Category Archives: travelog

Travel journal entries

Everybody else thinks it’s the bees knees

Turkey is a very religious country. There have been three religious events since I arrived, and seemingly everyone around has been out to celebrate each one.  The first was a jubilant affair, with bands of men running down the streets of İstanbul into the night banging drums and taxicabs honking their horns.

I was on an overnight bus to Cappadocia during the second. At one of the bus stops, three young men got on the bus and flipped through the channels on the bus television, and the pointedly got off the bus once they’d determined that they couldn’t watch the celebration on board. The festivities were broadcast over the radio, and when they were over, the entire bus broke into cheers and the driver honked his horn at the darkened desert road.

The third was not a happy night. The crew of the boat I was traveling on lay anchor in the small coastal town of Kaş and took all the passengers to a rooftop terrace to watch the event on television. Although there were some high points (which the townspeople celebrated with fireworks) ultimately the night ended very sadly, and the crowds gathered on the streets dissipated slowly. The crew escorted us back to our boat in near-silence and us tourists, as easily affected by sad sentiments as good, went to bed early.

The celebrations themselves are called “games,” and consist of eleven Turkish men kicking a “ball” into a net called a “goal.” Right now, all of the countries in Europe are graciously indulging Turkey in its religious celebrations by sending “teams” of their own to compete. The faith itself is called “football” (and in the U.S. it’s sometimes called “soccer”). You might have heard of it1.

Each game is a part of a larger holiday season called the “Euro Cup.” Turkey was not expected to win as many games as it did and make it this far into the holiday season. The first and second games were tied up until the very end, when the Turkish team scored with just seconds remaining. The third Turkey lost to Germany in the last moments.

Turkey will play Russia for third place in the coming days, and I expect it to be every bit as exciting as the previous games.

  1. Islam is another religion which is also practiced in Turkey, or so I’ve heard. There have been, however, no exciting Islamic games or festivals here since I’ve been here. []

Drive for miles and never turn off

Traveling is not about the places you go, the people you meet, or even the things you do.  It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and pushing your own boundaries. The world back home can act like and tether on a boat on the open ocean.

It’s very hard to let things happen as they will, while keeping a journal for friends back home. From here on out, this log will have to be more a series of communicades from the other side – keeping track of everything is too much of an anchor for me right now.

Since landing in İstanbul two and a half weeks ago, I’ve swum in two seas and walked on two continents, traveled hundreds of miles by train, bus, scooter and boat, slept in a cave, a treehouse, and a yacht, broken the law at least three times (and gotten away with it), and only gotten mildly sunburnt once.

A list from Istanbul

  • Days: 18
  • Cities: 7
  • Countries: 5 (3 if you’re not counting SARs)
  • Continents:2 (3 if you count the Arabian Peninsula)
  • Time zones: 2
  • Beds: 6
  • Flights: 5
  • Internet cafes hacked: 1
  • Powerbars left: 0, yummy
  • Photos: 179
  • Photos per day: 9.667 (it was pretty rainy in Hong Kong)
  • Percentage of Germans who think I’m German: 100% (Literally, this guy from Hamburg came up to me in the hostel in Hong Kong and said, out of the blue, “You are from Berlin?” He was quite confused when I told him I was from California. And no, I wasn’t wearing my Berlin shirt, or doing anything Berlin-related.)
  • Number of hostel staff singing show tunes very loudly in Istanbul right now: at least 1

The land of the midnight Starbucks

Hong Kong is one massive shopping mall. Every tourist attraction, subway station, and skyscraper is decorated with an air-conditioned multistory promenade of acquisition. Often the actual tourist attraction isn’t signed very well — I just spent ten minutes wandering around the World Trade Center Mall, trying to find the tunnel to the Noonday Gun, which I eventually found by walking down the “automobiles only, no pedestrians” exit to the mall’s parking garage, hopping the vehicle crossing gate, and traversing a tunnel with massive green pipes labeled “Seawater Return.” And yes, it turns out that was the official route. If I were wealthy, uninterested in tourism, and flying back home instead of at the beginning of a long trip, I’d probably enjoy this more than I am.

The walking style here couldn’t be more different from other big cities. In places like New York, people are always moving fast & purposefully, in a straight line. Here — and I’ve confirmed this impression with other travelers — pedestrians are masters of aimless wandering. There’s a lot of looking to the left while meandering to the right, walking extremely slow, and stopping and turning in the middle of a crowd, charting a new course without regard for any obstacles. Everyone seems peacefully relaxed, or maybe just transfixed by the endless parade of things they could be purchasing.

When it’s raining, freakishly tall people like myself have to watch out for the tips of meandering umbrellas.

When my friend and I got here, we stayed two nights in a four-star hotel in Kowloon that he’d booked at nearly half price on the tubes. When they unsurprisingly refused to extend the same rate to us for another night, I stupidly insisted, against his advice, on booking an ultra-budget room in one of the “hostels” in Chungking Mansions.

Chunking Mansions (and the slightly nicer Mirador Mansions), would have been better named Chunking Private Housing Projects. They are massive buildings. The ground two or three floors are cramped shopping malls, selling everything from knockoff iPhones, DVDs, watches, handbags, and all manner of Indian and Pakistani food. The knock-off iPhones are particularly amusing. I watched one salesman repeatedly try to use the multi-touch interface, with no luck since it clearly wasn’t running the iPhone OS. Another knock-off was labeled “HiPhone” on the back, and a third was labeled “iPhone” in Arial, a sin El Jobso would never condone.

Above these mall floors rise six or eight towers, each served by two tiny elevators. There is always a five or ten minute line to get on, and you’ll share an elevator with building residents, mostly African, Pakistani, Middle Eastern, or Indian.

The “hostels” in this building make even the worst hostels in Europe seem palatial. They are run-down fire-traps, and you’re lucky if you get a room with a window. I met an unlucky traveler who got bed-bug bites in one.

Like New York, everything here is open late. Starbucks, McDonalds, Seven-Eleven, Haagen Dazs, and Ben & Jerrys, as well as all the local brands, are open at least until one or two am. Bars close whenever they feel like, and there’s a 24-hour supermarket across the street from my new hostel (a halfway decent affair on Hong Kong Island proper).

I allowed too much time in Hong Kong — I’ve long since seen most of the touristy stuff. Sunday I went to the Dragon Boat Race festival on the southeast town of Stanley (and Stanley Market). Victoria Peak (complete with mountaintop shopping mall) offered great walks and views. The I.M. Pei Bank of China and the HSBC building, the two famous buildings, are right next door to each other (and to several shopping malls). The Science Museum, although mostly for children, offered some great math puzzles and optical illusions on the top floor. It also had some prints from the Turkish artist Istvan Orosz, who may be the closest thing M.C. Escher has to an artistic heir (not counting the hyper-commercial Victor Vasarley). And, bonus, I was able to avoid the thunderstorm that day by walking to the Science Museum through a series of malls and covered mall-to-mall walkways.

The hostel on Lantau, a mostly unpopulated island near the airport, is no longer in daily operation, so my plan to spend a day in the woods before my umpteen-hour flight to Istanbul (which is running a pleasant 18 degrees cooler than Hong Kong’s 88 today), is shot.

Malls get old quick. I think I’ll go buy some Chairman Mao light-up cigarette lighters now.

Kelto Hit Li

I was prepared for (the somewhat inappropriately named) “chinglish” everywhere — both in China and in Hong Kong. Badly worded, mispunctuated, or computer translated menus, signs, and warnings are so rampant that it soon stopped being funny, and by now it’s just faded into the background. I half expect find Myself write badly English at Blog to start ,lucky avoid such fate however. I’ve also avoided eating some delicious-sounding offerings like “Peanut glass fried.”

But the knock-off brands are funnier. I’m sure you’re aware of the brands “AEBRCOIEMBR & FIGTH,” and “TMMOY HFLIGRE,” and, today, I saw the famous Japanese brand Sanrio’s feline mascot we all know and love, flanked by the label “KELTO HIT LI.”

I should be suspended from glass

Last Saturday, my friend and I went for a walk in the woods around his art park. We took along his 2 CB radios, which came in handy.

Our trip-within-a-trip began in a cave just outside the park boundaries, inside one of the karst mountains. The cave had been converted into a restaurant some months back, and then abandoned, so all we had to do was flip the circuit breakers and the place was lit up in multicolored lights. Each passage led into another sitting area or artfully crafted staircase, with ponds, manicured rock gardens, and modern, muticolored light fixtures everywhere. We explored some of the dark chambers past the restaurant proper with our trusty headlamps, each one seemingly opening to the outside through rocky airshafts. We even found what looked like an attempt to grow stalactites by hanging rocks from fishing line from the ceiling, which would be the kind of project that you pass on to your grandchildren.

Emerging out of the fantastic cave into what was, ostensibly, reality, we set off across the fields. Soon we met a water buffalo close-up. Water buffalo are slightly bigger than cows, with beards which make them look distinguished and scholarly, and the older ones have horns as long as your arm. They have the disposition of a shy puppy… they are intently curious about people, but also skittish and unsure about us. Every single water buffalo froze and watched us intently as we passed them. The next day I would walk through a herd, and feel a bit self-conscious under such scrutiny. I don’t know if they were smart enough to detect that we didn’t look, sound, or act, anything like the people they were used to. Probably not; I’d bet that water buffalo think all humans look the same.

Past the cave, the next stop was a storage ground for massive blocks of granite, the raw material for park sculptures. My friend believes these may be the most valuable commodity owned by the park, which is really disheartening for an art park. They were arranged in pattern reminiscent of a dining hall, with two long “tables” and “benches”, and eight blocks stood on end in a cathedral pattern. With a few candles, it would have been a perfect site of a cult sacrifice scene in a terrible B-movie, and if Doctor Who had popped his head out from behind a column at the last moment before the sacrificial blade descended, I wouldn’t have been the least bit suprised. Here we made a delicious picnic of chocolate (imported, of course; Chinese chocolate is barely worth the moniker) and water.

Some farmers nearby were speaking the local dialect, which is different enough from Mandarin, Cantonese, and even the village dialect (all themselves mutually unintelligible) that my friend couldn’t understand it. He did catch them loudly speculating as to our nationality, though. Keep in mind that at six two, I’m more than half-again as tall as most of the villagers, so we must have cut a pretty impressive pair.

After that it was on to another artwork, which I will not say anything about. I would not want to ruin the effect if anyone reading this ever visits it. It was, quite simply, the most amazing thing I’d seen in the park, staggering in its simplicity and audacity. The thousands of dragonflies in the field hovering overhead made it all the more surreal. I remarked to my friend that, as the only real English speaker in the park, he almost had a duty to stay there and keep bringing people in to see the art. It is a tragedy that art of such magnitude is hidden away in a field in rural China, with only the occasional passing farmer to appreciate it.

The solid, uniform, low clouds just above the karst peaks that ring every field in this part of China hold the moisture in and hid that it was getting on towards twilight, but luckily we had brought along a reality-meter which told us to start heading back.

An hour’s walk later, on the edge of town and well over the edge into nighttime, we passed through a forest with low bushes under the trees.  Thousands of fireflies were out. Fireflies fly like moths, not like bees, slowly and seemingly without purpose.  They were all around us, only their pea-sized lamps visible passing just a few feet in front of our faces. And as they faded away into the forest, faraway bushes appeared lit from underneath by so many insect lamps. For a moment, the entire forest would seem to blink in unison, and then, just as soon as you noticed it, the synchronicity would dissolve into chaos again. It put every single Vegas style light marquee, fireworks show, and nifty screensaver to shame.

Hopping a fence and walking down one of the back roads into town, we found ourselves at the front gate of the park, just in time for an ice cream (“chocolate” “flavor,” of course) and a massage (no, not that kind of massage, thanks for asking) from the hotel spam before bed.

The next week would bring us to Guilin, Hong Kong, Macau, and I’ll be seeing a great many more places before I see home again. But this was a day that I’ll not soon forget.

No cars go

Some of you may not know that the game of chicken was invented in China. In fact, highway driving etiquette here is an extremely nuanced and advanced game of chicken. I haven’t quite figured out all the rules yet. The highway between Guilin and Yangshuo that passes by the art park/hotel where I’m staying has two wide lanes and a wide shoulder on either side. Everyone is allowed to play chicken with anyone on this road; massive trucks belching smoke, buses and minivans of all sizes, kids on bicycles or teens on scooters and motorcycles, old ladies with carts full of wood or plants, the occasional private car, and even these crazy “san lun che,” which are three-wheeled metal and wood truck-carts with an internal combustion engine cantilevered out in the air above the front tire.

The actual game play involves complicated patterns of honking (one bus I was on had two different horn tones), and, at night, flashing your high beams, at oncoming traffic. While doing this, you veer out into the oncoming traffic’s lane and attempt to pass as many other cars from your lane as you can before being killed. One bus I was on passed about eight cars, buses, and trucks at once.

I was introduced to this game the night I arrived in Guilin, and found myself in a taxi to the park/hotel at ten pm. The game play was special that night as it was extremely misty out. My taxi driver was also talking animatedly on his cell phone the entire time, because, unbeknownst to me at the time, he took the fare without being exactly sure of where the place was. So he somehow got the phone number, and talked to the park staff, to figure out where the park was and which hotel I was staying in. Since I’m staying with my friend, and both hotels are mostly vacant, the hotel staff told him, and then me, in halting English, that I didn’t have a reservation and probably should go back to Guilin. The hotel staff’s English didn’t extend to “Don’t worry, I’m staying with my friend who works there,” so I had to convince the taxi driver to keep going anyway. Luckily, Ian met me at the gate.

This place is crazy. There are huge modern art sculptures all over the sprawling, landscaped grounds, interspersed with paths, gardens, lakes, and groves of pine trees. Just outside the park are the massive karst mountains that this area is famous for. Among other things, my friend is the park DJ, so Bjork, Cocteau Twins, and other relaxing, perfectly eerie music plays from speakers disguised as rocks everywhere. Several ultra-modern interesting buildings cluster around another karst peak right in the middle of the park. At night, multicolored lights illuminate the sculptures, and last night there was a fireworks display. Think Burning Man crossed with the Di Rosa Preserve, humid, completely deserted and smack dab in the middle of China.

Oh, and at night, there are fireflies. Everywhere.

Just outside the park gates is a tiny Chinese peasant village, a collection of maybe thirty or forty brick and cinderblock buildings along the 2KM road to the highway. Most of the people who live there are rice farmers, and flooded rice patties lie between each clump of buildings.

The village has two stores, a very primitive hospital/clinic, and three restaurants which are little more than garages with a few tables and chairs, and a kitchen at the back. They serve noodles that are quite good, and dinnerware arrives at your table shrink-wrapped from the government run program to wash and sterilize dishware. And there’s a bus stop for when you get a hankering for another game of chicken.

On Thursday, I took the chicken express bus into Yangshuo, a tourist-trap of a town about 45 minutes (depending on your driver’s skill at the game) south of the park. Once there, I was swamped with people trying to sell me, and ten thousand other western tourists, postcards, picture books, rental bikes, boat cruises, and who knows what else. On a recommendation, I headed to Drifters for some western food (fried chicken sandwich with “cheese”) and then rented a bike and rode south, away from the major tourist river, the Li, to the Yulong river. I rode upstream to Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, where I had a milkshake and asked after friends of friends who work there, but they were not around. Then it was off along a muddy dirt track, past a river crossing where I could have paid to have my bike ferried across the river on a bamboo raft, through another small town, and back to Yangshuo through a massive, multi-block, multi-story constrution project on the southwest end of town.

After lunch at Kelly’s in Yangshuo (a “tuna” sandwich with “cheese” and a “chocolate” milkshake) , I returned my bike and experienced another game of chicken, this time in an air conditioned bus.

I’ve uploaded new photos.

Can’t see further than my own nose at the moment

At an internet cafe in the Hong Kong airport. $3 for a delicious 100% juice grapefruit bottle and unlimited tubes. The flight here was brutal, as long flights normally are for me, and not sleeping for the two nights beforehand didn’t help. My flight landed two hours late, at eight, and after breezing through customs, I was greeted by the tremendously humid Hong Kong air.

I took a bus into Kowloon and found my hotel — the Star Guest House on Chatham Rd. The host apologized profusely for the size of the hotel room — about two meters by three meters (that’s about ten by seven, for you folks stateside) with a similarly tiny bathroom and no window, but I was looking for, and found, something cheap. Rather than break my seventy-two hour sleepless record by going to bed at ten, I dropped off my stuff and walked down to the Kowloon waterfront with a south-facing view of the skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island. The view is tremendous — even in my stupor I could pick out at least three famous skyscrapers, including the I.M. Pei building which I have to check out in more detail once I return. And most of the buildings are decorated in various rainbow lights that flicker and blink. It immediately reminded me of the view of the Esplanade from deep playa. I found myself drifting off to sleep just sitting there looking at the view, so I made my way back to the S.G.H. and let the sonorant drone of the air conditioner lull me to sleep.

I already know a few Chinese characters, including “exit,” “good, something I think is “no” or “not:” 木,and two that I think must be the conversational and interrogative sentence particles “la” and “ma.”

This terminal is ridiculous. The keyboard is sticky and every sentence or two it tries to interpret what I’m typing as Pinyin (the Chinese romanization) and starts sticking Chinese characters into the text. And the font size changes every few sentences too, as the terminal goes into HTML entity mode every few sentences. And about every two minutes a hapless tourist interrupts me and asks how they too could be allowed to use the tubes, despite the giant sign with instructions in English and Chinese directly above my head.

Ok, got to go!

Let’s get out of this country

I’m about to take an eleven-week trip to Hong Kong, Guilin (in China), Turkey, Greece, Berlin, and maybe Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia, Croatia, Prague, Budapest, and who knows where else. I’ll be posting updates for my friends, when I can, under the travelog category. If you don’t know me and are subscribed because you found one of my writings on Ye Olde Series of Tubes, you might consider re-subscribing just to my essays or blurbs feeds. If you’re a friend and just want to follow my travelings, and ignore any computer-related dribblings, subscribe to my travelog feed.

Photos, when I can upload them, will be here, and that will also have it’s own feed. This trip is something of an experiment in extreme minimal traveling — I’m taking just a 2000 in2 / 33 liter North Face Surge, which is, by the way, the most awesomest backpack ever. I always take a picture of everything I’m taking.

No fair breaking in to my apartment! My housemates will still be there.

And no fair having any fun while I’m gone. Fun includes, but is not limited to:

  • having drunk, nekkid parties, or really any parties at all
  • having warm, sunny San Francisco weather (certainly the least likely of the bunch)

If anyone knows anyone in any of these places, or is going to be in any of those places, drop me an email and let’s par-tay. Also, if anyone wants to swap their place in Berlin for mine for the last part of July, or has a vacation rental / sublet in Berlin for the last part of July, let me know.