Saturday, June 27, 2009

Planes, Trains, Buses, Boats, Cars...

To say that we've spent a lot of time getting from point A to point B in the past year is a bit of an understatement. Other than taking a major toll on the environment (we're going to buy a hybrid soon we promise!), these hours on board were a significant component of our adventure. Here's a look back at some of our favorites....

There's nothing like a good old fashioned road trip. Our aging Subaru was a champ making the journey up to Alaska and "Petunia" drove like a dream around the coasts of New Zealand.
By far the most of our transportation hours were logged on buses.... bus travel is really the only way to truly experience a country.  Bumping along with all walks of life through all the nooks and crannies of local towns and countrysides.  We have a million stories and war wounds to share from our bus journeys but here are pictures from a few of the most memorable.   Each journey provided its own special treats of humor, frustration, boredom, and new friends.  We wouldn't want to have done it any other way.


Boats are always fun.  Well, unless it's a 10 hour ride on a smoke infested Indonesian ferry.   Cruising through the rivers of Borneo on our private little houseboat was probably the highlight of our boat journeys...

The major legs of our Round-the-World plane ticket were fairly uneventful.  More note worthy were our numerous domestic flights - particularly hopping between the islands of Indonesia.  50 year old planes that are sent here to fly until they crash and burn.... Thankfully, we survived.  Getting tested for Swine Flu on a domestic Burmese flight was also a strange and humorous affair.

Nader claims to have gotten his best nights sleep of the year on this luxury sleeper train in China.  Even the hard sleepers provide a great rest and way to see the countryside.  We wish we'd spent more time on trains -- maybe the Tran-Siberian will be our next adventure.

Crusing around on the back of a bike can be the most freeing or harrowing experience.  Allison preferred Nader as a driver to some of her other chauffers....

It's hard to keep track of all the other modes of transportation we took advantage of on our journey.  If there's a tourist looking for a ride, there's a guy who's rigged something up to get you there.  Some worked better than others but all were highly entertaining... When you're a backpacker on the road, getting there is certainly more than half the fun.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Chinese Signs

The Chinese have a special talent for creative translation of their many signs posted throughout the country targeted towards tourists. Here are some of our favorites....

China Recommendations

Yuangshou Culture House - Mr. Wei is wonderful host. Included with your room are three meals a day. Dinner is an amazing affair with a never ending stream of delicious dishes being brought to the table. He also teaches lessons for free - Chinese, Mahjong, Calligraphy.

Yuangshou Light Show - We try to avoid expensive touristy shows whenever possible but this one was worth every penny. Directed by Zhang Yimou (who did Hero and the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony). The perfect orchestration of 600 dances set on the water beneath the peaks. It was amazing.

Longsheng / Pingan
Countryside Inn in Pingan was a great place to stay in the Dragon's Backbone terraces. Definitely stay in the terraces (Pingan) rather than taking a day trip from Longsheng. At night and early morning, the terraces are most magical without all the masses of other tourists.

Cloudland was a great hostel in Kunming.... all the standard hostel ammenities (including a champion ping pong player who Nader beat after 3 tough rounds), and the double rooms are really nice.

Panba Courtyard Guest House in Lijiang was a really nice place to stay. Set a little outside of town, it's quiet with great rooms. They also do a communal dinner which was delicious.

Western Sichuan
This was one of our most memorable journeys all year.... we highly recommend it (if you have a high tolerance for LONG bus rides with spitting and chain smoking cowboys :). Litang is the place you're going to want to spend a few nights along the way. Portola Inn wasn't a bad place to stay, probably the best in town. In Litang, you definitely want to find Mr. Zheng -- he speaks English (kind of) and can connect you with anything you want to see in town, including the Tibetian Sky Burial.

Sims Cozy Guesthouse - Maybe the best hostel we stayed at all year.... All the standard hostel bells and whistles, with DVD players and free movies to borrow. Run by a Japanese-Singapore couple so it's squeaky clean :)
Hotpot - Can't remember the name of the place we got ours, but it was very good... Sim's recommended it. Hotpots are a local specialty so they're all over. Serious spice.

Our culinary tour through Beijing was led by local foodie friends.... So these places are all a notch above the backpacker budget, but so well worth it.

Dali Courtyard - Incredible Yunnan inspired cuisine. It's fixed price feast of dishes that just keep coming, no ordering necessary.
Liquin Roast Duck - For your requisite Beijing duck experience this is the place. The rest of the menu is astoundingly creative too so don't be afraid to add a few other dishes to your meal.
Bellagio Cafe - If you're looking for a delicious late night meal set amongst the young Chinese hipsters heading from or to the clubs, this is the place.

Yang's Stirfry Dumplings. Go here early and often. We recommend ordering at least 6 per person, 8 if you can handle it. Might be the best food we ate all year long.
Le Tour Traveler's Rest. This was a nice place to stay. In the private en suite rooms, the shower was actually in its own section which meant no wet room! (Wet rooms were a major frustration for Allison throughout China.... basically a shower head that just sits on the wall of the bathroom which means the floor, toilet, everything gets soaking wet).

Monday, June 8, 2009

May 27-June 3: Shanghai

Our last stop.  Five continents and almost exactly one year later, we've ended up in Shanghai (still sore from the great wall 'hike').  By this point we're more or less done sightseeing and Shanghai has a great place to transition back into normal life, with its metropolitan feel and a growing number of friends in town it almost feels like home.

While places like Western Sichuan might be considered the wild west, the true Chinese wild west is definitely Shanghai.  Ten years ago there were no tall buildings, now you can drive for half an hour from downtown to Pudong airport and be on an elevated highway the entire time surrounded by skyscrapers.  Everywhere you look there are dozens of cranes and major construction endeavors.  Shanghai feels like an adolescent child entering puberty; it's clearly changing quickly, but it doesn't quite know where it's going.

This insane pace of development has led to a flood of opportunities and a booming expat scene.  Everyone from photographers to DJs to consultants to bankers are arriving in droves.  The most popular job in town seems to be the business to business middleman, ie someone who speaks some Chinese and can find the right Chinese company to satisfy an international (read American) company's needs.  We got a good taste of the variety of the expat scene visiting our friends.  Vicky, a friend of mine from high school and of Allison's from a prior job, lives with her husband and daughter out in the posher suburbs of Pudong.  In an exclusively expat community, we went to an American burger joint for brunch and with the kids frolicking on the grass outside, it could have been Noe Valley.  We also spent some time with some college friends Mike and Dan who live in the French Consession. Dan's a DJ and while Mike has an engineering day job he is infamous in Shanghai as the legendary "Roller Mike", the guy who throws the best party in town, a quarterly dj'd disco party at a roller rink. We were fortunate enough to be able to attend, and can attest first-hand that you can't go wrong with costumes, an open bar and roller skates.

Walking around town one afternoon we stumbled across a long of line of people waiting with small bills in hand outside a hole-in-the-wall restaurant.  We soon discovered the glory of Yang's Fry Dumplings, quite possibly the best thing we've eaten all year.  Pan-fried dumplings, with a perfect crusty bottom and delicate top, filled with minced pork and an amazing hot soup.  The proper technique is to bite a little hole in the top and slurp up the soup, before going for the pork center proper.  We were only partially successful and had a couple scalding soup face squirts, but it didn't matter.  Incredibly good.  The fact that you can get a pile of dumplings larger than you can eat for less than a dollar was just a bonus.  We later discovered that there is actually somewhat of a cult following around these delicious morsels.

As we've made our way around the country we've been consistently resisting the urge to buy things as we'd have to lug everything around on our backs.  Well Shanghai being our last stop changed that.  We bought two suitcases and filled them with Chinese wares.  As everything in the world is more or less made in China these days, for every legitimate brand, there is a Chinese factory right next door making the Chinese knockoff that is identical in quality at a fraction of the price.  While we dabbled in technology and souvenirs, the real damage was done in custom tailored clothes.  The process couldn't be easier.  You show up at a mall exclusively filled with tailors, pick a style you like from a book of magazine clippings, pick some fabric, discuss details like cuffs and buttons, get measured and voila a few days later you have perfectly fitting clothes.  I'm glad I held out on getting that tux til this trip.

As has become standard on our trip we are taking a highly circuitous route home.  From Shanghai we fly 2.5 hours south to Hong Kong where we spend the night, before flying 3.5 hours directly north to Beijing, before heading back to San Francisco.  But we're excited nonetheless.  Excited to reintegrate, see our friends and families, and start up the next phase of our lives.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be posting some retrospective thoughts on the year, so stay tuned!