Thursday, December 31, 2009

Travelling to Vietnam

Early in December, my family has learned that my grandfather had been very ill, and at any time, he was ready to go. Before I made any money, 2 of my grandparents had passed away. I never even got to say hi to one of them, and there was nothing that I could do when each passed away. My parents had prepared their visas so that they could go when the "moment" arrived. It's very difficult to just fly back and forth, being on the other side of the world. I thought to myself why should we wait for the moment, but lets try to make an effort while it's not too late. It had been 15 years as a family we traveled to Vietnam and visited the majority of our extended family members. Stella and the children have never been there either, so it just made sense to try.

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It would take a week or 2 to get the appropriate visas, which allowed us the ability to find affordable flights. It was really the only opportunity that the whole family could go at once. So it was decided, that we would all go in January. However, instead of just going straight to Vietnam, we always try to check some things off the agenda. We have season tickets to the Arizona Cardinals, and we also already bought tickets to a Black Eyed Peas concert at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. So we thought it was a good idea, to go to Glendale for the game, then drive to Las Vegas for the concert, and then drive to LAX for our flight. It was a lot of things to do, especially having 2 young kids restlessly squished in a small minivan with 5 other adults and their overstuffed luggages, but we managed. Thank goodness Rakki and Helen were around in LA. They picked up our minivan at the airport and parked it at their house while we were gone, saving us a lot of time and money.

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So our itinerary consist of visiting my dad's side of the family in Central Vietnam for a week, we go tour the North and Nha Trang for a few days, and then down South for a week for the maternal side. A pretty packed agenda.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Final Day in Bali

Date: Tuesday August 4
Travel: Taxi;
Lodging: Conrad Bali
Photos: 20090804 Bali Kechak Jimbaran

As the final day of the Bali trip was ending, we had to make an effort at least to see the sunrise from Nusa Dua. I don't know why we thought this would be a good idea, since we never really woke up early. It was worth the wake up though, as we had our own cabana, and got to enjoy a breakfast at during sunrise. The staff did tell us that it had rained earlier, so the sunrise would not be so spectacular, but it's not many times I get to see the sunrise, so to me it is as good as any.
Having a late flight, we didn't want to just waste our day around the hotel. We went back to Uluwatu, and got to see the Kecak dance, a traditional dance in Bali. The performance occurs around sunset, to create a dramatic experience. After the performance, we stopped by Jimbaran for dinner by the sea. There are more then a couple dozen restaurants, with tables on the sandy beach, where you can stroll out a bit to get your feet wet. Lucky for us, we also came in time for some free performance. One of the things you will notice is that there are also a lot of Japanese tourist, as well as Australians. Some of the entertainers can fluently speak 3 languages, Indonesian, English and Japanese. This is probably why this island is comparable to Hawaii, from the surfs of North Shore and Uluwatu, to the friendly smiles of the locals. Although it cost more to fly to Bali, then Hawaii, there is a lot of value here if you take advantage of it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Soaking in Lembongan

Date: Monday August 3
Travel: Taxi;
Lodging: Conrad Bali
Photos: 20090803 LembonganIsland

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It was time to go out and play in the water. We didn't get to do the seawalker like we wanted to, but we did go on a play cruise to Lembongan island. Taking the Bali Hai package, we take a ship for a 1 hour ride over the sea. It was a bit windy and cloudy, and the water was a bit rough. However, the staff members must be really used to the conditions, as they were able to operate normally, be it if they were playing music in the band, making drinks, or waiting and serving people. One waiter did a very good job balancing the drink while walking up the steps to the upper deck and walking across the ship. This was a brilliant feat as the boat was just rocking up and down, not something for people who get motion sick. Nevertheless, as soon as the waiter successfully carried a glass full of margarita without spilling anything, the consumer couldn't immediately handle it and spilled it all over himself.
The ship at the end of the journey would dock with a pontoon, where all the fun water activities began. We started out by taking an underwater viewing boat, then did a little snorkeling. What was nice is that the pontoon had a ton of coral growing on it, and it was close to the surface, so we can see all the vibrant colors. It was a nice opportunity to test out the new underwater case for the SD900. There was a chance to scuba dive, but you needed some time to do a little training. There was a giant slide off the pontoon lodging you into the water, and that provided plenty of amusement. We also got a chance to take a boat to the island of Lebongan and take an island tour. Besides some photo opportunities, I probably could have done without this and just stayed on the slide or jump off the pontoon. Nevertheless it was a great experience.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dreamland (thats what it's really called) & Conrad Bali

Date: Saturday & Sunday, August 1-2
Travel: Taxi;
Lodging:Conrad Bali
Photos: 20090801 Dreamland , 20090802 Conrad Bali
This day would have no agenda but rest and relaxation. Besides sleeping in, taking a long dip in the infinite edge pool, and getting a massage, we make it down to Dreamland beach. Apparantly there were changes occurring to the area, and it was still under development. That didn't stop us from bargaining for umbrellas, chairs, massages, and boogie boards; consequently enjoying the beach. After soaking in the sun all day, Kim and Dan make their way home to the states, while Linda and I make our way to the other side of the island, at the Conrad in Nusa Dua. Again, I had used my Hilton points, like I had for Tokyo, to cover for the Conrad. It was a nice use of points. We did not do much but relax. Each morning, we got a choice of multiple breakfast locations and buffets. One was in front of the pool, another on a balcony overlooking a cabana with a yoga session. In the evenings, there were cocktailsand snacks, all thanks to my status with Hilton.

We visited another beach area in Kuta, did some shopping, wined, dined, and relaxed. I ended up getting a great deal on T-shirts due to some nice bargaining skills from Linda. We would walk away from one vendor, get the deal at another vendor, and get a better deal at the original vendor. The area around kuta was a little more crowded, and is a bit more happening then the more couple/family friendly area of Nusa Dua.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Blue Point & More Ubud

Date: Friday July 31, Bali
Travel: Rental Van
Party: Vu, Linda, Dan, Kim
Lodging: The Blue Point
Photos: 20090731BedugalTanahLot; 20090731BluePoint

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We stayed the night at the Blue Point resort in Uluwatu. It was gorgeous, and we were upgraded to a the presidential villa. This was already on top of the fact that we received a Indonesian discount which Linda was able to persuade in getting. There was a personal pool, and gazebo in the back, but the resort hosted its own infinite edge pool, with a view of the pacific. The resort was on top of the hill, above a popular surfing spot. It was beautiful. The stay also came with a 30 minute foot massage, so our feet were ready to go.
We were reluctant to leave the Blue Point, but we spent the day with our rental van, going back up the center of the island. We started with some shopping buying some local crafts and arts. If we had more time, I would have been out there bargaining for more stuff. We stopped at the sky restaurant of Pacung, with more wonderful views and another buffet lunch. We then made our way to Bedugul, which was serene and just take in the views.
Running late already, we did not want to miss a 2nd chance for an ocean sunset and drove on to Pura Tanah Lot. It was just beautiful. The area seemed to also have dark sand, but I don't know if it was necessarily black sand. I mentioned to Linda that I wanted to see that, and she just couldn't understand why. I don't think she understands that we live in a desert. The Bali trip had been nothing more then just enjoyment and relaxation.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bali: From Kintamani to Uluwatu

Date: Thursday July 30, 2009
Travel: Rental Van
Party: Vu, Linda, Dan, Kim
Lodging: Pertiwi Resort
: 20090730UbudKintamaniUluwatu
On our 2nd day, we hired a van and driver to take us around. Staying in Ubud, we visit a couple of temples, namely the Goa Gajah and Gunung Kawi. We get to trek some of the rice fields and get a nice peek of some of the rice terraces. The girls bought some sarongs, since at each of the holy sites, you were supposed to cover yourself in one. The site would give you one, but it made a nice souvenir anyway. One thing you will notice around here are the balinese hindu offerings, especially in front of any businesses. We visited the holy baths of Tirtha Empul, but notbody really wanted to take a dip in the water. We then drove up to Kintamani, where we enjoy a late buffet lunch overlooking the lake and Mt. Batur. The air was refreshing and the views were spectacular. Making our way back down, we make a brief visit at a larger rice terrace, one of the many rice terraces in the area. This was just one of the more intricate ones.

As it was approaching sunset, our driver tried to rush us to our destination before it was too late, which is at the southern tip of the island, at Uluwatu. It was nice that Linda was able to communicate with the driver, so that we really had no worries at all. We made it on time, and was able to enjoy a beautiful sunset. Although while admiring one, one of the monkeys took Linda's sunglasses right from her head. The little critter made it pretty far, but a little child ran the monkey down, and recovered the shades. Too bad those LV frames had bite marks all over onse side, but at least it was saved. While I was standing and taking a picture, one of the monkeys almost grabbed my glasses, but Linda caught it in time. I made sure I told the monkey who's boss (see video). Although we made the sunset, we were not able to catch the kechak dance this night. Kim and Dan had already seen one a few days before, but I had not seen it yet. Another day...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bali Adventure Tour

Date: Wednesday July 29, 2009
Travel: Rental Van
Party: Vu, Linda, Dan, Kim
Lodging: Pertiwi Resort

After a few days in Jakarta, I rejoined Kim in Dan on the island of Bali, accompanied with Linda. Kim and Dan were fully recharged from their stay at the grand hyatt, as I was from chillaxing in Jakarta. On the first day, we decide to do a little adventure and go rafting down the Ayung river. We had a raft guide who was really strong and probably did all the work, but he was really fun, and always smiling. It was a beautiful day out, and the area around the river was so lush. It was a lot of fun, and no one fell over board, but I almost did since I was focused with my camera. The guide allowed us to jump into the river, and Linda was the first one in without hesitation.

All the people on the island were very nice, and always smiling. The service was always a great experience. After a buffet lunch, we visited the elephant safari park, and get to ride one through the jungle (actually its just a path inside the park, but you can use your imagination). The ride was a little slow, but it was just bumpy, up and down. The rafting and elephant safari were a part of Bali Adventure Tours company. Later in the evening we visited the sacred monkey forest, which was just a short walk from our hotel, Pertiwi resort. The monkeys were all over the place, and you could buy mini bananas and feed them. Some of these monkeys are very smart, and they don't really care for just the one banana that you give them, they want the whole bunch. You would be standing there trying to hand 1 monkey a banana, while another monkey tries to steal the stash of bananas in your other hand.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hanging out in Jakarta

Date: July 24-28, Aug 5-8 2009
Travel: Taxi; Car
Party: Vu, Linda, Indonesian Friends
Lodging: Linda's Apartment
20090726Jakarta ; 20090807Jakarta

Late friday evening, I arrive at Jakarta. My intentions were to stay at Linda's place, even though she was gone on a business trip until Sunday. Her sister's boyfriend actually picked me up at the airport, and took me out for Gado Gado for dinner. The next day, I hung out with some of my friends I met in my visit earlier that year. We hung out at a mall (surprise, surprise). This particular one had an ice skating rink. We were with some girls who wanted to learn how to dance, and so they invited us to a dance class. The studio was horrendous looking, I had flashbacks of my once pink home. There are a lot of fancy restaurants around, although driving to some and parking is not fun. When Linda returned back from her trip on sunday, we hung out around town. There is a lot of nice asian and asian fusion restaurants around, but something noteworthy was the Pizza Hut where it is quite fancy and considered fine dining. The pizza's are completely different, with different crust variations, mayo dipping sauces, and different type of toppings. The more memorable dish though was the martabak, which was a 20k calorie infestation of batter, butter, condensed milk, chocolate, cheese, and more butter. There are a couple different variations with a salty version and a thick or thin sweet version. At least too sweet is easier to swallow then too spicy. Linda and her sister's boyfriend took me out for lunch one time, where I suggested to eat something local. They have a high tolerance for spice, but this place was ridiculous. My mom makes this chili sauce, which I only need 1/2 of a teaspoon at most to satisfy my spice needs for a meal. Well these dishes were completely smothered in chili. I scraped some of mine off, but Linda's sister bf, ate it all. His face was compeletely red, and sweating all over. He used 4 or 5 napkins at a time to wipe the sweat off, but the napkins kept breaking apart because it was so wet. We actually got a quality facial (my 1st ever) that morning, and it was a full high quality facial at a clinic, with a deep cleanse. I'm sure that meal cleansed out all his pores better than the facial. Or maybe the meal made everything worse by excreting salt back into the cleansed pores. I definitely tried to avoid all that, because my face never felt so clean before.
The movie theaters there offer a variety of ways to watch a movie, the standard seats, sofa, or a bed (not bath!). Plenty of cafes to keep me busy, especially when I was by myself at times. I even got to take a ride on the "world's longest dry slide" at FX, which is another mall. There are plenty of night clubs to spend the night away. However there is a big discrepancy between the rich and the poor, and the middle class is not so big. Some of the clubs have cover charge which would rival to any US large city market, however there are street vendors which you could feed families at a tenth the cost of cover. The retail stores at the malls probably cost the same if not more of American retailers, however, I find more favor in the discount local markets like Manga Dua. Jakarta is just like any big city with the amenities, but it is in desperate need of mass transit. The roads are small, and the traffic is horrible. I remember 1 friday night, we headed out to Kemang food place, and google maps said it was only a 10 minute drive (only like 3 or 4 km), but it took 2 hours to get there. Even though if you own a car, you likely have a driver to take you around, which makes it nice, because parking a car, or looking for your parked car is not so easy. Also a driver is probably not likely to fall asleep in the middle of then night and get me or the dozen of motorcyclist in the road killed. At least I can cross the following off my bucket list: "Grab the steering wheel, and manuever a moving vehicle on a highway from the passenger seat."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Night in Hong Kong

Date: Thursday July 23, 2009
Travel: Taxi; MagLev Train; Plane: Shanghai to Hong Kong; Subway; Trolley
Lodging: Cosmic Guest House
Photos: 20090723HongKong
This morning, I ended up sacrificing a chance to shop in the market early morning for some sleep. I would be flying out of Shanghai's International airport, meaning that I get an oppurtunity to ride the fastest train in the world, which is magnetically levitated, followed by some rest in the airport the lounge.

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Landing into Hong Kong's airport, the view outside the window was amazing, with all the modern skyscrapers on small mountainous islands. I arrive in Hong Kong by noon, where I would be staying at another hostel in Tsim Sha Tsui (TST). Located at Miradoor Mansion, which is really a big, old apartment building. The room was clean, but very very small. If I couldn't put my bag underneath the bed, then there would be no floorspace to get to the bathroom. The entire room must have been like 40 square feet, including the bathroom, since the long side of the twin bed went from wall to wall. It was clean though, and had a TV and AC.
I went up to the top of Victoria Peak, where there is a grand panorama of Hong Kong and TST. There is a light show every 8pm in Hong Kong, which I thought I would be able to enjoy from Victoria Peak, but I was wrong. Anyways, I cross the waters on the ferry back to the TST side and walked along the promenade, into the avenue of stars. In the TST area, there was plenty of nightlife and enough people that speak English to get around, and BS with.

I ended the trip just exploring much of the city the next day, making sure that I eat some dim sum while I was there. I remember asking one of Kim's friends in China, who spends a lot of time in Hong Kong, about Dim Sum, and she says that she never tried it in Hong Kong, kind of stating that her extended family was rich, and doesn't do Dim Sum. Well I guess I am poor, and I want some Dim Sum.
I didn't get a chance to visit DisneyLand park like I had in Tokyo, but I did get to see a Mickey exhibit in town. I also got to shop a bit and get some of my bargaining fix in, as I missed out in Shanghai. Taking the subway the next day all over the place, as I walked out, I kind of said to myself, "wow, I feel like I'm in a big china town." Well what did I expect...I was in China.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Find me in Shanghai

Date: Wednesday July 22, 2009
Travel: Taxi; Plane: Beijing to Shanghai Hongqiao; Subway
Lodging: Shanghai Hidden Garden Youth Hostel
Photos: 20090722Shanghai
After staring at the mosquito splats in the dorm in Beijing and the enormous bump on my forehead, I decided that I probably should not rough it any further, and just take the flight to Shanghai and not a sleeper train. I would be alone for a few days and there is no need to get myself sick or something. The only problem with this is that the flight would get me in sometime mid morning, which would be past the time of the solar eclipse of 2009, in which Shanghai would experience totality.
The other odd thing about leaving that morning is that some Government workers came by the dorm looking for me, so that I could have my medical check up. I didn't think that it really mattered what address I put in my immigration card, but apparently they were even able to read my hand writing. I wonder if my name will be on a black list now since I was absent in Beijing. Facebook was blocked, skype would not work for some reason, and now they were tracking me down. Now I feel more blessed with where I do live, near the border of Mexico.

As the the plane landed in Shanghai, while we were still on the runway, people in the seats behind starting walking towards the front. The flight attendants were in a craze to get the folks to sit back down. As the plane stopped, people started rushing and shoving their way to the front. My goodness.....I just couldn't understand it, and felt like there was no sort of order or class here. 1 would think that there is some sort of airline etiquette or something, but that just doesn't exist here.
I reached my hostel which did not have the best curb appeal, but with only a slight difference in cost, it was so much better than my dorm room in Beijing. It was clean and was quite modern. I called up a fellow coworker of mine, Deeporn, who was temporarily working in China the past 2 years with her husband. She gave me some suggestions on places to visit, as well as an invitation that evening.
At noon, I headed out to Yu Yuan bazaar and garden. I suppose it was a nicer traditional view of Shanghai. I noticed there was a long line for some food, and I just stood in it assuming it had to be for something good. It was the well known Xiao Long Bao (or as I like to think of it as Shaolin Bao). It was juicy, but I thought the meat could have been spiced up a bit.
As I made my way around the city and into People's Square, you can't help but notice how modern Shanghai is becoming with couple of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, modern architecture, and mass transit. There are 3 tall observation towers in Pudong, the Oriental Pearl TV tower, World Financial Tower, and Jin Mao towers. I decided on the World Financial tower, as it has the highest observation deck in the world. However, getting to it on foot while the rain was coming down turned out to be an obstacle. Shanghai was undergoing under a lot of construction, in preparation for the World Expo 2010, and it was not easy to get to the tower. You would think, just go toward the tallest building, but it was not the case. There were signs everywhere telling me to go in the opposite directions. Anyways, I eventually found my way there. Entering the tower and the observation deck area, I felt like I was in geek heaven. There was all sorts of eye candy, with LED's, and lights, and all the workers guiding you around were very beautiful women. Going up the escalators and elevators, I already felt like in a whole new world. The deck offered a great view of Shanghai.
Already being late from looking for the tower, I finally meet up with Deeporn to have dinner at a nice cantonese restaurant, which is a nice change up from the mandarin stuff. Deeporn then invited me over to her condo, as well as invited me to spend the night as she had plenty of spare rooms. The condo was in an excellent location in Pudong along the river, and was the top floor. It was an amazing experience, and it felt so luxurious. The living area was large, but the best part, was the living room, where the entire wall was a window offering a magnificent view of the Bund, and the Huangpu river. I had wished I actually stayed there, because I could just sit at that window sill all night. You can see all the boats, ships, cruises sail down 1 direction of the river. I was entertained all night with stories about China, and I was glad I made the most of my 1 day in Shanghai.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Look..It's a white guy

Date: Tuesday July 21,2009
Vu, Dan
: Taxi
Lodging: Dorm
Photos: 20090721BeijingOlympicPark_BeHai_Random
Another day Dan & I were touring the city alone, while Kim is studying away. This day we decided to tour Olympic stadium. The olympics were just a year past, and this place was still a major attraction. As it was the case most of the trip, many of the locals had found an attraction with Dan, as they probably have never seen a white giant before. They probably even thought he could have been Michael Phelps. As we walked to the ticket booth, a couple of guys just could not stop giggling and looking at Dan, and it was apparent that they had wanted to take a picture of him. Dan agreed. Once we were inside the stadium, we thought it would have been funny that if someone had taken a picture with him, they would have to pay up. So after a guy asked to take a picture with Dan, he immediately started requesting for money, first starting at 10, and then working his way down. The Chinese guy was totally getting intimidated, but we just told him we were joking.
Soon after, we made our way to the water cube, where the swimming and diving events were taken place. There were thousands of empty seats around us as we sat down. However, there was a lady who sat right next to Dan, with all the empty seats around, and it was obvious she was posing for a camera from far away. Dan noticed and just moved in closer to her and smiled so that she could have her picture with the white monster.
The olympic park was enormous, as everything else was in Beijing, and we didn't want to venture out to see all of it. We decided to leave and visited Be Hai, which is another lake/park attraction. Dan was feeling ill, so we went back early. Before stopping in, we stopped at that local eatery, and used the power of pointing. We ended up getting 10 piping hot steam buns and 10 potstickers for all about 1 USD. Can't complain about the prices and no need to bargain here.
In the evening, we went out with a bunch of Kim's friends to go shopping at a tourist market place. There were a lot of bargains to be had, and we even built strategies. Kim and I used our Vietnamese to beat the market. I really wish I could have gone back and had more time to pick up some snowboarding pants, as this turned out to be my only chance to shop in Beijing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Great Wall of Mutianyu

Date: Monday, July 20
Vu, Dan
Travel: Bus; Mini Bus
Lodging: Dorm
Photos: 20090720BeijingMutianyuGreatWall
The problem with a weekday is that there are fewer modes of transportation for tourist around. I'm sure we could have called a tour, or have just taken some private taxi to the great wall, but Dan & I decided we wanted it to feel like we were hardcore. There are a couple of locations in which you can visit the great wall, 2 of which are Badaling and Mutianyu. Badaling is a bit touristy, and usually full of people, but it's easily accessible by train. Mutianyu is a little more difficult to reach, but it has a Toboggan ride down the mountain. Need I say more on which one we decided to go on. There is a tour bus on the weekend, that could have taken us straight to a town called Huairou, but this was Monday.

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It was supposed to be pretty easy according to websites and books we read, take the local bus to Huairou, take a mini bus the rest of the way to Mutianyu. So we took the local bus up to Huairou, and tried to communicate to the bus attendant. She was probably one of the more attractive people I saw in Beijing, as everybody in the street we encountered we generally unattractive. Anyways, as we started to arrive the outskirts of Huairou, the attendant mentions that this is Huairou. We exited the bus, and immediately, there was a guy soliciting us for a ride. Everybody solicits here, but this feels shady. We are supposed to find a mini bus, not this random guy on the street in a gray van. We stand there a bit and feel like idiots not knowing where we are at, or what we are supposed to do. This was just a fairly small town we were at. We just stand there, and one person who knew English, asked what we were doing, but he didnt know the area, so he could not help. The only thing he told us was, "be careful." Wonderful... So now we start walking into town and the sun is shining strong, which fuels the need to even be on the wall even more, since it would be a beautiful clear day. The original solicitor starts following us, and keeps yelling prices at us, which I think he started at 300 yuan, and started coming down until about 100. We just keep walking and walking away, and decided to take another bus, because we were actually looking for a particular stop, the convention center, but we don't know how to say this, and we don't even know what its supposed to look like. We just need to look for the mini bus. So driving around for a while, we still have no idea what to look for, and no mini buses in sight. How can it be this hard, all these publishings just list these simple, general instructions. But I think the words "be careful" was still dug into the back of our minds. We gave up on the bus, time to take a taxi, but we only knew of the Beijing taxi cabs, which were blue or green, and had a distinctive look. We could not find any around, but we thought, hey maybe the hospital would have some. There should be taxis line up there. As we walked towards the hospital we get many other solicitors in gray vans to drive us to "Mutianyu." We kept walking, and there was this particular guy, (I'll call him Chuck), who started following us, and he was saying 60, then 50, then 40. We completely ignore Chuck, we didn't even say no. Just kept walking away looking for the hospital. There were none. Being distraught, we got lucky, finally found 1 Beijing taxi driving our way, and as we approached the driver, I point to Mutianyu on the map and he shook his head no, and just drove off. Damn it! That was supposed to be our savior. We were about to just give up, and take the bus back to Beijing. Again Chuck followed us around. As we reached the bus stop and people started to exit, we had found our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It wasn't quite gold, but her hair was. This young blonde lady walks around, and Chuck, among others, start soliciting her, and she could actually communicate back with them. We walk up to her asking for her help, and she says, well Chuck is offering to drive you for 40, and she pulls out her travel book and we conversed.
Pot of gold: "40 is a good deal, the travel book expects it to be around 50."
Idiots: "Yeah, but is it safe? can we trust them?"
Pot of gold: "Sure, I use them all the time"

After that reassuring tip, we take Chuck up on the offer, and after 3 hours of stumbling around, we get our chance to go to Mutianyu. I look at Dan and tell him, "Man, we are such pussies. Here is this girl going alone all by herself with no problems or fears, and here we are just standing around not knowing what to do, in fear we would probably lose our organs." Dan was not scared though, he had his GPS on him and told me,
"It's ok, if the driver does not take us on the correct path, we can jump out of the car."
On the drive up, I noticed a bunch of gray vans on the streets, and parking lots full of them. And then after thinking about it, only the drivers of the gray vans really solicited us about driving to Mutianyu. I started to wonder what the heck a "mini bus" was in the first place. It dawned on me that those gray vans ARE the mini buses. Whatever, it makes for another good story to tell. As we get to Mutianyu, Chuck parks his car, and walks us all the way to the entrance. He then tried to tell us that he will be waiting for us. Wow, that would be good, I thought the least thing we could do was to tell him what time we would be done.
Before entering the wall, we go out to the street vendors to buy some water. The vendor asked for 10 yuan. But it only cost 1 at our local market. So we ended up bargaining with the vendor, and threatened to walk away and we end up geting 4 half frozen bottles for 6 yuan. As we gulp down our ice cold water, other tourist buying water paid the full 10 yuan. Aye, no wonder why they raise the prices, tourist will still pay. I can't ever help but feel like I'm getting ripped off in China.
So we finally get to take the ski lift up to the wall, and it was a beautiful clear day. The wall was empty of visitors, and you could freely walk the amazing wall beyond the eye could see. After a few hours of trekking on the wall, the best part was to go down the mountain, as it featured a toboggan slide down, which you had the ability to control the speed. It was soooo fun, and we probably should have gone back up the lift just to go back down. There was staff along the toboggan ride often reminding us to slow down. The rowdy boys in front of us even crashed into each other.
As we completed the wall, as promised, Chuck was waiting for us at the bottom, ready to take us back. To think we actually were ignoring him the whole time, when he's really probably just trying to feed his family. We compensated him nicely for sticking around, and he was quite grateful. I think we had enough excitement for the day, but we did have a spicy hotpot for dinner, and that probably finished Dan off for the night.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Beijing & Crazy Rickshaw

Date: Sunday, July 19
Vu, Dan, Kim
Travel: Subway; Taxi
Lodging: Dorm
Photos: 20090719BeijingHeaven_JingShan_HoHai
That morning, Dan and I had ventured out by ourselves as the rest of the group had already seen where we have been. We started out with the Temple of Heaven. It was cloudier that day, but it was still humid out. After visiting this temple, we realized that most of the temples decoration through out Beijing would likely be decorated the same. This temple is unique for it being round. After spending the morning walking the entire park, we decided to walk to a nearby park, one which would not be as crowded, and would be more serene. It was a small park which we thought was Longtan, but its actually next to it. It was a pretty little place. On our way back, we decided to just take taxis's instead, as the subways had gotten way too crowded. Depending on the times, it got more crowded than we ever saw in Japan. We actually had to use Dan to part the sea of people. You really had to push people just to get off the train. Anyways, we visited Jingshan Park, where we get to climb up to a tower overlooking the complete forbidden city. It would have been great if we did it the day before, as the visibility was not that great. As we make our way down, we get a little flavor of the Chinese in the park. We get to see them have fun, dancing and singing. It's nice to see them use these parks and actually smile some.

After leaving the park, we tried to flag down this 1 taxi driver, but I think he was on break and didn't want our money. But as we were turned away, a tricycle rider (kind of like a rickshaw but with a biker) stopped in front of us and was able to solicit a ride from us. He seemed really nice at first, and we asked to be taken to the nearest train. We asked how much and he said only 3 yuan. Sounds good, so we get on, and then he says, oh its 3 per minute. Hmmmm, ok whatever, this should be a fun ride. But then he starts making a U-turn in the middle of the road with traffic coming back and forth. He was running red lights, and then he started taking us in a different path. I was like, no the train is to the left, but he wanted to take the scenic route and go the long way, and we threatened to get off. Instead he quickly turns around, and I mean quickly as traffic was still moving around us. All of a sudden, there are cars driving towards us, and we are in between cars and buses. An SUV almost ran us over. I think Dan was scared for his life, I was pretty amused. After we get on a straight away, we asked to get off, as the ride was taking a bit too long. A taxi fare would have only costed us around 15 yuan at most which would take us home, but this tricycle ride was hitting 10 minutes. So the driver said, ok 240.... We were like, 240?? are you kidding me, it was only 10 minutes. Thats only 30. And he points to each of us, "no no, 30 minutes, 30 minutes," implying that each of us owe him for 30 minutes. " was only 10 minutes.. 3 per minute, 30!" Then he starts yelling at us, "NO, 120, 120 each!" "How do you even figure 120? Even it was 30 minutes, its 90, 90." "I WORK SO HARD!" (you have to do the accent and imagine him wiping the sweat off his head. We were like, no, look the most we'll give you is 60, 30 for the 2 of us. And that is more than generous considering a taxi would have only been a quarter of the price, so hes making out like a bandit. Nevertheless, he starts making a scene, and over and over he keeps saying "I WORK SO HARD." I was thinking a police officer would come by since he's making such a ruckus. He eventually just turns around and rides away, spitting like every other local does.

For the more uneventful evening, we enjoyed the lakes at Ho Hai, which is a nice hangout spot with a ton of restaurants around.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Beijing sites & scorpions

Date: Saturday, July 18
Vu, Dan T, Kim L, Kim's classmates
: Bus;
Lodging: Dorm
Photos: 20090718BeijingSummerPalace_ForbiddenCity_Tienanmen
Outside our dorm, there is a local convenient mart, a small eatery, and a pancake like shop where we can enjoy a very cheap meal and supplies. These places were the basis of our future bargaining decisions, because here, we have to bargain about everything.
Kim was scheduled to tour with her class, and Dan and I were lucky enough to hop on the same van, so we didn't have to worry about transport, but of course, we had to pay for our own entrance fee, which at times were an adventure itself. The first stop was the summer palace. There are rails to help form a line outside the ticket booth, but it did not seem to really matter. Dan was standing in front of the line, but then there were 4 others from his side and behind who tried to sneak the money past him, and the teller accepted it. We just dazed at each other and was like wtf... but even that gave the 4 others around us to sneak their admission fees past us. You just have to slap others around and squeeze your way through, thats just the way.
Dan and I bought the full admission, allowing us to travel all parts of the palace, meaning we get to exert more sweat climbing more stairs and exploring more paths. It was only mid morning, but it was already starting be unbearable.
The palace was huge, and we ended going up to multiple towers. Ice cream never had tasted so good. After exploring around the big lake with the millions of Lotus plants in bloom, the van takes us to the forbidden city. Forbidden my ass, it was incredibly crowded. That's what you get for going on a Saturday in the summer. Many of the places were just packed, and walkways were elbow to elbow. We didn't really get a good chance to explore around much and enjoy what the Forbidden city had to offer.
Crossing the street, we get to walk through Tienanmen Square, where we eventually had to crawl through a bunch of vendors selling Mao memorabilia. I was thinking what a scene it would cause if you bought a Mao keychain, threw it down on Tienanmen Square, and stepped on it. It would probably not be a good idea, especially after the recent riots in Urumqi. Due to those events, logging on to facebook (and apparently twitter) were blocked.
With no real point on hanging around the internet, we made our way that evening to Wangfujing market, where you can find exotic creatures ready to be eaten. Starfish, scorpions, beetles, sea horses, and probably some others weird things. They just hang on a skewer and the worst part was that you can actually see the scorpion legs move!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sayanora Japan, Ni Hao China

Date: Friday July 17
Travel: Flight: Oita to Haneda; Subway to Narita; Flight to Beijing; Taxi
Stay : Dorm
Early in the morning, I make my bitter goodbyes with my cousin, and start on my next journey. Taking the bus back, I actually get to the airport 4 or 5 hours prior to my flight and get to witness another bit of excellent Japanese service. I learned that there is a an earlier JAL flight, so I walk up to the counter and request to be put on the earlier flight. The first attendant couldn't speak English well, so she promptly grabbed her coworker who could. Being that I actually used American Airlines (AA) reservation and miles to book, JAL could not actually modify the reservation, but instead of just saying that I was SOL, she asked me to just sit in the lounge a bit, while the representative did all the legwork in finding the AA reservation desk and trying to change the reservation for me. Eventually she got me on the phone with an AA representative , I just had to verify some security information and acknowledge that I wanted to change my reservation. The whole process actually took almost 20 minutes and was a bit more painful then I described, but she did all the work for me (and with a smile), and right before I left, I had asked for her name, so that I could provide feedback to JAL. She started to blush and her coworkers were like looking at her, as if I had asked for her phone number or something. I guess this type of service is just expected here.
After boarding the airplane, I find another gesture of hospitality. I looked outside my window and I see a grounds crew made of 3 people, 2 standing on the ground with the traffic signals and 1 guy in the luggage cart driving in the opposite direction of us. As our plane was being backed out of the terminal gate, the crew completely stopped what they were doing (even the guy, and started to wave there hands, in complete unison in a slow robotic fashion. Even the guy who was driving had turned around inside his cart to perform this choreography. And it's quite amusing to see, because they all have these big bright yellow hats and gloves, and they looked like little robotic dolls. I look around inside the cabin to see if anybody even notices or cares, but that's just crazy attention to detail that SOMEBODY had to instruct the crew, because this is definitely not a natural gesture by grounds worker. I'm starting to wonder if you get whipped or something for not pleasing the customer.
After spending my extra little time shopping around Tokyo, I return to the airport. Then, there was another deed of good service I get to awe in. There is a program if you use the Narita Express that you get a ticket ride to Tokyo, plus 1000 Yen of usable transit credit on the a card. You could save that card for a souvenir, or return it at the office at the airport for a 500 yen refund. I decided to do the latter. As I returned the card, the representative didn't have the 500 yen at her desk, she actually ran to the back office. And I mean running, like a full on sprint. In the time it would take some folks to open a cash register in front of them and count the change, I got my 500 yen even quicker. There was only 1 person behind me, and I wasn't in a rush, so I was quite surprised. There seems to be pride in being efficient and being productive (something I should be doing right now), no matter what job it seems to be.
Inside the airport, I finally get to find the one thing I was looking forward to most, mochi ice cream. There was so many different flavors, and I just don't understand why it's so hard for me to find. Inside Narita airport, I get the benefits of enjoying the lounge, and wow it was nice. There was a lot of options of drinks and food, and fresh to order types of cuisine as well. I was very impressed.
I say sayonara to Japan, and ni hao to China. And what a shift from day to night, metaphorically, over a 2 hour flight. I go from such a wonderful service experience of Japan to, well..China. It was slightly past the height of H1N1 swine flu outbreak, and there was a scare of being quarantined for 7 days. So if you showed any signs of illness, you would be held for 7 days inside a hospital, (or a pit) with lack of proper care. As soon as we landed and parked, a representative from the airport walked into the airplane to verify no one had visible signs of illness. Then everybody else piles through the medical inspection like a bunch of chickens about to get their heads chopped off. There was no lines really, you just kind of poked through the crowd to walk through a body heat scanner. There also seems to be a handy device which scans your head for temperature, so not everyone has to slobber over the same thermometer. I started noticing that the workers here don't smile. Perhaps some would, but half of them at the airport were wearing masks. Besides all of that, the international terminal was beautifully architect-ed.
It was difficult to find help, and of course, nobody speaks english, at least not very well. I got a taxi driver who was fairly thick compared to what I was seeing further east. I tended to notice that through out the trip that people in China were a bit heftier then the folks in Japan. Anyways, as I tried communicating with the taxi driver, I thought he was barking at me, but that's just the tone and how people talk here. He knew the general location of the school I was staying at, which is where I would be meeting Kim and Dan. Once we got in the area it was a bit dark with gates locked everywhere. I thought he was going to dump me off in the area, but he was seem to keep questioning and pointing whether this was the place. I had no idea what to look for, so I showed him the address again and phone number. He signaled to me if I could call them, but I didn't have a phone that worked nor had any idea what to say. He ended up using his own cell phone and called the number, and after circling the blocks a few times, he parked in front of the location, walked out of the car and asked somebody if this was the place. I was quite appreciative of what he did, since he didn't look friendly, didn't smile and sounded like he was yelling at me. He could have just dumped me outside the street, but he knew I probably would have been lost or shot (maybe caned). Of course he was smiling after payment and a nice tip. After getting inside the dorm, I was again checked for my body temperature. What if I had a temperature, they would just reject me? I probably should have stayed at a hotel...but thats just not as fun sometimes. I mean, if I stayed at the hotel, I couldn't tell people that I thought the room had a thousand holes on the wall, only to find out on closer inspection that it was actually mosquito splats on the wall. Nor could I tell someone that you are not supposed to flush toilet paper down the potty, you are supposed to put it in the waste basket.
Welcome to China.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Hell in Beppu

Date: Wednesday & Thursday, July 14-15
Vu, Linda Le
Travel: Bus;
Stay: Linda's House
Photos: 2009071415Beppu
In the morning, I follow my cousin to her APU campus. On the bus ride up I notice steam coming out of the ground and some of the homes, and I could not wait for the tour later on. It was an absolutely sunny morning and very humid. The campus was beautifully etched into the mountain, with a nice view of the town and sea below. I got to spend the morning in economics class, where I was a bit surprised it was taught in English. I thought I was supposed to be in Japan!
After venturing around the campus, I rest inside a cafe, where I end up hearing a sound as if the windows was being power washed. I look outside and I can see the students fighting against the wind. It was a typhoon, and the rain was coming down so hard. I could have sworn it was just sunny like 15 minutes before.
After waiting the rain out, my cousin was finished for the day and we get to make our way to our first Jigoku (a hell!). It's just a water spring. The first was the Honbouzu Jigoku, which is the mud hell. Here you can see natural pot like structures with what looks like boiling mud. The warm steam underneath the mud causes air pockets underneath to rise to the surface. There was an all-Jigoku pass which you could use to see all the Jigoku's, but we only decided to visit the top few. The next Jigoku on the list, was Umi Jigoku, which means Sea hell, due to its bright blue colors. This particular place you can smell the sulfur in the air. Over the steaming part of the Jigoku, you can see that there are some chicken eggs being "soft-boiled" inside the warm waters. It was quite tasty. This particular Jigoku was nicely landscaped and developed, with a water garden, and even another spring in red clay. The final Jigoku for the day was the Shiraike Jigoku, which is supposed to mean white or milk hell, because of the white color of the spring. While we were in the area, we just happened to "run into" a hihokan, which is a sex museum. It wasn't really a coincidence that we stumbled upon it in our paths, I read about it somewhere and was like, what?? only in Japan (or probably many other asian countries). We didn't spend much time to realize it was going to be a throwaway of 700 or so Yen, but what's sort of interesting is that there was still some sort of censorship, albeit a very weak one. There was also a disturbing exhibit involving Snow White and the seven dwarfs. Come on now...Snow White is a family character.

The Next day
After another morning spent at the APU campus, we headed out to our final Jigoku stop, the Chinoike Jigoku, which is the blood hell. This is basically just a large red clay pool of hot warm water, surrounded by tall towering trees. It was quite a peaceful scene and worth the time to take it all in. We went home for an afternoon break, since my cousin spent the previous night up finishing her paper, and slept on the floor
(she would not let me sleep on the ground but only on the bed..still, I'm such a jerk).

We get to release some of our own steam that evening at Takegawa Onsen, which is known in the area for its traditional look, and the sand treatment. The bath itself was not all that great, as it was a pretty small room, but being buried in the sand was quite an experience. It was very warm, and you could feel all the moisture leaving the body. It was a tough 10 minutes but after wards it felt soooo refreshing. I even bought a small souvenir towel, which I find so amazing because the tiny thin towels were used commonly in my cousins house. It didn't look like it could dry much but it was extremely efficient, and probably very easy to clean. I have always been used to thick, bulky towels. Now I can see another aspect of my lifestyle as inefficient and wasteful.
For dinner, we went out for champon ( I remember this from their little english slogan "we are the champon") and my favorite, ice cream.