Saturday, June 30, 2007

Guilin and karsts

Is it possible to have 94% humidity and not be raining? In Guilin, it is. One of the warmest days of the year, so far, we are told. I am beginning to realize that finding the hotels and destination cities was straightforward, finding a way to get to the sights can be challenging. I have signed us up for the bus ride to the pier, where we will board a boat on a day cruise along the Li River.

It turns out the bus ride includes a local tour guide, trouble is, she only speaks Chinese. My translation capabilities......leaves a bit to be desired. Between my vocabulary and assistance from Robert, Jen, and Julia, we manage to figure out instructions and some basic introductory information, but have virtually no idea what she is rambling on about. Funny how language you don't understand sounds like squawking. We're taken on a traditional "gift shop" visit and encouraged to buy pearls. It is a busload of Chinese from various regions of the country. Our Li River boat has 2 seating levels and an upper deck. The view is spectacular from the top, but the air is also hot and muggy. Inside the air conditioned cabin, groups of Chinese people eat, drink tea, chit chat and sleep. About 20 minutes into the ride, the scenery changes and we see magnificent karst formations of many shapes and sizes. Boats pass on the river and we are served a simple lunch of rice, vegetables and a hot dog! I take way too many photos. Our day tour continues to a Buddhist temple of unknown name and history, to a huge banyan tree, and lastly, a ride on a bamboo raft. We float along, with the young girl encouraging us to sing folk songs with her. The small area on the river is full of tourist boats, and the banks are piled high with bamboo rafts. Part of this "tourist experience" is watching an elderly man with his 4 cormorants, whose necks are tied with a small string. They repeatedly dive into the water, coming up with a fish in their mouth. The man removes the fish, tosses it back in the river, and encourages his birds to go back in. We watch this process over and over.

I discover that Guilin sees too many tourists, and each and every person tries to make a buck off of you. We walk into the lobby after breakfast and are quite simply stalked by the wife of our taxi driver from the day before. She is determined to take us on a tour today and sits in the lobby, waiting for us to come back down. Her price is right, however, and I agree to have her take us to Longsheng, the terraced rice paddies that are so often photographed. It is a 2 hour ride to this area, and we debate for a long time whether we want to attempt this trip, or to spend our time walking around the city of Guilin. We decide to go. About an hour in to the drive, the skies turn gray, it begins to sprinkle, then the skies open up to torrential rains. Meanwhile, our driver is causing me to have hysterics in the front seat, as she passes truck after truck on the 2 lane winding road. The technique here is to honk, drive for as long as you need to in the oncoming lane and hope that no one is coming! In addition, they are reluctant to use headlights because they are "saving power", and this driver has her own ideas about how to, or how not to adjust the temperature inside the car. Temperature control, in her mind is AC on or AC off. I am ready to turn around and head back, after all, the skies are gray and as we climb higher up the mountain, we are shrouded in fog. I am not sure what we will see from the top, and walking around the area in the pouring rain does not sound like fun. From the window, I can see some small terraces, which don't look too impressive. Everyone else though, thinks we should take the chance and go up. I think it will be a waste of time.

After a nervewrecking 2 hour ride, we reach the parking lot of this scenic area. I could not believe my eyes- the clouds miraculously break up to reveal blue skies, the misty clouds float by and the air is crystal clear. The fields below are a bright jade green in the emerging sunlight. The contours of the terraced fields form unusual shapes and designs. It is a scene I cannot describe in words. The terraces rise thousands of feet in elevation and run for acres and acres. Rice plants are emerging from the murky waters and farmers with big straw hats tend the fields, some of which are only a couple of feet in depth. Paths run up and down the mountain and also crisscross the fields. We walk for hours, in awe as the sunlight reflects on the rice paddies, creating a rainbow of colors. We stroll through the small mountain village where women come up to us asking if we would like to see them comb their hair. In this minority group, women only cut their hair once in their lifetime, and their hair is longer than they are tall. They roll and wrap their long hair under a colorful turban. It is said that their glistening black hair is washed in water that has been used to wash rice. The small mountain village sits on a cliffside with a creek running through it. Wooden houses are constructed on stilts. Men carry loads on bamboo poles balanced on their shoulders. We feel very much like we have been transported back in time. In this remote and somewhat isolated village,
life is simple. The nearest town can only be reached by walking, yet these residents have seen tourists from all over the world who come to get a glimpse of their rice paddies. How fortunate we were to have been able to experience it.

Our driver takes us back to town and drops us off at a restaurant that she recommended. In all the years of travels, this was one time I felt really scammed, and didn't realize it until much later. We sat down to order and decided on a few dishes that seemed pretty simple. The waiter tells us that one of us must go with him to pick out the fish and the duck; obviously that was me. The little room off of the front door had some fish tanks and cages. He told me the prices of the fish ranging from $12-$30/kg and tried to get me to take the dead fish, telling me that type of fish normally swims upside down like that! I picked one of the cheapest ones, and then it was time to pick a duck. I told him to take a smaller one, so he grabs one, weights it and takes it to its death chamber. At this point, I am not eager to eat any duck that I have selected to end its life! After I go back to our table, it occurs to me that they probably take the animals back to their tank and cages. The duck they bring out is mostly bones. Both dishes turn out to be outrageously expensive.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Bell Ringing

There’s nothing like a bell ringing week to start a vacation. Obtaining grants feels to me a bit like winning a gambling bet, not that I have done much gambling beyond quarter slot machines, but I imagine that winning at the races or even super lotto gives one the same kind of “high”. The week started with $60,000 on Monday, ending with a total of $135,500 for the month, not a bad way to walk out the door for a 2 week break!

We’ve been planning this trip for many months and I can’t believe that we leave tomorrow. The weather site forecasts rain for the next 2 weeks in every city we will be visiting. I have told everyone to bring water shoes, water repellent clothing, umbrellas and rain jackets. Lovely… at least we will all be together, lots of bonding, though with that kind of weather, we may be totally fed up with each other by the end of the 2 weeks. I can just imagine us trudging through mud and
wetness on Chinese trails and river cruises. Not only that - it will be extremely humid and warm, as the western region of China, Yunnan Province is somewhat tropical. Fortunately, clothing for hot weather doesn’t take up much room, and my suitcase is half empty. I make up the space by throwing in my hiking boots.

There’s an excitement in the air. Julia’s mom takes us to the Caltrain station bright and early, sending us off with lots of hugs and kisses, and we arrive at SFO with plenty of time to spare. Ray has gotten some of us access to the Red Carpet Club and was able to upgrade the two of us to business class. We agree that one could easily get used to traveling this way, free cookies and all, and spent considerable time calculating how many trips he needs in order to take to retain his 1K status this year.

The liquid and gel in zip loc bags seems to be a constantly changing source of confusion for everyone. Does anyone actually remember what the mnemonic 3+1+1 actually stands for? Is a 120ml bottle actually a greater threat than a 100ml bottle? Who came up with these numbers anyway? So now, shoes are ok, bottles are not. I set off the metal detector and the only thing metallic on me are in my teeth!

The flight is uneventful and as we enter the jetway in Hong Kong, the heavy air hits us like a wall. The new airport is off on Lantau Island, quite a distance from Hong Kong proper. No longer do planes fly in to Kai Tok, between apartment buildings with a clear view of people’s television sets through their living room windows. We ride the tram, the express train, and finally a taxi to get to our hotel in what seems like a very long time. Sleep is the order of the day and I am grateful it is night time.

Hong Kong island is even more beautiful than I remember from our last visit 30 years ago. The sky is clear and blue, and the harbor sparkles. We walk through Hong Kong park and ride the Peak Tram to the top for a wonderful view of the city and outlying islands. This city certainly has glamour and I am in awe of its architecture. Much of the building is close to the harbor area and the backside of the island is pretty much undeveloped. Kowloon, across the harbor extends north up to the border of China. New Territories on the norther edge used to be wilderness but now is contiguous with the rest of Kowloon. Upon the recommendation of a local acquaintance, we find Maxim’s for dimsum. We savor every morsel and try plates we have never seen before. Good food, a view of the harbor, and togetherness, leaves me feeling very, very content, totally blessed, and not wishing for anything more.

We decide to make a trek to Lantau Island in order to see a large sitting bronze Buddha on the mountaintop. First, my favorite of rides, a ferry trip across the harbor, which brings back vivid memories from childhood. I venture down to the empty lower deck and let the breeze blow through my hair while I watch the waves swirl around the side of the boat. The ride was sure short-Ray says the harbor is shrinking from all the development that has taken place on landfill. The heavy gangplank gets lowered and we follow the mass of people up the ramp and exit toward a very old bus station. We are a bit puzzled but finally find the right bus to the middle of the island. Before we go off, I check on the time for the last bus, which is 7:30. We wander up to the park and find out.....What….. the road to Buddha is closed? Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the return of HK to China? There was a large public event planned that evening and we were out of luck. We decide to take a short walk in the area and made our way back to the bus station, only to be told that the last bus left 10 min. ago and there were no more buses to the ferry! How could that be, I argued, it is only 6:30??. Well, quite simply, the manager at the station was wrong, the bus was gone, and we were stuck. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a taxi, the only remaining one, and we grab it, reluctantly agreeing to the fare. An hour later, we were aboard the ferry again.

This $2 ferry ride was worth every penny. The sky was darkening and Hong Kong’s skyline is magnificent from a boat. To the left was the newly built bridge to Lantau Island, and to the right we passed Aberdeen, the fishing village. Beyond that was the harbor and the sparkling city lights of Kowloon and Hong Kong. This has got to be the most beautiful ocean front in the world; the view was breathtaking. We ended the evening with a nice meal at Pacific Place and fell into bed.

Ray and I quite simply operate on different time zones. I never appreciate being awakened at 5:30am to the sound of running water and the rustling of objects in his suitcase; you would think by now, after 28 years, I would be used to it. By the time the rest of us get up at 8:30, Ray has already checked his email, walked around the city, and gotten coffee at McDonalds. Eager to finally start the day, he wastes no time in showing us where the bakery Maxim's is located. What a wonderful way to have breakfast-we select an assortment of cakes, breads and tarts, and take them back to the room to feast on. Forget the diet, I tell myself and it doesn't take much convincing. We head over to the Star Ferry and across to Kowloon, spending the morning
at the Museum of History learning about Hong Kong's past. The girls choose to forego lunch in favor of the art museum and I accompany Ray and Robert to one of the best eel dishes I have ever had. So ends our short trip to Hong Kong.