Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

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Major Tom to ground control - we've landed!

Major Tom to ground control – we’ve landed!

After one year and 13 days on the road, we are back in the U.S. of A.  That doesn’t mean we’re settling down or even unpacking our bags. We’ll be continuing a little more life on the road, splitting our time between NY, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and friends who live somewhere in the middle.

Our trip was summed up nicely on arrival by our U.S. Immigration Officer.  Upon inspecting our passports and flipping through the pages – he snarkily pointed out:

“You know, you’ve could’ve down this same tour for free in the 60’s….”

For the past 378 days we lived our dream, though at times we did wonder whose nightmare  we were appearing in.  We met fantastic, generous strangers and made friends at every step along the way.  Thank you for your all for your  support. And as Goenka would say:

Be happy!  

More photos here.

Yes 'Little Timmy', the streets of Cairo are safe!

Yes ‘Little Timmy’, the streets of Cairo are safe!

Vinnie learns Towla from our friend Hazem

These days there is an air about Cairo that is exciting to be around. People fill the street-side cafes, sipping tea, smoking shisha, and playing towla (backgammon). People are warm and inviting. They smile with a genuine satisfaction. When you cross the street, you are likely to have an Egyptian man escort you pass crazy drivers and give you a big “Welcome to Egypt” when you arrive safely on the other side.

People ask where you are from with genuine interest. They are proud of their country right now and want to make sure you are experiencing the best of it, even if that means grabbing you by the hand and personally showing you famous monuments and attractions.

I feel fortunate to be here at such a time of re-birth and national pride. I haven’t experienced anything like this in our travels. It’s not frequently that a democracy is ‘born’ (and through non-violence no less). And it can’t be certain that a free democracy is inevitable as Egypt is still in purgatory between the revolution and elections next spring. If you ask people on the ground about presidential contenders, there is no strong figure that stands out that they wish to elect, though the mood is optimistic and you’ll hear “Anything is better than Mubarak!

You gotta fight to party!

Kristine fights for the rights of Egyptian citizens!

On our second night in Cairo, we were sitting at a packed outdoor cafe (alongside dozens like it, lining an alleyway). A football match was playing on TV screens up and down the street. After the match, all the cafe owners scrambled to move the tables and chairs inside. As it was 1am, we assumed it was closing time. But we soon overheard shouting and asked a local what was going on. The military was trying to issue a curfew and began marching down the street, instructing shop owners to move tables and chairs inside. This was met with angry shouts from patrons and soon a demonstration was forming – pushing the military back and out of the alley! Hundreds of bystanders became demonstrators (including us) and chants and shouts had a mix of anger and smiles. Citizens pushed out the men in uniform sporting face masks and machine guns. Finally congregating in a square which became ground for a larger demonstration with more people, megaphones, and cameras (tons of cameras)

In Egypt, the people corner the army!

There is a feeling (both noticeable and verbally *said*) that the “people” control the military and the police. When asked if demonstrations ever get out of hand or violent, one youthful group replied “No, we wouldn’t let that happen, we would step in to stop it.” When we replied, ‘isn’t that the police’s job?‘ they said “The country belongs to the people and the military works for us.

In addition to freedom, there is this sense of “ownership” that the people have over their country (that should permeate through any democracy), but I have never felt such a deep sense of ownership like I felt in Cairo. It’s amazing and we’re fortunate to be here right now, because as somebody from a country spouting to be the greatest democracy in the world – i’ve never come across this level of democratic emotion and I don’t think it can last forever.

The Pincer Movement

On our last night, we learned about the two phased approach of demonstrations that were going on during the revolution. The first is what we all watched on our TVs, hundreds of thousands of people in Tahrir square, protesting peacefully in the wake of violent lashes from Mubarak. However, there was a second movement happening off the screen. The military and police fully encircled the square for days so that supplies, like basic food, water, blankets, etc. could not be easily be brought in – and thereby weaken the protesters. Also, as with any volatile movement, there was the risk of looting through Cairo as many shop owners were in the square. So bands of youths came together to be interim village police and protect the community. They would form groups on each block to make sure nobody was looting nor causing trouble – as the police were hoping to encourage this behavior and have the people take themselves down.

It’s an amazing feeling on the ground right now. Egypt is safe, welcoming, friendly, and undergoing a transformation that you may only get to see once in a lifetime!

Singapore Tech Scene

Singapore Tech Scene

Singapore was a trip, only a week long, but a fun city.  And Steve is right, it is Adult Disneyland thanks to its countless fun attractions –  from the giant sling shots launching crowds of people into the air, to the man-made lake with a moving cable around the top pulling kneeboarders around and over jumps.  This is a place to spend it if you’ve got it.

All of this will set you back a handful of Andrew Jacksons though, as the fun is built and priced for all the foreign born execs and their families.

We learned that a full 20% of the population are foregners living in Singapore for work – that number includes western execs to daylabors and migrant workers who come from as close as neighboring Malaysia or as far as India.

But Singapore shouldn’t put all its eggs in the multi-national corporate market when it has such an interesting domestic tech startup scene hatching…

Singapore Geeks

HackerSpace.sg

I heard Singapore had a bit of a tech startup scene so Kristine and I went to check out a local co-working space, HackerSpace.  There is an active and bright startup community in Singapore, more so then in other cities I’ve seen so far in Asia.  At just about a year old, HackerSpace has definitely been a major contributor to the local startup community.  I met up with one founder for dinner, Vin Nair of Smartloans.sg, a successful LendingTree for Singapore.  After dinner, we met up with some other startup folks for drinks – showing that the community is not all just work, but play as well.  I met half a dozen fellow geeks for coffee, and though introduced separately, each knew of the other people I was meeting with and what they were working on.

However, while attending a talk for a university entrepreneurs group – the question was thrown out by Danny Tan of foound.com: “How many of you have an idea for a business to start?” and nobody raised their hand!  On the follow-up question “You’re part of an entrepreneur club and you don’t have any business ideas?” one student raised their hand to say “but we need more experience first” – a complete 180′ from what you would overhear at Stanford.  Following up on that mentality, two people mentioned to me that many young startups fear sharing their ideas, going as far as to require NDA’s from potential investors during a pitch – young startups like to stay in ‘stealth mode.’

Over coffee with Jason Ong (who runs the local Ruby meetup) we discussed the startup mentality in Silicon Valley vs. Singapore. Toying on the notion of how to kickstart the ‘free flowing’ of ideas, I mentioned Super Happy Dev House (SHDH) = A party in which geeks get together to build fun software/services in one day and show them off at night.  A SHDH encourages people to work together, then share and present their ideas to a crowd of fellow geek enthusiasts.  From this conversation, we decided to wortk together on hosting the first ever Super Happy Dev House in Singapore – in fact, the first ever in the whole continent of Asia!

Ghost Hunting

Ghost Hunting

Like most backpackers, we travel with a guide book (Lonely Planet for us), which we may complain about at times, but it usually proves itself to be helpful.

We’ve found that the little tidbits in the book that don’t get a lot of attention tend to be the most fun adventures – from “the roads less travelled” sections to the little gray boxes of interesting facts, off to the side of some paragraphs.

One of these boxes contained a brief sentence about the Singapore Paranomal Investigators (SPI), a local group obsessed with the supernatural.  The images of Ghost Busters came to our minds and we had to check it out.

Singapore Paranormal Investigators

After emailing them, they  invited us to join them on a trip around Labrador Park, where an iconic battle was fought between the British and the Japanese in the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (we’re slowly learning how aggressive & brutal the Japanese were in the early 20th century).  This park is known to every Singaporean because the Brits fumbled with their canyons pointed in the wrong direction as the Japanese snuck up behind them on bikes!  We were to go ghost hunting for tortued  souls!

We tagged along with a dozen or so investigators, many donning fitted black collared shirts with SPI embroidred in white letters to the chest and across the back (think FBI).  We were given an array of ghost hunting tools, from three-dimensional Electro Magnetic Radiation readers to laser powered heat sensors, to infrared spotlights and IR cameras.  We were told of past sightings and learned about paranormal that exists in Singapore.

Our Ghost Hunting Gadgets!

 

A lesson in the Paranormal

We learned about the black market for stillborn babies – their spirits used for good and evil.  In ‘evil’ hands, these tortured souls are used to put curses on enemies and control them by hanging very personal items above the soul in a jar.  On the ‘good’ side, monks pray to these souls placed within alters for many many years until the souls mature and the hatred and sadness behind their unfortunate deaths can be put behind them and they turn into deities and the jar can be opened (a spirit may talk to a monk in their dreams).

We also learned that typically virgins have the best visions of ghosts and the 15yr old investigator in the group could help with that!

With ghost hunting gadgets in hand, we set out to explore the area just before sundown, which was starkly different then our return trip by moonlight.  As  night fell a feeling of eeriness took over as wind blew tree branches and everybody ran over with their instruments to investigate.  The group is well balanced on it’s theories and keeps a level of skepticism among them to keep everything in check – including using physics to explain why one tree branch was aggressively swaying while others around it were not.

Ghost Hunting in Infra-Red

Ironically enough though, as we were walking by an obelisque monument to the veterans that died in battle, a nearby festival down the bay started playing that famous song from Ghost –  Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers.

While we didn’t experience any encounters, we did have an interesting time and the investigators of SPI were nothing but fantastic towards us – welcoming us into their group, sharing past stories, asking about our travels, and sharing local knowledge on cuisine and politics. – And we’ll happily trade a lack of virginity for a lack of ghost sightings any day!

 

Here’s to more stories in 2011!

Tonight we’ll be spending New Year’s Eve out in front of Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world with Stephen and his awesome friends.

There will be a dragon of fireworks climbing the building – can’t wait!

100 days and 21,159 km of traveling!

Last year’s show:

Vinnie’s look back on China – Part II of II [Politics]

communism.jpg

Communism

Some of my thoughts before arriving at China was that of a communist state.  There is just one political party, the Communist Party of China (CPC/CCP).  I knew there was a mix of capitalism thrown in, but I didn’t know what that would feel like.  Walking down the streets of Shanghai, we visited the building where the CCP first convened with Mao heading the round table – if the “veil” of communism wasn’t appearent to us before visiting, then the Jaguar dealership 2 blocks away, the yuppie high-rises across the street, and the Chinese people sporting Nike ‘Just Do It’ t-shirts in the building that birthed the CCP definitely showed us just how transparent the veil is.

The political atmosphere in China feels more like it’s a large corporation – China, Inc. Everyone is behind the brand – speaking out about it might get you fired, and you’re pretty content as long as you’re A) getting promoted and B) your salary increases each year.  Maybe that’s the sweetest thing for a large multinational corporation –  instead of multiple international conglomerates, they’re alll owned and controlled by one entity, who also sets the laws.  But I now have a clearer understanding of why the Party really wants to starve off inflation (forgot decreasing exports) – if prices rise to fast and the majority of the population is left struggling to afford the basics, you’ll get angry mobs (which sounds familiar back home).

However, I absolutely adore the old Communist Propaganda, from our tin mug with a worker’s message, to my Mao bag, to my CCP hat.  Beijing had lots of this, from public statues and museums, to hip little resturants sporting 1960’s posters and military dishware.   Before my visit, I was pretty ignorant on the past 50 years of Chinese politics.  But my curioustty took over and I was fascinated with reading up on the history of China and it’s neighbors.  I’m really glad I did and I *highly* recommend reading Wild Swans.

After reading the horror stories of how communism came into power in China, with the red guards, the cultural revolution, and a number of other atrocities.  Along with my vague awareness of communist systems in other parts of the world (former USSR, North Korea), I’m led to belive that communism only leads to corruption and brings out the worst in people.  I’ll be adding Karl Marx to my Kindle readings.

The irony is that communism continues to be pushed forward in China. We met young card carriers and non-card carriers.  But most people pointed out to us, that if you want a good career, i.e. a government job with great secondary benefits, power, and respect, then you’ll need to be a card carrying member, attend the meetings, and repeat the mantras.  And so the party continues to propel itself forward.

capatilism in the ccp.jpg

Capitalism in the CCP

Capitalism is alive and *booming* in China.  There is a free spirt for anybody to setup shop on the corner and hock some goods or delicious street food.  If anything, it would seem easier to setup your on stall in China then the U.S. because most U.S. cities are burdened with permits, food inspections, etc.  However, the one thing that stuck out to me in China, is that when you walk down a street of stalls, everybody copies each other, there was very little differentiation.  Why would I choose one vendor over another?  The goods are exactly the same, the price is the same, so where’s the differenation?  In nyc walking down the street, you might seen t-shirt vendors, hat vendors, sunglass vendors, etc.  But they don’t oversaturate each other and all sell exactly the same things.

There are lots of high end fashion stores in China, catering to the small percentage of upper middle class and foreigners.  However, many of the shops sit empty most of the day.  I think the costs for running the store and paying rent is met on the slim revenues.  I didn’t see the capitalist  ‘consumer’ demand we’re so used to in the US (however, Walmart in China is just as packed if not more, than Walmart in the U.S.)

censorship in china.jpg

Censorship

One thing I really did not enjoyed in China was the internet censorship.  It’s ridiculous, backwards, and ineffective.  China blocks any service that allows one person to communicate with many people (which the government cannot directly control).  And while they allow a number of Chinese run forums, blogs, and twitter-like services to be run inside of the country, the government has direct control to censor and remove specific data or profiles (something that western websites will not allow).  It’s why they block foreign services such as facebook, twitter, blogger, wordpress, tumblr, youtube, meetup, etc. yet allow Chinese versions of these companies to be used.

The wikileak’s U.S. cables release wasn’t even’t mentioned on the news in China.  A search on China Daily just returns information about Julian Assanage.  I think the concept of wikileaks really scares the Chinese  government.  And to make matters worse, they blatently lie publically about their censorship, such as Liu Zhengrong, the Deputy Chief of Internet Affairs quoted as saying: China is no different from Western nations such as the United States and Britain in the methods it uses to regulate the Internet” – really, then why has the viral quote “My father is Li Gang!” mouthed by his intoxicated son after killing a girl with his VW sedan been censored from Chinese forums?

Or tell the Deputy Chief’s statement of: “You can compare China with Western countries. Chinese people have easy rein to express their opinions” to Zhao Lianhai, the father of an infant who died from contaminated milk who tried to raise awareness via online communities and has been recently jailed for “inciting social disorder”.

Another great example of this insane paranoia on speech – Liu Xiaobo, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient.  Liu’s an author and a political activist, he co-wrote Charter 8 for free elections, freedom of expression, and a democracy inside of China.  Where is he now?  In jail.  What does the CCP’s Foreign Ministry think of the Nobel Prize committee? “The erroneous decision not only has met with firm opposition by the entire Chinese nation, but is dismissed by the vast majority of countries upholding justice in the world.”  And so they’ve decided to start their own, “Confusius Peace Prize” it sounds like a joke but it’s not.  They even went so far as to strong arm other countries to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony this year.  To me, that level of paranoia and belief that you can control worldwide information is borderline insane, it’s not sustainable and it will have a breaking point.

After reading Wild Swans and seeing the smirking portrait of Mao looming over Tianmen Square, my impression of Chinese politics really soured.  It is my belief that in 20 years, his portrait will be taken down from Tianamen Square.  With so many students of the younger generation studying oversees, I can only imagine that when they return to China, they will want to shed the politics of control and censorship and turn a new leaf.  Currently there is apathy, we found that most people we talked to didn’t buy into the CCP or the need for censorship, but the idea of it just led to a shrug of the shoulders.  So my big curiosity – what’s going to lead to that change?


Read Part I of my look back at China.

Vinnie’s look back on China – Part I of II [Culture]

China is an adventure!  For me, China has been a story filled with amazing images, new ideas, fascinating history, interesting people, and a number of frustrations that are part of any exciting adventure.

We’ve spent slightly less than 2 months exploring China, traveling through a dozen cities and a handful of provinces.  China is a big country – although the same size as the US, there is a distinct flavor to each province, from culture, to people, to food and unique traditions – making it feel huge.

When we first arrived, it was a real slap in the face of east vs. west, modern vs. not so modern.  For a country that is jumping by leaps and bounds to the front of the world stage, this came as quite a surprise to me. In hindsight, I don’t know if Shanghai was the best starting point, nor very representative of greater China.  However, from talking to fellow western travelers, it almost seems as if the city you visit first in china is your least liked city – as nothing fits within your expectations.

The ‘Middle Kingdom’ (as it is better known) really places you in the middle of different social behaviors.  You’ll encounter rude people and you’ll encounter the warmest hosts.  You’ll get frustrated at the elderly old man with a cane cutting dozens of people in line while laughing… just to be dumbfounded with humbleness when a young stranger comes up to you speaking english and offers to help you buy your train ticket (as they can see you struggling).

And then you’ll visit the outskirts of small villages, with locals washing their clothes on the sidewalk who also know how to work an iphone and want to see pictures of your trip around China.

China can be a Delorian trip a few hundred years into the past, while other areas can feel as if 300 years have been fast forwarded in less than a decade.  So not only is there an east vs. west culture clash, but there’s also a 18th century rural vs. modern/urban cultural clash.  This really plays out in the cities, with a mix of young urbanites and migrant workers who come in to the cities to build and support the infrastructure.  As China-Mike points out, there is a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde of Chinese etiquette, the past century in China has gone through a lot: from political clashes, to wars, to the Cultural Revolution, so one minute you’re getting elbowed out of a ticket line, and the next you’re being treated to a full dinner by a gracious Chinese host.

I find it difficult to lump a story of the whole kingdom into one post.  It’s impossible to compare the hip cultural urban lifestyle of Beijing with the beautiful scenic mountains and lush gorges of the southwest.  So I’ll just highlight a few of my favorite experiences.

Beijing

Beijing is awesome, it’s China, it’s international, it’s young, it’s hip, and it kinda reminded me of NYC.  We got a chance to catch some live music shows, feast on Peking duck, tour the iconic Tiananmen Square, and visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World – The Great Wall.  It’s the one city in China that I really felt like I could live there.

Beijing Hua Acid Jazz.jpg

Pictured above: Hua Acid Jazz Live.  Read more of Beijing Highlights.

Hua Shan

Hike 2km straight up, and stay overnight at the top of the mountain.  The hike is intense, the cliffs are strenuous, and the hobbit caves in the side of the mountain make you think you’re in ‘The Prince Bride’ movie.

Hua Shan-1.jpg

Read more on hiking Hua Shan.

Chengdu

A great city with a great mix of culture and smack in the middle of some of the spiciest food on earth in Sichuan province.  The city seemed to encompass a lot of China’s different aspects into one place.  From a nearby ‘old village’, to a modern city with bustling construction, to food markets with livestock running around, to a incredibly large statue of Mao – Chengdu has it all mixed into one.  The free tours at Lazybones/Mix Hostel helped us experience more then we would have on our own.

Chengduu.jpg

Read more on getting Chengiggy with it.

The Chinese Railways

Train rides in China can be 300km maglevs that zip you to your destination in minutes, to overcrowded K series trains – with the air filled with cigarette smoke and the floor covered with sunflower seeds.  Both are unique experiences and both provide amazing views of the country.  By far my preferred method of travel around China, the only draw back is typically you have to buy tickets 1-2 days in advance, in person! (hello, internet?)

China Railways.jpg

View more photos of the country side out our train windows.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

A 3 day hike through a beautiful gorge, green farms on one side, snow capped mountain peaks on the other.  With over 2km of vertically hiking to the roaring river floor, it’s strenuous and gorgeous.  I strongly recommend spending at least one night at Sean’s Guest House for the full experience.

Tiger Leaping Gorge.jpg

Read our posts on hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Litang

Literally at the top of the world, over 4km above sea level, there is no higher city in the world.  The multi-day bus trip is beautiful and nothing like I’ve ever seen before – I was glued to my bus window.  The town will take you back to the wild west with cowboys strutting down the sidewalk and cattle crossing the street.  The winter wasn’t the optimal time to visit, but I’ll never forgot the feeling of zipping around icy one lane cliffs in our bus.

Litang.jpg

Read about our trip on the Sichuan Tibet Highway to Litang.

Other memories I’ll take away:

  • On two occasions, we saw police offers grab somebody by the lower ear lobe and drag them around because they caused some trouble or harassment.  That’ll put you in your place!
  • I now know why no transit employees enforce the no smoking signs posted on trains & buses – there is only one tobacco company for all of china (which is sold under dozens of brands) and it is owned by the government. Think about how much money that is! Chinia is 30% of al the worlds smokers! Phillip Morris can only dream of that much money.
  • 95% of Chinese people have never heard of a queue!

My next post will cover my personal perspective of Chinese Politics.

p.s. I’d also liked to give a big ‘Thank You’ to Bonnie Wang who helped us so much with planning our travels around China and for introducing us to friends and family around the country.

Brief Service Announcement from Southwestern China

We may be M.I.A. for a little while as we’re heading by bus along the Sichuan – Tibetan highway.   We’re currently in Kangding heading west, then  south along the Tibet border – we opted not to go for the insanely expensive tibet permit this trip.

We’re currently over a mile high in the mountains and we’ll be doubling that height tomorrow morning with a 10 hour busride to Litang.  Since we’re still in Sichuan, the food is spicy hot, but it now has a Tibetan vibe to it – Yak.

The views out the window so far have been spectacular and frightening – crazy turns on cliff edges and playing chicken with trucks bigger then us.  One truck coming down hill that was passing oncoming traffic was headed straight for us, our bus driver slammed on the breaks to a full stop and the oncoming truck couldn’t get into the other lane – it was full on it’s breaks, with smoke coming out of them and burn marks on the ground, at the last minute, the truck squeezed between us and the other oncoming vehicle with literally inches on each side, i thought we were on for a head on collision!

But now that we’ve arrived safely – some photos from Kangding

Hiking Hua Shan Mountain

Writing this from the top bunk of a hard sleeper on a K series train to Chengdu (which translates to a smoke-filled, slow moving train with many stops). After our first experience on the ‘hard seats’, we upgraded to ‘hard sleeper’ – still not the top of the line for sleeping, and there were no other train lines between Xi’an & Chengdu.  We couldn’t be further away from where we spent last night, except for the fact that I’m once again on the top bunk.

Yesterday morning we woke up bright and early for a trip out to Hua Shan mountain, about a 2 hour bus ride from Xi’an. Not a normal bus, we grabbed a mini bus full of Chinese people.  The two of us were squished into the backrow between a chinese person who’s obviously popular because his phone is ringing off the hook and he likes to talk loudly, and on the other side, we have a man we literally picked up on the side of a major highway, carrying a large rice bag (the preferred luggage choice in most train stations in china) that’s sitting quite comfortably on his lap.

We pass the country side and a few cooling towers of nuclear power plants.

Side Note: Kristine is next to me, we’re at the end of train car #8 and everybody likes to smoke between train cars (so right below us at the door), never mind the no smoking signs.  So our hard sleeper is a bit smoked filled, no matter how many glaring looks Kristine throws them.

Another Side Note (I write like Christopher Nolan of Inception,  so please keep up) – Human/Body language translates incredibly well between the west and China.  Thumbs up is still a thumbs up, and head shanking still translates to yes/no in the appropriate direction.  The one thing that throws us off in China is number counting on the fingers.  I typically start with my thumb for 1, then index for 2, etc.  In China, your pinky is 1, and by the time you get to 3, it looks like a big OK sign and that throws me off.  They count using one hand instead of two, so five is a fist, 6 is a hang ten, and 8 looks like a pistol.  Don’t mistake a big ‘X’ of ‘no-no’ using two index fingers, that’s just a 10!

Back to the original story

So we pull up to Hua village and they drop us off at a beat up Chinese restaurant.  Everybody gets off, so we follow.  They all go to the back, down a hallway, so we follow.  Soon we get to the ever so familiar smell, ahh, squat toilets.  After taking a leak, I come back out to the front of the restaurant and Kristine is playing Charades (I prefer Pictionary and draw little images in my notebook) with a local on a wall map to find out where we are now and where the mountain’s trail entrance starts.  A few mintues later, our course is set to due south (always travel with a compass).

Hua Shan Village and Mountain in China

Making our way towards the mountain, we here the famous chinese proverb, “Sir, sir, Water? Gloves? Good Price!”.  We previously read that gloves were needed on this mountain and we could buy them on the trail.  So after inquiiring how much, we say “Thank you” and walk away – that’s how you find out the real price in China. (One fellow Irish traveller recommended coming back with 10% of their asking price, and at first, I thought that was insane, but it has indeed proved true.)  We bought 2 pairs of mesh cotton gloves for 1Y (15c) each a little up the way.

We knew Hua Shan was a big hike, 5-8 hours the long way or about 2-3hrs if you cheated with the cable car.  But we read about he beautiful views and hermit caves carved into the mountain and we choose the longer scenic route. To our surprise every path was dotted with independent vendors every few hundred meters, water, apples, cucumbers, ramen, red bull, flash lights, and gloves.

Mid November is a bit of an off season for the mountain but it was still filled with hikers, some for a day trip halfway up, others for an overnight journey like ourselves.  It’s one of 5 sacred mountains in Taoism – which is also why I belive people lived on the mountain, even today:

House on Hua Shan, China

It felt a bit Princess Bride’ish with hermit caves litteraly carved into the side of the mountain and ladders hand carved into the rock.  Could you imagine living here all alone 200 years ago?

Hermit Cave in Hua Shan mountain

Sign for 'Hairy' women on Hua Shan mountain

The first 4km weren’t so bad, a little steep at parts, but nothing compared to the hoofing up some of San Francisco’s steeper hills.  Then it quickly changed to rock climbing, not full on, as there were hand carved stairs and chains – or as one blogger put it, “not dangerous but strenuous“.  It was an awesome challenge and we felt great all the way to the first peak at 6km.  It was full of challenges, but it was so fun, and unbelivible views – and we never had done anything like it before (remember, we’re “urban” hikers, not “hiker” hikers.)

Kristine on Hua Shan Mountain

vinnie on hua shan

Kristine on some steep Hua Shan stairs

vinnie on steep hua shen stairs

We were both impressed with how steep the climb was and needed to refuel. After the first peak, the North Peak, I had to engergize with some red bull, snickers, and a precooked packaged hot dog cooked in chile peppers.  Kristine had to turn on Lady Gaga to keep her spirits high (she also stated, “This is a sacred mountain” repeatedly to remind herself why we were doing this).

After ascending a bit more, the signs weren’t clear to us if we were heading to the correct peak, East Peak, as there are 5 peaks. We spotted another white couple and asked them.  They were headed to the same place, so we joined forces, they were an engaged couple from Isreal, he had 10 years of miliarty training behind him, so a good person to have on the ascent up.

We had hoped to catch the sunset from South peak, but had to settle with an obstructed view from another mountain peak – still, that was beautiful:

Sun Set behind South Peak on Hua Shan Mountain, China

After the sun set, I threw on my headlamp and we paired up with another couple, this one from Shanghai, China, and they spoke excellent english as well as chinese.

A strenuous 45 minutes later and we made it to the top though we could only see our feet in front of us, and the tempature changed from t-shirt & shorts weather to fleece lined jacket and thermals.  The last 2 hours of the climb was brutal for us but the views and other people were really motivating.

Vinnie climbing up stairs carved into the mountain

Beauitful view from Hua Shan

Our chinese friend booked our beds (he got the best possible price) and we shacked up in an unheated ten-bed dorm at the top of the mountain.  We grabbed some hot nooodles & pork soup from the cafe, lots more H20, then retired early with a handful of hot sipping water in our room.  (Funny to note is that through our travels through China we’ve taken a kind liking to cups of hot water).

Kristine tucking into the top bunk at the top of Hua Shan Mountain, Xi'an, China

We booth woke up at 12:30am fighting the urge to pee – it was damn cold and there was no indoor plumbing.  Walking out the door to the “outhouse” I realized it was freaking snowing!  It felt mother f’ing freezing in the unheated dorm, but I didn’t realize it was actually freezing!

Our alarms were all set for 6:30am to catch the sunrise.  The whole room woke up to each other’s shuffle, we booted up and packed up to head outside.  There was about an inch or two of snow on the ground and we carefully climb up steep icy stairs to rerach the viewing peak. Since we’re not “real” hikers, it didn’t dawn on us that you can’t see a surnise when it’s snowing out! Instead we saw the white sky brighten and called it a sunrise.

From there, we decide to start the trek down with our new friends, the Israelis.  The first 1km down is all snow and zero visiblity with slushy and slippery conditions:

Slush and snow on Hua Shan Mountain

Kristine & Vinnie at the top of Hua Shan East Peak

Winter on Hua Shan

Kristine and I opted out of hiking the full trek down (you can’t see much anyways) and snaged tickets for the cable car, which unfortunately didn’t provide us beautiful views because of the snow.  At least Kristine’s screams still made it exciting – she’s scared of heights, (don’t take that girl on a ferris wheel!)

Hua Shan Cable Car

We took a cable car to a tourist bus, to a taxi, to a mini bus (which made us wait 1 hour till all the seats were filled), drove 2 hours to Xi’an, then hopped on a public bus back to our hostel, Shuyuan – which btw, is the hands down best hostel I’ve every stayed at.  It has 2 bars, one filled with wealthy locals, and the other with travelers.  Super friendly staff, a dog, a cat, and now, 1 turtle.  I met a bunch of interesting folks, including Paul from Belgium, who is biking around the world!

We’ve been having a great time and maybe now we have earned the rights to our URL, ‘Urban Hikers’

See all of our Hua Shan photos here.

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Cut back to ‘now’: Now we’re on a 13 hour overnight train to Chengdu, it left at 10:18pm, and again, we find ourselves on the top bunks of another crazy adventure – the overcrowded, smoked filled, economy K series trains of China!

13,000km in 45 days

We’re 45 days into our trip and have toured 10 cities across 2 countries, travelling a total of 12,918km by train, plane, car, foot, and bus (and usually with 20-25lbs on our back)

I put up a page to cover our past travels.  We’re heading to Xi’an, China next, to check out the Terracotta Warriors, then from there, we’ll be making our way deeper into China (away from the east coast) for hiking, spicy food, and hopefully some more glimspees at Chinese history.

Beijing has been absolutely fantastic.  It’s a great mix of rich history, busy city, music, bars, biking, and awesome people.  We keep adding days to our stay here to make sure we get in all the sights, like the Forbidden City & Great Wall, to the hip neighborhoods with a vibrant nightlife and great food.  I’ve also connected with a few folks in the tech scene here, which is very active thanks to a number of great universities, incubators, and co-working folks.

On a side note, we’ve been reading a number of books on Chinese history and Kristine passed onto me Wild Swans which covers the past 100 years of China’s history through 3 generations – living through different ruling systems, wars, political parties, and Chinese culture.  It really helps put a perspective on the current politics and culture as we travel around the country.

Feeling the Great Firewall of China

I’m feeling the pains of the great firewall of China. Sure there are ways to get around it, but that’s not always available, like now, when I’m on my iphone, or when I use a public computer. Every Internet connection I’ve used in China feels like it’s crawling through a dialup modem – and then I’m supposed to run all that traffic to another computer in the US of A just to slow it down even more?

Right now, I would love to be able to read my friend Woody’s blog about his travels through China (vachina.blogspot.com) but I can’t. And just entering that feed into my google reader which performs a google search freezes my access to google for a few minutes. This is not a communist policy, this is the policy of an immature adult adding insane rules to their parental locks on their computer. Are we all just a bunch of children?

Take for instance all of our photos: although uploading them to flickr works, it’s at painful speeds. But want to share a big zip of those photos with some friends on dropbox.com? Forget it, it’s BLOCKED.

Want to watch that latest funny video on youtube? BLOCKED.

Want to post something insiteful about your travels on twitter? BLOCKED

Want to have any sort of social interaction with your friends around the world on facebook? BLOCKED

Find a community of like-minded people to meet with on the community powered site meetup.com? BLOCKED

Found a great link from google to a travel forum that answers your question? PROBABLY BLOCKED

This is not a People’s Republic, this is not Communism, so what is it?

Yin & Yang of Urban Hikers

Some thoughts from Vinnie.

China is a bit of a shock, especially coming from South Korea – as Seoul could fit right into Europe.  So far, our experiences in China have been a little more difficult, but I’m loving the difficulties – Seoul was a bit too easy for a worldwide trip.

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve stayed at a youth hostel, and as a married couple, it can put some stresses on the relationship, but I’ve been seeing a part of the world that has only been images and imagination to me – it’s pretty fucking amazing to be here.

China has been harsh, crowded, and loud.  By loud, I mean horns constantly honking (and they make them louder hear then in Korea), people constantly screaming (mostly older folk), and lots of push or be pushed aside in order to navigate the subway system.  But as one couchsurfer, Ian, that we had dinner with in Shanghai said – “A great social experiment is to get on the #2 line at rush hour and try to get off at People’s Square – try it, you’ll release any anger you have”  It’s true, within hours, you will go from a mild manner person, to somebody who says I’m getting off this train, move or get an elbow to the stomach or a shoulder to the chest (and it for some reason feels a little relieving).  Very few people follow common subway rules about standing off to the side to let people out first.  So I can understand why everybody is like this, if you weren’t, you would never get anywhere in Shanghai.  But from my talking to locals – I think that’s just Shanghai, and not like the rest of China.

Talking to some Chinese students at our Shanghai hostel, they didn’t like Shanghai either.  They ditched university for a 4 hour bus to come check out the expo.  I met these two friends over beer and take out chinese street food (here they just call it street food).  As I was eating on the steps, enjoying a 50c beer (which you can find in 24 hour marts, however a bar will run you $8 since only foreigners go there), they asked me where I was from and commented that I used chopsticks very well – although their english was broken and they didn’t say chopsticks, I got the gist of it.  They were super nice kids, I was the first foreigner they ever spoke to, and we made a night out of drinking TsingTao and communicating by drawing, pointing, hand waving, chinglish, and translations on one of their cell phones.  The more beer we drank, the more comfortable they became with their English.  I learned a few Chinese words that night, including the Chinese characters spelling of my name, which is pronounced Wen-cen-te.

They invited me to get some food with them and I’m glad I did, we went into a little shop that I would have never gone into on my own and ordered food I would have never picked on my own. I couldn’t tell if it was balls of fish or balls of meat, I don’t even think they knew, so we ordered a bunch and the chief cooked us a soup.

So that’s the little parts of China I’ve liked so far.  We also were introduced to a Shanghai native, Jialin, via Bonnie back in SF and he welcomed us on our arrival – trekking out to our Hostel, and spent the day with us on Saturday to take us to all the great food spots and sample everything from excellent soup dumplings to rice cake.

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So I’m intrigued, fascinated, and yes, sometimes frustrated by China.  But I always had in the back of my mind that this trip would be a little frustrating – that’s why I wanted to do it.  Life isn’t fun unless your challenged!

And now we’re in Nanjing, China, about 2 hours north of Shanghai, we escaped for a less crowded city, which it is, but are still having difficulties settling in.  For instance, in Korea, you could always find a great place to eat with interesting food, so far in China, that’s been a little harder to do, it’s much harder to gauge the quality of the food from the establishment, the food is much greasier/oily, and the only restaurants we see packed with people are KFC and McDonald’s – my theory here is that Chinese people don’t eat out cause it’s expensive, so that leaves very little options.  And we’re still  pressed to find a bar that servers $2 beers, it’s either 50c at the convenience store, or $6-$10 at the bar.

And construction here is amazing, literally the street is being built underneath you, there are dozens of people laying bricks, planting flowers, and hammering away at buildings.  One sidewalk we walked on when we first arrived was half brick, half dirt, the next day it was completely finished.