Sunday, August 28, 2005

Eat Shit and Die

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

I am sitting on a fifth-floor balcony at 6:30 in the morning, overlooking the Cat Ba Town harbor. The view is spectacular. In a few hours, we will leave on a two day private boat tour around Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay, stopping off at white beaches, snorkeling, and visiting Monkey Island.

The past few days had been spent in Hanoi. Mike and I arrived by 30-hour train from Saigon on the 24th and met Jarah at the at the Golden Buffalo Hotel. From there, we visited a few of the sites around the city, and did some of the tourist thing. We walked a dozen kilometers around the city, saw an embalmed Ho Chi Minh, and learned a bit about Vietnam's war-filled 20th century history. And the city itself was quite nice. It definitely has a lot more character than Saigon, as it doesn't seem to have been quite as westernized. But, the most rewarding thing about Hanoi wasn't her scenery or the history stored in her museums, it was the strange culinary "delights" that we enjoyed in her restaurants and bia hoi bars.
Jarah has a bit of a gastronomic predilection. Homeboy likes to eat. And it was his 30th birthday, so we decided to satisfy his desire for exotic foods by taking him to some of Hanoi's specialty restaurants.

The first night was definitely the best. We went to a restaurant and ate a 2-kilogram snake. Pretty much all of it. We did shots of it's blood and bile, snacked on it's crispy fried skin, slurped soup filled with shavings from it's belly, and ate it's flesh and tripe cooked in various types of breading and vegetable wrappings. But, they saved the best for first.
When we arrived at the restaurant riding pillion and helmetless on small Japanese motorbikes, they showed us the snake that we were about to devour. He writhed and rebelled against the will of his captors, but it was of no use. He would soon be dead. And eaten. A few minutes after we were seated in the empty upstairs section, they brought the reptile up, set up a few bottles and glasses around the floor near our table, and proceeded to eviscerate the snake right in front of us. Blood went in one bottle, bile went in the other and the snake's heart went into Jarah's mouth.
The still beating heart.
He said it was quite a strange feeling, having that little muscle pump away on his tongue. I believe him. I don't know if I could have eaten it. I would like to think that I could intellectualize away any qualms I have, but the reality is that I've been raised on pretty simple foods, and I the thought of chewing on something that's moving grosses me out.

Over the next two days, we sampled more of Vietnam's cuisine, the some of the highlights being dog and crocodile. The crocodile we ate at a restaurant called Highway 4, which also specialized in Vietnamese medicinal drinks. Mike had a series of five shots called "One Night, Five Times" which seemed to have a bit of amphetamine effect on him. He was "feeling good" all night, and was particularly talkative and giggly. The dog was from a bia hoi bar, and was surprisingly good. It was fatty, and damn tasty.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Totally in the Shit

Hanoi, Vietnam

After dealing with a little relapse of my chronic sinusitus, I am back, and in full effect. And in Hanoi.

We spent the our last few days in Southern Vietnam being driven and boated around the Mekong Delta by our man Le. Le was a private tour operator who I met in the park in front of the Reunification Palace in Saigon. He biked up to me and started a conversation as I was reading my Rough Guide to Vietnam, trying to find a good park to get some excersize (the park in front of the palace was useless to me). We spoke for almost an hour about the US and Vietnam and everything in between, then exchanged business cards. Later that day, I gave him a call, and we organized a two-day excursion among the canals of the Delta for a reasonable price.
It was a good two days. It was just the four of us: Le, Mike, Jason, and Han (the driver, and Le's cousin). We drove for a few hours to get away from the urban bustle of Saigon, through the small towns and constant construction of Highway 1. It was our first glance of what "real" Vietnamese life was like. Small towns with dirt roads, fading buildings, and barefooted children.
Our first stop was Vinh Long, where we hopped on a tour boat and powered across the Mekong River and into the complex web of canals beyond. There were stops at a few places of note, including a floating market, a candy manufacturer, and a resort-island where we relaxed in hammocks and snacked on fresh fruits. But, the real activity of interest was just floating through the canals themselves, past small waterside villages, watching the junks and fishing boats pass by. That night, we ended up in Can Toh for a nice meal and an early evening.
We woke early the next morning, had a light breakfast, and jumped into smaller junk for yet another journey through the delta, this time around the canals of Can Toh. We motored to a livelier floating market, even managing a boat-to-boat purchase, and explored some of the more remote locations near the town. Parts of the trip had us slicing through low, overhanging foliage and scraping the junk's roof along the bottom of a wooden foot-bridge. This second half of the trip was very close to what imagined skirting through a Vietnamese delta would be like. We got a lot of good footage and some cool pics.
The smothering heat of midday was spent relaxing in a wild garden. We floated back to Can Toh around two, and then drove a quick four hours back to HCMC.

I would heartily recommend Le to anyone who wants a guided tour of southern Vietnam. So, here's his info:

Le Tu Do

If you find yourself in Saigon with nothing to do, you should give our boy a call. Well worth it.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

La Nuit des Serpents

Golden Buffalo Hotel - Hanoi, Vietnam
Special Guest Blogger - Jarah E.

[Note: Numerous accent marks are missing - too lazy to figure out how to type them.]

C'est le trentieme anniversaire de Jarah E. Celebrer, cette nuit nous avons mange et bu seulement les serpents. Il y'a une village pas loin de Hanoi ou on peut manger la coeur d'un serpent pendant il est encore battant. Nous sommes parti notre hotel sur trois motocyclettes. Jason a fait un video de la voyage (venant tout de suite a un website pres de vous). Il va sans disant que nous avons grand peur.

Le restaurant on a rate, mais comme meme il y avait le serpent. Quand nous sommes reste a discuter ce problem la dame est arrive avec une cobra tres formidable. Quand on a le vu, c'etait l'amour a tout de suite. On est arrive au table, et la dame est suivu avec le beau serpent. Comme j'adore ce reptile chaud. Elle a porter une bouteille de formaldahide (le vin Indoceinois). Elle a egorge notre beau ami et verse son sang chaud dans la bouteille. Apres, bien cele, elle a verse la bile dans une deuxieme bouteille.

Elle a libere le truc plus beau, le coeur frappant dans une sant grele, ou il a continue bien a frapper tres regularement. Encore, il y a un petit video. Jarah l'a avale, et il a continue bien a frapper dans sa bouche, comme une petite gamine. Il n'a pas su si il faut le macher ou l'engouillir complet. Finalement, apres une guerre de bouche, ca n'a plus frappe. Et on restait tranquille.

Apres on avait deux bouteille, une du sang et une de la bile. Tous les hommes ont bu le sang (avec fermaldahide, on dit vin-du-riz) et les vrais hommes ont bu aussi la bile. C'est dommage que Jasone n'est pas vrai, mais qu'est-ce qu'on peut espoir pour un demi-mexicain? Apres des boissons on a mange beaucoup de pieces des serpents, comme le potage de "belly-shavings" et les intestines dans les feuilles (ou peut-etre pas les feuilles? et peut-etre pas les intestines? Qui peut dire? C'est pas grave.) Le peau croquant etait delicieux. Si je trouve le peau croquant dans les adventures futures des motocyclettes je vais le manger.

En fin c'est arrive le "vin" du serpent. On l'a porte chez les australiens, le boire sans la possibilite des conversations intelligents (mais les austaliens peuvent communiquer avecs les ... non peut etre ce n'est pas possible). Alors, nous avons acheve le but.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Yar! Ess Ess

Juice Cafe - HCMC, Vietnam

For the RSS users out there...

The (just corrected) address of our RSS feed is:

Thanks to Rich M for pointing out the problem.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Bia Hoi - Keeping it Real (Cheap)

Juice Cafe - HCMC, Vietnam

I am really digging it here in Nam.

On Friday night, we went out looking for the "local" experience and found it. Just a stone's throw from the wanky bars and nedly discos around our hotel, there is a large bia hoi (draft beer) joint. During the day, I think the place may be a motorbike repair shop. At night, the garage-style doors open wide to reveal seating for 100 at unsturdy folding tables surrounded by plastic chairs. We were seated in the front on the border between the dining area and a busy street. To my surprise, our waitress spoke some English and also produced an English menu. We ordered a seafood hotpot, shredded pork with bitter melon, and the first of several plastic jugs of beer brewed on the premises. The done thing is to drink the beer from a glass mug, most of which is already filled with a block of ice.

The atmosphere there was exactly what you might think Vietnam is like. One one side I had a noisy room full of increasingly drunken Vietnamese enthusiasticly digging into unidentifiable foods. On the other side I had a street full of honking motorbikes. Right in front of me was a boiling pot of seafood the smell and taste of which was as strange as it was delicous.

It was not long before we attracted some attention from the staff and other customers with our foreign eccentricities. The employees are mostly young (early 20s) and eager to try out their English. A Japanese girl (name escapes) at the next table over chatted with us between grimacing mouthfuls of frog. We showed off the pictures in Jason's camera and took a bevy of new ones (coming soon to an OC blog near you...). There was also a good-natured exchange of bar tricks. Jason impressed with the always reliable "chopstick twirl around the thumb". I was less successful with the "try to juggle chopsticks but mostly throw them on the floor". We left before closing time (midnight) but not before making an unsuccessful effort to meet up with our new friends after. I guess the Vietnamese go to bed early. The bill came to about 4 US dollars.

Yangshuo - The Great Chinese Outdoors

Juice Cafe - HCMC, Vietnam

A short (and somewhat tardy) note for the hikers/climbers/cavers/bikers out there - you know who you are (Tam and Rob J).

Yangshuo, China is a little city in the south bordered by towering green karst hills and a peaceful river. Only 1 hour from Guilin by bus (or overnight from Hong Kong), it is easy to get to and often very difficult to leave. Travellers intending to see huge swathes of China regularly get stuck and mostly benefit from it.

The town exists almost exclusively to serve the needs of foreigners relaxing in the countryside and the occasional load of Chinese tourists taking river cruises. The atmosphere is touristy but that is an easy evil to bear when balanced against the positives:
  • It is easy to live in comfort for less than 10 US dollars a day. This includes nice meals, and air conditioned room in a hostel/hotel with character, and a fair number of beers.
  • The surrounding land is beautiful, mostly empty, and very accessible. You can climb rocks, go underground, float on the river, hike, bike, or trek for days.
  • There is no shortage of other outdoor sports enthusiasts to play with. Also, all the gear you could ever want to buy or rent is immediately available and competition keeps prices low.
  • You can choose from a wide cross section of tasty food from around the world. Who knew that apple pie could be so could in China?
  • English is widely spoken and folks are friendly and helpful. This is especially useful if you have a complicated problem to deal with (like ulcers).
Although I myself am not an outdoorsy type. I heartily recommend Yangshuo to those of you that are.

OCD Blogging

Juice Cafe - HCMC, Vietnam

I keep some notes from every day of the OC. Shortly after leaving a country, I update the relevant schedule page to reflect what we did instead of what we were planning to do. If for some reason you want to know what went down with the OC on Aug 2nd, 2005, this is the compulsively generated content for you.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Little Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I met a little girl tonight. I really wish I remembered her name, but I don't.

We were on our way to a French restaurant, to get some dinner before we went out for a night on the town. We were hoping to meet our new-found Japanese friend Becky in a club in HCMC. On the way there, we were accosted by a little girl. She must have been eight or nine years old. But she spoke perfect english. Well, not perfect, but amazingly good english. And she was doing what a lot of little girls her age were doing to a couple of tourists like us. She was trying to sell us some little useless trinket for way more than it was worth, grabbing some tiny portion of the mountains of money that we westerners have. And she broke my heart.
She was obviously very intelligent. I mean, she followed us for a good two blocks, trying to sell me this little pack of gum. She just wanted me to buy some condensed milk for her and her little sisters. But she was verbally sparring with me. I was trying to be the wry, funny american, wittily countering her pleas for my money with mildly sarcastic jokes about being poor and greedy. But, she argued with me the whole way, easily matching whatever feeble arguments I had with a sharp mind and a quick tongue. By the time we got to the restaurant that was our target, I was a broken man. Normally, I make it a point not to give any money to beggars and street salesmen, but she was good. The only thing that saved me from giving her all the money I had was our fortuitous arrival at our destination. So, I ran into the safety of our temporary home, and figured that was the last I would see of her.
I was wrong.
After an hour at the restaurant spent eating ridiculously expensive food, and gabbing with some Australians about the burgeoning Indian rave scene, we stepped back out into the Vietnamese night. We were just going to make a quick stop at the hotel to make sure that Becky hadn't emailed us before we went to the club that Le recommended. But, on the way back to the hotel, I was once again stopped by the little girl. At first, she didn't recognize me. But, as soon as she did, she jumped right back in where we left off. I had two blocks to go before I was safe in my air-conditioned hotel room, but I knew there was no way I was going to make it. That little girl was unstoppable. It just crushed me that she was so obviously smart and charismatic, but she was stuck doing these menial tasks, selling recycled schwag to rich, vacationing foreigners. She could be doing anything she wanted with a brain like that, but, because of the unlucky circumstances of her birth, she was pigeon-holed into scamming honkies for their change.
So, I stopped at the corner, capitulated to her pleas, and squatted down on the sidewalk, so I could see her eye-to-eye. Not to be outdone or patronized, she also squatted down. So, I sat down on the sidewalk. She sat down with me. Finally, I lied down in the street. I was determined to give this girl an equal footing, no matter how hard she tried to maintain that distance between us. And she smiled. She smiled and she laughed. For those two seconds of giggling, she actually looked like a little nine-year-old girls should. She wasn't selling me crap, and she wasn't scamming some rich sucker. She was just a little girl laughing at the silly grown-up lying down on the sidewalk. You can't imagine how happy that made me.
I ended up buying a pack of postcards from her for way to much money. I also got her to tell me her name, but I can't fucking remember it. But, I've never been good at remembering names. No biggie.

I won't forget her face.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Charlie >Does< Surf

Juice Cafe - HCMC, Vietnam

The net, that is.

There are a a lot of internet cafes in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC - my new hip-hip name). But it is no matter. Our hotel has got the free hookup and I am taking full advantage of it while seeking refuge from the afternoon heat and rain.

First impressions of Vietnam are mixed. The city is low, not very "nice" looking, and covered in noisy traffic strictly adhering to typical Asiatic (that is, nonexistent) traffic laws. I can only get about 5 feet out of hotel door before somebody tries to sell me a book, or a taxi ride, or a zippo, or whatever. Things are very cheap (double room in a nice-ish hotel for less than $30, beer for $0.20) and the food so far is excellent. I hope to spend one full day being an urban tourist before getting outside the city to enjoy the Mekong delta. We may also try out the horse races tomorrow or the next day if they are running. The maximum bet is $2.00.

Tickets are already arranged for our move to Hanoi. We leave by train Tuesday night and arrive 31 hours later. Jarah E will be there to greet us just in time for his birthday.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

His Name is Jonas

Hong Kong, China

We are sitting in the Hong Kong International Airport, waiting to board United 869 to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. It's going to feel really good to get this OC moving again.
The whole getting sick thing was a real drag. It was the first time during this trip that I seriously considered going home. I was trapped in a hotel room, feeling like shit, completely unable to explore the vibrant city around me. It was extremely frustrating.

I was actually able to do a little bit of tourism on my last full day in Hong Kong, though. I took the tram up to the top of Victoria Peak to get a bird's eye view of the towering cityscapes of Hong Kong and Kowloon, and the waterway between them. It was kind of a rainy, dreary day; not really ideal for scenic tourism. But, it felt good just to get out of the hotel. As nice as the Harbor View International House was, it was depressing sitting there every day with the same view out over the harbor; the same gigantic, flashing ING sign lulling me to sleep.
So, I braved the drizzle, increased my altitude, and took some pictures of Hong Kong. Then, the weirdest thing happened. I saw Jonas and Manuel.
We first met those kids in Moscow, waiting to start our Trans-Siberian trip. We played hacky-sack and chatted for about an hour, exchanged emails, took some pictures, then went our seperate ways (two of those pictures ended up in the Trans-Siberian photo album). They were taking the Trans-Mongolian route, turning south and ending in Beijing, and we were taking the trains due east to Vladivostok. I wasn't really expecting to see them again. But, there they were, in Hong Kong, on the top of Victoria Peak.
We exchanged open-mouthed stares and pointed at each other, and then fell into laughter. That night, the four of us went out to a Phillipino/Malaysian restaurant, had some fried pork fat and beers, and caught up on everything we had been doing for the past two months. They wowed us with stories of jeeping around the deserts of Mongolia, and we impressed them with tales of Chinese girlfriends. It felt very much liking catching up with old friends. Even though we had only met those guys for about an hour, I felt a real kinship with them. We had both just experienced the same part of the world, for similar reasons, and now we were exchanging stories over beers. Very cool.
When we first met them, they were just three days into their summer vacation. When we left them in Hong Kong, they had two days left before they were flying back home to Switzerland. It was very cool that we could bookend their trip like that. The world of the tourist is a small world indeed.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Video Clips

We have a bunch of short video clips that will eventually be put into some sort of nice edited format, complete with smooth transitions, soundtracks, and bad acting. For now though, we just want to share some of our more motion-based experiences.

Here's the OC, raw and uncut.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Blood and Guts

I had an endoscopy in Hong Kong. This procedures involved putting a camera down my throat and using a small arm to gather tissue samples. After it was all over, they gave me a DVD of the video. This move is made from the video I ripped off the DVD. It takes you on a journey down my throat, into by esophagus (where you can see nasty ulcers), down to my stomach, and then into my small intestine (for just a moment), before coming all the way back out. In the latter half, you can see tissue sample collection. This involves a small amount of blood.

Thanks to Rich M and Friend Side Monkey for the soundtrack. I did not really ask if I could use it, but the name is so perfect I do not see how they could say no.

Note - If you are easily grossed out by blood or the digestive tract, you should skip this video.

As usual, the files are in MP4 format. If you can not view them, please download VLC Player.

Ulceration Nation
(small) (large)

Server? Serving.

The normal website is back and in full effect.

All the goods are at the usual place:

Coming soon to an OC website near you:
  • More photo galleries
  • Video of my ulcer (and stomach and small intestine)
  • A topical article of extreme whimsy
  • Jason's theatre picks for fall
Sweat the technique.


First, a medical update:
  • Jason - Mostly restored to health. Some coughing and complaints about feeling "weird".
  • Mike - Some pain while eating, but not nearly as much as before. Sticking to a diet of soft foods (soup, noodles, rice), water, and tea. Frequently tired, but this is probably a side-effect of the pain killers.
In short, we are both feeling much better. I have an appointment with Dr. T tomorrow at 10:30 AM. If he gives the all clear, I will go back on the doxy. Tickets to Ho Chi Minh city are already bought for Thursday night. Vietnam, here we come.

While Jason has been largely confined to quarters, I managed to get out and about and see a bit of the city. Hong Kong is da bomb. It is definitely a foreign city despite all of the English signage and the general ease of navigation. Sometimes I feel like I am in London but everyone happens to be speaking Cantonese. Other times, I feel like I am in China, but it is filled with Englishmen. The dramatic geography (high rises sandwiched between harbor and hills) is the perfect setting for this kind of fusion.

I have spent a lot of time just wandering the streets. Despite best efforts, I have not been able to find the rumoured piles of pirate DVDs and software. I did buy a few VCDs for Jason to watch during his convalesence, but they were not a particular bargain. Perhaps the most impressive thing about HK streets is the density and variety of shops. In one block, you can get everything from live fish, to dog meat, to computer parts, to doorknobs, to high fashion. Small business is definitely king of the high street in this town. During my wanders, I also took in a few small temples, some nice city parks, and a water polo match.

A few practical matters have been taken care of. The broken camera, a gift for my nephew, and a few other odds and ends (mostly books) are on the way to the US in the care of Federal Express. I found a guy to transfer my 8 NTSC tapes to PAL. He gave a fair price and complemented my camera work. Clothes have also been washed.

This best thing is - today, I got recruited by a fashion scout. This very hip young Cantonese girl stopped me on the street and starting pitching work in commercials. I had to turn her down. My international modeling career has to wait until after the OC. I have suffered from an unbearable glut of confidence since. Nothing puts a skip in your step quite like an attractive (and exotic) woman suggesting you have what it takes to be a male model. Wicked. I'm too sexy for my blog.

Technical Difficulties

The website is currently down.

In the meantime, try this out:

That site only has blog articles - no pictures or videos. Fingers crossed that the server comes back from vacation soon tanned, rested, and ready to dispense giant ladles full of OC data.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Photo Album: Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji is a mountain in Japan. Japan is on the other side of the world. Here are some pictures.

It's Fun to Stay at the Y.M.C.A.

Hong Kong, China

Our first night in Hong Kong, we were in the YMCA on Waterloo Rd. Today, I'm chillin' in the Harbour View International House, which is the branch of the YMCA on Harbor Rd. Our Book of Many Things lists at least one more YMCA for us to choose from. Apparently, the Cantonese loves them some YMCA. When I first heard that we were going to be staying at a YMCA, I was skeptical, but I was also sick, so I didn't have a lot of fight in me. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the YMCA runs some inexplicably upscale accommodations up in this piece. We actually had to shell out ~$160 for a "suite" our first night, and it was luxurious. The YMCA we're in now is also sweet, but quite a bit cheaper. It has a relaxing 20th-story view of the Kowloon side of the harbor.

Happily, I can report that I'm feeling a lot better. The Augmentin has once again saved all of my bacon, and I can feel my strength returning. Today, I get to recover in my nice, air-conditioned room overlooking the harbor while I'm hooked into my internet drip, eating fresh fruit and pocky. It's a good time for me to catch up on all of the OC-related homework that I let slide over the past week or so. It looks like the Great Firewall of China doesn't apply in Hong Kong, which means that the website's probably going to get a pretty substantial update.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Taking it Easy in HK

Chungking Mansions - Hong Kong, China

States of health:
  • Jason - Pretty unhappy. Coughing and having breathing troubles. Not sleeping well. New antibiotics may or may not be effective.
  • Mike - Less unhappy than before. Some pain all the time and still much pain while eating. All other functions normal. Really missing food.
My doctor says that I can expect to be healed in "1 to 2 weeks". There is no ETA for Jason's recovery. Our HK visas are good for 90 days, so we have lots of time to chill out and get better. I am going to try to accomplish some administrative tasks (mailing stuff, fixing stuff) and maybe take in a few sights. I reckon Jason is going to do a lot of laying around in hotels reading books and watching pirate DVDs. The latter are not in short supply in this part of the world.

Most importantly - our conditions are stable and there is no need to worry. With luck, current illnesses will prove to be nothing more than a temporary pause in the OC. There is also some talk about "slowing down" so we do not "run ourselves into the ground". That sounds "smart" to me.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Road to Recovery is Through Hong Kong

Hong Kong, China

A quick update about our state of health...

We arrived in Hong Kong this morning via sleeper bus from Yangshuo. After dropping our stuff at a very fancy YMCA, we headed directly over to the First Baptist Hosptial of Hong Kong. Jason was having pneumonia-like symptoms and my stomach/esophagus issue was not any better. Jason scored some strong antibiotics and is already looking quite a bit happier. I got some pictures taken of the inside of my digestive track that backed-up the ulcer theory . The doctors set me up with three kinds of medicine (including a pain killer) and I am know feeling much better than I have in almost a week.

Long story short - the OC is well on the way to restored health. No further need to worry! Hong Kong has very modern medical facilities and I am confident that we will be 100% in the next couple of days.

Waiting in the Waiting Room

Hong Kong, China

Mike and I are sitting in the waiting room of the Hong Kong Baptist Hospital, waiting to be seen by our Chinese doctors. We have both been struck down with debilitating sicknesses that have necesitated our putting the Operation on hold while we are diagnosed and treated in Hong Kong. The OC is at a definite low point.

Mike's problem started the morning of our second day in Kunming. He had dry-swallowed his anti-malarial before he went to bed, then woke up with a stabbing pain in his esaphogas every time he swallowed. Over the next few days, the problem didn't get any better. It's at the point now where he can't really eat or drink anything significant before the pain overwhelms him. Most likely diagnosis: esaphogial ulcers. Yewah!
My problem started a day after Mike's, and didn't initially appear as severe. I had a slight cough that night. I had just spent the past two weeks taking a tour of China's smog-holes, so I figured I was just coughing out all of the debris that I had collected in my lungs. However, the next day, while we were taking a hiking tour around the Shilin Stone Forest, the sickness really began to assert itself. By the end of the day, the coughing was more prevalent, and I was starting to show a fever. That night, on the sleeper train to Guilin, the fever really took hold. By the time we made it to Yangshuo, it was clear that I was full-on sick. Plus, as usual, the infection started spreading to my sinuses.

Mike and I toughed it out in Yangshuo for a few days, trying to enjoy the beautiful scenery while we rested and patronized the local pharmacies to find cures for our ails. Unfortunately, the shallow inventory of the pharmacies and our meager doctoring skills were not enough to fully diagnose and/or fix our evil spirits. So, by our third day in Yangshuo, we decided to hit the first sleeper bus to Hong Kong, to get some real medical attention.
It was a long, hot, stinky bus ride, and my fever fluctuated the whole time. Eventually, we made it to Hong Kong, and found some lodging. We then immediately hit the hospital, and that is where we are now. I'm waiting for my turn with the good Doctor Lam.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

My Valve!

Yangshou, China

I have gone and done some damage to myself.

After our night out in Kunming, I took a doxycyclene (sp?) tablet (anti-malarial) just before bed without drinking any water. I woke up several hours later with an intense burning/stabbing pain just under the bottom of my breastbone. Sitting on the toilet was no help. Some relief was found by drinking many glasses of water. After 6, the pain was reduced enough that I could go back to sleep.

Since then, I have had a persistent pain in the same area minus the burning. It feels like I have something sharp stuck at the bottom of my esophagus. The sensation is worst in the morning and when I swallow (especially hot liquids). Hunting around on the internet, it sounds like I have either some kind of acid reflux problem or an ulcer. Both of these can be treated with medicine.

The pain is not getting any better, so I am calling in the professionals. There is a hospital here in Yangshou that reportedly has some English-speaking doctors and Erin L has friends that might be talked into medical translator duty. I hope to go there today and get checked out. Fingers crossed that we can get this fixed up quickly. It is starting to worry/annoy me.

BTW - A Confederacy of Dunces is a very good book indeed.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Cheech and Chengdu

Kunming Youth Hostel - Kunming, China
Chapter One Cafe - Kunming, China

The only tickets available from Xi'an to Chengdu were first class ("soft sleeper"). By going first class we lost a bit of backpacker cred and a small amount of extra money and gained a good night's sleep. There are 4 bunk-style beds per cabin with a small table between - just like on the Russian trains. The cars are clean, you get a constantly filled jug of boiled water, and (best of all) there are Western-style toilets. They should call it "no squat" class. It was a good trade.

We made a new friend almost immediately after boarding the train. Joe was 14, visiting Chengdu from Xi'an, and very keen to use his excellent English. He must go to a very good school. His language skills easily beat out Lily and Vicki who are studying English in university and are at least 6 years older. I think Joe may be the best Chinese speaker of English that we have come across. He asked us a load of questions about where we were from, what we were doing, and the like. I asked him to sit for an interview (I have started doing that for the documentary) and he agreed to call me the day after arrival.

The next morning before we pulled into Chengdu, Joe asked for a bit of help. His father was meant to meet him and his mother, but was going to be delayed. They wanted to hang out for a few hours in our hotel. I am not sure why the could not wait it out in the station or in just any hotel lobby, but I also saw no reason to refuse the request. The four of us jumped in a cab and headed over to the Hotel Jinhe. We got Joe to help us order a bit of breakfast before he and his mom split.

Our room had an internet hookup. We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon making use it. One problem though - nearly 50% packet loss between us and the server where the OC site lives. Network diagnostic tools (mtr is da bomb) indicated the issue was with our first upstream router. Lame. The flakey connect was enough to upload a backlog of articles and read/write email. Jason struggled mightily to upload photo albums, but our need for long-lived FTP connections was more than the local IP networks could fully satisfy.

Erin L hooked me up with some local friends and we arranged to meet them over dinner. Sichuan hot pot was the only thing that could disrupt our lethargy of HTTP. Matt and Apple picked us up at the Jinhe in their newly acquired monster truck. Size matters in Chinese traffic and we cruised with confidence to the restaurant. I will write more about the food in a separate article, but suffice to say it was spicy, full of new experiences, and the company was very good. Apple arranges tours and treks and was an excellent resource for local sites. She scored us some cheapo tickets to the local opera between courses. It was a nice night out.

The laundry urgency gauge was getting close to the red line. The Jinhe only offered expensive full-service laundry. Jason found some info on the interweb that led us to believe that the Holiday Inn (Chengdu's luxury hotel) had self-service laundry. We trekked across downtown across the watchful gaze of a giant Mao statue to get the scoop. Several very helpful members of staff conspired to direct us to the 2nd and a half floor. This is the hidden deck where the housekeeping and kitchen facilities are. We akwardly stumbled around for a bit getting very surprised looks from just about everyone. I expected to get chucked out by security at any time, but we were let alone to wander. We saw some impressively large laundry equipment, but nothing that look available for amateur use.

It was time to seek spiritual intervention. The Buddhist temple in the northern part of town offered tranquil halls with ancient artworks and a relaxing garden filled with relaxing pilgrims. I like Buddhist temples. Incense smoke and old wood are some of my favorite aromas. We had an adventurous vegetarian lunch on the temple grounds. The menu was filled with dishes like "7 Spirits Under Pumpkin" and "Tiger Paw with Musk Scent".

Renewed, we headed back to the hotel. I took off soon after to investigate another temple and an ornamental gardens. Jason stayed behind to heroically hand wash his stinky underthings. I did not manage to find the temple, but the park was very nice. I spent an hour drinking beer and reading some Dostoevsky. "Notes from Underground" was really striking a cord with me.

Core OC personnel reunited back in da room and we headed a bit south to a temple for the opera. Apple and Matt arrived shortly after in The Tank and walked us to the venue. Tickets sorted, they split. The "opera house" was a courtyard among the temple halls. Rows of rattan chairs broken up by small tables faced a large stage. All guests are treated to tea, peanuts, and a small fan. I employed the services of an older gentleman who administered an unusual but enjoyable massage and cleaned my ears. The latter operation involved sticking cotton-tipped pins into my ears and rubbing them against a vibrating metal rod. It is a very strange sensation and the whole procedure is of dubious effectiveness.

The "opera" was more of a showcase of local styles rather than a coherent production. There was a fair amount of the expected complex costume and make-up, ritualized dancing, and warbled singing as well as some acrobatic comedy and puppets of both the shadow and conventional varieties. I was hoping for live performance of traditional music, but most everything played out to a recorded soundtrack with a suspiciously disco feel. All in all, our time could have been spent better elsewhere.

We checked out of the hotel early the next morning and set about trying to get train tickets for that evening. The ticket office in town told us there was nothing available until the next day. Near the office, we were approached by a woman that claimed she could sell us places in a sleeper car that day. After some labored conversation, we decided not to risk $40 on possibly bogus tickets. Matt R told us later that train tickets are sold up to 3 days in advance, are refundable for 95% of value before the train departs, and are not tied to a specific passenger. As there is so little risk, it is common for free-lancers to resell tickets.

A very helpful travel agent eventually secured us seated tickets for the next day and assured us it was possible to upgrade to sleeper on the train. After a bit of shopping, we checked back into the hotel (where they did not seem to recognize us at all). We devoted our unexpected extra night in Chengdu to getting drunk and meeting girls. We were much more successful in the first than the second. Matt R pointed us in the right direction and came out for a couple and a bit of food before turning us loose. I was tired and in a bad mood. I think Jason may have been as well. We called the lifeless outing early.

There was a big rain storm on Friday that we watched from the comfort of the hotel. It had been a long time since I had seen lightning and heard thunder. We headed to the train station around 3 and boarded the train for Kunming shortly after 4.

Kunming and the Gang

Kunming, China

We went out last night for a proper drink. It seems like it had been a while since we just went out to go bar-hopping. I guess we tried to do it on our last night in Chengdu, but it was pretty much a failure. We were both tired, and the bar was pretty disappointing. We ended up packing it in early.
But, last night, we went out and we stayed out. There was this one spot, known as the Hump Over the Himalayas, that was listed as a good place to drink by the Rough Guide. It was in the city center and it had a large mall around it that was full of drinking holes, so it would be easy to move on to the next establishment once we were done with the Hump.
The bar was nice enough, with a fairly standard layout (so far, it has seemed that bars the world 'round usually follow similar design standards). There were a smattering of fellow travelers, but most of the clientele looked to be locals. And many of them were playing some sort of dice-based drinking game that we had seen before in China. We wanted in. We asked the bartender and a couple of the waitresses how to play, but we were unable to completely communicate our confusion.
So, Mike grabbed a random girl across the bar who luckily spoke a surprisingly large amount of english. She explained the game known as Dice Cup to us. It was similar to many other drinking games in that it involved a healthy mixture of randomness, lying, and shots of beer. It was easy enough to learn, and soon, we were rollin' some dice. Our teacher wasn't drinking, so we made her spout two-line poems in english instead of the normal alcohol-based punishments.
After a couple of hours of this, we were nice and warmed up, and ready to jump off to the next bar. Our new-found friend didn't want to join us, so we bid her farewell and stepped out of the Hump into the cool Kunming night, looking for a new distraction. We found what we were looking for not fifty feet away. I have no idea what the club was called, but it was loud, flashy, and full of people.
There were two items of note in this club; the horrible beer, and the dancing wimmens.
I'm not sure where they got their beer, but it seemed like they purchased the shittiest local beer they could find, then re-packaged it with fake branding. The bottles were exactly the same, and the labels were practically falling off. The two available brands were Golden Cup and American Lager. I think I was drinking the Cup.
Go-go dancers aren't so uncommon in the US, but it was the first time I had seen anything like it in China, and it was a little surprising. There was even a Go-go dude in there. But what was really noticeable about them was the completely disinterested way in which they performed their duties. For the most part, they just appeared to be re-hashing dance moves that they may have seen in five-year-old dance videos, and they were universally bored. They would jump up onto their assigned podium, do their five-minute forced performance, and then run back to the table in the corner where all the dancers sat.
We were only in there for about half an hour before I found myself sitting amongst a large group of Chinese dudes in the VIP section. They spoke maybe ten words of english between them, but they were eagerly feeding me shots of beer and giving me the thumbs up gesture. Every once in a while, they would bring over a dancer, and get her to sit next to me and we would have an awkward conversation. At first, I thought they were just being friendly. However, later into the night, when they started trying to hold my hand, I figured they might have other motives.
They had also managed to capture another Westerner into their harem. His name was Sylvain, and he was Swiss. He was a pretty interesting guy. Sylvain was a gymnast for the Canadian National Team, and he was in China with a girl (who wasn't his girlfriend) on vacation. We had similar taste in music (Drum'n'Bass and the Hip-Hops), and he wanted to learn how to breakdance. We had a few laughs and a lot of free Chinese beer. I would have liked to hang out with him more, but he was off to Beijing the next day.
Anyway, the rest of the night was spent drinking and doing the Electric Bugaloo. I unsuccessfully hit on one of the dancers, and Mike had a confusing encounter with the waiting staff that netted us two very expensive bottles of whiskey. We ended the night with a bowl of hot ramen from a random noodle shack near the club, then cabbed our way back to the hostel.

Good night.

Saturday, August 06, 2005


Must... Have... Validation.

I would like to remind all of you dedicated OC fans out there that is fully comment-enabled. At the bottom of every post on website, there is a link to a post-specific comment section, where you can read other people's blatherings about our goings-on, and leave some sage wisdom of your own. Advice, reprimand, slander. Whatever you feel like sharing.
There is also a link for general comments on the right-hand side of the website. That one is for the yelling.

Comments, Number One. Engage.

Cora, Cora, Bo Bora

Between Chengdu and Kunming, China

I just finished my breakfast of peanuts, cookies and water, and I'm squeezed into my little cubby-hole, clacking away on my laptop. Life wasn't always this good. 12 hours ago, Mike and I thought we were going to spend our entire 19-hour train ride stuck in the "hard seat" section. Imagine a full coach flight with about 20% less room, a stinkier, smokier cabin, and the requirement that you carry all of your luggage with you. For 19 hours. Add to that the fact that we had gone out drinking the night before, and you might get an idea how little we were looking forward to our stint. Once again, the People's Golden Ratio asserted itself.
This little lemma theorizes that for every one hundred people you meet in China that are rude, obnoxious, inconsiderate, gross or just generally unlike-able, there is one who is a saint.
Yesterday, our saint was Cora.
Because of forces beyond our control, we had to purchase hard seat tickets for our trip to Kunming; a day later than expected, no less. But, we were told that it would be easy to get them changed on the train for some sleeper tickets. Apparently, by easy, the travel agent meant impossibly hard. As soon as we boarded, there was a crush of people clamoring to get on the upgrade list. The Chinese are already fairly inconsiderate when it comes to queuing up for services, but this was a madhouse. By the time I realized what was going on, there were already sixty people ahead of us in the waiting list, and the attendant said that there was no way we would be able to get our upgrade.
Enter the Cora.
I was waiting in the Space Between Trains, trying to figure out how to extricate Mike and myself from this mess, when she said hello and started a pleasant conversation with me. I was trying to be polite, but I was also mightily distracted by my little logic puzzle. We talked a bit about where I was from, what I was doing in China... the standard stuff. However, as soon as she found out that I was waiting for an upgrade, she immediately offered her help. She became a fierce advocate for the lao mei. She spent almost two hours (of her four-hour trip) waiting with me, trying to register my ticket numbers and talking to the attendant. She was doing everything she could do get us some sleeper tix. Finally, she managed to sweet-talk a deal (she's a real estate agent by trade) with the man in charge of the upgrade distributions, and Mike and I found ourselves "movin' on up to a dee-lux apartment in the sky-eye-hi". Well, not really deluxe. Mike got a soft sleeper (4-person cabin), and I got a hard sleeper (refugee-camp style). But, it was better than a back-breaking 19-hour slump that the hard-seats would have been.
I hung out with Cora and her friend Jen for about an hour, chatting about more relaxing topics such as her hometown and the purpose of the OC. But, eventually, I had to scramble back to my new sleeper spot, before they resold it.
We have Cora's contact info, though, and she and Jen may meet us in Yangshou.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Xi'an - It Is Hard to Pronounce

Xi'an to Chengdu Train
Hotel Jinhe, Chengdu

It has taken me a couple of days of practice, and I think I am still screwing it up. The first syllable is like 'sigh' with a bit of 'ch' thrown in. The second is like the American pronunciation of 'Anne'. I think. You can be certain that it is not my destiny to master the finer points of Chinese pronunciation.

We arrived around 22:00 on Friday the 29th. Up late, we hopped over to a restaurant near the train station recommended by Vicki. The ordering system there was very strange. We bought a debit card from the cashier, then walked around a cafeteria-style U-shape picking out things. Each station charged your card and arranged to deliver selections to your table. When finished, we got a refund of the remaining cash on the card. Dishes of note included: crayfish covered in sticky red chili sauce, noodles in broth with jellied blood, and huge pork and vegetable dumplings. I ate more than I really should have. What can I say? I love dumplings. They are my kryptonite. The blood noodles were nice as well.

The rest of the day was spent doing some hardcore tourism. We saw a large pagoda/temple complex that houses Buddhist manuscripts brought to China from India in the 7th century. The Drum and Bell towers were fine examples of traditional architecture and provided some commanding views of the modern city. V&L found this all very boring.

After a quick rest at the hotel, we headed back out top sample a local specialty. Each diner got a big bowl and two puck-sized pieces of bread and set about the job of breaking the bread into small bits. The waitress came along from time to time to check on our progress and shout at us for being substandard bread-breakers. Eventually, she relented and took away our bread bits. They came back 15 minutes later having been cooked up with a heavy mutton stew. The combined effect of the mushy bread bits and the slippery stew broth is very nice. I finished my whole bowl and some of Lily's.

Early to bed with the intention of an early rise and viewing the Terracotta Warriors. During the night, there was a disturbance in The Force. Not really. Replace 'The Force' with 'my stomach' and 'disturbance' with 'convention of angry Frenchmen'. It could have been the blood noodles or the chicken feet or any of the other 'delicacies' that I had had recently. I was feeling too unsteady for a sweaty bus ride out of town. Vicki and Jason took off and left Lily and I behind to take it easy.

The Gaullic subcommittee meeting in my gut quieted down towards mid day. We headed out to a local park. I was hoping to just lay in the grass and feel sorry for myself, but we ran headlong into a troupe of acrobats, a alligator pit ringed by a go-kart track, and a high-wire show. A good sit by the side of the lake rounded off what turned out to be a very enjoyable afternoon.

I left Lily watching Chinese soap operas and popped into the local internet cafe to satiated my lust for IP and my fetish for TCP. Jason and Vicki returned shortly thereafter and we all joined up for a very so-so dinner in the hotel restaurant. Never give Chinese girls beer. We spent the rest of the evening watching V&L alternate between wrestling (enjoyable) and moaning like little kids (not so enjoyable). Everyone passed out or fell asleep early.

The next morning was all about planning. We combined Erin L's advice with some reading from the Rough Guide and our own poorly considered opinions and decided to make off for Chengdu. L&V helped us navigate the furstrating process of getting tickets. Then it was time to say goodbye. Vicki was staying in Xi'an. Lily was heading back to Beijing.

We boarded the train around 17:00 and headed south for Sichuan Province.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

China Make Jason Angry


Due to China's lame firewalling policies, some of the newer photo albums are not completely updated. You'll probably have to deal with the missing pages until we get to Vietnam.

Photo Album: Moscow

The OC fronted all over the capitol of Russia.

Photo Album: St. Petersburg

Our first stop in Russian was this pretty little town.

Photo Album: Tallinn

The first official stop of Operation Cromulent.

Beijing Is Full of Art Students

Xi'an to Chengdu Train

We arrived in China on Sunday the 24th around 14:30. The transfer to Tianjin trian station was notable for: 1) the comically crappy quality of the bus; 2) a shocking introduction to Chinese traffic conventions; and 3) almost getting ripped off by a driver who >said< we were going to Beijing. Thanks Wee Wee.

The Tianjin to Beijing Express was packed, so we had to stand for 2 hours. Some folks made extra room for my fat lowen (honkey) ass and our fat lowen (cracker) bags. We struck up a conversation with a number of locals. Chinese people that speak English are very keen to practice their skills. The most avid conversationalist went out of his way to help us find a nice hotel near Beijing Station at a good price. Thanks Andrew.

We were having some camera issues (see 'Equipment Failure' article for the details), so we headed down to the photographic heart of Beijing (Xidan) to get our fix on. Getting things repaired always ups my appetite. After dropping off the goods, Jason led the way to the Russian part of town in search of a Thai place that is spoken of highly in the Rough Guide. We were just about to give up looking and head to McDonald's when some helpful expats pointed out that we were standing directly in front of our goal. It was good food despite the camouflage. Jason noted that we think of Thai food as something familiar from home.

The highlight of the evening was the post-supper rickshaw ride. We settled on the fair price of 20 RMB for the short journey and our suspiciously mirthful driver gave the first of many mighty screams when we started to lurch forward. It is difficult to describe the scene exactly. Imagine a bicycle ridden by a half-crazed Chinaman screaming in a pained high pitched warble pulling a two-seat cart containing a terrified but hysterically laughing pair of yanks dodging in and out of chaotic Beijing traffic. Upon arrival, our driver made a case for additional payment, apparently basing his claim on the extra strain caused by a small hill along the way. We eventually handed over double the agreed price. I have never heard such a strange expression of joy as was shrieked out by this odd gentlemen (possibly the finest rickshaw driver in all of the Russian part of Beijing) when he grabbed the bills and pedaled off, ringing his rickshaw's absurd electronic horn again and again.

The next afternoon we had our first run in with The Art Students. The Rough Guide warned that English-speaking students run a minor scam where they approach and befriend foreigners with a story about how they are art students and their work is on display in a local gallery. The "gallery" is really a shop selling low quality prints at high prices and The Art Students get a cut of whatever is spent by the suckers they bring in the door. We got rid of this pair in good time and dove into a hot pot shop to get some grub.

We were in the mall trying to find vitamins and looking very lost indeed when approached by a cheerful pair of college-aged Chinese girls. My Art Student radar went on high alert, but they were more interested in my sideburns ("very special") than galleries, so I stood down from general quarters. They helped us find vitamins and a power strip to replace the one we left in Japan. Just as we were parting company to pick up the cameras, they started going on about calligraphy and watercolors and a showcase of their work. I felt dirty having been taken in so easily by the Art Students.

Jason's camera got fixed. Mine did not. We walked toward the center of town with the intention of passing through T Square, finding a tea house, and discussing our next moves. On the way, we sat for a bit in the square to take in the scene. A Chinese guy gave me a cigarette. I gave him a button from London. Those kind of small exchanges always make me happy. Back on our feet, we were approached by a pair of college-aged Chinese girls. You guessed it: Art Students. They barely made it through the word 'calligraphy' before we mumbled some apologetic words and split.

Still not yet out of T Square, we got mobbed by some youngsters that wanted us to take group photos of them. Then they wanted to take group photos with us. Then they wanted individual photos as well. It is fun being a celebrity. I picked up one girl "over the threshold"-style to make her photo extra memorable. You gotta give a little something back.

Not 10 seconds later, there was another pair of college-aged Chinese girls striking up a conversation with the OC brotherhood. I set my phaser on 'Fuck Off!' and readied for action. There was no mention of calligraphy or watercolors within the first 15 minutes of pleasant conversation and Jason was doing a fair job of disarming the girls with his demi-Latin charms. There was no way I was going to let him score all the points. My fear of Art Students is small compared to my fear of comparative inadequacy. As it turns out, these kids were legit. Vicki and Lily were studying English in Beijing. It was not hard to convince them to come with us for a cup of tea.

Vicki lead the way to a local tea house in the noisy/crowded/dirty area of Beijing just south of T Square. Instead of just a pot of the green stuff, we were treated to a tasting of 6 types of Chinese tea and instructed on the finer points of tea etiquette and the medicinal qualities of each variety. We bought some tea as a gift for V&L and ourselves received a gift from our server: two small hollow statues that emit a jet of water from their penises when first soaked then doused in hot water. I have no idea why this was part of an otherwise very staid presentation about tea.

All fired up on ginger root and flowers, we popped back over to the hotel to drop off our bags and change, treated the ladies to a meal at KFC, then headed back out to karaoke. The beer and list of tolerable English songs ran out within several hours, so we headed over to Club Cobra. We had some beers, a good laugh, and lost the still camera that had just been fixed. You take the good, you take the bad, you take 'em both, and there you have, the facts of life, the facts of life.

The next day (Wednesday), we got up quick at about noon and headed back over to Xidan to see about replacing the still broken video camera and the AWOL still camera. We found exactly what we wanted and were able to buy it with a minimum of bureaucratic bungling. Not too many stores in Beijing take international credit cards, and the ones that do make you chat on the phone for 20 minutes with somebody in India before sealing the deal. Either way, the new cameras were an unexpected expense, but now we are again operating at full tourist potential. We celebrated our new toys that night with a magnificent feast of Peking Duck back in the seedy part of town.

Thursday, Jason and I left the girls behind and took a tour bus out of town to see some sights. Stop number one was a section of The Great Wall. We climbed up a steep section and were reward with some excellent views. Things went very far down hill from there. The cramped/smelly/hot bus dragged us all over Chinese creation giving us opportunities to buy Chinese herbal medicine, roast duck in a potato-chip bag, all kinds of horrible candy, and souvenirs from a Ming-themed waxworks. We had 30 minutes at the actual Ming Tombs. That is enough time to walk to the entrance and reluctantly turn back. I do not thing I was alone in my relief to be back in the city.

Long story short, Vicki and Lily convinced us to travel to Xi'an, the ancient capital of China and their adopted home town. We boarded a train from Beijing West Station late that night. We sorted a lot of problems in Beijing, had a few good times, and saw a bit of historic China. It is not my favorite OC port of call, but it is by no means bottom of the list.

Equipment Failure

Train between Beijing and Xi'an

This is a bit of a nerdy rant about our troubles with cameras. You may want to skip it if you are not into nerds, rants, or cameras. Some of this has also been covered in other articles.

All our troubles started about the time we went to see Julie and Patrick. The still camera started starting putting large spots on images. This was worse in some lighting conditions and when using the zoom. By the time we reached Japan, the effect on our pictures was very pronounced. Unable to get it repaired, we bought a new one in Tokyo and put the old aside as backup.

The climb up Fuji was very hard on our toys. The video camera was rendered nearly useless when the ejection mechanism stopped working. The new still camera started having the same spotting issue and also displayed a few new eccentricities. Volcanic dust reduced us to one semi-functioning still camera.

Our first task in Beijing was to attempt repair. There is a block of camera stores near Xidan, and we now know it very well. I found a video shop that claimed they could fix our little Panasonic. Jason found a camera shop that would clean the Sony. We walked out with promises that repair would be complete the next day. I was very uneasy about leaving the cameras with potentially dodgy technicians in a foreign land, but we had little option.

Back the next day, there was some good news and some bad news. The Sony still camera was back in tip-top shape. The video shop managed to eject the stuck tape from the video, but could not repair the mechanism. The man was genuinely embarrassed and apologetic about not being able to finish the job and charged nothing for his effort. I felt bad about doubting his honesty.

Later that night, we lost the new still camera in a club. It was either stolen or fell out of Jason's pocket into some dark corner. Ugh. Back to where we started from.

Rather than repair the (spotty) backup Sony still camera, we opted to buy yet another (our third in so many months) and hope that it would be stronger than its brothers. As for the video camera, our options were: 1) wait at least 6 weeks for Panasonic to maybe repair it; or 2) buy a replacement. Six weeks is a lot of video to miss. Time to go shopping.

But first, research! We checked the internet to see if there were newer video models available that might be better suited to the rigors of world travel. Specifically, we looked into cameras that use hard disks or solid state memory rather than mini DV tapes. JVC has a line of high-ish capacity (30 GB - 7 hours) hard disk cameras coming out. We >might< have been able to get one from Japan. They also have an older line of low-ish capacity (4 GB - 1 hour) units that use removable minidisk or compact flash. While it would be nice to have a camera with less moving parts and not have to worry about media, moving away from mini DV would leave us with about 10 hours of footage and no way to import it. We decided to just replace the broken camera with a new one of the same model.

Back in Xidan for the 3rd day in a row, we found a twin brother for our little Panasonic. One problem, though, it is PAL and all our recordings to date are NTSC. Blast. At best, we may be able to capture the NTSC tapes using the PAL camera. This may require some whack-ass hackery. At worst, we will have to transmit the tapes to someone, have them do the capture, and send us back the data on DVD or similar media. Yuck. We bought the PAL camera and crossed our fingers.

Preliminary tests are inconclusive. I can view and capture the NTSC tapes, but the video is very "blocky". It is not yet clear if the problem is getting the bits from the camera or the video file that gets produced. When we are hooked into the matrix again, I will see if anyone else has tried this before. Fingers crossed that there is some utility available that will magically fix everything.

Land of the Rising Sum

Shinkansen Train - Between Tokyo and Osaka
Chinese Train - Between Beijing and Xi'an

Because I have been to Japan for a lifelong total of 3 weeks, seen several cities, and spoken to at least 10 Japanese people, I am now qualified to make generalizations about the entire country and culture.
  • There are a lot of superfluous employees in Japan, especially in government jobs. For example, when we traveled from Nagoya to the World Expo in the forests of Aichi, there were two people every 50 feet whose job was to indicate the right direction, even when there was only one choice. Shops, hotels, post offices, trains, and restaurants also seem to have more staff than the equivalent English or American business. I am not sure why this is. Two theories are: 1) a cultural preference for lots of individual attention; and 2) strong (government?) incentives to hire. Jason guesses that high employee counts are likely not found in the manufacturing sector, as that would make Japanese comparatively more expensive.
  • Many things in Japan are nicer, faster, cleaner, or more whiz-bang than they really need to be. First instinct is to chalk this up to cultural preference, but the path between a taste for order and Shinkansen trains seems a long one. I am thinking that there must be some larger purpose in the market for excessive gadgetry. As usual, I have a theory about the matter. Having a highly advanced infrastructure and a society that "just works" could be a point of patriotic pride for the nation. Some sources say that the Japanese have long considered themselves the most civilized people of east Asia. The strong emphasis on being "one step ahead" could reflect his. I would like to live in a country where you can be openly proud of your transport network. It follows that contented workers living in a land that is the envy of its neighbors will be more productive.
  • Consumerism in Japan is unlike anywhere else I have been. In the US, people buy things to demonstrate wealth. In Europe, people buy things to differentiate their style. In Japan, people seem to buy things just to buy things. Everywhere there is an opportunity to purchase, and everywhere are people taking advantage of those opportunities. And things are not cheap. I can only attribute this behavior to recent Japanese history. In 100 years, they went from a feudal backwater to a military empire, to a smoking ruin, to a gigantic economic powerhouse. Those transitions (especially the last) must have fueled this enormous enthusiasm for consumption. Spending in the present is easy when the future is so bright.
A quick survey of the Japanese economy looks pretty gloomy. The Economist regularly has a field day over their banking system (0% interest!) and everyone else loves to point out the massive bust following the huge boom in the 80's. Remember when the Japanese were going to buy up the world? The only thing of any value that came out of Nipponese speculation of that era was Gung Ho (sp?) - a fine outing indeed for a younger Michael Keaton. Walking around in Tokyo, I could not help but wonder how they keep the entire house of cards together. From where I am standing, there are two many people selling too many things to too many people that do not need them. It just does not add up, and I have this sneaky suspicion that it will not last.

I demand comments! Especially from those of you who have visited or are resident in Japan. You know who you are.

Monday, August 01, 2005

I Have the Power!

Wow. The guys haven't taken away my blogger power yet.

I just finished organizing and uploading my Japan pictures. It was an incredible pain. Remember that returns the list in an ARBITRARY ORDER. :(

Here's the link:

More Scamola

Xi'an, China

Our three-day stint in Xi'an is almost complete.

It was an interesting time in the ancient capitol of China. Although the city seemed cursed with much of the same pollution, heat, humidity, and general impoliteness of the population, it was a better experience than Beijing. Xi'an is a lot smaller, and feels more like a cultural experience than the bland commercial center that was Beijing.
We did a lot of the tourist thing. The city itself was surrounded by an ancient wall that had been rebuilt many times, and had quite a few historical sites within walking distance of each other. While Mike was recovering from some paomo-induced bathroom time, I also had the chance to take a (not totally scamola free) tour to the east of Xi'an, where I saw some museums, and learned a bit more about the older Chinese dynasties. This included a gander at the Terra-cotta Army, which was amazing.

We said goodbye to Vicki and Lilli today. Vicki is staying in Xi'an for the summer, while Lilli is chugging back to Beijing. There was a bit of scuffle last night (filmed, natch) that was fueled by the coming separation. And beer. It was also fueled by beer.
Those two were a mixed blessing. For the most part, they were fun to hang out with, and gave the OC a much-needed shot of femininity. However, sometimes I got the feeling that they were just scamming some foreigners for free meals and a trip to Xi'an. I'm still trying to figure out what their deal was. I'll have plenty of time to think about tonight, since we are leaving by hot-ass train to go further south and west into mainland China.

Next stop, Chengdu.

Quick Update

Xi'an, China

Look for more photo albums coming up in the next week or so. Sorry about the delay.