Further Travels

Banking steeply on approach to Staniel Cay, Exuma Islands, Bahamas - in a tiny 9-passenger plane. A tad bouncy, but the views are unquestionably worth it!

The last few months have been a flurry of globe-trotting, but I've finally returned to DC, my home base for the past several years while I attended graduate school and then worked for National Geographic. My travels in Peru and the Bahamas were marvelous, of course. It was thrilling to tackle a new continent - hard to believe I'd never been to South America before! - and the areas of Peru I encountered were staggeringly different: from Lima's sprawling metropolis to the steep peaks surrounding Cusco and Machu Picchu to the thickly verdant Amazon basin. A fascinating country, unlike any place I'd ever been to before - and I'll certainly be posting more about it! 

In contrast, visiting the Bahamas will always be like going home for me. The Exuma Islands especially are so dearly familiar; I'll never tire of roaming about secretive island trails, revisiting favorite fishing and snorkeling sites, or boat life in general - the daily chores of hauling anchor, washing dishes in seawater, cooking fresh seafood in the cockpit. This year I made a real effort to re-acquaint myself with Nassau. I've been to the city probably 40-some times in my life, but our stops are usually limited to refueling, rewatering, and searching for a post office or laundromat. It was fantastic to explore old favorites again like Fort Fincastle, the Watertower, and the Queen's Staircase while seeing how the city has changed as well: a revamped local bus system, the bright and airy brand-new building for the Straw Market, the rows of colorful stalls that are sprouting up around tourist attractions. There's definitely far more to see in Nassau beyond the cruise ship docks and hotel casinos.

My travels are already paying off since my return, with several pieces in the works for National Geographic Traveler magazine, my lovely former employer. Now the real question is where to next!

Shanghai, China

June 8-13, 2009

From ancient to modern: Beijing and Shanghai are definitely required stops on any comprehensive trip to China. I loved the contrast between the two cities. While both are undeniably modern with their share of skyscrapers, my lasting impression of Beijing is the dry, dusty forecourt of the Forbidden City. Shanghai? It's all about the explosive color and neon lights.

Brilliant lights lining the famous Nanjing Road

We took the overnight train from Beijing to Shanghai, which is definitely my preferred way to travel. Again, no tickets booked in advance: we simply walked to the Beijing Train Station (only a few blocks from Tiananmen Square) the day before our intended departure and found two bunks in a sleeping car. The rambling waiting rooms of the station itself are incredibly confusing, however, with announcements almost impossible to hear; you have to stay very sharp if you don't want to miss your train.

Our berths were wonderfully comfortable - unfortunately they didn't do me any good, since I coughed the entire night through. I'd started coughing in Thailand, thinking it was just a pesky cold, but the instant we arrived in Shanghai and met up with a good college friend, she said: "Karen, you need to see a doctor."

I'd purchased HTH travel health insurance before I left for $1 a day, and our friend, who went to high school in China and had moved back there after college, swung into action. She called the Shanghai Global Health clinic and booked me an appointment for that very day, called HTH and got them to send proof of insurance and payment to the clinic, and an hour later I was seeing a French doctor in China. Which was excellent, because I did not have just a heavy cough. I had bronchitis.

Yes: during the entirety of my travels throughout East and Southeast Asia I did not suffer from food poisoning once (which we were half-expecting), but I did catch a nasty case of bronchitis, which had never crossed my mind. Thankfully I never had a fever, which was extremely lucky as this was the very height of the swine flu/H1N1 panic. Every airport we passed through had body heat scanners searching for people running a temperature; before being allowed off the plane in Beijing, medical workers walked through the entire plane and personally checked each passenger's temperature. I minimized my coughing with cough drops; being quarantined would have certainly thrown off all of our plans.

Roof peaks in Yuyuan Garden

Banners from Shanghai's first-ever Gay Pride festival, held in the French Concession

Antibiotics in hand, we were free to explore Shanghai, expertly guided by our friend J. I always feel I comprehend a city more when I'm forced to explore it on my own, but it's lovely to have a local show you the shortcuts (and where to get fabulous $3 foot massages after a long day of walking). J skillfully bargained for us with the Chinese vendors at the Fake Market, to our vast amusement, awe, and befuddlement at the rapid-fire Chinese. "I wasn't born yesterday" in Chinese is a very useful term when bargain-hunting, apparently. For those without a personal experienced bargainer, Mike at Moving to China Blog has composed a handy list of prices to shoot for.

Slippers in the sprawling underground Fake Market
(where I found a "Louis Vuitton" pocketbook for about $8)

Beijing, China

June 5-7, 2009

There are some wonders of the world that have become so over-hyped, over-commercialized, and overrun with tourists jostling for their vacation snapshot that they perhaps aren't worth the time and effort and expense required to visit them.

The Great Wall is not one of them.

At the most popular visitation sites it has indeed become extremely commercialized. Badaling, the closest site to Beijing, requires visitors to navigate through rows of shops selling overpriced souvenirs, a live bear exhibit, and even an elaborate ride snaking down the mountain before finally reaching the Wall. It's essentially a miniature modern Disney World tucked into a curve of the ancient Wall, and while it's jarringly out of place, why not try to make a buck off the thousands of tourists that visit Badaling annually. But once you reach the Wall itself, all the silliness below is forgotten.

There is no question that the Wall is worth it. It is so very, very worth it.

As with most of our trip though Asia, we didn't bother to plan anything ahead: we arrived in Beijing on a Friday afternoon and walked over to the state-run tourist office to find a Great Wall tour for the following day. The office only takes groups once the bus fills up and you need at least 15 people or they cancel the tour. The one we wanted had no one else signed up and so was unlikely to happen, so we had to jump on another that included the Ming Tombs. Tours with English-speaking guides required a group of at least 6 to book, so we tagged along on a Chinese tour with only a Chinese-speaking guide. Elaborate pantomime gestures were employed on each side to communicate when we would need to be back at the bus after each stop, and the trip worked out beautifully: we got organized transportation to the sites and were free to wander the tombs and the Wall without having to shuffle along with the group.

Above the amusements of Badaling, the Wall is eerily quiet. It's simply ancient stones surrounded by misty forested hills, and the sense of history, the craftsmanship over centuries required to build it, is very strong.

The Wall follows the lines of the mountain ridges so closely that the walkway slopes perilously steeply up and down almost without a break. Railings have been placed to help tourists haul themselves up (and keep from tumbling down). When it's not an incredibly steep slope, there are steps - so many high steep steps! It is seriously exhausting and in the time alotted we were only able to pant our way up to two very high points. The next high point beyond us literally disappeared into the clouds. I can't imagine how soldiers actually patrolled the Wall.

It was so very, very beautiful, with the Wall curling and twisting in all directions, lush greenery covering the mountains and the mist shrouding the higher peaks.