Sunday, December 06, 2009

Breakfast - Breeze Rest House - Mawlamyine, Myanmar Burma

January 02, 2009

Our train pulled into the Mawlamyine Station about 3PM on Jan 1, 2009. We immediately found the ticket office and bought return tickets to Yangon on the 36DN train leaving at 6:00 AM, January 03. Tickets were $18 each and as usual we were treated like guests; invited to come around behind the counter and sit; and the very nice gentlemen gave us 4 very crispy clean USD in change.

Not very good transport from station to town and we spent 90 minutes or so haggling with moto dirvers, talking to locals, waiting for buses, taking a bus, and then walking 15 minutes in the very steamy late afternoon heat to the Breeze Rest House where we took a $15 room; no windows, no TV, but 24hr hot H2O from a in-line electric heater, AC, ceiling fans, 3 beds, fridge, tile floor and walls, a large bathroom, small desk and mirror but no chair, plenty of hooks and racks but no wardrobe.

The included breakfast is served on this 2nd floor balcony which overlooks the Salween. In the photo, Sun-Ling is enjoying the breakfast of coffee, boiled egg, and toast with butter and jam. There are two 2nd floor rooms which face the river, but they were both booked. Bummer.

After a shower we walked south along the riverfront promenade, watched the sunset, and ate dinner at a LP recommended restaurant: 3900 kyat (3.50 USD) for 2 glasses of Myanmar Beer, a tomato salad, fried spicy watercress (very tasty) and a bean dish.Sun-Ling enjoyed the breakfast of coffee, boiled egg, and toast with butter and jam.

A typical, for Mawlamyine, local bus, like the one we took into town from near the railway station.
Local Bus - Mawlamyine, Myanmar Burma

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Noodle - Tengchong - Yunnan, China

Making soup one noodle at a time.

Usually handmade noodles are either stretched or shaved. This guy is shaving noodles right into a pot of boiling water. Marvelous!

For noodle soup I prefer the stretched; for stir fry, shaved. Yum, yum, yummy. ;-)

Monday, November 09, 2009

Goats - Carl Sandburg Home - Flat Rock, NC

Last month we visited the Carl Sandburg Home at Flat Rock, NC. His wife Lilian raised and bred dairy goats whose descendants still live on the farm.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Heshun Village, Yunnan Province, China

Two weeks ago, the online version of The New York Times had a slide show on Heshun, a small town in China's Yunnan Province. We were in Heshun last December, so I made my own slide show on flickr. Hope you enjoy both slide shows!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Various updates

I've finished uploading the Indian Modern Architecture photos to flickr.
Last month Sun-Ling And I took a trip to Western Virginia and West Virginia, visiting my brother's family in Sutton WV, my old high school buddy Tony and his family in Athens WV, and biking the New River Rail Trail near Galax VA.

Sun-Ling on the New River Trail
New River Trail near Fries, VA

Spent last weekend at the beach with friends and Hurricane Bill. On Thursday I rescued a young boy from the rip currents. The sea was angry that day my friends. Well, it wasn't much of a rescue. I was standing in water up to my waist, jumping the waves in the pounding Outer Banks surf when I heard a boy crying for help. He was really "in over his head" in the raging waters clutching his boggie board. I was just a few steps away so I plucked him out and put him back on the beach in the arms of his mother.

Here's a photo from Saturday. The red flags were up and even the surfers were not in the water.

We are thinking about traveling to Egypt next Spring. Any tips?

That's all for now.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mumbai Photos

One of the things we liked about Mumbai (Bombay) was the amazing amount of Art Deco and Art Moderne buildings within easy walking distance of our hotel.

On returning home, I checked out these books from the library - gotta love the Wake County InterLibrary Loan program - which I've been pouring over to help identify the buildings in my hundreds of photos.
Bombay Art Deco Architecture, by Navin Ramani
A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India,by Jon T. Lang
Buildings that shaped Bombay, Edited by Kamu Iyer
It has also been quite a learning experience for me regarding modern Indian architecture and architects, and modern architecture in general. Jon Lang's book is particularly interesting and is searchable on Google Books - click link above.

I'm almost finished with the Mumbai photos. Then it's on to Kolkata. Then back to the "Shanghai to Yangon" trip report. Whoa!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Shanghai to Yangon by Land - Prologue

Discomfort, pain, and anxiety are probably the very core of a good trip. If you have an easy time of it, you're having a vacation. If you're really suffering, then you're traveling. – Paul Theroux from an Interview by Greg Lowe on January 19, 2009
The thing I do most is look at maps. I study them. If I'm going to a place, I get all the maps and look at them. There's a lot of information on a map. – Paul Theroux from an interview by Dave Weich of Powell's City of Books on May 18, 2000

Non-refundable tickets or reservations should not be purchased until all visas and passports are secured and in your possession. - India Visa Service
It was 4:00 AM, October 29, 2008 and I was lying awake in bed. In just 48 hours our neighbor Dave was scheduled to pull up in the driveway to take us to the airport for our 6-month trip to South Asia. However, I was not awake from the excitement and anticipation of the upcoming journey. I was awake because we had sent our passports and visa applications to the Myanmar Embassy in Washington DC on Oct 10th but our passports were still not back in our hands.

How did we get ourselves to the brink of disaster? Here’s the story.

Earlier in 2008 we had spent 5 months travelling around southern Asia in China, Myanmar, and Laos. This time after many hours of watching airfares, studying maps, guidebooks, and climate charts, creating and abandoning many scenarios, we decided to re-visit China and Myanmar and add India and Nepal.

Thus on September 10th, we bought round trip tickets from Raleigh to Shanghai; leaving on Oct 31st 2008 and returning on April 30th, 2009.

On September 11th, I set out to the Post Office to mail our passports and visa applications to a visa service in Houston, Texas. In order to get a Chinese visa while in the United States, one must apply in person at a Chinese Embassy or Consulate, or apply through a visa service agent who appears in person for you. This will set you back $130 per visa plus the agent’s fees, usually $15 for normal service. Why Houston? There is a big Chinese community in Houston and we had used a visa service there before with no problems.

On the way to the Post Office, I was listening to NPR who reported that Hurricane Ike, a Category 3 hurricane at the time, was aiming at Houston. Even though I had the envelope addressed, I thought about returning home but instead threw caution to the wind (not like my usual self) and sent our passports, visa applications, a self-address Priority Mailer, and a check for $290 straight towards what turned out to be the “third most destructive hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States.” Yikes!

Ike struck Houston with full force on September 13th. My heart sank when it was report that windows were blown out in downtown buildings and that power could be out for weeks.

I tried not to think what would happen if we did not get the passports and visas back on time.

On Monday the 22nd was I able to make phone contact with the visa service. Hoorah! They said they had our materials and that once the Chinese Consulate opened we would get our visas in week or so. Two weeks later on Oct 4th we got the passports back with 1-year multiple entry visas pasted inside. Sweet!

The next day I completed the online applications (including online payment) and FedEx’ed our passports and self-addressed return FedEx Mailer to the India Visa Center Washington DC.

On Oct 6th I received this automated email from the India Visa Center:
Dear John Meckley jr (sic),

Travisa Outsourcing has received your application (#823837095) for an Indian visa. You applied for a Tourist Visa. Requested duration of visa is 6 Months Multiple Entry. We have processed your payment, and will submit your application to the Indian Embassy/Consulate shortly.

[Credit card info deleted by me]

We will notify you again by email once your application has been processed and is ready to be mailed back. You can keep track of your application every step of the way by using our Track Passport tool.

Travisa Outsourcing
On Oct 9th I received this automated email:
Dear John Meckley jr (sic)

Travisa Outsourcing has received your passport (application #823837095) back from the Indian Embassy/Consulate. We have verified your visa has been processed correctly. You applied for a Tourist Visa. Requested duration of visa is 6 Months Multiple Entry.

Your passport is being sent back to you via the following method: FedEx
Tracking Number: 864572576817 (Please note that package tracking information may not show in the FedEx system immediately)

Travisa Outsourcing
Getting the India visas was easy; a far cry from our previous attempt in 1997 when I had to call several times and send additional money. But that’s another story. This time the process was fast, automated and efficient.

So it’s now Friday October 10th. We have one-year multiple-entry Chinese visas and 6-month multiple-entry Indian visas in hand. Our trip starts in 3 weeks on the 31st. Do we get our Myanmar visas here in the US or not? Either way works. If we don’t get it here, then we can get it in Kunming, China like we did on our last. We check the Myanmar Embassy web site which says the Visa processing time is 6 business days. Sounds doable.

On Friday October 10th, I mailed (with Delivery Confirmation Receipt) our passports, visa applications, a self-address Priority Mail envelope, and an “official check” from my credit union for $40 to the Myanmar Embassy in Washington DC. Monday the 13th was Columbus Day and our package was not received by the embassy until Wednesday the 14th. Still two weeks to go.

Our friends Sean and Leslie from Anson County visited for three days. We went to the State Fair.

On Friday the 24th I anxiously called the Myanmar Embassy. I talked to a nice young lady who told me that they had our passports, applications, and official check for $40 and that we should not worry as the visas were almost ready. “Just waiting on one signature” she said.

Later that day we picked up Sun-Ling’s cousin from airport. She had come to the US from Shanghai to work at Disney World in Orlando as part of a study-abroad-for-a-semester program and was going to spend a long weekend with us. This kept us from thinking about what would happen if we did not get the passports and visas back in time.

On Monday the 28th our guest left, we early-voted for Obama, and I called the Myanmar Embassy and the polite young lady said that our passports were “in the mail”.
Our flight was at 8:00 AM on Thursday. If we did not receive the passports by Wednesday then …

When we did not receive the passports in Tuesday’s mail, I couldn’t sleep that night and I tried not to think what would happen if we did not get the passports and visas back on time. I should also report that I spent about 3 hours on Wednesday afternoon looking out the window watching for the mail truck. When it came I briefly chatted with our mail-lady and explained the situation. She reassuringly told that it would probably come the next day.

First thing on Wednesday, the 30th, I called the Post Office, talked to our mail-lady, and she said she had a parcel from the Myanmar Embassy and calmly told me that we could come to the Post Office and pick it up now if we wanted to or wait until the afternoon when she would deliver it. We were down there in 20 minutes. Whew! In 16 hours, we would be leaving for the airport. Too close for comfort.

I’m glad the passports came and we never had to execute Plan B. In fact, there never was a Plan B.

Note from John: This has been a hard post for me to write. Getting the flow of the narrative right has been tough. The ending still needs work but I’m going to publish anyway or I’ll never get on to the next part of the story.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Startling Photos from Shanghai

Read this in today's Shanghaiist.
A building in the Minhang district tottered over and collapsed after the riverbed it was built right next to rose. Surprisingly, it stayed almost completely intact. Sadly, one worker died.
And I thought "Hey, we used to live in Minhang near a small river and they started building new apartments across the river from us just as we moved to Xujiahui. I wonder..."

Sure enough. I've circled our former apartment in the photo below from EastSouthWestNorth.

And this would have been the view from our balcony.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Itineraries: The Big Picture + November 2008 details

I had a request to post the itinerary from our recent trip.

First, the big picture. We wanted to take a 6-month trip to Asia that would take us to China, India, Myanmar (Burma), and Nepal. Our window of travel was from November 2008 to May 2009 which is usually the best time to travel in South Asia as it's the dry season.

The tricky part was planning a schedule that would visit interesting places while avoiding cold weather in China and Nepal, hoards of holiday tourists in India, and allow us to fly out of Myanmar without spending an arm and a leg. After much debate we end up with a tentative itinerary consisting of two long overland segments connected by a flight through Bangkok.

The first segment would start from Shanghai on China's eastern coast, head west through China's southern provinces, cross into Northeastern Myanmar (Burma) and end up in Yangon (Rangoon), provided we could obtain the necessary permits to enter Myanmar from China's Yunnan Province. And our goal was to arrive in Burma mid-December, stay for the full 30 days allowed by our visas, then fly to Mumbai, arriving in mid-January thus avoiding the end-of-the-year holidays. "Shanghai to Rangoon by Land" - sounds like an article from an old issue of National Geographic. This could be exciting!

The second leg would take us south from Mumbai along the western coast to Cape Comorin, the southern most point in India, then back north up the eastern coast to Kolkata (Calcutta) and up in to Nepal. Then from Kathmandu, we would fly back to China, tour for a few weeks, go back to Shanghai and fly back to Raleigh. This also sounds like a Nat Geo adventure. Woohoo!

So we bought 6-month round trip tickets from Raleigh to Shanghai leaving on Oct 31st and returning on April 30th, acquired our visas and hit the road.

Here's the itinerary for the first month, November 2008, which was spent traveling in China. The formatting sucks - sorry about that - which is a story for another day.

The left column has the date and a link to a blog entry if one exists for that day.

The right column has trips details such as transportation, day trips, and hotels. The links in this columns are mainly to photos.

And in addition there is the Google Map of our entire trip.

2008-10-31.......RDU to PVG on Delta Airlines (via Atlanta)
2008-11-01.......Arrive Shanghai + Taxi to MinHang District - Stay with Sun-Ling's parents
2008-11-03.......Shanghai - Visit Shanghai Art Museum
2008-11-05.......Shanghai - Watch US Elections coverage - Visit friends at Google - Track down some historic Art Deco buildings
2008-11-07.......Shanghai - Dentist
2008-11-12.......Bus to Ningbo via the new 37km long Hangzhou Bay Bridge - Orange Hotel
2008-11-13.......Ningbo - Day trip to Ayuwang Temple
2008-11-14.......Ningbo - Day trip to Baoguo Temple
2008-11-15.......Train to Jin Hua - Tour Architecture Park- Holiday Star Hotel
2008-11-16.......Jin Hua - Day trip to Zhuge Village
2008-11-17.......Train to Shangrao + Bus to Yanshan, Jiangxi - Yanshan Hotel
2008-11-18.......Yanshan - Visit Pontoon Bridge and Temples
2008-11-19.......Yanshan - Day trip to Shitang Town
2008-11-20.......Bus to Nanchang + Train to Changsha ,Hunan- Garden Inn
2008-11-21.......Changsha, Hunan - Tour Old Town
2008-11-22.......Changsha - Visit Kai Fu Temple and more Old Town
2008-11-23.......Train to Huaihua - Railway Hotel
2008-11-24.......Huaihua - Daytrip to Hong Jiang
2008-11-25.......Train to Anshun , Guizhou - Jun Gong Rui Qi Hotel
2008-11-26.......Bus to Puan - Pan Liang Hotel
2008-11-27.......Puan - Daytrip to Guanziyao and Baisha
2008-11-28.......Bus to Panxian - Lin Ye Hotel - Visit Temples
2008-11-29.......Panxian - Tour Old Town, City Wall, Tofu Maker
2008-11-30.......Bus to Kunming - Home Inn

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Freedom: India vs China

I have been meaning to write this entry for a long time. On the 20th anniversary of June 4, I should no longer put this off.

During our earlier 1997 India trip, we were so busy getting over culture shock, fending off scams, and keeping our wits about us, that the fact that India was largest democracy in the world eluded us. Being older and wiser and having lived China, this time the clues were everywhere.
  • I had already covered TV in an earlier post.
  • Every city, at least the ones you have heard of, but not even able to place on a map, has at least one English language newspaper, in addition to all the papers in the various Indian languages. We would get those papers at the door of our hotel rooms, in hotel lobbies, and castoff on the train, which is pretty much the same as when we travel in the US. In China there are not nearly as many papers, let alone the English ones, which I can probably count on one hand.
  • Those Indian papers are very entertaining to read. In addition to their quaint usage of the English language, the content is interesting, though the format is the pretty much the same as in the US. There is a lot more news and commentary, ranging from International (e.g. presidential elections in US), Regional (e.g. how to deal with Pakistan), National (e.g. bashing politicians and political parties), Local (e.g. elephant stampede at a temple festival). Sports must be 80% cricket, 10% soccer, and 10% other. Bollywood stars get loads of attention. Every paper we came across had at least one piece on the movie Slumdog Millionaire.
  • We left before the recent big Indian elections, but there were pretty many billboards. Since these are typically in the local language, is hard for me to tell what they are pitching. I had thought some were gurus looking to increase disciples. Yes!
In China, there is none of this press freedom. Don't even think about full fledged political parties or elections. There are plenty of temples and a few churches for the appearance of religious freedom. They all really report to Beijing. I would not be surprised that the abbot of a Buddhist Temple is a card-carrying Communist party member, much like the president of Bank of China. There are gatherings, but no organized clubs of any kind, unless it's about making money. The persecution of Falun Gong pretty much saw an end to that. 杀鸡给猴看 (Kill the chicken to show the monkey).

Most Chinese simply do not associate the word "freedom" to political freedom as there is plenty of personal freedom. For example, one of John's coworker's reported that he bought a car for the "freedom" to drive where he wanted.

There are four vices in the Chinese tradition, 吃喝嫖赌 (dining, wining, whoring, gambling).
  • Dining: Today, people gorge themselves with every kind of food. In the past, by necessity or culture, Chinese pretty much ate anything that was eatable. The tradition continues even though there is a excess amount of protein, medical technology, etc., while the natural supply of certain "foods" are diminishing or extinct. I don't really want to get into that here. In India, Hindus do not eat beef and most are lacto-vegans. Muslims do not eat pigs. The two countries stand at the very opposite ends of the spectrum.
  • Wining: In most states in India, the alcohol tax is pretty high. Not many people smoke to start with and no smoking signs are strictly observed. In China on the other hand, alcohol is widely available and cheap, though not to our taste. The effects of alcohol are not easily observed publicly, unlike smoking. This is how John puts it, Chinese men smoke everywhere, as Indian men pee everywhere. The only "No Smoking" signs that are observed are those on airplanes. No smoking hotel rooms are unheard of. In fact, you can easily smell your neighbors smoking through the walls? or electrical outlets?
  • Whoring: In China, houses of ill repute can be anywhere, like next to a daycare, since there are no zoning regulations to speak of. If you are not careful, you may walk into one thinking you are getting a haircut - I once did that in Saigon, Vietnam. I learned to spot them, but did not spot any in India.
  • Gambling: Mahjong and card games are all over China, in shops, parks, sidewalks, courtyards.... At first I had naively thought people were just killing time. Then someone said to me during our travels, "everyone in this town is either gambling or owns their own business. Those are the only two ways to prosper."
One of the favorite things we liked about India is the MRP, Maximum Retail Price. It is printed on all the packaged goods. This is very useful, especially for us travelers. In China, businesses feel free to charge whatever they want, whatever the market will bear. You are free to do anything to make money like polluting rivers, enslaving underage miners, and adulterating baby food until something bad happens.

An oppressive regime must allow excessive personal freedom, since the hold on the people is tenuous to start with, otherwise there may be uprisings to deal with.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bus Ride From Hell

I made up a quiz that bounces around my head from time to time called Bus Ride From Hell? Maybe I'll publish it here someday; or on Facebook.

The other day I was moving my recent travel journals around when one fell open to a page - Dec 15, 2008 - that had a note that said
extra 1/2 point if person next to you who is throwing up out the window is also moaning. ;-)
Just when you thought you've seen it all....

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Old Cinemas

If you follow our photos on flickr then you know that we are into 20th Century Modern Architecture especially Art Deco and Art Moderne. We make a point of seeking out this type of building in our travels and were pleasantly surprised during our 2008/2009 travels in Myanmar (Burma) and India to find quite a number of Art Deco and Art Moderne cinemas.

Some of the Art Deco cinemas in India are well known like The Eros in Mumbai and The Metro in Calcutta and easy to find. But there are many, many older cinemas in India and it's quite likely to run into a gem anywhere. In Burma, it was quite a thrill to come across older cinema in cities which are off the beaten track like Bhamo and Myitkyina. And in Yangon, many of the cinemas have large hand-painted posters.

We find these old cinemas interesting in several ways. First, the beauty of the Art Deco/Moderne stylings. Some are genuine pieces from the heydays of the 1930's and 1940's when both Deco/Moderne architecture and "talking pictures" were symbols of 20th Century modernism and progress. Others are from the post war 1950's and have an International, Tropical or Socialist flavor.

Second, the degree of upkeep of the building sometimes gives a glimpse into local culture and history. Some cinemas are well kept with minimal changes to the original design. Others are sparkling new and renovated to a degree that they have lost their charm. And some are run-down and covered with billboards, some are closed. Each one tells a story.

Third, with the consent of friendly workers we sometimes get a look into the cinema hall which can be a walk back in time to the era of ceiling fans, balconies, and ancient projectors.

I've put together a set of photos on flickr that has most of the old cinemas we saw in 2008 and 2009. Most are from India and Myanmar but there are a few from Laos as well.

The Eros Cinema in Mumbai.
Eros Cinema - Mumbai, India

The Metro Cinema in Calcutta (showing Slumdog Millionaire).
Metro Cinema - Kolkata (Calcutta), India

The striking Bayint Cinema in Mawlamyine, Burma.
Bayint Cinema - Mawlamyine, Myanmar Burma

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Trip Home

The hired van - our pile of luggage would not fit in a normal taxi - arrived at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport (PVG) on Thursday April 30th at 1:00 PM after an uneventful 30 minute ride from Sun-Ling's parents' apartment. We pushed our luggage carts, stacked high with the maximum number and poundage of both checked-in and carry-on bags, towards the Delta counter to check in for the 3:35 PM DL18 only to find it unmanned. Oh no!

It turns out that the Thursday DL18 flight from Shanghai to Atlanta that we had purchased back in September 2008 had been canceled/stopped/rescheduled many months ago. How did we manage to turn up for a flight that did not exist? ... A combination of bad luck, poor service by Delta, and our own stupidity. I'll spare you the long version.

After a call to Delta, we found out that we were booked on the next day's 3:35 PM DL18, took a room on our own dime at the Airport Hotel 168, located conveniently between Terminal One and Terminal Two, and flew back home on May 1st.

View from our hotel room towards Terminal One.
Terminal One - Pudong International Airport - PVG - Shanghai, China

The kindness of strangers. On the morning of May 1st, we were standing at the KFC counter lamenting that we could not buy a 10 RMB cup of coffee since we only had 7.9 RMB in cash and KFC does not take credit cards when an older American guy overheard us and handed me a 100RMB note (about $14). Even though we were not in real difficulty - there was an ATM just around the corner - I took his "gift" after he told us his "stranded with no money" story. He was so sincere in his kind offer that it seemed best to say "thank you very, very, much" take the bill. [Agree or disagree? Post a comment.]

The flight to Atlanta was normal although the veggie meals seemed a little small, but there were lots of snacks available. I watched 3 movies - Yes Man was enjoyable - and 2 documentaries, but only slept for an hour or two. We breezed through immigration and customs in Atlanta. Our friends Tony and Wang Kui picked us up at the airport, took us by Harris Teeter to pick up some groceries, and delivered us home.

The next morning I re-connected its battery and the Forester started right up after a 6-month hibernation. And on Monday morning we drove down to the DMV, paid our $33 fee and $100 fine and picked up a new license plate. Lesson learned: Don't let your Liability Insurance lapse if you live in NC.

Two weeks later. The house seems in good order. All the major appliances still work. I made 2 minor repairs to the lawnmower... It is very satisfying to repair a broken lawnmower... Life is good.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Back Home

First, let me clarify that the last video posted, The Chapati Stand, was taken in December of 2008. Sorry for any confusion. While on the road it would have been almost impossible to upload this 72Mb HD video file to flickr given bandwidth and availability in Myanmar and India. So while in China at the end of our trip, I uploaded this video as a test of flickr's new support for HD video. Then I used flickr's "BLOG THIS" feature to post the video to this blog. Got it?

We are now back home in Raleigh. It's been quite a journey since we retired in January of 2008. No reflections in this post, that will come later, but I do want to post two photos. The first, a self portrait taken at the Stone Forest in Kunming in January 2008. The second, a photo taken by our buddy Wayne at Element Fresh restaurant in Shanghai in April 2009. We look a bit thinner now don't you think?

Week One - Yunnan, China


At Element Fresh - Shanghai

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Chapati Stand - Mandalay, Myanmar Burma

The Chapati Stand at 27th and 82nd was hoppin' in the early evening when I shot this video. The ladies in the back roll the dough and the two guys in front grill em up and toss them in the basket.

We were waiting for our take away order which is being filled by the guy taking chapatis out of the basket and stuffing them into a plastic bag.

Tasty! We went back the following night for more - this time "sit-down" on the sidewalk.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tulou - Nanping County, Fujian, China

Spent the last several days in Fujian Province checking out the very cool round and square earthen buildings called "tulou". Some are hundreds of years old, some are just 40 years old, and most are found in clusters of 3 to 10.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Back in China

We are back in China after a long travel day yesterday through 4 countries/territories (Nepal, Thailand, Macau, and China), accumulating 6 entry and exit stamps - a record for us - in which no luggage was lost, no personal items were confiscated, no connections were missed, no extra money was spent, and John did not go hungry on the Thai Air Asia flight which only sells food and water - no free nourishment.

Here in Zhuhai we have a pretty good Wi-Fi connection so I'm posting photos from Nepal here.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Strike

We arrived at the Nepal border around noon on March 12th and after a painless visa-on-arrival process, found ourselves in the middle of an open-ended, regional, general strike. Hotels were open but most other businesses were closed. Buses and taxis were not running. The only available mode of transportation was bicycle rickshaw.

Our original plan was to cross the border, take the local bus 4 kms to Bhiarawa, then 22km to Lumbini, the Buddha's birthplace, stay 2 nights in Lumbini and continue by bus to Royal Chitwan Park where we were scheduled to meet up with friends. Now, no buses and the rickshaw drivers wanted, commanded, 500 Nepali rupees (10 times the normal bus fare) to carry us and our bags one way to Lumbini. Another option was to take a bicycle rickshaw 25 kms north to Butwal where we could then catch a bus to Pokhara, but that meant skipping Lumbini.

The locals told us the strike was in it's 10th day and was confirmed to last at least 2 more days. They also said that it was a bad idea to go to Chitwan Park as several policemen had been killed in that area during the strike. After some deliberation, we decided to spend the night in Bhiarawa and day trip by rickshaw to Lumbini on the 13th and go on to Pokhara on the 14th - no Chitwan for now.

We found a nice hotel. The next objective was to find an Internet cafe and email our friends to meet us in Pokhara, not Chitwan. Walked out of the hotel and strolled around town. It's quiet as there are no buses, trucks, or cars; only the occasional motorbike. The bicycle rickshaw drivers are feeling good as business is booming at inflated prices and cruise by us asking "Lumbini?", "Butwal?", "Where you want to go?".

Most of the stores are closed or have their doors just half open. We don't see single restaurant that's open so we eat at a noodle stand - 4 plates of veg fried noodles at 10 NRs each. We see a few other travelers and chat with them, hoping to get some information. A pair of Polish women are quite jovial. They are part of a group that has charted a bus and are off tomorrow morning to either Pokhara or Kathmandu. They invite us to ride along with them - "It's a big bus".

Eventually we find an Internet cafe that's open. Woohoo! The connection is good and Sun-Ling is able to "chat" with our friend and it is agreed to meet in Pokhara on the 15th. This cafe also sells phone SIM cards and we fill out some forms, hand over one passport photo and 516 Nepali Rupees (NRs) and we are mobile. Woohoo again! After tanking up on more fried noodles we head back to the hotel and call it a day.

To make a long story short. On the 13th we hired a bicycle rickshaw for 700 NRs to take us the 22kms to Lumbini, wait for 3 hours, and return; a trip we will never forget. And on the 14th we hired a rickshaw to take us and our bags 25 slightly uphill kms to Butwal where we caught a bus to Pokhara, arriving at 7:00 PM. On the 15th we met up with our friends. The strike ended on the 16th.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

TV: India vs China

Indian TV is amazing. We stay at very average places that do not solely cater to international visitors. Usually one third of the 30 to 60 channels are in English and most of the time there are three movie channels including HBO (same brand, different programming, I think), not to mention the movie channels in the local languages. Indians love movies. What's surprising is that a lot of the time we also get American channels that we know and love, such as History, Travel and Living, and National Geographic channels. They feel familiar yet weird, since we have not regularly watched TV for the last 6 years.

This is a far cry from China. Traveling in China we stay in the same class of hotels as in India, maybe lower, since hotel standards are higher in China. Though the TV sets are invariably better, the programming is dismal. If we are lucky, maybe one quarter of the time, we get the sole government run English language channel CCTV 9. Since all media is state controlled, all programs sprout the same party propaganda. Every now and then I would try to catch some local news on the Chinese language channels, but invariably I would be so disgusted by the same slogan that I grew up with;e.g., "Follow ___'s lead, uphold ____ principles ...." I end up clicking off the TV in frustration, cursing. Though CCTV 9 is only slightly more tolerable, when we do get it, I am glad of the change and watch in earnest, I have stooped so low.

When we were traveling in China last spring, TV was all about the Olympic torch relay, in excruciating detail; e.g.,which big wigs waited at the airport, the plane lands, so-and-so steps out and waves at the crowd.... Then the Tibetan protests happened. Happy Tibetans fill the is so much better now compared to under Dalai Lama....ungrateful Tibetans. All dissenting Chinese language sites were blocked on the Internet. English languages sites seemed to be censored less. We were glad when the earthquake happened -- I don't really mean that, not for the people -- as we thought we would finally see some real news. What a mistake! All we saw was the government troupes and officials leading the rescue efforts, and lines of people dropping 100 yuan notes into collection boxes. There was hardly any "disaster" coverage; that is, the destruction, the damage, and the dead. I could go on ranting, but it depresses me too much.

Another thing we noticed is that Indian TV commercials actually look like commercials to us, not that much different than the ones in the US. On the other hand Chinese TV commercials are so bland and cutesy, one would think we are still living in the 1950s. It's no wonder China is the only country in the civilized world where the young are turning to the Internet for entertainment more than the TV.

Saturday, February 28, 2009


It's been hot the past week in Tamil Nadu. Hot, sunny, and sticky. It's affected my photography as quantity and quality are both down. Just don't have the energy to always strive for the perfect shot(s). And the strong midday sun makes it harder to get a good exposure.

But you say it's supposed to be hot in South India. Well this heatwave has made the newspapers. Schools have been ordered to close early. We spent two days this week in Bhubaneswar and each day the temperature was 40 C or 102 F. The second day we went on an AC bus tour of Konark and Puri... Of course the AC stopped working at 10:00 AM. Sigh. We did get a partial refund. Woohoo!

Yesterday we arrived in Calcutta and it's much cooler. The high today was only 88 F. We spent the whole day around Sudder Street, the so-called backpacker's ghetto, looking for a better hotel (we decided to stay put), trying to contact a travel agent in Kathmandu (no luck), eating, and shopping (I bought a set of 5 pens for 10 rupees). Tomorrow we start seeing the sights.

Big Temple - Thanjavur - Tamil Nadu - India

Big Temple - Thanjavur - Tamil Nadu - India
The locals call it the Big Temple and it's an impressive UNESCO World Heritage site officially called The Great Chola Temples of Tamil Nadu.

We liked it a lot as the admission was free and non-Hindus were allowed in the Inner Sanctum (the tall structure at left center).

On the downside, I was under the weather with a sinus infection and felt like crap the whole day. That evening we measured my temperature at 102.4; time to break out the antibiotics and Vit-I.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Having fun in India

We first came to India in 1997 for four weeks in the Northwest. When I got back to work, I was asked about the trip by some coworkers.
"How was India?"
"It's unbelievable, just like you see on TV. Animals, domestic and wild, mingle in the streets; people of every religion are engaged in activities, trade, transportation, and technologies that cross centuries; all generating waste that is left to perfume the air. By night, shelterless people slumber on the sidewalks, street medians, any kind of surface..."
"But did you have fun?"
"Uh... no, India was not fun. India is an experience."
"Hmm... will you go again?"
There was so much hardship, misery, and suffering, that no matter how specular the Taj Mahal, I could not enjoy myself. Besides, we had to fend off beggars, street urchins, touts, scam artists of every kind. Yet every single day, we would experience something that was simply out of this world.

Now that we have all the time in the world to travel, it seemed that we could no longer put off returning to India any longer. John and I thought two months would allow us to finish off the rest of the highlights and we would then be done with India, though we had serious doubts about our ability to last two whole months in India.

We arrived in Mumbai on Jan 16th, picking up exactly where we left off the last time and headed to the south. Two weeks into the trip I began to realize that I am actually having fun. Could it be
  • We are in a different part of the country?
  • India has made a lot of progress in the past 10 year?
  • We are different?
Whatever the reasons, I am beginning to catch the fragrance of jasmine garlands, beyond the constant assaults of human and animal waste that permeate the Indian air.
  • Even though life is hard, people do have fun. They go out to eat, have sightseeing outings and picnics with family and friends. They take their grandchildren to the beach park. They smile; they laugh. The temple festivals are simply amazing.
  • While the government may not believe in public toilets and trash collection, the public transportation, trains, buses, and ferries, are outstanding compared to the level of development (more on this later). It is easy and fun to travel around.
  • I love the food. Most vegetarians adore Indian food. In the past, John and I merely enjoyed the occasional Indian food. In 1997, we got tired of India food pretty soon into our trip. This time we cannot have enough of Indian food. I can hardly believe it myself.
If the weather was not getting hotter and we did not already have plans to meet a friend in Nepal, we would keep on traveling in India. We are having so much fun that we are already plotting our next trip.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Eating in India

Eating in South India has been awesome. There are many restaurants with friendly staff, tasty food, English menus, fair prices (less than 2 USD feeds two people), tons of vegetarian options, fresh veggies and juices, and a variety of cuisines: Chinese, Western, North and South Indian.

We have slowly been learning the local names for the different dishes, the restaurant protocol (tipping, toilet, table sharing, tap water, etc), and how to order coffee that is not too sweet.

Here's a photo of Sun-Ling about to dig in to a Paper Dhosa in the Santosh Hotel Restaurant in Mysore.

Now that's a Dhosa - Mysore, India

Monday, February 02, 2009

India Photos

I'll be uploading India photos here:

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ruili to Bhamo -- The Details (Dec 2008) - China to Burma by land

If you are not planning to travel from Ruili, China to Bhamo, Myanmar (Burma) then you can stop reading now; however, it may be an interesting tale.

In Jan 2008 we flew from China to Myanmar - Kunming to Mandalay - for about 250 USD each so on this 2nd trip in December 2008 we wanted to go overland as the costs are about the same. However, we did not want to take the usual route of Ruili to Muse Lashio to Mandalay as we had spent 5 days in Mandalay just 10 months before and had traveled to Pyin U Lwin and Hsipaw which are both on the Lashio to Mandalay road. We decided to try to go from Ruili (or other nearby border crossings) to Bhamo or Myitkyina, areas not explored in January.

Disclaimer: One of our party, Sun-Ling, is fluent in Chinese.

So we inquired via email (actually a good friend in Shanghai did most of the work) and phone about crossing the Chinese border to Bhamo and Myitkyina. The results seemed to suggest that for 3rd parties (neither Chinese nor Burmese):
- the only border crossing allowed is Ruili/Muse.
- Ruili to Bhamo is possible for just a few more dollars than Ruili to Lashio; in fact, we got an email quote of 1800 RMB per person.
- Ruili to Myitkyina is NOT possible at all.

So we got our Myanmar visas in the US and after some traveling in China, arrived in Kunming about Dec 1st, 2008. We went to the Union of Myanmar Consulate and inquired about overland travel from China. The nice lady at the consulate who we remembered from January told us that overland travel to Bhamo and Myitkyina was not possible - the only route is Ruili to Lashio - and she gave us the business card of Steven Travel in the Camelia hotel who she said could arrange the trip since a permit and guide are required. Hmm. Also told us that there is a quota of 20 foreigners per month. Hmm again.

We went directly to talk to Steven Travel and the young man in the office confirmed that travel to Bhama and Myitkyina is not possible. He quoted a price to Lashio - 1400 RMB per person and said that we could make the arrangements with him now in Kunming or we could go to Ruili ourselves and make the arrangements there with his partner. Either way OK as we would have to contact his partner in Ruili anyway once we got there; just need more lead time ( 2 or 3 days ) if we just showed up in Ruili and contacted his partner. Lastly he said that the quota is no problem. Personally, I don't think that there is a quota but that's a digression.

So back to our hotel and we called the woman who had quoted 1800 RMB to Bhamo, a Miss Li, who it turns out is Steven Travel's partner in Ruili. She has an office in Muse but it's a Chinese phone number. She said that going to Bhamo from Ruili was possible and quoted us 1600 RMB per person. We asked why Steven Travel did not know about traveling to Bhamo. He doesn't know since he is in Kunming was the reply. Confusing. We told Ms Li that we wanted to go to Bhamo about Dec 15th and would call her a few days before we arrived in Ruili. OK she said.

When we arrived in Ruili, Miss Li and an associate came to our hotel. The price had mysteriously change to 1700 RMB per person and she claimed to have no recollection of quoting us 1600 on the phone, so we had to bargain hard to get her down to 1650. We agreed on a date of Dec 18th and Ms Li said to be at the Chinese side of the border a 9:00 and our guide would meet us and we would hand over the 3300 RMB to her once we had crossed the border.

So on the morning of the 18th we took a taxi from our hotel to the border; 4 RMB per person for the red cars that look like taxis but don't have a "TAXI" sign on top. We got there at 9:00 AM sharp and the guide came at 9:30 after we called Miss Li to ask where he was.

The guide followed us through the Chinese exit formalities, literally. There were some Chinese trying to jump the queue so we took advantage of the sign that said "Foreigners" and moved to the front.

Miss Li was waiting for us on the other side and took us into a official looking shack that was so small that Sun-Ling and I could both barely fit with our backpacks on. We signed a bunch of forms that Miss Li had filled out for us; customs, arrival card, travel permit requests, etc, without really giving them a good look but had no problems later on.

Then into a Toyota Wagon for the short drive to Miss Li's office where she made about 10 copies of our passports and travel permits, loaded up the guide with 3 or 4 bundles of cash, collected 3300 RMB from us (a 100 RMB note disappeared during the money counting process - not sure what happened - we may have been short, but it was not a professional money counting transaction on their part).

Anyway, Myanmar is 1.5 hours behind China so at about 9:00 AM Myanmar time we got back in the Toyota Wagon (British side steering wheel) and headed off to Bhamo. The guide sat in the front seat with the driver.

The road was pretty good - it is the Burma Road you know - and we made it to Namkham in about 15 minutes. In Namkham, we switched cars from the Toyota wagon to a Toyota Crown Sedan with a jacked up rear suspension and heavy duty tires. The driver already had a load of goods in the trunk so we stashed our bags in the back seat with us. Tight.

Soon after changing cars we hit the first of 8 or 10 checkpoints - I lost count - at the Shweli River. The procedure, which was about the same at all checkpoints, involved the guide nervously going into a small shack clutching a clear envelope containing our paperwork, the bag with the bribe or tax money hung over is shoulder, the driver confidently hanging out nearby, and both returning 5 minutes later with one less copy of our paperwork. We then resume the trip. We never had to get out of the car or answer questions and our bags we never searched. Sometimes it appeared to be a Military checkpoint, sometimes a just a bureaucratic checkpoint, sometimes it looked like simple extortion.

The pace was slow as the road was in terrible but passable condition and when we stopped for lunch at 1:00 PM the guide said we were halfway to Bhamo. It's about 65 kms from Namkham to Bhamo so we had covers 30 some kms in 4 hrs. Slow.

Lunch was at what is best called a truck stop. A few huts in the middle of nowhere. Right after the restaurant, we hit a checkpoint that was a bit different. There were about 10 guys standing around. No uniforms. The guide looked really nervous and did not want to get out of the car. The driver was nonchalant as usual. Two guys came up and peered in to the back seat at Sun-Ling and I. One guy looked friendly so I said hello. This time our guide was in the building for 15 minutes. While he was gone, one of the first guys to come up to the car, reached in the front and searched the glove box and the guide's jacket. Strange.

So at this point let me say a few things concerning several recent posting on Lonely Planet Thorn Tree about the overland route into Burma from Ruili. It seems unlikely that you can originally arrange the trip to Lashio, then once in Myanmar, simply tell the driver and guide that you want to go to Bhamo. For one thing, if you are in Toyota Wagon, you might not make it as the road is terrible. Second, the checkpoints seemed like serious business to me. The guide needs the right permits, right amount of cash, and 10 copies of the paperwork in order to make it through.

We arrived in Bhamo about 5:30 PM - 9.5 hours to go 80 kms. One last checkpoint somewhere inside the city. We drove to the Friendship Hotel then on to the Grand Hotel where we took a double room for $18 US per night including breakfast.

That's it. Questions, comments, and corrections welcome.

The China/Myanmar border as seen from the Chinese side.
The Border between Ruili, China and Muse, Myanmar Burma

The old bridge over the Shweli River.
Old Shweli River Bridge - Namkham, Myanmar

Our nervous guide (left) with his paperwork and the unconcerned driver (right).
Our Guide and Driver on the Road to Bhamo, Myanmar Burma

The lunchtime truckstop.
Truck Stop on the road to Bhamo, Myanmar Burma

Some scenes from Bhamo: A cinema, the clock tower and stadium grandstand, a mosque, and Sun-Ling enjoying some deep fried veggies at a tea stall.

Za Bu Di Par Cinema - Bhamo, Myanmar Burma

Mosque - Bhamo, Myanmar Burma

Clocktower and Stadium Grandstand - Bhamo, Myanmar Burma

Tea Shop/stall - Bhamo, Myanmar Burma

Monday, January 19, 2009


Arrived in Mummbai on Jan 16 via Bangkok and so far our time here has exceeded expectations. The sites are great, lots of cool Art Deco buildings for example, the weather almost pleasant (not too hot), the people are friendly, the food is tasty and cheap, and we have an awesome corner room at the Hotel Victoria for a reasonable price (about 35 USD per night).

Friday, January 02, 2009

Yangon - Happy New Year 2009

We spent New Year's Eve in Yangon (Rangoon), completing our overland journey from Shanghai. After a quick return trip by train to Mawlamyine, the 3rd largest city in Myanmar, we will take our first flight of the trip to Sittwe were we will visit the old temple site of Mrauk-U. Then down to Ngapali beach for 5 days of R&R.

All the best in 2009!

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