Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lost and found

An inevitable part of travel is losing things. When you are packing up and changing locations every few days a few things left behind or misplaced are inevitable. Unlike when you lose things at home it can be hard to find them again since usually by the time you figure out that whatever you lost was missing you have moved on to the next place. I had been doing pretty well on this trip, as far as I can remember I didn't lose anything important from Albania to Colorado. In Russia the only thing lost was a Russian phrase book, which although I would have liked to keep it, it wasn't really a big deal since I lost it right before I left Russia. But this week I lost three things that I'm upset a bit about. First, I got to Hong Kong and realized that when I did laundry in Guilin somehow a pair of my pants didn't make it back in my bag. I wouldn't have been too bothered if I had lost a t-shirt or pair of socks, but of all the items of clothing to lose, pants are the most annoying. First, they are the most expensive, these particular pants being REI travel pants with the zip off leg- not cheap. Second, while I have a few t-shirts, I only have two pairs of pants with me since in general they don't need to be washed as much and I can wear them a few days in a row. Third, I like most women I know usually have a hard time finding pants that I like and that fit me well. These were pants that I liked, that fit me well an were perfect for travel since they are lightweight, quick drying and become shorts (handy!). I emailed the hostel in the vain hope that they might have found them and can send them to me somehow (when I go back to China in a few weeks). I'm not holding out much hope.

The second lost item of the week happened in the Hong Kong airport. I lost my water bottle. I know what you are thinking "water bottle? Big deal!" but this one was kind of a big deal actually. It was an impulse REI purchase when I was home and it is a pretty cool bottle- it has an internal water filter, making any water you put in safe for drinking, but it is the same size and weight as your average nalgene. This means that all across Russia and Asia I was able to fill up my magic bottle from the tap (or well or stream, what have you) instead of buying bottled water every day. So I was not only saving money, but saving the planet too. The bottle probably already paid for itself in the bottled water that I didn't have to buy. I lost it somewhere between security and the plane. I know I had it at security because they made me dump out the last bit of water that was in it before I went through. I then clipped it to the outside of my bag. When I got on the plane I noticed that it was gone, but since I was already on the plane there was not much to be done. I asked the flight attendant to ask the gate agent to look around the boarding area, but they didn't see it. The funny thing is that the filter itself was not in the bottle (I had taken it out since hong kong water is good) but without the bottle, I can't use the filter!

The third thing I lost was completely my fault- I forgot to check to make sure that I put my leatherman tool (a gift from my friend Melissa to replace the pocket knife that I lost when we were in Romania last summer) into my checked baggage. In the airport in Manila it showed up on the x-ray but through some sort of magic sweet talk I managed to get through. But then it fell out of my bag sometime later (I think when my dad put my bag into the overhead compartment). It may still show up somewhere- I thought I lost it last year at Outdoor Ambassadors camp but it turned up a week later in another pocket of my backpack.

Usually when I lose things I'm only ever mad at myself, since usually it is my own fault (like forgetting my pants in the laundry room). I do believe that there is lost and found karma- I did spend five years working at a movie theatre benefiting occasionally from the lost and found gods (I once got a palm pilot that someone hadn't claimed after a few months). I just hope that someone deserving finds my lost stuff and appreciates it as much as I did.

UPDATE: the hostel found my pants! They will send them to me when I go back to China next month! If you ever go to China make sure to visit Wada Hostel in Guilin. It is probably one of the best hostels I've stayed at and it is in a really beautiful part of the country. And they have the best staff EVER!

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Biking in China- day two

Xi'an seemed like the perfect place to try again to bike around. My couchsurfing host, Tyler loaned me his bike for the day. It started out great- while busy, the streets are nowhere near as crazy as Beijing. Unfortunately, very early into my day I made a silly mistake by trying to pass a rickshaw and ended up hitting my handlebars and falling. I scraped my knee a bit and jammed two of my fingers in the fall. After a few minutes of self pity an a few tears, I picked myself up and dusted myself off and continued. Needless to say though, my heart (and hand) weren't quite in it for the rest of the day. I stopped not long after for some shopping and then sat in a park for another rest. I did manage to make it back to Tyler's house in one piece with no more incidents. When they say it's as easy as riding a bike, I don't think they were talking about bike riding in China. . .

Friday, October 22, 2010


I met a colleague of my host, Tyler, in Xi'an- she took us out to dinner for my first "hot pot" experience. She kept telling me how brave she thought I was. This is something that I hear from a lot of people on my travels. I guess because I was traveling by myself, away from my friends and family in a strange country. I don't really think of myself as "brave". Is riding the train across two continents or biking through the Chinese countryside alone brave? Some would call it brave, I suppose that some would call it stupid and I just call it beautiful and fantastic. I don't think of what I am doing as brave because I have always seen travel as exciting and normal, not usually dangerous. And now more than ever before, I think you have to be even less brave to travel alone because it is so easy.

In the morning on a boat floating down the Li river outside Guilin I had a discussion with an Australian guy who is traveling from Australia to Europe by land and sea. We talked about how the Internet had changed so much about travel. Just a few years ago, you had to rely on guidebooks for info, which could be incorrect or out of date. A few years before that there weren't even very many reliable guidebooks for many places. Other than this, you had tourism centers and travel agencies or just randomly arriving at a hostel. Now it is all different. You can go on one of several websites (I like and look at lots of options with price comparison and reviews of guests. I almost never arrive at a destination without a prior reservation and all the info I need about where I'm going. In fact it is actually becoming harder to travel in a new way- it is easier to travel, but harder to have an adventure.

Last year I read a few books by Paul Thereux in which he traveled long distances mostly by train including across Europe and Asia and then back on the trans-Siberian in "The Great Railway Bazaar" and a year traveling China by train in "Riding the Iron Rooster". His world was a completely different place than the one I am traveling in. When he was in China, he was escorted by a government "tour guide" and struggled vainly to leave him behind and travel on his own. Now independent travel in China is easier than ever with many places geared towards the young, independent backpacker with hostels, cheap tours and English speaking staff. I was, in fact, a bit nervous about traveling alone in China, much more so than I had been about going across Europe and Russia by myself since I do speak (enough) Russian and knew I could get by in a pinch. China has been harder, since Chinese is harder and not too much is translated, but so far I haven't had too much trouble. The biggest issue I've had so far was my hard seat train tickets and I don't think knowing Chinese would have helped me too much (only a few million less people or not coming to china on a holiday would make a difference there).

I'm not really sure what "brave" is. I'm adventurous maybe, curious for sure. But mostly I'm just trying to see the world. . .

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Hard class

I meant to book a sleeper, but I somehow ended up with a "hard seat". On the wrong day and to the wrong station (right city, just outside of town). My lesson learned from this- check three times that they understand what you want- even when you think that the person you are talking to speaks English . . . and don't try to travel in china during a national holiday.

So a "hard seat," not a sleeper and therefore, no sleep. Just me, one other American guy and about 100 Chinese people for 15 hours. The other American guy abandoned me to check out the dining car- he heard that if you slip the attendant a few bills they will let you stay there overnight. By the time I got uncomfortable enough to join him, the dining car was locked and any chance I had was gone. So I contorted myself into a somewhat comfortable position just like all my hard seat companions. On the bright-side, I did have a seat- when we left Beijing there were people standing and sitting in the aisles, although it seemed that most of these people had somewhere to sit by morning. This train continued on for another 18 hours to Chengdu and I just can't imagine another night like that. While the Chinese trains are certainly cheaper, I appreciate the Russian trains- I don't even think it is possible to just have a seat (no bed) on trips longer than 12 hours.

If there are no sleeper compartments available for my next section (24 hours to Guilin) I think I might just fly . . .

Sent from my iPod

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The great wall and all that jazz

(yep, that's me on the Great Wall)

What can you say about the Great Wall, really? Didn't they kind of say it all when they named it "Great"? I decided to take a tour offered by my hostel that would go to the "secret" wall- a part hopefully not covered in tourists and crawling in souvenir stalls. They delivered on the promise and we arrived at a beautiful section of the wall not far from the most touristy bit (with the cable car up and slide down) that was only partially restored and beautifully empty. It also turned out to be a fantastic day with relatively clear skies (only a mild pollution haze) and you could see quite a way in every direction.

It was a fun trip, I spiny most of the day hiking with a pair of British sisters who are English teachers not far from Beijing and in the city for the holiday. There is not much to say except that we climbed up, walked for a bit, took pictures walked back and climbed down. Climbed the Great Wall- check.

Travel in big cities (and any major tourist destination) often feels like a rather endless series of checklists: Great Wall- check, Summer Palace- check, Temple of Heaven- check, Chinese acrobats- check, etc. I feel like I try not to just "do" the checklist, for a lot of reasons. One, I can't really afford it; if I did everything listed in the Lonely Planet, I would be completely broke by now. I think, also that the best times I've had on this trip have been when I got off the checklist- usually with couhsurfers and PCVs. For me it is somehow easier to skip some of the attractions if I have someone to walk around town with- and when I do see things, it doesn't feel quite so listy since I'm sharing it with someone.

Anyway, checked off a lot of things from the list in Beijing. . . Up next, something that has been on my list for a long time: Terra-cotta warriors in Xi'an!

Sent from my iPod

Monday, October 18, 2010


I had heard that there were a few websites (most importantly for me- facebook) that were blocked in china. I also heard that there were ways to get around the blocking. So far I haven't been able to do that since I don't know how to get a proxy server on my iPod. I imagine I'll be able to use someone computer over the next few days to get to all the banned sites. Shh. I won't tell if you won't.

When I arrived in Beijing I found two more important sites blocked- blogger and wikipedia. Blogger is a problem for obvious reasons- while I have been using e-mail publishing on my blog since I got my iPod (because I can draft a post when offline) I still had to log on to actually publish the post and this is not possible here. I thought the fact that wikipedia was blocked especially ironic since they have this page:'s_Republic_of_China

I presume that they are listed, but I don't know since I can't open the page to check it out. If not someone should update it. :-).

Sent from my iPod

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

When in Rome . . .

(me with my bike in a park in Beijing)
Or rather when in China, do as the Chinese do. . .

After spending my first day in Beijing walking and finding that the crowds were terrible and the distances long, I took the advice of the guidebook and rented a bike from my hostel for the day. Although there are still plenty of bikes on the Beijing streets, cars are more and more common, making traffic pretty horrible and becoming more dangerous for the bikers. Now, I haven't ridden a bike in years and between that and in general being a bit out of shape, I started out slow. Of course I couldn't really start out too slow since I had to get through the traffic in central Beijing around Tienanmen square right off the bat- surviving that, I made my way along some of the bike roads and hutongs (alleys) north to the drum and bell towers. I had fun exploring Beijing this way, but it was very stressful and there were several times that I had to dismount in order to get through big crowds and not run over small children or grandmothers. I managed to make it back to my hostel in the afternoon without getting hit by a bus and without hitting any pedestrians (at least not hard). I was sore and tired and happy to be in one piece.

While it is certainly faster than walking, I don't really see myself as a "bike" person. My friends Chris and Courtney are taking a several month bike trip through the middle east right now and while I love reading about their trip and it seems like they are having a great time, I just don't know if I could do it. I saw a lot of the people in Beijing zipping around on little motor bikes and scooters and I think that maybe I could do THAT. I am faced with the problem of transportation for when I get back to Denver in a few months. I would love to live without a car, but a few hinges make that hard- first as I plan on subbing for at least a few months, I will need flexibility that buses and biking just cant offer. Second, I'll be getting back in winter and a bike (or even a scooter) wouldn't be a reliable option for at least a few months. I guess I'll figure that all out when the time comes. . .

Monday, October 4, 2010

The ger life

(Caitlin and I outside "Dublin Round")
One of he quintessential things to in Mongolia is to stay in a ger (yurt). The easiest way to do this is to pay for a tour that takes you to an "authentic" ger camp. But since I'm not generally for the easy way, I didn't do this. Instead I found a PCV that lives in a real life ger. In case you don't know, a ger is a Mongolian felt tent- usually used by the nomadic herdsman. In modern day Mongolia, many people live in more permanent abodes: apartments, brick houses etc., but many people still live in movable gers and many also live in semi-permanent gers in neighborhoods of towns and cities. Caitlin's ger is like this- she lives in the yard of a Mongolian family's house. Her ger- Dublin Round (probably the best ger in Mongolia)- is pretty great. It is about 12 feet across with furniture all around the edges and a wood (or coal or dung) stove in the middle of the circle that vents out the hole in the roof. She has no running water and has to go a few times a week to the end of her street to fill up a large plastic container for her water needs. She does have electricity and even Internet. Imagine, Internet in a felt tent!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A word on . . .

Couchsurfing. This is why I love couchsurfing- when you stay with someone, you get a slice of their life, whether it is meeting some Hare Krishna or spending the afternoon in the jacuzzi of the guest house of the president of Mongolia. Sure there are temples and museums, but could you ever get an experience like his staying in a hostel? I didn't think so- just sayin. . .

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Saturday, October 2, 2010

I found the foreigners

I found the foreigners- they are in second class. For the trip to Ulaanbaator, there were no third class seats available for the days I wanted to travel so I had to pay the extra money to be confined in a small compartment with three other people and loud rude foreigners next door. . .
In fact, the whole car is made up of foreigners. It seems that there is one normal train a day that crosses the border and in fact for several hours on either side of the border, it is disconnected and all alone (it is very weird to see your train car sitting by itself on the tracks, not connected to anything). And there are no third class seats because there is no third class- or first class for that matter. Just our lonely second class. For the border stop (long!) all of us forieners got off the train and sat chatting on the platform- it reminded me a bit of the people I met in waiting in the Amsterdam airport.

It feels weird to be leaving Russia. I don't think I'm ready, I just feel like I'm starting to understand things a bit and remember words that were lodged in the back of my brain. In Mongolia and China I will back at square one, not understanding anything people say, only worse off than in Russia because I've never studied Mongolian or Chinese.

I am really excited about Mongolia and I wish that I had planned a little bit longer there. I am planing on staying with a few Peace Corps Volunteers, which I think will be awesome as always. I have also started to map out my time in China, which is a challenge because it is just so much that it is hard to decided where to even start. I feel like I almost have to just open my guide book at random and visit where ever my finger lands, but of course that would be a bit silly. Really that is all that I have been doing so far and it has seemed to work out ok . . . Anyway, the trip goes on!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Lake baikal

Fall may not be the obvious time to come to a place like Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world- its too cold to swim (although I gather that even in the summer the water is pretty frigid) but not yet cold enough to drive on the frozen lake and ice fish. But I think that this was actually a great time to come- it's not too cold yet to not want to go outside, but there aren't a million tourists crowding the beach. And the foliage is turning. I love the fall and the changing of leaves. I think it is one of natures coolest shows and riding around the lake on the old Cirkumbaikal railway I was captured by the golden hues of the changing birches. I stayed for one night in a tiny village called Old Angasolka. I was the only foreigner in the village for the night and it was exactly what I wanted. There is one guy who speaks English ok and his girlfriend a little. I talked with him for a long time about Russia, America, Albania, brain-drain, development and tourism. He showed me some great pictures that were taken on boating, biking and climbing trips around the region, plus a funny video that included skiing an skating on the frozen lake and some crazy ice swimming (with a mad dash to the sauna). It makes me want to come back in the summer and even more to come back in the winter. One thing that is really great about Baikal, especially compared to the horribly done development of some aspects of tourism in Albania, is how simple and conciensiously the tourism here has been developed. There are twice weekly tourist trains that go along the old railroad stopping many times along the way- on this route there are no big hotels, only scattered campsites and small settlements of camps and guesthouses. The big hotels are concentrated in a few towns, or more in the city of Irkutsk a few hours away, making the lakeside quiet and peaceful. And since this is the most inhabited part of the lake I imagine that the rest of the lake is even more quiet and peaceful.