July 30, 2006

Good times in Hong Kong

I'm loving this city. Sure, you need money, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. Great food (I'm on the Roast Duck Diet - one plate of duck a day), beautiful women, and awesome lounges and clubs. I should have lived here instead of Lausanne!

Last night I convinced Korn to party until 6 in the morning. Actually, I tricked him into it. Sucka.

July 28, 2006

Hong Kong

After a couple of days in Guangzhou (the New Jersey of China), where I met Korn, ate some good dim sum, and marvelled at how ugly the women are (and how bad their hair is), we left for Macau.

Macau gets a bad rap for having too many casinos and too many whores. I disagree with this assessment. We found a charming european city with pedestrian avenues, nice shops, gorgeous villas, and great mountain vistas. We also checked out a few of the casinos. The Chinese casinos (eg: the Lisboa) which the guidebooks promised were full of smoking, spitting degenerates, had cleaned up their act and were rather civilized. In fact, they were eerily quiet. The ultra-modern Sands felt more like Vegas what with the cheeseball cover band, rows of slot machines, and cocktail bar.

Hong Kong is great except for the fact that internet access is hard to come by. We're staying in the infamous Mirador Mansions (which are not anywhere near to being Mansions) in Kowloon. We've spent our days walking around, checking out good looking people, doing a bit of shopping (and tailoring), and a whole lot of eating. The two of us managed to polish off a whole Peking Duck. Delicious! The weather is horrible, probably due to the typhoon that's about to hit Taiwan.

Another Birthday Shout-Out

Happy birthday to my little brother Poopie-Loopie!

May the following bring you prosperity, good health, plenty of hot women, fine food, and even a lucrative job!

July 22, 2006

Sleeper bus from hell

At 9:48am this morning, I hit the low point of my 10 week trip. Exhausted, filthy, hungry, and suffering from an asthma attack after 16hrs on a sleeper bus, I had just been told by the fifth hotel in a row that they were fully booked. I slumped over in the middle of the road, let out a slow wail, then composed myself and followed plan B.

I walked into the middle of the pedestrian street, put away my guidebook and looked completely clueless. Sure enough, within 5 minutes, a tout had approached me, offering "sleeping room?" I was willing to pay anything to collapse on a bed. She took me to a chinese hotel and showed me the "deluxe double." Even in my addled, exhausted state, I managed to negotiate a 50% discount. I spent today passed out, recovering from the one of the worst bus rides of my life.

Yesterday afternoon, at the bus station, the sleeper bus seemed like a good idea. A couple of friendly post-doctorate chinese students also encouraged me, telling me that it was likely that the train would be sold out. I had heard about these sleeper buses - picture a bus filled with bunk beds, 36 beds in all, piled 2 high, and arranged 3 bunks wide. Again, I thought, what a great concept! Alas, I didn't figure on the beds being sized for the average asian. My legs were too long and the bunk was wide enough just for my body and arms if I lied on my back. Thus, for 16 hours, I was lying down, curled up in some form or another, hanging on for my dear life as the insane bus driver threw the bus into wild turns. He had put me in the absolute worst spot: the top bunk right in front. I was right over the wheel, so I felt every bone-jarring bump, and I was also swung from side to side as he went into turns. To make matters worse, the driver's buddy, who sat right underneath my bunk, kept chain-smoking, despite the prominent no-smoking signs. My attempts to get him to stop were in vain, so I suffered through an asthma attack and drippy nose. My sole consolation was that my used tissues kept falling on the rogue smoker. I arrived in Guangzhou (aka Canton), thoroughly exhausted, but glad to be off the bus from hell.

To console myself, I bought myself a $3 latte and I'm planning to take myself out for a nice dinner. GZ is known for its food. My buddy Korn arrives tomorrow so I'm looking forward to a week of Seinfeld references and silly jokes.

July 20, 2006

Why I'm looking forward to going home

I've always found the last 2 weeks of travel to be the hardest since that's when the mind starts to prepare for going home.

With only 10 days to go, here's an (incomplete) list of things I'm looking forward to:
  • Not having to kill at least one thumb-sized cockroach a night
  • Not squatting
  • No more itching after receiving 20 consecutive mosquito bites on my ankles
  • Clean clothes, instead of clothes that smell of chinese tide after having been washed in the river
  • Not being drenched in sweat for 98% of the time
  • French cheese
  • No one yelling in my ear as they speak to someone else
  • Personal space
  • Drinking out of the tap
  • Knowing how much something really costs
  • No more very bizzare and outsized insects landing on me
  • My music collection
  • 24 hour electricity
  • Cold, cold beer
  • Sleeping on a soft bed instead of a wooden plank with a thin lining
  • Hot water all the time, with real water pressure. And in a separate shower stall instead of having a nozzle over the toilet
  • A nice glass of wine
  • A big steak
  • A dry fart

Things I'm not looking forward to:
  • The morning commute
  • $3 coffees
  • Fox news
  • Missing travelling

Correction from last post

Please forgive my horrible judgement from last night. The tour group was Belgian, not Dutch. They were speaking Flemish, which, at 5am, quite closely resembles Dutch.

This group has also been hit with the ugly stick. Poor guys.

July 19, 2006

Chengyang - Minority Villages, Rice Harvest, and Dutch Tourists

For almost two blissful days, I have enjoyed the peace and relative tranquility of the villages around Chengyang. With a winding, gurgling river, gorgeous green hills, and colorful fields of rice and corn in the valley, this is a wonderful setting. The sun came out again and I enjoyed the remoteness of where I am. As I wandered from village to village, over covered rain-bridges and through muddy rice paddies, I marvelled at how few tourists actually come up here. It probably has something to do with the gruelling 8 hour trip on 3 different buses.

I watched the villagers harvest the rice. I had always wondered how they would do it. It was a team operation. One girl took off her boots and waded knee-deep into the muck. Another girl followed dutifully behind her. The first girl then cut off a fistful of rice stalks with a scythe and passed it to the second girl who threw it on the side of the road to dry. Then, a tiny little girl no older than 5 grabbed as much as she could and worked a beating machine that separated the grains from the stalk. Interesting.

I had heard that as you get further north in China, the people become less friendly. This is certainly true is this area, as fewer people returned my smiles and waves as I tramped curiously through their villages. I guess I look as out of place as a Chinese tourist in West Philadelphia.

In the afternoon, my illusion of being alone came crashing down, as I stumbled upon the "Chengyang Cultural Show." There, at least 20 other tourists watched the locals put on a music and dance show. But, it still beat the throngs of CPTs in Yangshuo.

I really enjoyed having the guesthouse to myself. That pleasure came to an end at 4:30am last night when a group of older Dutch tourists arrived. They were quite loud, storming around, yelling in their guttural language, making enough noise to wake up the village. I put up with it for around ten minutes and then opened my door.

"Excuse me," I said nicely, "it's almost 5am. Can you please keep it down? You're not the only ones here."

The group rewarded me with the same look a dog owner would give you if you asked him to scoop his dog's poop off your lawn.

But, alas, the din did not diminish.

I waited another 10 minutes, hoping they would retire to their rooms. Instead, they started some sort of song and there was some clapping. I was fuming.

I slammed open my door and stormed out. Raising my voice, I said "Look. I'm trying to sleep and you're all being extremely rude. IF you do not quiet down immediately, I will personally make sure you are all woken up at 7am and I will make your stay here a living hell. Do you or do you not want to enjoy your time here?"

I was fully prepared to set my alarm for 7am and sing "Old Macdonald has a farm" at the top of my lungs.

The group leader, a bulky, sour-faced woman who had probably yet to enjoy an admiring look from a man, gave me a dirty look. But, she said something to the group, and everyone dispersed.

Suffice to say, I was not a popular guy this morning.

July 18, 2006

Dragonback Rice Terrasses and the Middle of Nowhere

Sunday morning, the Impeccably Dressed Indian and I aborted our plans to go up north of Yangshuo due to torrential rains. It was a brilliant decision and we spent the day sleeping in, eating pizzas, and lounging about. Some would say it was a wasted day, but we thoroughly enjoyed the down-time.

Yesterday, we left for Ping'an, which is 4 hours north of Yangshuo, in a lush, mountaineous range. Ping'an is a sleepy minority village whose star attractions are the rice terrasses around it. Over the past 700 years, the minorities have managed to carve out tiers of rice terrasses that cling to the sides of the hills and reach the top of each of the surrounding mountains. The visual effect is stunning, especially after hiking to the top of one of these peaks. From there, you look down upon waves upon waves of bright green, flooded rice paddies, which gracefully make their way down to the valley in a series of curved steps.

We were somewhat lucky with the weather, as we were given a three hour respite from the rains. During this time, we managed to hike out to the two major viewpoints and enjoy the views. Halfway there, we were drenched by a 20 minute deluge, but it let up enough for us to get back down to the village in time.

This morning, the Impeccably Dressed Indian left for HK and I kept going north. I am now in the Middle of Nowhere (a village called Chengyang). Here, there are a few guesthouses, one covered rain-bridge, a huddle of huts, beautiful scenery, and very few tourists. Getting here was a nightmare since the rains had washed out the roads and caused numerous landslides. So, the going was very slow and was held up at times when we had to wait for bulldozers to clear the way for us. On top of that, the bus was full of young, whiney french backpackers who complained the whole way up. The girls did find me very handsome, though (I didn't let on that I spoke french, so I had fun eavesdropping on their conversations.) It didn't rain on the way up here, but it started to pour as soon as I got out of the bus.

I'm OK

I'm just reading about the floods in China right now. While the rain has been torrential and the roads have been treacherous, Guanxhi province (where I am right now) was spared, compared to neighboring Guangdong province.

Sorry for the lack of posting on my part - I have been away from internet access since early monday morning.

5 pizzas and the cutest girls in China

For 3 days, it continued to rain in Yangshuo. The after-effects of the Taiwan Typhoon sent sheets and sheets of rain down on us, so we sought refuge in a cosy restaurant that specialized in Thai food and Wood-burning oven pizzas. The pizzas were delicious, but the real attraction was the waitresses, all of whom were absolutely adorable what with their careful, beautifully accented english and huge dimples that lit up the room. So, the Impeccably Dressed Indian and I returned for five meals in a row (lunch and dinner) and ordered mushroom and green pepper pizzas, much to the amusement of the working staff.

July 15, 2006

Rain, rain go away...

... and go bother someone else.

It's been raining for almost 24 hrs straight now. The Li Jiang river has risen several feet and the islands that used to host grazing cattle are now completely submerged. This, of course, leads one to wonder what happened to the cattle. What a waste of potentially good steak or stir-fried beef with brocolli.

The Impeccably Dressed Indian and I were planning to go up north to visit some villages and famous terrassed rice paddies, but after hours of non-stop rain we opted to stay in and wait this one out. We preferred the option of a relatively dry day indoors to hiking uphill on a slippery mud trail for an hour in the pouring rain with our backpacks.

We've been pretty lucky with the weather here in Yangshuo, so I shouldn't complain. Of course, it's always annoying to have to stay put and kill time while you wait for the storm to pass. I just hope this one passes! There are rumours that this storms marks the beginning of the rainy season!

July 14, 2006

Birthday Shout-Outs

First off, Happy Belated Birthday, Mom!
Second, Happy Belated Birthday, Mr. D (aka, Captain Malaprop).

May the next year bring you both happiness, good health, and prosperity.

Sorry it's late. My concept of time here in China is different since I rarely check my watch. Most of the time, I don't even know what day of the week it is.

Yangshuo - Surreal Scenery, Boat Trips, and Chinese Disneyland

Apologies for the radio silence on my end. For some reason, it was impossible for me to access this site over the past few days. Perhaps the commies decided to completely restrict freedom of speech?

I have spent the past five days in Yangshuo. What was once a sleepy, backpacker village has been overcome by the ever expanding chinese tourist industry. Western Street (which locals love to describe as "beautiful and fun") is a mini Khoa San Road, with Neon Lights, cafes serving pizza and fajitas, and nightclubs blaring chinese versions of western pop. Regardless, Yangshuo still has quite a bit of charm once you get off the main street.

Built on the Li Jiang River and surrounded by surreal green Karst formations that tower over the town, Yangshuo reminds me of Vang Vieng in Laos. However, while Vang Vieng only has one large collection of cliffs that loom over the town, Yangshuo is in a forest of these limestone cliffs. As far as the eye can see, vague rounded shapes dominate the horizon. It is straight out of a chinese painting. In fact, most of us have already seen these landscapes in countless tourism posters for China, as well as a few Kung-fu movies.

When I went to Vang Vieng, I stayed in a brand new hotel that was right on the river and had balconies that overlooked the cliffs. Surprisingly, after a painful (and hot) search for 3 rooms (there were a number of us traveling together, including D-Rock, the Korean Cutie, and the Impeccably Dressed Indian), we ended up at a brand new hotel right on the river, with balconies that overlooked the cliffs. The view is sublime and I've spent many an afternoon enjoying a cold beer on my balcony.

We have spent our days exploring the surrounding countryside on bikes, climbing - or, scrambling - up precarious paths to get better views, and cruising on the river on a boat. I found the muslim Meat on a Stick Peddler and have been loyally giving him business every night. During the week, Yangshuo is relatively quiet, but today the CPTs have started arriving en masse. There was actually a traffic jam on the highway due to the sheer number of buses shuttling spitting, umbrella-toting people into town.

Two nights ago, we were cursed with the Worst Meal of My Trip. We carefully chose the restaurant based on the large number of dining locals and the tasty-looking dishes that they had on their tables. We perursed the menu and found a few appetizing dishes. Instead of a delicious meal, we received the following:

  • Chicken Flavored Peanuts (there were maybe four tiny morsels of chicken in the plate, and to make matters worse, I'm allergic to peanuts)
  • Uncooked Bamboo Shoots without Flavor
  • A Large Pile of Tiny, Dirty Shrimp (unpeeled, unappetizing, and a real pain to eat).
  • Cold Rice
  • Cold Tea
Blech. Instead of making our way through that sludge, we went back to Ahmed, the Muslim Meat on a Stick Man, and cleaned him out.

Yesterday, we made the mistake of taking the hotel staff's recommendation and visiting the Minority Village of Shangri-La. Although my alarm bells started going off on seeing the glossy tourist brochure they presented us, we still bought "discounted" tickets for the "amazing ethnic experience." Ugh. I knew right away that I was in for some torture on arriving at a completely rebuilt village. There, we were ushered onto a boat that slowly glided past pavilions where snoozing, costumed actors would suddenly jump to life, and spring into rehearsed dances. At one point, bare chested, spear-wielding natives threated our boat with wails that sounded a lot like tibetan music. It was like going to Disneyland. To get out of that touristy kitch, we had to find our way through a maze of shops, stalls, and studios peddling overpriced souvenirs. Apparently, CPTs love it.

Today, after bidding adieu to the Korean Cutie, the Impeccably Dressed Indian and I rented bikes and made our way into the countryside. Although we got lost, and although it was ridiculously hot and humid, it was a far more enjoyable experience as we rolled through authentic ethnic villages where we were rewarded with genuine smiles, waves, and helpful directions.

July 09, 2006

Chinese Snacks

There are some amazing flavors of potato chips over here. Here's what I've tried so far (in no particular order):
  • Cucumber
  • Spicy eggplant
  • Garlic Chili
  • Ginger and Sugar
  • Korean Kim Chi
  • Korean Bul Go Gi
  • Grilled Lobster
  • BBQ Shrimp
  • Chinese Prickly Ash
Other snacks I've tried in China:
  • Meat on a stick (only from Muslims)
  • BBQ Corn
  • Boiled Corn with Chili and Salt
  • Fried potatoes on a stick
  • Fried tofu on a stick
  • Steamed vegetable dumplings
  • Fried vegetables dumplings
  • Rice noodle soup
  • Dried Yak Meat
  • Various fruits (plums, peaches, rambutan, lichees, strawberries, bananas, etc)
I refuse to try any of the following:
  • Chicken Feet (fried, boiled, or caramelized)
  • Three Sound Delicacy
  • Various mystery meats on a stick
  • Deep fried bat on a stick
  • Deep fried Insects
  • Congealed fried fish fat

July 08, 2006

Ace's Guide to Chinese Package Tourism

So you wanna be a Chinese Package Tourist? Before you leave, read this guide and follow these simple steps, in order for your trip to be a success:

  1. Talk as loudly as you can at all times. Bonus points if you talk on your cellphone at all times.
  2. Spit as often as you can. Make sure you get as much phlegm as possible and aim for foreign devils.
  3. Smoke, even if there are signs that say "No Smoking." Make sure you aim your ash at foreign devils.
  4. When in a restaurant, chew with your mouth open and make as much noise as you can. If you don't like something you're chewing, spit it on the ground or on the table.
  5. If your child has to poo, pick him up, pull his pants down, and aim for the side of the road. No harm done if your child leaves a mess in the middle of the sidewalk.
  6. Push people out of the way to get where you want to go.
  7. If you see a Foreign Devil, stare. Get as close as you can without the Foreign Devil noticing. If the Foreign Devil notices, pretend you were interested in the foliage.
  8. When your tour guide is explaining something, don't listen. Instead, spread out with the rest of the group to take up as much space as possible.
  9. Never, ever smile in a photograph. Stand as straight as you can with your arms by your side. Occasionally, flash the peace sign.
  10. When taking pictures of people, especially Foreign Devils, never ask permission. Just get as close as you can to them and click away.
  11. Only buy souvenirs from the shops that your tour guide takes you to.
  12. Make sure your clothes are of the brightest colors possible. Your pants cannot match your shirt. Bonus points if you clash.
  13. If your tour guide points at something, take a picture of it.
  14. Bring an umbrella. Use it, rain or shine.
  15. Never, ever venture out of site of your tour guide. If you stray too far, panic. Then get on your cellphone and start yelling at the top of your lungs.
  16. When given the choice between walking somewhere or taking a chairlift, take the chairlift.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

I'm back at Mama Naxi's after two nights in Tiger Leaping Gorge. She welcomed me with "Mama happy to see you! Mama has full home today but Mama save room for you!"

Tiger Leaping Gorge is definitely Yunnan's highlight. Mama had arranged a cheap ride for us from her guesthouse and sent us off with a stomach full of banana pancakes and a bag full of bananas for the trail. Along the way, we stopped off to admire the Yangze's first bend as it wound its way through the valley. The early morning mist, the green, rolling hills, and the twinkling water made for a perfect chinese painting.

2 hours into the trip, our minibus driver pulled off the road and a sketchy looking guy came over and told us that if we went with him, he would drive us the rest of the way and also sell us a discounted entrance ticket. Our driver (who we sort of trusted) told us it was ok, so we changed minibuses. Sure enough, we saved 30 Yuan and got a ride 1km into the park, saving us an hour of hiking.

The hike is one of the most spectacular hikes I've ever done. You start at the entrance to the gorge and immediately start climbing. Up and up, through 28 bends you ascend 900m in less than 2 hours, passing enterprising chinese with their horses, offering to take you up. Over 1000m below the precarious, treacherous trail, the mighty Yangtze roars, rages, and crashes its way between towering, vertical cliffs. The Gorge itself is less than 1000m wide and is lined with massive granite walls that shoot up a dizzying 3500m from the riverbed. Far below, the river churns and twists for over 16km through this wild, narrow gorge. In true chinese fashion, the government blasted a road beside the river, without concern for the ecological impact, so chinese package tourists can now drive into the gorge for that perfect picture. Luckily, chinese tourists are too lazy to actually hike the terrain, so the "high road" (which is nothing more than a winding, slippery, rocky path) is quiet, 1km above the belching tour buses.

The first day, we hiked for 7 hours (including an hour stop for a delicious lunch at a guesthouse on the trail). This hike took us up through bamboo forests, sub-tropical vegetation, over a rocky, arid peak, and down through an alpine pine forest. We passed through small villages with their rice and corn terrasses and smiling children, beside roaring waterfalls, and over a few minor landslides. We were lucky with the weather. While it was quite cloudy in the morning, we had two hours of sunshine in the afternoon. We stopped every few minutes to snap a picture and to admire the amazing vista of mountains, cliffs, and winding river.

We ended up at a guesthouse named "Halfway Guesthouse" which is actually more than halfway through the hike. There, we were presented with two options:

1. For $2, a dorm bed in a room with 7 others, a cold shower, and a stinking, filthy squat toilet.
2. For $15 (between 2 people), a double room with large, comfortable beds, a pristine western toilet, and china's best hot shower. The shower had good pressure and also 4 heat lamps above the stall.

I chose option number 2. I guess I'm getting old.

Perched at 2400m on the side of a rough mountain, Halfway Guesthouse has the most spectacular setting. From the patio we had an unimpeded view of the churning river, 1000m below us. Looming 3100m above us - at an altitude of over 5500m and less than 1km from us - Jade Snow Dragon Mountain's craggy granite peaks and sheer, vertical walls plunged down to the river. From the patio, while sipping a cold beer and playing cards, we admired the spectacular view and tried not to get dizzy.

Yesterday's hike was much easier, as it was mostly downhill for 3 hours. Due to the previous night's rain, the trail was rather slick, so we had to watch our step. One misstep and you would plunge 500m to your death. Although we headed to the guesthouse recommended by the Lonely Planet (Sean's Guesthouse), we found the owner rude, arrogant, and unhelpful. And his guesthouse was filthy. So, we walked up the street and ended up at a wonderful guesthouse run by a tibetan woman and her adorable 4 year old daughter. We spent the evening playing cards, chatting, and feasting on tibetan and chinese food (all for less than $2/person).

Due to last night's rain, I couldn't make my way down to the river. The path was half washed-out and word had it that it was a quick 200m fall into the churning rapids. Not for me. Instead, I came back to Lijiang to Mama's welcoming dinner feast.

July 05, 2006

Lijiang and Jade Dragon Mountains

After a wonderful stay in Dali, I headed north to Lijiang. I was bracing myself, since many people had told me that although it is a beautiful town, that it is choked with chinese tourists. I was pleasantly surprised with Lijiang. I am staying at a guesthouse run by Mama Naxi, a hospitable, warm-hearted woman who constantly refers to herself in the third person ("Mama want you to stay longer! Mama no want you pay yet!"). Mama cooks a mean eggless banana pancake ("No egg! No problem! Mama cook without egg!") and also offers a feast of a meal every evening for less than a dollar in which she supplies the table with an endless stream of delicious dishes ("Mama say you full when Mama stop cooking!").

For those of you here for Mama Naxi's Address, I would suggest you try the following:
Address: 78 Wuyi StreetE-mail:
Phone: +(86)-888-5185930/5100700

If you call her, she will send someone to pick you up within 15 minutes.

The trick to Lijiang is figuring out the chinese package tours' schedules. Chinese tourists don't like straying far from their guides so, if you time it right - and avoid the standardized route - you'll have the town to yourself. And so, I have been able to enjoy Lijiang and its tiny, winding streets, gurgling canals, and gorgeous architecture. The town is nestled at the foot of the romantically named Jade Dragon Mountains, at the foot of a 5500m peak. I'm told this mountain is amazing, but due to the clouds, I have yet to see it. The town winds its way up Lion's Back Hill, and from the top you are rewarded with a beautiful view of wooden, arched rooftops, a lush valley, and deep-green mountains. The town plays host to a number of minorities, whose costumes add vivid dashes of color to the atmosphere.

Tomorrow, I head off to Tiger Leaping Gorge for a two day hike through one of the world's deepest gorges. Should be fun!

July 03, 2006

Dali - King of the Road, Minority Villages, Trekking

The past two days have been great. Yesterday, I was blessed with fantastic weather, so I set off on bicycle to explore the countryside and surrounding villages. My initial plan had been to cross the lake by boat and then return by bike, but after checking in at five different hamlets where boats were meant to be - and failing to find a motorboat - I decided to change the plan. I did happen upon one larger port, but it was mainly package tourists who were being herded onto a ferry for a pleasant trip to an island.

I headed north. King of the Road again, I cycled along dirt paths through rice paddies and corn fields. I visited three different villages which were all connected by a bewildering maze of tiny roads and pathways. Several villagers had a good laugh at me since I was obviously lost a couple times and ended up doing a loop through their fields. The villages were peaceful, friendly, and completely devoid of tourists (and, at times, villagers). I made my way through narrow, paved alleyways, past barking dogs, smiling children, and random temples. Just when I would wonder where everyone was, I would stumble upon the main square, where everyone congregated. Old, squinting men, in their tattered, faded-blue Mao Suits and sun-bleached caps squatted, playing dominos and smoking long cigars. Nearby, women in colorful garb haggled over fresh produce and rancid meat. Teenagers huddled around a tired pool table, chasing the balls around the felt. Everytime I rolled into the square, an audible silence would fall as everyone turned to stare. Then, almost instantaneously, children would break out into friendly "Hallos! Hallos!" and then men would go back to their games.

After five hours of biking in the sun, I was famished. I headed for the mosque and found a friendly muslim family that had just laid out skewers of spiced mutton, beef, and lamb. To their astonishment, I consumed 12 sticks of meat, then another two bowls of rice noodles.

Today, I visited the weekly minority tribe market. It was a colorful, lively affair that was fun to visit. Everything from fresh produce to yellow combs was on sale. Surprisingly, despite its notoriety, there were very few tourists. After the market, we headed over the mountain to visit some Hui and Muslim minority villages. I was suprised to find that the Mosque looked exactly like a chinese temple. A wonderful Muslim family cooked us a delicious feast of 12 disshes of vegetables, beef, and mutton which provided strength for the afternoon's trek through the rice paddies to a couple of small huddles of wooden huts.

I'm off to Lijiang tomorrow morning.

July 01, 2006

Old Dali, Three Sound Delicacies, and Tibetans

Dali is a gorgeous little town. It vaguely reminds me of Dubrovnik, what with its cobblestone pedestrian streets, distinctive archicture, hordes of tourists, and laid-back feel. However, while Dubrovnik is on the sea, Dali is nestled under a range of 4000m peaks, close to the shore of China's 7th largest fresh water lake. The setting is amazing, but the weather leaves a lot to be desired. This place ranks very highly on Chinese Tourists' lists and as such is overrun with noisy, spitting Chinese tourists who are shuttled around on massive busses. Of course, there is a two-tier entrance-fee system here. The crazy authorities wanted a whopping $15 to go see the Three Pagodas (last year, it was only $5 for foreigners). Chinese tourists pay 50 cents. Since I could already see the Three Pagodas from outside, I refused to give the commies any money and instead walked around the back to see if there was another way in. There was, but an astute guard saw me sauntering in casually. I played dumb and waved at him, but he insisted I leave. Oh well. I tried.

I arrived here at 6 am after an entertaining overnight train ride. I was in a "hard sleeper" which is actually quite comfortable, except for the lack of space. Six people crowd together on the bottom bunks and yap away, while waiting for the lights to go out (the lesson here is that if you should always book the middle sleeper if you don't want people sitting on your bunk). One girl spoke a little english, so she translated for the curious group. They all got a big laugh at the fact that I was too tall for the bed.

There are quite a few Tibetans here in Dali. In fact, I'm staying at a wonderful guesthouse called "Jim's Tibetan Guesthouse." I'm going to pass on the "Tibetan Feast" (his specialty) since I'm not too fond of Tibetan food. Once again, I'm surrounded by Tibetan Music, that strangely disturbing caucophony that sounds like a mix between someone strangling a cat and running her nails on a chalkboard. I can easily recognize a few of the hits.

The range in how far your dollar can go here is amazing. $4/night buys you a dirty mattress on the floor, filthy shared toilets, and questionable showers. $7/night gets you your own room, but you still have to share toilets with everyone else. $10/nights gets you a beautifully decorated, immaculately clean private room with en-suite bathroom (and 24-hour hot shower), western toilet, and satellite TV. They throw in breakfast, too, which is quite a deal considering the going rate for a real cup of coffee in Dali is $1.

Today, I discovered a South Chinese treat. It's called "Three Sound Delicacy." I didn't try it, though. This tastebud tantalizer is a live baby rat. It squeals when you grab it with your chopsticks. Then it whimpers when you dunk it in chili sauce. And finally, it crunches when you stick it in your mouth. After hearing this, the other various Items on a Stick (pig entrails, chicken feet, baby sparrows) seem quite boring.