05 June 2009

Wrapping It All Up In The Lands Down Under

Our thoughts were myriad as we touched down in Auckland, New Zealand after a sleepless overnight flight from Hong Kong. First and foremost, it was a strange but welcome adjustment to hear and see English in ubiquity again. Second, we thanked Air New Zealand for offering plenty of in-flight entertainment options. Flight of the Conchords kept us from going mental after we made peace with the fact that neither of us was going to be able to fall asleep. Along with those sentiments came a surprising feeling of sadness that the adventurous part of our trip was over. Though New Zealand and Australia are unique, they are much more similar to America than any of our previous destinations.

Any lingering low feelings were quickly displaced as we rolled into the city on the Airbus on a beautiful and blustery fall (opposite seasons in the Southern Hemisphere) morning. The first order of business after securing our hostel bed was to take a long and much-needed nap. When we awoke at 4:30pm, it was already almost dark. It would take a while until we were used to this sudden reversal of seasons. The moonlit clouds were ominous as we walked the short distance into the city center and found by chance the oldest microbrewery in New Zealand. A robust porter was the perfect beer for the weather and it tasted particularly delicious after drinking the swill that passes for beer in China. After a dinner of well-made cheeseburgers, we retired back to our hostel room and read for a few hours before hitting the hay.

The next day was one for exploration of Auckland. A map and a guidebook (of which we had neither) can show you all of the sights you are meant to see, but it is not until you walk the pavement and see the buildings and churches and bridges in full relief that you really begin to know a city. As we are fond of saying, we are never lost, we just don't always know where we are. It may seem like a semantic distinction, but it is in fact the essence of truly free travel. If you set out without destination and free yourself to the whims of chance, the secrets and soul of a place will reveal themselves in time.

In Auckland, all rambles eventually end up at the sea. Being an island nation, New Zealanders are fanatical about the water and particularly sailing and the ocean has informed much of the country's history. Fittingly, we walked by the Maritime Museum and decided to pay a visit.
Lauren at the helm of one of the sailboats located within the Maritime Museum.
Ahoy! The Museum wasn't overly spectacular, but it was informative and fun so we counted it as a positive cultural experience.

The first part of our Auckland experience, comprised of only one full day, was merely a scouting mission for when we returned from Australia. Our original intention was to spend a month in New Zealand and five weeks in Australia. The beauty of our trip was that original intentions were just a suggestion and we had an inordinate amount of flexibility with our schedule. Unfortunately, this also meant that the longer times spent in Southeast Asia and Istanbul left us with only a small sliver of time to spend among the Kiwis and Aussies. I had spent a month in Australia and a few weeks in New Zealand three years prior and Lauren wasn't bothered in the least about our timing, so no worries.

We hopped an early morning Airbus to the airport and soon we were onboard one of the worst airlines in the world: Aerolineas Argentinas. We used accumulated miles for our roundtrip Auckland-Sydney-Auckland flights and realized once we took the flights why the ticket required so few miles. Fortunately, we made it to Sydney in one piece. While in Sydney, we were graciously hosted by our friend Brigitte (Brig), a native of Brisbane whom we met on Corfu in Greece and reunited with in Istanbul. Brig is in her first year of studying medicine in Sydney and has an apartment in Leichhardt, a close suburb of Sydney. It was an easy combination of a train and a bus to make it to her place.

We had absolutely no plans for our two weeks in Australia, merely the faintest notion that we wanted to see Sydney and then get out and explore a bit. We spent an afternoon on the internet figuring out all of our options and pricing different modes of transportation and eventually settled on a rental car and a vague idea of driving north. First, we were going to spend a couple of days in Sydney checking out the sights and some of the nightlife. Perhaps it is here that I should mention that we took very few pictures of our time down under. After an overload of pictures in Asia, we often couldn't be bothered to take pictures. Not much of what we did lent itself to pictorial depiction anyway, and we rather enjoyed being free from the sometimes annoying yoke of the camera.
That being said, some sights truly deserve pictures. Here I am in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Lauren with the instantly recognizable Sydney Opera House in the background.
Yeah, it was a pretty nice day to be outside. We took in the abundant sunshine while walking around the Opera House, Circular Quay, and through the Royal Botanical Gardens.
Brig and Lauren, with the latter doing her best diva impersonation while we waited for the bus to take us into the city for a Friday night on the town.

A bit groggy from the night before, we felt that a nice day in the sun down on Bondi Beach was the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon. By the time we got down to the beach, the weather had become quite uncooperative. Although our plans of sun were squandered, we still had fun and were privy to a fascinating meteorological spectacle.
As we stood watching the talented skaters at the Bondi Beach skate park, the clouds moved in menacingly and we heard someone shout, "Tornado!" As we looked up, we could see the makings of a funnel cloud over the hills to the north of the beach.
At just about the same time, in another quadrant of the sky, a rainbow streaked across the horizon. Oddly, in yet another quadrant, the blue skies shined on as if nothing were the matter. Ten seconds after this picture was taken, a massive deluge was unleashed, forcing us to seek shelter in a nearby cafe.

Soon, it was Monday and time to pick up our rental car and head out of the city. In a lucky twist, Budget was out of the econobox that we reserved and instead gave us a glitzy (from our vantage point) full-size Holden Epica, which we later learned was equipped with a Porsche-designed engine. Equipped only with directions out of the city and no map, we headed north on Freeway 1 with no destination in mind. It was very liberating to be in control of the wheel and have no plans and not a single worry. We made a lot of headway up the coast that day and eventually settled in for the night in a little town called Coff's Harbour where we secured cheap lodging, had dinner, and then got a great night sleep.

The next morning we continued north, eventually making it to the hippie town of Nimbin. After a "choke and slide" (PB&J) picnic lunch in Nimbin, we intended to stop for a couple of days in the backpacker haven of Byron Bay. However, as we drove into town, we both had an overwhelming feeling that we wanted to find a place that was off the beaten track. So, we bypassed Byron Bay and rode north for about 20 kilometers to a small beachside town called Brunswick Heads. In town, we found a cute little motel and booked two nights there. It was definitely the right decision. The beach at Brunswick Heads was quaint and sparsely populated and we had a very enjoyable and quiet time. Our second night in town we picked up supplies at the market and cooked ourselves a fantastic steak dinner on the motel's grill.

The next stop on our road trip was the seaside town of Coolangatta, located right on the Queensland side of the border with the state of New South Wales. Coolangatta is a world-renowned surf spot at the southern end of Australia's Gold Coast. Being the offseason, it was the ideal mix of populated and quiet. After our first night at the hostel there, we decided that we would spend the rest of our non-Sydney Australia time in the town, which had great beach access and was close to other towns along the Gold Coast. Moreover, our hostel had a fabulous kitchen, which was a huge luxury for the two of us, who really missed cooking. We soon settled into an idyllic daily routine of sleeping late, cooking breakfast, walking three minutes to the beach, doing an afternoon activity (or not), cooking a great dinner, going out for drinks or a movie (or not), reading, and then falling asleep. It was the perfect mini-vacation.
Lauren celebrating a hole-in-one on the 11th (her favorite number) hole of the mini golf course in Mermaid Beach, locus of our nighttime activity on two separate nights.
Lauren with our Holden Epica in the parking lot in Coolangatta, just prior to our departure back to Sydney.

A full day's drive took us back to Sydney and Brig's pad, where we spent a few more nights before departing for Auckland. In that span, we also reunited with our friend Olivia, whom we had met on the island of Don Det in Laos. Olivia and her boyfriend Johnny are both incredibly interesting, friendly, and cool and they showed us a great time at their local watering hole and in their neighborhood of Balmain.
We walked down to the Rocks and snapped yet another picture of the Opera House. We also found a really sweet old pub just over the hill in Miller's Point called the Lord Nelson, which served delicious homebrewed beer and tasty snacks.
Happily, we visited this hospital merely to rub the nose of the boar for good luck. Since we made it home cheerful and healthy, I can only assume that it worked.
A typical Australian cabinet. Aussies love their Vegemite so much (it is gross, do not listen to them) that they often take a mini-jar around when they travel.
During a night on the town in Balmain, I stumbled upon my eponymous carnivore emporium.
Relaxing and people-watching on a beautiful afternoon in Sydney's Hyde Park.
Preparing vegetables for dinner in Brig's kitchen.
Adding parmesan cheese (Lauren's culinary addiction) to the finished product in Brig's living room.

In a flash, our jaunt to Australia was over and we were back in Auckland for the final days of the most incredible honeymoon I could ever imagine. This time, we elected to stay in the proximate Auckland suburb of Mt. Eden at a hostel lodged in the oldest house in town. Yaping House is perched about halfway up the dormant volcano which gives Mt. Eden its name. Mt. Eden is a lovely town with a cute main street and simple and quick bus access to Auckland proper. Although there was a faint trace of apprehension in these final days about our return home and a slight amount of despair that this magical time in our lives was coming to a close, I can't imagine a more perfectly quaint place to relax away the short time that we had remaining.
Lauren above the crater of Mt. Eden during one of our long walks around town.
The view of Auckland city from the top of Mt. Eden.
One of the best parts about Mt. Eden was our discovery of De Post, a Belgian brasserie. With my Belgian heritage and love of beer, this was an incredible find. We were both thrilled, particularly so by the mussels and pommes frites, which De Post offered in various styles. Our favorite was the pot of mussels in a lobster and brandy broth. Although it is a Belgian delicacy, the mussel pots had a local twist owing to the species of mussel on offer: the New Zealand-sourced and huge green-tipped mussel. We ended up having several meals at De Post.
There were many beers in their reserve which I had never previously had the opportunity to sample, including this Orval.

The final adventure of the trip was reserved for our last full day. There is perhaps no experience more associated with New Zealand than bungy jumping. On my last visit to New Zealand, I was unable to go bungy jumping owing to a dislocated shoulder. This time, I resolved to go, even if it was only off the 43m Auckland Harbour Bridge. Although Lauren was very enthused about jumping as well, with her brain surgery and lack of her top two vertebrae, it was unfortunately too risky for her to take the plunge.
video
Video of my first jump. As fate would have it, the day we planned to go they were offering a special two jumps for the price of one promotion.
Geronimo!
I was definitely stoked on the first jump and as I was hoisted back up to the platform, I was already looking forward to jumping again.
video
As you can hopefully see from the video, I got dunked (on purpose) on my second jump. While the jump was not that high, I can assure you that it was a fantastic rush.
As part of the bungy jumping experience, we got to walk within the bowels of the Auckland Harbour Bridge and had to wear helmets to protect us from falling road debris and construction activities. You can see the city in the background. I was understandably still jonesing from a surge of adrenaline.
Lauren is completely fearless and a thrill-seeker and I know that she was disappointed that she could not bungy jump. However, completely in line with her title as "Best Wife In The World," she was incredibly supportive and enthusiastic.

After a last beer at De Post and a fitful night's sleep, we were back at the Auckland airport waiting to catch our flight back to the States. After a 30-something hour trip back to Atlanta and a 16-hour time difference, it was a surreal experience to arrive home. It is now more than three weeks after our arrival in America and we are still digesting the implications of our trip-of-a-lifetime being over. Without a doubt, the adjustment has been difficult and we are grappling with a host of emotions. It is impossible to sum up a trip like ours in any meaningful way, but I can say that taking a honeymoon around the world was definitely the best decision that we have ever made and can probably ever hope to make. To the extent that our lives exceed the joys experienced on this trip, I will count ourselves lucky beyond our wildest expectations.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank our families for their incredible levels of support over the past year (and truly, going back to the time of our conception). Unequivocably, seeing our families when we got home was the best part of returning to America as we had missed them terribly. Thanks also go out to all of our friends who stayed in contact and kept sending messages of enthusiasm. They kept us going strong when times got tough. We are also thrilled to have the privilege of having met some of the most amazing people on Earth over the past year and we look forward to visiting with them again at their various outposts around the globe.

As a final note, I would say that I must have been born under a lucky star to have the outrageous fortune to have met and married the sweetest, most daring, most adventurous, most beautiful, silliest, smartest, most supportive, most understanding, most hilarious, and most loving wife in the entire universe. Lauren, I love you with all of my heart.

NOTE: This blog will be on indefinite hiatus as we move forward with our plan to move to Boulder, Colorado and (gasp!) likely settle down for good. Should any adventures befall us that warrant additional posts, we send word around. Thank you for reading.

02 June 2009

Bow To Your Chinese Overlords

NOTE: We are back in the USA!!! We arrived in Atlanta on May 21, so this blog post is slightly time-skewed. None of the blog posts have been particularly timely, usually being posted about three weeks after we left the subject country. However, this one has been quite tardy and for that I apologize. We ran into some technical difficulties with our camera/computer interface and decided not to press the issue while we were abroad, opting to wait until we got home to finish up our blogging. Losing these pictures would have been devastating! With the whirlwind that ensued upon our return, finding time to complete our online trip chronicle has been difficult. At long last, the following is an account of our encounter with the Chinese nation.

As we sat waiting in the departure area of the Hung Hom train station in Hong Kong, I pondered the trip ahead. Granted, we had been through some hairy locales, but China felt ominous nonetheless. As their history and current political climate can attest, the Chinese don't mess around. I pictured vast stretches of grey landscape filled to the brim with soulless Communist Party functionaries wearing dull clothing and burning American flags in what little spare time they could muster. My only exposure to China had been via the factually unreliable sources of takeout food, popular culture, and the news media. It is in the latter's pecuniary interest to portray China as the militarily and economically ruthless threat to American hegemony and I think part of that hysteria rubbed off on my subconscious.

However, from the second we boarded the train and were assisted in finding our berths by the very friendly Chinese locals, my concerns began to erode. That first 24-hour train ride to Beijing turned out to be a real treat. The beds were comfortable, the food was tasty, and the trip passed without a hitch. It certainly helped that we were joined by our new friend Jens, whose command of Mandarin came in handy, particularly when ordering food. We realized that it was going to be difficult to get around in China as the percentage of people who speak English in China is miniscule compared to every other destination on our journey. Fortunately, being on the road for nine months or so imbues you with a certain sense of confidence that all will work out somehow. It was with that attitude that we disembarked in Beijing. The immigration official wasn't too keen on me, as my full beard made me look both very scary and not at all like my passport picture. Yet, after a thorough examination, I was through.

With Jens' help, we found our digs in Beijing: our buddy Pete's very comfortable pad in the Sanlitun neighborhood. Pete was not yet back from Hong Kong as he was working down there, but he was expected back in the evening. So, we took a little nap, ventured downstairs for dinner, and then greeted Pete when he got home that night. The next day, we wandered around the neighborhood, grabbed breakfast, and then set out on the subway for a day of sightseeing. We were pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to navigate the Beijing metro, which connected us to all parts of the city for a very low fare. Hailing from the southern United States, where public transportation is comically bad, it was refreshing to have an economical, efficient, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation. Additionally, riding the subway put us in direct contact with the citizens of Beijing, few of whom have the inclination or purse to take taxis everywhere.
Our first stop was the Temple of Heaven complex, the main temple of which is seen in the background.
A closer view of the ornate Temple of Heaven.
You may enter.
While most visitors were busy taking in the big picture, we concentrated on the little things. In this case it is the dragon and not the devil that is in the details.
A heavenly beauty at the beautiful Temple of Heaven.

From the Temple of Heaven, we took a rather long walk to Tiananmen Square. It was a pretty and mild spring day and a casual stroll through the city was a great way to stretch the legs and get a street-level glimpse of Beijing. We made it to what we thought was Tiananmen and were pretty unimpressed. As it happened, we were not actually in the Square, but in an offshoot.
The actual Tiananmen Square is huge.

After traipsing to and around Tiananmen, dodging the Chinese Army platoons marching around the Square, we decided that we were all set with sightseeing for the day. I gave a call to my Dartmouth fraternity brother, Gunther, who has been living in Beijing and studying Mandarin for the past year and a half. He was flying out to California the next day to see his fiancée, but we agreed that a night on the town together was a necessity. To that end, we rendezvoused at Pete's apartment, where we caught up on life events while waiting for Pete to get home from work. Then, like good sons of Dartmouth, we headed out to a bar for some beers. Properly refreshed, we cabbed it to a restaurant specializing in Peking (the former moniker for Beijing) duck and added a fifth member to our party: Pete's gargantuan half-British/half-German friend Patrick.

The duck was easily one of the culinary highlights of the trip. Although the duck meat itself was very tasty, the slivers of duck skin and duck fat that we dipped in sugar were divine. The rest of the patrons in the restaurant were agog at our table, as the ample libations increased the volume on our already gregarious conversation. It was a table of extroverts, to be sure. It probably did not help that we were the only non-Chinese in the restaurant. From dinner, we caught a taxi to another bar close to Pete's place, where the laughter and stories continued apace.
Me, Patrick, Gunther, and Pete enjoying the evening.

A nice sleep-in cleared out the cobwebs from the night before. Unfortunately, I was suffering from a nagging stomach issue, which necessitated a trip to the hospital. I was pretty freaked out to go to a Chinese hospital, but it turned out to be a very positive experience, with friendly staff, a surprising amount of English-speakers, efficient service, and very competent doctors. That was a huge relief.

With a clean bill of health, we started preparing for a big Friday night on the town, all too aware that we had plans to head out to the Great Wall the next morning. Somehow that fact became shuffled towards the back of our minds as the three of us, instant gratificationists to the core, concentrated on the evening at hand. The first stop was a big group dinner at a hotpot restaurant. Incendiary food as a precursor to a night of partying was a suspect decision, but the food and company were excellent.
Pete and Lauren were already in a crazy mood, though that is not a rare occurrence. The hotpot can be seen in the bottom right corner. A hotpot is basically a Chinese version of fondue wherein raw meat and vegetables are cooked in communal broth pots. In this case, the mild broth is in the middle pot, while the spicy (a tremendous understatement) broth is in the outer ring. I love spicy food, but I could barely stand the hotpot, which singed my tongue immediately.

Most of the group was going to another party before heading out to the clubs, but we decided to make the most of our momentum and go right for the gusto. Lauren, Pete, Patrick, and I got in a cab and cruised to Chocolate, a club run by what I can only assume are Russian gangsters. Either that, or all Russians just look like gangsters to me. The club was so tacky that paintings were hanging in gold frames...on the ceiling. Only a Russian mobster would think that was classy. The goal for the night was to dress as ridiculously yet tastefully as possible, knowing that it could not possibly be more ridiculous than a bunch of Russians and wannabe Chinese gangsters.

Pete and Patrick were decked out in faux baubles and fake designer sunglasses and we were sporting appropriately silly garments. Even though we were relatively early to the club, the place was packed. The original hostess told us that there were no tables available, but her boss was apparently fooled by the appearance of all of the fake jewelry and erroneously assumed that we were high-rollers. We did not correct her misapprehension, especially as she gave us the best table in the house, located right next to the dance floor. At one point, the music stopped and a floor show ensued with bellydancers in outfits that were as risqué as possible while still being clothed. There was little doubt that they were moonlighting Russian/Eastern European prostitutes.
Pete and I were digging the blue vibe.
The table at its tamest.
It is not hard to see why the manager mistook Pete for a Russian of considerable influence.
One of many pulls on the apple-flavored hookah (tobacco pipe).
Fun does not have either a minimum or maximum height limit, as these two can well attest. Patrick had just received word that he had been accepted to business school in Madrid, so there was a liberal amount of celebratory champagne consumed.
Lauren's champagne matched her dress perfectly. Note the faux Dolce & Gabbana necklace on Pete.
It was just another in a series of epic nights for the two honeymooners.
Vorsicht! Make way for Lauren's moves.
You know it's a good night when the sunglasses stay on even though you have been indoors for several hours.
A reenactment of carrying my lovely bride over the threshold.
I'm not good at dancing, but I like it. I am of the self-serving viewpoint that my enthusiasm makes up for my skill. Notice Patrick in the background causing a minor sensation due to his height.
Peek-a-boo!

As the pictures illustrate, we had a lot of fun at Chocolate. Eventually, the rest of our group arrived and we partied late into the night. At 4am, we caught a cab to a swank late night eatery called Bellagio, where we fortified our stomachs with milk tea and an assortment of fatty Chinese dishes. Pete kept ordering broccoli with cheese for some odd reason, made all the more inexplicable by the waitress's continued insistence that there was none to be had.

When my alarm began buzzing at 8:15am the next morning, it was all I could do not to throw it out the window. Lauren was in pure groaning mode and Pete was not even close to stirring. Needless to say, with three hours of sleep and a lot of champagne behind us, we were feeling rough. Then a thought flashed into my groggy brain: we were going to the Great Wall! A surge of energy catapulted me straight out of bed and into the shower. My compatriots were less overtly enthusiastic about our imminent Great Wall trip, but soon everybody was up and going.

It was a trifle too bright of a Saturday morning as we stumbled our way to the previously agreed upon meeting point. We found our crew and filed into the van that would take us into the Chinese countryside. Being a holiday weekend, the traffic leaving the city was brutal and it took us the better part of five hours to reach our destination. It was frustrating, but it gave us a good chance to meet the rest of the group, all of whom were American expats and well-polished Mandarin speakers. This was instrumental, as the "guest house" at which we were staying was located in a tiny village tucked into the hills where nobody spoke English or had seen too many foreigners.

After tucking into a tasty home-cooked lunch, we were geared up for the hike up to the Great Wall. This particular section of the Great Wall had not been restored and was mercifully free of the throngs of tourists that flood the more accessible restored parts of the Wall. We were previously unaware that the Great Wall is not a continuous string, but rather a conglomeration of several long fortified expanses.
Lauren leading the charge up to the Great Wall.
After about 50 minutes of hiking up some rather steep terrain, we caught our first glimpse of one of the most spectacular man-made structures on Earth: the Great Wall(s) of China!
Rather than give the Wall a neglected appearance, the foliage growing within imbues the area with a sense of exploration and adventure.
We were blessed with stark azure skies (a rarity for this part of China) and a vigorous wind. The day could not have been more perfect and I count it among the best of the entire year abroad.
Plain and simple, my heart just feels happier in the mountains.
Spring was just beginning to arrive and there was only the faintest whisker of buds on the trees. The contrast between the carpet of the leafless forest and the Wall makes the human achievement of its construction look all the more impressive.
One of the odd things about the Great Wall is that most of it is built on knife-edge mountain ridges that were essentially impenetrable anyway. One of my hypotheses for this is that the Chinese were just showing off, either that or it was an early example of a "pork" project.
It was great to share such an extraordinary day with such a good friend.
My beard felt particularly well-suited to the mountain environment.
Pete giving a gesture of triumph.
Lauren on the lookout for invading Mongol hordes.
Me and Pete taking a break in one of the watchtowers.
With a magical day like that, it was easy to forget that we were operating on only three hours of sleep.
A parting shot from the Great Wall of China.

It was hard to pry ourselves away from the Wall, but we wanted to ensure that we made it back to the village before the sun set. We all had a great time sharing stories over a well-prepared dinner. We then spent several hours before bedtime playing a spirited game of Catchphrase. It was one of those random moments that seems ridiculous from an outside perspective but was highly entertaining for all those involved.

Soon, it was time to head back to Beijing, where we took it easy watching a movie and eating a simple dinner. The next day, a Monday, was a national holiday that dawned clear and bright. It was a perfect day to see more of Beijing's sights. First, we had brunch with Jens and his twin brother Anton at a cute little French restaurant.
Anton, Lauren, and Jens on a bright holiday morning.
Posing in front of one of the many buildings in the Lama Temple complex.
Lo at the Lama Temple. There were an insane amount of people in the Lama Temple complex, which is unsurprising considering it was a holiday weekend.
Rubbing the drum brings you good luck. It must have worked, as we made it home in one piece.
Pete reveling in the serenity of the Confucius Temple.
Lauren in front of one of the pagodas at the Confucius Temple complex.

Pete had to go to work the next day but our sightseeing was not yet over. We're not massive fans of a rigorous tourist schedule, but there are a lot of beautiful places to visit in Beijing. To Pete's consternation and most everyone's amazement, we never fit in the Forbidden City, but we were not too bothered by missing it.
Lauren in front of the lake that fronts the Summer Palace.
Even though they were modified for the tourist beat, I still thought the dragon boats were pretty sweet.
Cherry blossoms at the Summer Palace.
An octagonal entranceway at the Summer Palace.

As bummed as we were about leaving Beijing, we were equally excited to explore more of China. With only about three weeks remaining on our visa, we had to be focused in our route-picking. China is absolutely humongous, so it was important to pick a region and sample that area rather than try to run around and "see everything." On the advice of friends, we elected to head south and west, with Yunnan Province as our eventual destination. As luck would have it, there were cheap flights headed to Xi'an, so that made our choice for the first stop an easy one.
A full moon above the clouds on the way to Xi'an aboard China Eastern Airlines.

Before speaking with our friends in Beijing, we knew nothing about Xi'an other than it was close to the Terracotta Warriors, of which we had heard in passing. Naively and perhaps a bit arrogantly, we assumed that if we had not heard of Xi'an then it must be a small town. Imagine our surprise when we arrived in the city via the airport bus and realized that Xi'an was home to about 8-9 million people and incredibly bustling. When we further learned that it was one of the great ancient cities of China, we were humbled by our ignorance.
The ancient part of Xi'an is surrounded by an imposing fortified wall. Lauren wasn't feeling well on our first full day in Xi'an, so I went up to the wall by myself and rented a bike. I had a great time circumnavigating the city on two wheels, even though my bike was the definition of a clunker.
With Lauren still under the weather that night and me feeling very restless, I went for what I meant to be a short stroll around the city. Here is a night shot of the Bell Tower, located in the exact center of the old city.
A similar shot of the Drum Tower in Xi'an.

Xi'an has a considerable Muslim population and the city's Muslim Quarter was an orgy of sights and smells that night. I passed from stall to stall, sampling the goods on offer and generally taking in the energy of the populace.
Towards the end of my hours long ramble, I came upon a very friendly man who beckoned me into his shop. He didn't speak a lick of English and my Mandarin was extremely limited to "hello," "thank you," and some basic food terms but nonetheless we engaged in a spirited banter of gesticulations. After a bit, he offered me some food, which by the signs he was giving me, was meant to make me strong. In my limited way, I inquired about the food's provenance, which amounted to me saying in turn the words for chicken, pork, and beef and then shrugging my shoulders. He nodded in the affirmative to the beef inquiry, but I knew from looking at it that it was not steak or any other cut of beef that I had ever seen. In the best case, it was cow offal, but I have the sneaking suspicion that I ate cow penis that night. I cannot be sure and I honestly don't want to admit it, but given all of the signs that the proprietor made, it is a distinct possibility. Not only did I likely eat cow penis, but we also shared almost an entire bulb of garlic between the four of us shown above. Although it might not sound like it, the food was really good and the company even better. The stall was located down a small alleyway pretty far removed from the main Muslim Quarter streets and I was definitely the only white person in sight. My arrival at the stall became a minor spectacle in the neighborhood and the denizens had a lot of laughs at my expense. No worries. When I returned back to the hostel, Lauren was appalled at the toxicity of my garlic breath. I made the wise decision to head to the bar and down a shot of vodka on the off chance that the cow penis/offal did a number on my stomach. It worked like a charm and I woke the next day feeling great.

As a rule, we stay as far away from organized tours as possible. However, after pricing out the various options for going to the Terracotta Warriors, we decided that the easiest and most economical way was to join the tour departing from our hostel. This was a big mistake. Being on somebody else's timeframe was painful and the fellow tour-goers would have made a cardboard box seem interesting. The Warriors were decently cool, but definitely not worth spending an entire day visiting. The whole experience was entirely too touristy for our tastes, although the story of the Warriors themselves and the uniqueness of their creation was enough to not make the day a total loss.
General T.J....
...and Empress Lauren.
Clay soldiers marching to an ancient drum.
The dedication of the Warriors' craftsmen to detail was astounding.

We were pretty exhausted by the time we arrived back at the hostel, but our spirits and energy levels were buoyed by the realization that the hostel was hosting a dumpling party that night. We got to make dumplings from scratch and, even better, eat them for free!
Lauren fashioning her very own dumplings.
A terracotta warrior gets the psychedelic treatment at the downstairs bar in our Xi'an hostel.

Chengdu was the next logical stop on our southwesterly course to Yunnan Province. It was about a 15-hour overnight journey by train. The accommodations in the budget-friendly hard sleeper class are not luxurious by any means, but certainly more comfortable than sitting upright on a bus. Each train carriage is divided into compartments of six bunks each and we preferred the slightly more costly bottom bunk for ease of exit and for the bedside table. Although foreign travelers do take the trains on occasion, we did not see more than a handful in total the entire time we rode the rails in China. This meant that we were an attraction for the Chinese traveling along with us. The Chinese are not afraid to stare at you for extended periods of time. It's not that they are rude, indeed they are quite friendly. It's just that their cultural norms differ greatly from ours.

We began to feel like zoo animals as people would repeatedly pass by our compartment/cage and stare openly. The only other minor annoyance is that to get anywhere in a crowd in China, particularly in the train station, you have to push or you will be knocked over. It might seem harsh to push a 60-year-old woman out of the way, but if you are not proactive, she will push you straight onto the tracks. Oddly, the same people that shove you around on the train platform are nothing but gracious as soon as everyone is in their bunks and settled. I think that in China, like India, there is such a maddening crush of humanity that people are simply forced to push their way through the pulsing throngs in order to get anywhere.

Not everyone that we met along the way liked Chengdu, but we had a fun three days there. Though primarily a commercial city it also has pockets of tranquility and some cool temples. Chengdu is also located in Sichuan Province, which is renowned for its spicy food. I can personally vouch for the spiciness of the food there, which made the hotpot in Beijing look like an ice cream sundae. The hotpot I had in Chengdu was so spicy that I literally almost passed out. I was dripping sweat like I had just finished a marathon. That might not seem like a pleasant experience to most people, but I loved it. Lauren was not convinced.
This pond in the Wenshu temple complex was teeming with turtles and frogs, besides being pretty in its own right.
This fountain, also in the Wenshu temple complex, was adorned with miniature staircases, presumably for the frogs and turtles.
We innocently ventured into this temple, erroneously assuming it to be open to the public. It turned out to be a very off-limits Buddhist learning center.
Lauren in front of an interesting statue close to the Wenshu temple tea garden where we sipped on unfortunately terrible tea. The locals who crowded the place seemed very fond of the tea, but it was entirely too bitter for our tastes.

One of the main draws in Chengdu is the panda research center located on the city's outskirts, which is where many zoos, including Zoo Atlanta and the National Zoo, obtain the Giant Pandas they keep on display. We jumped at the chance to visit these quirky and endangered animals.
An adult panda out for a morning stroll.
video
Video of pandas at mealtime.
Pandas are pretty lazy in general, but this guy was taking it to another level.
The adolescent pandas were my favorite.
You have to respect an animal that can convince humans to pamper him more than a Manhattan socialite.
The Red Panda, which is more akin to a raccoon than to the Giant Panda, garnered Lauren's sympathy because she felt that they weren't given as much attention.
I will admit that they were damn cute as well.

The day after our panda sojourn, we rode the city bus to the Qingyang ("Palace of the Green Ram") temple complex in another part of Chengdu. This Taoist temple, extensive and gorgeous, was Lauren's single favorite in all of Asia.
Lauren in front of her favorite pagoda at the Palace of the Green Ram in Chengdu.
Dragon drum at the Green Ram.
Lauren with a horse/dragon/lion statue.

After cruising around Chengdu for a few days our departure for Yunnan Province was imminent. Following a bit of travel planning, we were on board the 13-hour overnight train from Chengdu to Panzhihua, from which we caught an hour-long local bus to the bus station and then a seven hour bus to the town of Lijiang in Yunnan Province. Needless to say, the difficulty we had finding our hostel in the maze of Lijiang's streets was not welcome to our exhausted minds and bodies. However, the town's beauty was our saving grace. With two days taken out to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, we ended up spending about eight days in Lijiang. A combination of a pretty city, cool new friends, snow further up into the mountains, and comfortable digs made leaving Lijiang a nonstarter. In retrospect, we are very happy that we stuck with our ethos of "more time in fewer places," even though the temptation to try and see more in Yunnan Province and other places in southern China was very strong.
In front of Lijiang's iconic waterwheels on a sunny April afternoon.
Flowers were in full bloom all over Lijiang.
Lauren on one of the many cobbled stone bridges that cross the ubiquitous canals in the tiny maze-like streets of Lijiang.
The canals are chock full of multi-colored koi and trout.
We spent an hour or two sitting by this particular canal, watching the fish swim by, chuckling at the Chinese tourists ambling around, and drinking freshly squeezed plum juice.

One of the most renowned treks in southwest China is the increasingly well-traveled trail along Tiger Leaping Gorge. We had heard nothing but wonderful things about the trek and were very excited about the adventure. We organized the two-hour van ride to the start of the hike with some fellow travelers. They were a little rowdy and prissy for our mood, so we set off quickly ahead of them with the intention of walking alone. The weather was a bit iffy and the beginning of the hike was marked by a constant drizzle. We were not about to let the weather ruin our enthusiasm and actually counted the rain as a blessing as it cooled us down on a hike that had some rather arduous sections.

As luck would have it, after an hour we fell into step with a guy walking by himself and struck up a conversation as we walked. Haim was an Israeli guy about our age and a well-seasoned traveler who had spent a year in India with his motorcycle and the following year in Switzerland. He was very friendly and very interesting and the time with him passed swiftly. It was also great to have a third person around to take our picture along the way and of course we also returned the favor.
Right at the beginning of the hike as the Yangzte River enters Tiger Leaping Gorge.
On the trail.
I was in heaven.
If I remember correctly, this picture was taken right after we completed the very steep "28 Bends" section of the trail.
It was hard not to stare.
We met some friendly goats along the way.
Lauren at her hircine best.
After eight hours on the trail, including a stop for lunch and another for a much-appreciated Coca-Cola, the three of us made it to the Halfway Guest House. Although we were tired, the endorphins from the hike were flowing liberally and spirits were high. The Halfway Guest House mercifully had hot showers and our quick pace secured us the best room in the place, a double room with magnificent views of the gorge walls.
After a much-needed hot shower we got some Dali beers from the bar and went up to the deck just in time for the clouds to break and a rainbow to appear. In an trip filled with amazing moments, I think I would pick this one as the most joyful and incredible of the year.
After a great dinner and a restful night's sleep, the clouds had cleared thoroughly and the sun was shining brightly. This worked out perfectly because the second day's hike was far less taxing and there was much less concern about overheating. Here is Lauren at the beginning of the second day's hike with some Tibetan prayer flags in the background.
We passed this waterfall along the way.
Stunning scenery.
Before we knew it, the hike was over. We stopped into a guesthouse for some liquid refreshment and reveled in the warm sunshine and gorgeous surroundings.
This is the look of pure contentment.

Totally stoked but exhausted by our two-day trek, we slept the entire way back in the van to Lijiang. There we set about the difficult business of relaxing and scouring the city for tasty morsels and mini-adventures. The most important step in that direction was our chance meeting of a really cool Chinese couple at a small little dive bar called Stone The Crows. The Irish owner was out of town on vacation and Victor and Siouxsie (their English names) were running the place in his absence. Victor's dad was an English professor and both of them spoke great English. We ended up spending a lot of hours each day at the bar hanging out with them and meeting the locals (mostly expats) that frequented the establishment.
A nighttime view from the third-floor terrace of Stone The Crows.
On a nighttime wander through the streets of Lijiang.
A super cool sculpture wall at the entrance to the old town of Lijiang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I loved my beard. It was unruly and frightening to small children, but I loved it. However, all good things must come to an end.
A politically incorrect Hitler moustache.
All gone. People with whom I had spent many hours bearded simply did not recognize me.
A portrait of the inside of Stone The Crows as Lauren and Victor play a game of chess.
It never got old exploring the circuitous alleyways of Lijiang.
Lauren and Siouxsie in front of the bar at Stone The Crows.
I look more respectable this way, I suppose.
Victor and Siouxsie had found a box full of newborn kittens that some horrible person had left by a dumpster in town. They adopted them and tried their best to feed and keep them alive. Here is Lauren with one of the tiny creatures.
Siouxsie and Lauren at mealtime for the kittens.

We could have stayed in Lijiang for a month or more. We had that great of a time. But our visa was going to run out in a few days and we still had to get most of the way across southern China back to Hong Kong. Reluctantly, we boarded a bus bound for Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province and a transport hub for our train east. We only had one and a half days in Kunming, but we made the most out of the cool city.
Lauren in the entranceway of the leaning East Tower in Kunming.
This guy didn't like to talk much.
On our only full day in Kunming we endeavored to eat as much street food as possible, including scrumptious duck legs and these fresh steamed buns. It was an adventurous, dirt cheap, and totally delicious day of eating.

From Kunming, we boarded the 24-hour overnight train to Guangzhou, where we immediately disembarked and caught a short train ride to Shenzhen. We were met at the metro station by Peter Wing, one of the cool American expats that we met on our weekend at the Great Wall. Peter has been living in Shenzhen for a while and we jumped at the chance to spend a day or two with him before crossing the nearby border to Hong Kong. As it turned out, our Swiss-German friend Karin was also coming through Shenzhen, which marked the third time that we had crossed paths with her on our travels. We all had a big night out together, which was followed by a lazy rainy day during which we cooked a big brunch and watched movies all day. It was great to see both of them again and we really appreciated Peter's hospitality.

In juxtaposition with my apprehension at venturing into China, it tugged at my heart to leave the country. Plain and simple, I was awed by China. Yes, the Chinese own an alarming amount of assets in America; yes, their view of individual liberties would make Thomas Jefferson weep; yes much of their bad press is probably deserved. However, it is one of the greatest civilizations in the world, past, present, and future. It is a beautiful country filled with dynamic and fascinating people and I eagerly look forward to the time when I return.