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May 27, 2007


I never thought that I would find myself in China, yet here I am. On the descent into Beijing, I fought to subdue the wave of nausea that overwhelmed me. I've never had travel sickness with planes before (OK I mean BIG planes--we don't need to hear what I did to Frank's plane again, do we?)--could this be my body trying to tell me that it is done with all this moving around and moving on? Maybe so, maybe no. Never-the-less, it was a feeling that plagued us in this part of our journey. Despite our super-cool surroundings, our energy waned and our thoughts turned to home (wherever that may be for us at this point!) as we realize that there is not so much time left to go in our trip.

But we were fortunate in two things in China: 1) We had a full week in just Beijing--one bed for the whole time!, and 2) We were armed with a tailor-made itinerary thanks to Lauren's fab friend, Kai (Can't thank you enough, Kai!). So fighting our apathy, we still managed to have some excellent experiences.
Perhaps tops on that list would be hiking for several hours on the Great Wall. And it truly was hiking! You know all those pictures you see of the wall snaking along the crest of the majestic hills? Well the clever person would understand this as an indication that there would be a lot of serious up and down involved in this walk. They would also question their level of fitness, having spent so much time on buses in the past few months, before racing ahead on a scorchingly sunny day. But yours truly have never been put off by a little walk before--at least not until we're dripping and panting and sore with over three hours left to go! Really, though, our breathlessness would have been inevitable, as if the hike didn't do it, the scenery would have. We did manage to take some moments of rest to marvel at our surroundings---"We're on the Great Wall of China!!!"






Claire took the long walk down whereas Simon...took to the air!


With that little physical undertaking under our belt, we looked for a little culture...and found it in the two famous imperial residences, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Some of you may be horrified to know that you can actually get your Starbucks Vanilla Latte within the walls of the UNESCO protected Forbidden City. We, however, were tickled pink.






As for the Summer Palace, we found it far more attractive than its winter-time counterpart. Bemused by the sometimes literal yet mystical names for these charming buildings (Temple of Timely Rains and Extensive Moisture--can you guess what this one is deicated to?, or Cloud Dispersing Hall, and even Garden of Harmonious Interests), Simon announced that henceforth our bathroom (when we have one) shall be known as the 'Hall of gaseous relief and aqueous ablutions'.





When we were all templed out, there was still plenty more fun to be had in the evenings. We took in an acrobatics show that left our eyes googly and our jaws a mile wide. We also sipped tea at a teahouse and delighted at a variety show comprised of oral mimicry, chinese opera, a tea ceremony, comedians, kung fu, and face-off, a performance that involves the instantaneous and baffling switching of elaborate, traditional face masks.





We even devoured a local delicacy (Daniele, don't read this part), Peking Duck. Despite appearing to be dry and unappealing, this stuff is actually melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and eaten with some sauce and veggies rolled up in a kind of pancake thing. Mmmmmm good. Quackers aren't just cute to look at I tells ya!

What else did we do with our week in Beijing? Well, we rode bikes, of course! We toured around little back alleys and big streets, all the while evying the massive bike lanes that took us everywhere we needed to go. But we were surprised that these were not chock-a-block full with Chinese cyclists as we had envisioned in our 'this is China' dreams.
Other curious things we noticed about this country: 1) a huge portion of the population smokes, and unlike Canada these days, this can be done aywhere and everywhere (not sure if this is what leads to the other seemingly national habit---loud, gutteral spitting!), and 2) excercise is done in synchronized groups, at sunset or sunrise, often involving props (i.e. fans or drums).


This is absolutely a fantastically curious place to visit, and we only scratched the surface of the surface of this huge country. So as Beijing counts down to the 2008 olympics (a huge, unmissable vibe here right now), we count down to four countries and 2.5 months left to go in our voyage...and we flew on to Japan!




Posted by psy2099 at 05:10 AM

May 12, 2007

So much to see in Siem Reap


From the depressing history of Phnom Penh, we moved on to the small city of Seam Reap, which experienced the same troubles recently, but is also home to the remains of a far brighter period in Cambodias history - Angkor Wat and the many other fantastic temples from the Angkorian Period (802 - 1309 AD).



This was the jewel in our travelling crown, the most exotic, exciting place we had only read about but would finally see for ourselves. Needless to say Simon wasn't too put off by the photographic prospects of it either! And it did not disappoint! These temples are immense and cannot fail to impress. Simon managed to capture them through the lens some 700-800 times. We visited perhaps a dozen different temples over three days, some needing only a quick meander through, others providing hours of wandering fun - we felt just like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider (Filmed partailly at Prah Thom temple)! Perhaps our only tiny, very wee, miniscule complaint is that the ruins, while occasiionally over-run by a determined tree, have been largelycleared of hteir ju ngle surroundings (not to mention mines, thank goodness!) So it was a little less WILD than we had imagined. But this may be thanks to the fact that we only managed to get to the main grouping of temples. Apparently there are some less touristed far flung temples that may have been the stuff of our dreams. Next time, I guess!









To shake up our heavily templed schedule a little, we also took a trip to a silk farm - such beautiful and cheap goods (even the worms cocoons were lovely)! And of course to buy is to help the Non-Profit work-training initiative! (Note Pic) The colour of the cocoon depends on what the worms are fed (mulberry leaves produce this vibrant yellow), however, most thread is bleached to make it soft and then dyed to the desired colour.

We also visited the Cambodian Land Mine Museum. This mass of mines and UXO's used to be housed in a shack near to town. It was the initiative of Akira, a former child soldier for the Khmer Rouge and later the Vietnamese Army. Nowadays Akira spends his days dismantaling these explosives with a stick and screwdriver. He charges pennies per, as opposed to th e offical de-mining groups charge of $1000 each, and has disarmed and collected tens of thousands over the years. Besides displaying these war goods to curious tourists, Akira and his wife also take in children who have been victims of mines or orphaned due to them. most of these children would no longer be able to be cared for by their already impoverished, struggling parents, and would certainly not be able to be accomodated in public schools. Through the Land Mine Museum they are given a happy home and an education. With over 20 kids bunking in, the shack wasn't cutting it any more. With the support of a Canadian journalist the museum has moved it's collection of kids and mines to a fancier location. It is also now a registered Canadian NGO.






And that, my friends, is the end of our Southeast Asia adventure. Fast and furious, just like we predicted, for the last month, but enjoyable all the same. Given the inflexible schedule we'd had laid out, we must admit to being shocked that it all worked out - a minor miracle, surely, in a land where you learn to go with the unexpected flow and never watch the clock. We hitched a bus ride to Bangkok (where we were all treated to a lesson in reparing a flat tire at a roadside "garage"!) where we sent another box on it's way to Canada, and prepared ourselves for a week in Beijing!
























Posted by psy2099 at 09:25 PM

Phnom Penh

It seems that anything you do here helps a cause - eating at an Non-Profit restaurant, buying silk items from an NGO handicraft store aiding poor women and orphans, getting a massage from the disabled, or getting a ride from a cyclo driver - some of the poorest of the poor.



And are there ever a lot of good causes. As soon as we crossed the border from Vietnam we were confronted with the troubles of this, the poorest of the Southeast Asian countries. The six year olds begging with their infant sibling on their hip were more ragged, the ten year olds more corrupted - smoking as if they'd done so for years, and the limbless, unemployed adults everywhere. This is a place that requires a thickening of the skin to envision the horrors it has seen over three decades, and witness the heartbreaking result of so much struggle. It is not unusual to have to step around infants, seemingly abandoned in the middle of the sidewalk.

So Phnom Penh is not exactly a cheery place to visit from the get go, but our choice of sight-seeing spots didn't exactly help matters. We started out at the Tuol Sleng Mueseum, less of a traditional museum, more standing evidence of terrible years of rampant imprisonment and torture. This school was converted into an overcrowded prison in the early years of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge rule. As his vision was to return the country to a simple agricultural exsistence as it knew 400 years previous, he had his troops set about rounding up all educated and religious people as well as anyone involved in the previous rule. The boundaries of this group blurred and soon millions of people were being taken from their homes for the slightest reason. Finally, as Pol Pot realized his own forces were often recruited out of fear and intimidation rather than abject loyalty, Khmer Rouge soldiers were just as indiscriminately imprisoned. Tuol Sleng was one of the largest and most infamous of these mass detention centres.

People didn't stay shackled here for long, though. They were taken en masse to the nearby Killing Fields and piled into mass graves after being shot, or better yet, having their skulls crushed so as to save on bullets. Everywhere you walked here you could see pieces of bone and cloth from the victims. In this one spot alone they have found remains of 8890 people and it is only half exhumed.

The Chilling Photos





Over the years of the Khmer Rouge Genocide, estimtes put the death toll at over three million. But sadly, the tragic recent history does not stop there. The Khmer Rouge were slowing down on the mass killings when they were invaded and over-thrown by the Vietnamese in 1979. Though Cambodia was given power to rule itself again through puppet governments for many years, the Khmer Rouge stuck around as rebel fores until it fell apart in the mid '90's. Pol Pot was arrested in 1998 and soon there after died of an apparent heart-attack, sadly, getting away with millions of murders. Throughout these 30 years of warring, millions of bombs and landmines were deposited around the countryside; too many are still around today. We were to learn more about this in Siem Reap.
The Chillin' Photos


...and remember who gets hurt.


Posted by psy2099 at 12:55 PM

May 04, 2007

Saigon, where we did nothing.

No joke! We really did nothing. We found ourselves a little run down and our air-conditioned room had HBO and StarMovies, so we did nothing but order in food and watch movies. We walked around for about 3 hours one day and one other evening went to a delicious do it yourself Vietnamese BBQ restaurant, but besides that we did nothing.

I didn't even take one picture...not one...of anything!

In our defense, it was their National Days of Independence from French rule and the American Defeat and all of the museums were closed. But regardless we didn't try too hard and watched movies all day long. It was fun!

Posted by psy2099 at 05:17 AM

May 03, 2007

Hoi An - It's still my birthday week, right?!


What is there to do in Hoi An? Shop, shop, shop! Hundreds of tailors and shoe makers pack into the downtown of this quaint place, and any one of them will do their best to convince you that you should "...buy just one thing then come back for more! I make your size. Any colour!" How can a girl resist such an offer at such cheap prices? Or a boy for that matter. Simon came away looking quite dapper in his new suit (a little preview for the folks at Jody's wedding in July: let's cross our fingers he doesn't gain back those 40 lbs! Of course I suited up as well, in my own fashion.




We also enjoyed a splurge by staying at a fancy hotel with a pool, instead of our usual down and out guesthouse. It almost broke the bank at US$15/night! This price was matched for absolutely scrumptious meals of Vietnamese/Western fusion cuisine at our new favourite restaurant, The Mango Rooms.




As we savoured these indulgences - good food, clothes and accomodations, we admitted that we really are imposter backpackers, looking and sometimes smelling the part in luggage alone. When it comes to really living the life on a shoestring budget, we're only too keen to throw it all out the window and hob-nob with the best of the best!


...and a couple of missed out shots from "Hue-(in a Day)"





Posted by psy2099 at 10:45 AM

May 01, 2007

Hue (in a Day)

Proving that time really does go slower here than in our regular lives, just look at what we managed to accomplish in Hue! This is a lovely, well-kept town that was once the political capital and is now the cultural capital of Vietnam. There are many ancient sights to see here, making this area a UNESCO protected region.


We may only have had just over 24 hours here, but still, we managed to see some of these places for ourselves. First, undaunted by our night on the hard sleeper train berth, we set off on foot to see the citadel, the remains of the old fortified city. These days it's not much more than a few restored buildings, some ruins, and a moat now used for agriculture, but the place is decorated with beautiful traditional silk lanterns and must be quite a sight when it opens at night for festivals.





Claire said that I looked too somber in the picture before this one.


The next day, we spent the morning on the backs of motorbikes, being shown the area by a local guide. We took in a couple of budhist pagodas, and incense-making village, the huge get-away grounds and tombs of a Nguyen Dynasty emperor, and an old japanese style covered bridge. But perhaps the highlight of all the sights was simply the stunning countryside we travelled through and the cheery 'hello's from children along the way.








Posted by psy2099 at 01:41 AM

How Long 'til Halong Bay?

In this instance, our speedy schedule suited us just fine; we enjoyed a fine meal & hotel for my birthday, but apart from that we did very little here...that is, except for dodging traffic. And boy oh boy, can Hanoi ever provide in that department. It didn't take us long to see that, though scooters and motorbikes seem plentiful in the rest of Southeast Asia, here in Vietnam, they are an epidemic. Between those and bicycles and bicycle taxis (cyclos), there is little room left on the street for pedestrians. But hey wait! What are pedestrians doing on the streets in the first place? Shouldn't they be on the sidewalks instead? Don't be silly! Sidewalks are for parking your scooter with the other millions, or maybe for squatting into one of the child-sized plastic patio sets that sprawl the entire width of the walk, to enjoy a little meal prepared before your eyes by a woman with a makeshift kitchen. No, a relaxing meandering is out of the question in Hanoi.






So off we went for a more peaceful existence in the tourist mecca of Halong Bay. Here we were unceremoniously loaded onto a boat, ominopusly called a junk. But in actual fact, despite of opting for the standard, rather than deluxe model, our accomodations on the boat were rather spiffy. We spent two days touring around the breath-taking limestone vistas of Halong Bay. When finally our boat edged it's way through the dozens of other junks to the pier, we headed back to Hanoi to catch the overnight train to Hue.










Posted by psy2099 at 12:18 AM