Thursday, February 26, 2009

Day 17 - A Bat out of Hell

The next day we had a morning bus to Hoi An a little town famous for its old buildings that some how survived the war. Hoi An is about 50km south of Danang, which at one point in the war had the busiest airport in the world but hasn't exactly held up the title. Our bus was the usual 20 minutes late and was from the same company we had taken to get to Qui Hoi. The bus was actually a lot cleaner and we had a bunch more room, but the bus driver drove like a bat out of hell. The road was similar to the death defying one we had taken to get there, but he managed to drive much faster on it. I was constantly being pushed from one side of the seat to the other, which actually made it pretty difficult to read my book. I felt the same mix of awe at the beauty of the country side, and terror that I would die in a car crash into it. I just kept wondering, we bombed this? Wasn't there some less scenic place we could have dropped more bombs then were used in WWII on? The upside of driving with a reckless abandon for human life was that we got there pretty fast. The bus was actually for Danang, but since we wanted to go to Hoi An we got off in a town about 10km west of Hoi An.

There were a line of motos offering to take us there, but I'm not wild about them, so after some of the other people on the bus paid about 50,000 dong, about $4, we just started walking. We must have walked more than half a kilometer with all these motos just following behind us. They kept pestering us and lowering the price. When they got down to 30,000 dong we agreed and took a ride the rest of the way there. It's a good thing we took the ride as I don't think we would have made it if we walked. There were a couple of twists and turns that were unmarked and it was just a loot longer than it looked on the map. Once in town we went to look for a hotel. The guide book says that Hoi An might have the best cheap hotels in Asia, and I can't disagree. The hotel we found for about $8 a person included two very nice beds, Dave and Ken took those since they always shard a bed in the other hotels, and a cot for me at no extra charge. Beyond that it had the best bathroom I've seen in Asia with a gigantic bath tub and even a shower curtain, something they never seem to go in for. The room was a also pretty spacious with a small desk in the middle. Finally, even though we never really used it they had a pool out in the back that looked nice.

Ken wanted to rent bicycles, so we got some and headed over to see the town. I hadn't ridden a bicycle in a while so at first I was pretty wobbly, but soon it was like, well, ridding a bicycle. The town looked pretty nice. We never really stopped anywhere long enough to get a real sense of it, but despite all the tourism it was still very pretty. The nicest part was along the water, a river that unlike every one in China was not teeming with pollution. We passed a lot of little pretty houses including yards with chickens in them. Eventually we rode over a small bridge to a little island. There we stopped at a used book store as I had already read all the ones I brought with me. The book store was run by an American who had moved to Hoi An a few years ago after discovering it on a trip around Asia. He had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and given only a few years to live by his doctor. He had sold all his stuff and was taking a trip around the world when he came down with a bad case of food poisoning in Vietnam. While in the hospital he had just told the doctors to check him for everything and they, having no problem with running up the bill, did. They discovered that he had an undiagnosed case of some stomach bacteria that was causing swelling and putting pressure on his heart. When that was treated the pressure of his heart subsided removing the life threatening condition.

He set up this book store after that importing some books from the US. He said that once the government seized some of his books but only had a problem with the harlequin romance novels. He mentioned that the place we were thinking of going the next day wasn't that interesting and that we should take a bike tour rub by some British guys who ran an ex-pat bar down the road. We had to return the bikes so we took them back to the place near the hotel where we got them. The book store guy also suggested an Indian restaurant near where we were that was excellent. At the restaurant we saw some of the Australian people we had meet in Nha Trang, and we tried to meet up with them again later but couldn't find them. We had heard that it wasn't too unusual to meet people in more than one place since people tended to take similar paths. That didn't happen to us too much though since we were going south to north while a lot of people seemed to be doing the opposite. We came back to the bar that had the bike tours, which was run by two really funny British guys. I hadn't really intended to sign up for an all day bike ride, but somehow they managed to talk me into it so we agreed to meet early the next morning for an all day bike tour of some of the surrounding country side.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Day 16 - A Room with a View

We took it pretty easy the next day. The first thing we wanted to do was to try a local restaurant that the guide book said server snake. In America we tend to only eat a pretty small number of animals, pigs, cows, and chickens mostly. Even other western countries eat a wider variety of animals. In France they still eat horse for example. The restaurant was really big but crowded. The first level was full, so was the second, one but we were the only people up on the third floor. We thought that they forgot us up their for a while as we sat without a waiter or menu. When we finally got the menu it was pretty hard to find the snake since it was listed under seafood in some sections and vegetables in another. Dave ordered the "Head of Snake" soup while I tried for the grilled snake. Unfortunately it seems that they were out of all the snake options besides the soup and I was pretty tired of soup. Dave got his soup which definitly contained the head of a big snake, minus skin and fangs, as well as a lot of other unknown meats and vegetables. The snake tasted sort of like a cross between a white fish and chicken, which might have been why it was under the sea food section, though I'm still not sure how it was a vegetable. The snake was actually pretty disappointing since I had heard it was one of those odd foods that was actually good tasting, and it was just sort of mediocre in the end.

After we finished lunch Dave and Ken decided to head down to the beach while I stayed in the room to write. I opened a big window sitting right in front of the desk so I had a beautiful breeze and view. I didn't even get that much done since I spent all my time looking out the window. The view wasn't even of anything special, it was just the whole environment that was so amazing. Our budget for this trip had never been exactly big. After buying all the tickets and taking out about $500 in cash I still had more than $1,000 in Chinese money, and $600 in travelers checks. Now I didn't want to spend exactly all of that, but even if I did it wouldn't matter much since I still had money in my US accounts. Even not counting the money in my Chinese account I was still on something like a $60 a day budget, which was more than Ken and Dave wanted to spend, and more than we needed to spend. At about $35 a day we stayed in some pretty nice accommodations. Our budget allowed us to eat in some of the best restaurants in the country and do all the traveling we wanted to do. Our Chinese salaries made us not only upper middle class in China, but on vacation as well.

For time constraints I had to buy a ticket from Vientiene in Laos to Hanoi, which was actually sort of annoying since i had to use my US credit card. Ken and Dave came back to the room after spending some time on the beach and I had gotten tired of writing so we turned on the TV. It must have been satellite TV or something since we had more channels in English than we had in China. We started watching some crazy 80's movie about a car that kills people in which all the characters are supposed to be in high school but look 45. After a while Ken and I went to get some dinner at a local Pho shop. Even though I was sort of sick of Pho that's what was around. On the way there we passed a place that had its doors open so that I could clearly see them inside slaughtering pigs. They were dragging them around on the floor and hanging them for butchering. I'm sure the same thing goes on in many places in the US, but you would just never leave the door open to let people see, we have more distance from our food than that. The restaurant actually had the same crappy movie on for a while but the patrons kept switching back and forth to other, soap opera, type programs that the people seemed to like. We watched some other British satellite TV stations for a while until it got pretty late.

I was just flipping around the when I came on CNN. I had actually forgotten that it was the inauguration, since I didn't think I'd be able to see it, and had just decided to watch it the next day on Youtube. It was very odd and hard to describe watching the inauguration ceremony on TV in Vietnam. In one way I was sad I wasn't in DC to take part in the whole carnival like atmosphere. I had followed all the primaries incredibly closely but had missed the actual election and now was only watching the inauguration from very far away. Also watching it in Vietnam brought very odd emotions especially as he mentioned Kha San, which was about 100 km from where we were. Mostly I just didn't know what to feel. It was actually sort of uplifting though to see how interested everyone was for at least a day before and after everyone we met had something nice to say about Obama. It was pretty funny when Roberts messed up the actual swearing in and it was even funnier when I learned later that they had to do the whole swearing in again. His speech was OK it was much more somber than most people expected. I thought he might do something like that.

The expectations were so high giving a somber, this is what we have to do, speech instead of a more uplifting speech was a way that no one would really be able to call the speech flat, but I was let down a little by such a conservative choice and how little he referenced the civil rights movements. I know he doesn't just want to be seen as the black president but the civil rights movement wasn't just a victory for black Americans. The fact that the US has come far enough to elect a black president is inspiring for all Americans. As much as some people like his policies that's not why people were crying during the ceremony. I thought the best speech was at the end where that preacher invoked old civil rights slogans. It showed just how far we have come and was still a little funny.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Day 15 - How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down Before He Drives Into the Sea?

I woke up first the next morning since I was the only one who hadn't gotten black out drunk. We had to check out by 12 and we had a bus at about 3. Ken and Dave made it downstairs before we had to check out and we went to get some lunch. Ken said he was missing some unspecified amount of money, he wasn't sure how much exactly he had to begin with, and that his face hurt. Which means that he might have gotten mugged, or he might have dropped some money and walked into a door. He was also yelling something about a bad man the night before but he doesn't really remember what it was all about. We stopped by a really beautiful temple at the edge of town before we left. We actually didn't get ripped off by our taxi driver, which was a nice change of pace. The temple was a series of small stone buildings that were some of the oldest of this type ever built. It was a gorgeous and quite spot that looked down over the city in a really majestic way. It was nice to just sit there for a while.

The bus we got on, it was more like a small van, was absolutely full with the three of us sitting in a middle row. I've been in a lot of cars and vans in China that made me afraid for my life, but never have I been so scared, or I think so close to death, as on this ride. I should start by mentioning how beautiful it was. The whole ride I saw one of three things: First, I saw beautiful hills and mountains with a road that snaked all around them. Second, I saw a beautiful coast line that came right to the foot of these mountains. It looked sort of like the Amalfi coast line but set in a jungle. Finally, toward the end of the trip I saw one of the most amazing sights I've even seen. By the time I was approaching the town I were heading to it was night and the sea was totally black except for some small fishing boats that were still out. I don't know what they were all fishing for but the light from inside their cabins was like a beacon on the black sea, until they looked like stars in the sky except sitting at our feet. It was enough to take my breath away.

What was also enough to take my breath away was the way our van drove. Most of the roads we drove on would have been scary enough, what with their step grades, sharp curves, and constant chance of plunging off a cliff to our certain death, if you didn't drive like a mad man, but that wasn't about to slow down our driver. Imagine a person driving along a sharp coast line, speeding at way above the posted limit, that person would have been considered a safe driver. The biggest problem was that since there was probably pretty much only one two lane road connection those cities every sort of traffic had to use it. There were cars, vans, buses, logging trucks, and my personal favorite gigantic flat bed trucks with rocks the size of boulders on them. What made it even better is that those rocks weren't secured by anything, not that it would have made much real difference, so they had to drive really, really, slowly. What this meant is that all the faster, or more insane, drivers had to constantly pass the slower ones.

Between passing and looking to see if we could pass our van probably spent more time in the wrong lane than the right one. Passing on such a small road involves driving into the wrong lane to get a better view of traffic then going as fast as possible past whatever driver, or drivers, were slowing you down possibly while blaring the horn.The most terrifying moment of the day came when some one passing going the other way, ie someone who had come into our lane, at a sharp turn forced us partially off the road to avoid a head on collision. I actually think I heard the driver grumble about that one. Adding to the fun was the fact that the roads had teeny shoulders, or none at all, and that the edge of the road lead to a huge drop down to the sea, making me wonder if under all that beautiful foliage were the wrecks of thousands of vans that didn't make it.

As night fell we finally made it to Qui Nhoy, another sparkling beach town that was actually less touristy thanks to its lack of rail road access. As we pulled up the bus station the van was surrounded by 15 people who all wanted us to take a ride on their moto. The door to the van actually stuck a little so it was an odd sight seeing them out their pulling on the door handle trying to get to us. I think I have a lot more appreciation now for how that goat at the Siberian Tiger Park felt. Since I never like to give business to people who pester me I walked past them and we took a taxi to a hotel from the book. The hotel was really nice with a big beautiful room with a bathtub, a desk, and even a balcony. We found a place for dinner run by this woman Barbra who was famous for being a westerner who lived in this town and ran a few tourist businesses. She came over and introduced herself after we sat down and answered some questions. Dave thought it would be fun to be able to do the same thing in China, just live by the beach as some sort of local celebrity.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Day 14 - You Haven't Lived Until You've seen Waltzing Matilda Preformed by a Vietnamese Boy Band

We had tickets to go on an all day boat cruise around some of the nearby island starting at 8:30 in the morning. The guide book highly recommended it and it seemed like a lot of fun. The weather was absolutely gorgeous again as we came up to our boat. Our boat was fairly small and incredibly brightly painted, with most of the space taken up by rows of seats in the form of long benches. There were people from lots of different countries on the boat, though the whole tour was given in only English and Vietnamese. Out tour guide was this very funny Vietnamese guy who was constantly cracking jokes and hitting on all the women. We headed out to the first island where we were going to do some snorkeling. It was already perry warm out and Me, Dave, and Ken, decided to have the first beers on the boat. The landscape rolling by was incredibly beautiful, with a clear blue sky and warm green islands. We passed some floating sort of shanty town made of boards and boats all tied together. We eventually came to the place where we could go snorkeling. They didn't have flippers, but there wasn't a ton of ground to cover so it was OK. One guy brought his own, but that seemed a little bit excessive.

The water wasn't very warm so it took me a while until I could draw the relaxed controlled breaths you need for snorkeling. Once I got going though it was a blast. Close to the boat I couldn't see much but nearer to the shore was a bunch of half submerged rocks with coral, and some brightly colored fish swimming around. If I sort of glided over the fish weren't disturbed even though I was just a foot or two from some of them. The coral wasn't that interesting, but there were quite a few different species of fish and some good sized schools of fish swimming around. When I was younger I had my own set of snorkeling gear so I could just float in pools looking at the bottom. I think the best part is just floating there being next to the fish. When I went snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia they just took me around to too many things so I never really got a chance to just spend some time in one place. People were also doing canon balls off of the top deck of the ship. Dave managed a pretty good flip, though he came pretty close to hitting his head on the lower level.

After that we steamed toward another island, while part of the crew prepared lunch in the incredibly small kitchen space near the back. The only toilet on the boat was actually a squat toilet, which was actually the first on I had seen in Vietnam. The low regard I had for them managed to fall further when I read in River Town that one student at his school actually died from falling while using a squat toilet. I always knew they are disgusting, but I learned that they are deadly as well. We stopped at the next place for lunch and they rearranged the benches in the middle into tables. The lunch was fantastic, with a huge spread of food that I mostly wondered how they fit on board. In Vietnam they have bread with a lot of their meals, which is a welcome change from China where bread is looked at as some odd western rarity. After lunch was perhaps the weirdest thing I have ever seen. One person brought out a home made drum fashioned out of a set of garbage can sized containers held together with string and bamboo. There was also a guy with a guitar and the captain worked as a singer. The tour guide started by saying, " In the past there have been some great boy bands; the Eagles, the Beatles, the Backstreet Boys, Westlife, and now us!"

They then proceeded to play some odd Vietnamese songs with one guitar, two not terribly talented singers, and a make shift drum. Leaving aside the question of is it more insulting to the Beatles and the Eagles to be labeled a boy band, or be compared to the Backstreet Boys and Westlife, some odd Irish band that no one in the US knows, why in God's name a boat tour needed a musical interlude is one of those questions that could perplex philosophers for ages. The fun continued as they asked people where they were from than played a regional song from that place as the person sang along. They even had songs for places like Holland, though I have no idea what it was. The best moment came though when they played the strangest version of Waltzing Matilda, Australia's unofficial national anthem, I've ever heard. Everyone was having a great time and they got a lot of people to dance for the last song. The other odd part were the finger nails of the lead singer slash captain. His thumb nail and pinky nail were grown out to grotesque length. This apparently has something to do with demonstrating that you don't need to do manual labor, and David has even heard his students say the really long pinky nail is beautiful. I've seen and accepted some pretty weird things, but seeing this band just materialize out of thin air was pretty crazy even by my standards.

After all the crazy singing was done they threw some floating devices overboard and set up a small floating bar. Some of us jumped off to join in the fun. The tour guide was the bar tender, serving the worst tasting red wine I've ever come across. It tasted like cheap grape juice that had been left for too long in the sun. Brian said he has heard that some really cheap Asian wines are actually made of grape juice with some grain alcohol for a kick. It was a lot of fun though to try to hold a cup with one hand while using the other to stay on your little floating inner tube. I took to balancing the cup on my head while trying to move. I talked to some of the other people floating by. A lot of them were Australians, who were interested to learn that I lived in Wollongong, only to ask why anyone would live there. After floating there for a while, and probably drinking as much sea water as wine, though the sea water also tasted better, the wine ran out and we got back on the ship. We went to some other island with a beach you could swim on, but we decided to stay on the ship and sit out in the sun on the roof. One Australian guy stayed with us. He worked at some sort of Boeing factory and said that since they were ahead of schedule they shut down for a few weeks so he went on vacation.

I'll never really understand why Australians like going to beaches in other countries when they have so many in their country, but there he was. We talked with him for quite a while and with a Chines guy who was 40 but looked 14. After a while the boat moved on to some aquarium, which was again skipped, only this time we were joined by a ton of Australians, who all for some reason seemed to be from Melbourne. After that the boat went back to port. It was a ton of fun and we agreed to meet the Australians later at a bar. We had dinner at some Mexican place, that seems to be the hardest food to find outside of America. We met them at some bar that specialized in serving buckets, literally, of various alcohols and juice. My stomach wasn't feeling great so I only had one, unlike Ken and Dave, which is why I'm the only one who remembers what happened that night. When Dave drinks he remains just as mellow as ever, but seems to joke around more. He started off drinking a ton so he was wasted pretty fast. One of the Australian girls seemed to like him but I think he was too drunk to notice. I mostly sat around and chatted with the ever changing cast of Australians who would sit at our table.

Ken is always a pretty intense person who likes to argue, and alcohol only seems to enhance that. He spent almost the entire night arguing with anyone about anything. The funniest moment came when he was in a long protracted debate over the deeper meanings in Roald Dahl's "The B.F.G." which I think may be the first time in the history of the world thats ever been discussed in heated terms in a bar. Me and Dave left before Ken and I was already in bed when I heard Ken downstairs yelling with some one. Not wanting to get involved I just let the argument peter out.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Day 13 - Beach Town

Things were going OK on the bus after midnight, it wasn't really possible to sleep but I was at least pretty relaxed. Then out of nowhere we stopped in some small town and everyone started to get off the bus. It turns out since we had payed for a sleeper bus they were going to take us the second half of the journey in it. A sleeper bus has little cubbys, two high, where I could sort of lay down. I say sort of since you can never quit get vertical, since for some reason it is designed so my back was always on an incline. The had little pillows and blankets for each seat, which just made me worry about getting lice. It was though much more comfortable then the other bus since it was much cooler and the seats were better if not great. The real fun began when they realized there were way more people than beds. The back of the bus had one big flat sort of bed where they put about nine guys. Eventually they even doubled up on a few of the small beds. Finally there were still about five people who for the rest of the trip had to sit on the floor in the aisle. I would have felt worse about having a bed but my ticket probably subsidized half the people on the bus.

It took about an hour to load and rearrange all the people on the new bus, which made me wish we had just stayed on the first bus. The best part of the sleeper bus though was that when we finally got going they turned off the lights and actually kept them off. I was eventually able to turn onto my side by convorting my body in a weird position and got an hour or two of sleep. When I woke up again it was almost dawn. It was already very bright though since the sun had to rise for a while before it could crest a set of mountains. What I saw outside was incredibly beautiful. We were in a long wide valley between two sets of green mountains. All around us were rice patties and a few small houses. Everything was just incredibly green and colored by the early morning sunlight. Ho Chi Minh city is a big city, and it had been dark when we left, so this was the first time I really saw the Vietnamese country side. We drove though this valley for a long time but I had a really great time just staring out the window. Even a lot of the Vietnamese people on the bus were sitting up taking a look out the window. It did bring to mind questions like, we bombed this? We left the valley after a while and the rest of the ride was gorgeous, though not nearly as spectacular.

At about seven in the morning we arrived in Nha Trang a small beach town about 450 km north of Ho Chi Minh City. Nha Trang was a mix of bustling city that looked something like Ho Chi Minh City, a beach town with amazing beaches, an a more western area with wide clean streets and new shinny buildings. Actually a lot og Nha Trang's charm came from the fact that it was fairly poor. Unlike cities in China with their gray high rise buildings, Nha Trang was a hodgepodge of small brightly painted houses. In fact all of Vietnam seems to go in for bright colors more than China. The other amazing thing about Nha Trang was just how blue the sky was and how bright the sun was. Removed from the pollution of China, or even big Vietnamese cities like Ho Chi Minh, Nha Tran just had a beautiful sky that wasn't hazy of gray. All this was backed by green mountains and in front of a blue sea to create the perfect beach effect. The bus dropped us off at some hotel connected with the same company. Not really liking the bus too much we weren't eager to stay there. We started walking towards the train station which was towards the edge of town. At the train station we tried to get sleeper tickets for Danag, about another 11 hours up the coast, but they didn't have any as everyone was traveling for Tet.

We walked further to a bus station where we got tickets to Gui Nhoy, another smaller beach town about six hour north. As we walked we passed some of the sights of the city, an old cathedral and a Buddhist temple with a swastika, originally a Buddhist symbol, on the gate. We walked for quite a while with our back packs until we came to the more touristy area with most of the hotels, which was right across from the beach. After we got settled we walked across the road to a nice strip of beach. It was still early, about 11, so we were able to get some chairs under umbrellas, though we still had to pay for them. The beach was full of soft sand and quite wide. The water was cold but the view was great, green hilly islands with there own sandy beaches. Honestly the most noticeable thing on the beach were, well, breasts. Chinese women, for all their nice qualities, don't really have them so it was actually something of a surprise to see women with breasts walking around the beach.

I finally finished reading River Town, a book buy a guy who lived in a fairly small Chinese city in the mid 90's. River Town is a great read for finding out what living in China is like. Even though a lot has changed since it was written, a lot of it is still spot on. The way people are so interested to see him, the way his school sort of treats him as an oddity, the amount of Baijou that is consumed at the various banquettes, all these things ring true. One of the most interesting parts of the book is when another peace corp volunteer, who gets into some trouble, finds out that the police have a file on him and every thing he's said in class. I don't think they'd do the same thing now, foreign teachers are a lot more common, but you never know. As he notes in River Town it's always the best students who have the closest relationship with the party. Being a good student means you can become a party member which can lead to advancement. In fact monitoring their fellow students is inseparable from being a good student in China. The best student in each class is the class monitor, who is essentially in charge of the other students. The party essentially co-opts the best students as a means of controlling them.

There is also a scene near the end of the book where the author is almost beat up by a mob. Scenes like this just make me wonder if it could happen to me. Again I think not but I'm reminded of another book I was reading, The Life of Pi, where the main character cautions that just because we read human characteristics into animals does not mean they can't turn on us very fast, and be very dangerous. Just because I think I know China doesn't mean I should let my guard down. We ended the day by going to a pretty good pizza restaurant. It may seem odd to come all the way to Vietnam then eat western food, but since Vietnamese food is so similar to Chinese food it's actually more exotic to eat western food, which is more prevalent in Vietnam than in our part of China.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Day 12 - Midnight Train to Georgia

We had arranged for a sleeper bus to Nha Trang at about six that night but we had some time to kill before that. I still wanted to see the Reunification Palace, which we had been unable to get into the day before. It was a bit of a walk over to the Reunification Palace. Dave and Ken loved to talk to all the people trying to sell us stuff. People asked him about three questions: Where are you from? How long have you been in Vietnam? Would you like to buy this? Dave loved turning the questions back on people. Invariably they were not only from Vietnam, but from the city we were in. Sometimes when people hand us cards or fliers Dave will go on and hand them to other people mostly to those handing out different fliers. When we finally got to the palace we saw people going in right by where we were the other day. Maybe it was closed, but more likely we just missed the entrance. The Reunification Palace was so named by the Communists after taking the city. Before that it had been the Independence Palace, and I believe Imperial Palace. It was originally built by a king so unpopular his air force bombed the first palace he had built on the sight. He had a new palace built complete with air raid shelter, but never lived to take possession of it as he was killed by his own army. When the French took over they used it and when they left the South Vietnamese used it until the Communists took over.

The palace isn't much to look at from the outside. It mostly looks like a four story office building set on really beautiful grounds. Around the grounds they have reproductions of the tanks that "won the war" as they crashed though the palace gates in a well staged photo opp. The most interesting part of the palace is that besides some statues of Ho Chi Minh it is mostly preserved as it was found in '75. In fact some rooms have a distinctly 70's vibe to them with colors of carpeting and furniture you just don't see anymore. They offered free tours in English that were enterprisingly free of political statements, mostly just focusing on what every room was used for. The palace was actually very pretty on the inside. There were a lot of marble stairs and columns and the rooms themselves were decorated with traditional paintings and some lovely wood carvings. Nothing inside was particularly grandiose. It was much more normal looking than I expected. The balconies had beautiful views of the city, which despite having more people than a place like Changzhou actually had less tall buildings. On the roof of the building was a dance floor that looked down on a helipad that had a model of a US helicopter from the war.

The most interesting part of the palace was the underground section. It was still preserved as it had been as a bunker plus command and control room for the war. There were still really detailed maps hung up on the wall showing battle lines and free fire zones, as well as sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Again every chair was a sort of green which I think they stopped making on January 1st 1980. While I had an ice cream from a vendor on the palace grounds I could see people coming in for some sort of corporate meeting, as they apparently rent out parts of the palace at various times. After the palace we went back to the hotel to invite the cute receptionist out for some dinner. We thought that she'd be gone by the time we got back to the hotel so Ken stopped some people on the street to borrow their cell phone after we discovered that there didn't seem to be a working pay phone in the city. I have no idea what she thought being asked to dinner by three strange Americans, but she agreed. We met up with her back at the hotel and she suggested some Pho restaurant a few blocks away. Pho is an extremely popular noodle soup dish that can be made with any type of meat. They also always bring some sort of sprouts that you can mix in.

Pho is pretty much the national food of Vietnam, and is sold on every street corner. It's pretty good, but it just gets a little old after a while. Tho had one of the 10-20 million motos in Vietnam and gave Dave a ride to the restaurant. She told us how she came from a town south of the city and came to the city after her cousin told her it was a good place to work. She was taking off for Tet so when she came back she would have to work literally 24 hours a day for a week. She still had her usual upbeat attitude, laughing about every other sentence. After dinner the bus came to take us to the beach town of Nha Trang. We payed extra for a sleeper bus but the bus they put us on wasn't exactly great for sleeping. The seats did recline a lot. In fact the most upright position was about as much as an airplane seat reclines, and the most reclined position could crush the person behind you to death. It was hot out and the bus was air conditioned, sort of. They would turn it on and off in spurts so it either got too hot or too cold all the time. The first thing the bus did was to drive around the city picking up more people where ever they could be found. I don't know what they paid, but I know no Vietnamese person would pay what we paid for the bus.

Eventually it looked like we had all the people we were going to get so we headed out. The lights stayed on for the first bit which was good as the seat lights did essentially nothing. I read for a bit as the Vietnamese guys in the back carried on and listened to loud terrible music on their cell phones. A little bit into it they turned off the lights which meat an end to reading but not the terrible music at the back. The real fun started after they turned off most of the lights. For some reason every 15 minutes or so they would turn on or off another pair of random lights. Sometimes it would get really bright, other times really dark, and sometimes these red or pink lights would come on bathing the whole bus in an other worldly neon glow. The whole effect made it impossible to sleep as it would be too warm and dark, than too cold and bright followed by too warm again and yellow. I spent most of my time looking out my window. It was hard to see much outside unless we passed something illuminated. God knows the highways aren't lit by anything other than the headlights of cars and buses. I passed a few churches with lights string all around the building like it was Christmas time. Mostly it was just one little town after another rolling by in the night.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Day 11 - The Dissenter's Tour

We arranged for a tour the next fay of two places outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Since we pretty much just picked the first place we walked past to arrange the trip it could have gone either way. This tour though was great, owing mostly to our tour guide and his long unusual speeches. Besides telling some jokes and doing the normal tour guide stuff, he talked more about his history and what he thought of the government than any Chinese person would, even to a friend. It's possible, I suppose, that some or all of what he said was exaggerated, though I don't see why it would be. He said that his family was originally from North Vietnam and they went south to avoid the Communists after they took over. He talked about how he was an English translator for the South Vietnamese army. He even mentioned at one point that he wished that Ho Chi Minh City would be renamed Saigon. Mostly he just described war as very bad and hoped it would never happen again. The guide book describes Vietnam as a place that's been colonized for thousands of years by the Chinese, French, and finally Americans. The just generalized wish for peace was just something that people mentioned a lot every time the "American War" came up. It was not really clear to me if this was a reaction to the intensity of the last war or the fact that Vietnam was ruled by someone or other for a very long time. Either way it was just pretty stunning just to hear some one express opinions not in lock step with the government. China works really hard to make sure dissent like that is kept quite. To hear it expressed on a tour to a bunch of strangers was jolting.

It took a few hours to get to the first place we were going, the Cao Dai Holy See. Cao Dai is a Vietnamese religion started in the 30's which blends Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam into one odd religion. There wasn't a lot of information about the religious practices except it involves some sort of ancestor worship. The Holy See, meaning literally holy seat or center of the religion, was an enormous temple that looked a little like a church in that it was a long building with a high roof and an alter at the far end. The temple was open a lot to the outside with some big doors in the center open and all the windows having intricate designs but no glass to prevent air from passing through. The most striking part of the building was just how brightly it was painted. The whole building was warm pastel yellows, blues, and oranges, giving it a really amazing look. We arrived just after 12 for their mid day prayers, they hold services every six hours. The allow tourists to go up to a balcony that runs along most of the building overlooking the long hall. All the worshipers were dressed head to toe in long robes of various colors denoting I don't know what. At the back on the second floor was a number of people playing musical instruments that reverberated all around the temple.

From the top floor you could see down into the main hall where the worshipers sat in tight rows along the floors forming little sections, usually by the color of the robe. They were all just sitting apparently listening to the music and a small choir. The inside was just as brightly painted as the outside with beautiful columns everywhere. The ceiling was painted to look like the blue sky. A lot of their art focused on depictions of the all seeing eye. The all seeing eye is usually depicted in a triangle, there's one for instance on the back of a US $1 bill right above the unfinished pyramid. They seemed to have no problem with people watching and even taking flash photos as long as you were quite. It was an odd service to watch as people would occasionally bow together moving in time with some unseen command. I was mostly amazed by how well maintained the temple was especially since Cao Dai had hard times after the Communists took over. During the war they had actually maintained their own fairly large standing army but had never helped the Communists who seized most of their holy sights after the won only returning them about 10 years ago. The place was so pretty and lit so well from all the natural light that it was basically impossible to take a bad picture.

I've never seen any tourist sights, religious ones included, that makes less of an effort to get your money. There were one or two donation boxes right near the entrance, but beyond that there was just nothing to spend money on. Around the temple was a lot of space and several more buildings but nothing resembling a gift shop. The whole effect of the place was really interesting. Going to religious sights is pretty standard tourism, after all it was the religions who built most of the big ancient buildings, but you don't usually see ones with big active services going on, especially ones that allow flash photography. The music also gave it a sort of reverence, and couple with looking down from the upper level gave it a sort of voyeuristic quality. I spent so much time looking around that I almost missed the bus and our track star Dave had to run and get me. I went jogging back to the bus only to have our guide wonder why I was in such a hurry. We stopped for lunch at some small place along the road which must give the tour company a huge kick back for bringing a bus load of people for lunch every day. The food was actually pretty good and I had a soda that tasted like liquorish.

After lunch we headed to the Cui Chi tunnels. The tunnels were build by the VC from the Cambodian border almost to Saigon so that they could disappear underground when soldiers came and move unseen. The Cui Chi tunnels were some of the most famous from the war. The original tunnels were almost totally destroyed toward the end of the war when the whole area was carpet bombed, but they've rebuilt sections for tourists. To enter the area you walk in a wide tunnel that slopes gently underground emerging a few feet later in a rare show of architectural symbolism. The tunnel area is a green forest dotted with things to see. One of the first things I saw was an entrance hatch so small you can only go in holding your hands above your head. They let people in the group try it and in a second they've disappeared leaving no trace behind. It's hard to imagine that the entrance to a whole tunnel complex can just disappear, but their it goes. Next they took us to a recreation of some small mostly underground buildings used by the VC. With plastic dummies, and in one case a whole set of animatronic VC soldiers, the whole place started to take on a circus like atmosphere. The oddest moment was at an old destroyed US take that everyone climbed all over to take pictures.

The whole place lacked a serious atmosphere, and at some points almost became like a children's amusement park. In the fields of Belgium, or at other major battlefields, you just expect to see it treated with more of a sense of reverence. Finally we came to a section of tunnels you could crawl in. It was about 250 meters long with exits every 50 meters. Inside it was really low and narrow, though I think still larger than it used to be, and you could only advance by squatting down really low and sort of crouch walking. It was also amazingly hot in those tunnels with no air coming in from outside. Considering that these tunnels were expanded for tourists, the original ones must have been nightmares. I only made it about 100 meters before I wanted out. Only about 1/3rd of the group made it the whole length. After that there was a display of booby traps used by the VC all of which where absolutely terrifying. All of them simply involved some way of shoving rusty nails into people. After that we came to a break point where there was a target range where you could pay to fire rifles. Again it just seemed disrespectful to have the sound of gunfire echo above a former battlefield. They also sold ice cream and snake wine. I just don't think the Communist revolutionaries fought so American tourists could be sold ice cream and souvenir drinks.

Finally we went to a large dug out room where we watched an old propaganda video from the 60's or 70's. It very odd to be watching honest to God propaganda. They talked a lot about peasants who had won medals for killing Americans. Every country gives medals, and all medals are essentially for killing the enemy, but it's just not usually so naked. At the end we got on the bus and headed back for Ho Chi Minh City. People were speaking all sorts of European languages around me. It was an odd reminded how lucky I was to speak English. These people all spoke some other language at home but here in Vietnam their best bet was English.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Day 10 - Uncle Ho's Chicken

We got up late in our hotel room in Ho Chi Minh City and looked over the book deciding where to go. Ho Chi Minh City has a ton of museums and what not in one central area, so we decided to head there. The hotel receptionist from last night was gone replaced by a very good looking, smiling, Vietnamese girl named Tho who had the habit of laughing a little bit at the end of every sentence, sort of like a punctuation mark. Tho had been the one to send me all those nervious e-mails and tended to pronounce my name as Danny, which would have been annoying if she hadn't been so good looking. She asked us what where we were going to go and helped us book a, as it turned out crappy, bus to our next stop, the beach town Nha Trang. In Asia since you can never seem to buy tickets in advanced the first thing you have to do anywhere is buy tickets to the next place. After that we went out into the town to get some lunch.

The first thing you notice in Vietnam is the traffic. It's not unlike the tons of cars flanked by motorbikes of China, except it's tons of motorbikes with the occasional car passing through. All these little motor bikes turn the streets into never ending streams of traffic as they all weave their way around the city. Crossing the streets is an adventure onto its self. The traffic never really stops in any direction so you have to cross the street with motor bikes whizzing all around you. The guide book recommended just walking slowly out into this melee, so that the bikes could avoid you, since there were way too many of them for you to avoid them. This was essentially great advice, the only caveat being that cars still didn't want to stop for you. In the end crossing the streets in Vietnam can be done just as well with your eyes closed as open. You just walk out and try not to notice that if the motor bikes don't adjust to you you'll be flattened in seconds. Oddly this means that the busier the street the slower you have to cross it, to give the motor bikes more chance to move around you. We stopped and had lunch at some place we saw on the street. The food was OK consisting of rice and meat, but the fact that we didn't know exactly what it would cost until the end made me nervious, though they didn't seem to rip us off too badly.

For lunch we sat in chairs that are sort you can buy for preschools, or really little kids. Not just similar to those chairs, but exactly the same as the ones four year old might sit on. I was honestly worried I would crush it. For some reasons a lot of these street places seem to have a love of incredibly small chairs. They also served us what looked for all the world like brown water. It was in big glasses with ice cubes and it just looked brown. It had no noticeable taste at all. I eventually saw some of the locals drinking it, and while I can't be 100% sure, I think it was tea, incredibly weak tea maybe, but just normal ice tea. The Chinese would go nuts over serving something they love as much as tea cold, in China even the beer is warm. After lunch we walked through the incredibly crowded streets to a big market. The market was divided into sections the first being meat and fish. I've never seen three brains of a plate before, so I can't be totally sure that's what they are, but they definitly looked the part. After that section was lunch food, followed by nick knacks, then apparel. Ken eventually stopped and bought a Vietnam soccer jersey, reveling in the fact that they were selling jerseys for soccer's 173rd best team. Ken carrying a bag only caused a bigger commotion from the vendors and soon we had to get out of there.

After that we went to the War Remnants Museum, which is supposed to be one of the best museums in Ho Chi Minh City. The museum is mostly filled with things left behind from what they call the American War. Outside there are tanks, planes, and what not, that look impressive but are probably replicas. Inside is the crux of the museum, a big room filled with photos and things about the US involvement, mostly the worst things done, during the war. It's very odd to stand in a museum dedicated to accusing your country of henious war crimes. The museum has its inacuraces and overstatements, but mostly it's pretty accurate. The whole place actually evoked in me a certain defiance. I hear quite a bit about the bad things America has done, but when it's another country accusing you it takes on a whole different tone, even when that country is the victim. Mostly I just didn't know what to feel. It was a mix of guilt, distance, and defiance, that just made it uncomfortable. The last section of the museum was an art display sort of about peace, but mostly about how great the government was. Having a display about peace in a museum about war is actually a nice touch, but it was just ill explained. The final section of the museum was an outdoor recreation of one of the most infamous prisons run by the South Vietnamese government. It was mostly run before US involvement, but the whole museum take pains not to show the war as a civil war but as a war against a foreign enemy. The whole place underscores how strange it is to be in Vietnam at all. This not so distant battlefield has gone the way of China embracing capitalism and tourism. What once was a place under siege is now looking to be seen as the hot tourism spot. Nothing reinforces this as well as the Pepsi umbrellas in the museum about American war crimes.

After the museum we went toward what is now called the Reunification Palace. It was originally built by the French and used by the South Vietnamese during the war. Unfortunately either it was closed, or we just weren't smart enough to find our way in. After that we headed to a Chinese style pagoda that was recommended by the guide book. Maybe the figures inside are some great example of some long forgotten movement of Buddhist art, and maybe the way the roof slants and the way the ceiling is painted means something I'm missing, but it was not the most impressive thing I've ever seen. China has given me a taste more for grandeur than detail. In China things are just huge. Maybe they have a lot of detail also, but mostly they're just big. This was just small and unimpressive looking. We wanted to go to dinner later but still had some time beforehand so we headed down toward the Saigon River. Ho Chi Minh City is really of two hearts about its name. In some things, especially official things, you only see it referred to as Ho Chi Minh City, but in lots of other places it is still Saigon. Not only in word of mouth either. I saw a ton of buses advertising rates from "Hanoi to Saigon." This is a great example of how Vietnam is different than China. In China if they want to change something it gets changed and all dissent gets squashed.

After seeing Dave read 1984 I started to think of all the similarities between China and the government in the book. They both have a ton of motoring, it's amazing how strong the similarity is between the TVs in 1984, which watch the people, and the internet in modern China. Both places also have an image of a leader that takes on a semi religious significance everywhere. China is also big on some of the ideas of 1984 like "double think," believing two contradictory things at the same time. China is for example run by the Communist Party who are devoted to a free market ideal. In Vietnam though that level of control just doesn't seem to exist. If some people want to call it Saigon it doesn't seem to matter too much to the government. As we walked we passed by a KFC, one of the few I saw in Vietnam, and I couldn't help but be impressed with how much Colonel Sanders looked like Ho Chi Minh. Uncle Ho, as he is sometimes referred to, is pictured as an older man balding on top with a mustache and a beard that comes down way pat his chin. He is to Vietnam what Mao is to China, only in some ways more so since he isn't tainted by some of the horrible things Mao did. His picture is everywhere, actually his picture is a lot better than Mao's.

People tend to refer to him as "Uncle Ho." Referring to someone as your uncle connotes respect since an uncle is older than you. Carrie once got annoyed when some of the Tibetan students Dave sometimes hangs around with called her Aunt since it denotes someone physically older than you as well. Actually the slang term "son" works perfectly well in China since it denotes someone younger thus less respected then you. According to the guide book someone tried to open an Uncle Ho's Chicken, only to have the government stop them. I guess their sense of humor goes only so far. I just wonder if it would taste more like KFC or General Tso's Chicken. Also if you point out that Ho Chi Minh reminds you of Colonel Sanders people say that's ridiculous, Ho Chi Minh was a General.

We walked down to the river past some random piles of garbage left sitting on the side of the road. The river was wide and brown, though not nearly as dirty as any river I've seen in China. People were fishing for God only knows what, and mostly getting weeds. People their just weren't as interested in us as people in China. Maybe dropping an unbelievable number of bombs on a country makes them not as interested. We sat their for a while just enjoying being hot in January, until we decided to get a cab. The cab was a little fishy and the meter seemed to run up way too fast. We eventually got to the restaurant we wanted to go to only to discover that I had misread the book and it was closed on that day. We wanted to get back without another overpriced cab so we tried to get a bus. The big problem being that it seems that in Vietnam all the bus stops are unmarked and you simply have to know where the bus should stop. We missed a few trying to figure out where they would stop until we finally got on board. We looked out the window hoping it would take us in the direction we wanted to go and lo and behold it took us to within about two blocks of where we were trying to go for about 1/50th the price of the cab. On all our trips we seem to have good luck with random buses.

The restaurant was a sort of French and Vietnamese mix and the food was really good. It was a little pricey so we saw pretty much only westerners in there. After dinner we went to a fancy hotel that had a rooftop bar. The prices were high but the view was fantastic. They had a Spanish band which was weird though the music was somehow appropriate for the tropical weather. We sat and had drink while I thought what an odd turn had my life taken that I was somehow sitting on a rooftop in Vietnam drinking a Mojito.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Day 9 - These Two Are Not Gay

We have this Chinese friend named Bunbury. Bunbury some how got it into his head that Ken and Dave are gay. Ken and Dave knew each other since college so they spend a lot of time together in China and they have their own interesting, read odd, terms and language. Actually since they were pretty much the only people who knew each other beforehand at CIEE orientation there were jokes about them their as well. Besides this someone recently told Bunbury that they had seen Ken at a gay bar. Leaving aside the question of what this person was doing there to see Ken at a gay bar, Changzhou has almost no bars and it would be really surprising if one was a gay bar. The final straw may have been that Bunbury got a gift from Ken, Dave, and me that made a surreptitious joke about his ass, which he apparently didn't get until recently. The problem with China is that these sort of rumors have a life of their own. It probably hurts that Ken and Dave haven't shown up around campus with a series of Chinese girlfriends, as some English teaches do. This rumor though is persistent enough that other random Chinese people around school have heard it, they love to gossip about us. Bunbury apparently describes himself as a more traditional Chinese person and doesn't like gay people so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to all this. Dave was tempted to hang up porn around his room, but couldn't decide if it should be straight porn to set him right, or gay porn to egg him on. I said Dave should give him a big hug the next time they meet, but that doesn't really mean anything in China.

Teddy was actually on a train back from Nanjing as we arrived at the station to go to Shanghai so we passed him on the platform. Once in Shanghai we got a bus to the airport. The bus was really easy to fund since we had just taken it about 30 hours ago, but if we didn't know exactly where to look we never would have found it. The sign for the buses was just a jumble of number not really explaining where each bus went. There are a lot of things like that in China, guides that are good if you know what you're doing, but indecipherable to an outsider. When we got to the airport we weren't sure exactly which airline we were flying with so we had to look for a flight leaving at about when we knew we were leaving. We found it eventually but still had to wait a while before we could get our tickets since we were their too early. As we sat there a little kid who had taken an interest in Dave kept walking over picking up Dave's water bottle and throwing it across the floor. His parents would soon follow retrieving the water bottle and apologizing to Dave. Then about 15 minutes later he'd do it again. One time he walked over picked up the bottle looked Dave square in the face as if to say, "you know what's coming," then launched the bottle again.

The flight eventually left on time and since it's not a US airline they served an OK on board meal. It was already past midnight when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. We had these visa letter things, but we still had to wait to get the actual visas put into our passports. I had to get a new passport when I went to Australia, and the new one is almost full since every visa takes up a full page and can't be easily removed. Some of the tourists started to get pretty annoyed with the fairly disorganized Vietnamese visa station. I just don't get annoyed at most things like that anymore, in Asia things just work weirdly. We finally got our visas and got through customs. Outside there were a ton of people offering taxis, but there was no clear place to go to get a metered cab. Most airports try to discourage this type of behavior, but not in Vietnam apparently. We finally agreed on a cab, paying between two and four times more than we should have to get into the city. The hotel, which I had found online, was worried about the time we were arriving. Unlike in the US, where most people have credit cards, in Asia people can't really put money down ahead of time for a hotel. This means that if you're coming late at night this worries the hotel, since they have no assurance you'll actually show up and no way to recoup the cost if you don't.

I had received a number of worried e-mails from them. They said they would be reassured if we took there way overpriced cab service, which I turned down several times, so it was anyone's guess if we'd actually have a room. When we got their it was all dark in the lobby, which we could mostly see through the glass exterior wall. We knocked on the door and someone who was asleep on the couch got up to let us in and give us our room. He took our passports, which seems to be standard practice in Vietnam, in China they always just copy down your information, and showed us to our room. Our room was small but it was in a good location and very clean.

I've included a link to Amy's blog, she's the new teacher from Canada. Also I've been having some technical difficulties lately so if things aren't working just hang on.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Day 8 - Home (sort of)

Some of the people their managed to sleep, but I was not one of them. The chairs at this McDonalds seemed perfectly designed to keep me hunched over and unable to relax. Maybe they were designed that way, but if they were they severely underestimated the Chinese ability to sleep anywhere as most of the people there were happily catching their 40 winks. After what seemed like forever sitting there it was close enough to time for the train that we could go to the train station. Even though there were still some people sleeping in make shift tents, and by make shift I mean made out of bags and reams of cloth, it was much quieter than it had been at night. We made our way through the train station and onto the train. Despite all the activity earlier the station its self was mostly empty. We were their 15 minutes early but the train started making some noise as they loaded it which prompted one woman to rush ahead for her car. I don't think I would have seen that in America, since people would have more confidence that the train would only leave when it was scheduled to go.

The Chinese are actually really prompt as a whole. My students are very rarely late for class and then only be seconds. I've had students apologize when they're not actually late just because they see me standing there getting ready. Steve once told me that the school fines him if he is late to class. It was still dark when the train left but light by the time it pulled into Changzhou. I had planned to have a day off, since we were leaving for Vietnam the next day, but that didn't really materialize. It was way too late to go to be without totally messing up my sleep schedule for the next week. I also needed to get some money for Vietnam. Changing money at an airport usually means you lose three or four percent, but if you only do it once in a while it's not so bad. The problem was that the RMB is a restricted currency. It doesn't float freely so there are all sorts of rules about how much you can change into other currencies. Lynn spent a long time in Harbin trying to get them to change more of her salary into dollars. You're only allowed to change about a fourth of your monthly salary. But that's one forth of each month so it adds up. I wasn't sure if they could exchange money at the Ho Chi Minh City airport so I went with Teddy and Ken to a bank to exchange it into dollars.

First I started by taking out about $600 or 4,000 RMB form an ATM. We then waited while Teddy did the necessary paperwork. Instead of doing all the paperwork for us to exchange money he just exchanged money himself using our money. Weather this means that one day the Chinese IRS will want to have some words with him I don't know, but it was fast. It was weird just standing around holding a huge wad of 100 RMB bills, there were way too many to fit into my wallet. It was also odd to seem them all magically reduced to a few US bills. Teddy always seems to have an interesting job. He works in an office with essentially three people: his boss Peter, who besides attending meetings with the school does no work I've ever seen, himself, and Carrie a student who is his assistant. He's in charge of all the foreign teachers as well as any teacher from our school going to a foreign country. In a place where no one really seems good at problem solving or thinking outside the box, most of Teddy's job is dealing with problems as they come up. I was surprised at first when he paid for the taxi to and form the bank, after all in my mind he was just doing me a favor, but this was essentially his job.

I couldn't do much the rest of the day, while it was a bad idea to sleep I was just really tired. We had gone form cab to plane to train to bus in the last 16 hours. I spent a while packing for Vietnam. The problem was that besides four pairs of socks, t-shirts, and underwear, enough for the trip if I wore each about two to three times and washed them all once, I had to pack for very different climates. In the south, where we were flying to first, it was hot, beach weather, but in the north it was cooler, jeans and maybe a sweatshirt. In Shanghai I'd need a jacket and a hat as well if I didn't want to freeze. On top of all that I needed to bring toiletries, a swimsuit, and three books. In the end it all fit into my backpack, but only barley. I finally went to bed around 9:30 which was probably the earliest I've been to bed since Junior High School.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Day 7 - It's OK to Sleep in a Chinese McDonalds

We had a flight back to Shanghai at about nine o'clock, but we actually had a good amount of free time before that. I slept in some. Every time I wake up Dave, always the early riser, was reading his Kindle, an electronic book thing that I was never jellos of before this trip. Every book I take adds a lot of weight to an already overcrowded backpack, but Dave has like 50 on that thing which he can take everywhere. The biggest downside though is that loosing a book is no big deal but loosing that thing would be expensive. We went to the bus station after we checked out of the hotel. The bus station had a 24 hour sign on it despite what we were told yesterday. We found out that you could only buy tickets right before the bus left and they were 40 a piece. There were a bunch of cab drivers and one offered to take us there for 200. Ken said the bus would only cost us 160 and the cabby immediately dropped his price to 160. I was a little suspicious of him since he dropped his price so quickly but I thought that if worst came to worst we would just get the bus. We was ready to leave immediately but our flight wasn't for a while and we wanted to get some lunch so we agreed to meet him in about three hours.

Some one had mentioned pizza before, and our last cab driver had said that there were in fact two pizza places fairly close to where we were, so we flagged down another cab. This cab driver was a woman, which is pretty unusual for China. China doesn't have any laws preventing women from doing anything or holding any job. Indeed one of the few things I admire that the Communists did was to promote gender equality, though they didn't exactly go out of their way to put women in high ranking positions. China is still in many ways a very conservative society, and that more than anything seems to curtail women's roles. I'm not sure exactly why but taxi drivers seem to be almost exclusively male so it was pretty unusual to have a female taxi driver, pity then that she was terrible. The Chinese word for pizza is "bisa" and when we asked her if she knew where we could get some she gave us an emphatic yes. The first warning sign was that she drove for quite a while before coming to anywhere. Our last taxi driver had implied that the pizza place should be fairly close. She went for a long time before coming to a hotel that might have had some sort of buffet. We tried to explain that that was not exactly what we were looking for and she just smiled and moved on.

The second worrying sign was that she seemed to say yes to any question. She seemed to speak OK English so Dave asked her if she knew where she was going, which got a yes, then he asked if it was close, which got a yes, and finally he asked if she would like to give him a million dollars, which got a yes. The third worrying sign was when she brought us to a KFC seemingly on the theory that this was American food and thus must be what we were looking for. I finally spotted what seemed like a pizza place, but I think it was closed. Ken called up Carrie, who apparently reads my blog enough to realist I've been misspelling her name, who asked the taxi driver if she actually knew where she was going. The final sign came when she told Carrie that she didn't actually know what "bisa" was. We pointed to the first restaurant we saw and just asked her to let us of there. We ended up going to some random Chinese burger shop. After lunch we went back to the bus station where are guy was patiently waiting for us. A lot of Chinese people have some sort of American apparel on, but our guy was covered head to toe in American brands, or at least good knock offs. His car was also a lot nicer than most of the ones usually used as taxis. While we were driving there he was juggling calls on three cell phones, at one point talking on two at the same time while driving.

About a third of the way there he suddenly stopped and another taxi drove up. It turned out the other taxi was heading the way we were going anyways. The new taxi driver handed the old on 100 RMB, more than half the fair, and took us in. I guess the first taxi driver could afford all the American stuff by taking 60% of the money for 30% of the work. We got to the airport pretty early so there was quite a bit of sitting around before we got on the plane. China usually has a sort of gritty industrialized dirtiness to everything but the airport was spotless. In fact I think it had the first western style toilet with toilet paper, the Chinese carry their own, I'd seen in any public place in China. The plane was about half full. Right in front of us was this cute little Chinese boy who spent most of the flight playing rock paper scissors with Dave. The father wanted us to know that he was a big shot so he showed us a $100 bill he kept in his wallet along with a 1,000 Russian Rubie bill. Considering our $600 a month salary is high by Chinese standards that's a lot of money he was carrying around.

The little kid was endlessly amused by Dave, and a few people in other rows were watching them as well. We got to Shanghai just in time for Lynn to meet her sister, who had just flow in from America and was nice enough to give us some delicious American snacks. We needed to get a train back to Changzhou so we got a bus to the train station. One guy sitting near us on the bus was studying Spanish at University, which Ken knows, so they had a long conversation in Spanish. It's really odd seeing a Chinese person speak Spanish. I know I'm here to teach them a foreign language, but they seem obsessed with English, seeing them speak something else is just odd. We arrived at the train station around midnight to find it alive with activity. There were tons of booths set up to handle all the people going home for Spring Festival. Actually it was still too early to go home but it was the popular time to buy tickets. The station was packed with migrant workers carrying huge sacks of God only knows what around. We waited for a while in the much shorter "today only tickets" line before being told that the next train to Changzhou wouldn't leave until 5:15 am. We tried to walk to a nearby Burger King but it was closed.

On the way people kept pestering us asking if we wanted a "hodil" which Dave eventually realized was a "hotel." This ended with him giving a five minute pronunciation lesson on the street corner. When we walked by them later they were just standing there practicing saying the word "hotel" to one another. I think it would be a great job in China to be an itinerant English teacher, wandering from place to place giving English lessons to those in need. We eventually came on a 24 hour McDonalds and ordered some food. There were a ton of people in there talking and sleeping, all seemingly waiting for some train to come in. One of the guys in charge yelled at some people for something, but he clearly had no problem with people sleeping. McDonalds in the US want people to get in and out as fast as possible but in China I guess as long as you buy something you've got a place to wait. So we waited there all through the night.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Day 6 - A Slow Day

As busy as the days leading up this were this was a slow day. We decided the previous night that we wanted the hotel for one more night so Dave went down in the morning and paid them. It was tempting to leave and come back just so they'd have to take down our passport information for a third time, but it was too much trouble in the end. We needed a bus ticket to the airport so we headed down to the bus station. The bus was supposed to cost something like 40 a person so was asked the cab driver how much it would cost for him to take us. He said something like 250 so we proceeded to the bus. The bus station informed us that the part that sold tickets to the airport, which was actually half way between Jilin and another town, was closed and we should come back tomorrow. Usually in China you need to reserve things as many days in advanced as possible so that was something of a surprising remark. We decided to get something to eat in the area so we just started to wander down random streets. It had started to snow, the first time I had seen snow in China, so all the streets had a nice white look. We walked around for a while past all the vendors with their mystery meats and live fish in heated buckets.

Lynn had to go to the bathroom so we stopped at a public bathroom. Inside there was a guy whose only job seemed to be cleaning and collecting tolls. I noted that he didn't have the greatest job in the world but Ken pointed out that he was just happy to have an indoor job. And indeed the restroom was clean and he seemed relaxed. The first place we tried to stop into for lunch didn't even have much of a sign, it was basically just a door in the side of a building. I've been to some shady run down looking places in China but none that smelled as bad as that place. It's hard to describe the smell exactly somewhere between a fish market and a butcher shop would be close, but however it smelled it wasn't conducive to eating. The second place we stopped at smelled almost as bad and sent us rushing out into the streets again. We walked to a larger street where we founded a cleaner and decidedly less smelly restaurant. The place seemed to specialize in bowls of rice noodles with meat in them. They had a big list of options including some more expensive group options. We just wanted the less expensive individual things, but no less then five people who worked there tried to steer us to the most expensive thing on the menu.

We turned them all down but it still took a lot of convincing for them to let us order what we wanted from the menu. For all the things you can say about Chinese businesses they are always trying to sell. They weren't about to let the opportunity of four Americans come and go without pushing the highest priced thing on the menu. We finally got what we wanted which was pretty good. After that we went to what was supposed to be the thing to see in Jilin, the ice trees. The book said that a hydroelectric plant a little bit up the river was supposed to somehow cause a fog that left an interesting formation of ice on the trees near the river. They had whole areas of the town decorated with lights to enhance the effect as well. The only problem was that there was no ice. We never saw anything but snow on a single Jilin tree. The hotels all had forecasts of what the trees should look like the only problem was that one hotel disagreed with another. Finally we got tired of looking and went into one hotel to ask what was up. They just said that this had been a bad week to see the trees. We wandered around the hotel for about 45 minutes just looking at the tourist map, and unless we approached the staff they were just happy to let us do our thing. In China it's just too confrontational to ask people why they are milling around the lobby.

We headed over to an underground arcade that was supposed to have some sort of rollerskating rink and wandered around for a while. The whole place was pretty dirty and there were some people sleeping on the floor. Most of the arcade games were pretty old and they had an unusual mix. Ken and Lynn played some sort of shooting game where they had these Bee-Bee guns done up to look like machine guns and you could shoot balloons. The problem was that the guns didn't really puncture many of the balloons. After a while we went back to our hotel. We bought some beer from a small store in the lobby of the hotel. The guy who was running the store had been a little icy to us the past few days but that day he was just delighted. He asked to pose for a picture with us which took an especially long time since he wasn't happy with the first four pictures. Lynn took the pictures since she isn't white and thus interests the Chinese less. After that he gave us a free bag of small clementine like things for our trouble. I don't usually spend my time in America taking pictures with the owners of small stores, and have never gotten anything free at a 7-11. It's going to be a big shock to come back to America and not be a rock star.

Back in the room we watched a TV station that seemed to be showing three minute versions of movies. Eventually a real movie came on, which would have been fine had it not been interrupted by the most annoying commercials ever. Most commercials are annoying and repetitive to begin with, but these went above and beyond. There were less than 12 commercials total but there was a lot of time to fill so the same commercial would just come up over and over again. The most annoying was a five second long commercial involving a little child in a suit reading a catch phrase over and over again into a bank of microphones then sticking one arm up into the air. Lynn noted that if he had a mustache he would look like a baby Hitler. The commercial may have been short but it was never simply run once. They would run it three, five, seven and even nine times in a row. To top it off these blocks would come up more than one in a single commercial break. I took to putting my arm up into the air in time with the little kid which annoyed Lynn to no end.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Day 5 - Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

The whole trip had originally been conceived of as a skiing trip. The trouble is Chinese people aren't really all the enamored with skiing. Skiing is pretty much an upper middle class sport. It's expensive you have ski, poles, boots, and all manner of other equipment to rent plus lift tickets and what not. China also, despite containing Mount Everest, is mostly flat, or at least it is in the heavily populated areas. Finally, Chinese people just don't really want to ski. Australians are really outdoorsy people so despite having basically no snow in the whole country just go to the one ski area they have which they refer to as "the snow." All the Chinese people I talked to noted how dangerous skiing is and had a sort of attitude of, "Why would you possibly waste your time with that?" So China has fairly minimal options for skiing. They have one fairly famous place but Dave read a lot of bad reviews of it online that said the cost was just way too high for what you got. Beidahu a small place near Jilin.

The first problem was getting there. Beidahu is close to Jilin but not public transportation close. We were able to get a good price on a taxi, about 150 from a cab we waved down. The road there theoretically two lanes in both directions But the road had only been plowed one lane wide both ways. This isn't to say that the unploughed parts were inches deep in snow, though they did look pretty slippery in the freezing air. The driver stuck to the plowed parts unless he was passing someone, which when traveling roughly double the 60km speed limit is pretty often. I sat in the front, which is always the most terrifying place to sit in a car in China since you have a first hand view of all the near fatalities. Mostly I'm fairly desensitized to the reckless driving by now, but there are still moments that make me gasp. Dave likes to quote a statistic saying that traffic fatalities are the number one killer of Chinese men between 18 and 41. The worst moment came when we had just finished passing someone and had pulled back into the plowed section, which there was near the edge of the road, when from out of the bushes a heard of cows and, what I think were, water buffalo emerged onto the road. The driver avoided them while only having to swerve a little, but we missed the lead cow by about two feet. If the driver hadn't been on his game we would have slammed head long into these buffalo, we'd be dead, the car would be ruined, and the beef would be over tender.

We finally made it to the ski resort, which well looks like any other ski resort. I rented equipment, put stuff in lockers, and just generally prepared myself for the unbelievable cold. In fact the only thing remarkable about it was how little it looked like any place in China. China has plenty of stores and things like America, but usually there is some perceivable Chinese difference. In fact once people had their face masks and goggles on you couldn't even tell who was Chinese. I'd been skiing a number of times in the past but the most recent one was probably six years ago, and what I didn't remember until later was six years ago I was a little rusty. All in all I greatly overestimate my skill before getting up on the mountain. The mountain had something like six lifts and six runs total spread across three difficulty levels. The main problem was that there was only one beginner run and it was pretty much straight down hill. At first I was completely useless and couldn't even remember how to turn. That much came back to me after a few falls but anything more advanced continued to elude me. It took me so long to get down the hill that I did a grand total of about six or seven runs all day.

It was also much harder than I remember it being. I didn't remember it was so tiring to turn back and forth along the mountain. After a while I called it quits for lunch and Ken and Lynn followed a little while later. There were several options for lunch but one section had dumplings and some other stuff so we ended up there. The problem was unless you basically grabbed the servers around the collier it was impossible to get their attention. They were much happier just serving all the Chinese people their and ignoring us. Ken in particular had to wait about 15 minutes before they would even take his order and was getting pretty angry. In all the confusion me and Lynn ordered way too many dumplings and we had to get another doggy bag, though this time I'm pretty sure there was no dog in it. We skied some more in the afternoon. I had to go to the bathroom at one point which, thank God, included a sit toilet. I've seen a lot of strange things in China, and I've gotten to the point where I'll believe almost anything, but I refuse to believe it's possible to use a squat toilet while wearing ski boots. I came in first but Ken was out on the mountain until they pretty much closed it down. By the time we got everything turned in the whole place was closing for the night.

We asked some one where we could get a cab and they just gestured outside. When we got outside though there wasn't a soul to be seen. Luckily for us there were some girls who worked in the ski resort leaving. We talked to them and they got some one they knew to give us a ride back to town for about what we paid to get there. The girls worked at the ski resort in the winter. They probably worked 12 hours a day 7 days a week for 800 RMB, less than 1/4th of what I make, a month. They were happy to have the job though since, like all Chinese people, they could live for free in dorms near the job. The guy who drove us back was the complete opposite of the one who drove us there. He drove about half the speed limit, though that was probably necessary on the unlit highways. When we reached a toll both he just rolled down his window and waved for the guy to let him through. He just pulled up and talked to the toll both person a little and they let him through without paying. I'm not sure what kind of taxi driver drives around without paying fees, but he's the kind I like. We had asked the hotel to hold our bags since we weren't sure when we'd be back. When we came back they were a little confused but copied down all our information again diligently, about a 20 minute process. I don't know how many rouge American illegal immigrants there are in China, but the hotels in freezing cold Jilin are apparently the first line of defense.