Category Archives: China

Time in China

Satisfy My Soul

My mantra has finally come to fruition…

I have made it to my Thailand beach.  I will remind you that my mantra while riding on the -40 degree bus in Mongolia was,

Naked Thailand Beaches!

This refrain kept me alive for those 72 hours of nearly frozen fingers and toes.

How did we get to this heavenly place?

The days of Mongolian winters were over but we still had to travel through China. During our travels through China the cold found us again at Huangshan Mountain.  Even though my hair was white from snow and Todd’s beard was frozen with frost, the views were well worth it.

An important tip:  Take a student ID with you everywhere you go!  It is not a problem if it is expired.  Mine is from when I attended University of Texas in Austin during Hurricane Katrina.  I was at that school for 3 months.  The student ID has gotten me into museums for free and in this case gave me a discounted rate for Huangshan Mountain. 

Due to the discount, we decided to spend the money to take the cable car half way up the mountain.  There was a hostel about a 2 to 3 hour hike from the cable car exit.  We planned to spend the night in there on top of the mountain and see the famous sunrise.  Did I mention that this place was used in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?

Up a winding path of innumerable stairs and several Chinese tourists who insisted on taking pictures with us, we found the hostel.  In the morning, our roommates woke us up and asserted us to follow them to the lookout point.  5:30AM is an especially difficult time to hike up snow covered stone stairs but we made it.  A crowd of people had obviously been waiting at the top of the mountain for quite some time.  Their camera equipment was set up in anticipation of the rising sun.

Now I’ve seen several sunrises.  I expected this one to be no different than the many I’ve seen rise over mountain peaks.  However, my expectations (as usual) were disproved.  I looked out over the sea of clouds, with the few mountain peaks peaking out, and all the sudden saw the red crest of the sun.  Before I had time to register this beautiful sight, every single Chinese tourist made an OOOHH AHHH sound with hoots and hollers to follow.  Todd and I looked at each other and tried to withstand giggling.  It was a display of complete curiosity and appreciation that no other culture could reproduce.

This isn’t my video but it is at the same mountaintop of Huangshan.  It is a perfect example of what we saw and heard that morning…

After this excursion we returned to Shanghai where we reunited with our AMAZING friends, Heather and Maryann.  Don’t know what we would have done without them!

An overnight sleeper bus got us to Guangzhou and in the afternoon another bus to Hong Kong where the saying “bright lights, big city” comes to mind.  Hong Kong was chaotic and neon flooded.  Two days was certainly enough time to shop for appropriate clothes for our new destination of 27 degrees Celsius; Singapore.

Stepping out of the airport was such an incredible experience.  A drop of sweat went down my brow giving me a shudder of complete bliss.  Another blissful moment was noticing that I could read ALL the street signs!

Singapore was a dream.  Filled with awesome food, amazing people and reunions with old friends.

We took a local bus to the border of Malaysia where we crossed into Johor Baru.  From there we took a night bus to Kuala Lumpur and arrived before the sun came up.  Luckily, several places were open and we found a nice café where we had our first roti with banana….YUM.  An Indian dish that is basically fried bread with banana or other ingredients inside.  DELICIOUS.

Kuala Lumpur is an incredible city.  Malaysia adequately claims the “melting pot” of the east.  Within the same block you will pass Muslim women covering themselves with various colored hijabs, Asian women in short shorts and tank tops, and Indian women in bright saris.  Not one giving the other a look of judgment.

We found a decent hostel with the help of Todd’s iPhone and WikiTravel where we dropped our things and quickly went out into the streets to see the city come to life.  At the end of our block is the Sri Mahamariamman Temple.  Inside they were having some sort of celebration with live musicians who performed the entire day.  Golden bowls sat over burning wood and a smoke of incense poured out of them.  We took off our shoes and stepped inside.  The colors and statues of the temple were so exotic and sundry I was completely overwhelmed with the beauty of it all.

A little down the road sat Chinatown where we relived our numerous nights of eating street food.

Street food really is the best!  Now this is dependent on every person.  If you have a weak stomach and cannot handle a lot of grease then you might want to look for something different like soup for example.  Many stands serve various things.  The variety you are presented with at the food stands in China and Malaysia are incomparable to anything I’ve ever seen!  And whatever you choose is tasty!  Another great thing about street food is the cost.  In China, we found places for less than a dollar for a huge plate of noodles and vegetables.  As long as you avoid SOME seafood (of course not all!) and watch them prepare it (make sure everything has touched the hot pan) then you should be fine and be able to enjoy an amazing dish.

Malaysia in particular has the most incredible food.  We HAD heard about that.  This time my expectations were met!  One night in Penang, Malaysia we ate at a group of food stalls that sat on the edge of a soccer field.  I ordered curry mee that is a noodle dish with coconut milk, vegetables, various seafood, and spices.  It was absolutely mouthwatering.  While I was enjoying this an Indian man passed by with a basket of some sort of fried pastries.  Todd and I, curious as to what it was, bought one and after one bite called the man back for 2 more.  The pie was filled with potatoes, peas, and Indian spices and resembled some sort of samosa.  This was another absolutely mouthwatering item.

While we were in Penang we stayed with Todd’s friend’s dad.  I cannot express the amount of generous things Mr. Yeap did for us.  Not only did he let us in his home but he also lent us his motorbike and took us out for several scrumptious meals.  He was exceptionally hospitable and really took good care of us.  How do we get so lucky with all these compassionate people?  Oh and did I mention I was able to swim in the OCEAN?!

Mr. Yeap dropped us at our bus where we rode for 3 hours to the Malaysia and Thailand border.

If you come to Thailand, remember that if you enter the airport (from a flight) you are given a 30 day tourist VISA.  If you enter from the ground, you are given a 15 day tourist VISA.  If you want to extend your time in Thailand you can pay for an extension within the country.  If you have more time and want to save some money you can cross the border into Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia, or Laos and instantly reenter to receive another 15 day tourist VISA.  You can also go to any Thai consulate in those surrounding countries to apply for a 30 day or 60 day tourist VISA.

Another 6-7 hours later we arrived in Surat Thani where we went immediately to Bandon pier where ferries depart for the nearby islands of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao.

The bus from Penang (55 Malaysian Riggets) and ferry to Koh Tao (550 Thai Baht) cost together around 30 USD. 

The ferry truly reminded me of some sort of ride found in Disneyland.  It was painted with bright colors and elaborate styled writing of the ferry’s destination.  Once inside, you climb up to the main room where there is a circle of small, slim mattresses lining the walls.  Even out bed numbers had a Disney-like style with thick curves.

As everyone set up their beds, I looked around and noticed that this was the first time in several months I had been around this many tourists and backpackers.  There were French, Italians, British, Australians, and Germans.  Todd and I looked at each other with a small sense of worry.  Koh Tao is the smallest of the 3 islands and supposed to not attract as many tourists.  Koh Tao is known for its scuba diving.  It certifies 10% of the world’s divers and so I accepted that our bunkmates were not just tourists or backpackers but divers and other travelers wanting to see the less populated island.

I awoke to the ferry swaying and rain pouring down the windows.  No lights were visible outside and the storm seemed violent but somehow the ferry was not too disturbed.  I fell asleep again and awoke to a red sunrise and the green palm trees along the island’s shore.  Voluptuous clouds sat in the sky and were defined by the rays of the sun.  We disembarked the ferry and sat on the pier looking at the double rainbow in the sky (I was almost as enthusiastic as that double rainbow guy).

So now here we are in paradise.  Todd is getting his Advanced Open Water certification and I am diving along for fun.  I was certified almost 9 years ago, so I was happy to have a quick refresher course in the pool.

Since we have decided never to leave this place….ah, just kidding…I mean stay here for a week (longest we’ve been in one place in a LONG time) I have decided to not only lay on the beach all day, scuba dive, and swim but I also joined a Muay Thai boxing class.  HOW GOOD IT FEELS TO EXERCISE!  China and Malaysia totally won over with the food and it is time to get back in shape!

Kickboxing has always been my favorite sport and my instructors here are young, vivacious, and encouraging.  Ta Ta (guilty spelling attempt), my instructor, already taught me how to count to ten in Thai as well as, more importantly, the ways of Thai boxing defense.

So all in all I am happy.  No, elated.  No!  Ecstatic!  Life is amazing.  Even with the trials and tribulations that come along with being on the road for long periods of time, things always have a way of working out.

I will say that I have had hopeless moments.  Not just on this adventure but many times in my life.  However, being here now reminds me that things always work out the way they are supposed to.  And if you dream of something and have the will (even more effective; stubbornness) to make it happen (Ahem…ie; remember my mantra?) anything is possible.

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Filed under China, Malaysia, Thailand

With A Little Help

I get by with a little help from my friends.

As of late I have been making several phone calls to my friends back home. Ultimately, it helps ground me by hearing what is happening in their lives and being able to tell stories from mine.  A thing I appreciate the most is hearing their voices.  I have a heightened sense of hearing where I am able to identify anyone on the phone by a simple “hello.”  There is something so comforting about hearing a familiar voice.

The friendship with my travel companion has become a friendship I hold at the upmost importance.  He is always there, helping me make the next move.  Living the way we do can be tiring but we have found a way to balance these burdens.

For example, a disheartening moment was when we found out we were unable to get a train to Hong Kong from Shanghai.  Our only option became an over priced sleeper bus.  I had come to this conclusion after sifting my way through a sea of pushy Chinese people who did not understand the definition of a queue.  I made my way back to my companion who was waiting with our bags.  I was exhausted and tired of trying to communicate and tired of being cut in line and being told to go to different lines after waiting 20+ minutes.  I started at my companion with a list of complaints.

“These God d*** pushy people!  I’m so sick of being taken advantage of and people not understanding me.  I’m so tired of hearing people hacking and spitting.”

“Ugh, I know.  Don’t worry.  Wait here.  I’ll go out there this time.”

All I needed was a break from the chaos and as good friends do, they interpret what you need or want and try their best to make it happen for you.

I am still in awe at the kindnesses I have experienced on this adventure. Especially now, while I am sitting with Jordan (who was in Istanbul in the beginning and rode the Trans-Siberian) in Singapore.  Immediately after reuniting did Jordan find us a place to stay.  It has been so refreshing seeing a familiar face and hearing a familiar voice.

This reunion made me think of the people who no matter how far I go are always there to answer the phone.

I MISS YOU!

“Thy friendship oft has made my heart to ache; do be my enemy for friendship’s sake.”
– William Blake

“It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us.”
– Epicurus

On another note…I am wearing a dress and swinging in a hammock.  A woman drew henna on my hand today and I am staying in an international household with the coolest people.  The beautiful Yanna from Berlin makes hoola hoops and performs Poi.

Although I miss all of you, I am only adding to the list of amazing people who I am lucky enough to have in my life.  Thank you all for being there.

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Filed under China, Singapore

So This Is Christmas

“A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.”  -Lawrence Durrell

However, when you have a big family and lots of amazing friends all over the world, one city doesn’t cut it…

I MISS MY FAMILY AND FRIENDS SO MUCH!  I try to justify my present lifestyle and think that there isn’t one single place where all these wonderful people live.  So what am I supposed to do?  Well, there is Christmas.  One of the times where a majority of these people are found in one place.  So, why am I spending Christmas away?  I have no idea.  There has to be a reason for it.  I just know it!

Who am I kidding?  The Great Wall could never compare to my crazy family parties and reunions at The Libertine with old friends.  Food, dancing, singing, and St. Louis snow (the only other place besides the farm I would see snow at Christmas.)

This year, my Christmas Eve consisted of bad Chinese food (yes, even in CHINA), a Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie (my least favorite), and a cold from the horrific pollution that consumes this country.

Woah.  Am I complaining?  Maybe just a little bit but soon after the embarrassment of fretting do I realize how lucky I really am.

Christmas at the Intercontinental in Suzhou, China…not too bad.  And yes, that is a bathtub in the background.

Ok, in all seriousness…

This time of year reminds me to celebrate all the amazing people in my life and all the love I have found in this world.  My good friend Joy says that all of our relationships are sacred contracts in our lifetime.  We are all here to share something with one another.

Even though I miss my family and friends (A LOT), at least I have my travel companion to share this Christmas with.  This companion is one contract I know I will never lose because when you share new experiences, especially in the form of travel, you cannot help but grow simultaneously.  Maybe not in the same way or direction but some kind of growth is inevitable and that makes the memories stronger.

So this Christmas, I think about my family and my friends in all of their places all over the world and am grateful for having memories of the wonderful times spent together.  I know there are more times to come and more memories to be made.

Even though I long to be with my amazing family, Durrell’s quote did remind me that there is love to be found all over the world.  I have been so lucky to have seen it in every place I’ve been.  An incredible example of this is my cousin Zoe who is from this country.  She has brought so much love and light into my family and she was born thousands of miles from where she lives now!

Well, it’s 5am here and I am exhausted.  After our truly bad Christmas Eve dinner and during Die Another Day, fireworks went off right outside the window.  The fireworks and an ice cream shop we found made up for everything…It really is all about the simple things.

Have an amazing Christmas and be grateful if you are lucky enough to spend it with your family and friends.  I am excited to skype with my family in the next few hours.  Thank God for skype!

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Filed under China

Laughing at Absurdity

Now that I have the time to reflect do I finally feel comfortable telling the story.  So many things have happened since St. Petersburg and I have decided that telling the story chronologically would not give the same effect as if I went ahead and focused on recent events.  Wonderful stories, people, and events will come from the Trans-Siberian and Mongolia I promise.

Right now we are sitting in an amazing restaurant in Erenhot, China.  We left Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Sunday on the train.  We bought our tickets a day in advance and even then they had sold out of platskart beds.  So sadly, we had to get a hard seat ticket for the train.

The train from Ulaanbaatar to Zamiin Ude (the border town of Mongolia and China) leaves at 4:30pm everyday and arrives at 7am.  Ticket cost for a hard seat (not recommended – it is very uncomfortable for a 15 hour train ride) is 10,400 Mongolian Tugriks = 8 USD.   If you can get a sleeper, it is worth the little bit extra – 16,400 MT (13 USD.) 

Once we stepped off the train we were instantly approached by a man asking,

“China? China?”

He gave us the price for two people; 22,200 MT.  He led us to another man who motioned us to follow him to his jeep.

The jeep was definitely known to us.  We had taken one from a town called Olgi in Western Mongolia 7 hours southeast to Khovd, Mongolia.  On that trip, I had to sit on Todd’s lap for the entire 7 hour journey.  If there could be a national Mongolian thought it would be something like, fit everyone and everything you possibly can in the car.  On this trip from Olgi there were six of us in the back of the old Soviet jeep and four, including the driver and a 1 year old baby, in the front.  An elderly woman in the front seat held the baby for its mother who sat in the back seat.  Let me make it clear that this vehicle should normally only fit 5 maybe 4 comfortably and we were 11.  During the 7 hour drive the doors on our side would sporadically and spontaneously open.  The driver tried to adjust the latch that was not locking by hitting it a few times with a rock…this helped for about an hour.  Each moment Todd or I would finally doze off, the door would suddenly fly open letting in the bitter chill from the Mongolian night.  I counted about 12 times that our door opened.  I would say, with confidence, the front passenger door where the woman and baby sat opened about 18 times.

So from this past experience I was very skeptical about the jeep at the border of China.  Luckily this time we were not packed in like sardines and after 30 minutes left the train station with everyone in their own seat.

The jeep from Zamiin Ude to Erenhot in total cost 12,100 MT per person (11,100 for a ride + 1000 for the driver’s tax.)  At the Chinese immigration they require a 5 RMB.  With an exchange rate they charge 1500 MT = 1.09 USD.  Make sure to take a mental picture of your driver’s face or write down the license plate because there are several similar looking jeeps and you have to get in and out at each border crossing.

GOODBYE COLD MONGOLIA!!!!!!!!!!

“Welcome to China!”  My immigration official said with a smile.

While he was looking through my passport I noticed a machine with buttons labeled, satisfactory, average, and dissatisfied.  Above it had a small picture of the man who was looking at my passport and his full name.  A rating machine for immigration officials?!  AMAZING!  I happily pressed satisfactory but was disappointed to find that the machine did not work.  This was not the last time I was to be fooled by the Chinese.  Later that day I bought instant coffe that turned out to be strawberry milk tea.  The front of the container had a picture of coffee beans, a mug with brown coffee in it, and the seller was insistent that what I was buying was coffee.  I opened the container and found a bag that said, strawberry milk tea in English and a separate, unidentifiable packet containing some sort of coconut syrup (?)  So weird.

Our jeep took us to the border town in China where we quickly found the bus station.  We bought a ticket on a sleeping bus to Beijing and then found this wonderful restaurant to eat.

The taxi was 5 RMB to the Erenhot bus station where a ticket for the sleeper bus (beds and all!) to Beijing is 220 RMB = 35 USD.  The bus leaves at 3pm everyday and arrives in Beijing at 1:30am.  Do not worry about arriving in the middle of the night because the bus drivers let you sleep on the bus until morning!

I wanted to add all the costs and specifics for people who might do the same thing and cannot find information.  Travel blogs have been really helpful for us in these situations.  You see, we could have gone straight from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian.  Why didn’t we?  Well, ultimately we needed to save time and most importantly money.  The train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing costs about 200 USD and our trip did not even add up to half of that.  Also, the train across the border has to change tracks and this process plus having the immigration officials board the train can take up to 4 hours (or more!)

Even though taking a train, jeep, and sleeper bus was a hassle (moving our bags, trying to find our way) it was worth it.

I will end with saying that Beijing is an amazing city.  Maybe I’m just happy it’s not -25 degrees anymore but I think it’s more than that.  Beijing is BEAUTIFUL and exciting.  No one speaks English, all signs are in Chinese characters and completely undecipherable to me, everyone is SUPER friendly, and I DO NOT HAVE TO WEAR GLOVES!!!!!!!!

Tomorrow we will go to the Great Wall.  Beijing has especially been exciting for me because it has made me realize how far we’ve come over land and how small the world really is.  Only 2 months ago was I enjoying the ease and warmth of Italy.  Only one month ago was I enjoying the thrill and beauty of Siberia.  Only a week ago did I think I was going to die on a bus with a broken heater in -25 degree weather in the middle of NOWHERE Mongolia with two New Orleanians, 6 Kazaks, and 2 Mongolians.   Did I mention that this specific bus ride was 3 full nights and 2 days long?!

“Wow!  You’re like a warrior,”  my friend Erline said to me after I told her the story of THE TORTURE MACHINE (which will be a story I will soon share in full detail.)

I could not come up with a better title myself.  Erline, thank you for that.  I WILL take that title and give it to Todd and Manus (my travel companions) as well because I have to say I am truly scarred by that experience…I say this with a smile because even though it was absolutely horrible (Let me repeat – 3 nights and 2 days in a bus with no heat, ice on windows, waking up to one of the Kazak women sitting on my lap for warmth while the driver pulled over to take a 2 hour nap, no leg room, bad smells, COLD COLD COLD, and NO ESCAPE!  I mean that was actually the worst part about it because there was NOTHING you could do to change the situation.  We were in the middle of NOTHINGNESS!)

OK one more time…even though it was horrible I smile because the only thing my fellow warriors and I could do was laugh.

Laugh at the absurdity of it all.

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Filed under China, Mongolia