Thursday, November 25, 2010

Back in Seattle

We're back in cold and snowy Seattle. After we we settle in, we'll go through our 4000+ photos and post a more complete travelogue.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Speed-touring Beijing and the Great Wall

We arrived in Beijing after a 3-hour flight from Kunming, and checked into the Park Plaza Wangfujing, the most upscale hotel of our trip. Looking out our hotel window, we saw something we hadn't seen since we'd left Seattle, a Starbucks.

From the hotel, we took the subway to the the Palace Museum, aka the Forbidden City. It was chilly, and the Forbidden City was relatively empty. I'd forgotten how huge it is - it's about 1 km from north to south. We only had about an hour until it closed, so we had to tour it very quickly.

The next morning, we chartered a taxi from our hotel to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, about two hours from the city, and back to the airport for a flight to Seattle. The Great Wall was very cold (but there were plenty of vendors to sell us warm hats) and there were very few tourists. The wall was as impressive as the first time I'd seen it.

Driven to desparation in Kunming

After an early morning flight from Vientiane, Laos, to Kunming, China, we spent the day exploring the city of Kunming on our own. At the beginning of the trip we were with a guide. On our own, the city was a whole different place - lots to explore, but lots of language barriers.

We set out on foot from our hotel on the southeast side of the city, walked through downtown and what's left of the Muslim Quarter, where we bought some kebabs and fresh pita from a street vendor. The kebabs were insanely spicy. I could just tolerate the heat, but Dale just had some pita for lunch.

We wandered through the Bird and Flower Market (and the back-street puppy sellers), and ended up at Green Lake on the northwest side of town. In the winter, Green Lake is the southern home of thousands and thousands of Siberian Gulls. Lots of locals go to the park to feed them. They're small, beautiful birds, quite different from our big seagulls.

At sunset, the birds all disappeared, as did the people. We were about 4 miles from the hotel and very hungry. We wandered a bit more looking for a restaurant, but everything we saw was either dress-code upscale or would require some Mandarin language skills which we lacked. We decided to catch a taxi back to our hotel area.

We showed the taxi driver the card from our hotel and he squinted at it for a while. This was the second time this had happened. Earlier at the airport, the taxi driver also seemed confused about the hotel's location and had to ask others. It was odd; the hotel was on one of the 8 major roads in town, and the address was written clearly in English. It was also written in Chinese characters which we couldn't read.

The driver nodded that he knew where to take us, and off we went. It should have been a 5-10 minute ride. Soon it became clear that the driver did not know where the hotel was. We headed west, then turned around and headed east, then south past the hotel by at least a mile, then north again. We crossed the street that our hotel was on at least twice, and try to gesture that he should turn there. He stopped a few times and used a mapping app on his phone. He tried to drop us off at a middle school on a back street. Eventually he made a phone call, perhaps to the number listed on the hotel's card. We drove some more in what seemed like a big circle, he pulled the taxi to the curb, and pointed at a building a block a way which was not our hotel.

But fortunately, we knew we were only a block or two from our hotel at this point. We hopped out, paid him the $5 fare so as not to delay our dinner any further, and walked back to our hotel. The taxi ride had taken 45-50 minutes.

By now, businesses in our hotel area were starting to close for the night. We wandered around, looking for a restaurant where we could either point at the food or a picture of the food, or with some English on the menu, or with someone who seemed willing to help us. No luck. Finally, we rounded the corner and spotted a familiar sight: the golden arches.

Yes, we had dinner at McDonald's.

The person at the counter pulled out a picture menu, and we pointed at a double cheeseburger and fries. The burgers were just what you'd expect at any McDonald's. The fries were horrid, cold, and flavorless.

We went back to our hotel with full stomachs and a good story to tell, even if it wasn't the wonderful local cuisine we'd hoped for.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Happy 450th, Vientiane; or, Monks With Rifles

After a 35 minute flight, we arrived in the Laotian capital city of Vientiane, on the border with Thailand. For a city of 300,000 it seemed surprisingly mellow.

This evening we took a Tuk Tuk (a 3 wheeled motorcycle taxi) to Pha That Luang, the iconic temple which graces the seal of Laos. The city is celebrating two things at once: the annual That Luang festival, which marks the end of Buddhist "lent"; and Vientiane's 450th anniversary. The celebrations near the temple are going on 24 hours a day.

We knew it would be busy, but nothing could have prepared us for the chaotic intensity. Everyone in the city was at the festival. We couldn't even get close to it in the Tuk Tuk because the traffic was so bad, so we got out and walked. As we waded through a sea of hundreds of thousands of people no taller than our shoulders, we were assaulted by throbbing bass beats, blaring sales pitches, and glossy advertisements. It seemed to go on forever. Deeper into the festival, we found quieter areas where monks were playing carnival games. In the midst of it all, there was the gleaming temple, and architectural masterpiece.

For the first time since China, we were the only Westerners in sight. Several groups of people wanted to get their photos taken with the American giants.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Elephant bathing was not what I'd thought

Today we visited a lodge where elephants retired from the abusive work of the teak logging industry now earn their keep a much easier way, giving rides through the jungle to tourists. Dale and I shared a 50 year old elephant. The bucking, swaying ride on the saddle was giving Dale flashbacks to a childhood incident where he cartwheeled over - and then under - a horse. At the end of the ride, the attendant asked if we wanted to watch an elephant bathing, and offered one of us the chance to participate. I ended up with the job. I was picturing a hose and a scrub brush, Instead, the elephant walked down to the river, waded up to its eyes, and then proceeded to wash itself with river water it sucked into its trunk. I got drenched! I was laughing so hard I nearly coughed up a lung.

Temples and rituals

Luang Prabang is an amazing little town. There are countless magnificent Buddhist temples, some of them 500 years old. Every morning, a few hundred monks walk through the streets to collect alms - balls of sticky rice and a few other edible offerings.

Cruising the Mekong at sunset

We took a 3-hour evening dinner cruise on the Mekong River. After the sun set, we pulled ashore to watch some traditional Lao dancing.