Friday, August 22, 2008

Hong Kong, Our Style

Mui Wo, Lantau Island: beaches, laid back atmosphere, small villages and a hotel with a pool. Who needs the real Hong Kong? We certainly didn't for the three days before starting a 5 day Wilderness Medicine course. We pulled Steve out of retirement to teach 9 students (representing 6 nationalities) who work for an outdoor education program based in Hong Kong. They got some of his jokes. Our 5 days at a YWCA facility was plagued by unbelievably loud groups. Some were school kids who ran around screaming. Some were college freshman here for leadership training ROTC style. They shouted, marched, chanted, and sang their school anthem endlessly. Li spent her days with a friend of the course sponsor. She got to central Hong Kong for a day at Ocean World while we dodged the zealous students. We got to end our course with a typhoon, so named Nuri. Though the rest of Hong Kong got a typhoon day and had no school, by the time we got up for breakfast all the transportation services were shut down for the day thus trapping our students here. So we finished the course and watched some big rain squalls and winds gusts, though nothing stronger than what comes down the valley towards our house in Lander. At dinner time we had the eerie experience of being in the eye of the typhoon and feeling the calm. Some of our students were able to make it home, others were trapped here for the night. Now the wind and rain have picked up again, but we hope the storm has moved inland tomorrow in time for our noon flight to Chicago.

So after 12 months this MAY be our last night in China...

Friday, August 15, 2008

16 Years Ago...

we were 16 years younger and getting married. For my 40th birthday last year Steve gave me a year's trip to China, for his 40th this year I gave him a month in Japan, so for our anniversary we settled for dinner at a small seaside village restaurant in Hong Kong with fresh seafood, cold beer, friendly cats and US versus China in volleyball on TV. So far so good.

Olympic Observations

Before listing the quirks we discovered it should be said that we were excited to be at the Olympics and had a great time watching sports we knew nothing about-quickly becoming expert commentators. We attended men's and women's gymnastics, fencing, wrestling, table tennis, beach volleyball, judo and water polo. The venues were well done with plentiful squatty potties and a surplus of volunteers. Visitors were well behaved and supportive of all the athletes with a bias towards extra "jiayo's" for the Chinese athletes. We learned water polo is a vicious sport, wrestling wins or losses can literally be determined by a random draw, and beach volleyball feels like a frat party.

We were, however, glad to get out of Beijing. Besides it being a big, hot, noisy city, there was a sense of tension that was discomforting. Perhaps it was the ever present police and armed troops or the endless security checks. Even more concerning was the inconsistency of these security checks at different venues.

We were also glad that we are healthy, heat tolerant and good walkers. We spent at least 2 hours each day on crowded buses or subways simply getting to the outskirts of the venues. From there add another one or two hours walking to or between venues and standing in security lines. We were frustrated at maps that showed a key subway station which was in fact closed and the lack of easy transportation between venues. Having spent a year in China we recognize that improvements that were no doubt made to the city transportation system, but felt that many people likely defaulted to taxis given the challenges of negotiating the public system even though all buses and subways were free if you held event tickets on that day.

Our biggest frustration was the food. The Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG) did well by their sponsors including McDonalds and Coca-cola. Outside food and drink were banned from any venue. Once inside the Olympic Green your only food choices were McDonalds (two of them, spaced widely apart) and snack stands featuring Coke, water, OJ, Fanta Orange soda, popcorn, chips, Snickers bars and a sugared fruit cup. If you spent 6 or 7 hours a day on the Green as we often did, food stress was a reality. The areas around the Olympic green were emptied for security reasons so leaving the area for food was not an easy or close option. The contrast between the health and fitness of the athletes and the horrid food choices available to spectators was laughable.

Overall though, our 5 days were memorable and successful. And now we can enjoy the close up action on TV with the rest of the world!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Qingdao Beaches-Lessons Learned

The City of Qingdao is situated on the east coast of China. A former German enclave it is full of European architecture and food, mixed with modern Chinese zaniness. We have spent our week exploring various beaches. Here is what we have learned.

1. When facing the upcoming international spotlight, hosting the sailing/windsurfing portion of the Olympics and dealing with the largest algae bloom in history use your greatest resource-human labor. Qingdao has dealt with this potentially fatal blow to the sailing races, a sea thick with algae soup, by using thousands of people to clean the sea by hand. In addition to people walking the beach bagging algae, most of the beaches have tractors scooping the stuff into piles for easy removal. The battle wages with increased ferocity every time the tide comes in. Of course according to the government, the sea is cleaner than it has ever been (it doesn't look bad). And in the words of the young Olympic volunteers, "Don't believe the advertising, there is no problem." In other words, don't believe the western media. I have to say though the sea weed wrapping around your legs while playing in the surf is unnerving.

2. Beach number 1-no umbrellas or tents, no digging or drawing in the sand, no changing or urinating on the beach. Swim in the shark proof net. The bans against litter and smoking went unheeded.

3. Beach number 3, apparently all of the above are fine, but move when the tractor comes to scoop up seaweed or your stuff will be plowed up.

4. Shilaoren beach. If you wish to change in the VIP changing rooms, 50Y ($8). We didn't even price the regular changing rooms or the changing tents because it was too crowded. We're pretty good at changing under clothes on the beach. Given the number of men walking around in see through underwear we figured that was a minor infraction. 2Y to wash your feet in fresh water. 1Y to use the toilet. You could pay someone to hold your stuff. Who knows how much to park your car on the street, but when there's not enough room to park parallel to the curb, simply pull straight in over the curb. The bottom line is this, if you can charge money for it, someone will.

5. When taking Bus number 304 to get out of town be prepared to be sardined into a non-air conditioned bus, completely overloaded with hot sweaty people, and hope you don't have to shove your way out to get off. Even the cops shake their heads, but do nothing. All this luxury for fifty cents.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sayonara Japan

The countdown begins...

We spent a day in Hiroshima visiting the Peace Park, the Atomic Dome and the National Peace Museum. It was all quite impactful as you might expect, though you wouldn't otherwise know the city's history as it is quite a modern metropolis. Li asked good questions, but after a few hours she asked whether we could change the subject to something else. Fair enough.

The port city of Shimonoseki was our last stop in Japan. We spent a pleasant day strolling the aquarium learning about Blowfish from around the world. Poisonous blowfish, locally known as Fugu, are the regional delicacy. Apparently only 30% of the chefs who attend the 3 year training course to prepare the blowfish safely actually pass. The take home message is clearly not to buy any "cheap" blowfish.

Tomorrow we board our 27 hour ferry bound for Qingdao, China-goodbye civilization, hello chaos.

P.S. Japan Rail Passes Rock!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Temples versus Air Conditioning

Some days it’s a draw, but honestly some days the air conditioning wins! The last week we’ve been heading south through Japan into Temple central. Between Takayama, Kyoto and Nara, there have been plenty. Our favorite was the large Todaiji Temple in Nara-the largest wooden structure in the world (though apparently only 2/3 its original size). We elected this as our favorite because of the enormous bronze Buddha that sits in the center. In addition to periodic destruction by fire, this temple has suffered indignities during earthquakes when the giant Buddha’s head has fallen off of the statue. We can only hope the monks weren’t actively praying underneath. Though Li had already obtained enlightenment in Nagano, we thought she should have a back-up plan, so she went for the “squeeze”. This hollow in large structural post provides enlightenment for those that can fit, which is apparently exactly the size of the Buddha’s nostril. Steve made it too, much to the amusement of the on looking crowd.

In Kyoto we did some geisha spotting (3 by our count, though we think two were fakes) and strolled the back alleys of old Kyoto. Our geocaching efforts brought us to an area of town full of “men’s clubs”. It was also our most expensive geocache ever since Li found the Yukata (lightweight summer kimono) of her dreams at a nearby Kimono store. She insisted on wearing her Yukata the next day to the monthly flea market where one could find endless treasures. We were amused how many pictures tourists took of her (never knowing that was our Chinese-Wyoming daughter dressed in Japanese clothes).

Yesterday we wandered around Nara-the former Japanese capitol. Nara is famous for temples (surprise) and deer. The deer have been treated as sacred for 1200 years. As a result they are lounging everywhere and tourists take many pictures and try to pet them. The vendors sell deer biscuits. Li insisted she deserved to feed the deer after being dragged through the temples and parks. After warning her the deer might be a little aggressive, she insisted. She was nearly stampeded by the deer that continuously bit me in the butt trying to get at the biscuits. The whole event took less than 60 seconds!

Today we head south to Hiroshima to see how much history we are ready to digest.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Eating Our Way South

Our last night in Tokyo was also one of our favorite meals. The proprietor of our ryokan sent us to a small okonomiyaki restaurant (basically a bowl of ingredients you mix in an egg batter and grill at your table) making what we call "Japanese pancakes". Having done this twice before we considered ourselves somewhat expert. That is until we entered the 4 table restaurant with a hand written Japanese menu and a waitress who spoke no English. Luckily the family at the next table help us muddle through the menu and order the house specialty. As we drank draft beer to cool ourselves down the chef came over and helped us with our grilling. We were apparently fairly inept and needed continuous instruction. The chef helped himself to quite a few glasses of the house draft beer as well-so we were all in a good mood and well fed by the end.

After leaving Tokyo we went to stay with a fellow Lijiang teacher at her home near Hakone. Our conversations were a mix of English, Japanese, Chinese and French. Somehow we avoided making any crucial language mistakes-or so we think. Our first night at her house she pulled out a portable table grill and proceeded to cook us huge amounts of vegetables and meat. One piece of advice-mushroom-phobes should not come to Japan. It was all excellent, though the pig intestines were a bit "chewy". Her house lacks air conditioning so we spent our time there sweating, heading to the onsen, and sweating again as soon as we were done. During the days we went to Hakone to explore. Hakone is well set up as a tourist destination-we thought of it as the Amazing Race Part 2 (Part 1 having been the Chinese Consulate in Tokyo). In one day we were on trains, a bus, a ship, a gondola, a cable car, a narrow gauge railway and of course our feet. The food of the day was the bratwurst house Steve and Li discovered. For our last night with our friend we attended a neighborhood summer festival and drank sake with shaved ice and edamame. Steve charmed the old men (who invited him to stay and play golf) while Li admired the girls in their bright Yukatas.

The last two days we have been in Takayama. The dark brown wood buildings are strikingly reminiscent of the Berkeley hills. We opted for a local restaurant tonight and chose the recommended specialty. Small cooking braziers were placed on our table. Mine was topped by a large magnolia leaf heaped with small pieces of Hida Beef, onions, mushrooms and the local miso bean paste. I was instructed to mix and grill. Which I did. Then I ate and enjoyed! Except for the price, I could easily repeat the meal. Li's required similar cooking with help from her Dad. Desert consisted of local peaches and plums. You gotta love summer. Tomorrow we go to Kyoto-temples here we come!