From January - July 2010, we are roaming the Indian Subcontinent (and beyond, as it turned out)...

...during that period, this blog page is the temporary home of

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Steamed Buns and Things on Sticks

Thailand. After leaving our island, we boated back to Phuket, which I never tired of pronouncing phonetically. A day in the city gave us a chance for some great Thai street life and street food...stuff that's lacking on a touristy island. [Those who have seen The Beach would recognize our hotel in Phuket's old town (and incidentally Ko Phi Phi, the island we were on for a week, is the island in the film).]

We flew back to Kuala Lumpur, missing the US-Slovenia match en route but catching the England-Algeria one a couple hours after we landed, at 2.30am (we slept in the airport).

Next day: flight to Chengdu, China, in the heart of Sichuan province, far far inland.

I'd been here before, and to me the city was unrecognizable. In the intervening years, a big but somehow quaint and walkable city centre had somehow morphed into enormous multi-laned roads, pedestrian flyovers, and modern shops of the Louis Vuitton variety. All new, all big and imposing and impressive. But so very far from what I remembered.

Another thing I'd enjoyed some years ago was the Sichuan opera...old men with wispy beards chatting over afternoon tea while on a stage masked singers screeched and sang and acted out stories. This, too, had changed. Now evidently, the only option to see the opera is to buy an expensive ticket to a staged evening performance that is more akin to a variety show for the short attention-spanned. We skipped it.

While I'm speaking of changes, I may as well mention the hostel where we stayed. Luxurious. DVD player and TV in the room. Free internet (I used to hunt down internet on back lanes, seeking out the Chinese characters that indicated an internet cafe - which would inevitably be full of young kids playing online shoot-em-up games). Free fresh fruit delivered to your room in a basket. Great shower. Super clean.

China? The China I remembered was so much simpler and different.

This place has been turned upside-down...or right-side up, depending on your perspective.

One nice change is that new construction in China seems to have taken a turn for the better. Instead of white-tile-and-blue-glass buildings that look terrible and seem unlikely to last more than a couple decades, what's new generally looks good. We found a few brand-new streets done up to look ancient; obviously set up for tourists (mostly

Chinese) but it is at least adding character of a certain manner, compensating for some of the tradition that was probably bulldozed to make way for all the modernity.

But I keep digressing...We spent a few days in Chengdu; Rebecca immensely enjoyed her introduction to the country. Wandering the backstreets was great fun (a lot more streets and things are labeled in English now, but it can still be bewildering). Meals were bowls of noodles, assorted steamed buns and dumplings, and fried and boiled things on sticks; we never saw an English menu. Among other things, we visited a Buddhist monastery and a Taoist temple. And...we saw pandas (not in the city; for this we had to take a short trip out)!

Very cool. They're big and white and black and playful and immensely fun to watch.

After a haircut (at 15 yuan - just over $2 - it was far more expensive than my average of 25 rupees - 60 cents - in India, but included a wash before AND after, plus a blowdry, and an obligatory photo with the barber who had obviously never cut the hair of a white guy before), we left the city.

And leaving the was posh! We'd booked a Hard Sleeper class train journey. This sounds like roughing it, but it isn't. The carriage was posh. And after India, quite a beggars/cripples sweeping under your feet and asking for rupees, no chai wallahs. Bedding. Comfort. Cleanliness. Order. Little/no invasion of personal space. And outside: instead of brown plains it was green and bright, with stunning rivers and gorges, as we wound our way southwards through Sichuan.

Actually, in some respects the journey (and the train station itself) was SO organized and comfortable that it seemed almost drab, but that's probably just because we're still somewhat used to India (and after India, few places on Earth wouldn't feel a bit sterile in some way). That overnight journey cost us more than a trans-India first class journey would have, but we appreciated it for what it was - an enjoyable way to connect points A and B.

13 hrs after we'd begun, the train dumped us off at 4am in a city called Panzhihua. Straightaway we hit the bus station, for a continuation of the journey, a 9-hr bus ride into Yunnan province, where we're currently stationed. More on that in the next update!

Now, we're off for a beer (we picked up a can each of lychee and pineapple-flavored lager for an evening treat).

[Postscript: this update is being uploaded by our friend Chris. China does not allow internet users to access Blogspot. More on this...and a lot more that I/we may have to say about China in general in a future update!]

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Only Problem With Paradise

Things have been really great. The air temperature...perfect; the water temperature for frequent dips in the sea...also perfect. Our private stilted bungalow...fantastic. Views of sandy beaches, limestone cliffs, and another jagged island across the way...stunning. Our favorite restaurant on an adjacent beach, 3 minutes' walk away...spectacular food. It's rainy there are relatively few tourists about, and deflated prices to match...and aside from our very first day here (and today) we've had unseasonably clear, sunny, blue skies.

In all, a week of sublime weather and scenery and food, being shirtless most of the time...can't ask for more.

Really the only complaint is that mosquitos harass us each morning and towards/after dusk which limits the amount of time spent hanging in the hammock on our bungalow porch. I guess a few itchy insects are a small price to pay for what is otherwise paradise, though. Also less than perfect is the fact that the Americans failed to beat England in the first World Cup match. Alas, we settle for a tie I guess.

We've read a handful of books, got some color (Rebecca, brown; me, more of an off-white), had a Thai massage (which, in my experience, is voluntarily paying to have a meaty Thai woman pummel you with her hands and feet and elbows, with some acrobatics that border on the intimate thrown in for good measure), and I've poked beached jellyfish with sticks (Rebecca says she outgrew this when she was five; me? well, I grew up 2000 miles from the sea so never did this when I was young and even if I had, I wouldn't give it up. no way! it's fun!), and spent a fair deal of time studying the movements of hermit crabs and spider crabs (though Rebecca tells me there must be more than 5000 types of crabs and that these are probably some other type, which is likely true - but regardless, I like watching them and sitting really still until they decide I'm okay and crawl out of their holes - why do they dig these? - and go about their business unfettered).

We're rested and recharged now, ready for the final phase of our trip.

In a few hours, we leave the island of Ko Phi Phi by ferry (provided it's running...after a week of sun, today it's storming...good timing!) back to the larger resort island of Phuket. There, we have a flight back to Kuala Lumpur (tomorrow), where we'll spend a night in the airport ahead of Saturday morning's flight to...China.

When we began this trip, China was not part of the plan; but then, neither was this stop in Thailand. A web of visa issues and discounted airline tickets dictated this course, and we're happy to follow.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Feeding Fish

Rebecca has officially bailed on writing these updates. She just doesn't want to. So for her friends and family tired of hearing from me, I guess it's Brian or nothing, or perhaps you can complain via email to her and see if that helps.


Our visit to Kuala Lumpur was brief. It was hot and muggy, but a nice respite from chaotic India. In a span of only a few hours, Rebecca tried multiple new fruits: rambutan, mangosteen, dragonfruit, salak, and the smelly-but-tasty regional favorite, durian.

We'd planned to visit one "sight" during our one full day in the city: the Petronas Twin Towers, until 2003, the world's tallest building(s). But being Monday, they were closed. Instead, we explored Chinatown. Fruit sampling aside, the highlight of the visit was paying a few ringgit to dip our feet in a "fish spa," where hundreds of 2-3" long fish nibble your feet, eating the dead skin. It's supposed to be therapeutic in some way. Certainly it's weird - and very ticklish.

The following morning we flew to Phuket, Thailand, and we're currently relaxing on the island of Ko Phi Phi. That's it. We await the start of the World Cup and the USA - England match. Football/soccer aside, the course of the next week-plus is: eat and stagnate on this beautiful tropical isle.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The End of India

Rebecca, to me on the plane today as we're leaving India: "Next time we travel, I'm going to have more say on the destination."

She exaggerates, though; she loved it, at times more than I did - certainly there were days she handled it better. But we were both ready to depart...had we really been on the subcontinent for just a few days shy of 5 months?!

We left off in Srinagar, Kashmir. Contrary to popular opinion, we genuinely believe that the danger of Kashmir isn't Kashmir itself, but getting in/out of it! As stated previously, a day or two after our arrival from mountainous Ladakh, an avalanche took out the road on that section. We exited a different route, southwards, for Jammu - meant to be about 8 hrs. This day, I describe as "interesting," Rebecca calls it "the journey from hell."

Why? Oh, a trishaw overladen with steel bars tipped over just in front of us. We were stuck in a steep valley for 2 hrs waiting for a crew to remove a flipped petrol tanker (on passing, the narrow highway was still soaked with gasoline; I turned to our driver and stated, "no smoking!"). Another road jam held us up a further hour. Lunch was shitty. It rained. It hailed. We got stuck for a half hour waiting for an impromptu parade of 100's of buffalo plod past. Then, at dusk, a crazy sand/windstorm hit. Trees were falling in the road, something landed on our jeep, a heavy rain made visibility appalling. We arrived nearly 12 hrs after we'd begun.

A slightly less eventful day saw us arrive in Amritsar, a Punjabi city near the Pakistani border. Back into the heat of India proper. But it was great. Few beggars, a city where white travellers can still be somewhat of a novelty, lots of smiles and genuinely friendly people. And the Golden Temple, the holiest place for Sikhs (a large % of the men in the city wore the colored turbans indicating their creed). We spent 4 days in the city. Finally saw a Bollywood film at the cinema. Found one of the best 4 lassis (yogurt shakes) in India (for details, or to know the other 3, email me). Great paneer butter masala and butter naan. Free meals at the community kitchen at the Golden Temple. Amritsar was great, and was perfect for our final "real" stop in India.

Then: departure. Our train ticket to Mumbai, 32 hrs away by train - and much longer by bus...we'd booked tickets 5 weeks ago, but it was full and we were waitlisted. As the day of departure (and our eventual flight out of India) grew closer, our trepidation increased. On May 31st, we went to the station. No luck - still on the waiting list. Many conversations, a few officials, several offices, and finally a visit to see the "Divisional Traffic Manager" got us on the train - apparently they reserve a few seats on each train for VIPs and emergencies, and we qualified (somehow).

[This train deal was WAY more stressful than this simple paragraph can demonstrate. Had we not miraculously gotten on that train, we'd have faced a 3-day-ish true night-and-day hell-odyssey to get to Mumbai before our flight out of India. Despite that multi-week advance booking, we did not know that we had berths until a mere 2 hrs before the train's nighttime departure!]

OK, then. 32 hrs on the train. Piece of cake. We had friendly neighbors, and a sack full of fresh mangos and lychees to supplement the meals served on the train and bits purchased from station platforms en route. Outside, the landscape was pretty dire: hot plains and hot plains and pretty much just hot baking plains. Inside, friendly neighbors, a good book, and relative comfort.


And: MUMBAI! For Bollywood and beach? No! For A/C and comfort and hot showers and a laundry machine: my friend Mike and his family live in the northern suburbs of the city. He made his home our home, and for our final 4 days in India we scarcely left the comforts of that refuge/sanctuary/insulated palace. I'd previously met my friend when he'd lived in Burma and Turkey, so in addition to some creature comforts completely foreign to us in recent months, I had a chance to reconnect with an old friend. It was fantastic.

We left this morning. A flight brought us to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Landed about 4 hrs ago.

Thoughts? This is a WEIRD place: no wandering cows and goats, no one honks their horns, intersections aren't filled with scooters and autorickshaws vying for position, people obey traffic regulations, there seem to BE traffic regulations, buildings generally look like they'll still be standing in 15 years, nobody hassles us, things are orderly.

We're still getting used to all this newness.

India is now behind us. In all those months, just a few illnesses (Rebecca: two, Brian: one) and a lot of great experiences.

Kuala Lumpur, our current destination, is just a way station. 36 hrs from now, we'll be on another plane to somewhere even more comfortable, we think...