Thursday, October 28, 2010

Manila, Philippines: Welcome Back!

I couldn't sleep a wink on the plane from Korea due to my complete, utter excitement to be returning to this amazingly beautiful country. But if you've been reading my blog as of late, then you would know that the real reason why I'd returned to the Philippines was, ultimately, because of Sheila. If you recall, after I left the Philippines in May, she flew to Singapore to meet me where we spent an amazing 5 days together. Who would have thought that Singapore, out of all places, would turn out to be one of the highlights of my travels. And because I had such a sensational time with Sheila in Singapore, I vowed that I would return to the Philippines.

Fast forward 2.5 months.

It was great to be back in the Philippines. And with my 2 month visa in hand, I brisked through Immigration. Despite that my flight was scheduled to arrive at 1 o'clock in the morning, Sheila graciously agreed to pick me up. It's a great feeling to be picked up from the airport. However, this time Sheila wasn't waiting for me outside in her car. Nope. She surprised me by waiting at the airport arrival waiting area, holding a sign in which she laughingly pointed to, which read, "Mr. Sloppy." The nickname "Mr. Sloppy" - an inside joke between Sheila and I - is one of many nicknames that she has for me.

It was great to see Sheila again. Oh, how long 2.5 months feels when you're separated from someone that you miss. I immediately dropped my rucksack and lifted Sheila in the air, not caring who was watching as we exchanged a big hug and kiss.

Back in the car as we were driving to her apartment, I laughed and told Sheila how I couldn't believe she had the audacity to hold that silly 'Mr. Sloppy' sign in the airport, something which, she said, created a lot of laughs from passersby.

"I thought about using 'Mr. Psycho'," Sheila said, "but I thought that would attract too much attention from the airport security."

It was great to be back, indeed.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Seoul, South Korea

I arrived in South Korea feeling more jaded than ever. I succinctly remember passing through Immigration and Customs in an insouciant manner, simply feeling indifferent that I had arrived in a new country. You know you got it bad when there's an utter lack of excitement upon arriving in a new destination. There was no way around it: I was indeed jaded.

However, it was great to see my cousin, Jessica, once again. I couldn't believe that it had been 3 weeks since I'd last seen her. Where does the time go? Jessica, who teaches English here, lives in Byeongjeom, about a 45 minute transit ride south of Seoul on the Seoul Metropolitan Subway. And conveniently, Jessica lives in an apartment that's only a 10-15 minute walk away from the subway. I used this subway many times throughout my stay here.

First impressions of South Korea: Developed, many neon lit signs and lights, and expensive - very, very expensive. Well, at least in comparison to Southeast Asia.

To be honest, the first week of my travels in Korea I did very little. And as a matter of fact, besides a few evenings out with Jessica, I didn't do much the second week either. It was as if I was simply waiting for the time to pass before I returned to the Philippines, where I would be returning in 3 weeks. I had turned into a lame duck backpacker. I had little motivation to even stray far from the apartment.

I also refrained from taking notes in my notebook. Usually I write a daily outline pertaining to things that I did, places I saw, or interesting things that had happened. The 3 weeks I spent in Korea I wrote nothing in my notebook. Which is a shame, really, because I would've been able to write more. When I don't jot down notes, my memory of my travels becomes a bit fuzzy. It's amazing, I can remember days from when I began my travels crystal clear, in full detail, but I have trouble remembering details of my recent travels to South Korea.

However, here are a few things I remember off the top of my head:
  • I was surprised with the lack of English spoken. For a country that is so developed, has such close relations with the U.S., and employs so many English teachers, I assumed that English would be spoken or at least understood.
  • I was surprised to discover how xenophobic the country is. South Korea is extremely homogeneous and deep rooted in Confucianism which values its culture and customs, to the point of discriminating against or being fearful of people who are different than them. I heard a lot of interesting stories from Jessica's friends who have been living here as English teachers. But I think things may change with the new generation - maybe.
  • It's a fairly clean country compared to the rest of places I have traveled to in this region of the world.
  • The women wear extremely short skirts, but it is taboo to reveal skin anywhere near the vicinity of their chests.
  • I love how people eat and drink inexpensively by going to the local convenience stores. It is by far the cheapest place to drink with your friends. Plus, the convenience stores have tables and chairs set up outside, and occasionally they'll even offer free snacks! So cool.
  • They have the most peculiar way of advertising in Seoul. For instance, the guy advertising the local Pizza Hut restaurant will walk down the street with a million pamphlets and toss 'em all over the ground. However, later that night they will return and retrieve all the pamphlets. So when you walk outside the following morning, the sidewalks are clean again.
  • There's an increasingly disturbing trend of plastic surgery taking place here. To the point where children are having nose jobs and their eyelids done. Whatever will set them apart from the rest to get ahead, to be successful.
  • I gotta say, the street food here is kind of lame.
  • There are a plethora of restaurants to choose from in Seoul. Seriously, South Korea has to have the highest restaurant-to-person ratio in all of Asia. There are so many, that there may be 1 restaurant for every person in South Korea. Okay, I may be slightly exaggerating here - but not really.
  • The country has the best customer service. Period.

I did eventually manage to leave the apartment and do some things. In no particular order, here are some of the highlights:

1.) Climbing Inwangsan mountain. This may have been the coolest place I visited in Seoul. It's a 338 meter mountain with an amazing view overlooking the city. During the hike, I saw many Buddhists and Shamanists practicing some of their religious rituals.

2.) Korean War Memorial & Museum. I spent hours in this museum. If you are a history buff, this is the museum for you.

3.) Gyeongbokgung Palace aka "Palace of Shining Happiness." I may have enjoyed this palace more so than the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was built in the 1300s by the Joseon Dynasty. Inside the palace there is also a museum that's worth viewing.

4.) Seeing Jessica perform in a play. Despite that I didn't know what the hell was going on (I dislike Shakespeare plays), I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I attended the play with a group of Jessica's friends. However, I didn't sit with her friends due to the lack of leg room. Luckily, I managed to find a seat located on the top row of the stadium seating where I was able to stretch my legs directly in front of me and into the aisle.

5.) The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This was the number one thing I wanted to see in South Korea. The DMZ is an area of land that separates the Korean Peninsula in half, at the 38th parallel, and where you can get a glimpse into North Korea.

6.) Hanging out with Leona. I had a great few days hanging out with my friend, Leona. I met her while I was in Pai, Thailand, at Sandy and Otto's "Pai Art Design Way and Chai Tea Shop." And if you remember, I even wrote about Leona in my second Pai blog, entitled "Pai: I'm back, baby!" Leona managed to return to South Korea a few days before I left, as she had been traveling. After nearly 10 years working in the television business where Leona created, wrote and produced television shows, she quit to travel. Leona also wrote a popular blog in Korea, which led to the signing of her first book deal with a publishing company that was impressed with her writing. There's nothing quite like seeing a country with a local as your tour guide, and especially with someone who I had met in Pai - good 'ol Pai. For the next few days we traveled around Seoul doing nothing but eating, sightseeing and conversating. Great times.

It was too bad that Leona arrived in South Korea just as I was about to leave. I would have loved to have been able to hang out with her more. I'll just have to take a rein check on that road trip we were suppose to take, Leona! Because the time had finally arrived: "Tonight, Tonight" I was finally returning to the Philippines! And for the first time in weeks, I was extremely excited. Farewell, my jadedness. Oh, how I loathed you. . .

Thank you, Jessica, for putting up with me for 3 weeks.


Next Stop: The Philippines.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Beijing, China, Part 5: Farewell, China

After ten months of traveling I began to feel a bit jaded. This was something that I hadn't experienced during my travels. I think it was an accumulation of things that led me to feel this way:
  1. The redundancy of temples, palaces, markets, etc, began to feel repetitive, and I began to feel bored and unimpressed. I simply wasn't getting excited to see any of Beijing's tourist attractions (excluding the Great Wall, of course).
  2. With the exception of a few vagabonds, I wasn't experiencing any sort of connection with the backpackers I was meeting throughout China. Back when I was in Southeast Asia, it seemed that I couldn't go a day without meeting someone really interesting. However, the type of people I was meeting in China weren't my cup of tea, sort of speak. These exceptional people I met, however, were: Matthew and Ashely, two young guys from the Wales who I'd met in Shanghai (I loved their spirit and thirst for adventure); Jenny, a Chinese woman and aspiring vagabond who I'd met in Xi'an; and Soerish, a Dutchman who I'd met in Beijing. Soerish accompanied me to the Summer Palace, a once summer resort for the emperors in Beijing. He was an interesting guy whose conversations I thoroughly enjoyed as we strolled around the enormous palace.
  3. I wasn't too fond of the culture in China. The constant spitting, picking of the nose, the yelling and shoving, etc., was all getting old - and fast.
  4. However the ultimate reason I was feeling the way I was may have been because, in reality, I simply wanted to be somewhere else . . . I wanted to be back in the Philippines with Sheila, where I would be returning in three weeks.

It's hard to fully enjoy yourself when your heart is somewhere else, I suppose. Don't get me wrong, I had my share of great experiences in China. I want to make that clear. I have no regrets visiting this country, none at all. In fact, I would love to return to China. Because honestly, one month in China just isn't enough. Someone recently commented on one of my previous blogs. He said, "[China] is a great country, but you have to understand the rules . . . takes 3 months . . . everyone who stays longer likes China, everyone else not."

I have yet to begun to scratch the surface of this vast, intricate and complex country.

So Farewell, China. Until next time . . .


Next Stop: South Korea

Beijing, China: Part 4: The Great Wall of China

The moment that I'd been waiting for had arrived: I was going to see the Great Wall of China. It was probably the number one thing that I'd wanted to see in China. I don't know about everyone else, but before I traveled to this country just hearing the word 'China' instantly conjured images of the Great Wall. I even remember as a kid learning that the Great Wall was the only man-made object visible from outer space - which, I believe, has been proven to be a myth. And when I say a myth, I mean in terms of being either a) the only man-made object being visible, or b) if, in fact, the Great Wall can be seen at all from outer space by the naked eye. I can't remember which one. But regardless if the Great Wall can be seen from outer space or not, it's a incredible awe-inspiring feat. And perhaps one of the greatest tourist attractions on the planet. Sadly, however, we tend to forget that many lives were lost constructing the Great Wall, and that thousands, if not millions, of people were forced against their will to build it. Many tears and blood were shed, and people who died while constructing the Great Wall were sometimes buried inside of it.

I decided to book a tour through my hostel. I typically tend to stay away from tours, but I had heard good things about it from many people. And the tour that the hostel offered was called the "Secret Great Wall" tour. According to the hostel, we would "hike from the part-restored Ancient Wall (strategic pass of Emperor Li Zi Cheng) to the unrestored & undiscovered Secret Wall. Then return to the Ancient Wall and go for a traditional Chinese lunch. These parts of the Wall are much closer to the Beijing, allowing a shorter travel time. There are also far fewer tourists and no sellers chasing you along the Wall!"

Sounded good to me.

Another reason why I decided to book a tour instead of figuring out a way to see it myself, was because I had met a few nice ladies from Poland in my dorm room who were going. Figuring that the camaraderie of a few nice people could enhance the experience, I went on ahead and booked it.

It took 2.5 hours to reach the Great Wall. Thinking ahead, I brought a long my poncho just in case, God forbid, it rained on us. And it was a good thing that I did because, unfortunately, a strong overcast had moved in and it began to drizzle.

How unfortunate, indeed.

Initially, the clouds that moved in made out for some spectacular scenery. The views from atop the Great Wall were simply breath taking, with lush green vegetation and clouds that gently graced over the mountain ridges. And there really wasn't any tourists around. Not one. It was quite a surreal experience. However, our initial exuberance ultimately came to an utter halt once it began to rain. I quickly opened and hid under my umbrella . . .

Ella ella, ay ay ay
Under my umbrella
Ella ella, ay ay ay
Under my umbrella
Ella ella, ay ay ay
Under my umbrella
Ella ella, ay ay ay ay, ay ay

The winds from the ensuing storm almost turned my umbrella inside out. I thought I was going to be whisked away and blown off the mountain - which would have been fine . . . if I was Mary Poppins.

Sadly, the storm was relentless for most of the 10 km hike. That's a long time to be rained on, especially when hiking through the unrestored sections of the wall, which, at times, was a bit dangerous.

[The pictures below were taken just before the downpour.]

In terms of weather, I may not have had the best of luck. But it sure did make for an interesting experience. Thank goodness I brought along my poncho and umbrella, ella ella, ay ay ay . . .


Monday, October 18, 2010

Beijing, China, Part 3: The Mausoleum of Mao and the Forbidden City.

[For more videos by Anthony Trotter, view here:]

I woke up early the following morning and visited the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Mao was head of the People's Republic of China and the country's most prominent communist from 1949 until his death in 1976. And despite Mao's wishes to be cremated, China had his body embalmed and quickly constructed the mausoleum after he died. The mausoleum is located in the middle of Tiananmen Square, and just a short walk from my hostel. I definitely wasn't going to miss the opportunity to view an embalmed corpse of one of the most influential albeit controversial figures in modern world history. The queue to the Mausoleum of Mao - which is available for viewing only a few hours each day - was exceptionally long. I mean really, REALLY long. The line was so long that I had difficulty locating the beginning of it which resembled a serpentine, curving in and around Tiananmen Square. [Watch below]

There were not enough security guards to patrol the sheer amount of people that formed the queue. Just imagine thousands upon thousands of ill-behaved Chinese shoving and overtly cutting their way in line, who, like untamed animals or young toddlers, couldn't control their impulses. Seriously. Why can't they? It's as if the growth or development of their minds have stunted or something. I was really getting annoyed with this parochial mentality. However, I'll hand it to the guards who were patrolling the "unpatrollable." They did the best that they could. Anyone who was caught cutting in line would be removed - and rightly so. What I didn't understand was why the people who were patiently waiting in line tolerate such behavior, and not say a single word?

You can best believe that I didn't tolerate it. One time I noticed a man - that's right, a grown man - waiting for the patrolman to turn around before he quickly ducked under the dividing rope and cut directly in front of me. I felt like I had won the lottery. I was waiting, just WAITING for someone to cut in front of me! I waited a few seconds to see if the people around me were going to say anything first.

They didn't.

"I don't think so, hombre," I told the man, before reaching around him, gripping his shirt and forcefully pushing him out of line. "Get out of here."

And do you know what? It worked. The man embarrassingly walked away with his tail tucked between his legs.

Boom, roasted!

It took about an hour and a half before I entered the mausoleum. And despite the signs that read "silence" the security officers continued hollering and screaming at everyone to be quiet and to form proper lines. Not that I was offended or anything, I just thought it was humorous as I past Mao's eerily looking corpse. How weird.

Back at the hostel that night I used the Internet. But before I could use the Internet, I was forced to fork over a large deposit, equivalent to three hours spent on the Internet. I debated with the receptionist, and tried to understand why the hostel - as well as the rest of China - always require a large deposit before using anything. I knew she wouldn't know why, she was just following orders, but I just had to ask. Because maybe if enough people voice their dissatisfaction, the hostel will change its policy. Ya neva know.

"These deposits . . . well, they're just crazy. They're really getting out of hand. I don't understand them. Do you understand them? All I know is that it pisses off your clientele. You don't want your clientele pissed off, right? So could you kindly be able to explain to me the reasoning behind it?"

She looked at me annoyed, and requested that I'd hand over the deposit - which I did.

The next day I visited the Forbidden City, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. For nearly 500 years China's emperors would rarely leave this imperial palace, and people wouldn't be able to leave or enter the palace without the emperors consent, hence the name "Forbidden." I found the palace to be a bit dull and less aesthetically appealing than other palaces and temples that I've seen during my travels. The history here may be a bit more intriguing, but overall, I was a bit bored. I'd been told to allow half the day to wander through the palace; I managed to get through it in just two hours. Probably way too short. But for the first time during my travels, I'd begun to feel jaded - something I'll write more about in the following blogs.

That evening after I returned from walking around the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square (something I did every night), I used the Internet back at the hostel. The same girl who I spoke to the other day about the whole "deposit ordeal" was working at the counter.

"Hi, can I use the Internet, please?"

"Sure," she said and requested that I pay a deposit. And as I was handing her the money she smiled, clearly recognizing me from the previous day. "Hey, you're the guy who doesn't like deposits."

I laughed.

"Yeah, that would be me."


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Beijing, China: Part 2 - Tiananmen Square, Traditional Tea House, and Popular Food Markets.

Feeling physically and mentally exhausted, I immediately took a nap after I checked into my hostel. My room was nothing special, just a place to sleep. It had two bunk beds and a depressingly lit florescent light. The room did have a window with a stellar view . . . into the adjacent communal restroom. Yes, if the mood should dare strike you, the room offered pleasant views of people brushing their teeth and of people walking in and out of the showers and toilets.

I was awakened a few hours later by a few English blokes who'd had a crazy night out and were now paying for it, as they were hung over and rushing to catch their flight.

Not able to fall back asleep, I got up and wandered around the narrow streets and alleys, known as hutongs, to find my barrings. Now normally, as I've mentioned in some of my previous blogs, the further away you walk from touristy areas the cheaper and better the food gets. Well, I guess there's always an exception to the rule. Because the further away I walked, the prices for food never seemed to decrease, nor, most importantly, ever became tastier. Culinary lovers will be saddened with the lack of ambrosial food in Beijing.

I loved the location of my hostel, which was a short walk from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It was strange, almost eerie at first, to be standing where just 21 years ago the Chinese government had opened fire into crowds of pro-democracy protesters, killing hundreds if not thousands of people, including children. And that evening as I was walking around Tiananmen Square, I was approached by three friendly Chinese women. It was their first visit to Beijing and they were excited to practice their English.

After walking around Tiananmen Square with them, they invited me to join them to have some tea at a tradition teahouse. Besides the fact that the teahouse was a bit expensive for my liking, I enjoyed myself. Okay, it was way over my daily budget, costing me around $40 USD. Now for someone who budgets for $15 USD per day, it was a pretty hard blow. My initial thought as we left the teahouse was that I'd been scammed. But I don't think this was the case. Because 1) it was a really nice teahouse, where a woman dressed in traditional garb showed everyone how to properly hold and drink the tea, 2) we sampled a variety of flavors while being provided snacks, 3) everyone evenly paid their portion of the bill, and 4) after we left, they asked if I would like to accompany them to the shopping district and the Donghuamen Lu night food market. I mean, typically once a person has been scammed, the scammers tend NOT to hang around. Plus, $40 isn't an exorbitant amount of money for most tourists to spend on a nice meal or something. But I'm not a typical tourist on a 1-2 week jaunt. So yeah, it was a bit painful. Ouch.

Afterwards I joined them to the Wangfujing shopping district, an area full of commercial activity.
The street was lined with stores and restaurant chains, including McDonald's. That place is everywhere, I swear. The shopping district was extremely crowded with tourists, both westerners and Chinese. We spent some time in a book store where even English books were given its own designated floor. I was having fun and enjoying their company.

Next we went to the popular Donghuamen Lu food market (watch video below). However, it's not your typical food market. There are a number of Chinese food stalls that offer what we westerners may find a bit . . . well, really gross, where you can find crickets, scorpions, lizards, etc. Not the type of Chinese food that has been Americanized. And the smell! My god, the smell. Needless to say, I didn't eat anything. Zippo.

See more of Nick Vivion's work here:


Monday, October 11, 2010

Beijing, China: Part 1 - Taxi Ride from Hell.

After a grueling 13 hour train ride on a hard seat I finally arrived in Beijing, the capital of the People's Republic of China. I didn't see one westerner on my journey from Xi'an to Beijing. Not one. Not even at the bustling train station in Xi'an. This really surprised me, as the route from Xi'an to Beijing is not off the beaten path by any means. What didn't surprise me, however, was that the people in Beijing were just as mental as they were in Xi'an. They spit, push and shove, and angrily holler at you just as much here as anywhere else in China. But hey, it's simply the Chinese way.

I quickly exited the train as time was of the essence. The hostel that I'd booked said I had to check-in before 11am, or they would be forced to give away my bed. Because of this, I opted to take a taxi - something that I rarely do, as taxi's will inevitably cut into my frugal daily budget. But if I wanted to arrive at my hostel on time, this was the safest option. I walked at a brisk pace, following the signs that read "Taxi" throughout the train station. I used my size as an advantage to force my way through the crowds of people who were in my way. I figured I'd been pushed and shoved repeatedly throughout my travels in China, it was now my turn to make my presence known. When in Rome . . .

"I should be there in a jiffy," I thought, as I continued to push my way through the manic crowds. "And a taxi will quickly whisk me away. You're fine. You're fine. I'm gonna make it on time. I'm gonna make it."

So I thought . . .

"Oh, come on!" I said to myself, as the taxi-line outside of Beijing's train station was ridiculously long. I frequently glanced at my watch as the line moved at a snail's pace. There simply weren't enough taxis to meet the demand. Then to make matters worse, security would allow roughly five people at a time to approach the street and fight for the next available taxi, regardless of one's previous position in line. And the competition was fierce. Ah, yes. It was a classic case of dog-eat-dog. Good 'ol fashion Darwinism. Survival of the fittest, indeed.

[sound of car door closing]

"Hello. Ni hao," I said to the driver, before handing him directions that I had had written for me in Chinese. I didn't want there to be any confusion. No confusion . . . what . . . so . . . ever.

There was a long pause, however, after I handed my driver the directions.

"Wha-What's the confusion?" I asked him, as he continued to stare fixedly at the piece of paper.

Meanwhile, taxis began impatiently honking there horns at us. My driver's boss who was directing traffic quickly rushed over, hollering and screaming. Once he leaned his head inside of the window the two begin to have a heated exchange. I couldn't understand if my driver was refusing to take me personally, or that he didn't have the slightest idea of where my hostel was located. In either case, my driver came out looking like a complete imbecile.

"Boys, boys!" I interrupted, as the two of them were still screaming at one another, "What's the problem? It's written right here in Chinese! What's there NOT to understand?"

They continued barking at one another.

It was obvious that my driver's boss wanted him to take me to where my directions (written in Chinese, no less) clearly instructed him to go. I was waiting for Mr. Boss man to open a can of whoop-ass on my driver, and order him to take me to my hostel. It was so inevitable that that was going to happen.

But then he gave up and turned around.

"Nooooo! But you're the boss! You don't let him boss you! You boss him! That's what a boss is suppose to do! That's why YOU'RE the boss!" I screamed internally in frustration.

My driver turned around and handed me back my directions.

"Seriously?" I said, and I continued to sit there dumbfounded. Not ready to give up, I asked him, "Do you have a cell phone?" And I hand gestured like I was speaking on a phone.

He emphatically shook his head "no."

Not giving up, I hollered, "Tienanmen Square? Come on. You have to know Tienanmen Square!" How could he not know Tienanmen Square in English? It's one of the most touristy sites in all of China. But, alas, he did not.

[begin playing music while reading below.]

I slammed the door behind me.

[Inhale. Exhale.]

In a spinning pan-around-effect motion, imagine looking at me with a defeated expression written on my face. I stood there motionless for a moment gathering my thoughts while a man directing traffic blew his whistle, while car horns repeatedly honked, and as crazed Chinese raced to catch the next approaching taxi.

The next taxi was MINE!

"Hey!" I hollered, and reached inside the taxi, handing the driver the directions. "Do you know where this is?" The driver gave me a nod and waved for me to get in. I quickly threw my rucksack in the back and hopped in, slamming the door shut behind me.

"Hurry! Let's go. Andale, andale!" I shouted, as I tapped the head rest of his seat.

As I leaned back into my seat, I glanced at my watch again.

"Oy vey. This is going to be close."

Meanwhile my knees, which were digging into the seat in front of me, repetitiously swayed back and forth as I anxiously stared out the window. The traffic wasn't all entirely too bad, which allowed us to move along at a reasonable speed.

Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.

My driver was doing an excellent job maneuvering around the traffic.

But then my driver motioned for me to hand him the directions. Frequently looking up to keep his eyes on the road, he managed to continue driving while holding the steering wheel with one hand and onto the little piece of paper with the other. He turned around and said something in Chinese, raising his right arm in the air, motioning like he didn't know where to go.

Then in broken English my driver said something that made me want to send him through the wind shield.

"Pa-Pay now."

"Wait. What?" I said. "Pay you now?"

I saw where this was going. Because the same thing happened to Detective James Carter played by Chris Tucker in the movie Rush Hour 2:

Carter: "Follow that car! Hey, follow that limo, this is a chase. Okay wherever it goes, you go. You're not moving. This is the opposite of chasing."

Carter's Cab Driver: "(Speaks Chinese)"

Carter: "What?"

Carter's Cab Driver: "(Speaks Chinese)"

Carter: "I will slap you if you don't move this car."

Carter's Cab Driver: "(Speaks Chinese)"

Carter: "I'm gonna slap you."

Carter's Cab Driver: "(Speaks in Chinese)"

Carter: "I'm gonna slap you."

Cater's Cab Driver: "(Speaks Chinese)"

Carter: "Alright. Okay, look. Here. You understand that?" (He hands over a wad of cash.)

Carter's Cab Driver: "Now you're speaking my language."

Until I paid him, he was going to pretend that he didn't know where the hostel was located. What a jerk! Too bad for the driver I'd already seen Rush Hour 2.

"No. No. No. I'll pay you what the meter says once we arrive at the hostel."

Sounding angry, my driver said something in Chinese. But I was sure he was requesting that I pay him.

"No. I will pay you once we arrive at the hostel." I reiterated.

I looked at my watch to see how much time I had left. I was cutting this too close for my liking. If this guy continued playing games, I wouldn't hesitate jumping out at the next stop and getting into another taxi.

Then I noticed some landmarks as a point of reference if I was to get lost. With uncanny accuracy, I knew just where I was - all just from a few moments looking at a map in Xi'an. If my driver was about to screw me, I would be able to find my way.

Meanwhile, it appeared that my driver's memory came back. He slowed down once we approached Beijing's many narrow streets and alleys, known as hutongs.

"Right here is fine," I said, and grabbed my bag.

When I was getting out, my driver requested that I pay more than what was clearly labeled on the meter. Needless to say, I disregarded what he was charging and gave him what the meter had listed.

After I quickly handed him the money, I threw my bag over my shoulder and hurried off. I found my hostel within the next few minutes.

Welcome to Beijing! Nice.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Xi'an, China: Part 3 of 3 - The Terracotta Warriors.

Back at the hostel I met Rachel while I was writing in my dormitory. Rachel is an American who'd just spent a year teaching English in Taiwan and decided to travel for a few weeks before returning home. Rachel and I exchanged the 3 basic questions that all backpackers inquire when meeting someone new:
  1. What's your name?
  2. Where are you from?
  3. How long have you been traveling?
And if you've been traveling for as long has I have, the follow-up questions to #3 are typically, "Where have you been? Where are you going next? And for how long will you travel?" And because of how long I have been traveling, I've apparently become more interesting. I've found it to be almost like a status thing amongst backpackers and it becomes quite easier to strike up conversations with people once they discover how long I've been traveling. But regardless of how long someone else has been traveling, I still love hearing about other people's travels.

After Rachel and I expressed interests in seeing the Terracotta Warriors, we agreed to go together the following morning. If anyone is going to see the Terracotta Warriors, do yourself a favor and NOT book a tour through your hostel. There simply isn't a reason to do so. It's easy enough to do it on your own, plus it's cheaper. Trust me.

We walked to the bus station from our hostel and hopped on a local bus, costing a whopping $1USD. And before reaching the Terracotta Warriors and Soldier Museum, we had to walk through a long, LONG stretch of souvenir and food shops. Quite annoying.

It was crazy to be standing in the presence of such a historical sight. I remembered reading and seeing pictures of the Terracotta Warriors back in elementary school. But there I was, in China, standing in front of the thousands of warriors and horses that had been unearthed and present in this area for over 2000 years. So cool.

There are three pits where the Terracotta Warriors reside. I recommend seeing the three pits in reverse order and seeing pit #1 last because, honestly, pit #2 and #3 weren't all that impressive.

I woke up the following morning to the sound of Chinese being spoken in my dormitory. Interestingly, in China I've noticed that a large percentage of people that stay in the hostels are Chinese. Unlike my travels in Southeast Asia, it was typically rare, if ever, to find locals staying in any of the hostels that I've been.

"Oh, sorry. Are we disturbing you?" a young Chinese woman said from her top bunk. "Nah, nah," I responded as I rolled over and sat on the edge of my bed, rubbing my eyes. "You're fine."

After I took a shower and began preparing for my day, the woman introduced herself, said her name was Jenny, and asked if I could recommend anything for her to see or do. This was Jenny's first time traveling alone and for this long. She managed to save enough money to travel a few weeks by tutoring students English at her university, which she still attends.

She inquired where I'd traveled within China. And when I told her that I'd been to Shanghai, she told me that she just spent two weeks volunteering at the Shanghai World Expo.

"So what did you think of the World Expo?" Jenny asked, once I told her that I'd attended it twice.

"Ummm," I said, buying time to think. I wasn't quite sure if I should be honest as I didn't want to offend her if I told her the truth. So I decided to lie. "Yeah, it was pretty good."

"Really?" she said, sounding exceptionally surprised. And she quickly expressed to me how she wasn't that impressed. "Wow. Okay, yeah . . ." I excitedly responded, and began to repudiate what I had just said seconds earlier, ". . . I thought it was really lame, too!"

Later that evening Jenny joined me for dinner at my regular spot. As we were approaching the restaurant, a few people waved 'hello' to me.

"Wow! How do these people know you?" Jenny said, as she was a bit taken back by the warm welcoming. "You're my idol. You need to show me how you do it."

And as we walked into the restaurant the young chef began smiling cheek to cheek. Excited that I had a Chinese speaking friend with me, the young chef quickly took advantage of the situation and began asking Jenny an array of questions. "It looks like I'm the translator now," Jenny said, as the young chef, who was ecstatic to be able to communicate with me, continued to ask questions through Jenny.

Over dinner, Jenny expressed her passion for traveling and what an amazing time she's been having on her first journey alone. Jenny, whose an only child, said that while her mother was supportive of her travels, her father was a bit more leery and worried about her safety - a bit reminiscent of my parents, really. She said that once she graduates she wants to travel for a few months before becoming a civil servant, a job that she said will give her the flexibility and opportunity for future travels. Listening to her speak about traveling, I couldn't help but to think how fortunate I am to have been born in a country like the U.S. - a country where I had job that paid me enough (and in a currency that's worth more than most countries) to where I could travel the world, and only after a year and a half of saving.

After we finished dinner, I asked Jenny if she would like to see the amazing park that I'd discovered the previous night. Over dinner I had really spoken highly of the park and told her everything that I'd seen and experienced. So you can imagine my disappointment and utter bewilderment as we walked through the eerily quiet, dark park.

"What the--? Where are all the--?" I was at a loss of words, really. I must have looked like a schmuck, as I had been telling her how vibrant and full of activity this park was.

"But where are people? You see people? Show me people. There are no people!" (Fans of Seinfeld will get that reference).

Seriously, though. "Where was everyone?" I thought. The only thing I could think of was that it was later than when I'd been here the previous night. I guess people don't enjoy dancing in the park too late in the evening.

" . . . and right here! People were dancing, right here!" And I jokingly began imitating how people were dancing.

The following morning, Jenny invited me to join her to the Shaanxi History Museum. When in China, traveling with someone who speaks Chinese makes life so much easier - so, SO, SO much easier. However, that said, Jenny made me ask for directions . . . in Chinese. Oy vey. After practicing and repeating the line a million times, I built up enough courage to ask someone.

"Ask that woman!" Jenny said.


So we walked up to her, and I embarrassingly asked her where the museum was. The woman looked at Jenny, laughed, then pointed down the street.

Boom! Nailed it.

We arrived at the museum early enough to receive free entry tickets. Yes! Finally something free! The museum gives away 2,500 free tickets every morning. Afterwards, we stopped at one of the smallest and warmest restaurants I've ever been to, and enjoyed the most delicious meal while sweating profusely.

After visiting the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and a neighboring fountain, we hopped on a bus back to the hostel. During our ride back, I made an observation. I told Jenny that I'd noticed so many people throughout the day who'd been rude to her. And I asked her how she'd been able to remain so calm and nonchalant, even to the point of smiling when experiencing such rudeness?

"I'm getting upset, and I'm not the one being subjugated to such discourteous behavior," I told her, while sitting on a folded piece of newspaper on the floor of the bus. At first, she didn't understand what I was referring to, like she didn't even notice. It was only after I gave her a few examples that she was able to recall.

"I don't let it bother me," she said. "If you can learn how to ignore it, you won't be bothered."

What she said suddenly reminded me of a few books that I'd read recently, and a few people who I'm trying to aspire to be like someday. The first book is by Marcus Aurelius, titled Meditations. This book was given to me as a gift before I left on my travels by my friend, Guido. In the book, Marcus Aurelius offers insightful ways to better our lives by enriching our ways of thought. The quote Jenny reminded me of came from Book Four, quote number 18, in which he says, "The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do [. . .] not to be distracted by their darkness. To run straight for the finish line, unswerving."

The second book is by author Carlos Castaneda, titled The Fire From Within. In the book, Castaneda quotes his mentor, don Juan Matus, of having said, "Self-importance is our greatest enemy. Think about it - what weakens us is feeling offended by the deeds and misdeeds of our fellow men. Our self-importance requires that we spend most of our lives offended by someone."

That evening I walked Jenny to the train station. She was about to embark on the world's highest railway to the mystical land of Tibet, an appropriate destination for someone who's on a spiritual journey like herself.

I would love to someday go to Tibet. Sadly, foreigners are required to obtain a permit from the government and are only allowed to visit Tibet with a tour, both of which I've heard is quite costly. Luckily for Jenny, she's a local and such requirements are not enforced upon the Chinese citizenry. "You see," Jenny jokingly said, "My Chinese passport is full of advantages."

Early the next morning, a few of the guys from the dormitory joined me to climb Mt. Hua Shan located a few hours outside of Xi'an by bus. I was really excited to climb it as the pictures looked amazingly beautiful. It was even featured in the new Karate Kid movie.

Unfortunately the weather was pretty nasty, and it didn't appear that it was going to clear up anytime soon. And I wasn't about to cough up the hefty entrance fee to enter the park if there wasn't going to be a view. I mean, that's essentially the only reason why I would climb Mt. Hua Shan - for the view, not the climb. I had heard the climb is quite tedious. And I'm by no stretch of the imagination a masochist. I don't want to climb Mt. Hua Shan just to say that I've climbed it. I want to enjoy myself and again, most importantly, I want to enjoy the view from atop of the mountain. On the other hand, my two Chinese roommates decided to go for it. I walked with them up to the park gate entrance and wished them well, but there was no way I was going with them. So I walked back into town and checked into a cheap albeit dingy room, hoping that the following morning the weather would be permitting enough to climb.

The following morning when I opened the curtains it was, sadly to say, raining. Alas, I made the decision not to climb the mountain and to return to Xi'an.

I spent the next few days in Xi'an reading, writing, and eating delicious food at my regular spot. In total, I spent 8 days in Xi'an. I thoroughly enjoyed my travels here, more so than any other city that I'd been to in China thus far, including Macau and Hong Kong. That said, it was time to move on. I was ready to see Beijing as I had heard nothing but good things from my fellow backpackers about the city.

Great Wall of China, here I come!!!


Next Stop: Beijing, China.