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Book Five: Return to Southeast Asia and China

Guangzhou

TO ALL MY NEW TRAVEL AND OLD FRIENDS: HERE STARTS THE BLOG OF MY LAST TRAVEL ADVENTURE THIS PAST FEB TO APRIL 2013. WE ARE NOW HOME.

After the long flight, Hong Kong still felt vaguely familiar after a five year absence. Our hotel, the Panda, was comfortable enough, though kitchy in the Chinese way. When we had breakfast in a local place around the corner, ham and eggs and toast with the crust cut off in the British manner, we truely felt we had arrived. Shortly thereafter we made our way to the subway station, and managed to get lost several times, though we did make it to the mainland Chinese train station. It was not entirely uneventful, as I left my small day pack next to the information both in the subway. As we were purchasing tickets from a machine, the attendant came up to me and asked if I had left a bag. Initially I said no, only to realize a few minutes later that in fact I had done so. Luckily she still had it in the booth. A close call with a lot of imprtant papers.

In the main train station we found ourselves next to Peter from Montreal, who we chatted with about travel adventures and found we had been to many of the same places. In his late 40's, he had a business and a girlfriend which brought him to Guangzhou on a monthly basis. He kindly offered to let us call Sunny, our former English student, on his phone when we arrived, which turned out to be unnecessary. Sunny, who was only 15 when we last saw her was right there to meet us, and we recognized each other immediately. It was, after five long years, wonderful to see her again, as she was by far our favorite student in Xiamen.






Sunny in her apartment and next to revolutionary statue in sculpture garden
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Guangzhou is a big,rather futuristic looking city with many new skyscapers, and a nice walkway along the Pearl River. On the day we arrived Sunny took us to the top of the Canton tower, some 600M high with a commanding view of the city. The tower was erected for the 2010 Asian games. Unfortunately the smog obscured much of the sunset. However, when the lights of the city came on after dark, the display of multicolored neon was incredible.




Taken through the glass at the top of the tower
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The tower itself was alternately lit up like a rainbo, then red, purple, green etc. which was best seen once we descended.




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As Sunny pointed out, the Chinese are very good at puttng on a show for others to see. Later in the evening we took a cruise on the Pearl River, and the lights on the bridges and tall buildings were like a well organized light show, also multicolored, as well as moving and pulsating. I snapped away wthout a tripod, eager to try out my new superlight camera.





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For the first couple of days Sunny kept us incredible busy seeing all of the sights, and insisted on paying for many things. We ate up a storm, from local soups, to dongbei, hotpot, and dim sum.




Old monastery amidst the constant new construction
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Finally we had to tell her that we didn't need to see EVERYTHING, and just wanted to spend time with her. This gave us time to just relax and enjoy each other's company. We spent one evening making jouza, dumplings, in her apartment, where we met her roommates, and an Italian man who Sunny had corresponded with, who was interested in studying Chinese in exchange for teaching her Italian. Another night we met her boss, David , a low key Brit who seems to appreciate her talents and is almost paternal with her. She works for him as an administrator, in a language institute which provides training to multinational corporations. Though much more mature than when we last saw her, Sunny is still the same free thinking, independent person she was five years ago. Despite the gaps in her formal education she has a very good and inquizative mind, and has blossomned into a responsible and attractive woman. Her English, complete with American accent, has improved to the point where it is possible to have a conversation with her about practically anything. We discussed many things including some heavy family issues, friendships, work, goals for the future etc. When and if she decides to create her own business, we can be the first, and as she put it, likely the only shareholders. I think we all realized that our connection to each other remains as strong as ever, despite the time and the distance. She has become, for all intents and purposes, like our third daughter, and we feel very protective of her.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:58 Archived in China Tagged skylines people photography buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (0)

Efes (Ephesus)

We took the bus from Bergama to Efes, as it is called here, and stayed in nearby Selcuk, a medium sized city, not without it's charms. Now that we were getting to southern Turkey, it had a much more tropical feel.



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There was a beautiful old mosque.





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And a round stone castle not far from a pedestrian mall that was closed to traffic, with shops and restaurants. The weekly market took place right in front of our hotel, hours after our arrival, and we stocked up on different types of feta, delicious tomatoes, olives of all kinds, and strawberries. It was more than enough for lunch and dinner. The non food section of the market was less interesting. Mostly it was bargain clothes, probably made in China. Wandering around the back streets of Selcuk, these ladies were kind enough to let me take their picture.





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Efes itself was a bit of a disappointment after Pergamum. Although larger and more extensive, the setting is not so lovely, and the place was packed with tourists from all over, even in the hot sun of mid-afternoon. Where you are allowed to walk is also quite restricted because of the numbers. Nonetheless, it is worth a visit, in part because some of the buildings have been tastefully reconstructed and you get a sense a just how large a city it was.





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Posted by jonshapiro 06:42 Archived in Turkey Tagged photography tourist_sites buildings_postcards Comments (1)

Guilin, Yangshuo, and Surrounds

For our one week vacation we flew from Xiamen to Guilin, about 800K. The area around Guilin, including the tourist city of Yangshuo, is famous for its green karst mountains, straight out of a Chinese landscape painting.

We spent two days in Guilin, wandering around on our own in the city's extensive parks and along the riverfront. We found it to be quite an attractive city, but wherever we went, other Chinese tourists and some locals wanted to take their picture with us. We felt like celebrities.

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Disney characters it seems, are very popular in China with both children and adults. Here is a view of them from another section of the park pictured above.





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The riverfront had it's share of wooden rafts and boats, some of which were floating restaurants.



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In our guesthouse, we ran into Karen, probably the only black Canadian teacher in all of China. She too worked for WECL, though in Beijing where they had another school. Just prior to our trip we happened to be looking at the WECL newsletter and saw her picture, and there she was right next door.


We soon headed for Yangshuo, about an hour by bus. The town itself is an interesting mix of Chinese tourists and western backpacker types, complete with "Western Street" because of the number of western shops and restaurants.



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The surrounding area is indeed gorgeous, with very green karst peaks sticking straight up from narrow river valleys and rice fields.





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We are staying in a charming, but simple hostel, the Yangshuo Culture House, which is a few blocks away from the hustle of the main drag. The food, all part of the deal, is fantastic, and at the family styles meals we met some really nice folks from Holland and elsewhere. Nanette had a brush painting lesson with the owner Wei, which he offers free of charge.

We went on a long bike ride through several villages along the Yulong River, with our young Dutch friends.



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This is ancient China, full of rice paddies being tilled the old way, by farmers with water buffaloes.


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Narrow and rocky paths took us in between the villages and almost everyone was friendly and smiling.




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The people live in old brick houses or houses made from adobe with slate roofs, and most of them looked to be as old as the houses. The young have all moved to the city to find work. It was a delight to get away from the hordes of tour groups that fill the main streets of Yangshuo. We ate lunch near Dragon Bridge, several hundred years old, and watched the bamboo rafts ferrying other tourists up and down the river.




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The following day, we went on hike starting at Yang Di and ending at Xing Ping. We were told it was 24K in total, but it didn't seem quite that long. The trail and dirt roads weaved along on both sides of the Jiang Li River, which we had to cross about four times. The scenery was breathtaking, with sheer, rocky cliffs with lush vegetation rising directly from the river. Waves of misty peaks stretched into the distance with the occasional Buddhist shrine impossibly perched atop some of the rock outcroppings.



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At one point we waded out on the slippery rocks and splashed ourselves with river water to cool down, as it got quite hot in the afternoon. At the same time a few old village women were trying to sell us fried fish and rice wrapped in banana leaves, which we didn't eat, anxious to avoid getting sick. They got big kick out of the lawei swimming in the river. Modernity has not touched everywhere in this country, at least not yet.

We find that even the few word we can say in Chinese make a big difference when we are touring like this. We can ask for simple directions and even find the bus station. This might not sound like much, but to able to make ourselves understood with all of the tones, feels like a big accomplishment.

On another excursion we took a local bus, accompanied by Karen, Bart and Maleenja, our Dutch friends, to Putao,



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and then another one to Shitoucheng, which was about 10k down a very bumpy dirt road. On the bus we hired an old wrinkled farmer, just how old we found out later, to be our guide for the day.



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It turns out he was 83. He took us up a steep set of old steps, muddy from the humidity and clay-like soil. We went further into the mountains and entered a world of stone houses, narrow rock walled lanes, and verdant bright green rice field interspersed with well tended vegetable gardens.


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We hiked for an hour or two when our guide asked if we wanted to have lunch. We realized later that he barely understood a word of Karen's Mandarin, because he only spoke a local dialect. Karen spoke better than we did because she had spent the preceding year teaching at WECL, but obviously it was of limited value in this situation. Somehow, we managed to communicate, as we continued walking up past the old stone gates of the town and then down into another valley until we eventually reached his house. Also made of stone, the primitive place was an interesting mix of the the very old and the relatively new. The walls were adorned with a big picture of Mao, and some other old Chinese Mandarins we didn't recognize. Nevertheless they had an old TV set, and yep, you guessed it, a cell phone. They cooked our rice and vegetables on an open fire while we took several pictures of the house, and the old NiNi's and YeYe's, grandmothers and grandfathers.


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Bart happened to have a pink balloon, which he blew up, and one of the grandchildren was entranced for quite a while.




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We debated how many westerners had made it into this town. Opinions ranged from once a day to once a month, or hardly any.

They brought out a live chicken and asked if we wanted that for lunch, which we declined, not wanting to witness the execution. We opted for vegetables and rice, but no matter, they butchered it anyway, carefully saving the blood, and then they ate it.




Our Guide Trying to Decipher the Dictionary
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We soon had our illusions shattered of being the only westerners to "discover " the place, when another young American who spoke quite good Chinese walked in with his guide. . The guide said that almost 50 westerners a day came through the town, and not only that, lunch was going to cost us 100 Yuan, $15 US, and grossly overpriced in rural China. Sure enough, they asked us for 100 Yuen when we finished. At that point we began to think that maybe the old man rode back and forth on the bus everyday, just looking for tourists to guide and bring to his house for an expensive lunch. The Chinese are certainly very canny businessmen. It took a little of the joy out of the experience, but we still got some great pictures and had an enjoyable time tramping through the village and exploring the old stone walls and gates of the the town. When we got back to Yangshuo, the town was even more packed with Chinese tourists on their May Day holiday. It was wall to wall people, complete with firecrackers going off in great bursts, buses and cars honking adding to the general din.

Today we managed another nice bicycle ride to another nearby, but uncrowded village. We had lunch at a nice spot by the river, at a "farmer food" restaurant, though once again we were overcharged. We then pedaled through the narrow lanes and found an idyllic spot to dunk ourselves in the water. For about 20 minutes our only company was a water buffalo, also enjoying the coolness of the water. After that. a couple of cute, but rambunctious boys showed up and we skipped rocks in the river with them.. They each crunched loudly on cucumbers, spitting out the seeds and skin wherever it was convenient, sometimes almost on top of us.



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Getting used to the lack of personal space takes some time. The Chinese, all 1.3 billion of them, seem to love a crowd which is just as well.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:00 Archived in China Tagged photography living_abroad Comments (3)

Puno and the Fiesta de la Candelaria

Traveling over the Altiplano, it was it was 10PM before we arrived in Puno. The city is moderately sized, and spreads out over several hills on one side of Lake Titicaca. At 3855M, more than 12,500 feet, it is easy to get out of breath just walking around. It feels very much like a working class city despite the presence of many tourists. In this respect, it is quite different than Cuzco.

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En Route


We had timed our visit perfectly, as we there at the time of the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria, with its Diablada or Devil Dance, in which many of the local towns and villages compete to show off their dancing moves, music, and costumes.

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Every village has its own typical dress, each more colorful than the next. Many of the costumes were bright blue or red, and there were musicians playing wooden pan pipes of all sizes, as well as drums.

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In the afternoon the parade went on for hours and ended up in the main plaza of town next to the cathedral.

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I spent much of the time taking pictures, both of the marches and spectators. It was an incredible opportunity as no one objected and they were obviously dressed in their best clothes.

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At one point one of the female marches came over to Yusef and threw some white powder on him. It looked a lot like talcum powder, but a little stickier.

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We were trying to decide if this was just directed at him in particular, when a few minutes later someone came up to me and did the same thing. It must be part of the celebration we decided, and before long we saw marchers doing this to many other people as well. Not to be outdone, I decided to join the parade. I saw an opening and proceeded to mimic some of the steps of the group I joined, none too successfully. No matter, they all seemed to get a kick out of a dancing gringo covered with white powder. I marched with them for a few minutes and then ducked back out. This was the highlight of my day.

The festival went on for several days, but we decided to take a tour of some of the island communities that live on the lake. The first place we visited was a short boat ride away, the floating islands of the Uros.

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People have lived on reed islands made from material dug up from the lake for centuries. Every 5 to 10 years the islands have to be rebuilt. Their primitive houses, boats, etc. are all made from the same reeds.

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They live very simply, fishing and eating what the lake has to offer, though for many years tourism has been an important source of income. Naturally, just about everyone who comes to Puno, wants to see the floating islands, and the people are certainly used to seeing foreigners gawk at them. Nevertheless, they live basically as they have for years, and are still very poor.

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We spent an hour or two here, taking pictures and buying the tiny reed boats they sell to the tourists About half the islands are open to visitors, while the rest are protected from the constant influx of outsiders. By now, at least according to the The Handbook, there are very few pure Uros left. Most have intermarried with the Aymara, the largest native group living around the lake.

Our boat then continued to Taquile, a larger island in the southern part of the lake. The Indians who live here are obviously much more prosperous than the Uros. Their houses are made primarily of stone and are substantial and sturdy looking, very different from the reed structures. Everything is quite picturesque with many paths crossing terraced fields high over the lake.

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We walked up a stony path from where the boat docked to get to the village, treading under several stone archways. Along the way we passed several women making yarn,

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and others walking arm in arm, seemingly in no hurry. Woolen goods were sold in a cooperative shop in the small plaza. We didn't see any cars, though I imagine there must have been one or two on the island. Several other tour boats disgorged their passengers, and before long there were 30 or 40 tourists milling about. They served us lunch on a long outdoor table, and this too seemed to be a cooperative endeavor, though I'm sure the tour operators took a significant percentage of the profits.

Later we made our way back, but not before I had the opportunity to take more pictures, especially of the children in the village.

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I was sorry to leave as Taquile was an idyllic place. The returning ride was spectacular. At first the water was an intense blue similar to the sky, and the clouds were very white. The high snow capped peaks of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia were visible in the distance. As the sun went lower, the wake of the boat shimmered in the darker water,

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and the side lit clouds grew pink and magenta. In the rarefied air, everything seemed to have an extra clarity and the lake reflected the colors of the sky which changed quickly in the fading light.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:26 Archived in Peru Tagged photography Comments (6)

En Vista del Mar y Lago: In View of the Sea and Lake

Heading south for San Juan del Sur, we finally hoped to get in our laid back beach vacation. Don't stop there, we heard. Go down 15-20k to Playa Majagual. You'll find a beautiful and largely wild place to swim, and yes, the water's warm. We took a two hour, 2nd class bus ride to Rivas,previous site of Vanderbilt's stagecoach service, and still a crossroads. From there another hour on a different bus got us to San Juan. Arriving in the mid-day heat, we stopped at Wavy Dave's for a beer. and asked about the next boat to Majagual. The boat ran infrequently, but for $15 US a piece, he knew a guy who'd take us by road. San Juan is in the midst of its own building and land boom, complete with another Century 21 office, and new houses and hotels sprouting up on the hills near the water. About an hour later, our American driver showed up in a beat up old truck, and took us down a dirt track which was dry and dusty at first, but as we headed further into the jungle, there were big puddles and mud. The truck lurched wildly from side to side, shocks totally gone. We arrived covered with dust, not long before sunset, at the Bahia Majagual Lodge, a small backpacker resort, complete with concrete cabins and a thatched roof bar and restaurant.

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From there, we headed on foot to Matilda's, a small guest house further up the road. Definitely funky, the wood and concrete house was festooned with shells and Christmas lights, and had a few other guests, most of whom were camping in the grassy sand that separated the house from the beach. Though our room faced the water, the window was tiny, but at least you could hear the surf.

"No meals served, but I do sell beer and soda," the dueno told us, hanging our hammock over the concrete patio. "Dos cervezas por favor," Nanette said, as she plunked down on the hammock.

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We made our way back to the Majagual Lodge for dinner, walking back along the road with our head lamps. Traffic was not a consideration. We sat at the bar, watching the last pink daylight fade over the water as Bob Marley sang on the stereo. There were perhaps 10 other people there, mostly European surfers it seemed. Ah, after the second Pina Colada it felt as though we had finally arrived at our tropical paradise. The food was not bad, curried chicken and some kind of fish, although they were out of more than half the stuff on the menu. Manana they said. Yeah, that's right Manana. We walked back to our room underneath a very starry sky.

The beach lived up to billing. Practically deserted, the white sand stretched for a half mile or so with volcanic rocks jutting into the water on one side, and a small cliff with cacti growing out of the rocky soil on the other. There were 2 or 3 upscale new houses that had recently been built a few hundred feet into the woods behind the beach, but other than that, nothing. There were even a few trees, which provided much needed afternoon shade. Our routine was to spend an hour or two on the beach in the morning, have lunch at the Lodge and then a siesta in the hammock, before going back out for another 2 to 3 hours or so in the latter part of the afternoon. The sea was very changeable. At times very calm and ideal for swimming, at others the surf was huge, with ten foot waves and a nasty undertow. Luckily, we had plenty of time to pick and choose when to go in the water.

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Sitting on the beach at night, without any lights nearby, and looking up at the milky way was one of our favorite times, and so was looking at the sun setting over the Pacific every evening.

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The weather was ideal. After a few days we got to know the other guests. There was a a young German girl, camping and traveling alone for a few months, as well as two Israelis, also alone. Yigal, a surfer who had finished his stint in the army and was traveling for a year, often the thing to do for young Israelis after they get out of the armed forces, and Sarah, a few years older, had taken time off from her teaching job to travel until her money ran out. A few times, we all chipped in for food to cook meals together on the outdoor fire pit. This provided a welcome change from the food at the Lodge. Sitting around the fire eating, drinking beer, talking about upcoming plans, and ogling the stars, was the primary entertainment. One evening just before sunset, I clamored up over the rocks on the beach and brought my camera. It had been somewhat overcast on that day, but as a result, the clouds created a spectacular sunset. In between tokes of weed, supplied by the Israelis, I took shot after shot of the rocks, as the sun dropped below the water line.

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I just couldn't stop shooting, and had to remind myself that the tide was coming in, and I needed to get back before the rocks I crossed were submerged.

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After a week, we decided it was time to to tear ourselves away. We considered going to Ometepee, but decided we didn't have the time, and still make it back to Guate for our flight to Quito. So even with 8 months, there is always the road not taken. Instead we headed back to Granada, and then to Lago Apoyo.

We stayed at the B&B run by the American couple we had met previously. Directly overlooking the large,volcanic lake, their place was beautiful. Our room opened to an inner courtyard, Spanish style.

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We spent the day relaxing on their dock, and swimming in the lake.

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In the evening we spent time talking to our friendly hosts, who gave us the use of their kitchen since restaurants were scarce. While drinking rum shots in the courtyard, we got the story of how and why they came to Nicaragua, and started their business. As promised, the slight elevation gain from Granada made the night air refreshing, as the breeze blewoff the lake. "Don't forget to check for scorpions," they said, as we turned in for the night. " What scorpions?" "Oh, they won't kill you, but you don't want to get bitten if you can help it. Makes you pretty sick for a few days, and you'll probably wish you were dead." " Where are they?" "Oh, they can be anywhere. Shake out your clothes, and look up in the corners of the room. They can drop down from the ceiling. We found one the other day." They showed us a dead one outside, squashed by George a few days earlier. So with some trepidation, we went back to our room, diligently shook out all our clothes, and looked in the bed and on the ceiling, carefully.

Posted by jonshapiro 17:33 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged photography Comments (2)

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