chinese withdrawals

wow! was it really in may that i last updated this thing. i guess as time drew to a close in my little town of inner mongolia, my schedule filled up.

well, i am back from china now and there is so much to tell about my last few weeks. there was an incredible trip to xi'an, climbing the sacred mountain huashan, getting food poisoning, parties to say goodbye to my beloved chinese friends, as well as many a teary class with my students after they learned i was leaving and not coming back. there is so much to fit into this entry, and yet i am at a loss. i am struggling to gain some perspective on this whole experience - to process it in its entirety. i have the pictures and the words that i have written both on this blog and in my personal ramblings amidst e-mails and the like . . . but what did this really mean to me? i will have to get back to you on that.

a more reflective entry is bubbling. i will return. i promise. i just need more time . . .

temperamental china

so the apartment that i have been living in for the past year is slowly falling apart. the ceiling is falling down, the windows do not keep the sand out from the frequent sand storms, the water occasionally turns brown, two of the three sinks have leaks, my DVD player is broken, and my kitchen table is about to plummet to the floor, only being held up by one or two rusty nails. these slight inconveniences are easy to live with. it was the most recent event, however, that made for an adventure just in my own apartment.

being on the first floor, both of my bathrooms are only inches above the river of sewage flowing right under my apartment. the odor gives this fact away. well, when mike and i returned from our 6 week foray into the life of southeast asianers, our pipes were frozen after not being used for a while. a few successive flushings and sink usages resulted in a flood of seemingly clean water at first. our entire apartment was covered in 1/2 inch deep water. a little chafed, we dried it up and called maintenance. being told that it was fixed, we continued about our lives like normal. well, it turned out that the problem was worse than anybody thought. after 3 or more floods which eventually ended with raw sewage flowing into our apartment a couple of times, it was time that something was done. 2 days of maintenance crews working finally resulted in the fixing of the drains. what was left for us to clean up follows in these pictures. yes, those are solid pieces of raw sewage.

pilgrimage to tai shan

this account would not be complete without an example of the illogical nature of travel within china. tai shan is about 16 hours south of tongliao by train. to get on that train, however, emma and i had to take a bus 5 hours north of tongliao to get on a train to take us south. these little adventures are not at all uncommon and must be expected when traveling domestically in china.

well, after arriving at tai'an, the city at the foot of tai shan, we loitered outside of KFC for about an hour waiting for it to open at 7 AM (our train got in at 5:30AM). after filling up on KFC breakfast food (as that was all that was open at the time), we headed off to begin our pilgrimage to one of the most sacred mountains in china. why is it so sacred? you might ask. well, i will tell you. this mountain has served as a place of pilgrimage for taoists and buddhists alike for centuries. in the creation story of the world told in ancient chinese texts, tai shan is the head of the fallen creator. the other sacred mountains in china make up his hands and feet. the taoist "goddess of the azure clouds" is also said to be resident on the mountain and is accounted as having kicked the founder of buddhism off of the mountain many centuries ago. the climber, if he or she manages to reach the top in the traditional manner of hiking the entire way, is said to live to be 100 years old. many emperors tried to climb the mountain,as their rule would be proven to be divinely ordained if they did so, but only 4 managed to make it all the way to the top. emma and myself, of course, made it to the top. i'm going to be around for a lot longer than most of you would like . . . mwahhhaahhaa.

so the hike was anything but easy and became excrutiating toward the end. we began climbing around 10 AM and made it to the top around 3 PM. we did stop halfway up the mountain for food from a little trail-side "fandian", though. reaching the end of the climb, the surroundings seemed almost otherworldly. i allude it to the castle of the wicked old witch in the wizard of oz and the forests that surround that. the trail seemed to lead into the sky (it was that steep). each step filled my legs with more and more blood until after about 5 steps i felt like they were going to pop. there were men climbing with us who carried food and water up to the restaurants at the top as that is the only way of transporting goods to the summit. they took each step carefully. i did not envy the burden they had to carry.

finally making it to the top, we found a hotel . . . or rather the hotel manager found us. we engaged in the usual haggling of prices until we agreed on 150 yuan for the night (less than $10 per person - not bad for a mountain-top guesthouse with heat!!). we walked around the tiny village at the summit and ran into some taoist monks. some of them were completely hammered. i thought to myself, "is it okay for taoist monks to get drunk . . . i guess so". well, we hung out with them for a while until they let us go up into the attic of one of the temples and ring the prayer gong. the sounds resounded off of the mountain walls - it was beautiful. i cant help but wonder if perhaps it was inappropriate for us to be ringing the gong, but the head monk was out and the taoist monk fraternity wanted to play, so i conceded.

that night we had a modest bowl of noodles as everything else was too expensive (due to the fact that we were at the summit of a mountain and everything had to be carried up by hand). we were in bed by 8 PM . . . passed out.

we roused ourselves at 4:30 AM to watch the sun rise the next day. this is "the thing" to do when you visit tai shan. us and every other chinese pilgrim hiked to the east side of the mountain to watch the momentous occasion. watching the sun rise over the horizon, i was completely affected by the realization that i was one of the first people in the world to see the sun rise on that day. as the sun grew brighter and more intense, so did my fatigue. emma and i decided to sleep for a couple hours more until we hiked down.

my time on the summit of tai shan gave me a new breath of life. i realized that, "i was in fucking china watching the sun rise on top of the most sacred mountain." after being in a place for a while you tend to begin to take experiences for granted, but that sunrise reminded me just how important this time was for me, even if i don't fully know why and how yet.

a tale of 3 countries (continued)

weary, yet ready for a new brand of adventures, the next leg of our trip began with a flight from bangkok to phnom penh, cambodia (and an addition to our crew - pat - another fellow english teacher at nhis). heavily caffeinated from a refreshing iced coffee in the bangkok airport, i was unable to sleep on the plane, despite being tired. i spent my time reading up on cambodia as well as scanning the landscape below from my window. i found it interesting, yet not all that surprising, that the landscape changed considerably almost as soon as we crossed the border. from heavy development and urban sprawl in thailand, to cambodia which showed a much more humble view of life. very little development or any kind of organization could be seen once on khmer soil. i noted this as i departed the plane and entered the airport.

visa issues and currency exchanges completed, we got in a taxi to take us to the center of the city. it is interesting to note that cambodia uses the US dollar as it's main form of currency due to the destruction of it's national bank and reserves during the khmer rouge administration. prices are quoted in US dollars everywhere you go. so we were in the taxi and not five minutes after we were on the road, the taxi driver pulled over and grabbed two small children, putting them on our laps to be driven in to the city as well. i don't know if he knew them or if they were orphans, but they were my first contact with khmer children . . . i fell in love. as you will see, the khmer child will prove to be my destruction during my time in cambodia, as i could not resist buying them food and other necessities. they won my heart (and the contents of my wallet . . . but all was gladly given). once in the city, we directed the taxi driver to the hostel we wanted to stay at, dropped our backpacks off, and set out to explore the rest of the city.

phnom penh is a small city in comparison to most asian cities. small in the sense that the buildings are all only around 5 stories tall. many of the buildings are in bad need of repair. there were a few buildings showing signs of french colonialism, but very few that had been restored to their original splendor. that night we went to the most famous bar in phnom penh - "heart of darkness" - which proved to exhibit a little slice of khmer life. moody, wealthy khmer teenagers and their body guards abounded. they had an air about them that told anyone within 10 feet of them to move even further away. the designer clothes that they wore no doubt were bought with money that had been funneled from the government by their politically-aligned parents for personal uses. there were the khmer prostitutes who purposely jostled the three of us trying to gain our attention, as well as the group of foreigners who lived in phnom penh and probably worked for some NGO. it was an interesting night to say the least. the next day was to be the most affecting day for me.

the next day we went to the tuol sleng prison in downtown phnom penh where thousands of prisoners were taken during the khmer rouge administration and interrogated, tortured, and eventually killed. thousands of children and babies were killed here as well. the museum did a very good job of showing the visitor the exact conditions of the former school turned prison 30 years ago. the killing fields contained a memorial to the tens of thousands of khmer people killed and showed the mass graves where thousands of bodies were found. i cannot effectively put into words the affect these two places had on me, but perhaps the pictures can do some service. following is an e-mail excerpt that i sent to friends. i think that it effectively portrays some of the feelings and realizations i was having at the time:

"cambodia has been quite different from thailand in both a refreshing and disturbing/sad way. just briefly . . . thailand is a place of "in-your-face" consumerism and media. it is also very sexually charged and this is obvious in both the media and the people. now i am not one to say too much sex is bad, but it was a little tiring (in a completely intellectual way of course ;) ). i didn't really realize just how charged it was until i came to cambodia. it seems that as soon as you cross the border into cambodia, things are very different. there is obviously a reason for this ( i.e. years of civil war and the disasters wrought by khmer rouge). the people live to survive here. children in the streets begging for food, money, to buy their wares . . . anything. it is so sad to see b/c i know that these are not scams, but people who really need help. i have tried to help by buying food for children or patronizing the various NGO-supported restaurants and shops in both phnom penh and siem reap. it just never seems to be enough. it was truly sobering to visit the killing fields and the S-21 prison in phnom penh where so many hundreds of thousands of khmers were tortured and killed by their own people. learning about it in a classroom never really gives you the full feeling and understanding. i could go on and on from conversations with tuk-tuk drivers whose grandparents and parents were killed to the dozen or so amputees i see every day who were victims of land mines set by the khmer rouge. obviously it is a very different scene here in cambodia. one which i am fortunate to experience. on a lighter note, the temples of angkor are incredible and definitely warrant the volumes written about them. they are some of the best preserved ruins i have seen (but then again, they are slightly newer than egyptian ruins and the like)."

like i said in the e-mail, the temples at angkor were incredible . . . once we finally got there. we were delayed a day because of a horrible case of food poisoning i got from eating a mango salad. siem reap is a funky little town on the outskirts of the temples. there have popped up some interesting little restaurants and bars there. there is still much poverty, but the abundance of tourism for the temples has brought much revenue to the area which is slowly being filtered down into the general public. the pictures of the temples will speak for themselves.

after about a week in cambodia, we decided to make our way over to vietnam. an easy bus ride of about 6 hours and we found ourselves right in the middle of ho chi minh city. after much searching, we found a pleasant little family-run guesthouse for $8/night. we even got a fresh lemonade from "mama solis" (as we called her) when we arrived. the next day we went to the war remnants museum which outlines the "american war," as they call it, and the war crimes wrought against the vietnamese people. some of the pictures and personal accounts of being burned by napalm and children being deformed form the dioxin in the agent orange were heart-wrenching. the effects of the war are still being felt so strongly now, from adults with deformities, to desertification by the use of defoliants. we also visited the cu chi tunnels which was the vietnamese guerilla stronghold during the war. these tunnels served as a network of hiding places within the jungle for the guerilla soldiers to hide in order to evade the american soldiers.

the next day we set off on a 3 day mekong delta excursion that placed us on phu quoc island for two days. floating markets, boathouses, and various islands abounded as we made our way through one of the most economically important areas of vietnam. our 2 days on phu quoc were the perfect end to a long journey. very little tourism has come to the island meaning that there are only dirt roads and miles of unspoiled beaches. it was so peaceful. our 2 days of peace were soon wrenched from us as we headed back to ho chi minh city on what can only be called the "bus ride form hell". we rode in a cramped mini-bus with 5 other vietnamese people, ourselves, and four danish people. one of the danish guys was throwing up out the window the whole way back to the city (9 hours), most of the roads had probably not been re-paved in 10 years or more, and there was about 6 inches of leg room. such is the fun of budget traveling. the rest of the time in ho chi minh city was spent preparing to return to china. we had about 2 days to prepare before our flight back to beijing. oh, it is worth noting that when we got back to ho chi minh, we stayed at a different guesthouse than before. upon checking in we were warned about an "old woman" who was crazy in the building. i thought nothing of it, as i had met many crazy people on my trip. not 5 minutes after setting our bags down did we hear our doorknob turn and a woman of about 4'5" appeared in the doorway. she wore a conical hat (rice paddy hat), was balding, and her eyes were so baggy that she could hardly see out of them. she walked into our room and shook her finger at us and sussed us for who knows what reason. throughout the rest of our stay there she was a regular apparition in our room. she would walk in without knocking, would go into our room when we were away, but leave signs that she had been there, and she would yell at us in unintelligible vietnamese as we exited the guesthouse each morning. i requested a picture with "grandma death" as we called her, but my offer was sharply declined with a flick of her gnarly finger.

it was truly an adventure unlike any other. i saw many sides of life in southeast asia and can only hope that i will make it back there some day. there is so much more to absorb. a part of me will always remain.

a tale of 3 countries

i write this entry just as my tan skin has almost faded to the whiteness it was before i left on my grand adventure, but my memories will not soon fade as easily. so much happened on my six week foray into the world of southeast asia that it will be difficult to paint an ample picture in mere writing. this will serve as a simple appetizer, though, and the rest of the "meal" will come later when i can actually relay the true sentiments of the stories to you in person. i promise that there is much more than what is written here . . .

while not the central destination of the trip, our 2, strike that, 3 nights in beijing proved to set the tone for the rest of the trip. for this reason, a few stories must be told from this short "layover" of sorts. first, the 14 hour train ride. i had taken this train many times before. you see, to get anywhere from tongliao you must take at least a 14 hour overnight train and this almost always means taking it to beijing. well, i was expecting this train ride to be just like every other one - smoky, dirty, slightly uncomfortable, but not too uncomfortable to sleep. in order to save money, i chose to buy a ticket for the top bunk in the sleeper car. while this is only around $2 cheaper, i figured i could use every spare dollar i had. bad idea, clay. i guess that it is a nice commodity to have heaters in train cars when you are riding it through the siberian grasslands of inner mongolia. this becomes near suicidal, however, when the heaters are turned on to the "surface of the sun" setting. we all know heat rises, so there is me on the top bunk, heaters full-blast, continuous puffs of dry heat momentarily drying my sweat-drenched, near-naked body. this coupled with my chinese "friend" in the bunk below me grinding his teeth all night (a sound not unlike 100 fingernails on a chalkboard) made for a very deliriously light and intermittent sleep. feeling as if we had been on a 2 week bender, mike and i dragged ourselves onto and off the subway and finally to our hostel. two nights in the hostel, bar-hopping, shopping, visiting with friends, etc. etc we were ready to head down to hong kong on our 24 hour long train ride. being near the beginning of the chinese new year holiday, however, we severely underestimated the time it would take to actually get on said train. we had our tickets. we were at the train station 15 mins before our train left. the crowd, however, that had assembled resembled, well, for lack of a better analogy . . .a cluster-fuck. pushing, prodding, starting near-riot conditions, we finally got through the door . . . 3 mintues after our train had left. $100 down the drain and one more night in beijing. we promptly called our friends and invited ourselves over to crash at their place. missing our train proved to be one of the best things that happened, however - not to mention that it infused our vacation with a sense of reckless abandon and carefree attitude about silly things like flight times and train departures. who needs to worry about useless things like that? slightly hungover and a little more humble, we boarded a plane to guangzhou the next afternoon.

one night in guangzhou. nothing interesting of note. big city. lots of people. in china. that's about it. the airport is pretty nice, though (and that's saying something in china).

the next afternoon we boarded an express train to hong kong. it was almost as if i had taken a 20 hour flight to a different part of the world as i stepped off at the train station in kowloon. it was warm, the sun was shining, people weren't spitting everywhere, the cars ran quietly . . . and were clean. an easy taxi ride to hong kong island and we were at our hostel which was right in the middle of causeway bay - one of the main shopping areas of hong kong. mrs. lin, the owner of our little guesthouse was all business. she took our passports, recorded the information, gave us a map and pointed out all of the important places (e.g. ATM's, subways stops, etc), took our money, issued us a receipt, and then told us that she didn't want to see us for the rest of our time there. "okay, no problem mrs. lin. really, it's okay, we understand. really, you don't have to raise your voice to get your point across. alright, we won't bother you." aren't hostels just so much more fun than 5 star hotels? we met up with our friend justin from BC and he proceeded to show us around like a professional tour guide. he knew all the hot nightspots, the best sights to see, where to eat (not to mention we got to ride around in his new car). our days were spent waking up around 10, going to see some sights, meeting justin around 5 when he woke up, and then hanging out with him and his friends for the rest of the night. the cash ran freely, but we figured that this was the last place we were going to be doing any heavy-spending. ahhhh, how we were wrong. cue the bus to xiamen and flight to bangkok.

our days in hong kong already seeming to be a distant memory as we entered mainland china again by bus to catch a plane in xiamen. i'm sure xiamen is a very nice place, but we were only there long enough to disembark a bus, board a taxi, disembark the taxi, and then board a plane. within one day, i had traveled from a special administrative region, to another country, and finally to another country. we were finally in thailand and after being the victims of a little taxi scam at the airport, we were finally on khao san road in the heart of the banglamphu region of bangkok. as we slid out of the sweaty taxi into the even sweatier air, the scene before us was almost otherworldly (or at least something from a movie). very attractive people speaking a menagerie of languages in various states of undress could be seen wandering/stumbling/sleeping on the street. this was truly the backpacker's haven that i had read so much about. it was a little after 1 AM and we still did not have a place to stay. wandering from guesthouse to guesthouse all the while dodging and hopping over passed out foreign revilers, we finally found a room at what seemed to be a lice infested motel of the pay-by-the-hour kind. we were so tired, however, that the bedsheets that hadn't been changed since mao tse-tung was the leader of china nor the various paraphernalia of questionable uses on the floor didn't bother us at the time. i passed out and woke up the next morning in a pool of my own sweat. i was finally REALLY in thailand. the next few days were filled with sightseeing and getting oriented. we took a boat cruise through the canals at night, went to clubs, parties, after-parties, after-after-parties. an expected duration of stay of 5 days became 8. i even went to a backstreet boys concert with a friend i made there. he had VIP tickets with all of his friends and invited me to go. yes, i saw the backstreet boys live in bangkok. they were pathetic; i couldn't have been happier. the whole time it felt like we would be there forever and that we would never continue on our adventure, but reality soon caught up with us (as did our party fatigue) and we realized that it was time to get out while we still could. we hopped a bus to chiang mai in the north of thailand.

the bus that conveyed us to chiang mai could only have been the tour bus for "the golden girls". pink, ruffled curtains, pink blankets, pink ruffled pillows . . . you get the picture. we were traveling in style with our "girls". chiang mai proved to be the respite we needed. clean air, quiet, relaxation, beautiful temples, $2 massages. we needed to regain our energy for the next leg of our trip which would take us to the south of thailand and the islands of ko samui and ko phangan. it was not all rest, though. being in the mountains of thailand, a mountain trek was only appropriate. we rode elephants, bamboo rafted down a river, and visited some native village populations in the hills (a.k.a hill tribes). the laid-back atmosphere of thailand permeated every experience in this mountain paradise.

due to the "fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants" philosophy on this trip, we did not book tickets to get to the south of thailand until 2 days before we wanted to leave. this presented us with the problem of both being able to get on the same flight. the decision was made that i would go first in the morning and find us a place to stay and then mike would come on the next plane in the afternoon. so, i rose on the morning of departure, arrived at the airport, fell asleep on the airplane and woke up in paradise. the ko samui airport was a mere cluster of bamboo huts all open to the air. after some haggling, i found a taxi that would take me where i wanted to go. i asked around about beach bungalows all along the beach until i found one that would accommodate 2 people and wasn't horribly dirty. i had about 5 hours before mike was supposed to arrive on the island, so i proceeded to get some fresh seafood, lie on the beach, get a thai massage (again $2) while watching the sun set, and then shower and go to a restaurant on the beach that just happened to be presenting a free traditional thai dance show. oh, i had also made friends with my thai masseuse and she had invited me to come to a club with her that night. once mike got in, the three of us headed off to the club (all three of us on her motorcycle . . . the following picture explains all). fun was had by all. the following day, with my head pounding and my veins still pumping with thai whiskey i rolled onto the beach to nurse myself back to health. after some hours in the sun, mike and i reconvened and decided that ko samui was "so touristy" and thus needed to proceed on to ko phangan. we did not leave, however, without experiencing the traditional art of "muay thai" or thai boxing. this was one of the most interesting sights i saw in thailand. each opponent did a personalized dance before he was to begin the fight. this dance is to pay respect to the other team's teacher as well as to ask for luck in his fight. these dances were very elaborate and were accompanied by traditional instruments. there were 8 different fights the night that we went with fighters ranging in age from around 7 years old to 25 years, old. i was enthralled the entire time. waking the next morning, we boarded the ferry to ko phangan and left ko samui well behind us. when i thought i had stepped into paradise on ko samui, i was obviously naive to the fact that ko samui was merely the "purgatory" outside the gates of paradise. ko phangan seemed nearly unspoiled. with few paved roads and a much more "homegrown" atmosphere, this became a place that i could easily never leave. movies played on TVs in the worldly restaurants that abounded, mats were set up on the beach at night for people to enjoy their drinks on, and during the day you could lie on the beach without another person around for nearly 500 meters. this was truly paradise. well, until i fell off of a motorcylce and put a hole to the bone in my knee. you see, mike and i thought that it would be a great idea to rent motorcycles to explore the far reaches of the island. we had not realized, however, that unpaved mountain roads are not conducive to amateur motorcylce riding. after falling twice myself and employing the aid of a very nice thai guy, mike then proceeded to follow suit. the motorcycles sat outside our bungalow for the rest of our time there . . . un-ridden. our brief stay on ko phangan was ceremoniously ended with a drunken night on the beach. on ko phangan, the island of the world famous "full moon parties", the "thing to do" is to buy a bucket (which consists of one bottle of alcohol and then two bottles of some other mixer all poured into a beach bucket) and then share it with 2 or 3 other friends. well, mike and i decided to share one between the two of us . . . i only remember having a round of affirmations with mike and then dancing by myself in a beachside bar. there will always be a place in my heart for ko phangan.

from here i traveled to cambodia and vietnam. my reflections on these two countries will have to wait until my next entry, however, as i feel it only appropriate to write about them separately from my adventures in hong kong and thailand. i also felt it only appropriate to describe the level of partying that was had in hong kong and thailand in order to juxtapose it against the completely different types of adventures i had in cambodia and vietnam. i leave you with this expectation of new stories in the next entry.

from the great known to the great unknown

so i have been kicking myself over the fact that i have not been blogging as much as i did in the beginning of my adventure here. i have been trying to figure out why that has been. have i gotten lazy? well, that may have always been the case, but i don't think i am any more lazy than before. have i become apathetic to my experience? hardly. i find myself enthralled in this experience every day and to survive i can hardly be apathetic. do i want to cut off all communication with people from "home" and run away to the grasslands of mongolia to spend the rest of my life as a siberian tiger trapper? the thought has crossed my mind, but living in a yurt and eating mutton for every meal would kind of chafe after a while.

i think the reason i haven't been writing as much is just that i am not surprised by things that happen here anymore. a little boy pulling down his pants to urinate on the sidewalk on a busy street. a man smoking while taking a shower at the bathhouse. floating naked in a salt pool with a mural of outer space above me while listening to chinese mood music. being asked to wear a traditional chinese woman's costume complete with a wig while making dumplings all of which to be taped by the school TV station. these are just some examples of things that don't surprise me anymore. every day is filled with little events such as these that i rarely have time or even think about stopping to ponder over. have i become chinese? undoubtedly.

well, to give a quick update. the holidays here were filled with chinese cheer. we were asked to perform on two different ocassions. one performance consisted of a mariah carey "all i want for christmas is you" dance and singing rendition, while the other performance was a mixture of us guys singing and dancing to the backstreet boys' "i want it that way" with the girls doing a dance to a variety of britney spears and christina aguilera. it was without question the most ridiculous showing (as most of it was heavily baijiu fueled) and was without doubt well received.

i am heading out this evening for a six week vacation to hong kong, thailand, cambodia, and vietnam (for the chinese new year and spring festival). mike and i are taking to the road and not looking back. the things we have learned in tongliao will hopefully serve us well for the next six weeks. i now know how to clean up a child's vomit with dirt as well as how to clear a dead cow from the street. those skills should come in handy at some point along the way. i know.