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.