Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Kickin it in Kyoto

This morning we woke up at 4 am and took a train to another train to a taxi to meet our hydrofoil boat at 10 am. Now we’re sitting on the Beetle – a high speed boat that goes between Hakata, Japan and Busan, Korea – heading towards the last leg of our journey. Despite the many health issues we had throughout our time in Japan, it was still sad to leave it so soon.

Kyoto is a fairly big city, but is much calmer and more slowly paced than Tokyo. People are okay with riding the escalators all the way up instead of briskly walking up them, and oldsters stroll on the sidewalks with their tiny dogs. Aside from a few taller office buildings, the city seems to be mostly filled with one or two story shops and houses. Also, surprisingly we found that we had slightly fewer communication problems there, and the “I don’t eat pork or shellfish” napkin only had to make a couple appearances (which is good because it’s pretty abused looking at this point). The public transportation in both Tokyo and Kyoto was easy to use and didn’t cause us too much stress. In Tokyo we rode the subways around and in Kyoto we used the busses. Overall this is the country where we’ve used the most public transport – partly because the cabs are so expensive, but also because everything is nicely labeled and there always seems to be a line that will take you exactly where you want to go.

Kyoto is an ancient capital of Japan (after Nara I think?). It doesn’t seem like the city relies on tourism, but there are amazing parks and extremely old temples scattered throughout the city – it seems like almost anywhere you are, you’re within walking distance of something historically significant.

A few days before we got to Kyoto, I found out that my friend Brett from high school, who is in the Marines, is stationed in Japan. Although his base is kind of out of the way, he said he’d never been to Kyoto and decided to come out and meet us there on his day off. I was a little worried that we’d have trouble finding him at the train station, but the fact that he’s about twice as tall as most Japanese people made it pretty easy. Interestingly enough, the Kyoto train station is one of the flashiest sights in Kyoto, so we started out there with a nice Italian lunch. The station has an open air center with stairs and escalators that go up about 11 floors straight in succession. The building is an odd shape that is mostly covered with glass and juts in and out at weird angles. After that we walked over to the To-ji temple to check out a market that only happens on the 21st on every month. Unfortunately, the temple itself was closed, but we saw the outside and walked through the market, picking up some delicious dried mango and some red bean pancakes.

Across from the train station is the Kyoto Tower, which looks like a slightly more cartoonish version of the space needle and comes out of a large office building. We went up to the round observation deck to catch the sunset over the mountains and see the whole city light up in the orange tinted evening light. After the tower, Brett headed back to his base and job building jet engines. It’s crazy to have found so many familiar faces on this side of the world. It was really great to see him - hopefully having some American female company was worth hanging out with two diseased people for an afternoon.

The next morning my eye was still very red, so we decided it was time to go to an eye clinic. I got checked out and given some eye drops and we were about to leave, when Carly wanted to quickly ask the doctor if her eyes looked okay – just in case. What should have been a two minute conversation turned into ten, white clad Japanese nurses giving us a “deer in the headlights” stare, and some very awkward English attempts at telling us not to share eye drops. Finally the doctor took a look at her and declared that she was fine and we were on our way. We bought a day pass for the busses and Carly skillfully navigated our way around the city to the three most popular sights – the Kinkaku-ji, the Ginkaku-ji, and Kiyomizu-dera.

The Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavillion, is a stunning, gold encased building that sits on a small picturesque pond, surrounded by trees and peaceful walkways. The Ginkaku-ji, or Silver Pavillion, was supposed to be covered in silver, but according to our brochure that plan was never realized. It’s currently under construction, and the ponds around it were drained, but there were some cool sand sculptures and designs in the garden around it. It also sits in front of a small hill, which you can climb up and get a nice view of the city. The Kiyomizu-dera was a much larger complex with a number of old wooden Japanese temple buildings scattered on the side of a hill. It seems like a lot of people still go there to worship or make formal visits at least because there were a number of men and women in traditional Japanese dress. After our sightseeing, we went to a famous shopping area called Gion and found a delicious Indian restaurant for dinner. There are tons of sights in Kyoto that we missed, but I think we hit the important ones and we were pretty satisfied with the flavor we got.

The next morning we woke up and took an hour train ride to spend the day in Nara. Nara was the first capital of Japan and now seems to be a small and sleepy city next to its main historical attraction – Nara Park. Nara Park is a large grass and tree covered area full of ancient wooden buildings, gardens, pagodas, shrines and ponds. Also, since deer were considered messengers to the gods, they are now considered national treasures and the park is full of literally thousands of tame deer, who just wander around and get fed and petted by tourists. We were really excited when we walked by Kofuku-ji and saw the deer everywhere, and immediately went up and posed for some pictures with a nice buck. Since we didn’t have any of the little vendor sold deer food pancakes for him, he was not really interested in entertaining us. We thought the deer were very endearing until, as we posed for a picture with the five level pagoda, a national treasure came up and ate our nicely marked map of the park. He literally ripped it out of Carly’s hand, played tug of war with her for a while, and then proceeded to chomp up and swallow the whole thing. After that we tended to avoid the deer and keep our Lonely Planet and other loose items away from them.

The most famous attraction in Nara is the Todai-ji, which houses a very large Buddha. I think we were a bit jaded by the Bronze Buddha in Hong Kong, so it didn’t seem as impressive, but I think it’s a lot older and therefore probably a greater artistic feat for its time. After taking some pictures of the Buddha and some of the angry looking figures who share the temple with him, we headed over to Nigatsu-do for a view of the park from above, and then to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. They were all very beautiful, decorated with intricate lanterns and surrounded by huge, twisty trees that sometimes were supported by wooden props because they had spread so far from their trunks. The whole park was very peaceful and the weather was gorgeous which made the walk around the park and up the twisty pathways very pleasant. Our guide book had warned us against being “those” tourists who buy the deer food pancakes and eat them by accident, so when we bought a red bean pancake as a snack, we inspected it thoroughly and found it hard to convince ourselves that it was people food. The fact that Carly hasn’t been able to taste her food for a few days made it a little more challenging. Regardless, it tasted pretty good to me so I think it was okay.

After our long day of sightseeing, we headed back to Kyoto and tried to find a restaurant that was recommended in my guidebook because it has an English menu. After walking around in circles and deciding that it must have been plowed down and turned into a parking lot, we stopped at a different place. They had a smaller English menu but the descriptions were not very clear so it was still difficult to order. After a long session of pointing and making the “X” sign or the “OK” sign with our hands back and forth with the waitress, we had four dishes picked out. We tried, then, to ask her if that was enough for two people using simple English and hand signals. I said – “four dishes, two people, okay??” pointing from myself to Carly and holding up two fingers. The waitress looked confused for a minute, and then held her stomach and pointed to Carly nodding. Figuring she was getting the fact that we wanted to be “full” I started nodding and then realized she had started making pregnant belly hand motions out from her stomach. Anyway, we ordered another dish, and decided that at least the fact that we were starving and gobbled down the food would be justified to them because they probably thought one or both of us was pregnant. I’d love to hear their interpretation of that conversation. Saying we were vegetarian and then ordering chicken probably didn’t help much either. Crazy Americans.

Our hostel – called K’s Kyoto House – was very nice and clean and our room was much bigger than in Tokyo. It seemed like it was kind of a social place, but we were feeling a bit too tired and diseased to go out and meet people. At least we got to see all the major sights in the short amount of time we had there. I think Japan will definitely have to go on my “revisit in the future list.”

Apparently a few years ago one of these Beetle hydrofoils hit a whale and had to be towed to Busan. Luckily we haven’t hit any whales yet, and should be in Korea soon. We’re getting a little worn out from the constant flow of tourist sights, but I think that after our day in Gyeong Ju, we’ll be able to just enjoy Seoul more as a city than a succession of sights. I can’t believe this trip is coming to an end, and we’re about to go through our last immigration process before going home. There’s never a dull moment though, so I’m anticipating an action packed, exciting last few days.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tokyo Rush

We are now sitting in our hostel in Kyoto. Time seems to be flying by so quickly – I can’t believe we have only about a week left! There aren’t many opportunities for me to write now since this last part is kind of crammed into ten days or so, but I’ll try to quickly recall as much as I can about Tokyo.

I just walked past someone in our hostel with a British accent saying “I think this is the most civilized place I’ve ever seen!” I guess it’s hard to define “civilized” after a point, but I think by most definitions it is the most “civilized” place in the world. Everything is very clean, efficient, and orderly around here. From what I’ve seen – a very telling sign about a country’s civilization level is usually the state of the public bathrooms. Well good luck trying to beat Japan in that category. Most of the bathrooms here are outfitted with high tech toilets that have seat warmers, butt sprayers, fake flushing noises, and “Strong Deodorizers.” There is a sink that runs over the tank, so that the water that you wash your hands with can be reused to flush the tank the next time the toilet is used. What more could you ever want from a toilet? Also, as you walk down the street, every five steps or so there is a vending machine with a selection of drinks, instant noodles, coffee, and cigarettes. Even in the quietest of side streets, you can pretty much instantly satisfy any sort of craving as long as you have a few 100 yen coins. Despite their reputation for being overly polite, uptight, workaholics, the Japanese people are freakishly nice. When we first emerged from the (wrong) subway exit trying to find our hostel, we only had to stand on the sidewalk looking hopelessly lost for a few minutes before someone stopped and cheerfully pointed us in the right direction (pass the POOOlice! Bam Bam! You know? POOlice!). At one point, I accidentally dropped a 100 yen coin (about 1 US dollar) and it rolled under a parked car. I didn’t even have time to bend down before a man dove under the car to retrieve it for me. The one main disorienting thing is that not many of the people seem to speak English here. I thought that would be a problem in Cambodia, or Indonesia, and it never was – but here in the most “civilized” place in the world, it is hard to come by a menu with English writing. (Gasp! You mean a place can be civilized without English?) I guess it makes sense since they’re beyond having to impress anyone. Anyway, I have a little phrasebook which has been extremely handy, and the people sit through my broken Japanese phrase attempts very patiently and manage not to laugh in my face. My main complaint (which is completely unreasonable, of course) is that the prices for things here are pretty much the same as in America. China will spoil you that way.

On our first night in Tokyo, we stumbled into a Ramen restaurant and had our first communication difficulty encounter. Let’s just say it ended well, but took a lot of sign language and me fishing through the phrasebook to write “I do not eat pork or shellfish” in Japanese on a napkin for Carly to show to the waiter. She has since used it at literally every restaurant we’ve eaten at. After dinner, we decided to explore the Japan Rail (JR) system with our handy dandy JR Pass. We took it to the “Tokyo” stop from our Bakurocho station. That was all easy enough, but then once we were in the Tokyo station, we literally could not find our way out. We followed exit signs through corridor after corridor, ended up in an underground mall, and finally emerged onto a street that didn’t seem to have anything except a minimart. The minimart did have delicious tiny round cookies on sale though, and ever since then I’ve gotten a roll every time we find them. We also found a Golden Spoon – Carly’s favorite Frozen Yogurt store from home – in the subway which was very exciting even though the portions are much smaller in Japan. When we got back to our hostel, which was a very cute, clean little place called Khaosan Tokyo Ninja, we wandered downstairs and met a bunch of other people who were working or staying there. Apparently, they’ll let you stay there for free if you clean for 3 hours a day, so some of the people were just living there for two months or so, cleaning from 11-2, and then hanging out the rest of the day in Tokyo. It’s a rough life.

We made a friend who said he wanted to go to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market the next day at 4 am, so we decided to have an early night and wake up early to go with him. A really nice local guy working at the hostel said he’d go with us to show us around. Three hours later we rolled out of bed and went downstairs to meet up with the group. We were joined by a girl from Germany who had just arrived to work at the hostel for a few weeks, and together we set off to see the famed fish. The Tsukiji market is a place where super large, frozen tuna are brought in from all over the world and auctioned off every morning for thousands of dollars. We took one of Tokyo’s expensive, but pleasant and doily covered cabs and got there around 5 am to watch them set up. Market workers dragged the massive frozen tuna across the floor and lined them up on wooden planks. Each fish had a section of its tail sliced off and buyers and sellers walked down the rows, carefully inspecting the meat and hacking at the fish with large hooks. Then each fish was labeled with red paint. At about 6 the auction started. A man would stand up on a bench in front of a section of fish, ring a large bell for a while, and then proceed to yell and make noises while the buyers silently signaled their bids. If this description doesn’t really do it for you, then check out the video (hopefully) posted below. After a while, Carly was feeling faint, and our German friend felt nauseous, so we headed home and proceeded to sleep away most of the day.

When we woke up, we relaxed a bit and did some laundry, and then headed downstairs and spent the night hanging out with the people at the hostel. Our new friend, Leo, stayed up till all hours of the night with us as we chatted with people who came in and out. We met people from Japan, Australia, Canada, Korea, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and America, all staying there for different reasons and with different experiences with Japan and with Asia. Our Korean friend, (who says he’ll meet up with us in Seoul!) told us how talking with people from all different countries in English had been a dream of his. We joked with our Japanese phrasebooks, showed each other photos and you tube videos, snacked and talked for hours. It is pretty amazing to be able to meet so many random, interesting people in one place.

The next day we had to make up for lost time sightseeing so we decided to start strong by waking up early. That plan failed, and we woke up around 11. We started out the day by checking out Yoyogi park, which is a large park with a Shinto temple dedicated to the Meiji emperor and his empress. It’s also known as a hotspot for teenage girls who do “cosplay” (costume play – they dress up in weird random costumes and go hang out), boys who like to dress up as Elvis, dancers, musicians, and any other sort of (softcore) social deviant imaginable. When we got to the park and past a group of little bow peeps, we were approached by a Japanese lady who told us she was a free tour guide and wanted to take us around the park. The smart immediate reaction to this situation is to look down and walk away. In Japan, however, the government hires people to go around and be free tour guides. We had read about this in our guidebook, so we accepted her offer, and she took us around the park, telling us about how they had planted all the trees in the forest there in the early 1900s, and teaching us how to pray to the soul of the emperor in the traditional Shinto style. We found out that she used to be the editor for the official Hello Kitty magazine, and had gotten to travel to America several times for work. She was very sweet and just asked us to fill out a quick survey at the end that was it. See? Freakishly nice.

After Yoyogi, we tried to check out the gardens at the Imperial Palace, but they had just closed so we headed to the Ginza. The Ginza is the main shopping street in Tokyo with designer shopping and famous Japanese style busy crosswalks and neon signs. Our first stop was the Sony Showroom/Store which is a multilevel center for selling the latest and greatest Sony products and also for displaying unreleased future merchandise. The big things they are showing these days are large, flat-screen 3D TVs and tiny super high definition video cameras. It’s pretty crazy. It also successfully made me want everything in the store. Luckily my backpack is too small for that. After the Sony shop we ate dinner and walked around some more, picking up amazing red bean mochi balls, each with a full strawberry in the center. Tokyo is very fast paced but has an exciting vibe. It’s a lot more fun and energetic than other cities I’ve seen and is exceptionally good for people watching. You’re as likely to see women in kimonos or girls dressed up like gothic anime characters as people in business suits. Most of the people are very stylish and made us feel a bit like sloppy Americans.

After the Ginza we went to Shibuya to see the famous crossing that Tokyo is so well known for. Of course, there’s a Starbucks there, so we got a cookie and crossed the street a few times as part of the lively mob. Later we headed to the Mori building in Roppongi, which is the main bar district. We went up to the 54th floor and admired the view of the Tokyo Tower and beautiful lit up city from above. It was about then that my eyeball started aching, so we went back to the hostel. That night we pretty much had to give in to the fact that we are walking disasters. My eye turned bright red and puffy and Carly still doesn’t have her voice back from the China cold. Together we make for what amounts to the worst asian horror scene possible. I bet they’re happy they wear those SARS masks now. They’re probably telling their kids.. “See Sally? That’s what happens to the bad children who don't wear their masks.” Once those kids see my eye, they’ll probably go back and ask for the full body suit. But that’s neither here nor there. We’ll deal with the result of this situation in the Kyoto blog.

The only thing I’ve not mentioned yet that I think is notable is that there are many people who live in boxes in the subway stops. They make long, cardboard box cells and sleep in them with their shoes propped neatly on top and a little rolley suitcase next to the end of the box. In Singapore a news report said that the unemployment rates are soaring here and that many Japanese men get kicked out by their wives if they fail to bring home a good salary. I wonder if they’re now living in boxes. It’s pretty sad. I guess not everything in Japan is perfect.

So far Kyoto is very nice. More to come. Hope everything is well state side! Email me or comment!

Friday, February 19, 2010


Oh dear, I’ve fallen behind. We’re sitting in our hostel in Tokyo now and have already had a few adventures here, but you’ll have to stay tuned for that. For now let’s talk about Shanghai.

Remember our friend in Xi’an who we shook hands with for good luck? Well he sure must have saved us from some sort of disaster because we each got out with just a cold. Unfortunately it’s been kind of a lingering recovery process so rather than describing all our time in Shanghai – which was mostly filled with long naps and huge meals – I’ll try to just cover the highlights.

Shanghai is a very large, business oriented city with a lot of western influence. It’s another one of those port cities like Hong Kong and Singapore that were pretty much little fishing villages until the West came in and declared that it was a good spot for trade. I feel like all of my texts in school that talked about the Opium wars described the after effect as the western powers carving out “slices” of China like a pie.. (or pizza? Something baked anyway..) and I think Shanghai shows a pretty good example of that. We stayed in a part of it called the French Concession, where the architecture, clubs, restaurants, and even the large amounts of expats in the area make it pretty obvious that it isn’t exactly traditional Chinese. There’s also a big high-rise, downtown, business district called Pudong that boasts what has now been demoted to the 3rd tallest building in the world, along with some other impressive office space. Across the river from Pudong is the bund, which has a lot of the old European style buildings and hotels and an impressive view of the cityscape.

(fireworks leftovers outside our hotel)

So let’s see... The day we got to Shanghai was Chinese New Year Eve. Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in China. Pretty much everyone gets a two week break from school or work to go home and spend time with family, or to travel. From what I can tell, the people who stay behind, along with the explosive happy expats spend most of their time setting off boxes and boxes of fireworks and firecrackers on every street corner, at all hours of the night. Most things were closed that day (and the next) but we did end up finding a great New Years Eve party a block away from our hotel at a place called No. 88 Bar. We just stumbled upon it but it turns out it’s one of the most popular ones in Shanghai, so we got to experience some interesting live singers and dancers and get blasted with confetti after the midnight countdown. The singers had a selection of American pop songs that they serenaded us with throughout the night, but they clearly were having trouble with the English words – saying things like “I saw your face, in a shrowded place.. and I donno whattenn dooo..” Later on that night our friend Tal - fellow WashU DG and freshmen floor buddy – came out and met up with us. It’s a small world after all.
One of the most impressive sights we saw was the Shanghai Museum, which has four floors of just about everything Chinese you can think of including: jade, bronzes, traditional costumes of the ethnic minorities, currency, painting etc – much of it dating back hundreds to thousands of years. Apparently the day we chose to go was also the day everyone else in Shanghai went, because we had to wait outside in the rain for over an hour just to get in the door. All the bronzes that were left from thousands of years ago were wine vessels, food vessels, and musical instruments - looks like they knew how to live.

Another afternoon we stopped by the Jewish Refugee Ohel Moishe Synagogue that had been built for the 30,000 Jews who fled from Europe and Russia during the Russian Revolution and also WWII. Neither of us had any idea that there had been that many in China. Apparently during WWII all the other countries made immigration almost impossible, but Shanghai was relatively easy to get to and kept them safe. The building is now a museum and was actually closed for the whole New Year holiday, but after seeing our forlorn faces staring through the bars of the front gate, a nice Chinese man came out and let us walk around for free. I told him that Carly is Jewish and he excitedly said “Shana tova!!” and “Shalom!” He was not Jewish himself, but seemed very proud of his Hebrew. We walked through the Synagogue, which is three stories, but pretty small, with brick on the outside and dark wood on the inside, and then through a very high tech little museum building that they have in the back courtyard. The museum had videos, pictures, and descriptions of some of the refugees. It seems like most of them left Shanghai within 10 years or so of coming, either for Europe or other Asian cities like Hong Kong. I don’t think there are very many who stayed. Anyway, it was a very interesting side of Shanghai that I’ve never seen before.

Later on, we went to check out the Bund. Sadly, it’s currently a massive construction site that will someday be a very pleasant walkway with impressive buildings and a stunning view of the city. We did manage to get lost in an underground tunnel that lead to massive crowd of people milling around with random arcade games. I’m still not really sure what that was. I guess it’s just one of those moments lost in translation.

One of the days we went to a place called Cheng Huang Miao, which is supposed to have amazing Shanghai style dumplings and buns and some nice souvenir shops. Instead, it ended up being a lesson on why most Chinese people support the “one child policy.” If there is such thing as an ocean of people, we found it. You literally could not move on your own accord once you were in the area – basically you were smashed against the person in front of you, and constantly being pushed by the person behind you until you desperately flung yourself towards an exit. The poor children who were being dragged along with their parents must have gotten pretty trampled – I think we each tripped over a few very small, unsuspecting victims. At least we got an authentic Chinese crowd experience before leaving.

The last of the big sites that we saw was the Jinmao tower – literally meaning “Gold Trade” tower. It was the tallest building in Shanghai until the World Financial Center came along and cast a pretty large shadow on it. Fortunately, unlike the WFC, you can still go pretty far up the Jinmao tower for free. The 54th floor is the beginning of a large hotel, which has a 50+ storey atrium of open space going up from a little café to the top of the building. It’s pretty stunning and looks kind of like a seashell. We got up to the 87th floor to take some pictures of the buildings stretching as far as the eye can see, and then passed up the expensive coffee shop for our new favorite slice of home – Starbucks.

I can’t express how nice it is to see a familiar face every now and then when you’re abroad - and we got really lucky in Shanghai because Tal happened to be there, living not too far from our hotel. She’s been in Shanghai since November working for an Architecture firm. She told us they’re designing a new club, and that since everything is so cheap in China, it’s been moving very quickly and is currently under construction – due to be finished in April. As part of their design research, their client took them out to a bunch of clubs to show them what he liked and disliked about them. It sounded like a pretty amazing job. She introduced us to some of her co workers – from France and Switzerland – which was really fun and gave us a taste of the diverse expat community in Shanghai. Despite her busy work schedule, we got to have dinner with her a few times. On the last night, I went out with her to a little Jazz club, that seemed reminiscent of the pre war Shanghai days. It’s pretty crazy to think of the glitz and glamour that was in Shanghai and how westernized it was even over 50 years ago.

The last thing I have to say about Shanghai, is that we gave the “best red bean buns of the century” award to the buns we had at the DingTaiFeng in XinTianDi. Ding Tai Feng is the soup dumpling restaurant that I mentioned back in Singapore, and although it’s actually from Taiwan, the food it serves is supposed to be classic Shanghainese food. After some amazing dumplings, we had double servings of these magical buns. Life will never be the same.

Okay, well we’ve officially spent too much time in our room in Tokyo now and have to get out and explore a bit. Look forward to some fishy stories for next time. Zai Jian (goodbye)!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Gel Together in Xi'an

Hello again! I’m back with updates about our latest adventure in Xi’an. (pronounced “She-ahn”) We kept it short and sweet with this city, which is probably a good thing given that in the winter it is extremely cold and dry. Xi’an is the site of the ancient Chinese capital called “Chang’an” and thus is home to many extremely old and important pieces of Chinese history. It has established itself as a popular tourist destination mainly because of the terra cotta warriors, but it also has numerous tombs and is itself a sort of antique. The city is not very big (compared to Beijing and Shanghai) but is fairly developed and clean. Every now and then the more fun and local mannerisms come out because it wasn’t prepped and polished quite as completely as the other big tourist cities before the Olympics. The old city wall, built during the Ming dynasty, still stands surrounding the center part of town, but Xi’an has since overflowed these walls and developed far beyond them. Still though, the wall is kept as a tourist attraction and offers scenic strolls and tandem bike rides along its broad “Great Wall style” walkway. At the center of the walled city is the old bell tower, and slightly offset is the drum tower, both built with traditional Chinese wooden architecture and used in ancient times to tell time or to give warning signals. Because of the cold weather and short amount of time, we didn’t get to go up on the city wall, but our hostel was very close to its beautiful south gate so we saw it pretty often.

We stayed at a place called Ancient Street hostel, which is very close to the south gate and Calligraphy Street and about a 10 to 15 minute walk into the center of town. When we first got there I was feeling a bit suspicious and defensive because of our last hostel experience, but the staff there was so sweet and accommodating that I kind of felt bad afterwards. The room was a bit chilly and only had one large bed, but it was much larger than our last few rooms and had a functional bathroom and lots of large blankets so we were pretty happy with it. After checking in and dropping our stuff, we walked down to the drum tower and then explored the Muslim street. Xi’an is home to a group of the Chinese Muslim minorities and the Muslim street is the center of their area, where most of the restaurants and other vendors are owned by and/or cater to them. They have very distinctive types of street food, including red bean and sesame sticky rice, spiced meat kabobs, and lots of sweet, dried fruit. After browsing a bit, we stopped for dinner and tried their most popular soup dish, which has shredded pieces of condensed bread, some green veggies, and beef in beef broth.
The next morning we woke up and met up with a tour we had signed up for the night before. Our tour guide was not quite as exciting as Eric, but her English was pretty good and she smiled a lot. She always seemed to be in a rush, though, which was kind of annoying. There were nine people on our tour: two from Ireland, two from Germany, two from Canada, and one from Texas. Carly tried her best to befriend the Germans in hopes of scoring a place to stay when she travels in Europe this summer. It didn’t quite work out, but they were very friendly and they gave her some good tips about where to go.
Our first stop was the Banpo Museum, which was the first “on site” museum in Xi’an. I had never heard of it before, but it was actually really cool. The Banpo people were the inhabitants of this area around 6000 years ago. They lived in a matriarchal society and the museum shows the excavated areas where they lived, fired pottery, and buried their dead. They had uncovered a few graves, where you can see the skeletons of the people and also the pots they were buried with. Since males were so inferior to females, they were buried separately. One grave showed a group of four females buried together. I guess it’s the ultimate form of the “going to the bathroom in groups” phenomenon. From the different burial patterns it is thought that the people were buried either facing upwards if they were “good,” downwards if they were “bad” and sideways if they were killed by an animal or in a fight. Each person is buried with a pot for water and a pot for food.

The pots were very well formed, probably made from coiled clay and then fired. It’s pretty crazy to think that people were living in such organized societies 6000 years ago, with the technology to fire pottery. Carly and I were wondering what people would think of our societies if they found remains in 6000 years. Maybe we should start burying people with computers and stuff so they’ll have something to go off of.
After that we were taken to a large, government sponsored store where they make fake terra cotta soldiers in the “same way” they were made 2200 years ago and try to sell them to you. I guess they didn’t figure out that you’re supposed to put the gift shop at the end of the tourist site.
Our lunch was pretty mediocre, but still a Chinese family style feast. According to proper form, we all filled our bowls and began shoveling food into our faces as fast as possible. As this was going on, a man from the large table of Chinese tourists next to us stood up, completely flabbergasted, and shouted as loud as possible while pointing to Carly: “OHH!?? THE FOREIGNER CAN USE CHOPSTICKS!!!!!” Slightly embarrassed, I tried to explain to him that in America, a lot of people can use chopsticks. He was still unable to hold back his excitement and continued to make all of the people at his table stand up and take a look at how she was using her chopsticks “just like a Chinese person!” Sigh. I guess we taught her well at least.

Finally, we arrived at the site of the terra cotta warriors. The warriors were made about 2200 years ago as a supplement to the tomb of the emperor of the first unified Chinese dynasty: the Qin. There is a full army of them, including generals, cavalry men, infantry men, standing archers, kneeling archers, horses, carriages, etc. They are all life size, made of clay, and were once intricately carved and painted such that each one has a unique face. They were placed in battle formation into underground corridors that had brick floors and wooden panel siding. The corridors were then covered with strong wooden beams, a thick layer of woven mats, and then soil. The soldiers are buried a few kilometers away from the mound that houses the emperor’s tomb. The ancient belief was that the dead person could take what was buried with him to the next world. I guess that emperor anticipated a lot of armed conflict. I sure hope he was wrong. Anyway, there is no written record of any of this happening, which seems odd because it clearly took a lot of people and a lot of time to make hundreds of soldiers. The rumor is that all the artists and people who knew about it were killed when it was completed. So then in 1970, some farmers were digging a well to set up an irrigation system for their crops and came across some angry looking life-size clay people. Unfortunately, most of the soldiers were broken into little pieces, possibly because of tomb raiders shortly after the emperor’s death. Archeologists came, studied the area and reassembled many of them, but there are still many that are not yet uncovered. The emperor’s tomb (which we visited after the soldiers) has also not been uncovered or opened. The hope is that soon we will have technology that will allow us to excavate ancient sites like this and not expose them to oxygen, which damages them. Our tour guide said to come back in 15 years and that should be good.
The soldiers are still mostly standing in their rows in the uncovered corridors, which are covered now by large tent-like buildings and surrounded by walkways so that you can look down and see them. The size of the largest group is about the same as two football fields.
It’s pretty insane to see, but probably more impressive to know the story and how old they are. Only one of the farmers who found the site is still alive, but he is thought to have very good luck, so he now sits in the museum all day and will shake your hand or sign a book for you if you’d like to have good luck too. We shook his hand, but are skeptical because we still haven’t won the lottery on the Chinese receipts.

After the soldiers, we visited the emperor’s tomb, which pretty much just looks like a large hill now, although apparently when it was built it was a trapezoid. The story is that the emperor had automatic weapons buried in the ground around his tomb, so that if any tomb raiders tried to dig in the area with shovels they would be shot. This made the tomb raiders believe that it was guarded by evil spirits and so supposedly it remains intact. I guess we’ll have to wait 15 years to find out. At the very least we know that emperor had some serious issues with paranoia.
Since the New Year was so close most of the stores and restaurants were closed when we got back. We did, however, find a nice Pizza Hut and Starbucks to get our Western food cravings satisfied. I am ashamed to say that this is my second Pizza Hut adventure in Asia. On the bright side, you can’t get beef and kimchi pizza at Pizza Hut in the States. Later on, we checked out the bar whose music blasted very clearly into our room and listened to a live Chinese rock band. We had noticed the bar before and thought that it was called “Gel Together Club.” We thought this was very clever and were impressed by the club owners’ command of the English language until we realized from the business card that it’s actually called “Get together club” … or maybe “Get Together Elub”... Either way it was disappointing.
This morning we got up and made our way back to the airport to fly to Shanghai. It’s Chinese New Year’s Eve, which is the beginning of the most important holiday here so almost everything is closed, but firecrackers and fireworks are popping, crackling, and lighting up the sky. We have five days to explore Shanghai and then we’re off to Japan. More updates to come.
Xin Nian Kuai Le!!! (Happy New Year!!!) 新年快樂!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I love Beijing more than ever

I bought a T shirt from the Great Wall that says: “I *heart* Beijing” and then below that: “I love Beijing more than ever!” I thought it was pretty funny at the time, but ever since then I’ve realized that it very appropriately sums up my feelings over the past few days. I do love Hong Kong, but I think that Beijing will always be my Chinese home.

Our hotel in Beijing is called Joy Inn and it did, indeed, bring us much joy after our Hong Kong hostel adventure. After excitedly checking out the real, glass walled shower and flushing toilet, we headed out to the school where I studied abroad in fall of 2007 and went to my favorite restaurant (dong bei yi er san) for some delicious egg plant, chicken, and veggie dishes. The road outside had been completely fixed up and redone, and some of my favorite hole-in-the-wall, street food places were gone, but it looked much cleaner. After that we hit up my favorite shopping destination – the Silk Street market – for some bargaining practice. Carly and Tara loved the jewelry floor so we spent most of our time there picking up pretty beaded necklaces. Later that night I took them to our old weekend night scene area called San Li Tun and showed them some of my favorite bars like Bar Blu and Smugglers. It was pretty crazy to be back, and so nice to feel comfortable and know where to go and what to expect. Everything seems much cleaner and more organized since the Olympics, but luckily the people are still so sweet and fun and not hardened big city style. You can make friends with almost anyone you start a conversation with and people are very rarely creepy or aggressive.
The next day we jumped on the subway and headed into the heart of town to see Tiananmen Square. It had snowed the day before, so we were pretty bundled up and still freezing. As we walked through the square, I explained what I knew about the Tiananmen Square incident, and some other things about China. We saw a couple walking near us holding a very chubby baby, bundled with so many clothes that its whole body was literally a sphere. As I started saying how some parents don’t put diapers on their babies, but dress them in pants with large slits down the butt instead, we noticed that two very pink butt cheeks were quickly approaching us. The parents of the spherical child came up timidly and asked if we could take a picture. I reached for the camera, ready to take a nice family photo for them, but instead received the large baby. Carly, Tara and I were arranged in a line with the baby, and stood there (rather confused) as the father took tons of pictures and the mother chirped happily at the baby to look at the camera. Someday that poor child will wonder why he has 50 pictures of himself with three random foreign girls. Luckily we got our own copy of the photo, so at least we can appreciate it.

After Tiananmen, we went over to the Forbidden City, which was home to the emperors of the last two dynasties (Ming and Qing). It’s a huge complex with all sorts of beautiful Chinese wooden architecture. Unfortunately, the fact that it seems to go on forever is not as awe-inspiring when it’s below freezing outside, and we spent most of the last half hour on a search for the legendary Starbucks that had been so protested against. We didn’t find it, but we did find some awesome hot chocolate. For dinner we met up with my friend Sammy who worked at the gym I used to go to, and his new wife. They took us to an amazing Beijing duck feast. It was really fun to see them, and (as always) the duck was to die for. Sammy went to intense Chinese athletic school since elementary school and ended up being the national wrestling champion multiple years in a row. It’s crazy how different the school systems are here.

On the third day we had signed up for a tour of some Ming dynasty tombs and the Great Wall. We were picked up by a small bus with an English-speaking tour guide named Eric (Yuan Ming) and an Argentinian couple. Eric was extremely enthusiastic and explained China’s whole history to us on the way to the Ming tombs. He was also pretty excited that I could speak Chinese, and called me Mei Mei (which means little sister) and announced to every Chinese person we encountered that my father is Chinese and I am mixed blood. He spoke a lot of Chinese to me, telling me his views about Google and Obama and Americans in general, which made the Argentinians kind of frustrated. At the Ming tombs, we were looking at the jade that had been excavated and Eric tried to explain about how jade bracelets were passed down as Heirlooms by taking Tara’s hand and saying: “The mother-in-law will take the daughter- in-law’s hand like this.. and then say ‘SOON!.... I will be died.’ And then she will move the bracelet over to the daughter.” - after which he dramatically acted out his death and almost completely fell over a banister.
After the Ming Tombs we went to a jade factory, where we watched the whole process of carving jade and then were shown a huge store with every jade thing imaginable (very strategically place gift shop..). Finally, after a very nice lunch, we got to the Ba Da Ling section of the Great Wall. Eric talked us into taking the Gondolas up since it was so icy and cold. The sky was kind of cloudy, so you couldn’t see as far as you usually can, but it was very pretty to see it in the snow. The Great Wall is really shockingly impressive no matter how you see it.

After that we headed back into town and made a last stop at a silk factory. They showed us the whole cycle of silk production in great detail, from the bugs, to the worms, to the cocoons, to the silk threads. What a surprise! - that tour ended in a large store also. It was really cool to see, though. Each worm creates a silk thread that’s about one kilometer long, and then it must be killed inside the cocoon in order to preserve the thread with no breaks. Each silk garment takes thousands and thousands of threads. Next time you wear silk, think about how many worms died for you. Poor worms.

We had Eric drop us off at the Lao Shi Cha Guan (Lao Shi Tea House) where we drank tea and watched short performances of Beijing Opera, Sound imitation, Chinese Comedy, Martial Arts, and some other fun Chinese-style stunts.

Afterwards, we walked down the new Front Gate Ancient Street, which is supposed to be modeled on a traditional-style Beijing street, but looks a lot more like a Chinese-style modern shopping street. Most of the stores were closed already, though, so it was pretty quiet and relaxing.
On the fourth day, we started out at my favorite Western-style breakfast place. It seems silly, but it was comfort food for when I missed home in China and therefore worth revisiting. This place is called Grandma’s Kitchen and has amazing skillets. It also happens to be very close to where I lived in the summer of 2008, so I took Carly and Tara over to see one of the most interesting Beijing sites I’ve discovered: Walmart. Walmart in China is hilariously different from America, with cases of Chinese buns, men hacking meat with cleavers, hanging dried fish and roasted ducks, live turtles for sale to be cooked, and so much more. That particular Walmart is 4 stories of that sort of magic. They may be the Evil Empire, but at least we know they’re good at regionalizing. After Walmart we headed over to my old apartment building to visit the couple who work in the little store on the first floor. They have a beautiful fluffy dog named Hei Mei (Black Beauty). They remembered me and gave me two bottles of water and let us play with Hei Mei for a while. They’re so sweet. I’m really glad I got to see them again.
Next we went to the Summer Palace, which is also much harder to get through in the freezing cold even though it is very beautiful. It covers a large hill and a lake with beautiful architecture and pretty little bridges and long covered walkways. The whole lake was frozen over and people had jumped the fences to go walk on it. The site itself is amazing, but we apparently added bonus scenery because hordes of school children swarmed Carly, eager to see the foreigner and practice their English: “Hello! What is your name? Goodbye!”

That night we went to probably my (real) favorite undiscovered attraction in Beijing – a Tibetan Restaurant near the Silk Market that Sammy showed me. It has delicious authentic food, warm and inviting Tibetan décor, and best of all, a free Tibetan song and dance show every night around 8. The Tibetan boys who were singing made us all get up and do the last dance with them around the restaurant and left us giggling like school girls. Carly claimed a very dashing Tibetan singer with a cool faux-hawk as her next boyfriend. I think the feeling was mutual and he probably would have come back to America with us, except we decided he wouldn’t be as cute if he didn’t keep his Tibetan garb on all the time. It’s amazing that they do the same thing every night - they always seem to enjoy it so much. It’s nice to see a performance that feels like it’s more about sharing culture than making money.

After dinner we went to meet up with my roommate from study abroad, Wendy. She’s been studying Chinese in Beijing at a university for a year now. We met her and two of her friends at a little bar in Hou Hai, which is a bar and restaurant district around a beautiful man-made lake. It was really fun to see her and catch up.
The next morning, our beloved Tara left us for home. She will be dearly missed. Carly and I slept in that morning, and then headed over to see the last big Beijing site: the Temple of Heaven. It was very cold, but we got some good pictures. While we were there, a Chinese man came up to Carly and did some very odd sign language. I thought at first that he might not be able to hear, so I wasn’t sure whether or not I should try to speak Chinese to him. After far too many minutes of this going on, however, we established that he could speak Chinese and just wanted to have a picture taken with her. I have no idea what message he thought he was getting across before. Carly will now be in the long-term memories and photo albums of many Chinese tourists.

Next we headed over to 798, which is the art district, and met up with Wendy and my friend from home, Alisa. Alisa is teaching English in Kunming, but happened to be visiting and overlap with our time in Beijing. Most of the galleries and museums were closed already for the holidays (Chinese New Year), but Alisa came along with us to check out the Silk Market again and have dinner. The Silk Market was kind of crowded and stressful, but we got in our last-minute cheap souvenir shopping and then went to one of my favorite restaurants – Bellagio. Bellagio is kind of a stylish Chinese restaurant, with most of the normal dishes, but presented much more artistically. All of the waitresses are forced to have extremely short, boy haircuts. What makes it my favorite, though, is that it boasts a huge, separate dessert menu, with something called the “Mango Supreme.” This amazing concoction is composed of a scoop of coconut ice cream, a scoop of mango ice cream, some mango pudding, and mango chunks, all swimming in mango shaved ice. I dream about that dessert. It’s unreal. The food was good, and so was the company. It was really nice to catch up with Alisa. We grew up spending our breaks together, but sadly I haven’t seen her much for the last few years. She said she’s biking down to Vietnam with some friends after she leaves Beijing. Awesome. I’m jealous.

Well that just about brings us up to date! We’re actually in Xi’an now. I’ve been running a bit behind on these but it’s harder now that blogger’s blocked in China. Facebook, too. Blast. Hope there are still people reading! Haha. Anyway, we’ll only be in Xi’an for two days so the next one will for sure be shorter. Talk soon!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hong Kong: Misty Memories, Short Tempers

I always love going to Hong Kong. I may not have many memories of living there but it still feels like home in a way. Tara and I arrived late at night on the 2nd and made our way to Kowloon and then got a cab to our guest house. The place I booked was on the main tourist/shopping street in Kowloon called Nathan Road and was pretty cheap so we weren’t sure what to expect. We were dropped off in front of a big building with a bunch of little stores selling knock off watches and purses and no sign of any type of accommodation. After asking a few people directions, we were directed inside, towards an old group of elevators and told to go to the 12th floor. At the front office for the Cosmic Guest House, we were asked to pay in full for all four nights and then taken to a room. They told us that we would have to move after the first night because our other room was not yet vacated, but that they’d put us in a nicer room for the first night. The room they took us to was the size of a large closet, with three small cots packed in, and a one square meter shower, and one square meter toilet/sink room. We decided that it was a bit small, but very clean and pretty safe feeling, and the crazy jet/rain shower made up for it.
The next morning, we went across the street to have our first dim sum. I asked the front desk for a recommendation and they told me there was a superstar dim sum restaurant across the street. I was pretty excited because I figured this must mean the food was amazing, but when we walked over I realized that the place is actually called “Superstar Restaurant.” Luckily, it lived up to its name, and we feasted on dumplings and buns for as long as our stomachs could handle. When we got back, they had us switch rooms to an interior (no window) one that was a tad bit larger, except it only had one square meter bathroom area where there was a dinky little shower head connected to a hot water box on the wall behind the toilet: definitely the definition of a one-butt bathroom.

We moved just in time for Carly’s arrival and went down to meet her on the street. She was quite the trooper and was ready to go out and explore even though she had just gotten off a long flight from South Africa. After grabbing a quick lunch for her, we walked down towards the water on the Kowloon side, passing the famous Peninsula Hotel, and down the Avenue of the Stars. Unfortunately there was a thick fog covering the whole city, so you could see the first few rows of buildings on Hong Kong Island but none of the hills behind. Later we had some quick noodles for dinner and then met up with my friend Mamta, who was also a Computer Science student at WashU and just graduated in December in the same program as me. She took us to a delicious mango dessert place in the mall across the street from our hotel and then to the Mong Kok market, which sells fun, cheap little trinkets in a long, outdoor stretch of stalls. It was really nice to be with someone who knew the area well and it was fun to see her.
That night we decided to check out the night life in Kowloon and went to Knucsford Terrace to a place called Bahama Mama that had been recommended by the guide book and my friend Simon. It was fun, but kind of quiet since it was a Wednesday, so we decided to walk around and see what else there was. Carly spotted a sign that said it was Ladies night at a club called “Bubbles” so we went up to take a look. Turns out it was the hotspot for the night and we were given free Bubbles planners and free drinks by the owner who was pretty amused by his only non-Chinese patrons and wanted to practice his English. We got back to find that, although we had complained earlier, our toilet was still broken and would not flush. A hotel staff member told us it couldn’t be fixed that night and we couldn’t move rooms until after 11 the next day, so we should use the shower head to fill up the tank and then fill a bucket with water to pour in the bowl to flush it.
The next morning, we happily found that our toilet was working again. Apparently they had been working on the toilet pipes for the whole section of our building, and had just left them not hooked up over night. We got up and found it was another cloudy day, so we decided to save the Peak for the last day and go to Lantau Island instead. We took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong and then jumped on the fast ferry over to Lantau. When we got there, we hired a cab to drive us through the twisty hill roads to the Big Buddha. The Big Buddha pretty much fits his description. He is a very large bronze Buddha statue that sits high up on a hill overlooking a monastery, the largest seated bronze Buddha in the world, in fact. We climbed up the 260-stair pathway leading to him and circumambulated a few times. Then we went down and walked through the monastery, enjoying the smell of the incense and the singing voices of the monks. After that there wasn’t much to do except get gelato and go home. It was nice to see though, very pleasant and peaceful.

For dinner we went back to the mall across the street and went to a Japanese place that made pizzas that had rice as the crust. It was pretty good and we decided to start a chain in America when we get back. Back in our room, we turned on our air conditioning and it started making loud noises and spitting water everywhere. It had also leaked a whole puddle of water all over my bed, and our stuff on the bedside table. I called the front desk, and the lady came down, took it apart, wiped off the table with a rag, frowned at it for a while, and told us that she didn’t know what to do and she’d fix it tomorrow. I asked her to get me dry sheets and she said she’d rather not because she would have to get them from upstairs, but that I should put them under the fan and then they would dry. We were feeling tired that night, so we went back over to the mall and saw Avatar in 3D because Carly and Tara hadn’t seen it yet. It’s an amazing movie even with Chinese subtitles. If you haven’t seen it yet you definitely should.

We had decided that we’d spend our last day exploring Hong Kong Island. Much to our dismay, there was still a fat cloud squatting over the whole city. We took the Star Ferry over again and then got an angry cab driver to take us to Central where we found the famous Luk Yu Tea House and had dim sum. Unfortunately the waiter (who was also very angry… bad day for Hong Kongers, I guess) told us that EVERYTHING HAS PORK! So we found a nice little vegetarian café afterwards for Carly. The man who worked there was in a much better mood and said he had lived in San Francisco for a while. His whole place was decorated with vintage American signs, clothes and toys, and apparently it’s a member’s-only restaurant, but he made an exception since we were only visiting.
After lunch, we made our way over to the Peak Tram, and went up to the Peak.

The Peak Tram is an old cable tram system that goes almost vertically up Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island. The peak is supposed to have the most spectacular view of the city, harbor, and Kowloon all together. We could vaguely see the harbor once we were at the top, but everything was coated in white mist and not very clear… so we got gelato. On our way down, we got off at the Kennedy Road stop, and after confusing a lot of people and resorting to our trusty iPhones for directions, we found the place where I used to live - #1 Monmouth Terrace. I explained to the man at the gate that I was born here, and used to live in apartment 20A and got just about the exact reaction I expected: a completely blank stare and a “so… what?” He told me that no agents had come that day, and that I’d have to come back with an agent to see an apartment. Oh well... it was fun to see the outside at least. From there we made our way back... to the trusty mall again… for some pho dinner and mango dessert. Since our flight was early this morning, we stayed in and rested a bit.

At about 10 pm, the fire alarm went off, which thoroughly freaked us out. We jumped out of bed, got dressed and got our bags and were about to quickly head out when a little security man came down with a Cosmic staff lady and started yelling at us to “not smoke in the room!” We had clearly not been smoking in the room – it was so tiny and boxed in that it would have been pretty obvious if we had. This accusation was the last straw and made me pretty angry. I started yelling back that we weren’t smoking and that they were being irresponsible and should check the other rooms because there could still be a fire. They walked down the hall, looked at each of the doors without opening them, came back, and told me that it was probably someone’s shower making too much steam and to forget about it. This is about the time that I decided that I do not like the Cosmic Guest House. I wish I was a Lonely Planet writer and I could go up tell them they were thrown out of our book for bad behavior. Unfortunately, I had already paid in full, so my yelling really came to nothing.
I guess since I’m more familiar with Hong Kong I didn’t really describe much about it, so for those of you who have never been there, here are the things I can think of that might be interesting. All the cabs are red and kind of old fashioned, boxy cars. The cab drivers are much angrier than anywhere else I’ve been, I think. It seems like even since last time I was there less people speak English and more people speak Mandarin (the local language is Cantonese). I guess that makes sense since its part of China now and not a British colony any more. It’s a very beautiful and cosmopolitan city with people of all sorts of ethnicities everywhere. It’s mostly made up of Hong Kong island, which has the downtown area as well as some beautiful rolling, green hills. The buildings line the beautiful turquoise harbor and the mountains make a crazy contrasting backdrop. On the other side of the harbor is Kowloon on a peninsula. Kowloon is also highly populated and has a lot of shopping and hotels. What a city. Love it.
Anyway - Sorry I’m running behind on these. We’re now been in Beijing for a day and have already had some interesting adventures… but I’ll save those for the next entry.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Balinese Dance vs. Javanese Dance

Here are the videos I took during both of the Indonesian dances I went to. I also just posted a blog entry below!!

Yogyakarta. Your face is like from Indiaaaa

I think that Yogyakarta is in its awkward teenage phase of development. You can see traces of Javanese culture, and countryside or small town mannerisms, but it’s also packed with people, buildings, cars, bikes and a bit of city grime that makes it rough around the edges to say the least. I think that it takes a few days to get used to, especially after experiencing the openness and innocence of Bali. Luckily we were there just long enough to grow fond of it despite the intense stares and “Hallooo lady! Yes! You have boyfriend?” calls we frequently heard.

Everything in Yogya (Pronounced Jogja) is much cheaper than in Bali. The exchange rate is about 9000 rupiah to the dollar, which makes you a millionaire if you have a little over 100 US dollars. When we booked our internal flights in Indonesia, we cringed as the automatic voice announced in a very Dr. Evil way that our tickets cost “one…… MILLION … four… hundred… rupiah.” It makes it very hard to tip people, because you feel generous giving someone 5000 rupiah… but then remember it’s only about 50 cents.

We arrived around noon on the 30th and asked our cab driver to take us to Losmen Setia Kawan in the Sosrowijayan area, and luckily he understood us despite our horrible pronunciation. The way you actually say “sosrowijayan” is really amazing. They force it into something that sounds like a two or three syllable word but still uses all the letters. This is the one hostel that I couldn’t figure out how to book online, so I had called from Skype and talked to a man on the phone who could barely understand me. Not only did he say my name very strangely, but I was unsure about whether or not he understood what day we were arriving on, and he didn’t ask me for any spellings or contact information. We decided we’d just cross our fingers, show up, and hope that he had written something down. When our cab stopped, there was a very excited little man waiting at the mouth of a narrow alleyway, who asked if we were staying at Setia Kawan. He led us down the long narrow alley, past little Laundry places and Batik shops to the hostel. Impressively enough, they did actually have a record that “Amoe” was coming today. We decided to live it up a little and upgraded to a room with AC AND hot water for about 25 dollars a night.

The part we stayed in is the newly built extension of an older hostel. Even though it is crammed in a tiny space in a tiny alley, it’s very peaceful and pleasant. It has a center courtyard with plants, flowers, a large fan palm, and a fake rock wall that has a fountain on it. Facing in towards the courtyard are all the rooms, which are each hand painted with crazy, colorful hippie looking pictures of large hands, faces, moons, suns etc. Our room was very clean and new looking. It did seem, however, that they had left out a few important things in order to accommodate their artistic touches. The only pieces of furniture in the room were the two beds, each with a very thin shawl like blanket on it to serve as the only form of covering. I also feel as though I’ve always taken nightstands for granted. Not having one turned out to be much more inconvenient than I ever would have thought. The bathroom had a very stylish bowl sink and pretty tiles, but there was literally nothing in the whole room to hang anything on. This makes hand washing clothes especially hard. They had also put in three, very pretty and modern light fixtures on the ceilings. They were the kinds that you see in restaurants for “mood lighting” or maybe in rows in houses for more dramatic point lighting. Tara and I would probably have preferred to be able to see at night to having roman tic lighting, though, so they were kind of wasted on us. All in all it was very clean and pretty, even featuring a very nice umbrella displayed in the corner painted with lizards.

The day we arrived, we set up a tour to see the famous sights (Prambanan and Borobudur) the next day, and decided to take a stroll to see what the city was all about. There are not many sidewalks around, so after dodging a few motorbikes and large busses, we got to the end of our street and found the entrance to a market. The market was jam packed with locals, and after an hour or so, we were feeling very overwhelmed by the shoving, yelling, and creepy noises that men were making at us even though we were wearing jeans and big T shirts. It is in times like these that it’s very comforting to run into something familiar, which is maybe a good excuse we can use for heading straight into a Pizza Hut for dinner. Sometimes it’s worth indulging in over-priced American food.

The next day, our tour left at 5 am, so we had to get up and ready at some ridiculous hour of the night. A driver picked us up, along with a couple from Canada. By six we were at Borobudur, which is a stunning Hindu turned Buddhist temple/monument from around the 9th century AD. It was rediscovered by Raffles when he was doing his whole SE Asia/British rule gig. Since then they’ve restored it really nicely. It’s made up of multiple levels of stone bas reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu stories and sitting Buddha sculptures that lead up to a large stupa at the very top. After that, we checked out a smaller temple, and then Prambanan. Prambanan is a site also from around the 9th century with multiple Hindu temple structures, each dedicated to a different manifestation of God. They were tall, stone, somewhat circular structures that came to a point at the top, much like many of the temples I saw earlier at Angkor. They were very impressive, but definitely a bit less intricately carved and carefully designed than the ones at Angkor. There was also a Buddhist temple structure nearby and a random park with pretty, spotted deer roaming around in it. It was nice to see how much these structures are still valued and taken care of despite the fact that Indonesia is now predominantly Muslim.

We were very hot and wiped out after that so we took a long nap and then had a delicious Indonesian dinner of eggplant curry and spiced chicken. Taking advantage of our second wind, we decided to go to a Javanese dance performance of the Ramayana. It was very classy and well done, with very talented dancers and tasteful costumes. Javanese dance is very different from the dance we saw in Bali. It was much slower and smoother and easier to follow the story (I guess it’s unfair because we already knew the story too).

The next day we hired a little pedi cab to take us to Kraton, the old part of the city. The pedi cabs are very interesting in Jogja. Instead of having a bike with a seat area trailing behind, the seat area is in the front, right above the front wheel. The driver sits on a high bike seat so that he can just see over your head and pedals in an almost standing posture. This is a little unnerving, given the traffic patterns there, and seeing as how you would be the padding for your driver if he were to be hit by something. Our driver was very nice though, and distracted us by talking the whole time in English that we mostly couldn’t understand. We did catch words here and then like “blah blah blah... swimming pool!... blah blah..kraton.. blah.. palace!” We mostly smiled and nodded and hoped that we wouldn’t get slammed by a huge bus of Japanese tourists. First we checked out the palace, where the current sultan lives. An English speaking guide took us around, showing us the little museums and pictures of the sultan, where they have big parties, and where he keeps his wine for guests. Since we were asking about the royal Batik, she took us back into a private area where women were making it by hand. They were really sweet and showed us how it was done and how to tie it on as a sarong. It was right next to the sultan’s garage, which housed his daughter’s tricked out Celica. After that, we went to the Sultan’s swimming pool. Apparently the current sultan is number 10 and the pool was deserted after sultan number 3. They recently restored it for tourism. It was built by sultan number 1 as a little escape for him, his wives, and his children. It consisted of three swimming pools: one private one for him, one for his wives, and one for his daughters. I guess his sons also had one but it was further off and has since been destroyed. The sultan’s private pool was separated from the others by a three storey building. Apparently back in the day, the sultan sometimes had around 40 wives. He would go up to the third storey, watch his wives swim for a while, and then pick one to come join him in his private pool. Sounds like kind of a creepster to me. As you can guess, the sultans have had many children through the years, and the ones that are not set up to be the next sultan are, at some point, ejected into society. Our guide at the palace told us she was descended from the third sultan. It sounds like many people in Jogja are descended from some sultan, or from some palace worker. Unfortunately, descendants beyond the grandchildren of the current sultan are not considered part of the royal family.

Everywhere we went, people were confused about our nationality. They’d say “Where you from??” and we’d say “America” and then they would chuckle and give us a “yeah right” look followed by the declaration that my face “is like from Japan” and Tara’s “is like from India!” She got it a lot more though, with random people stopping her on the street, staring intensely, and then saying “Your FACE!... is like from INDIAAAAA.” She also got a few people thinking she looked Javanese which was cool. By the time we left, most of the men who sat along our alley chatting and lounging in the shade knew us and would make fun of us for walking back and forth so much. We’d leave our hostel to a chorus of “Hallooooo!!!s and every now and then an “Amoeee!” with enthusiastic waves. We learned to walk through quickly to avoid getting taught how batik is made for the 40th time. We also discovered these really yummy cookie pastries stuffed with pineapple paste at a nearby store. After a few tries with the crusty, fake Tim Tam cookies they sold next door, we defaulted to the pineapple cookies as a sugar source.

Today is a whole, long day of travel for us. We had to wake up at 4 am to make a 6 am flight to Jakarta, followed by a flight to Singapore, where we’re now waiting for 5 hours for our final flight to Hong Kong. Our flight to Singapore was packed with hordes of small school children, all dressed the same and making loud noises. They all screeched when the plane landed, which was kind of startling.

I will definitely miss Indonesia. I’m glad we got to see two very different parts of it. There is still so much to see – hopefully someday I can dedicate like a month to visiting all the islands. I’m not gonna lie though, I’m ridiculously excited for Hong Kong and Beijing. The next two weeks should be a blast.

Sorry this is so long again, but I figure if anyone is still reading at this point then they must be used to it . As always, comments make me happy and so do update emails. Later gaters.