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.

Bangkok, Thailand

The Temple of Dawn, viewed from a Chao Phraya River taxi. Click here for more Bangkok photos

June 1-4, 2009

Bangkok, alas, is not one of my favorite cities. Our trip thus far had come off without a hitch, but at four weeks in we were due for difficulties. And Bangkok brought them in spades. We baked in our airless oven of a hostel room, had endless trouble making our way around the city, I had begun coughing all night due to a bout of bronchitis I somehow picked up but would not be diagnosed until a week later, and to top it all off, I broke my shoe. Basically anything that could go wrong did go wrong, to the point where we eventually gave up in defeat.

Thai flags fluttering near Khaosan Road

Due to all our troubles I have very few fond memories of Bangkok, but one stands out: riding a river taxi. Known as the "Venice of the East," the older section of Bangkok is criss-crossed by rivers and canals, and the extremely efficient river taxis are an excellent way to navigate the wide Chao Phraya River. The long, low boats are crewed by a pilot forward and a deckhand aft. Loading and unloading passengers has been honed to a fine art: the boat comes charging up to the floating dock, looking like it's going to blow right by, the pilot swings the stern toward the dock and the crew jumps off, secures a line, everyone scampers on and off the high stern, the crew grabs the line and jumps back on and the whole process takes literally 10 seconds. The deckhand communicates everything to the pilot with piercing whistle tweets. The midsection a few steps down from the stern is full of bolted plastic seats and everyone coolly sits in them just like they're on a bus, paying their fares to a ticket lady who makes her rounds after every stop. You have to be careful where you sit, however: some Thai schoolgirls too close to the front of our boat were doused with spray.

We went quite a ways down the river, from Rama VIII Bridge to Oriental Pier, and got great views of the Bangkok waterfront and the Temple of Dawn, perhaps the most distinctive and recognizable landmark in the city. Much more exciting than an ordinary cab ride.

Phuket, Thailand

Coconut in the rain, Karon Beach. More photos from Phuket can be found here.

May 27-31, 2009

Knowing that traveling for a solid seven weeks would be exhausting, we built a vacation into our vacation: a week on the famous beaches of Phuket, Thailand. While planning our trip, however, we hadn’t paid attention to the fact that May heralds the beginning of the rainy season in SE Asia. Our first full day in Phuket, it poured. With very impressive thunder and lightning. Armed with umbrellas, we wandered the beach despondently in the rain.

The thunderstorms didn’t return, however, and the rest of our time in Phuket provided fine beach weather, if frequently overcast. Instead of busy, crowded Patong Beach, we opted to stay a little further down the coast off much quieter Karon Beach. The small cluster of rather run-down hotels, restaurants and shops were nearly empty, it being the start of the low season – another fact we hadn’t been aware of. After three weeks of bustling, frequently polluted cities, however, I was relieved to no longer be dodging people and traffic at every turn.

Phuket was absolutely devastated by the 2004 tsunami only four and a half years ago, but the beach resort communities have made a remarkable recovery. The only overt reminders of the disaster are the “tsunami evacuation route” signs scattered along the beach and in town, pointing toward the inland mountains.

Not every day was spent lounging under a beach umbrella. This being Thailand, we were determined to ride an elephant. At the teeny Karon tourist office we found a reasonable day package to the mainland that included elephant riding, a visit to the “Monkey Cave” surrounded by hundreds of (very hungry) long-tailed macaques we first saw in Singapore, and, believe it or not, white-water rafting. Rafting is . . . really not what I associate with Thailand, but it turned out to be ridiculously fun. With some French tourists, we “rafted” (only in the merest sense as the guides did pretty much all the work) an icy, tumbling mountain river lined with boulders. The guides got the biggest kick out of steering us directly into these boulders, and there was much shrieking in French, English, and Thai. Good times!

Riding an Asian elephant was the highlight of my time in Phuket, however. Shoes must be left behind, and warm, bristly elephant hide feels deliciously strange to bare feet. Fifteen feet off the ground, we clung to our simple seat (no safety restraints here) for over half an hour as we dipped and swayed along a jungle trail. Our young guide, nicknamed “Ladyboy” by another driver, lounged negligently directly on top of the elephant’s head and shared such useful phrases in his English repertoire as “How old are you?” and “Do you have boyfriend?” and “Give me your cameras, I’ll take picture!” “Okay,” we said, handing them over - only to have him slip right off to the jungle floor, taking photo after photo, while our elephant, driverless, kept ambling along.

Oh. Oh my,” we said, and clutched tighter.

“You!” our grounded driver said, gesturing to Monica. “Elephant head! Go! Get on!” (Snapping more photos.)

And she did. To this day both of us are still rather amazed at how she managed to scooch up the neck of a moving elephant and by some miracle not fall off, but she did it. “Karen!” she hissed. “If I start to fall will you catch me??” “Um,” I replied, eyeing the distance from my own unsteady seat. “Maybe . . . ?”

“Smile!” our guide cheerfully called out, and we dutifully grinned back, half in delight, half in terror. Eventually he scampered back up our elephant to take the seat beside me, and Monica rode just behind the elephant’s ears all the way back to the dismounting station. It should be noted that none of the other tourists got to experience such a hilariously thrilling ride. There are distinct advantages to being two girls with a Ladyboy guide.