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Thaton to Chiang Rai

On the return trip to Tathon, we happened to be accompanied by a Russian, Jewish couple who emigrated to Australia some 18 years ago. This was their first real trip abroad, after being encouraged to hit the road by their British son in law. Also on the songthaew, was another emigre to Australia, this one from China. We traded stories with him about the 60's demonstrations against the Vietnam war, both in his adopted country and in ours. He is 70 and was quite active in the antiwar movement in Australia. Sitting next to him was another Chinese man who had travelled overland for a month starting in Kunming. He spoke only Mandarin, and unfacetiously said to the Chinese/Australian gentlemen that if it wasn't for the Party, he would never have been able to travel. Perhaps he worked for the party. It was, you might say, quite a multicultural ride. After returning to our guest house by the river, we waited until the sun was descending before starting out on a walk to then near by Wat, at the top of a steep hill. There was a small road to get there, but not having wheels, we hoofed it up the many sets of stairs. On the way, we passed this statue of the Buddha.


And this one at the top.


Below us, the town and the river valley were part of the panoramic view.



This was a handheld shot of the guest house path, as night came on quickly, as it does in the tropics.


In the morning, we left on the long tailed boat ride for Chaing Rai. A Dutch couple our age, who were staying at our guesthouse and biking for a month were also on the boat, and then we stopped to pick up Travis, a young American who was on the road for more than a year. He had been all over South America, Indonesia and many parts of Asia , as well as New Zealand. How coud he take this much time we asked. He had his own business repairing various technical machines (not computers) which he had started at age 20. Now at 32, he was taking off some time and letting his partners manage the business. Pretty impressive. The ride was quite enjoyable, with green hills all around, and even some rapids in the bony river.


We passed several large and small dredging operations, and stopped in a Lisu village where they stared at us and we stared at them. They even had a picture station set up with a cutout figure of a hill tribe couple. We couldn't resist the ridiculousness of it, but they then demanded 40 baht for the priviledge. A bit like Disneyland.


After four hours or so, we arrived in Chaing Rai, which is pleasant enough, if somewhat on the nondescript side. While there are plenty of farang, the place does not feel like a tourist town.

The clock tower, on the other hand, is impresssive, particualrly at sunset.


We went Wat hopping, first to Wat Rong Khun, the white temple outside of town. Everyone raves about this new place, and it is a big tourist attraction for Thai and Farang alike. It is a bit too rococo for my taste, though some of the artwork is interesting.




My favorite was in the in town, Wat Jet Yot. About a 100 years older it is a much simplier affair , but the enormous gold cement Buddha is both imposing and calming at the same town.


Temple painting

In this Wat I met a Hungarian. We talked politics, in a not particularly Wat like conversation, but intriguing nonetheless. He is a nuclear scientist who spent two years working on Long Island.

Then it was back to the center of town for the best Tom Yam that we had in Thailand. It was from a tiny shop, really a street stall, whose prorietor seemed especially pleased that we liked his soup, which practically exploded with flavor and spice. We shall probably return for the same thing for dinner, along with some tasty baozi, Chinese steamed buns, though they don't call them that here.


Posted by jonshapiro 11:21 Archived in Thailand Tagged buildings people food cities_postcards Comments (1)


We arrived yesterday after an easy flight from Basel, and the bad weather seems to have followed us. We are staying in Sultanamet, the old city, which is full of tourists from all over the world, and feels very cosmopolitan, a bit like New York, but with tiny alleys and winding streets that help keep the traffic down. Many of the city's most famous sites are within easy walking distance. We have already been to the Hagia Sofia, which more than lived up to billing.




As did the Blue Mosque.




Tulips, which are native to Turkey, not Holland, are blooming everywhere, and the streets are full of kebap and crepe vendors, both cheap and good, though the restaurants in this area are somewhat pricey. We spent part of the afternoon sitting in one of the ubiquitous tea houses, or rather just outside of one, in a kerosene heated area covered with clear plastic which more or less kept us dry. We preferred that to sitting inside, because of the smoke from so many people toking up on nargileh, filled with sweet Turkish tobacco. We sat next to, and then chatted with a young Turkish couple, after we overheard the woman giving her boyfriend an English lesson. They were a delight to talk to, like many of the Turks we have met thus far, quite out going and jokey. For example, earlier we were buying some Turkish pastry, and the owner was joking with another foreigner that his sweets were better than Viagra for increasing energy and sex. I can see why. It was, just possibly, the best piece of pastry I have ever had, filo dough, pistachios, and honey. Nanette and I battled it out to see who would get the last bite.

After apple tea, we were off to the Grand Bazaar. Hectic, but it was more pleasant than in Marrakesh because no traffic is allowed within the crowded shopping district. Although there are touts in Istanbul, especially in the touristy sections, they are less pushy than in the big cities of Morocco.

We have been to the archeological museum, which was a little like the Egyptian section of the Met, but on a much larger scale. It was hard to take it all in, though we spent several hours there, with Greek, Roman, Trojan and Hittite objects, some more than 5000 years old. One particularly impressive sarcophagus, named Alexander and dating from 500BC, had very intricate battle and hunting scenes carved on its marble exterior. The piece de la resistance,as it were.

Detail from Alexander Sarcophgus

Park Scenes in Sultanamet Near the Museum

Just now, I am sitting in the breakfast room of our rather funky Tulip Guesthouse, gazing over the Bosphorus toward the Asian side of the city. The sun is out, and the tankers moving through the straights at a steady clip reflect the light of the late afternoon sun, as do the buildings on the opposite shore. There are hills, and even low mountains in the distance. Closer in, a section of the old wall of the city is visible, and a white lighthouse, long and thin, like the minarets of the mosques, sits adjacent to the straight. The jumble of buildings immediately in front, comes towards me from all angles and colors. There is the mustard yellow of the Metropolis Hostel, with its black spiral staircase running up to the roof deck, and the salmon, brown, and light grey of the pointy stucco building to the left. Seagulls careen and squawk over its ramshackle metal roof.


As a double exclamation point, two bright red tankers steam up toward the Sea of Marmara.


Our amiable and chatty host, Martine, who is often to be found in this room, is a Kurd from northeast Anatolia. He grew up on a sheep farm, and then was the first in his family to get educated. He now manages three hostels in town, including Tulip. We have also met his younger brother, a college student, of whom he is fiercely protective. His relationship with his parents, on the other hand, seems rather distant. He has a Turkish girlfriend, who is getting a Phd in economics. She wants to be a professor, but although he has not yet told her, he wants her to stay at home and have babies.

He indicates things have changed for the better under Erdogen's rule, though there is still a lot of prejudice against Kurds. This is exacerbated by the separatist PKK, whose members periodically commit terrorist acts. He has nothing good to say about Ataturk, whom he says, murdered thousands of Kurds.
We have spent a number of pleasant hours talking to him, as he has traveled widely and is knowledgable about history, though he is obviously quite traditional in certain ways.

We have spent the past few days exploring the city and enjoying the people, including a visit to Istanbul Modern, a relatively new museum, which reflects the thriving art scene here. We also took the ferry to Uskudar, on the Asian side, from the Eminonu pier, a 20 minute ride across the Bosphorus. From there, we walked to a hillside park, full of tulips and pansies of all colors. At the top, there was a teahouse and restaurant with expansive views of one of the bridges across the straight, and the buildings on both shores.


After a nice respite with time to admire the view, we continued back down to the waterfront until we came to a non-touristy neighborhood, with small cafes, several ice cream shops, and a quite wonderful art gallery.


We also noticed an old synagogue, though it was boarded up and unused for many years. Stopping for ice cream, we talked to Fatima and Fozimet, two sisters of indeterminate age, who spoke fluent English. Their father had owned a barge and delivered water to other ships. For many years they had both worked in the family business, but eventually, after he died, they sold the barge and opened the shop. Both are avid tennis players, and hope to visit New York in order to go to the Open to see the tennis championships.

We returned on the same ferry, and dined in a rather upscale place in the old city, not far from our hostel. The restaurant was located over a series of subterranean rooms, built by the Roman emperor, Justinian, about 300 AD. We were shown an entrance in the back, and spent a few minutes exploring after dinner. Many parts of Sultanamet are built on even older walls and ruins.

The sense of history here is almost breathtaking in its scope. Greek, Roman, European, Ottoman, Arabic, and even Asian influences and objects can be found, and of course the city, at different periods of time, has been home to both Christians and Moslems, even some Jews.

Yesterday, we took a long walk along a different stretch of waterfront to another ferry dock, where we picked up our tickets for the ferry that crosses the Sea of Marmara. We will later make our way to the small Aegean town of Ayvalik. On the way back it started raining hard again, and we got soaked, but we made it to a crowded teahouse near the Grand Bazaar. There, we ran into Ahmed, who we had briefly met at our guest guest house. A most interesting man in his 60's, originally from Peshawar Pakistan, he spent ten years teaching physics in various colleges around Boston. He has also lived in many places in the Middle East, including, Sudan, Saudia Arabia, Oman, always teaching physics in English. He said he never got a permanent position in the states because there were issues with his green card, although he now has a US passport. After spending two years in Oman, separated from his wife and son who stayed in the US, she divorced him,despite the fact that he was supporting them. He ended up in Crete where he met his present girlfriend, and they now own a house in, you guessed it, Ayvalik. He encouraged us to look her up when we arrived. He was on his way to Boston to visit friends, and then see his son in New York. He told us all of this, while explaining some of the finer points of quantum mechanics in a way that we could actually understand it.

Today started out dark and dreary, but we took the tram and the new underground funicular to the top of Beyo─člu, in a now fashionable part of town. We did not ascend the Galata Tower, built in the late 15th century, but continued back down a wide shopping street near the old funicular tracks. Blissfully, there was no vehicular traffic amidst the Turkish eateries, and many US clothing stores. We then walked across the bridge to Eminonu, which by now was full of its daily quota of fishermen casting off into into the wicked currents of the straight. The bridge is a multistoried affair, one level of which has many fish restaurants and sandwich shops, some of which are quite a bargain. They all compete for your business as you stroll past. The trick seems to be not to make up your mind too quickly so you can see who offers the best price.

Eminonu Bridge with Galata Tower in Background

Another Beautiful Mosque near Bridge

The high point of the day was a two hour cruise up the Bosphorus, past Uskudar, and three major bridges, weaving in between the tankers. The sun came
out for a while, and we could see both shorelines lined with impressive houses, old and new. Some were renovated, others dilapidated, and old cemeteries clung to the steeply wooded hills behind them. Castles were also to be seen here and there. Like so many things in this ancient city, it was a hodgepodge of of styles and character.


I am once again back in the breakfast room with a view. The brick red Arcadia Hellas, steams toward the Black Sea. I hope tomorrow will prove a fair day because we make our crossing of the Sea of Marmara, and we are both prone to seasickness.

Yours Truly, with The Founder of Modern Turkey

Posted by jonshapiro 09:16 Archived in Turkey Tagged bridges buildings people cities_postcards Comments (2)

A Hakka Excursion

Our most fervent admirerer is still Happy, who, as it turns out, is also quite a rebel. Before coming to WECL she ran away from home and went to live with a relative after dropping out of high school. Her Uncle, who has more money than the rest of the family, offered to pay her tuition, but she can't afford to live in the dorms and instead lives in a tiny room in a poor section of town about a mile away.

She was thrilled to be coming with us to visit some ancient round house villages, Hakka, in southern Fujien province. She has to cut class for a day, as our weekend starts on Friday. This is a big deal because Bob, the head teacher, will be angry if he find out that she is cutting class because of us. Of course, from our point of view, she will learn a lot more English from two days of conversation than in a class of 17 people.


The round houses in southwestern Fujien Province, were three or four hours by bus from Xiamen. The Hakka, or guest people, a nomadic group from north China, settled in this area as early as 1300. The most famous Hakka is none other then Deng Xiaoping.

The enormous houses are impressive structures, some 250-300 feet around, and are made of a combination of wood, sticky rice, brown sugar, soil and lime. They are said to be bullet proof and earthquake proof with walls more than 5 feet thick. More like forts then houses, the center is open, and the small rooms circle the outside with space for several hundred people on three different levels. The roof is made of slate shingles.

P6060020.jpg P6060052.jpg

At one point the US government thought they were missile silos, which is apparently what they look like from the air. We saw several that were 500 years old, but there are many different houses, some built as recently as the l960's, and some of them are square.


Mostly there are old people and very young children living here, a fraction of the numbers that were here just 10 or 20 years ago. As in the rural villages near Yangshuo, the young and able bodied have all left for the cities where they can make a living.


Happy, on the other hand, was not impressed with the houses after we were dropped off in the small, rural village surrounded by lush mountains. "They look just like the buildings where I live," she said. Her town is a poor rural area about 10 hours from Xiamen. "They all look the same," she said. I guess if it looks like home, it's nothing special.

Many of the houses are obviously in a state of disrepair and if the government doesn't step in, it is obvious that a number will collapse in the next several years. "The government doesn't care," Happy continued. "They just want to tear them down and put up new ones," and indeed, not far away and sometimes right next to these grand houses, there were relatively new, and to my eyes, exceeding ugly brick houses, covered with the ubiquitous stained white tile that you can see all over the "new China." We tried to point out to her that this was part of the culture of old China, and if all of the houses disappeared it would be a big loss. I'm not sure she bought it, being all of 15 years old, the past doesn't have a lot of meaning. Unfortunately she's probably right about the government. They don't seem to understand the concept of renovation, and unless they can figure out a way to turn it into a tourist attraction that will make money, they don't seem to care.Unesco is considering it as a World Heritage Site and this might make the government take notice. If this happens, the Chinese hordes will descend and pony up millions of yuan to view the "scenic sites," but by then the few remaining locals will no doubt be bought out, probably happily, and the houses left standing will be turned into museums.

After an hour or so at Gao Bei, we found some motorcyclists to drive us a few miles up the road to the local,fan dian, or restaurant, where we had a mediocre lunch. We then started to walk the 5K to Hu Keng, passing a number of other earth houses en route. Luckily after 20 minutes or so we were able to flag down a small minibus which took us to the ramshackle town of a few thousand people. We had our choice of two "three star" hotels, and after Happy negotiated a discount at one, we settled into our room. We noticed a couple of washcloths, but no towels and so we went down with Happy to ask for some. "They say there are towels in the room." "Oh," we said,'' we saw some tiny ones, but that's all." "That's what we use all over china," she said. "They don't have any bigger ones." "Ah," we said, knowingly, and to ourselves, just like the tiny plates and bowls that everyone uses even in the fancy restaurants.

We then hired a different minibus to take us up to a more remote village, further up in the hills. From where the driver dropped us off, we were able to hike a bit into the mountains, and we could look down onto the houses below and across the terraced rice fields into the valley.


" A waterfall," Sunny exclaimed. "I love waterfalls." We hiked along the narrow terraces, which reminded us of so many we saw in [Peru, until it started to rain and made the path muddy and slippery. A bit reluctantly, we turned back, and then wandered around the village, taking pictures of the old people and children still living there. One couple in particular seemed to get a kick out of posing for photos, but were quite disappointed when Happy had to explain to them that even though we could show them the picture, we could not give them a copy.


Hurrying back to our impatient driver, it started to rain heavily as he negotiated the deeply rutted and narrow road back to town.

We rested an hour or two and then, getting hungry, we donned raincoats and went out in search of a restaurant. Shockingly, the town seemed to have none. Was this really China? Everywhere else we had been had dozens of them. Finally, after wandering around forever in the rain, we discovered a one table place near the center of town. The food was awful, and Happy, got into a shouting match with the cook, after he heavily salted our food when we specifically said no salt. What really got him upset, was when Happy started shouting at him in English. "I'm a university graduate," he said, "don't talk to me this way." None of us believed that, and finally we had to usher Happy out of there. "I'm so angry," she said. "He put salt in food and he say did not."

Glad to get back to our room, the hotel clerk managed to find a deck of cards for us and we taught Happy how to play rummy. This seemed to take her mind off of the cook and a good time was had by all. The next morning it was still raining hard, disrupting our plans to walk to a few nearby villages. We went in search of breakfast which consisted of some fruit and crackers that managed to be both sweet and salty at the same time. Returning to our room, we played a few more rounds of rummy until it was time to leave. Surprisingly, it cost more to go back then it did on the way in. Maybe the bus company knew that people would pay more to leave once they saw the town had no place to eat. Not only that, the bus took a different route which took an extra hour and a half. So we had to pay more for a slower ride. But, as one of the other teachers said, when we got back, "You don't expect anything to be logical here, do you?" Of course, our progress was also slowed by a few landslides caused by the heavy rain. Despite the fact that it was a new road, the government had neglected to stabilize the hills along the sides of it.


Posted by jonshapiro 12:19 Archived in China Tagged buildings living_abroad Comments (2)

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