Ch.7 Mekong Delta, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

coser on 12.02.03 @ 06:43 AM PST

As I originally wrote this I was sitting on a nice veranda with desk and chairs just outside out hotel room. We arrived last night (Saturday) here in Phnom Phen, Cambodia. We took essentially three days making our way from Saigon, Vietnam, by boat and bus up the Mekong to Phnom Phen.

The first day of the three day trip was a 3 hour bus ride from Saigon down to meet a boat on the Mekong Delta. We visited several sites that day including a visit to one othe Viet-Kong headquarters in the delta. This was real jungle, with the rainy season having just ended so tat most of teh ground was still under a layer of murky\muddy water. In fact to visit this military camp we used small canoes to travel a very narrow canal (2.5-3ft wide) out throught the jungle to the camp. The U.S. had bombed this area for several years as well as attempted numerous ground asaults in the effort to take this area. None of these efforts were successful and the Viet-Kong military camp remains active even to this day. I personally can not imagine attempting to invade this region; mud that is waste deep, dense jungle and vegation allowing maybe 10ft of visibility in any one direction; plants that would shred skin if you attempted to move through them. One of the U.S. base camps in the region was less that 1km away from this headquarters, and I can tell you that if you were lost here in this jungle that US base camp might as well have been 100km away. I left with a feeling of respect for the endurance and tenacity of the Viet-kong that lived there (66'-75') and the deepest sympathy for any U.S. soldier that was ordered to attempt a mission here.

We continued up the Mekong that day, and it was fantastic to hear all of the "Hello!" being shouted from shore with smiles from everyone. All the children would get so excited and start jumping into the water and splashing all the while screaming Hello, Hello, Hello.

At the end of the first day on the Mekong we arrived by boat a town called Can Tho. This was a small to mid-size town along the water. Our accomodations were sparse, but clean. It was Thanksgiving back at home that night. We went to dinner with the folks in our group (~12 of us from China, Germany, Holland, and Austrailia), and I tried Cobra Snake for my meal. It was cooked with noodles and had a light curry flavor. The consistency of the meat was similar to (guess?) chicken. Overall, I would recommend it as a must try for the local flavor, but wouldnt run home to open a cobra snake restaraunt.

Our second day we were out the door by 6:30am and headed out on th river to the Cai Rang floating market. This was literally about 100 boats in a close-quarter area. The boats ranged in size from 10ft to 40ft and traded anything from coffee with breakfast, to fruits, vegatables, meats, and even gasoline. Interesting was that the fact that the boats would errect a long bamboo pole up on the boat, and would run up the pole all of the goods and products that the particular boat was selling. In this way, if shopping, you could take your boat up along side to the appropriate boat tahat had what you needed to buy. The rest of the day included a visit to a families house that was making "rice paper" noodles. It was interesting to see how a single family could be so industrious to produce a product manually each day to provide both income and food. Next, we went off to a fruit plantation. This was not so interesting, and I managed to find a hammock next to the family's house, between two trees, where I grabbed a half-hour knap. Jennifer, mean while found a coffee and went off wandering with a girl from Frankfurt,Germany, in in attempt to find the local village. The day proceeded on with a few other stops and ended with a long 2.5 hour bus ride to the town of Chau Duc.

Chau Duc is the last town in the Vietnam in the south as you approach the Cambodian border. The next morning we headed out for a short boat ride, via row boat, over to a floating village. There are literally 10,000 Vietnames living out on this village of boats. The boats being anywhere from 15ft with nothing to actual house boats. After this, we headed out on a larger boat for the Cambodian border.

We motored for a little over 3 hours up the Mekong. There was a nice head wind that kept us cool as we rode along. At around mid-day we arrived at the boarder, and stopped for a quick lunch. We then proceeded to complete our paper work for immigrations and departed Vietnam. We had to get back in the boat for about another 10 minutes ride further up the river, and then stopped again to go through the Cambodian immigration office. It took a little whiel to through the process and protocols, but after about a half-hour were back on the boat headed up the river again. I should mention that we actually switched boats at this time, and were now on a 'high-speed' boat. Now, by high-speed, this meant the boat was traveling at about 15 knots, versus the previous boat at around 7 or so knots. This leg of the venture would be a little over two hours as we traveled further up the Mekong into Cambodia.

The final leg we transfered to a small mini-bus, at a completely non-descript location on the river. The boat just all of a sudden slowed down, turned for the shore, and gently rammed the front of the vessel up the bank of the shore. The guy piloting the boat, got up, grabbed a wooden plank from the top deck, and just placed it across from the deck to the shore. Goes to show your really do not need much along the Mekong for a dock.

Now the bus ride was about 1.5 hours, and lets just say the road we were on was a dirt road, litered with pot wholes or maybe I should say ditched, and made for a very very very bumpy ride. The upside was that the air-con on the bus was great and it was just a matter of holding on till we arrived in Phnom Penh.

Upon arrival in the city, we teamed up with another couple (Inge & Koen from Holland) to find some accomodations. We had read our guide books thoroughly, and settled on a place near the river, called the 'River View". We jumped off the bus, and without much hassle hopped a cab to find the hotel. Actually finding the hotel would be a little more challenging. The cabby was doing the normal "let me take you to a nice places that not to expensive" and likely run by his cousin or sister. We stuck to our guns, and continues to insist on the "River View" hotel. Well, we ulimately arrived at the intersection where as best as we could tell by the address and map that the hotel should be, but no hotel. Of course we figured we had simply missed it, or it was just a block over, or that maybe the cabby was still pushing for us to go to one of his friends\families guest house. So we make him drive us around a bit more. We stopped at another intersection trying to get our bairings, and then out of the blue, on a moped, are these two guys that had tried to help\push us towards a hotel when first had gotten off of the bus. So your mind wanders for a second, thinking are these guys really here to help us find the "River View" or are they also just looking to get us to a friend\families guest house? We opt to ignore the guys on the moped , and we make the cabby drive us around a little more. We make it back to the intersection where we believed the "River View" should be. This time we focused harder and on the corner was in fact a building that 'could' have been a hotel. However, the building was definetly closed, dark inside, and looked like it was being renovated... Now What? No River View? We quickly break out the guide books. By this point the cabby is ready for us to get out. We were not getting out just yet though, and we urged him to drive on a little more. We ended up passing another place called the "Indochine" hotel, which is where these three Austrailian girls were staying that we had met on our boat up the Mekong. I vote for this place, and the group agrees. The cabby is also very happy to finally get rid of us as well. I the cabby $4USD, which I knew had to be high, but the guy had been patient in driving us all over the place.

We step out of the cab on to the side walk across the street from the Indochine hotel. Then again out of the blue, the two guys on the moped, from all the way back at the bus, show up in front us. They had been following us along the way behind the cab the entire time. They approach us smiling and telling us that the Indochine and the neighboring Sunshine Hotel are both very nice and cheap, and went to help us cross the street to the hotel. Koen had read that drivers were often given a commision for bringing travelers to hotels, and that the commissions were simply rolled into the price of the room. As we didnt want to pay more each night for our rooms, and these guys really hadnt taken us there, we decided to try walking down the road away from the hotel in hopes the two of them would leave. They were smart though, snd the guys just sat there watching us walk away as we would occasionally turn around t check if they were still there. So we keep walking...

Ultimately, we walk several blocks back to where we think the River View Hotel should be, but to know avail and only to find the same dark building. Across the street on the opposite corner though was another hotel, Bright Lotus Guest House, that looked nice enough. We went across to check on availability, price, and condition. The place turned out to be nice, and was $16USD per night. With that we decided to take two rooms and were happy to have finally settled into a place.

Now, for those of you still reading...a bit of additional personal notes on my part.

Remeber, way back a bunch of paragraphs about the Vietnam \ Cambodian border and the quick lunch we had? Well... I had opted for the fried noodles while Jennifer, Inge, and Koen went for the noodle soup. I always went for something fried in a wok when in doubt of the sanitary conditions of a place we were eating, and this place was a food inspectors nightmare. I figured I have choosed wisely, and as the food tasted good happily cleared my plate. Well... about half and hour later at the Cambodian immigration office I started to feel like I might faint, but shrugged it off to the heat and humidity. Then on the 2 hour boat ride I started to feel bad again, but climbed up to a door on the deck with fresh air, and again shrugged it off thinking diesel fumes, heat, and what not. Then on the 1.5 hour bus ride I thought I was going to lose my cookies, but again I figured it was just the extremly bumpy ride and my inability to get comfortable bouncing along. Then in the taxi cab Im feeling dizzy and not so good, no excuses for this other than the stress of finding a place. By the time we walk, decide the River View is no more, Im definetly not well. We head into the Bright Lotus Guest House, and while Jennifer and Koen go up to check out the rooms, I bolt for a WC and explode. Im still thinking that maybe Ive had some bad water along the way, and no big deal. We head up the stairs to the room, I take a great shower, and rest for a few hours, still expecting to be able to go out for the evening for a few beers. Three hours later Im still lying on the bed. Everything thing feels like pins and needles, I cant feel my hands, and the room is moving to a rather uncomfortable rythym. At this point I know Im in trouble and starting to worry about my detioriating condition. Jennifer is there with fresh water, but really nothing she can do. Finally, I decide its time to clear the system, or rather my body finally won out over my stuborn mind and took matters into its own hands. An hour later Im out of the bathroom and already feeling much better. In the end my body came through and knew what needed to be done.

Its now the next day, Jennifer is out wandering the city, and Im sticking close to the hotel room for the day. Feeling much better already, and ready to get out and see Phnom Penh. The city is an amazing blend of 3rd world poverty and newly immerging 1st world prosperity. The people are all very friendly and welcoming. You can see in there faces they are happy with the current peace, but the lines on there faces also show the hardships they have and continue to endure. Were looking forward to wandering around, and then moving on to Siam Reap and the temples and ruins of Angkor.

Ch.6 Ho Chi Minh City and Cu Chi, Vietnam

jennifer on 12.02.03 @ 06:32 AM PST

Travel across the country of Vietnam is overall a little difficult. There is a train that runs along the coast (The Reunification Express) but even short distances can take a long time, and the local buses are less than reliable (e.g. they move to their own schedule). Since the tourism industry is booming there are many travel packages offered, these are usually convient, on nice tour buses, and are very inexpensive. The other upside is that you meet the plentiful amount of Aussies, Swiss, Germans, French, Dutch, Brits, etc. that are also travelling around. The down side is that it pushes you away from the local culture and limits interactions. Regardless, we decided not to head back north, but instead to explore Saigon and the Mekong Delta via some tours. Since we stayed at the Hilton and a beach resort we hadn't experienced that much of the local culture. Sitting in a cafe in Saigon gave me the first real feel of the country. A driver came up to our table to see if we wanted a guide for the day, picture that all stores have open fronts and there's no such thing as "no solicitors allowed." When we politely declined he asked where we were from. With my own personal hesitation I said, "America." He responded with a "Hello, welcome back!" and proceeded to tell his story about the "American Way". I felt a little awkward, but overall this man was happy and the exchange between us was a positive one. Walking onto the street another person approached us for a ride. Again, he asked where we were from. Still feeling uncomfortable I said America. This time the man asked where we were on 9/11 and he wanted to know how we felt. When I replied "scared" he said that he was too. In a strange way the preconceived thoughts in my mind of not knowing if I was talking to a Northern or Southern and being uncomfortable of being American on Vietnamese soil had broken down (a.k.a. “Same, Same…But Different”). There was a fundamental human bond of emotion, fear and concern, this when the door to Vietnam opened for me.

We stayed in Saigon for several days and met up with some friends from San Francisco who have recently returned home to Vietnam. On our first evening we met up with Frank Nguyen and his wife and went out down town for a coffee. It amazing that on a Sunday night at around 9pm the streets were still crowded the shops full, and plenty of people out eating and having coffee just the same. It was great to catch up and also get some insight on Saigon and Vietnam. The following night we Dr. Le took us all out for dinner. We opted for a true Vietnamese place with excellent food. The menu was packed full of dishes we had never tried before, and for the next few hour we sat and tried fish in grape leaves, bamboo shoots, and these crazy little dried\fried fish for munchies while drinking beer. The conversation was great and we would pause, as Dr. Le would translate for his wife and vice versa for us, filling in many laughs. Between both evenings a recurring topic was that Vietnam could not afford another war. People are happy now and the economy is definitely starting to take off. Everyone was very interested in moving forward. I felt they needed to talk about the war to remember and ensure it doesn't happen again. There is still a difference between the north and south, with the north being more beauracratic and government based while the south are gregarious entrepreneurs, but this is a natural divide that can remain while reunified.

Vietnam is surrounded by history with the Champas, Chinese, Cambodians and French influences, but with us inevitably most talks were about the Americans. We went looking for the US Embassy where infamously in April 1975 the last US troops were helicoptered out of Vietnam. The building has since been destroyed and a plaque is all that remains. Unfortunately, lacking time we did not have the chance to go to The War Remnants Museum (formerly called "The Museum of American War Crimes"). Many of the Westerns we met said the museum was obviously Vietnamese biased but showed a very real and grotesque face of the war. Instead we took a half day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels where parts of the Viet-Kong lived, just outside of Saigon and practically just below US bases. As many tour groups were shuttled along the jungle paths it was strange to hear laughter through the trees. As we were standing over a pile of leaves our guide swept his foot and reviled a wooden portal to the tunnels. He asked for a volunteer to go in so Keith raised his hand. As Keith lowered himself into the whole his hips were abruptly stopped by the width of the trap door, to which we all starting laughing too. After the guide placed the door back and swept the leaves over again the tour moved on. Another girl (Sam) and I stayed back to try to find the door again. It took us almost 30 seconds to find. I could easily imagine running through the jungle with gun fire all around and having your target "disappear." As we walked further it was bizarre to suddenly hear gunfire. Once of the "attractions" at the Cu Chi Tunnels is a shooting range, there is a wide variety which include legal and non-legal guns in the US. For $1/bullet (very expensive for Vietnam prices) you can have your pick. Keith choose the M-60 and M-16, I declined altogether. I am usually the optimistic one but seeing all these novices shooting powerful weapons made me uneasy. Even more so I could see some Vet going to visit and getting keyed off with a live weapon in hand, somehow the set up didn't seem right. We moved onto the "factory" areas where utility items and weapons were made. All of these devices were rudimentary but highly effective. The shocking part was how resourceful these people were. We saw shovels made of exploded booms, shoes made of abandoned truck tires and bullet shells thinned out for wire. It was stunning to realize that, as the US troops had plowed through the jungle, they literally gave them more ammunition. The most disturbing part was the "booby- trap" demonstrations. Each trap was made of bamboo and barbed wire and set up in different ways underground to trap US soldiers in their pursuit. With all of them, if trapped so much damage would be done that amputation most likely would be needed ...and that was assuming you could ward off infections, disease and avoid being captured. At the end of the tour we finally entered the tunnels. The first segment was 90 meters long with possible exits at the 30 and 60 meter marks. The first 30 meters has also been widened for tourist. Single file we went down steep stairs for about 3 meters, then had to crouch down, and entered the tunnels. I was able to squat but my back was fully horizontal to the top of the tunnels and scrapping along the entire way, Keith had to crawl. In the middle of the afternoon in the jungle, moving only 30 meters in these tunnels was tiring, we were all fully drenched with sweat and breathing heavily. I made the quick exit and Keith continued to the end where the tunnels sloped further down and were so narrow that they were tight around his shoulders. All I could think was how resilient these people were.

Typhoon Nepartak!

coser on 11.16.03 @ 09:42 PM PST

Well our time in Northern Vietnam has been cut short by a small storm named "Typhoon Nepartak". We have made arrangements to dodge the storm by jumping south. The plan is to fly to Saigon where we will stay for one night, and the next morning take 3-hour drive to Mui Ne out on the coast. There we will enjoy some warm weather and the beach for 3 nights and relax while the north endures some serious rains.

The ability to be flexible in our plans and travel is turning out to be essential. There were a number of people here in Hanoi trying to figure out what to do with only a limited schedule. We're certainly appreciating the amount of time we have here. Hopefully, we will be able to get back up north to at least Hue after the storm rolls through.
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Ch.5 Hanoi and Mui Ne, Vietnam

coser on 11.16.03 @ 09:34 PM PST

Flying into Hanoi, we landed in the middle of rice fields in the Red River Delta. A 45 minute taxi ride put us into the center of the city with French colonial buildings, concrete hotels and millions of mopeds. There are 6 million people in Hanoi and 3 million mopeds! The streets of Hanoi are narrow two lanes with sidewalks packed with food stalls, parked mopeds and families sitting in front of their open air store fronts, every square inch is used. The Vietnamese are quite crafty and as we arrived at dusk and were weary from the day we soon found out about travel in Vietnam. We asked to be dropped at the Saljut hotel but where dropped at the Salute with the driver and hotel staff at the sidewalk trying to convince us we were in the right location. Even though we weren't, we decided to check it out. After looking at a room we were told they were booked but would be happy to show us a room at our "sister" hotel down the street. After leaving and encountering the same scenario two more times, Keith pulled a "Cosgrove" and lead the way to the Hanoi Hilton Opera. In the blink of an eye we had an executive suite, cocktail in hand and were poolside. Setting out for our first night in Hanoi after drinking several beers and facing literally hundreds of mopeds seemed like a bit of a death-wish. But I'm sitting here writing this journal - so we made it! The biggest thing that always amazes me about travel is that everywhere in the world families and friends flock to the street to socialize. At 8pm on Sunday we were walking among hundreds of people, most who were indulging in vanilla ice cream on a warm, humid Hanoi evening.

The architecture sets the stage in Hanoi. Due to tax laws the majority of buildings are narrow (6-15 ft wide) but 3-4 stories high and up to 180 deep (similar to Amsterdam). Some buildings have an old wooden colonial feel while others are concrete with bright tropical colors giving a strange but pleasant mix of France meets Miami. We stayed across from one of the most grand colonial buildings in all of Hanoi, The Opera House. This is where Ho Chi Minh stood on the balcony, spoke to the city and began the August Revolution. Hanoi has an amazing art scene and as we walked from the Opera House to the Old Quarter each day we passed gallery after gallery with bright primary color oil and lacquer paintings. It's apparent when you reach the Old Quarter. This part of the city is functioning similarly to it's first days of trade. Each street is named for the product it sells (or used to sell). For instance Hang Bo translates to Paper Street. As you enter this street all you see are colored paper lanterns, calendars, notebooks and more exuding from every stall. Then there is Incense, Shoe, Clothing, "Moped Parts", Musical Instruments, Flower Streets, etc. This helps find your bairings because the quarter is structured like a maze and each type of street gave a point of reference. The art and shopping kept us more then occupied for several days. Then as we began makings plans to explore the North (Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa) we found out Typhoon Nepartak was coming from the South and heading directly for Hanoi (see chapter #5) Our original plan was to travel by bus from the North to South, stopping in Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang and Saigon along the way. We went to a travel desk to inquire about alternatives to sticking out the storm in Hanoi. We met a women from Britain (Claudia) who was dong the same. After a few hours of research and calls we found the only other alternative was to fly to Saigon. Thankfully, Claudia had heard of a small beach area called Mui Ne (it was about 1 paragraph in our book). Soon we all arranged flights to Saigon for the next morning, and then would take a bus (5hrs) to the beach town for some fun in the sun. After hours of slightly bad information from the travel agent in Hanoi, we were happy to be on our way. To our amazement all of the travel and transfers worked seamlessly. Even more surprising, Mui Ne was a spectacular beach ranking in our top 5 list ( ) ...the swim up bar at our hotel added to the appeal!

Chapter 4: China summary

coser on 11.16.03 @ 09:33 PM PST

China was as amazing and exotic as I envisioned, plus more. Overall, it is a country that seems so far ahead in some ways but far behind in others. In the most simplified terms, that is China, balance in unexpected ways.
There is deep seeded history, earning them the appropriate title of the oldest civilization. Carried though time is a strong sense of traditionalism and a great respect for elders. Everywhere you see women holding hands, men with their hands on each others shoulders, a grandmother flanked by daughter and granddaughter and in a crowd of people cramming on a bus if there's an old man everyone will slow down to help. The combination of these inevitably lead to an intense national pride. The country has taken that pride and continues to invest in it by building an internal mega industry, bringing new found wealth to many. Coupled with its plentiful natural resources China is a global powerhouse.
Compelled by economic success the future is more then murky. Requiring English as a second language will undoubtly change part of the culture. More so, with a one child per family law, in the next two generations there will be a dramatic change to the family traditions. Will this change globalize China and have them move away from their national pride and the propaganda that's constantly piped through their TVs? As people make more money will the amount of vehicles truly double (all which have less environmental regulations then the US & EU) to further increase the numbers of the most polluted country in the world? I can only hope that will not be the way.
China with a force of 1.3 billion has proven themselves in the past and hopefully will emerge in the future even better than before. Positive examples are already beginning to shine through with improvements occurring for the 2008 Olympics. Either way we already have our sights set for our next future visit here, to experience the warmth of the people and to explore the west and southern provinces. ...I guess that's really the only way we can feel OK about leaving with so much still left to explore!

Chapter 3: Shaoxing and Shanghai (again), China

coser on 11.16.03 @ 09:32 PM PST

Once again we set off in search of a quaint country side town to relax and explore. This time we choose Shaoxing, a 3-4 hour train ride SE of Shanghai. Upon arrival we were reminded that a small town in China is home for a million + people, a size and type that would rival a city in the US like Baltimore, MD. While it wasn't quite the quaint city we expected, it had many things to offer. After several weeks of travel we welcomed a cold and rainy day to watch Chinese TV and recuperate. As the weather cleared we visited a quarry with a pleasant lake and small caves. Shaoxing also had beautiful canals and besides one of the bridges was a lovely tea house. We were treated to a tea ceremony and many plates of treats - kind of Chinese tapas! Overall, Shaoxing gave us what we were looking for, relaxation.
After a few days we went back to Shanghai to meet up again with Jon and Juliet. We indulged in more clubs, music, pulled noodles and Shanghai dumplings! As part of the grand finale in China we went to the Cloud 9 bar at the top of The Grand Hyatt overlooking The Bund. The sites were breathtaking from the 89th floor. Then on the morning of our departure we said our good-byes and headed to the airport to go to Hanoi, Vietnam via Hong Kong.

Most memorable:
- Since we were expecting Shaoxing to be a tiny town, when we arrived Keith was in disbelief and almost wouldn't get off the train!
- The Hong Kong airport rocks. There were electronics galore and they had PS2 hooked up and ready to go. As a bonus they had DOA and since we had a two hour lay-over I got to play for awhile! (Matt, you would be proud, I beat Tina, the druken master and Chad!)

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Chapter 2: Suzhou and Shanghai, China

coser on 11.16.03 @ 09:31 PM PST

After spending several nights in an old Ming Dynasty mansion in Beijing it was hard to move on but there were more sights to see. We booked an overnight train (17 hrs) from Beijing to Suzhou, "The Venice of China" for its canals and gardens. Our train road alongside The Grand Canal showing the link between The Yellow & Yangtze rivers, making Jingansu one of Chinas richest provinces. Our compartment had six sleepers, 2 for us and 4 for several business men that work in Beijing and were commuting home to Suzhou. We shared food, played cards, tried our best to converse and had many laughs along the way. We arrived early the next morning and quickly found the Suzhou wasn't exactly the "Venice of China". There were plenty of canals but they weren't pretty and my expectation of a quaint town was tarnished by high rises, tons of people and pollution. We opted for 1 night instead of 3 and made the best of the day. We realized that Suzhou is actually best know for its silk. More than 2500 years ago a concubine figured out how to pull and weave silk ...little did she know that this would become one of the most influential commodities of the time and originate the Silk Road. We visited the Silk Museum and the grand finale was getting to see trays of silk worms munching on mulberry leaves! The natural dyes and the antiquated weaving machines were truly incredible. We made our way across town to some beautiful temples and gardens. Unfortunately, Suzhou has construction occurring in every part of the city so there were few peaceful moments but we made the best of it. ...if anything it made us more excited for Shanghai!
We thought we were doing well by arriving at the Suzhou train station an hour early, knowing our train number and time of departure. Unfortunately buying train tickets in China isn't that easy and as we entered a neon washed dirty room, filled with lines of people where no English is spoken, we began to wonder if we would make our train. We have also heard that the maffia often buys all the tickets forcing you to purchase for a higher price from scalpers. Well, there were scalpers everywhere and "when in Rome...." Once we found a scalper with our train it was an easy haggle and purchase. But is anything really that simple? While waiting to depart we realized we had bought tickets for the train but with no seat! Imagine a few hundred people standing in queue waiting for the gates to open and carrying 30-40 lbs on your back. Fortunately, luck was on our side and we rushed onto the train and grabbed a seat. We chatted with "Prince" a Suzhou university student for the hour ride. As with Prince, more often then not, people desire to engage in conversation in the attempt to practice English. We have heard that in the next 14 years China has committed to making English a required second language for all students. The eagerness is so contagious that it makes you want to learn more and more Chinese to meet half way and bridge the gap.
Meeting up with Jon at the Shanghai train station was an awesome feeling. Looking across a sea of Chinese people to see an American face was warm and welcoming. We arrived on a Friday night, perfect timing to see Jon DJ at a local club (Fusion). The next afternoon we went to the local market to get fresh vegetables and noodles. We also got to see the full array of fresh local shrimp, crabs, snakes, turtles and ducks ...all which were alive but ready to go home sliced and diced for a great meal! Some of the more interesting things we've seen at various markets were blue ducks (after plucking, the bill, skin and feet are blue - with no dyes applied) and duck eggs covered in mud, apparently they sit in the mud for an extended time and soak up nutrients. We stuck to the basics that day and Jon cooked up a great meal for us. Rejuvenated, we went to downtown Shanghai, where it looks like Times Square on steroids. It seemed like there was more neon and flashing signs on one street then in all of Vegas. Walking to the end of the street you hit the Pudong River and The Bund. This was the main port which has a long row of grand colonial buildings, making you feel as if you're in the middle of old Europe. Then as soon as your thoughts deceive you, a glance across the river brings you at warp speed back to the 21st century. Actually, it looks more like the 22nd century with buildings having spheres, wave shapes, spires, huge video screens and anything else futuristic you can imagine. The juxtaposition of the two architects is a dramatic and fantastic blend. Where as Beijing is a bureaucratic city and Hong Kong European, Shanghai is the true pulse of China. The economic frenzy and growth appears to be justifiable and established while retaining its old world charm. Stepping just a few blocks off The Bund and through most of the city you find the tiny food stalls where we indulged in fresh pulled noodles and beers for only a few American dollars.
The next day was cold and rainy so we found a welcome reprieve in the Shanghai Museum. It had a grand atrium and four floors of more Chinese history and art. The works of bronze, jade and calligraphy were simply stunning. There was also a section dedicated to intricate stamps where an engraved stamp was on the bottom of a carved stone with a full story in Chinese characters on the sides which were only 1" wide x 3" high. The stamps were used for anything from signatures to full blown contracts. The ceramics, furniture, paintings and minority dress continued the history lesson and easily ranked the museum as a Shanghai "best" on the list. To top it off we were treated to a home cooked meal by Juilets mother who was visiting from Tsingtao. We all took notes on traditional Chinese cooking as we watched stir fried string beans, sautéeed broccoli & mushrooms, sweet & sour pork, cucumber salad, fried cabbage, steamed fish and hot & sour soup miraculously appear! In Chinese culture it's impolite to finish everything since it implies the cook didn't make enough. We tried our best to be polite but the flavors were so perfectly blended that it was truly difficult. Juliet was a gracious host and facilitated the table discussions and plentiful thank you's.

Most memorable Suzhou:
- Arriving at our first hotel and being shooed away. We're still not certain if they were booked or if foreigners weren't allowed!
- After being sleep and food deprived we bought a Coke outside one of the temples. By the time we entered we were so high on glucose that we prayed to the "Sugar Gods"
- Watching people throw coins from the top of one temple to another temples roof. The roofs had a decline so we were really watching all the people walking below getting hit with falling coins!
Most memorable Shangahai:
- Watching people of all ages and class walk around Shanghai at night in their pajamas!
- Singing 'Livin' on a prayer' at the top of our lungs in the early AM while walking from club to club for our notes on Suzhou

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Chapter 1; Beijing China

coser on 11.04.03 @ 10:29 PM PST

If I had to describe China in one word it would be immense. The population is huge (1.3Billion), the Great Wall seems never ending (+5000km), the Grand Canal is the longest in the world (1800km) and soon the Three Gorges Dam will be the largest of it¡¦s kind in the world (1983m long x 185m high). The geography of China is also stunning, boarding 15 countries with the desolate Taklamakan desert in the NW, Mt. Everest in the SW, sub-Siberian wilderness to the NE and the modern cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong along the Eastern seaboard. The bottom line is the true beauty of China is its people. It¡¦s clear that with sheer numbers and leadership the momentum of it¡¦s people have created some of the most grandiose treasures of the world. But the smiles and ni hao¡¦s (hello¡¦s) have been the best experiences so far.
Our travels began in Beijing, the countries capital and home of Tianamen Square, The Forbidden City, The Summer Palace, The Yonghe Gong Lamastery, The Temple of Heaven, The Great Wall and 12 million people. We originally thought the number of people would be daunting, all I pictured was NYC x 10. But with good infrastructure the masses are maintained. Most roads are 8 lanes with 2 wide bike lanes and 2 wide sidewalks, and most buildings are less than 15 stories making the space seem more open. In addition most cars don¡¦t go very fast because the majority of people are on bike or foot and crossing the street at any time to any place is the norm. Watching an old lady with groceries shuffling across the street in on coming traffic is common, it¡¦s truly amazing. The size of the city streets are incomprehensible, walking two blocks literally takes 40 minutes. After a few days of walking and a great acupressure foot massage we quickly learned the bus and subway system.
The symbolic and literal heart of Beijing and once of the Chinese empire is the Forbidden City. Before America was even a thought in Europe¡¦s mind the city was organized and bustling with people, it was completed in 1420. Everything about the city is grand, its moat, walls, 800 buildings and 9000 rooms (3000 for concubines) are not only built with quality and accuracy but are some of the most ornate and beautiful architecture I¡¦ve ever seen. Another pilgrimage site for most Chinese is Tianamen Square. Where Mao Zedong with the belief that social reform from the ruling of warlords lay in the hands of peasants, in 1949 proclaimed the formation of the People¡¦s Republic of China. This gave hope and a giant step forward for the commoners of China. After seeing the immediate sites of the city is was time to get a breath of fresh air in the country side. We took a bus 3 hrs. NE to the town of Jinshanling, where one of the least visited and best preserved parts of the Great Wall stands. From there we walked 10km on the wall to Simatai. The sheer magnitude of the wall is simply overwhelming. How it was built I still don¡¦t understand. We were on mountain ridges with nothing else around but the stones were cut and brick made with perfection. The steps were so steep that we were literally climbing up and going down the partially crumbled steps is a person with vertigo¡¦s nightmare. The Great Wall was created between 457 BC-221 BC and then again elongated around 600 AD. Again, with a vision using strength in numbers is a powerful tool. Ultimately, the wall did not serve its purpose and later Genghis Khan came in from Mongolia, took over China and led the way for the Yuan dynasty and building of the Forbidden City.
The history of Beijing is amazing but everywhere you look modern buildings are popping up. Looking across the sky line you easily see 15-25 large cranes and building sites with work occurring all hours, every day. As you walk by the new buildings there are often openings that reveal the old city behind them. It¡¦s truly like looking into Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. Where there are alleys with cramped living quarters, men housing pigeons, fish hanging out to dry and cats running around. They are called the hutongs. This is where we¡¦ve spent most of our time, saying hi to everyone, seeing what life is really like and of course eating from tiny kitchens that make fresh dumplings, noodles and soup. No one speaks English and entering a kitchen with no pictures or signs (even in Chinese) always brings good laughs and even better food. Often times the whole family will even sit down to try and chat and we wind up conversing through our books with translations. Everyone is so kind and the language is so intriguing that already we are wishing we had more time here. But the road is calling and we¡¦re off to Suzhou (Venice of China), Haung Shan (Holy Mountain) and Shanghai (to visit Jon!).
On a personal note getting to see Keith all day, every day and knowing that will continue until mid January brings a permanent smile to my face. I was at a temple yesterday and found it fitting to give thanks for all we¡¦ve done and all we¡¦re about to embark on. Oddly, I miss work and home more then I expected. Yesterday was a crisp fall day and I was longing for my mountain bike and Spanish class (Hola Patricio!). But I¡¦m certain as we head south to more rural areas the pace will slow and relaxation will kick into full gear. ƒº

For now, zan jian,
~jen & keith

Top memorable things:
1. Stares ¡V Everywhere we go people stare at us. I think my blond hair and Keith¡¦s blue eyes really freak people out. But with a simple smile and hello they laugh and say ¡¥hi¡¦. When we stop on the street to look in our book people will gather around to look.
2. Exercise ¡V Everywhere there are exercise parks. At any time you see everyone doing minor exercises and stretching. We literally have seen a business women in a suit using the monkey bars during lunch, the elderly exercise well into the night and people are often in the alleys playing badminton and waltzing.
3. Diapers ¡V Babies/kids do not wear diapers. There is a big gapping hole in the butt of their pants for quick bathroom access!
4. Cleanliness ¡V Beijing is amazingly clean, the subways are spotless and streets are constantly being swept. (Why isn¡¦t SF & NY China town like this????) On the flip side when there is no wind the pollution here is so bad you can hardly see down the road.
5. Rx ¡V Keith got a cold, so I went to the pharmacy. For $4 and no prescription I was able to buy a full regimen of amoxicillin. How¡¦s that for socialized medicine???
6. The moon ¡V Since we¡¦re on the opposite side of the Earth when the moon waxes and wanes it occurs in the opposite direction of what we¡¦re used to.

forbiddencity_entrance (18k image)

greatwall (20k image)

The Journal

coser on 10.13.03 @ 04:20 PM PST

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