December 31, 2006

Looking Back at 2006

Today marks the close of another year.

2006 began with a drive across the northern prairie. Deep snow banks, some as high as five feet, lined the freeway as we headed west. We arrived in Portland three days later to attend the wedding of my nephew, Shelby, and Kate. We headed south visiting friends and family in California and Arizona, not to mention a couple of days in Las Vegas.

New Year's Eve
Motoring in Hanoi


Then we spent four wonderful months exploring Mexico together from northern Sonora to the south coast of Oaxaca. We lived for a month in Cuernavaca. The sun and the warmth did us well. In April on the way back to our northern summer abode, we stopped to visit my parents in Mississippi. It was that last time we were to see LaVera, she died in October.

The summer was beautiful. I needed the great weather to have the time outside to restore the garden to its previous glory. After five years of neglect, it was a necessary task. As the summer wound down, I built a bathroom in the basement.

In October it was time to head for warmer climates again. We spent a week with our son, Dain, in Santa Monica. Then it was on to China. We spent two months exploring a very large country and only seeing a very small part of it. The charm and the friendliness of the Chinese people are likely to draw us back again.

We end 2006 much like we started it, traveling and enjoying our retirement. We are in Hanoi. Being away from our family at Christmas can be hard. The gift giving is difficult, but not impossible. Giving friends and family hearty seasons greetings and hugs is impossible. Thank goodness for the internet that gives a modicum of contact. I called Carol and Doug on Christmas Eve. Every year they host a wonderful family party. I was able to call and wish them all a Merry Christmas.
Unfortunately, a few days later the internet in SE Asia came crashing down, when an earthquake destroyed the many of the main cables off Taiwan that link this part of the world to North America. We have email, but not much more.

We are looking forward to a happy new year. We will continue to travel in Southeast Asia. We may even reach the shores of Australia. Keep reading this BLOG and you can read our stories and see our photographs.

We wish you
All the Happiness in the NEW YEAR!

Posted by bill at 07:25 PM | Comments (0)

December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas from
  Ha Noi - the Motorbike City

Betty and I want to wish my BLOG readers and all of our family and friends a very MERRY   MERRY CHRISTMAS.

St. Joseph's Cathedral
on Christmas Eve


Well, it is Christmas Eve as I write this in Hanoi. The Christmas spirit is not as strong here as it is in the West. But in the last few days the intensity has risen to a crescendo, as we have seen the Christmas decorations go up in the parks and St. Joseph's Cathedral. Tonight the entire town seems to be in a festive mood. Thousands passed by the cathedral during the early evening mass, and I am sure that they will continue to come until the midnight mass. One could even see Santa on the streets over the last couple of days. When we turned to folks on the street and wished them a Merry Christmas, their eyes lit up and they returned the Christmas greeting to us. It feels good to be in Hanoi at Christmas.

Santa on Christmas Eve

Here is what we have been doing over the past two weeks:
The train ride from Nanning to Hanoi is just OK. And we made it safe and sound to Hanoi on Tuesday morning, the 12th of December. We quickly booked into a nice hotel near the youth hostel. The hotel was cheap for a capital city at $15 per night. This a fairly common price too. We did a bit of exploring the next couple of days. One of our main concerns was finding an apartment to rent for a month, because we wanted to slow down a bit. We were able to get a place in just a few days and had moved in by Friday the 15th. Our roommate had little Christmas party for her students and a few friends on Saturday. It was fun getting to know them. The Vietnamese are much shier than the Chinese, so it was a good opportunity for us.

To view all my photos of Hanoi, press HERE for a slideshow.

Lorraine and Friends
French Bread Seller
The Temple of Literature
From the Fine Arts Museum
Museum of Ethnology
Burial Tomb Art
Inside the Opera House
From the Green Palm Gallery
Motorbike City and Insanity
Hanoi Lake Views

We had heard good things about Hanoi, but were uncertain as to why people were so enthusiastic about it. Hanoi is a charming place and very different from the frenetic pace of China. Hanoi is a small town. The guide book says that there are almost four million souls here, but it feels much smaller - more like a city of one to two million. There are dozens and dozens of lakes in the city. West Lake is quite large, bigger than Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Most are smaller and come with a park around it. Unlike China the parks are free and the people really enjoy them. Overall the pace of life seems slower here than in China. A lonely exception is the traffic. The streets are not well laid out, there are far too few controlled intersections and the drivers seem to be totally insane. Oh, did I mention that 98% of the vehicles are gas-powered motorbikes. Try to imagine that you come to a controlled intersection. What do you see? A hundred motorbikes with up to four people riding. Some ignore the light and proceed anyway. Then the light changes and the bikes are just inches apart as they proceed. When you come to an uncontrolled intersection, they weave through in all directions at the same time. For a pedestrian to cross a street, he slowly walks across and the bikes drive around him. You got to have faith that they will not knock you down. Hanoi is growing on us and I like it more and more everyday.
It is probably appropriate at this time to admit that I rented a motorbike for the month. It only cost $50 including a helmet that Betty uses. I am into the riding frenzy and although I do not much like the lack of traffic controls, I have adjusted to it. Betty seems to have lost her fear. If you are a believer, maybe you could say a little prayer for our safety.
Another fact of life in Hanoi: we are not very exceptional. Unlike China where we were one of the few Westerners traveling, there are thousands of tourists in Hanoi. If you want to believe the paper, they get a half-million per month. If true, they do not spend much time here - because I only see a couple of hundred or so per day. This makes Hanoi extremely cosmopolitan.

What have we been doing?
First we have been to the opera house twice. First, to hear the symphony orchestra and a large choral ensemble singing patriotic poetry. Second, to hear a Christmas concert that included a trumpet soloist playing Haydn, a piano soloist playing more modern classical music and concluding with a symphony by Dvorak that was simply wonderful. I am sure that we will be back a couple of more times before we leave.
Another cultural venue was the Temple of Literature, which was the first university in Vietnam dating to 1076. We have also visited two excellent museums. The Museum of Ethnology has a good display of all the minority groups in Vietnam. It included wonderful outdoor exhibits of old and native homes and tombs. The tombs are surrounded by carvings of pregnant women and men in fairly erotic poses, because the other side of death is the living and the creating of new life. Interestingly the museum grounds are a favorite backdrop for wedding photos, but nowhere near the burial vaults. Another really great museum is the Fine Arts Museum, which has a large collection of Vietnamese art. The Chinese seemed to be the masters of making copies. Not so for Vietnamese, who seem to produce really marvelous sculptures, paintings, posters (Vietnam Old Poster shop - 122 Hang Bac - Hanoi), watercolors, block prints, and an interest technique of carving lacquered wood to make some impressive images. We have also seen some great pieces in galleries and shops. One shop had hundreds of posters created over the past forty years. I, for one, love Vietnamese poster art. I first saw it in the 70's. I was impressed then and still am impressed. An example of the really good galleries here is the Green Palm gallery. I would encourage you to visit their web site to get a sense of the quality of modern Vietnamese artists, or click on my photo from the gallery.

Lake Hoan Kiem as Dusk

We have been exploring the city. We have walked and walked in the old town with its numerous market streets. We have visited many parks and several lakes. The most central lake in Hanoi is Lake Hoan Kiem. It is a lovely little lake right at the heart of the old city. One of our favorite places is West Lake. We like to go to Highland Coffee, one of the two floating restaurants there. We drink coffee or tea, have a bit of cake and play cards for couple of hours. We have been playing a lot of cards, mostly cribbage and rummy. Betty says that we have played more cards in the past month than in all our previous years together. She has become quite adept at cribbage, winning as often as I win. I just wish that we had a cribbage board to make the scoring easier.

I think I will wrap up with some discussion of food in Hanoi.
There are hundreds of restaurants and bars that cater to foreign tastes. That mean everything is available. Yes, we have eaten in many Vietnamese restaurants, be we have also eaten in French, Italian, American and Russian restaurants; and there are foods from many, many more countries. Just tonight we ate a gourmet quality dinner (snapper with a mustard sauce and all the trimmings) for six dollars in a French bistro. Eating is cheap and a joy here.

This is all for now.

Sunset on West Lake - Christmas Eve 2006

Posted by bill at 12:14 PM | Comments (10)

December 10, 2006

Farewell to China

To view all my photos of Guilin and
the River Li, press HERE for a slideshow.

Views of Guilin
On the River Li

Friday, 8 December:
The bus ride to Guilin was long and wearisome. Still it was among the most interesting of our journey to China. We saw more of the rural countryside, small towns and cities that we had been missing. I enjoyed the views greatly. I did not enjoy the slowness of the trip. It is a little over 250 miles from Guangzhou to Guilin; and the bus ride was just a few minutes short of twelve hours. The temperature dropped drastically along the way. When we left Guangzhou it was in the mid-70's and it was no more than 50 (10c) when we got to Guilin. The hostel room was not any warmer when we arrived. The heater finally got the room temp up to about 68 (20c), which was acceptable but still no banana.

It was just as cold and raining when we awoke. We had come to Guilin to ride the boats on the River Li. There was no way that we were going out on the river in this weather. We even talked about heading for Nanning, but it was really far too late by the time we figured out the weather situation. We went to the train station and discovered that they had already sold their quota of tickets for Monday. So we bought tickets to Nanning, hoping to acquire tickets for Hanoi from there. We walked around the city some. It is truly a very beautiful place. Typically, the Chinese are charging to visit every little thing, so we skipped getting into the more lush gardens or the temples. We would like to come back here when it is warmer so we can enjoy it all the more. We booked a river cruise for Sunday, hoping for better weather.

Today, Sunday, 10 December:
The river cruise was very good, even though the weather was cold and cloudy. It was not raining and the wind was not blowing all that hard. Yes, it was hazy, which does not make for good photos, but all of China seemed hazy. An Irish woman and an Italian man, who were staying at our hoste,l and two Chinese gentlemen were our companions all day long: Ciara the Irish, Luca the Italian, Michael the Canadian-Chinese and Mr. Chou the Chinese. We talked and ate and viewed the beautiful scenery together. The cruise started several miles south of Guilin due to the low water. At times our large, flat-bottomed boat struck sand and gravel where the water was but a meter deep. The four-hour journey passed by two villages before reaching Yangshuo, which was a stunningly beautiful little city nestled among the strange little mountains of this region. The bus trip back to Guilin continued to display the natural beauty of this area.

We will be traveling all day tomorrow. With a little luck we will be in Hanoi on Tuesday morning.

Classic Iconic View of the River Li

Parting Thoughts on China

Betty's Rant
Asian Unsanitary Facilities

Many times before Bill and I left for China, Brian asked me how I was going to deal with the Asian toilet. Well, I did fine, but that does not mean I liked it.

An Asian toilet is basically a hole in the ground. The Chinese manufacture porcelain fixtures with places for you to place your feet and squat over them. Some will have a flushing mechanism. Other variations include a trough that runs through a series of stalls, with or without doors, which you straddle. This is most common in bus or train depots.

In old buildings I can understand that the fixtures have not been upgraded, but in a new bus depot having the stainless steel lined gutter is gross. If there is a western stool, there will be many people waiting to use it. It appears that Chinese people will choose the western toilet if given a choice. Unfortunately, even McDonald's and KFC have installed Asian toilets.

The biggest problem with the Asian toilet is that many people have a bad aim. There is often waste all around the fixture and the smell is horrendous. At one bus depot there were three rats running up and down the trough. These places are so filthy and unhygienic that I would not touch the walls and would use hand sanitized after leaving. The worst places I would not use at all.

What I don't understand is why the Chinese people would put up with conditions like this. In the US if the restroom is dirty someone would demand that management clean it. But so often there is filth everywhere and nicely dressed people just roll up their pant legs and don't complain. It makes no sense to me.

Many years ago the common clothing for the Chinese was baggy pantaloons that were open at the crotch, for both men and women. Now this clothing is only for very small children. I suppose when people wore clothing like that it was fine to straddle a hole in the ground. But now everyone wears slacks or very tight jeans. It is more difficult to peal those jeans down and aim accurately. Most are not too accurate.

Enough for that rant!

The Eastern Toilet

We will bid China farewell for now. I am sure that we will come back again. We would urge you to visit soon, if you are thinking about it. It is easy to travel here and not too expensive. I am sure that it will only become much more expensive to be here.

Why should you visit?
The reasons to visit China are numerous. Here are some of the things that we loved:
  • The people are some of the friendliest in the world. They like us and the children seem to be excited to get to know us. Their innocence and openness were a constant and great pleasure to experience.
  • There is an explosion of building here: tens-of-thousands of building, roads and highways, and municipal projects.
  • There are wondrous sights: The Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Warriors, Panda bears, and great metropolises.
  • Chinese food is very good and very different in China.

The transformation from peasant based rural socialism to rampant capitalism is also simply mind boggling. And despite all that is great in China, the Chinese Communist Party has screwed up some parts of this transformation to such a degree that they should be ashamed of themselves for having completely fled their socialist ideals. The following lists a bit of what I am talking about:

  • There does not appear to me much of a social welfare system here. There are millions of beggars, mostly the elderly, the sick and the crippled.
  • Primary education is not paid through taxes, rather the families of school children pay, and the tuition is not cheap.
  • It does not appear that medical services are socialized. I read of a woman with leukemia that had to pay for her treatment, and again the treatments did not come cheap.
  • After our trip to Guilin, it looks like most intercity roads are toll roads. The condition of most expressways is good. But the road to Guilin was horrendous, and every 20 minutes we stopped to pay a toll. Personally, I find such funding systems disgusting, but the point is that the roads are not really treated like a public good.
  • The same can be said about city parks and museums. People must pay to enter them. This means that they are pretty much reserved for the rich. Many were so expensive that we often would not enter them. Can you imagine paying one to six dollars to enter an ordinary city park? For the Chinese it is like paying three to 25 dollars. Only in Hangzhou did we find a large, free city park and museum. Both of which were well used by the local populous.

The Chinese people are a hundred times better off that they were 25 years ago. With a few tweaks of their thinking, I would predict a glorious future for them. It appears to me that many of the changes taking place here will continue to lead to a better life for most people. And I wish them every success in that endeavor.

The only serious problem that I have not mentioned is the traffic problems. The most critical problem is the lack of training for drivers and the lack of good right-of-way rules for all types of transport from pedestrians to two-wheeled bikes to autos, trucks and buses. They need to decide the rules, establish good path and roadways and advertise them through constant public announcements on the media.

A Note on Kenny G:
Since coming to China I have heard more Kenny G than in the past 10 years in the US. His music is ubiquitous in shopping malls, airports, bus and train stations. It is everywhere. But, after hearing some traditional Chinese music, the similarity to Kenny G is noticeable. Maybe that is why he is so popular here.

In any case, I have tried to say a bit about what we love and dislike here.
But you need to see it yourself to believe it. So, try to see it sooner rather than later.

Posted by bill at 09:04 PM | Comments (1)

December 07, 2006

Shenzhen and Guangzhou

We thought that we left Xiamen early enough to get to Shenzhen by late afternoon. But alas it was not to be. No bus was leaving for Shenzhen until late in the afternoon. So we departed on a bus that would take us about half way. The driver took more than 90 minutes to get out to the tollway. He had to make several stops to pick up passengers before proceeding. Then when we arrived at our midway point, it took more than an hour to get into and then leave the city. By the time we got to Shenzhen, it was almost 9:00 at night.

To view all my photos of Shenzhen and
Guangzhou, press HERE for a slideshow.

Grace's Students
Five Rams and 100 Kids
Some of the 500 Buddhas

Sunday, 3 December:
Not much doing, we visited an area of Shenzhen called Dongmen, or the East Gate> Being Sunday, the throngs were much larger than normal, because this is an area to buy the essentials of life and where bargaining will give you an 80% discount. We met our friend Grace Sui in the evening. We went out for dinner and talked about her class on Monday.

On Monday I finally picked up a new credit card that the credit union sent me in care of Grace. Unfortunately FedEx had classified her address as undeliverable. I found that strange, since she regularly receives mail at the address we provided. Luckily, they held the package after a call I made from Hangzhou last week. I had to take a taxi to their depot and then rode the metro back.
Betty and I left about noon. We took our time strolling through the stores on Hua Qiang Bei Lu. We got to the school much faster than we thought. We stopped at a KFC to play cribbage. Betty is getting quite good at the game.
Just at two, we arrived at Grace's school: the Shenzhen Experimental Middle School. Betty and I had volunteered to be guest speakers. We gave a short presentation and then asked for questions. They started slowly, but soon the students were asking many questions: some thoughtful and mature and others were typical teenage questions. We thoroughly enjoyed it and we think the students did too. We went out for coffee and planned to join in an after-school English club. But the school cancelled these activities - so the student could prepare for an upcoming marching competition.
We were joined by Grace's friend Roosevelt. He is another American teaching at a nearby school. We went out for a fabulous meal. After dinner another teacher, Angie, from Grace's school, picked us up at the restaurant. Angie and her husband, Wengsi, gave us a short night time tour of the city. All in all, it was a wonderful day.

Betty's Email Home

6 Dec 2006
Birgitta, Dain

Hi everybody,
This is the strangest city in China yet. It feels like a Disney resort.
The reason for this is that there are so many couples with small children in strollers. The adults are mostly American and the children are Chinese. We stumbled into the adoption capital of China.
At the restaurants all we hear in English talk about babies! It is awful!
The parents are in their late thirties and forties and they are doing this baby-talk shit. Many are here for their second or more time.
We love that the orphans are being adopted into loving families, but we never thought it was so centralized in China. We are across the street from adoption-central, The White Swan Hotel. We are at the down-market youth hostel. Bill's sister Ann and husband Alan came here to adopt Clara five years ago.
This place has an odd effect on me. Since Bill and I don't look much older than many of the adoptive parents, we get all the smiles and knowing looks from the working people and the other couples. And the children are so cute I keep thinking, "Let's get one!"


Tuesday, 5 December:
We took the train to Guangzhou. Guangzhou was called Canton by the British and the language spoken here is still known as Cantonese. We check into a youth hostel on Shamian Island across from the White Swan Hotel. The first thing we noticed was all the Americans in the area with children. We figured out that this is an adoption center for Americans, once I realized that this was the White Swan that my brother-in-law mentioned to me in August. Alan and Ann adopted a baby here and spent some time in the White Swan. Betty wrote a note to Birgitta and Dain about what we saw. My only comment about the whole thing was that all I wanted to adopt was some grandchildren.

After checking out the bus schedule to Guilin, we stated walking through the city. We first visited the Yuexiu Park. The park is extremely beautiful. We enjoyed the greenery. We made it to the Five Rams sculpture, a massive stone sculpture that was built some fifty years ago. There was a class of young students visiting the site. We said hello to a few and the next thing we knew we were shaking all their hands and greeting each other. It is really amazing how well these students can already understand English. It will be a different world when they are adults. When they left we sat down to enjoy the location and play a few hands of cards. Not far from the park is a really great museum, the Museum of the Nan-Yue King in the Western Han Dynasty. It is located on the site of Chinese emperor from about 100 BC. It was only discovered in the 1980's and the large number of nearly perfect relics is fantastic. We thought that we had our fill of museum, but we really enjoyed this museum and recommend it to all who visit Guangzhou.

Today Thursday:
We took the metro to a location about four kilometers from our hotel. We planned to stop at various sites as we hiked back. We visited a pagoda, a mosque, a jade market, a temple with 500 Buddhas, a pedestrian mall and some small alleyways and markets. We enjoyed our day here.
When we got back to our room we decided to check when trains leave Guilin for Hanoi. It turns out, just twice a week, and Monday is one of those two days. We were planning to go to Guilin on Saturday, but we have decided that tomorrow will be better as we will have more time to see the Li River before moving on to Hanoi. So we are off on another long bus ride tomorrow.

Posted by bill at 08:13 PM | Comments (1)

December 01, 2006

From Hangzhou to Xiamen

To view all my photos of Hangzhou and
Xiamen, press HERE for a slideshow.

Hangzhou Square
The Grand Canal

Hangzhou is a hundred miles south of Shanghai. It is the most beautiful city we have visited in China. Other than the cold, it felt good to be in this city. We only stayed there one full day, but it gave a strong impression.

Views of West Lake or Xi Hu

So on Monday we saw the most beautiful parts of the city. We began by taking a bus to the Grand Canal. This canal is one of the greatest man-made projects ever built. It has about the same significance as the great wall. It was built more than 1000 years ago. It is almost 2000 kilometers long. It united the north and south of China, from Hangzhou to Beijing. We had planned to take the water bus to a museum, but the buses were not operating.
So, we headed for one of the greatest parks in China. Great, because it is free for all. Great, because it is next to a large city. Great, because it is so beautiful. We walked down to the north end of the West Lake (Xi Hu). As we walked along this side of the lake, we saw a museum. It was free. Guess what? For a change it was full of Chinese people, mostly students. The policy of charging for every little thing in China certainly limits what the Chinese can learn of their own history, but here it was open to all. We continued on the north side of the lake. It was so beautiful. We took a bus down the west side of the lake. Then we hiked on the south and east sides. There we saw more beautiful park grounds, old Chinese buildings and a wonderful Pagoda. We were exhausted when we got back to our rooms, but it was worth it.

Across West Lake

On Tuesday we traveled five hours by bus to Wenzhou, then a quick trip from the north to the south bus station to grab another bus to Fouzhou. By the time we arrived it was after 8:00 PM. We checked into a hotel next to the station.

Gulangyu Sculptures
Xiamen and Gulangyu

Wednesday, 29 November 2006:
We traveled by bus to Xiamen and arrived in the afternoon. We went to the docks, where we caught the ferry for a five-minute ride to Gulangyu Island. I checked out three places and we settled on the Bay View Inn. It has turned out to be an excellent choice. We got a sunny room for less than $20 per night. They had everything we needed, including a WIFI network and a washing machine.

On Thursday we washed our clothes. As usual in these places, they had no dryer, but it was warm enough and windy enough to dry our clothes before nightfall. We wandered around the north end of the island. Along the way we stopped for lunch. If I have not mentioned it before, it is hard to order food in China. When ordering, we never know exactly what we will get. So, we resort to walking around and pointing at what looks good on the other tables. Even then there are surprises at times. Gulangyu is very beautiful, nice old buildings, gardens galore, and sculptures and more sculptures. It was a foreign enclave in the 1800's, so there are churches and old European architecture. We did very little more and that is exactly what we wanted. We needed a break from all the travel.

Today, Friday, the first day of December:
We started by hooking up our VOIP phone, which we brought along and have used a few times. Betty called Birgitta. They seem to gab forever.
We roved on the south and east side of Gulangyu. It was a beautiful, warm sunny day with temperatures in the 70's. This area touched on one of my pet peeves, the large number of pay parks - or as they call them gardens. The pay areas were empty and the free areas had many tourists in them. On the south side we stopped by the beach for lunch and to play some cribbage. We were again pleased by the large number of sculptures that adorn the island.

Posted by bill at 09:39 PM | Comments (2)