Sunday, December 31, 2006
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Well, so, here we are, the last days of 2006 and we've managed to do and see all sorts of wonderful things... about which I haven't written at all!
So, first a little update about us. We're still living in Beijing, China, in a nice flat on the 35th floor of an area which has seen tremendous development this year (just ask us about the melodic sound of hammers, cranes and all sort of machines "easing" your way out of sleep in the morning...), still together after 5 and a half years (well, almost), and still eager to travel all around (inside and outside China). We've been living in this, the capital of the People's Republic of China, for a year and a half already! and it really doesn't feel that long (a good sign; imagine saying "and it's felt an eternity...").
As for the good things we've had this year, well, it's been mostly trips! I mean, you know how addicted I am to travelling, I practically live waiting for the next trip, so it's natural I put travel as one of the things that has brought us the most pleasure this year. And where have we been? Well... within China we've been to Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Macau, Hong Kong and Xi'an, and abroad we've been to Japan (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara), Singapore and Thailand (Bangkok, Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai). I also travelled to Mexico (without my habib), for work, and on top of that we also had a surprise visit from my parents, for my birthday! They stayed a couple of weeks with us, and it was awesome, really! we had so much fun introducing China to them, and they loved it.
Workwise... well, you may laugh, I've rewritten this paragraph so many times! I've scraped the darker version and will summarise it like this: I've learnt A LOT, as my job gets you close to babies and corpses, tycoons and jails, artists and con-artists, slime-balls and... more slime-balls! You can throw a number of things at me now, and I won't bat an eyelid. Oh, and I can say ('cause now I KNOW) I won't sell myself for a million dollars.
Well, what else... Well, there's just too much. I should have been writing every now and then, and of course now all I can say is we've had an awesome 2006, and are totally looking forward to 2007 (well, of course, more travel!).
Happy new year!
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Chiang Mai, the last part of our trip (well, almost, we still spent an additional weekend in Bangkok for partying, shopping, buying books and just relaxing), was a really pleasant surprise. It all started sort of wrong: we had booked a "bungalow" somewhere "near" the old city. We arrived at night, and an employee from the guesthouse picked us up. We drove to the old city, and then away, and away, and further away from it, into areas that looked progressively less friendly and safe. We had already payed a deposit, so... When we finally arrived, the employee took us... to a bedroom! His English was very limited, and my Thai would only get us a vegetarian meal (lol), but in the end it became clear that they had given the bungalow to someone else, and that they we're offering us the bedroom, free of charge for that night while they sorted things out with the owner, who was in the U.S. at the time. Well, I had booked a nice, spacious bungalow, and it wasn't certain we'd get it the next day, so we went to an internet cafe, logged onto a last-minute booking site, did a super-quick search, and booked another hotel somewhere else. It could be a worse place, but I just didn't want to stay at a place which hadn't bothered to keep our booking! So we went for our stuff, I called the owner to the U.S., informed him of our decision, asked for the refund of our deposit, and left for the other guesthouse. When we arrived, my heart sank, it looked like your average grotty backpacker guesthouse! and it was late already, we were tired... The people there didn't have the slightest idea of what to do with the booking I had printed out, until they realised we were actually staying at a boutique hotel on the other side of town with the same name! Onto the tuk-tuk again, and we FINALLY got there: a traditional hotel, with a HUGE main room, tasteful and big bathroom, and balcony. YEAY! And, best of all, the nicest staff you could ever find. They fixed us a delicious dinner, brought it to our room to eat on the balcony, there was wi-fi in the room, the place was quiet, with a nice garden, trees, candles on the footpaths leading to the rooms... I'm so glad the previous guesthouse screwed up!
Chiang Mai is a place you have to visit. Even if it is Thailand's second biggest city, it's still fairly relaxed, and the temples there are superb! With the exception of Wat Phra Khaeo in Bangkok, we liked Chiang Mai's temples better. We visited, among others:
- The city's oldest temple, Wat Chiang Man, our first encounter with Thailand's northern temple architecture.
- Wat Chedi Luang, an enormous temple with shrines that had probably some of the most beautiful roofs we saw in all our trip, and some beautiful seven headed nagas (snakes).
- Wat Phra Sing, with the strangest lion statue I've ever seen guarding a temple (check out the head), and with some very beautiful scenes on the inside of the main shrine.
That (plus a few other places), and the unbelievably welcoming attitude of the staff at our hotel, made our stay a really pleasant one.
We were also somewhat interested in checking out some of Thailand's minorities, who live in the north, but we were pretty far from that (they live in the far north and in places not so readily accessible) and so had almost discarded the idea... when I saw some tour agencies did day trips to visit some tribes (especially the long-neck ones, where the women put metal bands around their necks, elongating them). Well, that seemed ideal! a day trip! so there were some groups not far from Chiang Mai after all! We signed up, and took a van the next morning, along with two Japanese and two Americans.
First, we drove for about half an hour to an Orchid and Butterfly farm. Not bad. Then to some caves (the Chiang Dao Caves), to see some shrines and some buddhas inside the caves. Not awe-inspiring, but fine. And then, another hour or more through winding roads to reach Tha Thon, a temple up the mountains, and a trip where we were finally told we'd be reaching the towns we were visiting at about 2pm, near the border with Myanmar! We were actually visiting THOSE tribes! I mean, if we had asked, we would have know, and we would have NOT GONE, but who would have thought that! I mean, it was a DAY TRIP, were we supposed to think we'd drive a total of FIVE HUNDRED KILOMETRES? Anyhow, we were already there, there was no turning back, and we finally got there, to see some Akha and Karen hill tribes. This last pic is a Karen woman. The smile was a natural one, because I tripped when stepping back to take the pic!
The experience was really strange. There we were, a group of foreigners visiting groups of refugees from Myanmar who made a living by keeping their traditional dress and some crafts. The town was a bit of a set up, as the groups lived further up the mountains, but they had this smaller camp where they could sell their stuff to tourists. In a way, it seemed fair: you keep your traditions, I'll pay you for it. But after a while you began to wonder, how much of their culture was being preserved? what about their languages? was there any effort to preserve their linguistic heritage as there was to preserve their personal decoration? how about their other traditions, like songs, dances, legends? Was the whole deal focused on preserving the most superficial aspect of their cultures, the one that tourists (including us) could photograph easily? Well, we had an interesting experience alright, and we also came to the conclusion that that's not the kind of ethnic tourism we're into. And we still had to drive back to Chiang Mai, and the drive back seemed ENDLESS. Next time we want to see some remote village, we'll skip the tours.
Once back home we were KNACKERED, but we still had to have dinner! Luckily, just across the road there was this very nice French restaurant, next to a river, and we had a wonderful, relaxing dinner there.
The last day we gave our bodies a well deserved TWO HOUR full Thai massage, which was somewhat different from what you got further south, the techniques were a bit different (I'm no expert, so i can't elaborate further, sorry!). That was GOOD. Oh, and the weather was so much better than in Bangkok, sunny but just a bit warm, even a bit cool at night!
And so, in love with Chiang Mai, we left back for Bangkok for two more days before heading back home to Beijing.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
After so many exhausting days in Bangkok we headed for Ayutthaya, where we were going to spend a whole day and stay overnight. I had visited Ayutthaya in 1999, and was really eager to take my habib there! I remembered it as a place packed with ancient and impressive monuments surrounded by peaceful green areas with lily ponds, a place to appreciate slowly, taking in all it had to offer little by little. That time I had visited a wonderful museum about Siam and Ayutthaya, funded by the Japanese, with a very nice design and quite a few interactive exhibits. And, on top of it all, this time there was going to be a cultural festival, and the place had been designated not long ago as a World Heritage Site!
What we found was, well, "slightly" different. There was a festival alright, which consisted of tons of tents, stands and stages, packed with crap: crap goods (shoddy clothes, watches, DVDs, house appliances, you name it!), crap shows (girls in mini-skirts clumsily dancing to bad pop, totally amateurish representations of what Ayutthaya must have been like before, speakers blasting your ears with bad music...), and hundreds of people completely uninterested in any of the ruins (which you could barely see thanks to all the stages and tents, anyhow). There was no peace and quiet to be found, and the pics I show here are deceiving, as they were taken from very specific angles.
As for the museum, well, most of the interactive exhibits were broken, and it looked rather run down all in all. What a shame.
Still, the ruins are impressive by all means, and maybe the place did revert to a more peaceful, respectful atmosphere after the "cultural" festival, but maybe I wouldn't recommend staying the night, maybe just doing it as a day trip from Bangkok. Maybe I'm a snob, and I can't understand how an all-the-crap-you-can-buy "cultural" bazaar and Siamese ruins and lily ponds interact.
NEXT POST: CHIANG MAI
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
As our last trip of the year we chose a place where we could have it all: ancient monuments, culture, great food, and totally superficial shopping and clubbing. Where else could that have been but Thailand! We spent a total of 15 days seeing the country.
Our first stop was Bangkok. In some ways it wasn't a very pleasant experience, it sort of reminded us of Mexico City's problems: pollution, traffic jams, lots of great infrastructure but with an unfortunate organisation... And on top of that, it was HOT. I know most people flee to Thailand to escape cold weather, but I was sort of hoping for temperatures closer to 20+ degrees Celsius (it was December, after all!), but instead got 30+!
Actually, it wasn't even my first time to Bangkok, I had visited already on my own in 1999. And stayed two days (maybe even less): I had been travelling for about a month through some very relaxed, easy-going, quiet towns and places in China, Laos and northern Thailand, and when I got to Bangkok I got fed up with the noise, the size of the city, the traffic, the crowds, and after visiting the main sightseeing spots I fled to the jungle on a tour! LOL So, this time I was determined to explore and enjoy the city I rejected so strongly 7 years ago.
We spent seven days in Bangkok, and we actually planned the trip so we'd be there for the king's birthday! The king was born on a Tuesday (I think, correct me if I'm wrong!) and, since for Thais the colour of Tuesday is yellow, then the king's colour is YELLOW! and yellow was Bangkok's favourite colour all the time we were there: almost everyone was wearing a yellow t-shirt (some with messages like "I love the king" or "long live the king"), and there were yellow flags and banners with the king's image EVERYWHERE. On the king's birthday, we made it to Wat Phra Khaeo (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), probably the highlight of any visit to Bangkok, where hundreds upon hundreds of Thais were visiting, praying, and sitting wherever they were allowed to wait until nightfall and sing a birthday song to the king. It was pretty hot, all the shady places had been taken up, and the crowds were getting a bit too much to handle, so we decided to leave and come back at night to watch all the Thais sing to their king.
By the time we tried to get back, it was almost impossible! We had to get off the taxi blocks ahead of the temple, and could only make it to Sanam Luang Park, in front of the temple and the Grand Palace. All of Bangkok was there, wearing yellow, and holding candles, waiting for the right time. At about 8pm we heard some singing in the distance, coming from the Palace and temple, and so all the people around us started singing and holding their candles high! I am most definitely not a fan of worshipping someone (dead or alive), and the Thai king is adored and revered by his people (we could compare the reverence they have for him with the reverence practicing catholics have for the pope), but the whole experience was really nice, even a bit mystical (hundreds of people, wearing similar clothes, singing with candles, ok?), and it was especially touching when they started singing the Thai anthem after the birthday song. We left shortly after that, exhausted, but content.
I could spend days writing about Bangkok alone, but there's guidebooks, novels, essays and websites about the City of Angels, so let me just tell you about just a few other interesting things we saw there:
- Puppet Theatre. This is an art form that was lost for a long time, but was revived as part of project from the king (one of a great number of projects sponsored by him). The stories told are usually stories from the Ramakien, which is Thai version of the Indian Ramayana. What's interesting is not just the detail the puppets show, or the fanciness of the story lines (we saw one with Hanuman, a four armed divine monkey with crystal teeth and diamond fur, a giant snake being wrapped around an upside down mountain to churn a potion from an ocean of milk, and a god sliced in half who takes revenge by eating the moon and the sun, hence explaining eclipses), but that each puppet is held by three people (sort of like Japanese bunraku) who seamlessly coordinate the puppets head, arms and legs, and who actually move and dance pretty much what the puppet does! Really interesting.
- Buddhism. It smells of hinduism here. So, there's Buddhas everywhere, mostly as a central image in temples, but what can you tell me about this shrine to Ganesha, where people pay dancers to thank him for wishes granted?
- Muay Thai. We couldn't resist it, we had to go see a match! Is it violent? No, it's ULTRAviolent. Those small looking guys give some mean kicks! so powerful! And you shouldn't miss the ritual before the fight, where they sort of dance to some soft rhythmic traditional music, after which they proceed to beat and kick the lights out of each other. We couldn't take our eyes off of them! Except to watch the ecstatic crowd cheering them.
- Khon. Another traditional art revived by his majesty. So lost was this kind of art that none of the Thais we met had the faintest idea of what Khon was. Once again, stories from the Ramakien, and another story with Hanuman as the main character. You could see the Chinese influence there, except that dialogues are recited/sung not by the actors, but by two other artists standing on the side of the stage. It was interesting, but all the actors were too young, and their performance was a bit lacking. Still, hopefully the project will continue and they'll gain on experience and pass it on.
- Nightlife. It wasn't all culture and spiritual enrichment we were after, right? We partied often, and hard. We took a walk along Bangkok's infamous Patpong, where countless night clubs offer shows that would make most of my female friends cringe just by READING the things those women can do with their private bits. As much as you could consider those women just as people really good at using a part of the bodies for profit, it wasn't our cup of tea and took it only as a cultural tour, and didn't enter any of the clubs. Which doesn't mean we didn't party, lol; I'll just say we got our FAIR SHARE of fun.
- The upper world, and the lower reaches... Well, it's just that some parts of Bangkok are like a bit like a futuristic movie, where the upper classes live above ground and the lower ones next to it! You have to get on the Sky Train (an elevated mass transit system) to see it: you can use it to get to any number of nice, fancy shopping malls, or just to avoid the ugly traffic below, or simply to walk from one point to the other. And when you look down, you see all these cramped streets, some packed with street vendors, noisy, with worn facades, where the people who can't afford the Sky Train (which is a bit pricey by Thai standards) jostle to move around. Weird.
- FOOD. What can I say, not only was food spicy and delicious, but most of the places we tried had either vegetarian options, or were more than willing to modify their dishes for me. Of the very few words/sentences I learned in Thai was "I'm vegetarian"! LOL.
NEXT POST: THAILAND PART 2: AYUTTHAYA
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Finally, we also took my parents to experience some of Beijing's normal but picturesque simple things, especially around the city's old hutongs (胡同), or traditional alleyways.
We took them shopping... Though I think what my dad enjoyed most was shopping at the Silk Market (秀水街)! The man hates shopping, ok? He's the kind of person to go to a place knowing what he wants, getting it right away, and lingering no more. My mom's the opposite, she looks around, tries stuff, looks at other stuff she didn't intend to buy... which drives my dad crazy! So what's the difference in China? In China, in places like the Silk Market, you have to haggle! Vendors will usually quote whichever price they feel they can get away with, and then some more, so not haggling is suicide. And my dad had the time of his life arguing, joking, pretending, and using whatever tactics he could think of to bring prices down! He was like a child playing a game, and for the first time in his life he enjoyed "shopping". LOL
We also took them to see old houses and entryways...
Wandering around narrow, bike-filled streets...
And experiencing the calm atmosphere of this side of Beijing...
In a previous post I mentioned my dad had always wanted to go to Macao. But that doesn't mean he had always wanted to go to China, ok? In fact, he had always expressed a lack of interest, even though I had lived there twice before. But now, with this visit, and having seen Hong Kong, Macao and practically everything there was to see in Beijing, he left with a wholly different view! My mom, well, she's my mom, she wanted to visit me wherever. Which doesn't mean she didn't enjoy this, au contraire, between my dad, me and my habibi - and the shopping! - she had a fantastic trip, if I may say.
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Like I mentioned in my previous post, it wasn't all just eating here and there. If there's something else you can't miss in a city like this is history. And this is one place where the description "millenarian culture" can be taken quite literally!
There's so much to see that even though we took my parents to all the places we could, they still had plenty more to visit and discover on their own on those days I was at work.
Obviously, we took them to Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City. And these two make for more than enough in a single day, huge as they are both in physical terms as well as historical. But among the gazillion places they visited with and without us, I'll talk about three. Why three? Well, to begin with, these are the ones I have the best photos of! Ha! But also, really, I'm not going to talk about every single place and adventure - it's just not doable!
Anyhow, first, the Dongyue Temple, or 东岳庙. It's Taoist, it's got a courtyard with numerous stone steles, it's got a gorgeous twisted tree that had to be propped up to keep it from falling, and it has the weirdest collection of statues you could imagine - dozens of them, in numerous halls, representing demons, horrible ways of dying, and multiple ghastly punishments for people failing in this life. Something my parents would most definitely not find home!
We also took them for some Peking Opera (京剧) at the Huguang Guild Hall (湖广会馆)! Once known as one of the "four great theatres" of Beijing, this is definitely one of the places you want to take someone for Peking Opera. The shows are pretty good. But what's also amazing is that the show takes place pretty much as it originally would! That is, you sit at tables, not on rows of seats. You can eat and drink while you watch the show. And nobody expects you to sit straight and motionless and keep quiet! My mom liked it. My dad loved it!
And, but of course, the Great Chinese Wall (長城)! I was not going to miss going there with my parents! We had fine weather (yay for October!), not too many people, and it was a chance for my habib to see where part of my zest for seeing the world comes from, as my dad (who's no youngster) wasted no time to walk the wall and climb bits of it as far as I was willing to! While my poor habib had to stay behind with my mom who had made it very clear she was very happy with the views of the wall from the distance and that she had no need for any dashing and darting and climbing and what not that her son and husband were obviously just too eager to do.
It's was just real cool to show my parents all these (and other!) historic sights. Real fun! And then there was just the ordinary side of Beijing, about which I'll talk in my next post.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Gotta give it to my parents, they visited us in Beirut, and now they've visited us in da 'Jing (that's local expat lingo for Beijing)! And... they timed it so they would arrive for my birthday! Kudos to the folks, totally. They spent a couple of weeks with us, and they even took a trip to Hong Kong and Macao! I love how adventurous my dad is, and he had always wanted to visit Macao, since he was a kid! So I was delighted he took this trip to visit us as an opportunity to realize one of his childhood dreams. Or maybe he took his trip to Macao as an opportunity to come visit us? LOL
Anyhow, I have way too many photos for a single post, so I'll split this in three parts. First, and very importantly, especially in a place like China, food! For what's a travel experience without food? And man did we have them eat and try so many things!
The very first thing we had them try was one of our favourite restaurants - Pure Lotus (净心莲). It's vegan. It's Buddhist. The ambiance is Buddho-kitschy, which is fantastic. The staff are attentive. And the food is out of this world. They have your usual vegan dishes (you know, steamed veggies and the like), but they also have mock dishes which are unbelievably real down to very minute details and which are indisputably delicious. Even my dad, who's not anti-vegan but who's very certainly UNvegan, liked it!
We also took them to Wangfujing's (王府井) night market! Wangfujing is a pedestrianized area in the eastern part of town, full of shops and snack vendors and what not. We go there pretty often for a walk, for the bookshops, to eat dumplings... But the night market is special, as you'll find a number of things on a stick you'd never have considered as food before! Now, you won't be surprised to hear I didn't have any of this. But I don't think I remember my parents or my habib having any either! Or maybe they did that out of some strange respect for me and went back on their own some other day? That wouldn't be completely unthinkable... Hmmm...
Something else I was positive I did not want them to miss was our favourite hangout after a night of partying - Bellagio (鹿港小镇)! Almost without exception, every single night after clubbing we end up at this Taiwanese restaurant. Hell, the waitresses already know our quirks! No animal products in what I order, no pork for the habibi, coconut milk instead of condensed milk for desserts... So, we brought mom and dad (not after partying, of course, but for lunch) to try, for example, their Gong Bao tofu (宫保豆腐), which is like Gong Bao (or Kung Pao) chicken, but infinitely better with the tofu cubes crisp on the outside, with cashews, and huge rings of dried red chili peppers. Yum! But what proved most fun was sharing with my parents our usual dessert: Bing Sha (冰沙)! Now, bing sha is usually translated as smoothie, but the true Chinese/Taiwanese incarnation has a centre of shaved ice, with condensed milk (or, in our case, coconut milk) on top, and beans of different sorts on top and around. Yes, beans! And it's SO good! It took my parents a bit to get around the idea of beans as a sweet dessert stuff, but they managed fine!
Let's see, what else... Well, we took them to a Yunnanese restaurant (that is, a restaurant with food from the southern province of Yunnan), where they had the most varieties of fungus in their lives. We went for a Sichuanese restaurant (food from the western province of Sichuan) where they absolutely loved the super hot and spicy dishes and fish. In the mornings, they would also go to the most basic and ordinary local street stall for dumplings! And we took them to a tea house to have some green tea, and taught them to noisily sip it so the air entering their mouth would aid in perceiving the flavours, and had them munch on some green-tea-powder covered pumpkin seeds...
All in all, just the culinary part of their visit was super fun for all of us! It's just great sharing something like that with people you love, right?
Of course, we did more than eat. We explored the city, obviously. But that'll be the next post.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
The pics:1. Evening view of Singapore, 2. Kampong Glam (Muslim quarter), 3. Indian temple in China Town, 4. Magic Carpet by Xu Bing, 5. Lotus with Chinese Calligraphy
We spent a whole week in Singapore, staying at the place of a good friend of mine (whom I had met when studying in China ages ago!). Some people just stay a couple of days in Singapore, and then go on somewhere else (Bali, for example), but we actually enjoy spending some time at one place, to soak it up and appreciate the little details you might miss on a shorter visit.
Things we enjoyed (in NO particular order):
- How orderly and efficient everything is! I hear some residents get tired of that, they even call it boring, but we had no problem at all finding all the appropriate indications at the appropriate places, being able to use public transport with zero fuzz, having easy access to information about whatever we thought of doing, etc. etc. So what if you have to pay a fine of some thousand Singapore dollars if you bring a smelly durian (a fruit typical of this area, with a VERY strong rot-like smell) into the subway! LOL
- The Night Safari! The Singapore Zoo is open at night, and I loved walking the trails in semidarkness, getting surprised by HUGE flying squirrels (honest, HUGE), and having our trail blocked by a bat hanging from a branch. A bat with a wingspan of 1.5 metres or so, mind you. I loved it. My habib didn't quite fancy the squirrels or the bat, especially since we were so close to them, but that sort of made it more fun for me (I'm evil).
- Swimming with dolphins: We spent about an hour training with pink dolphins. First time in our life we ever touched one! It's so weird looking at them in the eye, and realising this is another intelligent mammal. And playing with them is loads of fun!
- Nightlife: NO complaints here. NONE.
- Xu Bing! This is a Chinese artist who does amazing things involving Chinese characters and things that LOOK like Chinese characters. We had seen "Book of Heaven" in Hong Kong, and now we got to see "Magic Carpet". A whole carpet, maybe 5m x 5m, filled with "Chinese characters" which, when looked up close, reveal themselves as actual English words whose letters have been modified and placed to resemble Chinese characters! wicked! you have to see it to understand it. It was Singapore's Biennale, and we got to see a number of interesting works of art besides Xu Bing's. For example, at the Kuan Im Temple there was this big stone recipient with lotuses, and the stems and leaves had Chinese characters engraved on them! Check out the pic!
- Food, glorious food, Indian, Malay, Chinese, fusion...
- And more art: there was a special exhibition of Japanese Noh theatre! Having been in Japan and seen a full Noh performance, we were more than ready to appreciate this exhibition. I have to tell you, the way the exhibition was presented... the lighting, the way things were placed, they really took their time to put on display some select works of art and make them look even more incredible than they were. When you see how some museums in other countries treat their most important cultural treasures...
- And malls of every size, one of which includes what has become one of our favourite bookstores: Kinokuniya! Books in English on whatever you want and need. We went at least 3 times, and bought enough to get us into trouble at the airport when checking in to fly back to Beijing...
We had a fantastic time. Singapore for just 2-3 days? No way, at least a week.