Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Rockin in the Free World

Back in Shanghai I had threatened that the first of our post in Taiwan was going to be titled "Rockin in the Free World," as I would finally be outside the "Great Firewall."

I had no idea that I had become clairvoyant in my old age. Here in Taipei, we are visiting with one of John's friends from Intel, watching Sheryl Crow and Chris Botti DVDs and John giving guitar lessons to our hosts. We are literally rocking. The internet is fast and steady and we can get EVERYWHERE. Life is good. Desperate people are easily contented.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Shanghai the Big City

While our provincial life in Raleigh NC has its merits, big cities do hold certain attractions for us. The past week we have been reacquainting ourselves with our favorite Art Deco buildings and art venues, and discovering new ones. We were very glad to find that M50, our old favorite art district, is more vibrant than ever. We went to Red Town which came into existence after we left. While it is more mainstream, less avant-garde and experimental than M50, it is still funky. In a sea of commercialism, oasis is a rarity. Also enjoyed meeting "old friends" at the Rockbund Art Museum ad seeing some "old friends" on the streets.

The Saloon Car at Shanghai Sculpture Space in Red Town.
The Saloon Car - Shanghai Sculpture Space - Shanghai, China

Good to see the Graffiti Wall at M50 is still going strong.
Graffiti - M50 - Shanghai, China

Zhang Huan's Q Confucius at the Rockbund Art Museum.
Zhang Huan: Q Confucius  - Rockbund Art Museum - Shanghai, China

And finally couple of old friends, the Royal Asiatic Society building with a renovated facade...
Royal Asiatic Society - Huqui Road - Shanghai, China

... and the Land Bank of China still impressively perched at the corner of Beijing Road and Jiangxi Road.
Land Bank of China -  East Beijing Road - Shanghai, China

Friday, December 23, 2011

Chinese Weddings

The premise of this trip to China was to attend a cousin's wedding, the first since when we lived in China.  In the two years we lived in Shanghai, we attended a total of four weddings.  

Chinese weddings have always been about the wedding banquet. John had always joked about weddings being a bad deal for us vegetarians, since it is customary to shell out enough cash as wedding presents to cover the cost of the meal.  This means for $100+ we get some beer or wine that's barely drinkable, scraps of vegetable cooked along with meat or seafood, some noodles or rice if we are lucky so we do not go home hungry, all in a loud and smoke-filled room.

To be serious, these were all young people (relatives and colleagues) we cared about and wished well for.  Why would we gripe about the food and expense?  What really disturbs me is the lack of meaning and tradition for wedding rituals.  Weddings are run by an MC who may be a friend or hired.  The MC directs the couple through a series of acts lifted from the west, such as lighting of candles, cutting of the cake, punctuated by speeches by a witness, a parent.... It is a poorly produced pageant show.

Four years of absence later, Chinese weddings have gone from pageant shows to game shows.  The pageant part has been significantly shortened.  Instead, there was much audience participation in Name That Tune, Price Is Right, and Lottery.  Between the heavy cigarette smoke and the love-to-hear-myself-holler MC, John was compelled to take a brief retreat outside, leaving me to contemplate the decline of Chinese civilization, wondering why China is supposed to take over the world?!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Unplanned Visit to the Dentist

Just back from an unplanned visit to the dentist. Last week a piece of a molar that surrounded a filling came off while I was eating a bing (chinese pancake). Luckily, there was no pain or discomfort so the visit can be categorized unplanned instead of emergency.

Short version: I now have my first ever temporary crown and we are off to Taiwan as planned the day after tomorrow.

Longer version: I've been to the dentist in China several times as noted here (http://meckleychina.blogspot.com/2007/11/going-to-dentist.html), but only for cleanings. In fact it's been over 30 years since I've tasted the Novocaine and smelled the drill. So I was a bit apprehensive when I walked into Dr Shen's office even though he had cleaned my teeth twice before, speaks English well, and is my mother-in-law's regular dentist.

I arrived at 3PM. An exam, an x-ray, a shot of Novacaine, an impression of the lower molars, lots of drilling, more impressions, a bit of waiting with Dr Shen's finger in my mouth, the fitting of the temporary crown ,the  touch-up of  the bite, a down payment on the actual crown, an appointment made for Jan 27, and we are out the door a 4:10. Whew!
On the way home we bought for a bottle of Oro Del Mundo Cabernet Sauvignon at Carrefour and all is well.
Random thoughts: I think Dr. Shen gave me a tremendous shot of Novacaine - not complaining - as I couldn't feel anything on that side for 4 hours....The "flavors" of the impression materials and bite paper were very Chinese.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Welcome to China Part 3

Our China Departure Card - the paper, attached to the Arrival Card, on which is printed: "Retain this card in your possession, failure to do so may delay your departure from China" -  clearly states that "Aliens who do not lodge at hotels, guesthouses or inns, shall within 24 hours of entry, go through accommodation registration at local police station.  I merely took it a suggestion, but between two prodigious rule followers in the family, my mom and John, it was decided that we would pay a visit to the local precinct, to be on the safe side.

Upon presenting our passports, we were informed that we needed to show our host's property deed.  How else could she believe our address?!  I was dumbstruck.  Who is their right mind would bother to make a pointless registration with a fake address?  Property deed?!  One has to surrender their property deed to all their houseguests?!  

Not knowing where to begin, I stammered something about distant relative, just renting, privacy, etc.  The young policewoman relented slightly - try to get the property deed, otherwise, an affidavit from the neighborhood association would do - by the way, there is plenty of time, we have 72 hours, not 24.  On the way out of the precinct, I started to explain the whole exchange to John, almost got my head chewed off by John for lying to the police about staying with distant relatives....  

When we got home, I was all ready to work on getting the affidavit from the neighborhood association, but my mom and John decided to go the property deed route.  Another trip to the precinct, hardly having to utter any words, we came away with slips of paper of registration that may save us some bigger hassle later???

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tomb Sweeping

In China, the period around the winter solstice is a traditional time for interment and tomb sweeping, so last week we hopped in a rented bus with 10 other relatives and headed off in the Shanghai AM rush hour towards Suzhou to visit the graves of Sun-Ling's grandfather and her grandmother's nephew. The nephew was buried during last year's solstice period and his grave was easy to find and well maintained. Offerings were made, respects were paid by bowing three times, paper money was burned by Sun-Ling's nephews, and then we were off to Grandfather's grave.

We first visited Grandfather's grave 20 years ago in a hired car. The cemetery was located "off the map" on a dirt road and we had to stop several times and ask directions. Today the cemetery is in a busy suburb with an expressway cutting it in half. Our bus driver had to stop and ask directions once, and on arriving, the new parking lot was disorienting and we had to look up the plot number and location at the cemetery office. Located on the other side of the new expressway, and up the hill, Grandfather's grave needed some small trees removed and the inscription needed fresh paint. That done, we made offerings of flowers and fruit, bowed three times, Sun-Ling's nephews burned paper money, and we headed back down the hill, over the expressway, back to the bus and on to a late lunch.

After lunch we visited an uncle and aunt in Suzhou then returned to Shanghai during the PM rush hour - a long but rewarding day.

On the expressway to Suzhou.

Grandmother's nephew's tomb.

Grandfather's grave all cleaned up.

Sun-Ling's parents bowing.

Ian and Ethan burn paper money to be used by their great-grandfather in the afterlife.

Back in Shanghai.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Week in Pudong

We are back in Minhang after spending a week in Pudong (the east bank of the Huangpu River) with friends and relatives. Pudong, formerly an agricultural backwater, has been transformed into the financial center of Shanghai with magnificent bridges and glittering towers; however, our stay was a purely pleasure visit with friends and family.

We borrowed bikes from Sun-Ling's sister and rode along the canals where we encountered both old ways and construction of new office buildings.

Another day we walked down to the Huangpu River and enjoyed the view of the Yangpu Bridge and the waterfront.

But the highlight was spending time with Sun-Ling's nephews.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Welcome to China Part 2


We still have some RMB leftover at ICBC (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China) that needs to be used up; that is, withdrawn at an ATM and spent.  But first we had to move the money from the fixed term to the regular account.  Unfortunately I cannot remember our password to do so online.  Armed with our passports, we made a visit the local branch.  We were immediately told that the ID on file is under John's old passport number and since the old and new passports have different numbers, they cannot be sure that they are dealing with the same person.  No, a photocopy of the old passport is not acceptable.

Upon learning we are not in the habit of cruising around the world with our stack of old passports, the young bank clerk suggested that we visit the branch where we originally opened the account where they may be able to recall the old records from the archive; by the way, the branch now has a new location.  

Fortified by lunch and armed with the addition of a photocopy of the old passport, we found the second branch.  The nice branch manager conceded that the photocopy and new passport are the same person.  However, when all the scanned papers showed up at a remote authority, the remote authority discerned that the account name JOHNMECKLEY is different from the passports, though all parties understood that when the account was opened in 2005, the bank software only allowed 11 characters for names.  So the recall from archive was necessary after all.  Our contact info was noted.  When the recall is completed in about three business days, we will be notified, upon when we can make yet another visit.

Luckily we were allowed to move the funds from fixed to regular, so at least we came away with some spending money.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Welcome to China Part 1

It has been four years since we lived in Shanghai and two and half years since our last visit. While our escape from the Pudong Airport was ultra smooth (efficient immigration lines and no waiting for a taxi), we have since had a thorough review of the '1984 + Catch 22'-esque China.  

The Great Firewall of China

Wikipedia and Flickr are unblocked compared to when we last lived here. Yeah!  Blogspot.com, home of this blog, continues to be blocked. Before, we could easily enter our blog entries at blogger.com, publish, and then use a backdoor in "settings" to view the blog post.  Now, blogger.com is completely blocked.  We have exhausted our geeky gymnastics just to publish this entry.  I must have tried 30 or 40 proxy servers before John figured out how to use blogger's publish-by-email feature.

Our custom maps (My Places) on Google Maps and our spreadsheets and documents on Google Docs are also inaccessible.  There goes all our trip research.  No google+.  No youtube, not to mention Facebook.  John cannot read many of the blogs he regularly follows, including our good friend Kathy's blog on workpress.  No twitter either.  But imdb?!  Just about all my regular visited sites are blocked.

So, unable to make progress on blogging and trip research, we headed out to do some errands. We had no idea that the time we saved by not surfing would be so valuable later. Stay tuned...

Friday, December 09, 2011

China 2011-2012 Trip Begins

We started our trip with a quick home-stay with my brother in Saratoga CA. Hiking around the Santa Cruz Mountains made California seem like a continuation of our South America trip.  Intro to Asia came in the form of delicious Thai restaurants and visiting with my brother and family.  The highlights were an ice cream cake creation for niece Nicole's birthday and niece Cameron's school musical.

John headed uphill in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Nicole puts the finishing touches on her ice cream cake.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Mount Mitchell

After easy summers at home, I fear the danger of rotting away. Our favorite time to go camping is fall. Two years ago we came upon this campground - Black Mountain Campground near Busick, NC - located by a stream, with clean single-stalled, heat-lamped hot showers, and it's the starting point of a 5.2-mile trail, with 3684 feet of vertical gain up to the top of Mount Mitchell. At 6684 feet above sea level, Mt Mitchell is the highest peak east of Mississippi. In the Andes such meager height can only be found in some crevice at the bottom of a canyon. But Mt Mitchell will have to do for now.

We watched the weather for a couple weeks and set out for the Black Mountain campground (3000') on a crisp Monday. To better gauge the degree of rot, the plan was for ascents on consecutive days.

Once we set up camp, we gathered enough firewood for the next three days. Two years ago we took the expedition too lightly. We wanted to be better prepared.

Well, we did it, be it at my tortoise pace. The first day may have been slightly faster than two years ago. The second day was slightly slower. All were well within 10% of each other. The ascent took ~4.25 hours and descent ~3.25 hours. While we fared better than two years ago, we suspect our fitness has declined from our South American peak. Still, we found the expedition so satisfying that we decided to make "consecutive ascents" of Mt Mitchell our biannual fitness test.

Sun-Ling keeps herself warm on our first evening at Black Mountain Campground.
Black Mountain Campground - NC

Taking on fuel on the way up. ;-)
Mount Mitchell - NC

A gentle, covered uphill section of the trail which is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Ascending Mount Mitchell - NC

Some snow and ice on a north slope near the summit.
Mount Mitchell - NC

The two of us at the top on the first day.
Summit - Mount Mitchell - NC

Looking back to Black Mountain Campground (near the golf course in the near middle) and to Linville Gorge (see the two bumps middle-left-back).
View from top of Mount Mitchell - NC

Lots of wild flowers along the trail. Also saw one deer, a ruffed grouse, and many, many chipmunks.
Flora - Mount Mitchell - NC

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Back on the road again

Back when we were still in South America, we talked about going to
China next. Since a number of my young cousins are of marriageable
age, we thought we would pick a wedding to make our next trip.

A couple of weeks ago when we were given a wedding date of 12/18, John
declared, "our easy days are over." For a second, I took him to mean
that we needed to be go back to work :( This summer we have been
indulging in reading, bicycling, gorging on home cooked food, and being
hermits in general, while there is much reading, studying Spanish,
and more blog writing leftover from our South America travels. I
shrink from the prospects of piling on more. Bagging countries may
have been some kind of objective before. It is no longer a concern,
though we do love covering new territories. So, we decided to only go
to China and Taiwan, putting off the staggering research and
sweltering heat of Mainland and Maritime Southeast Asia for another time.

We are flying to San Fransisco 11/29, then to Shanghai 12/5. After
the wedding, we will fly to Taiwan 12/24 and be back in Shanghai 1/21 for Chinese
New Year. After Chinese New Year, we will fly to Kunming. We plan to
travel around in western Yunnan and then into Sichuan. We will fly
back from Shanghai to San Fransisco 4/12. After that, our plans are
still open.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Typical Day

A friend asked me the other day "So, what's a typical day like when you are traveling?" I had to think about it for a few seconds. Actually, there are three types of typical days for us.

First, travel days. On the last trip of 230+ days we had about 100 travel days. A typical travel day means getting up early, but not too early, eating breakfast, packing, checking out of the hotel, walking if at all possible to the bus station, getting on the bus and riding 4 to 6 hours to our next destination. We like to travel during the day; somewhat for safety, but mostly to enjoy the scenery. On arriving in the new town (sometimes in a new country) we check out onward connections at the bus station, find the local tourist office, search for the perfect hotel (Wi-Fi, private bath, and hot showers required), then locate places to to get food: vegetarian restaurants, traditional markets, and supermarkets.

Second, day trips. The point is to get out of of the town  preferably by walking, taking a local bus or train, or some mix of each. The day trips we like the best are either all day hikes that start from the hotel, or short bus rides to a nearby small, walkable town with a lively local market - arriving on market day is the best.

Third, urban wandering in which we set out from the hotel with a walking tour and/or map in hand and precede to see all the local sites with a break at noon for the set lunch menu in a vegetarian restaurant. On the best day we also eat street food, see an unexpected awesome Art Deco building or two, encounter some real religion, visit the best museum in town for free, and ride public transportation.

It's a rare day that we just cool our heels in our hotel but it did happen on election day in Ecuador.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Dinner party May 21st

Back in Argentina we realized what we really needed is to do some drinking and eating with friends and family when we get back home. So,we are planning a dinner party on Saturday May 21 at our home in Raleigh. I will try out some new foods and drinks we learned from this trip.  I want to get started on menu planning. If we do not already know you are coming, please let us know. All future communications on this will be moved to email.

We are looking forward to lots of catching up!

At the airport pickup in Roanoke, Virgina.
Back Home

The Dinner Table - May 21, 2011
Welcome Home Dinner - Raleigh, NC USA

Accidental South Florida

Because the accursed Spirit Airlines canceled our original flight, we find ourselves with extra days to kill in dull-ville Fort Lauderdale instead of atmospheric Peru. We had resigned ourselves to dedicate this time to rest and reentry. However, as we are not used to low gear, a day was planned for South Beach, Miami for a revisit to the art deco buildings.

Getting from Fort Lauderdale to South Beach on public transportation turned out to be an interesting research project that intrigued both of us. We eventually settled on taking the express bus e95 (just a 10 minute walk from our hotel) to downtown Miami and then transferring to one of several regular beach bound buses.

South Beach was a success, since John took 500+ photos in a 6-hour span, which in my estimation, was not only a trip record, but a personal record for him. That was not a surprise. What really impressed us was the e95 bus! We first became enamored with Bus Rapid Transit in Bogota, Columbia. Since then we came across it in several cities. But in South Florida?! We chose the BRT over the train because of the frequency, speed, and cost. The bus went 26 miles on I95 in the express lane without a single stop, came every 15 minutes, and cost $2.35. Both ways the bus was about 90-95% full, of mostly commuters. In Fort Lauderdale, people mostly drove to the bus stop; in Miami they walked and transferred to other public transportation.

This trip has opened up new ideas for public transportation for us. There seem to be so much physical, social, and cultural barriers to public transportation in this country. The e95 has given me much hope.

E95 Bus at the Broward BLVD stop.
95 Express bus stop at West Broward BLVD - Fort Lauderdale, FL

Couple of Miami Beach Art Deco buildings. More to come!
Waldorf Hotel - South, Beach - Miami, FL

The Breakwater - South, Beach - Miami, FL

Savoring Lima Centro

Downtown Lima is supposed to be an unsavory place. When we came through in December, we based ourselves in the fashionable Miraflores district, but found Centro to be more of our liking, so we are staying in Centro this time, which turned out to be an excellent idea.

Downtown Lima is humming with activities and people. Being at the end of our travels, we are taking it easy, popping into churches whenever their doors are open, a bit of shopping here and there, sampling the numerous vegetarian restaurants. Friday night there was a free outdoor concert by the National Youth Symphony orchestra. Saturday the city sponsors a series of events at one of the parks; the Literature Museum shows a free art-house movie. All week there was a book fair in front of the Government Palace.

Peru has exceeded our expectations. For a developing country, Peru feels very sophisticated. In spite of the high tourist volume, we found the people very genial. They are polite, helpful, and hardworking, more so than their neighbors. Not to mention that every bus ride is amazingly scenic. We are already plotting the route for our next visit to Peru.

Symphony Rehearsal in front of the Cathedral on Plaza de Armas.
Symphony Rehearsal - Lima, Peru

Lunch at Marvalous affinity Vegetarin Restaurant - Carabaya 715 - Lima, Peru
Vegetarian Restaurant - Carabaya 715 - Lima, Peru

The old downtown train station is now a Library and Museum. This is the indoor reading room.
Old Train Station - Lima, Peru

Concert - Parque de La Muralla.
Concert - Parque de La Muralla - Lima, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco - Lima Centro.
Iglesia de San Francisco - Lima, Peru

A book fair in front of the Government Palace in Lima.
Government Palace of Peru - Lima, Peru

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Finally, Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is arguably the top destination for the whole of South America. We have always felt lukewarm about it because of the monopolistic practice of the train and bus to the site, and the astronomic admission that is disproportional to the rest of the country.

Fortuitously Machu Picchu happened to be our last stop before going to Lima to catch our international flight back home. With everything we have seen in the last 7+ months, the surrounding hills and valleys for Machu Picchu are very beautiful. If it were not for the archeological site, the area itself would have deserved a visit as a national park. As much as I am impressed with the Inkas, the ruins themselves were only so-so impressive.

Here is the rest of the details.

Monday after Easter, we boarded the train in Ollantaytambo for Aguas Calientes. The 40km ride cost $34US (the cheapest train). To put this in perspective, the 19km bus ride we took the other direction from Ollantaytambo cost $0.46US. We could have trekked in on the Inka trail. The multi-day trek would have cost several hundreds dollars each, with permit and guide being mandatory.

Aguas Calientes has nothing but tourist services, but the setting is magical, steep green hills and a roaring river. While there were plenty of reasonably priced guesthouses, food was mostly overpriced. From Aguas Calientes, it is 8km bus ride up a steep hill to Machu Picchu. The roundtrip bus fare was $15.5US. Again, we opted to ride instead of walking. We wanted to maximize our time at the site. The site admission is $45US.

Once we set aside the extortionary prices, we still needed to decide whether to climb the hill right beside the ruins, Huayna Picchu. Everyday 200 (7-8am) + 200 (10-11am) permits are given to climb the hill. In order to get one of those 400 permits, one has to queue in Aguas Calientes way before the first 5:30am bus. We were not sure whether we wanted to be a part of this insane business, so we decided to set our alarm for 5am. The next morning, John woke up at 4am and got us going. We were in line for the bus at 4:35am. By the time we took the bus and got in line for Huayna Picchu, there were permits only for 7-8am and we were well within the last 50 people to get in. It was madness.

Luckily we did not suffer any illness from the efforts of getting up at such ungodly hours, we took our time and went up and down the site. After 10 hours, we were pretty worn out. We wanted to make sure that we do a thorough job this time, since we have no plans to return to Machu Picchu, even as we have been talking about revisiting Cusco and the Sacred Valley. After we took the bus back to town and grabbed some dinner, we caught the 6:45pm train back to Ollantaytambo, $37US this time.

The scenic town of Aguas Calientes.
Aguas Calientes, Peru

Sunrise over Machu Picchu.
Sunrise - Machu Picchu - Peru

Proof we were there.
Machu Picchu, Peru

Various other "classic shots" of Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

And a few not-so-classic shots.
Machu Picchu, Peru

Temple of the Moon.
Temple of the Moon - Machu Picchu, Peru

Sun-Ling descending Huanya Picchu.
Descending Huayna Picchu- Machu Picchu, Peru

Wild Orchid on Huanya Picchu.
Wild Orchid - Machu Picchu, Peru

For the rest of the Machu Picchu photos click here.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Scenic Ollantaytambo

We are slowing approaching Machu Picchu. Through April, the train only operates from Ollantaytambo, while the tracks between Cusco and Ollantaytambo are under maintenance. This was okay with us since our original plan was to spend a couple of days in Ollantaytambo. Never mind it took us forever to learn to pronounce the name.

Unlike Cusco, Ollantaytambo is a continuous Inca town, undisturbed by colonial structures. It is set in a beautiful valley by a river; the surrounding hills littered with ruins. Since millions of tourists come through town, we were surprised to find the townspeople warm, helpful, and truthful; and little of the price gouging that we associate with Machu Picchu.

The Inca Fortress at Ollantaytambo.

Several photos of the Salt Pans at Salinas; just 15 kilometers from Ollantaytambo and still in operation today.




The original grid of Inca streets survives in Ollantaytambo.

The same day we visited the Salt Pans, we also took a walk across the river from Ollantaytambo. Great views of the Rio Urubabamba, the railroad tracks, and back to town.


Playa del Carmen, Mexico

From Aguascalientes, there is a very convenient direct flight to Cancun.  Since the wedding is at a private beach south of Playa del Carmen,...