Marie's World Tour, Part 3: Siem Reap to Beijing
By Marie Javins, GoNOMAD TRANSPORTS GUIDE
My 'round-the-world "solo" trip turned into a "with friends" trip for a bit, with surprisingly good results.
Lynne and Fiona, two British friends of mine, met me in Cambodia for a whirlwind tour of Angkor Wat and Vietnam. When they left me two weeks later, my pal Yancey flew in. Together, we traveled with a small, organized group for a look at eastern China. Normally, I find groups claustrophobic, but after three months of eating dinner alone, it was a relief to have twelve instant friends.
HEAVEN AND HO, BY TRAIN THROUGH VIETNAM
A bumpy, 12-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh left us tired and in the center of Ho Chi Minh City. I had been to Vietnam before and was giving Lynne and Fiona lessons in street crossing."Follow me," I said. "Wade out into traffic slowly. The motorbikes will part around you like you're Moses and the motorbikes are the Red Sea."To my embarrassment, I wasn't quick enough. A 6-year-old girl grabbed me by the hand and dragged me out into the street."You'll never get across like that," she scoffed, right before trying to sell me a postcard.
We spent a day sightseeing in Ho Chi Minh aka Saigon, which reminded me that the Vietnam War (called the "American War" in Vietnam), is the exception to the rule that "History is written by the victors." The Vietnamese version of the war is vastly different from the popularly-accepted Western version. It neglects to mention South Vietnam or the French involvement in Indochina.
We moved on to the beach at Nha Trang, and then to Hoi An by sleeper train.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An is a well-preserved colonial town. It is also my favorite spot in Vietnam, and the small hotel there, the Cua Dai, is my favorite place to stay in the region. We borrowed the hotel's rusty bicycles and rode into town, keeping pace with hordes of uniformed school kids.
Almost every shop in Hoi An sells tailor-made silk clothing, paintings, wooden handicrafts, or silk lanterns. I have an ample supply of all in storage back in the States, but that didn't stop me from getting my favorite pedal pushers copied in black silk. Hoi An's golden European-style buildings, covered Japanese bridge, and small cobblestone streets charmed Lynne and Fiona the same way it had charmed me the year before. We wandered the alleys, stopping for rich Vietnamese coffee, a legacy of French colonialism.We took a heap of an old car over the mountain to Hue, spent a rainy day there, and then went on to Hanoi, where tourists are eaten for breakfast.
Tourists aren’t literally eaten in Hanoi, but in spite of the many years of travel experience we had between us, we couldn't avoid the various innovative scams practiced on both locals and foreigners. First, our taxi driver got us with the old "super-fast meter" trick, coupled with the "drive-a-million-miles-out-of-the-way" trick. Then, a cyclo driver ran away with Fiona's money, essential robbing her instead of providing change.Still, we forged ahead and even enjoyed Hanoi. The first morning, Fiona and her guidebook led us on a walking tour of Hanoi's Old Quarter.
Each block was named for the product that it had once specialized in. Thus, one street was Paper Street, one was Rubber Stamp Street, one was Medicine Street, and our hotel was on Comb Street. There were no combs in sight, but presumably once upon a time, Halong Street had been THE place to buy a comb. We dodged shoeshine boys and postcard sellers on our walking tour, and ended up near the railway station.
It was lunchtime, and I knew of a good sandwich shop nearby, KOTO. KOTO's mission is to train disadvantaged kids in hospitality, and it has tasty food. Plus, when Bill Clinton was in town, he went to KOTO for some hummus. If it's good enough for Bill... well, I'm not sure what that means, but we tried to go to the restaurant.There was, however, a hitch. KOTO was missing. It had outgrown its facilities and moved.
We didn't find KOTO, but I did find it the following day and had a nice chicken sandwich there.Later, I ran into Andrew, an Australian we'd had lunch with back in Hue. He was unhappy -- he was frustrated with his own reaction to the enterprising locals, which was no better than my own. He had sat by the lake to read a book, but had been accosted constantly by vendors and English students. He'd counted the number of times a cyclo or moto driver had tried to get his attention and had quit counting at 45. Andrew wanted to be open to discourse with the locals, but was finding himself annoyed and skeptical.I realized that it was all a battle with two fronts.
On one front, Hanoi was a battle of wits, between the tourist and the tout. The tout's goal was to engage the tourist in dialogue by any means necessary, thereby facilitating an eventual purchase or exchange of money. The tourist, meanwhile, had to cleverly be on the lookout at all times, to separate the well-meaning local from the crafty seller or the con artist.On the other front, the tourist was fighting an internal battle against bitterness and skepticism.
This was difficult, because the sellers were so over the top. They didn't just offer a postcard and accept "no" as an answer. They'd follow us down the street, question our motives, and dog us like we were raw meat and they were hyenas. The guidebook noted that cyclo drivers were all too happy to "wrestle you into their cyclos." Even street musicians were not just happy to strum a song -- they'd bring along an amplifier, playing as loud as they could until shopkeepers paid them to go away.I met Lynne and Fiona to go to the water puppet show. The water puppets are wooden marionettes, their stage a shallow pool.
The puppeteers wear rubber galoshes and operate from behind a screen. Last year, I thought the water puppets were bizarre. This year, I had purchased front row seats and was prepared to be more charitable. The water puppets were still weird. I fell asleep early in the first act. Afterwards, Fiona precisely summed up my feelings about the water puppets."That was barking," she declared.I took the day off to work on my website and China itinerary, while Lynne and Fiona went on a city tour.
They visited all the top tourist sites, including Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum."Uncle Ho," as he's referred to with devotion, lies in perpetual state in Hanoi. His wish was for cremation, but the Vietnamese people couldn't bear to let him go. His embalmed body is instead a tourist attraction. All in all, it's morbid, but it a "must" for all visitors to Hanoi. The next day, we caught a tourist bus out past the rice paddies to Halong Bay.
In the countryside, the farmers were working hard, irrigating crops the old-fashioned way. Two women or children would hold onto opposite ends of a rope contraption. A conical basket was in the middle, and was rhythmically swung into the irrigation canal and then over the rice, tipping the water onto the crops with each upward swing. Children too young to help slept nearby on muddy water buffalo. Halong Bay was attractive, but disappointing. We took a motorboat out into the bay. Our view of the dramatic limestone cliffs that rise out of the sea was marred by the gray rainy haze. The caves, another highlight of an area famous for its natural beauty, were inexplicably adorned with penguin-shaped trashcans.Lynne and Fiona left me the evening, to fly home to jobs, homes, and laundry-on-demand.
NICE KARST! SOLO THROUGH SOUTHERN CHINA
The train from Hanoi to the Chinese border was a ratty, old monstrosity, with vinyl-covered berths. I shared my compartment with two Vietnamese men who were en route to a job conference in central China, and a 31-year-old Chinese man. The Chinese man spoke a smidgen of English, as did the Vietnamese. The Chinese spoke no Vietnamese, and vice-versa. Occasionally, we'd have group conversations. They'd go something like this.Vietnamese man #1 to Chinese man: blahblahblah?
Chinese man (looking totally confused): blah??
Vietnamese man #2: blah.
Chinese man: blah??
(Vietnamese man #1 pulls out passport and shows from where it says
Chinese man: Ahhh. (pulls out passport to show he's from China.)
(Vietnamese man #2 shows his passport. Not surprisingly, it also reads "Vietnam.")
(All three men look at me expectantly.)
Chinese man: blah?
Vietnamese men: blah blah?
Me: Ahh... (I pull out my passport. USA is where I'm from.)
(All nod and smile. Conversational exchange has been difficult but successful.)
Time advanced an hour, and the infrastructure about ten years, as we crossed the border to China. It was midnight by the time we'd gone through Customs and switched to a Chinese train. The Chinese passenger in our compartment swelled with pride. It was a beautiful, new train."Chinese train," he said loudly. Everyone understood that, and the two Vietnamese men in the compartment nodded politely.
I left the train at Guilin, and caught a local minibus to Yangzhuo. It is one of those traveler's meccas, like Kathmandu, Cuzco, and anywhere in Bali. I checked into a guesthouse on "West Street," which was once called "Foreigner Street." Countryside Chinese tourists still come to West Street today, to take photos of all the foreigners. I rented a bicycle and spent a few days touring the countryside around Yangzhuo. I caught a boat up the river, and road my bicycle back to the delighted shrieks of local children. The towering limestone karsts put Halong Bay and its plastic penguins to shame. Uncle Bob, a local travel agent, talked me into taking a Greyhound-style bus to Hong Kong, instead of a sleeper bus. He was convinced the sleeper bus was not safe or comfortable. He was right. As I stood in line at Customs, at the buffer city between mainland China and Hong Kong, I spotted a sleeper bus. The shallow berths looked uncomfortable, and there was no room for passengers to sit up. The driver had a bong stuck to his lips, and was taking an unspecified drag of something before driving off. I caught a train to Hong Kong, switched to the local metro, and was ensconced in my friendly Nathan Road guesthouse sealandhouse.com.hk) by noon.
Hong Kong was a repeat for me. It is a city like New York, with crowds of important people, old districts, and gleaming modern skyscrapers. It is a city of garbage, and a city of smells. But most memorable are the constant drips of air conditioners, plopping onto your head any time you venture out from under the eaves of a department store. I spent a few days enjoying the blissful anonymity that comes with being in a multi-cultural, giant city, and then caught a "hard sleeper" train to Shanghai, where I was going to join an Intrepid Travel trip.
SHANGHAI TO BEIJING
The Shanghai YMCA (ymcahotel.com) had the sort of beautiful set up that every budget traveler dreams of. The dorms were enormous, the beds comfy, and only four same-sex travelers shared one room. I was given my own locking cabinet, and a free breakfast coupon, all for fifteen dollars a night. The 'Y' was centrally located, near the People's Park, the Bund, the subway, and Starbucks morning coffee.I walked around, passing department stores, McDonald's, Benneton, KFC, and fashionable women dressed in black platform shoes. Kids bore knapsacks featuring Donald Duck zipper-pullers.
I would forget that I was in Shanghai as I headed towards the easy-to-use subway, but then some small oddity would remind me that I was in China, not New York -- a man would be selling bunnies in wire cages on a street corner, or I'd look up and see the heavy smog that blanketed the city. The most striking reminder that I was in China was the complete disregard for personal space. People would run right into each other on the streets, not acknowledge it, and keep moving.My friend from home, Yancey, flew in.
I moved to Intrepid's hotel and the trip began. Our group consisted of twelve travelers and a leader, and pre-paid accommodation that meant the world of guesthouses and the YMCA was behind me. I was worried about joining a group, even such a small one, after being on my own for so long. But that was before I met Yancey's roommate, Michael.Michael was a 40-year-old Australian kindergarten teacher who lived in a house he'd built himself on 30-acres of rainforest near Brisbane.
He was chronicling his trip on sheets of paper stolen from hotels, and kept us amused with his observations of the mundane in China. He was the Passepartout to my seasoned, unflappable Phileas Fogg, and reminded me that travel was fun. He had studied the Public Security Bureau's hotel rules carefully."I've just read the PSB Hotel Rules and I've learned that I'm not allowed to up anyone for the night. Amongst other rules are these gems:-Not to conduct unsanitary activities.
-No farm animals in my room.
-No lighting fires or letting off firecracker in my room.
-No dangerous or radioactive articles allowed in my room.
-No drinking and making great noises. At the bottom of these rules, it says that if I violate them, I'll be punished by the PSB organ."After meeting Michael and listening to his travelogue, my apprehension about traveling with a group evaporated. This was going to be fun.
We left Shanghai to visit Zhouzhang, an ancient city riddled with canals. Again the local tourists took as many photos of us as they did of the gondolas and the tiny stone lanes. Rob, our leader, turned out to have a fear of ghosts, which was a small problem because our tiny guesthouse in Zhouzhang was reputedly haunted. Fortunately, we had all day to tour the town, giving us ample opportunity to mock the fear out of him with incessant teasing. I took my new Rohan travel trousers (ordered by me via the internet, shipped to Lynne in the UK, sent to Yancey in the US, and hand-carried to me in Shanghai) across the canal to a seamstress for hemming. It seemed that I was the first foreigner to stumble into the seamstress' store. She was a class act, however, and after her initial surprise, she got right to work.
I showed her that my pants were too long. She measured me and started cutting. She chattered to me in Mandarin, and I chatted back in English. Neither of us had a clue what our conversation was about.We must've looked like we were having a lot of fun because four local women dropped by to join the party. One of them offered to buy my leftover fabric for four yuan. I pretended not to understand and left it for the seamstress.The only interaction I was certain was clear to all parties was my explanation of my Rohan's purpose. I was trying to demonstrate that travel trousers were durable and easy to care for. I gave up trying to indicate "quick-drying" and crumpled a pant leg. I released and look -- no wrinkles!"Ahhhh," said my appreciative audience.
From Zhouzhang, we caught a speedboat to Suzhou, a city notable for the use of Kentucky Fried Chicken-navigation. Suzhou was full of KFC outlets, and the tourist maps showed KFC icons on every fourth block. Unable to read the street signs, we were navigating by the Colonel.
Our next stop was Luoyang, from which we visited Shaolin Temple and the Longmen Caves Dragon Gate Grottos. Shaolin Temple itself was too crowded to enjoy, but the martial arts show that followed made the trip worthwhile.Young men in orange kung fu outfits laid down on nails, tumbled over each other, fought with swords, sticks, and brooms, and poked themselves on giant spears. A six-year-old showed enough strength and dexterity to impress the entire room. After each astonishing feat, the performers would give a one-handed Shaolin salute. Legend has it that the creator of Shaolin-style was a one-armed monk. During the inevitable audience participation section, Yancey and Michael both punched a monk in the stomach but failed to make him so much as blink. We stopped for dinner at a good restaurant, and sampled many different dishes that swirled around the table on a Lazy Susan. The group split between the hotel and the town square, but Rob and I hopped into a taxi to check out the night market.
The market was only about a block long, but the street was closed to traffic. Rob and I were the focus of many curious stares, and the locals were amused that we were in the market for the specialty of the street -- fried bugs. Stall after stall sold cicadas, octopi, crawfish, and little squiggly pupae/larvae squashy insects.Rob negotiated with a seller -- we didn't want a full serving of bugs as neither of us planned to actually eat them. We were going to feed them to the brave Intrepid men who had unhesitatingly torn into a barbecued hog hock back in Zhouzhang.Rob chose a variety pack, first pointing to cicadas, and then to the still-wiggling larvae. The seller threw some oil and spices into a wok, tossed in the insects, and put some chopped garlic on top. The cicadas fried up to crispy treats, but the larvae swelled and popped, oozing green pus into the wok.When the bugs finished cooking, the seller and several of his friends stared at us and giggled.
They wanted to see us eat the snacks, but were sorely disappointed when we asked for a takeaway bag.We went back to the hotel, where Rob called Yancey, Michael, Tim the Brit, and Kiwi Carl from the front desk. We all met upstairs, to sample the mysterious tasty treats that I had arranged attractively on a plate borrowed from the hotel restaurant. The guys, while disgusted, rose to the occasion. They defined the cicadas and larvae as "yummys" and "yuckys," respectively. With no small assistance from the local Chinese beer, the score was tallied. The U.S., I'm pleased to report, made a showing in the bug-eating Olympics, but Australia took the gold.Yancey, representing the U.S., managed to chew and swallow three "yummys." Our closest neighbor, Canada, was disqualified after two false starts in which Rob spat "yummy" bits into the wastebasket.
The UK received an honorable mention as Tim chewed and swallowed one "yummy."Michael brought home the gold for Australia, after consuming four "yummys" and one "yucky." He and Yancey were always combing city streets for unique foods and were willing to sample any local dish no matter how revolting.Carl took the silver, because after one false start, he managed to swallow two pus-filled "yuckys."Meanwhile, I didn't try to eat a single bug. I know my limits -- I can't even eat mutton or duck without feeling ill. Bugs were definitely not on my roster of acceptable food choices.
Dragon Gate Grottos
The next day, we were the guests of honor at a tourism propaganda fair and then headed to the Dragon Gate Grottos. The Grottos feature thousands of alcoves of varying sizes, all filled with unique stone Buddhas. I wandered away from the group and walked around, amazed by the artistry of each individual Buddha. The highlight was a plateau surrounded by twenty to forty foot tall sculptures of various divinities. The downside of all this astonishing sculpture was that it was a mob scene -- crawling with domestic tourists.Rob, between bites of tour group food he had convinced a Chinese tour guide to sell us, apologized for the crowds."I know there were a lot of tourists at Shaolin Temple yesterday. And there are a lot of tourists here today. I'm sorry about it, but we're in China and there are 1.26 billion people here. Things tend to get crowded."
We caught a train to Xi'an for a look at the legendary Terra Cotta Warriors. They're 2000 years old and life-sized, which means a bit smaller than an average American. Each is unique, because all are based on real soldiers of the time. They were made to go into the afterlife with the emperor, in the same way that Egyptian pharaohs were buried with slaves that they might need later. But the Chinese had the courtesy to bury ceramic figures instead of living people. We were able to visit three giant "pits" of sand-colored soldiers, and there are possibly more as excavations still continue.
We moved on to Beijing, to visit the Forbidden City and see the sights. Carl had, without a doubt, the most unusual China experience of any of us in Beijing. "I was walking from the hotel to Tiananmen Square," he said. "Three Chinese businessmen were walking in front of me. Suddenly, two filthy kids ran out of the bushes and jumped on one man. His friends ran away! The kids wrapped themselves around the man and wouldn't let go until he gave them money, and then they disappeared back into the bushes."This was truly a unique (and frightening) way to make a buck. I ranked it on par with the Delhi shoeshine boys who squirt brown goo on shoes and follow it up with, "sir, you have shit on your shoes."
We moved on from smoggy Beijing to smoggy Chengde, our staging point for our assault on the Great Wall. The group was taking a nine-kilometer walk along the Great Wall, Unfortunately, I had acquired the group's hacking cough and was really ill by this time. The hike to the Great Wall and back to the waiting minibus was enough for me. I watched the group hike away into the mist and rain, and had a look around.The Great Wall was long -- 6000 kilometers long. It disappeared into mountains on either side of me. It followed the mountain ridges, steeply going up and down. But it wasn't very wide, and clearly the claims that astronauts could "see the Great Wall from space" were absurd.
As one guidebook, "Central Asia Overland," had put it, "parts of the Great Wall are so rundown that you can barely see it from the Great Wall itself."Still, it was awesome. The Great Wall, I reflected, was built to keep foreigners out. Now, it drew them in by the busload.A prime example of this pulled up as I sat in the minibus. A bus full of forty French tourists pulled up. The local guides and postcard sellers formed a line of scrimmage, a human barrier that left only a single opening for the tourists to file through. One local would break off for each tourist that crossed through, and the game would begin. The group rejoined me after their hike, and we drove back to Beijing.
Back in Beijing with Micky D
Michael and Yancey, fearless consumers of all foods local and world-class championship bug-eaters, had been downed by the mundane. Michael had been felled by a rotten pineapple he should have had the sense not to eat, and Yancey had gotten the same miserable cold that had knocked me out. Rob had eaten with Michael, and was sick too. We made a pathetic foursome, and decided to eat at McDonald's in order to get something "bland and starchy" into our uncooperative systems.This was an ideal opportunity for me to continue my research into local McDonald's dessert pies. I'd had "pineapple pie" and "corn pie" in Bangkok, and the Chinese McDonald's menu featured "red bean pie."Rob placed the order."Apple?" asked the doubtful cashier."No, red bean," said Rob."Pineapple?""No, red bean."
Rob pointed at the pink packaging around the red bean pie.The cashier brought over a pineapple pie and a red bean pie. She shoved the pineapple pie forward."Pineapple?" she said."No, RED BEAN!" Rob grabbed the red bean pie from her hand. We split it four ways. It wasn't bad, but I had to admit that the pineapple, and even the corn pie, tasted better.Michael walked us to the railway station the next morning. We picked up takeaway muffins, and I stuffed then into a clean sanitary napkin bag I'd swiped from the hotel expressly for the purpose of storing food.
Yancey and I were well supplied with snacks for the overnight trip to Ulaan Bataar, and we'd made a last minute run to the pharmacy to stock up on tissues and codeine cough syrup. We loaded into our two-person compartment, said our touching goodbyes, and left the station for the unknown weather ahead. We coughed and gasped our way out of the Beijing station.
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