Friday, October 31, 2014

Arrived in Mandalay

I still have more to write about Bagan, where we explored temples via bicycle for 3 days, and walked and took a horse cart on one day.  I intended to write Blog notes on the long riverboat ride to Mandalay yesterday Halloween!), but as I explain below, that is not what happened.

We were on the riverboat from 5:30am until 7 pm.  Boat was pretty shabby.  All of Myanmar is pretty shabby, except for the exquisite temples, and a lot of them are in ruins, too.

I came down with what I think must have been a mild case of food poisoning.  Fever, diarrhea, and  no appetite.  I ended up going to sleep on the boat,stretched out across 3 airplane type seats.  I think I slept in about two-hour segments from about 9:30 a.m. to 4 pm.  I just couldn't stay awake.  But there was not a lot to see between the brilliant sunrise and beautiful sunset, anyway.  Mostly wide river between sandy and muddy banks and other than passing boats, not much sign of life.  There were not many passengers on the boat, mainly tourists.

 Sunrise on the Irriwady

So, I'm hoping that with a good night sleep tonight  I'll be better tomorrow and up to exploring Mandalay.  It is very third world-looking, although we couldn't see that much in the dark.  Lots of little shops and restaurants lit up, with people eating at tables under trees.  The boat arrived 2.5 hours late, and to disembark we had to walk a plank to another boat, then across a wobbly double plank to a dirt bank, and up carved dirt steps, all in the dark with the help of flashlights. Rather chaotic!

This hotel is apparently in the middle of downtown, but it doesn't look like we are in a city at all. No stop lights or stop signs.

Next morning.  I stopped writing and have just slept for another 10 hours or so.  Still feeling a bit wrung out and tired, but eager to see what this place looks like in daylight.  Right now from the window I see more buildings and a rooftop garden completely surrounded by razor wire, which I think says something about life here.  I can see a church steeple, but no pagodas or temples, although we saw many lit up as the boat came in last night.  What an adventure!

Whoever wrote the song about Mandalay must never have been here.  No bay, just the muddy river, and China is a couple of hundred miles across the mountains.

More later!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Yangon,Yangon, Day 2

Yangon was hot, dirty, decaying, and full of surprises.

On Sunday morning we set out to walk to the large golden temple, Shwedagon, but on the way we came to Trinity Catholic Church where mass in English was about to begin.  I couldn't pass it up.  It was the feast of Christ the King, which had been celebrated in Albuquerque some weeks before. We were warmly welcomed by greeters who ushered us in. The hymns, mostly familiar from my Protestant childhood surprised me.  "All people that on earth do dwell... ," "O worship the King...," "Jesus shall reign where ere the sun," and a final rousing, "Hold the fort for I am coming!"  ( I don't know when I'd last heard that one!). During the communion I am sure I heard playing that imperialist "In Christ there is no East nor West..."
Halfway up the aisle to take communion, I realized that everyone but me was barefoot (the tradition in Buddhist and Hindu temples) so quickly took off my sandals and left them by a column to retrieve later.  As I knelt at the alter I realized that everyone else had held their host to dip in the cup (not accepted practice back home), but too late for me, so I drank from the cup, and young minister didn't hesitate at all.  Then I looked up to the side and glimpsed through arches overhead, Christmas trees in storage.  The service was well over an hour long, but with a lovely message about all of us through Christ having the power of kings, and that we should be aware of the power of our actions and words to help and bless or thoughtlessly hurt others.  Alas,I never took any photos inside the church. 

It was very warm in the church, despite open doors on two sides, and even hotter as we went out along the street to resume our trek to the temp,e.  On the way we passed a smaller temple, richly decorated with mirrors and colored glass.  There were families everywhere making offerings.  We also passed ruins of once grand houses along what must have once been a great boulevard with mosaic sidewalks, not in sad disrepair.  Watch for holes in the sidewalk, our driver had told us.  Indeed, there were some very large and deep holes.  Near the outskirts of the temple we came to the mausoleum of U Thant, Secretary-General of the U tied Nations, 1961-1971.

 On to the grand Shwedagon at last, up a long inside staircase lined with souvenir stands. I was most impressed by the alligator with large rows of teeth that formed the edging of the staircase. We emerged into the almost blinding light reflecting off white marble and countless gold pinnacles.  The stones were almost too hot to step on in our bare feet, and the green mats were only slightly cooler.

The temple was jammed with families making offerings, praying, picnicking, and even checking their email and messages.  Kent said he saw a sign at one point for free wi-fi.

 Unfortunately we didn't have water with us or think to buy some before we got into the temple, where all that was available was water from a glass jug, with a tin cup attached.  Both Kent and I ended up drinking that water from that cup. Mid-day was definitely not the time to be there!  We ended up taking a taxi back to the hotel where we had a quiet, cool lunch and a nap before heading out in the evening past more decaying buildings, shanty towns, the riverside and another crowded, magnificent golden temple.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge: Adventuring with Zhou, October 20-21, 2014

Even with Zhou's expertise, plotting our way through Tiger Leaping Gorge was not easy.
Even getting the bus tickets was a challenge, as like so many other places in China, the bus station we were heading for on foot had recently moved several kilometers farther away, and even the locals seemed unsure of its location.  It was a good thing we caught a local bus, or we would have been searching for many more hours.

Lijiang's old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but like so many other historic sites in China it has become almost totally devoted to souvenir shops, restaurants, and guest houses that have taken over the historic buildings, and the streets are tightly packed with holidaying Chinese.  As with Pingyao and Dali, the historic walled city was surrounded by a huge modern city.

However, on the road between Lijiang and Qiaotou we finally saw some small, traditional farming villages, some actual countryside, with corn fields, forests, and apple orchards, and traditional family compounds.

As Jeff Grant wrote in his reminiscences of visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge a few years ago, the road was still rough and narrow, although a super highway, which for some reason our rickety bus didn't take (maybe it couldn't go fast enough, or maybe it needed to pick up passengers on the roadside), wound nearby, often overhead.

From Jeff:  "I do  remember our trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge. We had a professional driver supplied by Yunnan Normal. He was well trained and experienced having been a driver in the military before coming to the university motor pool. Even so, I found the roads some of the scariest of my life. We were on one lane, dirt roads, hardly roads at all, with hundreds of feet straight down into the river on one side, and sheer cliffs on the other. Fortunately there was hardly any other traffic. Don't know what cars would have done had they met head on.
"I also remember the walk down the stairs to the water level in the Gorge. It must have been 12 stories or more down and back up. There were four guys carrying a chair that would take tourists down and back up for a price. We walked. At least I was thankful to get out of the car. Not sure my knees would be able to do that now."

Fortunately, we had to travel that most hair-raising part of the road one way, as we had walked high above the road on the way in.  I was glad Kent was sitting next to the window.  One man moved to the other side of the bus.  I wished I was still walking.  

The day before we had taken what is known as the high trail ( and now know why it was so named!), and we never actually made the 3 hour round-trip trek down to the bottom of the gorge that Jeff describes, since had barely more than the required three hours remaining when we arrived at Tina's Guesthouse where the trail met the road.
Our walk:

There we only a few other people on the trail--mostly young--.  We were followed by cigaret-smoking guys on horses wanting to carry me (!) since we had only our small packs, and I carried only my fanny pack.  We had left our bigger packs at the Swiss Snow guesthouse in Lijiang. I wasn't sure how long it was going to take me--it was hot and in the southwest sun. I was insulted, and thought I'd much rather be on my own two legs on this practically vertical trail, than up on top of a horse!  I can still hear those tinkling horse bells taunting me, following me like vultures waiting for me to drop as I struggled up the endless,ever steeper, ever hotter trail. You have to cross three mountains, they told us!  This was an ancient trail for horses to bring tea down from the mountains in Tibet.

Finally, Zhou paid them 20 yuan to leave us.  They were sure I wasn't going to make it, and I'm not sure that Kent thought I was going to make it, either, as he was worried about getting to a guesthouse before dark.  Despite the difficult ascent, the scenery was beautiful.  "This is paradise!" Zhou exclaimed at every new vista.  "thank you, Thank you!"

I was worried that with all the sweating I would run out of electrolytes and hit a "wall," as has happened to me before.  Every soften along the trail there would be a little shelter where someone sold drinks and trinkets.  "What I'd really like," isaid at one, "is something like Gatorade," remembering how a stranger's Gatorade helped me get those last few hundred yards up to the rim of theGrand Canyon.  "Gatorade!" The young woman said, "we have Gatorade!" And she pulled it out of an ice chest.  We three split the bottle.  How unexpected to find this in a remote corner of Chona!

The scenery was spectacular as we approached the height of the jagged peaks across the fabled river Yangtze, and I relaxed a bit without the pursuing horses.  We topped out at a promontory where a man had a little shelter and wanted 15 yuan per person to walk out on the ledge to see down into the gorge.  Kent paid for me, but I was so shaky and the wind was blowing so hard it almost took my hat, so I only went out a little way.  From that high point the trail descended steeply.  Zhou had bought a bamboo stick for me on the way up, for which I was most grateful.  All that climbing had been to get to this spot where a man wanted money so we could take a picture!  We could have cut out that whole section of the trail, had we realized how high the climb was going to be.

The steep descent was almost as hard as the ascent, but it was cooler now, with a breeze, and in the late afternoon light the views were even more beautiful.

At last we could see a village in the distance, although we had to cross a canyon to reach it. Ah, a bed, beer, dinner and showers, in a friendly spot with spectacular views.  I was so stiff that evening that I could hardly get up and down all the steep, uneven stairs throughout the Tea-Horse Trail Guesthouse.

After a good, long night's sleep, like mornings on my Caminos, I woke eager to go and without pain in the beautiful clear light of early morning. We encountered flocks of mountain goats, waterfalls, more breathtaking views, and wildflowers in the remaining 3-4 hours of walking, much of it fairly level, but with a last very steep descent before the end.  We really had walked very high.  We were glad to have our down jackets.

With the bamboo stick in the morning!

The trail crosses the middle of this waterfall!

We arrived low enough to descend to the bottom of the gorge with about 3 hors to spare before the bus was to pick us up. The estimated time to go down and back was 3 hours.  I am sure it would have taken us longer, and none of us wanted to try it.   The people who came up (young people!) looked totally wiped out.  it was not something to tackle in the heat of mid-day with a tight deadline. So, we missed out on descending to the gorge, although the entire walk was so wild and beautiful, I don't feel I missed that much.

We went by bus on that scary road through the gorge, back to Lijiang, then overnight on the train (with sleeping compartment for 3, a dining car and a bar with flashing lights) to Kunming and the comfortable if unexciting Home Inn. Unfortunately we were too tired to enjoy the bar and dining car although Zhou and I checked them out.  It was 9:30 pm when we boarded the train, and not long before we were all asleep.

End of Tiger Leaping Gorge trek.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) October 25, 2014

Yangon, Myanmar.  Saturday, 25 October 2014

Three frustrating days in Kunming without use of my iPad to connect to the Internet, and no Google, no Facebook, and no Blogger.  Here we are in Myanmar at last, and suddenly everything works again.

What a contrast to China!  There are few high-rise buildings, and even those are not very tall.  Kent says it looks more like Kunming did 22 years ago. Green fields surround the city, and the golden pagodas are the highest objects on the skyline.  Elegant old colonial buildings in advanced decay line the streets.  Naked brown boys swim in the brown river, and the men all wear long skirts.  It is hot and humid, and people move much more slowly.  Like Thailand, this is a land of smiles.  It is also very multicultural, with Muslims and Indians, and I'm not sure what others, as we have had only a few hours to wander.

The streets are crowded, especially now that the sun has gone down, and the traffic is a gridlock of buses, taxis, cars and various kinds of carts.  Getting in from the airport took close to an hour.  More English is spoken, and there are more western tourists, although we haven't yet seen any groups.   Along the street near our hotel we were surprised to find numerous bookstores with sidewalk displays, many with old books in several languages including French, German, and English.  Where have all these books come from?  (see Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma). We picked  up a Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar dated 2014 for 6000 kyat,or about 6-7 U.S. It may be a pirated edition -- I don't know -- as it would cost several times that at home.  We are finding that a book in hand, or pages torn out of a book, are much more useful than having the book on Kindle and iPad, which we don't carry with us on a day's outing.

We have had an exhausting day, leaving our hotel in Kunming at 7 this morning.  Myanmar is rather oddly 1 1/2  hours behind China. Thank goodness Zhou insisted on accompanying us to the airport as the Air China people seemed never to have seen a Myanmar visa issued by the Myanmar embassy in the U. S., so we had to go to another desk, get it photocopied, fill out some more forms, sign them, and then return to the check in counter.  We still weren't done before filing out an exiting China form.  More security, more passport checks, and we at last said good-bye to Zhou, who helped us through it all, translating for us numerous times.  A last big hug and some tears and we were on our way out of China.

There is so much more to write about China.   The hike in the mountains of Tiger Leaping Gorge was, as Zhou said, paradise, and I'll have to find time to write about that and our 3 final days in Kunming.  I also started writing some of my overall impressions of China, but there is so much more to think about!  And now Myanmar!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dali, Yunnan, October 16-18, 2014

We have had a whirlwind 3 days and faced unexpected challenges. First flying from Shanghai to Kunming:  We were the only westerners flying, and we had to go through some extra hoops and fill out a form in quadruplicate (all in Chinese, so they had to tell us line by line what was needed), of which only one part was ever taken.  But everyone was very nice.  When we arrived in Kunming at 3 p.m., there was no sign of Zhou, who had promised to meet us.  It was nearly an hour before she arrived, apologizing profusely -- she had taken a wrong bus.  As you can imagine, we had a few worries during that time. We went into the city by bus with Zhou, to a basic but clean Home Inn not far from the railway station.  To our amusement we received several cards at our door with pictures and phone numbers of pretty girls.  We didn't need to be able to read Chinese to get the message.  

Later that evening Zhou cooked a delicious meal that we shared in her tiny apartment with her elderly mother and 7 cats and four new kittens.  

On Friday morning Zhou came to the hotel and we walked to the train station.  It was certainly much easier having someone who knew the ropes and who knew Chinese getting us through multiple security points and to the right waiting room.  The train ride turned out to be very long, but also fascinating as Zhou is very outgoing and soon made friends with a couple who shared our compartment.  They turned out to have a very interesting background, the husband having risen from a poor orphan taking over the family farm and caring for his brothers and sisters, to becoming a successful businessman and putting four children through college.  They are still with us in Dali and will go with us to Lijiang tomorrow.

Upon arriving in Dali and finding this hotel -- not the one Zhou had originally booked-- and that has had significant problems, especially with plumbing--we went exploring.  Zhou's father was the provincial governor here at one time, and the family had a huge house just a block away from this hotel.  The story of Zhou's family could make a book, but since her father was a counter-revolutionary he lost his position and everything he had and apparently the whole family fell on hard times.  Her childhood home is no more, but down a dark alley she led us through doorways and corridors that opened into a large courtyard garden, run down now, but you could see it had once been a grand house.  There we met a cousin and Zhou's lively elderly aunt, who welcomed us warmly and showed us (by flashlight) around a neighboring courtyard house, too.  When we went out through the main entrance there was a plaque saying that this place had been the home of the illustrious Zhou family for 200 years.

After that we headed to the Foreigner Street, which was a mass of young people and souvenir shops, bars and restaurants-- a scene similar to what seen in  Beijing and Pingyao.  The old Dali of hippie backpackers really is no more.

I'm going to stop here.  Today we had a most frustrating day-long bus tour--a bad choice of how to spend our only day in Dali.  The guide talked nonstop (in Chinese), and we spent much more time waiting, riding in a hot bus, and visiting shops with scores of other tourists (all Chinese).  There were a few good moments, but....overall a miserable day.  Tomorrow early by bus and train to Lijiang, where we will hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge the following day.

Weather has been good with clear skies and some dramatic clouds.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Farewell Shanghai

 A new adventure today, as we head to the airport via the Shanghai Metro to catch our flight on Spring Airlines, the airline that required proof that we are capable of flying because of our advanced ages.  I'm hoping they let us on! 

Our last.ook at the posing brides yesterday morning and night.