Photos, photos, photos

So I’ve been just awful about posting lately, but I HAVE managed to finish my massive photo sorting project. All my most favorite pics from our fifteen months in Asia – 185 of them from eight different countries! – are now together in one place:

http://alongthewaytjphotos.wordpress.com/

Check ’em out and enjoy. And I will be getting back to China soon (at least in this blog…), I swear! 😉

PS – I know 185 photos might sound like a lot, but this is 185 pics out of well over 17,000, so viewers, consider yourselves lucky. 😉

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The road from Kashgar to Karakul Lake

Day one of our Xinjiang tour we loaded ourselves up into the car and set forth along a section of the Karakoram Highway to our first stop, Karakul Lake. The drive up was astounding; I couldn’t stop marveling at the amazing scenery and we stopped along the side of the road loads of times to take photos.

Before the ascent we stopped at a town to stock up on food before driving gradually up into a mountain-scape cloaked in thick grey clouds. Around mid-day, shortly after passing the checkpoint, we must have reached critical altitude – suddenly the skies were clearing to reveal a brilliant expanse of blue, even as the temperature continued to drop.

More details to come, but in the mean time, here are some photo impressions from the drive up. 🙂

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Freshly baked!

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Beautiful mountain succulent

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An eagle soars above the mountains

Building blending in with the mountain background. Note the Arabic writing…


Can you spot the goats on the mountain? Picture is clickable if you want a closer look. 🙂

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Our first glimpse of snow through the clouds!


There wasn’t very much traffic on the Karakorum Highway. Mostly we saw large freight trucks if we crossed paths with anyone. Here a yellow one approaches a solitary traveler on donkey (click the photo to zoom in).

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The wall and roof of a house blend with the mountain range in the background.

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We stopped in front of this woman’s simple shop to take photos of the landscape. She was wonderfully sweet and invited us in to take a look at her home.

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Massive sand dunes behind the “wet plateau”

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View from the back seat. 🙂

China’s “wild west”: an introduction

Glacier-laden mountains provide a backdrop to the Karakoram Highway at a location close to where part of The Kite Runner was filmed. (click on the photo for a closer look)

Never heard of Xinjiang? Well, neither had I. However, if you, like me, have watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Kite Runner, there’s a good chance that you’ve already seen parts of it without ever realizing it.

Xinjiang (pronounced something like “shinjang”) is China’s largest and westernmost province. It shares borders with eight different countries: Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It has been defined as an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China since 1949.

John Keay’s “China: A History” describes it thusly:
“Largely desert though far from deserted, this is the largest of all China’s provinces and the remotest. It was once known to the Chinese as ‘the Western Regions’ and to non-Chinese as Eastern or Chinese Turkestan. The current designation simply means ‘the New Territories’ (Xin-jiang); indigenous activists would prefer ‘Uighuristan’, they being largely Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs.”

As with Tibet, the Chinese government supports the move of ethnic Chinese Han to the province (“flooding the region with Han settlers” is how Lonely Planet puts it). According to Lonely Planet, Uighurs have declined from 90% to 50% of Xinjiang’s population, although they don’t provide a specific time frame (I’ve found somewhat different numbers, although the direction of growth/decline is consistent, in a detailed report (from ETH of all places!)). Naturally this demographic shift brings with it inevitable changes to the local culture.

I don’t know nearly enough about this topic to write about it with any authority. It is obviously a contentious subject for both sides, to the point that there were deadly riots in the capital Urumqi in 2009. Reports on the number of casualties vary Chinese police reports listed around 200 deaths and 1,700 injuries. An Internet blackout lasting ten months was subsequently put into effect in the province.

While my knowledge about the changing face of the province is minimal, being at least somewhat aware of it is a key part of experiencing Xinjiang. The province is incredible and astounding for its mix of cultures. Walking mere city blocks in Kashgar, where we spent the most time, can transport you from a functional, modern Chinese city to a crumbling warren of streets where Uighurs live in much the same way they have for centuries (minus the electric scooters of course).

Xinjiang isn’t just about the brackish results of the tide of ethnic Chinese immigrants. The province is home to well over a dozen different ethnic groups, including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tibetans. Xinjiang, in some ways more central-Asian than Chinese, has a long, rich history associated with international cross-roads.

The reason the province caught my eye in the first place was reading about the Karakoram Highway (from the site jalopnic.com: “For the ultimate in road trips, choose the highest paved road in the world. The Karakoram Highway is 800 miles of mountain road connecting Pakistan with China across some of the tallest mountains in the world.” How can that not call to a person?!).

This modern day “highway” (using this word in the literal sense, rather than in the sense that someone in the States would think of a highway) traces parts of the Silk Road, a collection of ancient trade routes that linked China to India, Tibet, Persia and even areas on the Mediterranean Sea. (You can read more on Wikipedia).

That information alone was more than enough to get me to want to see it. What I didn’t know was what sort of landscape we were heading into.

We only had a week in Xinjiang and in this time could visit but a small fraction of the place. But in those few, full days, I saw some of the most stunning landscapes I have ever encountered in my life. Looking back over my photos, I am still in awe that such incredible nature exists and that I was able to spend some time in it. No wonder those movie directors decided to film here!!

I hope this helps to set the stage for the posts that will follow on our time in Xinjiang. There’s so much more to the places’ history, cultures, politics, landscape, etc. and I am in no way an expert on any of those topics so please bear in mind the limitations of what I’m writing. 🙂 For more of a taste of the place, here is a blog/site by an American guy who lived there and loved it, which was also one of the contributing factors inspiring me to include it in our China journey: www.farwestchina.com

Sources:
– Lonely Planet China
– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xinjiang
– http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Digital-Library/Publications/Detail/?ots591=0c54e3b3-1e9c-be1e-2c24-a6a8c7060233&lng=en&id=35272
– www.farwestchina.com
– China: A History by John Keay
– jalopnic.com

Some more Hanoi pics and a quick update

Current (coffee) events

It’s Thursday afternoon, which means that we’ve completed four days’ worth of Chinese lessons here in Yangshuo.

Chinese is not easy (especially the pronunciation and comprehension – those tones are subtle and tough to get right!), but it’s also not as cryptic as I had expected. I’d braced myself to deal with bouts of frustration and impatience (I usually can’t stand it when I’m first learning something and am not automatically great at it. 🙂 ) but it’s been really fun so far and I’m actually amazed that I’ve managed to learn as much as I have in these few, packed days. I’ll give most of the credit to Becky, our teacher here at Omeida, who teaches with a great combination of enthusiasm, energy and humor while remaining laid back. 🙂

At the moment I’m a very happy girl because after lots of trial (and lots of error), we’ve FINALLY found a café in town that serves decent coffee. So far our experiences would indicate that the Chinese just don’t do coffee. We’ve tried a new café every day we’ve been here (there are plenty to choose from in the touristy part of town) and the brew at each one has been a total disappointment. So I’m here now, contentedly caffeinated as Leonard Cohen plays in the background, trying to get my mind back to Hanoi. 🙂

Pooped!

By the time we made it to Vietnam’s capital, we were basically done. Travel is of course not meant to be all roses, and the negative experiences we had in Vietnam really weren’t even that bad (one phone stolen, getting ripped off a couple of times, getting sick, getting food poisoning – these are little things and par for the course when you’re travelling for as long as we are I’d say!).

But when we’d had unpleasant things happen to us in other countries, they were quickly counter-balanced by other experiences.

A positive interaction or visiting someplace really beautiful or fascinating or inspirational, a pleasant or relaxed vibe or an awesome meal. These are the things that mentally and emotionally nourish a person when they’re on the road.

In Vietnam, the interactions we had with folks were neutral on the balance, places we visited were pretty, but not moving, intellectually interesting but not emotionally stirring. Walking the streets was hectic, aside from the local eats in Hoi An, we never found any food to get excited about.

Taking it easy in Hanoi

I’m not writing this to complain, but to explain that when we got to Hanoi, we didn’t have tons of energy or enthusiasm for further exploration. (It’s also important to note that travel is SUCH an individual thing – for what ever reason these were our experiences in Vietnam and this doesn’t mean that country isn’t worth visiting if you are contemplating it!) There were a number of touristy things we were considering – visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum or the Hanoi Hilton in the city, or doing a trip to the hills at and around Sapa to experience some minority culture.

But as we started to thaw from the exhaustion of the stink-bus experience, we realized, we simply didn’t want to do these things. The energy and motivation just weren’t there.

So we shortened our list, took things a bit easier, started making our plans for how to get into China. Our hotel was in a good spot, so we had plenty of easy access to the interesting, busy old quarter with its thematic streets. We spent a lot of time drinking coffee and researching at Highland, Vietnam’s answer to Starbucks.

I didn’t take many pictures (believe it or not! 😉 ). So while we visited Ngoc Son Temple and took many a leisurely turn around the lovely Hoan Kiem Lake with its excellent people watching, I have no photos of either.

We visited the Hanoi branch of Fanny’s and I can now report that even durian ice cream stinks. Not only that, but the funky flavor (part gasoline, part sweetened cheese fondue, part sweaty armpit) l i n g e r e d for far too long! I’ve recovered now but would still need to work up my nerve to try the actual fruit.

We did other touristy things – saw the kind of kitsch, kind of cool water puppet show, visited the lovely Temple of Literature, home to Vietnam’s first university. We also made the hotel staff very happy and agreed to book an overnight trip to Halong Bay with them. I’ll do a separate post about Halong Bay. In the mean time though, here are some photos from the Temple of Literature.

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Xinjiang sneak peek

Roman and I have just finished our five-day tour in southwestern Xinjiang and are at the moment greatly enjoying a café in Kashgar that has decent coffee (espresso even!), wifi and clean bathrooms – three things that have been in short supply since we arrived in China. 😉

What it’s lacked in creature comforts, Xinjiang has more than made up for with other things. I have been totally spellbound by this incredible place with its fascinating and rich cultural mix and absolutely stunning landscapes.

I am determined to keep disciplined with the blog and finish catching up on Vietnam before I start in on China, so the next posts will be backtracking.

But before I begin with those though, here is just one of the amazing views Xinjiang has to offer. The image is clickable for a closer view, and I can say that it was even MORE beautiful face to face!

Quick notes on Saigon

We’ll be heading to mainland China very soon so in an interest of catching up as best I can before we get there, my Vietnam posts are going to be relatively brief! 🙂

Saigon

Saigon was interesting to me because of all the places we’ve traveled to so far, this was the first city that in some small ways most resembled the “typical big Asian city” composite I had created in my mind way back when, before we started the street. It’s hard to put a finger on why exactly that is, and of course as usual the vast majorities of my assumptions were off base and Saigon is much more than some simplified stereo type.

Still, there was something in the energy of it, in the bustling streets, in the evident layers of history, in the amazingly narrow and crammed shops and buildings, in its juxtaposition of tradition and poverty and ramshackleness with modernity and affluence and expedience, in its somehow unforgiving yet neutral attitude, that felt – well, if not expected, familiar.

We arrived into Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) after spending one VERY long day on the bus coming from Siem Reap. Entering the city after dark, I was dazzled and delighted by the neon absolutely everywhere. Signage with massive, blinking rainbow letters was everywhere to see (the half of it belonging to karaoke club!).

Maybe we were overwhelmed by all the color and light because we left the bus and in no short order were totally hoodwinked by a scamming taxi driver. One lesson learned and we were a lot more discerning and demanding of cab drivers in Vietnam after that!

Besides the neon, other things I loved or want to remember about Saigon include:

–       The stunning colonial architecture, especially the main post office which is just romantic and elegant as all get out.

–       The “crossing the road” through a sea of moped experience. Not quite as nerve wracking as I had expected after the stories I’d heard, but still it does require some trust and a bit of Zen mind, and I really enjoyed it.

–       How many trees there are in the city!

–       Catching glimpses of people’s home lives through occupied balconies/open balcony doors above the street level. There were some really lovely older folks living in apartments across the hotel we stayed in – loved to see them hanging out on their tiny balconies as we would come and go.

–       How the constant, heavy traffic sounded like the rush of not-too-distant water once you got a bit of distance from the main streets.

–       Despite the urbanity of the city, we would occasionally run into roosters or chickens hanging out on the sidewalks, which I always got a kick out of.

–       The incredible, powerful evening rainstorms – and how wet we got having to run just around the corner through one to meet Louise and Patrick for dinner.

–       How awesome and fun it was to run into Louise and Patrick after meeting them briefly back in Laos! 😀

–       The sweet smile of the woman who worked in the restaurant of our hotel.

–       The totally amazing and delicious pomegranate and watermelon martini I had while taking in the Saigon skyline. Need to try to recreate that drink when I’m home again! 🙂