Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wandering around Chengdu

A young blond woman approached me in the backpackers bar. "Do you have iTunes on your laptop? I'm desperate for movies. I can't get on a train or bus without them!"

I resisted the urge to point her to the lodge's huge shelf of free books. Anyway, who am I to question how people spend their time? I'm probably just jealous because I wish I had free time instead of always having to either work, write, or blog when I get a moment.

I suggested she try the teenagers at the front desk. Chinese teenagers are no different from any teenagers anywhere. They have movies on their iPods, their computers, and their flash drives and copyright didn't seem to phase them. They set her up.

Chinese teens were really impressing me. Not because they are better or worse than other teens, but because they were the same. I wondered about the ridiculous censorship in China, and the role of the USA, the hackers, and Google, if there even was one. I'd met a 27-year-old Chinese backpacker in Chiang Mai whose perfect American accent fooled even me—I'd assumed he was from the US West Coast but he'd been from Shanghai and had an American teacher—and he'd laughed when I told him that people in the US were worried about China.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Blip in the Plan

"What do you mean there aren't any train tickets to Tibet for the entire first half of August?"

"There are seats."

"But no sleepers?"

The young travel agent at the hostel in Chengdu, China sadly shook her head.

"You can buy two seats together," she offered.

I thought back to the seats on last night's train from Kunming to Chengdu. Two of those wouldn't do much for me. I'd need three and I'd still be curled up like a cat for the two nights of the 44-hour journey.

"How much per seat?"


So that would be 1,500 yuan, or $235 US, plus food, and the pleasure of experiencing charming toilets, no doubt.

The Route

I made a map of my route. You can click to go to the big one.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Kunming to Chengdu

I reeled from the smell of leftover stale tobacco in room 404 at Kunming's Camellia Hotel. I quickly opened the window for air, and was surprised to see a group of 20-something Chinese workers being drilled in a morning exercise routine. They were giggling and awkward.

I showered and soaked all my sleeper bus clothes.

Delightful. I was so glad I hadn't gone for the sleeper train today. How bad could a seat be? At least it was tomorrow.

I was spaced out from the night on the bus, so I didn't get out of my room until after two, when hunger sent me out prowling for sustenance. I had the hotel map, which showed a mall, an ATM, and a Walmart nearby.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Take That. And That.

I managed to get my IP address to look like this (more or less) from Kunming, so that I could get online in China without being blocked from social networking sites, news sites, and my work servers.

This doesn't work from internet cafes. Only from your own computer. And I sometimes had to combine a web proxy with a VPN. Other times using just one was fine. My work email wouldn't send at all with a VPN or web proxy on, so I was doing quite a complicated e-dance overall.

Dear censors and esteemed policy-makers of the PRC:

Give it a rest. Your people deserve better than you protecting them from Twitter.


Arriving in Kunming

The bus jerked to a halt at three in the morning. The sudden lack of motion woke me up, and I peeked out of my berth to see people shuffling off the bus and into a concrete toilet block.

I joined them, carrying my shoes to the bottom of the bus steps, slipping them on, and following the females to the squat toilets, through the door adorned with the icon of a skirted person.

Chain-smoking men squatted near the bus, desperately inhaling their only cigarette of the night. Smoking had certainly changed in China in the last decade. No one is allowed to smoke on sleeper buses now, or at least not this sleeper bus. Last time I was here people had smoked anywhere and often.

I removed my shoes at the bus door and carried them back to my bunk, slipping them under. The Irish guy had finally woken up and gone in to the facilities, but the Korean traveler was still asleep. I folded myself back up under the Snoopy comforter—the berth wasn't quite long enough for me—and went back to sleep.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sleeping On Board

Here's the sleeper bus bound for Kunming from the border town of Mohan.

Looks surprisingly pleasant, doesn't it? Or at least new and safe. And here I'd imagined myself sleeping on the disco smoking bad-action-movie bus.

The man with the dark-green shirt and the wheelie bag is a Korean tourist. Next to him, the guy with the red-and-black backpack is an Irish architecture student who is interning in a city close to Shanghai. Bonus: He speaks Chinese.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Whisked Across Laos

I checked and double-checked my web-access back-up plans for China. I was up early in Huay Xai, the Laotian border town I'm made it to yesterday from Thailand, borrowing a random open signal that was near the Kaup Jai guesthouse. The typical travel route from here is to proceed on to Pak Beng and then Luang Prabang, Laos—which I'd done in the year 2000—but I was taking a bus to China this morning.

China doesn't like Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, or, as it turned out, the various servers I needed to get onto to do my paying jobs. I'm pretty well-schooled in circumventing IT systems, having lived and worked in the Middle East, but those are small fry compared to China. You can use the best-known web proxies in the Gulf and wham, you're online.

Those don't work in China.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Parting Shot - Thailand

Leaving Thailand

I was leaving Thailand on the day my renewed visa expired.

There was just enough time in the morning to pack, eat one last breakfast at Nice Kitchen, and drop off my fourth pair of shoes for a woman named Julia that Toby and I had met last night. She'd approached him in a coffee shop because he was studying a book on Chinese vocabulary. She'd just returned from teaching English in China.

And she had foreign-sized feet, just like me.

I enjoyed offering a new pair of shoes to a stranger.

The full shuttle van to the Laos border picked me up last, a little bit late. We headed north.

Our toilet stop was at Chiang Rai at the White Temple, which I'd just gone out of my way to see. No matter—the White Temple bears repeating.

I wandered in again, and noticed two more characters in the mural that I'd missed the first time around. Darth Vader and the Incredible Hulk adorned the wall at the back of the temple.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Trip to the Golden Triangle

I'm not much of a pray-er, but after visiting the White Temple near Chiang Rai, I issued a silent plea.
Dear Buddha, please be a kind patron and let the gift shop sell postcards of that no-photos interior, with its images of Spider-Man, Batman, Avatar, Matrix, the World Trade Center, and Michael Jackson.
I'd dragged myself out of bed between five and six for the long day's excursion to sightsee in the Thailand's "Golden Triangle" region—that's where Thailand, Burma, and Laos meet. I'd been last to be picked up and so got a good seat in the first row of the van full of tourists. A 27-year-old Chinese backpacker from Shanghai sat behind me, a Dutch couple next to me, and a Kiwi living in Laos was in the shotgun seat by the driver.

We got gas on the way out of town and then headed to Chiang Rai, stopping a half-hour or so shy to visit a rest stop with toilets, snack bars (mmm, morning espresso), fish pedicures, and some hot springs where the Chinese backpacker purchased a quail egg that had been boiled in the hot springs. Then it was time to move on to the reason I was here. The White Temple. Wat Rong Khung.

Friday, July 22, 2011

If You're Farang & You Know It, Clap Your Hands

I walked past this sign on the way home. I am farang, you are farang (unless you're Thai). Farangs are foreigners in Thailand. And we have a cuisine, it seems.


Yes, it's a cliche to shoot a photo of the Thai-greeting Ronald. But isn't he kind of creepy and weird-looking?

Planning My Exit

This probably seems obvious, but if you ever have any business at Chiang Mai's immigration office, try not to deal with it first thing in the morning after a holiday weekend. Especially not on a day when you've been out late spewing trivia at a bar the night before.

I nearly left Immigration twice, once when I saw the line for photocopies and once when I was told I could only have seven days rather than 15 or 30. But in the end, I wasn't fined for overstaying by a day and I was given the week's extension starting today, not yesterday when my entry stamp had run out.

And that turned out to be enough. On July 22, the word came in. Tibet would allow non-Chinese foreign tourists in as of July 28th.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Quiz Night

", that's one's Public Enemy," said Toby, fiddling with his pencil and hogging the list of quiz questions.

"Don't Believe the Hype!" That was me, pulling some long-dormant bit of trivia out of the recesses of my brain. Then, "No, Toby, you spelled that wrong! Fix it. FIX IT!"

I'd gotten a little carried away at quiz night at an outdoor Chiang Mai bar, which resulted in a lot of eye-rolling from Toby. But I hadn't corrected his spelling of "Rumours" on the Fleetwood Mac question—damn!—so we lost that point. I tried to bluff that the spelling had been different on the American release but the quizmaster would have none of my lies.

This didn't matter. Between us, Toby and I had an encyclopedia of worthless tidbits in our brains. We crushed at quiz night, which surprised me since I'd never done a quiz night before. But then, the others were a good deal older than us and frequently said: "Bah! That's not music." So perhaps we had an unfair advantage.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Accidental Scofflaw

Four pairs of shoes in my possession. How did this happen?

I'd been running around in melted-heel sandals for months after a motorbike exhaust pipe had a disagreement with my shoe in Mali, but I'd ended up with two replacement pairs when one pair was too tall and made me trip, and the other set gave me blisters the one time I'd worn them.

I'd just have to learn how to walk in taller ones. Anyway, I liked being tall in Thailand.

I asked my friend Toby if he knew any women with my size feet, so I could give away some shoes. He lives in Chiang Mai and I'd met him in Bangkok a few weeks ago, though I'd been e-chatting with him for a bit before that. He knew a college friend of mine, Sam, from when they were kids together in Manhattan.

Friday, July 15, 2011

By Bus to Chiang Mai

"The fortune-telling Sikhs are out in force today," I noticed as I followed a group of six backpackers and a guide down Khao San Road. These guys hang around and say "Excuse me" to every passerby until one stops and agrees to follow them down an alley for a fortune. They get pissed at me. I always ignore them.

I'd booked an overnight bus to Chiang Mai—under protest. I'd only booked it because I had no choice. After I'd picked up my passport from the Indian visa processing center on Wednesday, I'd headed straight to the train station to buy the next available ticket.

But it turned out to be a holiday weekend. The next available ticket was for Monday, the same day my 30-day Thailand entry stamp expired and when I was supposed to be leaving the country.

An information agent suggested I travel standby to Chiang Mai. "Just show up in the morning and you'll get a train ticket eventually."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Other Places

I got my India visa, but I couldn't get a train ticket. So I packed, threw out my disintegrating favorite T-shirt, and am taking an overnight bus to Chiang Mai, where I'll hole up in a cheap hotel and hang out with my pal Toby, waiting for news on Tibet permits.

Like this mailbox says, I'm heading to "other places."

So long for now, Bangkok. See you in September.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Medical Tourism for Cheapskates

I wonder which bad African road killed the DVD drive on my MacBook, I thought last week as I googled for ways to remove a stuck DVD.

Perhaps it happened when my daypack was thrown from the motorbike at the Gabon-Congo border. Or maybe it was when we were airborne in the truck the next day. But given how seldom I use my DVD drive, I had to admit it could have broken the day after Apple replaced it late last year. Did this model laptop have a bug?

I did, I suspected. Something was the faintest bit amiss in my guts, and had been for some time. That's not surprising given the places I've lived and the water I've blithely used to brush my teeth. It's not like you can be vigilant for a half-year at a time, the same way you can on a two-week holiday.

But if I was going in for a check-up, I was going whole hog. Bangkok is famous for its inexpensive medical care and hospitals here do comprehensive check-ups for the cost of a doctor visit with lab tests at home.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Biking Bangkok By Night

Just north of the Khao San Road area, there's a little canal. And right across the canal is a residential neighborhood with a feel of real old Bangkok, along with several cheap guesthouses and bars. I imagine this was how Khao San Road was when the first of the onslaught of backpackers stumbled onto it in the mid-eighties.

The bike shop, Velo Thailand, is also over in this little neighborhood. And that's where I headed now for the Bangkok night bike tour.

I was introduced to my guide, a young woman who was studying archeology, and a Dutch family of two parents and two toddlers on kid-seats. Thanks to the Dutch family, we had a trip. I'd been waiting for other tourists to sign up for weeks, and the few times they had, we'd been rained out.

Getting it Right: Chinese Visa Revisited

I got it right this time, since I had to pick up my passport with its new double-entry China visa.

How to Get a Chinese Visa in Bangkok from Khao San Road:

-Walk to Wat Sukhat khlong (canal) water taxi. On-board, buy a ticket for "Asoke/Petchaburi."
-When everyone else switches boats at Pratunam, switch with them.
-Disembark at the pier that has the sign that says "ASOKEPETCHABURI."
-Walk down the alley (it's the only option for leaving the pier) to the metro.
-Take the metro one stop to Phra Rama 9.
-Go up escalator. Take U-turn at top and walk to Soi 3, alongside Fortune City Mall, passing Tesco Lotus at the end of the mall.
-Left at first corner, about 400 meters. There is a sign here—Soi 3, like on the photo below.
-Go in first building on left, the one with silver pillars. Go to the second floor. Be there well before 11:30 a.m.
-After you do all the paperwork and apply, they'll give you a receipt and a pickup time a few days later.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Getting a Chinese Visa in Bangkok from Khao San Road

On Monday morning—the Fourth of July—while my fellow Americans were planning afternoon barbecues and picnics, I was determined to get to Bangkok's Chinese visa processing center before the 11:30 a.m. cut-off time.

I wasn't going to mess around with a bus or taxi this time. No attempts at shortcuts. No dallying over yogurt, fruit, and muesli with Facebook. I sped through breakfast then walked over to the river to catch the river taxi south, along with all the school kids in uniforms and office workers in business-wear.

I knew I'd get there this time, because I was fortified with the luck of the Thai zebra. Or at least, I was wearing one on my T-shirt.

Step One: Ten-minute walk to the Banglamphu Pier.
Step Two: Catch the Chao Phraya river taxi south about 15-20 minutes to Central/Saphin Taksin.

Just about everyone piles off at Saphin Taksin, and even if I didn't know it by sight by now, I'd watch for the big bridge where everyone gets off the boat.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Election Sunday. And Zebras.

I got up early on election day Sunday...not to vote, of course. It's Thailand. I can't vote. But because I figured today would be the perfect day for visiting the chaotic, crowded, weekend market.

Everyone else was up early too as liquor sales had been banned during the election and last night had been a slow Saturday night. But the Thais were all out doing their civic duty, not heading out to go shopping. This election was big...the first election for prime minister since last year's "Red Shirt" protests had shut down Bangkok, since things had gone off the rails. No one was sure what the result would be today and some people had left town in case of post-election violence.

Friday, July 1, 2011

How NOT to Get a Chinese Visa in Bangkok

"Yogurt muesli and coffee?" The Thai ladyboy who takes my breakfast order every day was MIA, but the cook was filling in. She was mighty chipper for a Friday morning. The Khao San Road area where I'm staying is slow to wake up in the mornings, though it sure is hopping around midnight.

I'm slow to wake up too. My work world is 5-11 hours behind me, so I never tried to adjust my inner clock from Africa to Bangkok. Why bother?

Because I need to get a Chinese visa is why. I'd been reading this blog, so I knew I had to be at the consulate between 9 and 11:30 a.m. But given the amount of time it takes to get around in Bangkok, I couldn't just leave my hotel at 10:30 and expect to make it.

Impressions of a Few Weeks in Bangkok