makes all their own beats and rhymes with a truly indigenous flavor.
I tagged along with my friend Mike (see picture of him with airag) to the Grand Khaan Irish Pub one night to meet up with some cool Mongolian guys who Mike had met earlier in the week. Bolt was there with his producer and another rapper named Batbold. I wasn't sure what to make of these guys at the time; they were pretty open about themselves, very friendly, and they were also interested in my band back in the states. It seemed like no big deal. How was I to know that I was hanging out with some of the biggest names in the central Asian music scene?
So, yesterday as I was cooking my lunch and watching Mongolian MTV, I hear this kind of gangster-rap type song come on the tv. I turn around from my skillet to see Batbold hop out of suped up Jeep and start a big dance party in the middle of the street. It was one of the coolest things that I have seen on the trip. Batbold, B.A.T. as he went by in the video, was break dancing and rapping right there on national tv. Bolt was in the background too, waving his arms in the air and singing along to the chorus. I went to the record store right after the video was done and bought two of their albums.
Location: Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Aha! It's the first day of October and our clocks have been pushed back so everything feels a little off. I just walked downtown from the hostel, the walk takes around 40 minutes, and as I sat down at Peak Restaurant it started to snow. This city is so beautiful when it's covered by snow. The white flakes seem to flatten the smog in the air onto the sidewalk where it can be washed away. The solution is only temporary, however, because as long as the three huge coal-burning power plants are pumping the crap back into the air there will always be smog.
But, for now, the streets are white, the air is crisp, and I get to wear my nice warm golves.
Location: Outside of Ulaan Ul, Mongolia
Last night we drove from Renchenlhumbe to our current campsite which is over 100k away. We made ourselves at home after grabbing every fallen tree limb within sight, creating a huge bonfire (I'm talking 30 foot flames), and then setting up our tents in the falling ash.
I bathed in the freezing cold spring-fed creek with Elijah and soon the other vans arrived with some new friends. Some of our drivers are local and so they picked up their friends who joined us for the goat feast that night.
It's so beautiful here. I hope I will be able to come back here someday.
Location: White Lake, Mongolia
Day 3 of the roadtrip:
I stayed in a ger (yurt) last night. I was told that they were very warm, and silly me I figured that must be the case since they were developed to accommodate the harsh Mongolian plains in winter, but let me tell you that last night was one of the coldest nights of my life. Other than that it's not half bad. It's roomy, you can feel very relaxed in a ger. Highly recommended. I just know that I'm double layering the felt on my ger when I get one.
I dsicovered today the Abbot's main man is packing heat. I see it strapped to his side as he walks my way up the hill. He and the Abbot are both very friendly, the Abbot especially has been very generous, but I'd feel safer without the gun than with it. Granted I don't know how things work around here, but it's a little startling to be reminded so often of the possibility that it might have to be used.
Maybe it's just for show.
Location: Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
We had a bet going last night regarding when the noisy American buisnessman would wake us up in the middle of the night with his relentless knocking and drunken mumbles. I bet 4 am.
This morning, however, we woke up and realised that he was a no-show, so nobody won. Or should I say that we all won because there was finally peace and quiet in the hostel?
I had a very good taxi ride today from downtown. Our driver got a little lost but made the best of the situation by explaining Mongolian directional phrases to us: "Zoong" means left, "Chigurei" is straight, and right is "Barang." With that knowledge, the awesome power to actually get to where we need to go, we cruised on home and learned the most important taxi-ride-word of them all, "Zogz," which means stop.
Location: Beijing International Airport, China
We're waiting to board our flight to Ulaan Baatar now. Beijing, from what I can tell, is situated inside of a giant cloud. I just saw a plane take off into that cloud, it was a giant Air China plane which, nine seconds after leaving the runway, disappeared completely from sight. I wonder if that's what my ascent will look like to someone on the ground.
The trip has been long, sweaty and a little frustrating at times. The constantly changing scenery is a little hard to keep up with but I know that soon the view from my airplane window will stop moving so fast and I'll be in a green valley somewhere in cental Mongolia. I can't wait. Wish me luck, I'm about to take off.