Censored!

Bad news friends. China is blocking WordPress and Facebook. I smuggled this in code on a fishing boat down the Mekong to a contact in Vietnam who deciphered and posted it for me. Just kidding. I e-mailed it to my friend Marc who graciously posted it for me. Thanks Marc!

China – Wow. I’ve only been here 24 hours but there is so much to say. First, the sheer amount of development that is happening even in Yunnan, the farthest province from Beijing is breathtaking. Highway projects, skyscrapers, malls and hotels are going up everywhere. This is an amazing juxtaposition to the still very traditional life occurring on the streets. Markets, bicycle-taxis and family shops and restaurants still dominant the street level. I watched a few minutes of what appeared to be some sort of acupuncture/blood-letting procedure happen right on the street right in front of a large bank. I’m not sure how sanitary that was!

Yunnan is also the most diverse place in China – China is something like 94% Han Chinese, but in Yunnan there are over 50 identified ‘minority groups’ that make up over 50% of the population. Not far from the Burmese, Lao and Vietnam borders, this area is teeming with hill-tribes and ethnic groups that historically and possibly even today owe their affinity much less to a country than the forests and mountains that their ancestry came from.

I also feel like a movie star – so many people stop to stare, some even turn around to keep watching. I remember feeling this a bit in Japan – it can be uncomfortable but I’m trying to take the high road and am assuming its more of a curiosity than anything with mal-intent. The people that I have sort of talked to (with the 4 Chinese words I know) have been generally polite and helpful.

**** Those were my first impressions; it is now 5 days later.

I was expecting Jinghong, the first city we stayed in to be a dirty, crossroads sort of place – not so at all. It had a very metropolitan feel, with promenades, nice restaurants, parks and tons of shopping. We walked by this really nice hotel and decided for a laugh we would ask how much it was per night – turns out it was their grand-opening and they gave us a room for 80 Yuan ($11) when the going rate was 580 ($80)! So that was a pleasant change after staying in relatively ‘modest’ places over the past couple of weeks. After soaking in the culture, having a fantastic massage at the Seeing Hands massage place (supporting the blind by employing them!), and doing some people watching it was time to get back to roughing it. Ohhh and roughing it we did. One evening we were sitting at Mei Mei’s Cafe in Jinghong and reading through the guest book where a few people had written about a trekking opportunity without a guide that would allow you to see some non-touristy villages, beautiful scenery and rural Chinese life along the Burmese border in an area known as the Xishuangbanna region. Sounds good eh?

Off we went the next morning with a sense of adventure and some chicken scratch in my notebook that was supposed to be our guide for the next 3 days. Lonely Planet had not ventured into this area! The next morning after buying some snacks, Wei and I took a bus to a small town called Mengzhe, realizing soon after we got there that the next bus to the town where we were to spend the night wasn’t until 4pm. It was interesting watching my impatience – at first I was upset at myself for not being more detail oriented, thereby wasting four hours of my day. But again, what is wasting time? Can time truly be wasted? We sat on a park bench, watching the ethnic women in their colorful garb rake corn and rice in the streets to dry it after the recent harvest. Other than that, it appeared EVERYONE was wasting time, just sitting around, passing the hours during the hottest part of the day. Just another little part of myself that I’m working on letting go of during this trip, that sense of urgency and efficiency that accompanies my time…

We eventually caught the bus to Xiding at 4pm and after a bit of searching discovered that there was exactly one restaurant and one guesthouse and they were the same place. The room smelled like mildew, had no ventilation and there were small bugs crawling around the edges of my bed. I’ll stop there, but rest assured I’ve never been more tucked into my sleep sheet more tightly!

The only thing that happens in Xiding (ever, as far as I can tell!) is a Thursday market where people from all over the surrounding hillsides come to buy and sell their wares. It was quite a site – butchers chopping up pigs, fresh tea, noodle produce, the typical plastic Chinese crap. Mostly it was about the people – Wei took some great shots that hopefully I’ll get to post after I leave China. A colorful mix of young and old, men and women, traditional and modern dress. I was generally a foot taller than everyone and was quite the attraction for the locals once again – I don’t think they see many waiguoren (Chinese term for foreigner) in these parts. While I highly recommend the market, I highly do not recommend sleeping in Xiding…

After the market we started the trek, mostly downhill, reaching our originally intended destination, a town called Zhanlang, passing temples, tea plantations and small villages. We hitched the final 2 miles on the back of a truck after receiving a kind offer for a lift. And here is where it got interesting. Originally our plan was to stay in Zhanlang for the evening, as several travelers had reported very hospitable hosts that would allow you to stay in their homes and show you around the neighboring areas. Arriving at noon, we made the decision to push onward into the unknown. (Looking back this was a bad decision as the primary purpose of the trip was to interact with locals, not necessarily just walk through!). But we started walking, eventually getting lost in a maze of dirt trails with many diversions into corn and tea fields. Suddenly the nice stroll took on a new air – we were running low on water and baking in the midday sun with really no clue where we were. Stumbling upon a motorbike, we found a farmer working in his field who politely offered to take us to the next village for some gas money (and the additional $10 he extorted from us later), which we gladly agreed to. What a ride, three of us and a couple of backpacks crammed onto a motorcycle shredding through steep, rutted single track, ducking the various low hanging branches intent on taking off our heads. Happy to be alive!

Arriving in the town of Manwa in one piece, we composed ourselves and asked several local villagers how far it was to Bada, where we would need to spend the night to catch a morning bus back to Jinghong. This is where it got weird. Despite vague memories of the guest book saying the road from Manwa to Bada was long and arduous, we believed the locals who said it was 2-3 km and that there were many places to stay in Bada. 4 hours and about 8 uphill miles later we ended up in Bada, well after dark, miserable and exhausted. We still don’t know what reason these guys had to lie to us, but already at near exhaustion, we ended up pushing it way to far, nearly a 20 mile day. An interesting note about how Chinese thought is different than ours – during that excruciating 8 miles, we’d encounter people and ask them how far it was to Bada – the usual answer: “not far” or 1 or 2km when in fact it was much more! I have no reason to believe that they were lying, more that it is an aspect of the non-linear approach to life that many eastern cultures have… BIG lesson learned. Bada ended up being a very small town, once again with one place to stay smelling of mildew and dust. At that point all I wanted was sleep so it didn’t matter…. crashed hard and woke up early to catch the early bus back towards civilization.

I know some day I will look back at this and laugh, but right now I’m fighting a cold/possible strep throat from pushing myself past the brink of exhaustion. It was an exhilarating way to see some far off the beaten path areas but a good reminder that the thrill of unplanned adventure must be checked with some planning and reputable information.

Today I find myself in Kunming, the major city in Yunnan, clinging to a 1-bar Internet connection that comes and goes from my 4th floor hotel room, drinking tea and eating yogurt, trying to recover and kick this sore throat. We likely wouldn’t have stopped in Kunming, but this is the one city where Wei can find a new SLR camera to replace the one stolen in Bangkok. Next stop is the northwest of Yunnan, to Dali, Lijiang and the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Overall my impressions of China have been positive – there has been an element of surprise, despite the many reports of growth here it still is amazing to see it first hand, the red machine running day and night. There is a sense that China will never be the same, that in 20 years it will look drastically different if the pace of development continues. I feel fortunate to be a visitor during this period, witnessing change first hand. There are the negatives obviously of such growth – ‘getting rich’ is definitely on the minds of many Chinese and one needs to be on the look out for all sorts of scams and con-artists. China also faces massive environmental issues, it seems almost monthly a new story about business interests losing touch with ethics and poisoning rivers, risking lives or damaging the environment…

Into China

I’m in Luang Nam Tha, a small town in the North of Laos, known as a jumping off point for treks into the Nam Ha national park and the ethnic villages that reside within it. Yesterday, Wei and I explored the option of doing an organized trek, ultimately deciding against it. We have both been on a number of these, and the organizations we spoke with all seemed to offer very packaged tours where we would not be the first visitors by a long shot. I decided that my last trek in Thailand was a remarkable experience and attempting to repeat it would likely end in disappointment. As an alternative we rented bikes in the small town of Muang Sing and cruised up to the Chinese border ( I missed the huge STOP sign and was quickly reminded by a few lads with big guns that I would have to back up!). On a side road we IMG_2189 visited a couple of villages, I think they were Akha people. This village was very similar to what I’ve seen in the past – poor, wooden homes, trash everywhere, animals wandering about and a few curious glances from people who have gotten over any excitement of farang (white people) stumbling into their villages. It was interesting watching my emotions in such a place – I’ve noticed this in the past too. I always feel an immense sadness. The conditions that these people live in are simply awful. I rack my brain for things I learned in business school that could help improve lives here – while there are some, the great misunderstanding is attempting to apply a western mindset to a society that has subsisted on the bare minimum alongside a corrupt government for countless years. I understand that my views on joy and happiness and a life of contentment may be very different then those of these villagers. Yet I’m still going to throw my opinion out 🙂 I think that the extremely difficult physical labor and living conditions of these people is not providing a joyful life (if this can be measured). The catch 22 is that when we introduce western ideas on efficiency, division of labor, improved agricultural techniques, etc, often the ancient culture of these people degrades as individuals find an easier life through western means. That’s all I’m going to say for now, but the debate will continue. Getting to this part of Laos was always one of my mini-goals on this trip and I did it – despite not trekking I feel glad that I was open to a different approach and the ability to decide in the moment what was right for me.

What else is up for me? I’m feeling a lot of excitement and fear about traveling into China. I’ve been fascinated with the country for a long time and many of you know that I have about 80% of my savings invested in various Chinese ETFs and companies. I’ve also heard it is an extremely difficult place to travel with the cultural differences being so great.photo_lg_china I’m fortunate that Wei has conversational Mandarin as this will help us navigate the southwest part of China that is not particularly used to English speaking tourists. I’m going in with few expectations or plans, hoping to challenge myself and enjoy what is supposedly the most naturally beautiful part of China. China restricts the Internet in a number of ways – I’m HOPING that WordPress, Skype and Gmail will still work for me, but there is the possibility of going dark for a while.

Holiday from my Holiday

Sometimes when you are feeling very emotionally drained you just have to put your thoughts aside and do something to relax. Watch a movie, go for a walk, call a friend or eat some yummy food. After my two nights alone in Munduk and some intense reflection I decided I could really use some social interaction to get out of my head. I drove my motorbike down the mountain to Lovina, a long stretch of beach in scarcely populated Northern Bali. I quickly discovered that almost overnight the high-season had come to an end, there was a lot of good, comfortable accommodation available and a great backpacker vibe with restaurants, bars and cafes. I quickly manifested my desire to meet people, befriending an Australian at lunch who had been traveling for 15 months already to many of the places I am intending to go. We had a great conversation, agreeing to meet up later with a few other people for drinks. Turns out its quite a small town and after 24 hours I had formed a clique of people at my hotel- myself, an Irishman, a French woman and a German woman, with occasional appearances from a Canadian and another Australian. Planning on staying 2 nights, I remained for 4. I enjoyed the regularity of having people to dine with, lounge on the beach with and to go on random adventures together like snorkeling, fishing and bar hopping.

IMG_2036My days were very routine – sleep in, breakfast, Internet, swim, lunch, siesta, beach, yoga, sunset, shower, dinner, gambling on the beach with the locals, drinks 🙂 I kept myself out off of the computer other than to Skype family and friends and away from the guidebook. I sought some intellectual stimulation through Sudoku and conversation. My final evening I overheard someone say “I need a holiday from my holiday“ and instantly had my blog title! And Lovina truly was that – a place to rest, mingle with locals, make friends and enjoy great cuisine. I allowed myself to be OK with idle time (something I generally struggle with), go with the flow of the other travelers and spend time conversing with locals even when 9 times out of 10 you know they just want to sell you something. Nothing very exciting to blog about – probably the most interesting thing I saw was a modified game of roulette translated as ‘fair ball’, where you gamble on colors and numbers. We were entertained by the game and the locals were entertained by us. We would get all excited and they generally remained very cool, despite some of them losing half a months salary in an evening…

I must admit I’m leaving Bali with some great memories. Never intending to come here in the first place, I ended up stretching out my visa to its final day. I’m already wishing I had purchased some of the amazing art work or crafts and definitely wish I had taken more pictures! The problem was I generally was cruising on my scooter cruising by at 60k. I saw women with what looked like 75 lbs balanced on their heads, ceremonies everywhere, families of 5 plus their gear on the same scooter, cocks fights on the side of the road, men carrying unimaginable loads of wood or bamboo, people IMG_2050constantly at work with their sickles, and much more. Off the tourist track it was very easy to glimpse the real Bali, watching village and family life unfold before your eyes. Even in the smallest villages someone could speak a little English and point me in the correct direction. One of my favorite scooter memories was leaving Munduk and driving through the villages where clove, nutmeg and vanilla were drying on the sides of the road – delicious! Also my final day on the motorbike I followed a guidebook recommendation and drove this absolutely amazing windy road  through the hills, passing volcanoes, rice paddies, waterfalls, and small villages while breathing in the crisp air. The children on their way home from school would all wave or chase after me in their colorful uniforms and every time I stopped to gain my bearings someone would almost immediately help me before I could ask.

The people truly are happier and friendlier than almost anywhere I’ve traveled. They are also close to the poorest. We all know that money doesn’t by one happiness, but there is a general standard of living that is generally necessary to provide a so-called ‘happy’ life. Yet despite the majority falling significantly below IMG_1466this standard, they were living a life of peace and love. There are many factors, more to go into with my limited view. One that struck me the most was the constant offering process, always paying respect to the gods and the spirits. Meaning that despite how poor you were, there was still a concept of a connection to something larger that you recognized and respected through these offerings – material offerings and offerings of their time through ceremony. Another powerful thing was that extended families lived in ‘family compounds’, each having their own temple and it was not uncommon to see 4 or even 5 generations together in the same place. Who knows the secret formula – but its worth investigating! Put Bali and Indonesia on your travel list, you will not be disappointed.

I realize this isn’t the most inspiring entry I have written in some time so I apologize for the drab, update and detail variety. I’m now back in Bangkok, spending a couple of nights taking advantage of her wonderful offerings and then shipping out north on a course for China and Mongolia. A friend from high school, Wei, who I haven’t seen in 10 years was waiting for me at the airport and we’re going to team up for a while. She just started an open-ended, round the world journey of her own. Through the magic of Facebook we uncovered that riding horses in Mongolia was a life-list thing for both of us – so off we go.