My last 10 days in India were spent on the beautiful crescent beach of Palolem in Goa, living in a beach hut 50 meters from the Arabian Sea. It was the epitome of relaxation and laziness, but also of rest and appreciation. Rest from the past 6 weeks of moving from city to city with a giant backpack. And appreciation of the coconut trees that lined the beach from one end to the other, the moon that glistened and lit our path home every night, the young chatty seasonal workers that came down to Goa for 6 months and up to Ladakh for another 6, the dogs that lounged by day and loyally guarded their territories by night, the sea of attractive half naked European men, and most of all, appreciation of how privileged I am to have had 10 days as a beached cow.
These past two weeks of island-hopping in Malaysia and scrambling around in Sri Lanka felt like months I had been out of China. Now I have returned to Beijing tanned and exhausted, but still, good times never last long enough.
First stop: Malaysia
Feven and I spent a week on two islands in Malaysia — Pulau Penang and Langkawi. Islanders everywhere are generally Bob-Marley-loving, friendly people, but I felt it was especially true in Malaysia. Locals were surprisingly gracious to foreigners; they smiled, they were willing to give directions, and most satisfyingly, they didn’t give “tourist prices” (at least not that I was aware of). Best of all, Penang with its array of cuisines was absolute heaven for a food-junkie like myself. Let’s just say I’m all curried out…
One of the best things about traveling is meeting new people and being totally incapsulated by their stories as well as their ability to drop everything and travel for months and even years. Feven and I met a group of backpackers in Malaysia which consisted of 7 people (including us) from 7 different countries with diverse backgrounds and personalities. But the desire to see the world brought us together, squeezed in a car, touring Langkawi, enjoying one another’s companies and the island’s relatively untainted natural landscape.
The most unforgettable site was 700 meters high up in the mountains (thank goodness for cable cars) watching the sun set over an island in Thailand, and then getting engulfed by clouds.
As soon as Feven and I arrived back in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, to catch our flight to Sri Lanka, the contrast between the bustling city and the chilled island life was scarily drastic. But I suppose that’s true all over the world.
Next stop: Sri Lanka
Eight days was not nearly enough to see all that I wanted to see in this tiny island country. Between ancient cities, wildlife, the hill country, tea plantations, and beaches, Feven and I made tough choices to squeeze in as much as we possibly could. That resulted in cutting most hikes out and breezing down to Unawatuna beach for a couple days of rest and relaxation before returning to reality.
Sri Lanka was an interesting experience for me and a particularly tiring one. I thought the Chinese were bad when it came to haggling, but OH MY WORD Sri Lankans were 10x worse!!! Unlike Malaysia, everything was at tourist prices, even the so-called “local prices.” Don’t even get me started on tuk-tuk drivers who depend on commission and will take you anywhere except where you asked to go.
Most of the people we came across were men, usually because they worked as tour guides, in the guesthouses, as tuk-tuk drivers. Very rarely did women speak to us, and those who did could not speak much English. At first, the persistent haggling drove me to the point where I did not want to speak with any local men because I couldn’t trust them (i.e. our hotel manager insisted that we avoid the southern coast because of flooding and heavy rains and suggested we head over to Trimcomalee in the northeast instead, but we arrived to sunshine and perfect waves in Unawatuna; the ticket salesman at the train station sold us tickets at 100 rupees more than the listed price; a “monk” brought me and Feven to the altar and pressured us to donate money; on and on and on). Later, I relaxed and began to find their ridiculous schemes quite laughable. Simply ignoring them helped too.
I think Sri Lanka is in an awkward in-between phase of increasing tourism and lagging infrastructure to host. It was awesome to be able to travel from place to place on public transportation with the locals at (mostly) local prices, but once I, the tourist, arrived at a popular tourist site, I’d pay up to sometimes 200 more than the local counterpart for admission. Of course it is wonderful that locals should not have to pay ridiculous admission fees to visit places within their own country, but when I’m ushered to the booth that says “Tickets for Foreigners”, am told to pay 2000 rupees to enter Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage when the Sri Lankan at the local booth paid 100, am tricked into paying another 1000 rupees to the staff who just offered to take my photo with the elephants, and then spot the “Foreigners Only” restroom…well, talk about segregation! 2000 rupees, or $15, is not a lot, but it adds up and worst of all, it gives you a feeling that it is unfair to have to give significantly more just for being a foreigner. And that in turn might drive (poorer/backpacking) visitors away in the long run.
On a positive note, there were parts of Sri Lanka that were absolutely stunning (including the elephant orphanage)!
If there’s one thing I loved most about Sri Lanka it would be the train rides, particularly the one along the southwestern coast. Just like in the movies, I rode those trains hanging out the doorletting the salty wind sweep up my bangs. It was a glorious feeling. Even when I got an orange thrown at me from a group of boys hanging by the train tracks.
Unawatuna, a beach town off the southern coast of the island, was the perfect place to end our Sri Lanka adventure. Feven and I stayed in a fancy little hotel called Banana Garden at one end of the U-shaped beach, literally right on the water during high tide. Thanks to monsoon season, we were the only guests and we felt like royalty! It was such a wonderful stay that I left them a good review on Trip Advisor! Waking up and falling asleep to the sound heavy ocean waves felt like a dream that I didn’t want to wake up from. But alas, all good things come to an end.
It’s difficult for me to sum up how I feel about Sri Lanka. I guess it’s somewhat of a love-hate relationship (hate the incessant haggling, love the natural beauty) but if I ever have the chance to go back, I would definitely say yes because there is SOOO much more to see.
The people of Guizhou province are the friendliest, most hospitable and generous individuals I have ever met in China. This observation is even clearer now that I’m back in Beijing, where everyone snarls at one another. Could be southern hospitality like in the States, though I wonder if I’d ever feel comfortable enough to ask a stranger to use their toilet in Texas…Probably not.
I was hiking down a hill toward a small village in Langdong when typical bouts of stomachache set in — bathroom emergency. The first house my friend, Yoyo, and I came across we asked to use the bathroom. Not only did the grandfather agree to let me let my bowels loose in his home (excuse the graphics!), he also provided generous amounts of toilet paper!! This, being in a place where public bathrooms still charge tourists and everyone carries toilet paper on them at all times (except me because I always forget)! I was so grateful I didn’t even mind the snorting hog in the next pen.
On my way out, the grandfather invited me and Yoyo to stay for breakfast with him and his grandson. We courteously refused — we wanted to witness the process of making handmade tofu at another home in the village — but we sat for a little while.
I was invited to “sit a while” by numerous neighborly strangers throughout Guizhou. I experienced a similar kind of welcomeness in Morocco where I was constantly invited to have tea and stay for free in peoples’ homes. Sometimes yes, the hosts had intentions of making money. But in one of China’s poorest provinces, how could I not buy the handmade batik (wax art on cloth) that the nice lady overcharged my American companion for and then for which she offered me a “local” price? Especially after she voluntarily showed us around her ancient stone village?
Though Guizhou is home to many ethnic minority groups, I spent most of my time in Qiandongnan Prefecture where Miao villages are predominant. We saw people, most noticeably women because of their dress, from other minority groups such as Dong and Gejia, but most were Miao (Hmong).
When I told a Beijinger that I spent time in Miao villages, she remarked that Miao women are very beautiful. It’s true. Miao people have different features from Han (the majority–I’m Han). They have big, deep-set eyes and creased eyelids (now available via a simple surgical procedure), and their skin is darker from the powerful southern sun. Their costumes vary from region to region, as well as by age. In Huangping, for example, older women wear plain, bun-shaped hats while younger women wear more colorful ones. Old women just wrap towels around their heads, and instead of flowery garments, they wear undecorated royal blue robes. In Kaili, Leishan, Langde and Xijiang, women wear their hair in buns on the top of their heads, often supported by black yarn to resemble more hair. They decorate their hair with fake flowers and colorful pins and a special comb, but with different details from village to village.
Photo credit: Judy Manton
(2nd photo credit: Judy Manton)
And how ’bout this fine gentleman sporting a Soviet winter hat in the middle of summer?
Stone Village, Anshun
Whole elaborate outfits are only worn for festivals. Women spend lots of time and money — often thousands and thousands of Yuan — embroidering, sewing, pleating and decorating these garments by hand. A small piece of hand-embroidery is worth hundreds, even thousands, of Yuan because it is so meticulous.
The silver they wear around their necks, on their heads and in their ears weigh a lot. But silver is believed to cast away evil spirits, so people always wear it, most often as a bracelet. Naturally, I bought one for myself. I like to think that the silver not only protects me from evil, but also connects me to Guizhou.
It’s a relief to know that there are still people in China who are kind, un-abrasive, patient, and honest. I’ve been in Beijing for 3 days now and already feel anger and frustration in the pit of my stomach because people here can be so cold, which is ironic because it’s steaming outside.
Remember the 11-day traffic jam in China 2 years ago? I wasn’t there — thank goodness — but I felt an ounce of fear last night that something similar would happen to me on my way from the airport in Guiyang to Huangping, where I am comfortably air-conditioned now. After 2 hours of racing (I’m talkin’ The Fast and the Furious) through the windy mountainous roads, we came to a halt. For the next 2 hours. By the time we were rolling again, it was already 8:30 pm and would be another 2 hours before dinner. Oh, what’s a 4-hour delay??
(Indiscreetly peeing roadside.)
We were dropped off at the side of a highway (the first time was at a fork in the road), walked through a toll booth with our luggage, only to be picked up by another manic driver who would fly us to dinner, and eventually to our hotel. We were going 60 on roads that would’ve been marked 20 in the US.
I am safe and sound in Huangping county now, where it’s humid and grey and surrounded by green hills. The majority of the population here are Miao, people from one of the largest ethnic minorities of China.
The locals are very friendly and don’t stare rudely (as they do in Beijing) at the American teacher in our group, a 70-something lady from Jersey who has been teaching English in various countries for over 32 years. But she happens to love Guizhou–its terrain, the Miao and Dong people–so here she is again to train local/rural English teachers on developing their own teaching methods, and I am here to assist.
Nothing spectacular has happened yet, but getting here was certainly half the fun–if you’re into adrenaline rushes from near-death fright.
**If you want to see beautiful photography of Guizhou, check out John Fanai’s site.**
These past few weeks with Lucia have been some of the best since I began my new life in China. For one, it’s always great to have close friends around. And second, I haven’t laughed so much in months! Too bad the expression “time flies when you’re having fun” is true because she’s gone now.
Between our time in Beijing, we spent 9 days in 3 other cities — Hong Kong, Yangshuo and Guilin. For budgeting purposes, we took trains, buses, and a boat between cities, totaling 66 hours of travel time. It was definitely not a trip you take with a difficult person or a person without a sense of humor. Lucky for Lucia, there wasn’t a moment that I wanted to kill her, except when she ate all the Ferrero Rochers.
One thing I love about traveling is eating as much as I want without worrying about weight gain. In Hong Kong where my mom has excellent connections (the kind with $$), Lucia and I were treated like princesses. We had our own driver, Willie, and we ate like Greek gods. Buffet-ing, dim-summing, seafooding…I literally could not have asked for more or I would’ve keeled over and died from overeating. In Yangshuo and Guilin, no longer royal, we gorged on street food and noodles while avoiding horse and dog meat. The ramen, chocolates, cookies, tea eggs, chips and McDonald’s we ate on train/bus/boat rides were just food for survival.
How did all this food digest you might ask? Well, the 5.5 hour-long bike ride through the countryside of Yangshuo certainly helped (the most exercise either one of us has had in light years). Racing through Ocean Park in Hong Kong and aimlessly wandering around rainy Guilin also made a difference to my digestive track.
Instead of boring you with all the nitty-gritty details of my trip, I’ll just tell you the highlights of each city. You’re welcome.
Far beyond my expectations, this city is just perfect. From the movies (like Rush Hour 2) I thought Hong Kong was just another city. But OH MY WORD the views were incredible!
The jade-colored water between the green hills and the wild monkeys with pink butts and nipples and mansions on hilltops and flowing traffic and random temples spotted throughout the city and beaches, all in one small place. It is a perfect balance of nature and city, traditional and contemporary. Though Hong Kong is known to the Chinese as shopping-haven, Lucia and I preferred the spectacular views and roller coasters. I must admit the most memorable part of Hong Kong, besides the food, was Ocean Park, an amusement park on a hill. We had so. much. fun.
Next up, we took this pimped out sleeper bus which blared house music 8 hours to Yangshuo:
This was my favorite part of the trip. When we stepped out of the bus, half-asleep and worried we’d left something behind after scrambling out of there at 5:30 in the morning, we looked up to find that we were surrounded by pointy hills (karst peaks).
And that’s the center of town! Can you imagine what the countryside looks like?! Well you don’t have to. Just look below!
Those hills plus the Li River equals stunning scenery that is rural China.
Because it was early March when the rains and fog are amidst, there were far less tourists than normal, much to our advantage. Lucia and I could ride our bikes for miles and miles without having to share the road with other tourists. We didn’t take “the road less traveled” — we followed a Lonely Planet route — but it was still the best ride of my life.
As Lucia and I were biking through one of many farm villages, Lucia’s impossible shoelaces got stuck in the gears. It was a heaven-sent pause because out came three little girls running towards us and plopped down with books and pencils in hand. Knowing me, a teacher, kid-lover, and Ms. Emotional-to-anything-slightly-moving, Lucia had to tell me not to cry at the sight of this absurd cuteness. The girl in the middle was reading her English alphabet picture book upside down!
We were also greeted by other kids yelling “HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!” most likely at Lucia, who’s white, but I yelled back too. At one point we took the wrong road and geared off to find a pretty elderly lady with two long grey braids sitting on a bamboo raft by the river as her cows grazed the field nearby. I asked her for directions but it was difficult to understand the local dialect so she walked us to the correct path. She was a beautiful lady, inside and out!
We spent the rest of the time in Yangshuo strolling around and taking in the surrounding beauty. Two days later we were off to Guilin in a boat carrying Chinese and foreign tourists up against the currents of Li River. Along the way, we passed picturesque and widely photographed landscapes. While Lucia spent most of the ride with her nose in Jane Austen with throbbing heartaches for Mr. Darcy, I got wet taking a million photos of the passing views.
Four hours and two bus rides later we were in Guilin.
Well, because Lucia and I were all boated-out, we decided to stay away from the highly regarded boat tours. Instead, we spent most of our time eating and wandering the city center, but our day and a half in Guilin dragged on because of the bad weather. This was the least exciting part of the trip because, surprisingly and much to my disappointment, it was just another city with not much to see except the Sun and Moon Pagodas.
Lucky for me and Lucia, we only had to share our cabin for half the ride back to Beijing, except we arrived 2 hours late in the middle of the night to freezing cold and sleet.
That was my trip in a nutshell. I have much more to tell and show you, but I’ll save it for another time.
Overall, Lucia and I had a fabulous time and I’m sad she’s gone. But I have many good memories and photographs to prove it. I will definitely return to Hong Kong and Yanshuo in the future, but I’ll wait till the weather is nicer. And for you to get here. Anyone up for a 28 hour train ride?
The reason I haven’t been posting/commenting/liking/responding to anybody is because I’ve been busy doing this:
A picture says a million words. I gave you a 5 million word explanation for my absence. I can get really, really, really, really wordy.
Anyhow, Lucia and I will be off to Hong Kong (29 hour train ride) tomorrow, then to Guilin (23 hours back), my momma’s birthplace. We’ll be back in 9 days, simultaneously pooped and refreshed!
Until then, my friends, as the 13 year-old-boy I used to AIM chat with said, “Love, peace, and hair grease”.
(Like my new shades? Got ’em today during our crazy shopping escapades which I’ll get into later!)