Monthly Archives: February 2014

Big China

(China – 15 February, 2014) The expression, “digging a hole to China,” is a line every kid in America has heard before. Adults know the truth, but it’s a fun line to say to a child digging in a sandbox or similar. Jessica and I can both remember how this idea didn’t seem absurd to us at the time. “Wow! Is that true?” It certainly plays on a child’s imagination and lets them know… China is a place far, far away from home.

That sense of being very far from home lurked in our subconscious as we began our two weeks in China. As you will see it is a strange land indeed and not just very far from home geographically, but in almost every other respect.

Half-Price Books to the Rescue

When planning for China we only knew of two things we wanted to see/do: We wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors and walk on the Great Wall. Beyond that we were shrugging our shoulders and in clear need of direction. China is bigger than the US; how does one decide where to go and what to do during a two-week visit? Thank goodness I’d bought a China travel book while we were still in Austin. 20140224-103500.jpg Overall, the book turned out to be pretty lame because it lacked many important details when we needed them. What it was good for was providing a specific place-to-place travel plan after departing from Hong Kong: Yangshuo – Hangzhou – Shanghai – Xi’an – Beijing.

Most Americans have heard of Beijing and Shanghai, the two largest cities in China, but the names of the other cities we visited will be meaningless and puzzling to pronounce. That’s okay. Here’s a lightning-round primer just the same:

Yangshuo is located in the southwest quadrant of China and boasts some of the most unusual terrain found anywhere on the planet.

Hangzhou is a remarkably pretty city located closer to China’s eastern seaboard, not very far south of Shanghai, in the grand scheme of things. The centerpiece of Hangzhuo is a beautiful lake called Xi Nu (or West Lake). By all accounts the lake is the city’s heart and soul and they do a great job of treating it as such.

Shanghai is not much more than a big city, but it’s uber-modern and so easy to like. Located on the east coast, Shanghai lays claim to having the busiest shipping port in the world. It also has great landmarks, museums, and, of course, shopping.

Xi’an is one of China’s ancient capital cities and hugely important historically. Today it is most famous for being home to the Terracotta Warriors. To get to Xi’an we traveled back towards the west and a little northward about 14 hours by train.

Beijing is China’s largest city (and its capital). While there is much to see and do in Beijing, our primary purpose for going was to see The Great Wall of China. Like Shanghai, Beijing is on the east coast and much further to the north.

If you followed all of the west-east-west-east directional zig-zagging, you’ll realize our route roughly drew an S-shape over China. 20140304-225012.jpg

Strange Place, Yangshuo

Strange and exotic may be the two best words to describe the landscape around Yangshuo. As we traveled around the area by boat and bus, I pondered how I would describe the uniquely shaped karst peaks in the blog. After much thought, I’m still not sure how to describe it. This is one place where a picture is truly worth a thousand words.

Getting to Yangshuo was a crazy, multi-step affair. We flew into Guilin (Gway-leen) from Hong Kong where we spent our inaugural night on the mainland. First impressions were spooky. The Guilin airport was on the outskirts of the city (just as many airports are with respect to the city they serve). When riding in the cab to the hostel we were treated to nice wide streets that were shockingly barren. We wondered, “Where are all the people?” Most of the buildings we drove past were all or half-finished, but in either case, uninhabited. Were we in the Twilight Zone?

By the time we entered the heart of Guilin, we found people and traffic and street vendors and more of what you’d expect from China.

Yangshuo Power Rafting

In the morning we took a shuttle bus from our hostel to the banks of the Li River where four-person motorized bamboo rafts awaited. Our guide for the trip to Yangshuo was Shau Nu. Thankfully for us he went by the super-easy nickname, “KFC.” A fast talker in both English and Chinese, it was fun to see KFC in action. He had folks laughing in two languages.

Oh noooo! Jessica accidentally left her iPhone on the bus!! She realized it right about the moment I snapped the pic below.

Jessica courageously put thoughts of losing her phone to the side and tried to enjoy the trip, but to claim it wasn’t a distraction would be a big fib. The feeling you get from losing something so vital can put a big ol’ knot in the gut, for sure.

Phone distractions aside, those bamboo boats sure created a racket. And there were hundreds of other tourists doing the same thing. Such an extraordinary landscape…turned into a go-kart track. It was an adventure, to be sure, but not very relaxing.

The bamboo boats end their trip at a spot made famous because its view appears on the 20 Yuan bill.

After plying the river, we were reunited with our bus and Jessica was able to find her phone. What a HUGE relief that was. We then rode the rest of the way into Yangshuo, where the bus dropped us off nowhere near our hotel. Um, okay. I guess we’ll ask somebody. And that’s when we learned that not too many people speak English in Yangshuo. Pointing and nodding eventually got us to where we needed to be.

Superbowl in China

When KFC had described Yangshuo, several times he said it was “very small.” I wonder if maybe very small doesn’t translate directly from Chinese into English. Yangshuo was no small town in our eyes… and plenty crowded to boot. Not so small that we couldn’t find a place showing the Super Bowl, neither. Yay!

An Australian ex-pat that owned a little restaurant showed the game through an Internet feed at 7:30 AM local time. Jessica and I were there. The Australian couldn’t care less about football, but he understood that it was a big deal to Americans and was happy to open his doors and serve us breakfast in front of a rigged-up screen. There were about 12 of us watching. All of the color commentary was in Chinese and the game was a lop-sided bust, but we were still quite happy to have been a part of it, especially while so far away.

In every one of our Yangshuo photos (and virtually ALL of our scenery photos in China), you will notice what looks like fog or morning mist. Unfortunately, it is neither. It is polluted air. Everyone that comes to China will inevitably talk about its pollution problem. Now we’ve experienced it first hand…and yes, it’s as bad as they say. There’s no way to overlook it. It’s literally in your face no matter which direction you turn your eyes (and nose). At no point did it ruin our visit to China, but it sure put a thick grey damper on every activity.

A day after our motorized rafting trip, we went on a second bamboo raft, this time we went old school (sans motor); so much more peaceful. I love this pic of all the bamboo rafts lined up and ready for tourists.

Here we are floating on.

The very pretty Dragon Bridge.

Rain in Hangzhou

In general, we’ve had great luck with weather nearly our entire trip. But on occasion….we get snookered by less than ideal conditions. In pretty Hangzhou, it rained a bit. Never enough to keep us from venturing out to see the sites, but I do think it made us miss what might have been. I mean, if this place- West Lake -was great in the rain, how much more awesome would it be on a beautiful day?

One benefit of the rain was that it hid the air pollution really well. Is the sky gray because it’s raining or because the air is polluted? We chose to blame it on the rain.

Hangzhou’s West Lake is big enough so that visitors can enjoy a leisurely cruise across it. But not so large that the eye cannot pick out a towering pagoda on its opposite side. The entire circumference of the lake seems to be park, too. Kudos to Hangzhou for doing it up right.

Jessica and I rode bikes around part of the lake, took a turn in a pedal car, and explored it by foot. All good.

Sure, this photo is a little bit “staged,” but that really is us walking by the Hangzhou lake on a rainy day in February.

Specks of drizzle landed on the camera lens creating a cool “effect.”

The Hangzhou lake boats are finished like fine furniture. Look at this thing!

One more from around the lake…

Shanghai, High on Energy

The train ride to Shanghai from Hangzhou was remarkably short- only 1 1/2 hours on the bullet train. The arrival into Shanghai caught us totally by surprise. One moment we were cruising down the tracks at 300 kph and the next we were alone in the train with the stewards squawking at us in Chinese to get off. (At least I assume that’s what they were saying.)

Shanghai may not be geographically far from Hangzhou, but it is a world away in terms of character. We went from strolling around a peaceful lake in Hangzhou to weaving through a crowded pedestrian-only shopping district in the middle of Shanghai. People were everywhere. Departments stores and malls, everywhere. I swear there were malls packed within malls, like Russian dolls. On the street we were approached by vendors one after another. We’d gotten pretty good and softly shaking our heads and loudly saying, “Thank youuuuu,” yet one of them got through to me. I couldn’t stop myself from buying a pair of wheels that transformed my tennis shoes into wheelies. Anyone know how to turn a video 90 degrees?

Here’s an odd little incident to report. We were being photographed! And I don’t just mean by regular Chinese people, (which did happen a bunch). Twice we were photographed by men dressed in all black and carrying large, formidable-looking cameras at their hip. They weren’t raising their cameras to take pictures like normal people. They were clearly trying to do it on the sly. One of these two “men in black” passed very close to me. Jessica and I were walking down the street and looking at something to our right. I turned back to the front just in time to catch a glimpse of the (not so) secret agent rushing passed me on the left, camera aimed right towards us. Creeper!

Spot Jessica taking over the street.

Each leg of our China travels moved us further northward…into colder and colder climates. Shanghai was the coldest yet. Thank goodness we were prepared for it; three and four layers of clothing became a matter of routine. Our reward- SNOW! Real big fluffy snow, too. No, you don’t understand, we’re from Texas. We don’t see a lot of snow. Snow is something to smile and get excited about, and so we did.


Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai.



Here’s how to top off a wall.

Shanghai by night.

Xi’an and Emperor Qin’s Underground Army

If you are familiar at all with the Terracotta Warriors, it is probably because you saw something about them on the History Channel or National Geographic. For the rest of you, here’s three sentences that will bring you up to speed. Around the year 200 bc, China had a supremely powerful (and crazy) emperor named Qin (pronounced quickly and sounding like, Chin). Fueled by self-importance, Emperor Qin ordered that his burial site be protected by a complete garrison of 8,000 full-size and life-like warriors. This army, complete with commanding officers, archers, infantrymen and even horses, was made piece by detailed piece out of terracotta clay, fitted with weapons, and then buried in covered pits, deep underground.

A tiny bit of background will help explain how Qin came up with his “brilliant” idea. In times further back than Qin’s, leaders were routinely buried with oodles of idols and trinkets, Qin simply took it to the next level. Going back a few more generations and archeologists and historians have discovered something much more chilling. In ancient times it was customary for an Emperor’s entire staff (generals, advisors, servants and, of course, his concubines) to be killed and buried along with their deceased leader. This practice was abandoned during times of war for practical reasons…because they couldn’t spare the manpower.

I had always heard that the warriors were “buried,” but couldn’t figure out what that meant. Were they put in the ground and covered with dirt? While this is mostly how they ended up, at the time they were buried they were placed standing (or kneeling in the case of the archers) in long and deep dugout pits. The pits were then topped with timbers that gave the warriors a roof over their heads. Above the timbers several layers of tightly woven mats were placed to keep out the dirt that was shoved back over the top of them….until the whole landscape was flat earth again. (Just like it never happened.)

As the centuries passed, earthquakes shook the warriors off their feet, breaking them like dropped clay pots. Time rotted away the wooden timbers that formed their protective roof, crushing them further and causing them to be truly buried. Only one warrior escaped the 2000 years unbroken. He is the magic archer.

All the rest that you’ve seen in photos have been found in pieces and painstakingly reassembled by archeologists.

In Person, Intense

Seeing the Terracotta Warriors with one’s own eyes is mentally/emotionally intense. I guess the enormous scale of the undertaking cannot be fully appreciated until you’ve stood on the edge of those deep pits and peered at the warrior’s faces. Contemplating what it must have been like for the individual laborers and artisans as they toiled away their lives for a lunatic Emperor is a natural place for the mind to venture.

Each warrior’s face is unique; most probably modeled after real people that lived at that time, though I’ve read that point is debated by the experts. One theory says every face was done in the likeness of the artist that created it. The last square shows one of the pits where archeologists continue to do their work…at night…after all the tourists are gone.

Some warriors are encased in glass for up-close viewing. Hundreds of the broken warriors remain down in the pits, waiting for their turn to stand again. All of the warriors were painted prior to being buried. Only traces of paint remain on a few of the warriors today.

Emperor Qin’s Army of the Terracotta Warriors was never supposed to be discovered. Nothing has been found in the written record (so far, at least) to indicate its existence. Supposedly, even the craftsmen that made the warriors were themselves killed to keep the secret safe for all time. And secret it was until 1974 when a local farmer and some helpers discovered the first pit while digging a water well. That farmer’s name is Yang Xinman, Since his discovery he has become a local celebrity of sorts. He even works part-time at one of the museum shops. And we shook his hand!

Xi’an Extracurricular Activities

It wasn’t all warriors all the time in Xi’an. Two other activities deserve mention. Xi’an’s city center is surrounded by its own ‘great wall,’ an imposing defensive barrier running 12 miles in a square that is nearly as impressive as the Great Wall itself. We saw every inch of it, too, on a rented tandem bike. Notice the smokestack spewing out pollution in the background.

Every night at 8:30, Xi’an puts on a major dancing fountain show at the base of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.
Always clear what year it is.

Beijing’s Forbidden City

Chinese history is truly fascinating. And few places will give visitors to China such a visceral introduction to it like the Forbidden City. From our hotel it only took 25 minutes of brisk walking to reach it. It did require first entering the famous Tianamen Square, site of intense anti-government protests in 1984…that were soundly and bloodily crushed by the authorities while much of the world looked on. Security in and around the square was serious and plentiful. We even had to pass through a metal detector and have our backpack screened just to stroll through the square and look around. There’s not really that much to see; a couple of large monuments “to the laborers” of China and some large flower beds, but otherwise, it’s just a large open concrete space. Good for displays of military might, to be sure. A giant picture of Chairman Mao, leader of the communist revolution, hangs on the outside wall of the Forbidden City and overlooks the square. This also marks the place where he is buried.

At the northern edge of Tianamen Square lies the Imperial City (or Beijing’s “inner” city). It is surrounded by a thick, high protective wall. Within the Imperial City is an even smaller sub-section (still huge, by the way) called the Forbidden City. It too is surrounded by its own thick wall…plus a moat. (The Chinese sure were big on building walls!) The Forbidden City was so named because “commoners” were not allowed inside; the Emperor and his aristocracy only, please.

In walking around China, Jessica noticed how often the word forbidden was used for just about everything that was off limits. Signs might say, “Walking on Grass is Forbidden,” for example. It is probably a matter of translation, but we found their use of the word forbidden reached a comical extreme.

Great Tour Guide Has Bad Breath

Our exploration of the Forbidden City was greatly enhanced by Michael, the certified guide we enlisted to show us around. His English was solid, his knowledge of history superb, but his breath stunk like a sewer. It was very distracting. Offering him a mint occurred to me but couldn’t quite muster up the courage. What if I offered and he said, no thank you? Awkward.

The greatest thing about having a guide is being able to ask questions. Listening to an audio guide can be good and informational signs are better than nothing, but neither can compete with a knowledgable guide (bad breath or not) at making a tourist site come alive.

The chain of emperors recedes into history for thousands of years. We viewed the palace buildings where they held council, the thrones where they delivered decrees, both devastating and benign, and the living quarters where they changed their underwear. We even learned of one Emperor who was almost certainly gay and another that (according to the official royal documentarian) once “got busy” with 87 concubines in one night. That emperor died at 32, by the way.



It was a game of thrones for these emperors, as different thrones- centered in different buildings -were utilized depending on the occasion. Above each throne are Chinese symbols that convey philosophies intended to guide the emperors in their rule. One of them says (something like), “Do little to achieve much,” a reminder for the emperor to rule with restraint.

The Great Wall(s) of China

The great advantage of visiting a place- like the Great Wall -in person is that you not only get wowed by the sheer spectacle of its magnificence, you are more inclined to learn new things about it. First off, we that learned a widely believed ‘fact’ about the Great Wall is actually not true at all: the Great Wall cannot be seen from space with the naked eye. Myth-busted! We learned the Great Wall of China that everybody knows and loves is only one of several walls built by the Chinese over the past 3,000 years. The first walls were built in the 8th and 7th centuries bc out of clay and dirt. Today those earliest walls have deteriorated to the point where many sections are visible only to the trained eye of archeologists. Some walls were built in one century and then disassembled and rebuilt elsewhere in subsequent centuries. It’s a fascinating history and so much more disjointed than I’d previously understood.

Anyone visiting today’s nearly 5,000 mile long Great Wall has many wall ‘locations’ to choose from. Badaling is the name of the site where most tourists go; it’s nearest to Beijing and refurbished to a stunning state, perhaps looking better now than it ever did in the past. The knock on the Badaling section is that it is too crowded and too touristy. Wanting a more peaceful experience, Jessica and I went to a section called Mutianyu– located about 70 km (43 miles) northeast of Beijing. This stretch of the wall was originally built in the 6th century, and then rebuilt about a thousand years later (during the Ming Dynasty). Ming’s crews rebuilt it to a very high standard and Mutainyu remains the best-preserved expanse of the Great Wall today.

Walking the wall is a calf-killer. Because the wall follows the contour of the rolling hills, there are steep ups and downs. Photos so often fail to convey elevation and depth so I’ll just tell you….the pic below finds Jessica making her final assault on an extremely steep set of steps.

We enjoyed being on the wall in relative seclusion.

The toboggan ride down from the Great Wall was conceptually incongruent, but oh so much fun.

This was an enormous post (because China is an enormous country). If you seriously read through it all, my hat is coming off for you.

When Jessica and I initially presented (to each other) the list of countries we would most like to visit while traveling around the world, neither of us included China. It was too far, too foreign, and too scary. However, in the end we concluded that traveling the world for a year and NOT going to China would be tantamount to negligence. And so we took the plunge.

Our visit to five points on the China map (counting Guilin and Yangshuo as one) gave us a solid overview of China. We are so glad for the experience, too. In some small way, being there was fulfilling the childhood fantasy of what it would be like to dig through the Earth and catch a glimpse of Chinese life.

Singapore Dazzles, Hong Kong Shops

(Singapore – 28 Jan, 2014) Singapore and Hong Kong were two short hops we made on our way northward from Indonesia to China. (Yes, Hong Kong is technically part of China, but kinda not, too.) We spent just three days in Singapore and four in Hong Kong. Not long enough to see everything there was to see, but sufficient to give us a good taste of each.

Singapore Friendly

One of the nicest things we found in Singapore was someone we know! We met Abigail, a Singapore native, when she lived in Austin and attended the University of Texas. And played Ultimate in Austin. Abigail and I played on the same team just a couple of times, but she was a regular at pickup and I got to know her well enough so that she invited me to contact her when our travels brought us to Singapore.

The extent to which Abigail helped us out cannot be overstated. Greeting us with a big smile at the airport, Abigail seemed genuinely happy to reconnect in person with friends from her days back in Austin. She even guided us from the airport all the way to our hostel. What a huge help that was. Half the day’s energy is typically spent making it from the airport to the hostel. Thanks to Abigail’s help, this time it was effortless.


Hawkers for Every Meal

Food is a surprisingly big deal in Singapore. Influences from China, Malaysia, India and Europe have come together nicely to produce some tasty and strange dishes. And the food can be cheap, too. So cheap that many Singaporeans don’t bother cooking and eat virtually every meal outside of their home. Ah yes, the perfect recipe for a thriving food-culture. The most common (and economical) food is found at places known locally as hawker centers. Part food court, part flea market, and part carnival…now you’ve got it.

The story we heard was that in prior decades food stands ran amok in the Singapore streets. They were everywhere and very popular. Small-time cooks could hawk their dishes to the public and make good money if their style caught on. The problem was that these food stands would make quite a mess of the streets and were next to impossible for the authorities to regulate. As a solution, the government (ever interested in cleanliness and tidiness) made selling food on the street illegal and simultaneously created dedicated space in certain buildings where the street vendors would be invited/required to relocate. From this history the hawker centers were born.

Within just a couple of hours of our arrival to Singapore, we ate at our first hawker center. The spacious yet crammed, un-air-conditioned, indoor court was a lively and odiferous zone of food. Tables and chairs filled in the spaces between food stands and people filled those. The most popular stands had long lines of 25 – 30 people waiting for a plate (or bowl). (Be careful, though, some long lines are only an indication of cheap food, not necessarily good food.)

English is the lingua franca in Singapore, but the Chinese language rules the hawker centers making menus hard for us to navigate. Thankfully, Abigail was with us and helped select a few solid lunch choices. I don’t think either Jessica nor I was blown away by our meals, but we did enjoy only spending about $4.00 for the both of us.

Free Dinner

After lunch Jessica and I dashed back to the hostel to catch up on sleep, but also made plans to rejoin Abigail, plus her brother Jon and another friend (Jeremy) for dinner. And where did we go for dinner? Another hawker center, of course! Only this time there was a particular stand that everyone was interested in. When we got there, however….they were closed for the night. Booo! That’s what happens sometimes with the most popular hawkers- once they sell out of their food, they close up shop and go home (to count their money, I presume).

After dinner option #1 fell flat, we shifted gears and ended up at more of a sit-down Chinese food place. We ordered family style dishes and enjoyed it all very much. By chance, our new friend Jeremy saw that his father was also eating at that same restaurant. Especially remarkable because it was Jeremy’s first time to ever eat there so it wasn’t like a place his family always goes. Anyway, whatever magic was in the air benefited us because when Jeremy’s father exited the restaurant, he secretively (and generously) paid our bill.

Free Tour

More generosity followed. Jon offered to drive us around in his new car and give us an impromptu tour of the area. This was interesting to us for a couple of reasons. First, it was our opening night in Singapore and a tour would really help us get oriented. Second, it was a great chance for us to converse with real live locals for once. In our travels, we so often come and go from a country and never get much in-depth interaction with the people who live there. Frequently, we find ourselves chatting with fellow travelers, but typical exchanges with locals are limited to food service or “Do you have wifi and what’s the password?” For better or worse, it’s just the way it usually works. Our ride around the city with Jon and Abigail (Jeremy had to say good-bye after dinner) was an opportunity we relished.

We learned that Singapore is an exceedingly safe city….especially with regard to violent crime. We already pretty much knew this, but they confidently confirmed it. You’ve got your usual kids gettin’ into trouble brand of crime, but that’s nothing a good old-fashioned caning won’t fix. Yes, they really do have specially trained people that administer canings.

We learned that Singaporeans work a lot of hours….50+ hours per week is typical. And those hours may not be when they want to work them. When employees accept a new job they sign an employment agreement that stipulates they will be available to work ‘at the behest of their supervisor’ regardless of the day or time. This dynamic understandably results in a high stress work environment for many people.

One slightly oblique little tidbit that may have nothing to do with nada is the fact that a few years ago, track-guards were added to each subway station. What do I mean by that? Every subway/metro station we’d seen before Singapore has no barrier (other than a painted yellow line on the floor) between the people standing there waiting for the next train and the open track. In Singapore, evidently people jumping onto the tracks to commit suicide became a significant-enough problem that they installed plexiglass walls and control doors that only open when the subway train is stopped and ready for passengers to load and unload.

We learned that owning a car is a highly regulated proposition. In addition to paying the price of the car itself, the owner must pay the government an insane amount of money (like $80K) just for the right to drive it… for 10 years. After 10 years, the certificate must be renewed and the premium paid again. One consequence of this is that not too many people own cars and traffic (as we know it) is virtually unheard of. And, you’ll almost never see a car >10 years old. Additionally, every car is required to be equipped with something akin to a “toll tag.” This is awesome in that drivers never have to pay cash for tolls or parking; money is simply deducted from their account whenever they use a service involving their car. The roads in Singapore are fabulous, by the way.

Singapore Sparkles

Honestly, our first half-day in Singapore did not not give us the feeling that the place was anything particularly special. That perception changed dramatically once night fell and Singapore lit up and sparkled like a Zales on Valentine’s Day. Our car ride around the city at night truly showed off Singapore’s best. Buildings danced with light- changing colors and hues every few seconds. It’s hard to snap a night photo from a moving vehicle, but this will at least give you some idea of how the city shines at night.


We drove through Chinatown and saw the streets with a canopy of red-glowing Chinese coins, a symbol of wealth and good fortune. Giant brightly lit golden horses marked the upcoming year of the horse, too. I didn’t get any Chinatown pics that night (something for which Jessica was none too happy), but we passed through the area the following day and snapped a couple of goodies.



Our nighttime city tour included a stop at the Gardens by the Bay, home of the Supertrees! That whole area was so cool and futuristic.

Here Abigail and her brother, Jon, stand tall with the Super Trees. Gary wrestles a wooden alligator.

Birthday on the Singapore Flyer

The Singapore Flyer by day and by night.

Jessica’s birthday (26 Jan) naturally deserved something special. How about a nighttime ride on the Singapore Flyer, the giant Ferris Wheel that adorns the city’s southeast side? A slow spin around the wheel lasts about a half-hour and provides magical views of Singapore by night. We learned it was super hard to take photos from inside the Flyer. OMG, we spent so much time messing with our cameras….taking one blurry or glare-flashed photo after another. It was a bit ridiculous. Here’s what we managed:



The top half of the photo below is the view out towards the sea. Look just beneath that line of blackness; the lights you are seeing are from the large cargo ships parked just offshore. Singapore boasts the second busiest shipping port in the world.

The following day, we visited one of those dome-looking structures seen in the above pic. It’s all cool and rain-foresty inside.

Jessica looks down from the top of the waterfall. I pose big at the bottom of it. Jessica tries to hitch a ride on a truck made of moss.

Myth Busters

Before entering Singapore, we read a bit about how our bags might be searched for drugs. And there’s me with my scruffy face and long-ish surfer hair. Don’t believe the hype, folks. We faced no particular scrutiny upon entering Singapore and flew through immigration and customs in record time. Perhaps it was because I trimmed up my facial hair just before arriving. 🙂

Singapore has the reputation of being a squeaky clean city. While thoroughly modern and even futuristic in many respects, it’s still a big city with millions of people living in it. We occasionally saw litter and trash where is wasn’t supposed to be. We also walked through smells that were none too pleasant. Many parts of the city are under construction, too, which never shows as nicely as when everything is newly completed.

In addition to the night-time tour we did with Jon and Abigail, we did one of those City Tours by bus, too. Some of the pics below are from that tour. That awesome building-topper boat/serpent thing can be seen from just about everywhere you go in the city. I also included the billboard of Leonardo DiCaprio in the collage simply because we saw this same ad of him (wearing a watch on his fist) about 18 million times. The other pics are included to give a sense of how much Singapore is into outdoor art. There is something interesting to see on nearly every block.



In the foreground-right you’ll see the famously silly Merlion. Half mermaid, half lion? That makes no kind of sense! And yet we just had to take some photos of it…. like a couple of suckas.

The Merlion gets a video mention, too.

Hong Kong, High In Style

From the moment we landed in Hong Kong from Singapore we noticed how fashionably dressed everyone was. The women were big on dyed and styled hair (most often in the direction of red), knee-high boots and fur-trimmed everything. Guys all had hairstyles like you see when browsing fashion mags at the salon. (You know you’ve done it.) The jeans, the shoes, the shirts, these people obviously valued looking the sh*t and were very good at it. Jessica and I must have looked like a couple of tramps by comparison.

Our immediate perceptions of Hong Kong as style capital of the world were reinforced many times over the next few days. It was like attending a fashion show anytime we rode the subway or walked through the park. City sidewalks became (very crowded) runways. And shopping was EVERYWHERE!

I found a night-game of Ultimate our first night in Hong Kong. To reach the field I rode about 45 minutes on the metro to an area of HK known for its shopping- Causeway Bay. Mother of God! When I emerged from the subway I was struck by the high energy shopping mayhem that swirled around me. At my front, was a six-story tall Forever 21 store. On two sides of the building’s facades were enormous bright-lit screens radiating with fashion models parading around in the latest F21 styles. I turned to the left and walked a few steps to a flat-X intersection. Double-deck electric buses glided down the streets by the dozen. People, people, and more people filled the wide sidewalks. It was a city alive like I’d never seen it. I was so blown-away by the scene that I almost forgot to walk towards the Ultimate game (but not really).

Jessica and I ventured to that same lively intersection another night….

Happy Chinese New Year!

We are not master travel planners by any stretch, but we occasionally luck into a fortuitous fit. Being in Sydney, Australia for New Year’s Eve was fool’s genius, for example. And now we find ourselves in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year! Admittedly, CNY was not a holiday either of us were even mildly familiar with. Just from being in Hong Kong and asking questions about it, we learned a couple of things. CNY is not fixed to a specific date on the Gregorian calendar. (That’s what the standard “Western” calendar is called.) Instead, the day on which it falls jumps around based on the “lunar” calendar. This year CNY was celebrated on January 31. Next year February 19th will be the big day.

Another thing we learned was that midnight is not necessarily the focal point of the CNY celebration. I mean, it’s a deal, but not a big deal like the New Year’s Eve countdown to midnight. Nor is the first day of the new year of primary importance. Chinese New Year is firmly connected to a much larger two-week timeframe known as the Spring Festival. During that time many businesses close down so that employees can return home to spend time with their families. In fact, I heard Chinese New Year marks the beginning of the largest human migration in the world. Planes, trains, and highways are packed to the max with Chinese travelers criss-crossing all of Asia. Our Thanksgiving Day travels pale in comparison. Oh boy, all this going on while we will be in mainland China? Yikes!

Still in Hong Kong, Jessica and I ventured into the center of downtown Hong Kong the first Saturday night following CNY; we heard there would be a big fireworks show. Hmmm, we never found it. However, we did find throngs of people and a huge parade through the downtown streets. So crazy! We tried to take some photos, but there were so many people it was impossible to get close enough. Eventually, we found it more enjoyable to aimlessly explore the calmer streets away from the parade route.


English Lessons

Hong Kong was our first country to visit where we genuinely struggled to communicate, especially in restaurants. It’s so perplexing to have someone speak to you and not be able to understand a single word. In one restaurant, I was looking at the menu and trying to figure out the price of tea (in China). The number next to the picture of a cup of tea seemed impossibly high so I thought maybe other items were included in that price. The waitress, actually three waitresses, hovered over me to “help.” One of them pointed to a row of Chinese characters at the bottom of the menu…as if to say, “It says right here what’s included.” Gee, thanks. We ended up abandoning that effort and eating somewhere else.

Before arriving to Hong Kong, I’d heard there was a good chance I (as a foreigner) would be approached by some of the locals wanting to practice their English. This was something I was really looking forward to. Day 1, day 2, day 3…and what happened? Nothing. My dreams of cross-cultural exchange were not coming true. I had no choice but to up the ante.

There was a nice little park next to our hotel. One afternoon I went there and sat on a bench with “Free English Practice” written on my iPad. I sat and waited. And waited. And waited. People passed me, looked at my sign and kept on walking. My heart sank a little further with each look-off. After a time, I moved to a higher traffic location and waited some more. Time passed and so did the people, but I wasn’t giving up. I was determined to wait until someone took me up on my offer. Finally….

So Many People!

I read somewhere (on the big ol’ Internet, I suppose) that Hong Kong is the most densely populated place on earth. Upon seeing it with my own eyes… that seems entirely accurate. Walking the sidewalks is a dance that changes speed and direction constantly, often in mid-step. Sometimes it’s bumper-to-bumper people and there are no gaps to shoot.

Almost every time we ate out, we had little choice but to share a table with strangers. The man at my left in the pic below is at our table. Beyond our initial trading of awkward half-smiles as he sat down, we didn’t communicate.

Here we are walking through a CNY-related “flower market.” Much more than just flowers were sold. The crowds were intense. I swear we could have lifted our feet off the ground and still moved through the crowd, our bodies wedged amid the humanity. Can you find my head bobbing in middle of the human river?

Different flower market by night.

One thing I found awesome was the incredible length of the subway trains. I took this picture just after our subway train was emptied of people. The train was going off-line so no new passengers boarded. Can you see to the last car?

Singapore and Hong Kong were great stops on our journey. Great stepping stones into China, too; that’s where we head next. In the grand plan, it’s hard to imagine we will ever return to either one of these world cities again, but we are so glad to have experienced them this time around. Any regrets? Just one. We never got a chance to drink a Singapore Sling, the drink Singapore made famous. We even drove passed the Raffles Hotel, supposedly the place where the delicious adult beverage was created. Hmmm, maybe there is reason to come back….

Welcome to Java?

(Java, Indonesia – 25 Jan, 2014) From the island of Bali we traveled west to the much larger island of Java, crossing the Java Straight in a ratty old ugly ferry. We were told the ferry ride was a half hour, but our slow-boat rust-bucket took a full hour to chug across the gap.

Before boarding, I was accosted two different times by friendly locals. They asked where we were from, what’s my name, etc. Nothing too notable. In the end, I was handed a card of their friend that runs tours to the nearby volcano- Kawah Ijen -in case I was interested.

Just as we exited the ferry on the Java side, weaving our way off the dock amid the motorcycles, cars and trucks, a little guy approached me and asked, “You are Gary from America?” He introduced himself as “Pepe” and started chatting us up (in pretty good English) about our plans. Obviously, he’s the ‘friend that runs tours’ to the volcano, having been called or texted by his scout on the Bali side. Being ambushed in this way was a little disconcerting, but ultimately harmless. Pepe was a young guy and outgoing as hell. Clearly entrepreneurial and a fast talker but never pushy. We actually enjoyed talking to him and he helped guide us to the “bemo” (local van-bus) that took us to our hotel.

Java Vibes

Unlike the Island of Bali, Java is predominantly Muslim. That alone changed the whole vibe. Seeing nearly every female above 12 wearing a headscarf brings forth a mixture of unpleasant emotions- discomfort, disappointment, even low-level anger. It’s the subjugation of women on an industrial scale protected from scrutiny by the shield of religion. I freakin’ hate it! To be clear, the Muslims we saw in Indonesia did not wear burkas (the black full-body cloak), but they all did wear a headscarf to hide any trace of their hair. Sure, head scarves are less bad than burkas, but they’re both symbols of suppression and control.

Last word on it…. Islam is only shades different from any other religion. They all have their bronze-age rituals and beliefs that require leaps of faith that attempt to build bridges from the rational to the magical. While no religion is all bad, some are definitely worse than others. I count any religion that requires its followers to wear funny hats, grow bushy beards or curly sideburns, or dress in any particular way to be among the most offensive.

Now that my anti-religion rant has concluded, I can add that never did we meet anyone in Java (Muslim or non-Muslim) that was anything less than nice and helpful towards us.

Here’s one of the many mosques we zoomed past while in Java.


The city closest to where the ferry delivered us was Banyuwangi; not a tourist destination for good reason. The one night we stayed there was plenty. The other downer was that we couldn’t find a way to squeeze in that hike to the Ijen volcanic crater. Pepe’s tours started at 1 AM! The reason for the painfully early start is to put you at the crater’s edge before the sun rises, the only way to catch a view of the blue flames rising from the toxic steaming waters that fill the crater’s mouth. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we never saw any of this because we couldn’t go up to the crater and back before our train departed Banyuwangi for Yogyakarta, the final destination of our visit to Indonesia.

Borobadur- Over 500 Buddhas Strong

We spent about 9 hours on trains crossing Java to reach Yogyakarta. At least a very impressive treasure awaited us… and that was Borobadur- the largest Buddhist temple IN THE WORLD. It was built over about a 100 year period sometime between the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. Stone by carefully sculpted stone, the temple rose above the landscape, the Buddhist’ grandest physical contribution to the world of religion.

Walking towards the monument, we turn around for a pic.

The monument has the general shape of a pyramid, four sides, rising to a peak at its center. However, the structural intricacies abound within each of its four levels. For example, the walls on either side of the inner walkways are carved with the history of Buddha in storyboard form.

Here is our guide explaining how the story of Buddha is carved into the walls that line the monument corridors.

Following the complete path to full enlightenment, in other words, starting at the bottom and walking around and up the entire monument, would cause you to cover a distance of about 5 kilometers (3 miles).

All of the Buddha statues look identical at first glance, but a closer look finds the positioning of their hands vary depending on what level of enlightenment is being represented.

I’m standing on about level 3. The circle of stupas (that’s what those bell-shaped things are called) starts on level 4.

There are Buddha statues on every level and facing outward on every side. Altogether, there are over 500 hundred statues of Buddha precisely placed throughout the site. This guy sure has a lovely view.

A group of kids enrolled in an English class asked me to be in their group photo.

Inside each stupa is a Buddha statue. One of them is displayed without its topper to give visitors an unobstructed view of the meditating master.

Jessica stuck her camera inside a stupa and caught this Buddha in mid-meditation.

Many of the Buddhas have lost their heads over the past many centuries.

Also of great interest is the fact that Borobadur lay unknown and hidden from the world until it was ‘unearthed’ by a Dutch engineer in 1814, buried beneath layers of volcanic ash and dense vegetation. How it came to be that Borobadur was abandoned and allowed to deteriorate so much that it literally disappeared from view is largely a matter of speculation. My money says a close succession of volcanic eruptions in the area caused the local population to give up on it and relocate to Bali.

The photos we took do an overall poor job of communicating the true brilliance of Borobadur. The dark stone from which it was built could be interpreted as giving it an ominous tone. In person, it is grand and simply amazing in only a positive way.

Bird Market

Yogyakarta is a busy city with a lot going on. There is even a bird market. (If your brain just said, What’s a bird market?, No worries; ours did too.) We strolled through this interesting and smelly outdoor pet store on a Friday afternoon not knowing what to expect. We saw lots of birds for sale, but there were large stalls containing tanks full of fish, too. Down another aisle and it was cats and dogs for sale. A short turn to the left and there was a cage occupied by three fruit bats. A guy told us the bats are sold to people who have asthma. I forget which part of the bat they ate to cure their asthma, but I don’t think I care to remember anyway. A few more steps and we ran across large cages containing huge boa constrictors. What’s next, giraffes?


The whole place wasn’t that big and it didn’t take long before we were ready to go…driven out by the sadness of seeing animals in cages and by the sometimes awful smell. But then we noticed a larger gathering of people towards the back of the market. Curious, we walked towards the people and wound up stumbling on a songbird competition. What the PEEEEEP?! Who knew such a thing existed? (Not us.)

Every Friday, songbird owners and trainers (yes, each bird has its own “trainer”) enter their bird into the venue to be scored by a band of judges for their singing abilities. The bird who captures 1st Place can win up to $1,000 for its owner. We stood ringside for the crudely run spectacle and were thoroughly flabbergasted by the whole thing. We saw (and heard) several rounds of the competition with different species of birds competing. The classic Canary was the only bird name we recognized.

Birds were judged on how actively they sung and the quality of their song, too. Birds who get stage fright won’t go far in this arena. It’s pretty hilarious to see the trainers trying to wave signals to their birds in order to get them to sing better/more.

Sultan’s Palace

A real live current-day Sultan lives in a palace in Yogyakarta…and we went there. The palace is open to the public and one day we hitched a ride on an becak (equivalent to a pedi-cab in the states) to pay the Sultan a visit. Riding in the becak was an adventure all its own. Those drivers have no fear of death and will pedal out into the street on faith (and stupidity) alone.

Yogyakarta is the only city/province of Indonesia to be governed by a Sultan. Today the Sultan and his family have only ceremonial duties, but it wasn’t so many generations ago that the Sultan’s word was law. Based on our visit to the Sultan’s Palace it seems many of those laws were designed to bring benefit to himself….and his many wives.

The collage below shows the entrance to the courtyard, the Sultan’s residence, and the biggest drum I’ve ever pounded on. Back in the day the drum was used as an alarm. Thumping on it makes a low-pitched tone that can be heard over great distances.


Most interesting was to see the Sultan’s swimming pool. It was actually in quite a poor state of repair, (so hard to find good help these days), but you could see the Sultan’s tower hovering over one side of the pool. Supposedly, the creepy Sultan would lurk up in the tower and pick out his next wife from the bathing beauties in the pool below.

“Where Does It Come From?”

In the neighborhood of the Sultan’s Palace there was a big open grassy area. I hesitate to call it a park, because it honestly wasn’t nice enough to qualify as a park, in my snobby opinion. My snobbery notwithstanding, the locals made good use of the space- playing soccer and other games on it throughout the day. At night the park took on a festive atmosphere. These neon-lit pedal cars are for rent.


One afternoon, I went to the grassy area with my frisbee to see if I could find someone to throw with. A group of about 7 young guys were walking around the park and I motioned with my Frisbee like I was tossing it to them. Soon they were all involved in throwing the Frisbee around like small children. A couple of them spoke a little English and after some time one of them pointed at the Frisbee and asked, “What is this?” “Where does it come from?” I didn’t understand what he meant at first, but it became clear once he told me, “It’s my first time to see this.” Wow!

They were having a blast throwing it around, but were comically bad at it.

One thing we noticed frequently about men in Indonesia, most of them carried what could most accurately be described as a purse or handbag. These cases were more masculine than a typical purse, but clearly served the same function- a place to keep your things. It was funny to see the guys running to catch the Frisbee, but first asking their friend to hold their purse.

While I was teaching Ultimate to my new friends, Jessica was making a few friends of her own.


Indonesia is not a typical vacation destination for Americans, but perhaps it should be. It has so much to offer and is absurdly inexpensive. It’s the kind of place one could explore for months on end and still leave wanting more. For us, and for this pass through the area, our two weeks in Indonesia must suffice… for now we move on to Singapore and then Hong Kong. Stay with us.