Cambodia and acquiring a son

Arriving in Cambodia and acquiring a new son.
We depart from the floating hotel around 9 am to cross the border into Cambodia, it is a fairly short boat ride and the boat docks on a mud bank.Time to move the luggage once again, there are young boys who will do it for you and then say “money” as if you weren’t going to tip anyway. The guide has all of our passports and the $22 fee which is $2 more than the actual cost. The whole trip was arranged through Delta Adventures.

We wait around and after awhile take a walk in this border town, if we hadn’t seen and encountered poverty and squalor before, here it was spread out for us to see in all its misery. After an hour we are getting antsy, the guide returns with our passports but a Frenchman whose passport has yellowed, is being questioned exhaustively, finally he is permitted to enter. We change boats and interestingly enough once we have crossed the border the landscape changes.Cambodia is actually prettier with rice field along the banks of the river.

Then it is time once again to schlep luggage off the boat onto a bus, where we get a non-stop patter and spiel about the various guesthouses to stay in. If the boat and bus were any indication of the quality of the guesthouses we vowed to stay clear of them. We arrive finally in Phnom Penh and are surrounded by Tuk-Tuks. Somehow we manage to break free and thanks to my gallant companions my luggage is taken care of. We end up at the Spring Guesthouse, where I go for broke and pay $14 with A/C, without it is $9. We all meet 30 minutes later and eat at Mama’s which is just up the street and apparently a popular place. The food was good the owner very amiable and his children totally adorable.

Since it was already quite late we all decide to explore the nightlife, or at least go for drinks. The Green Vespa is a recommended place, 5 of us take a Tuk-TukAcross the river and arrive to a totally empty bar. Drinks were very cheap but the bartender was really obnoxious and unpleasant, a total blacklist for me.
The next day I went to the Genocide museum, and made it in time for the documentary movie. The movie is very well made, there are some scenes where an artist who had been incarcerated shows one of the guards some of his paintings and asks the guard if they are realistic. The guard also talks about his experiences. As I walk around I come to a room where there are photographs and stories of people who were Khmer Rouge. There is also some text that talks about the therapy, and research that has been given to the victims, but none to the perpetrators. By now I have seen enough and have no desire to go to the killing fields.

I hail a Tuk-Tuk to take me shopping. I had read about a jeweler whose rubies were very reasonable. My daughter wanted jewelry, so I thought good idea let’s check this out. Well the author’s concept of reasonable and mine were not quite in accordance. At least it gave me an opportunity to walk around, since I was very close to Independence Monument and an interesting temple decided to explore. First things first, time for lunch, there was a lovely restaurant with an outdoor area. I ordered the spicy Thai Salad with shrimps, this was S P I C Y my mouth was on fire and the Lassi I had ordered did nothing to put it out. Now I knew if it says spicy on the menu they mean it.

I wandered off into the temple area where obviously a party had taken place the night before, there were people sleeping all over the floor, dishes were being washed and chairs were still covered with silk coverings. Am not sure if there had been a Buddhist festival or a funeral, sometimes it is hard to distinguish the two.It was time to go to the Royal Palace, walking down Norodom Boulevard you pass many of the embassies. This part of town is very scenic with large boulevards, grassy plots and lovely plantings. It is hard to imagine that you are in a very poor country. The palace is quite magnificent, as are the grounds. It was rebuilt in 1866 and there are several buildings including the Pavilion of Napoleon III. As I wander around I meet quite a few monks in their saffron robes I take their pictures as they whip out their digital cameras to take mine, they all seem to speak English and are very approachable.

As I enter the Silver Pagoda, so called because of the sterling silver floor tiles, it is also called the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha. There were so many golden buddahs encrusted with diamonds and precious stones that I was flabbergasted.As I was walking around I encountered yet another monk and we struck up a conversation. He told me that none of the diamonds were real, they had been replaced many years ago. We then got into a conversation on Buddhism, of which I am very ignorant, he explained that in Asia there are several different kinds of Buddhism, in Cambodia they practice Theravada. We then spent several hours walking around the grounds, having recently read “Eat, Pray and Love” I wanted to know if he had problems meditating at times, it seemed not. We also discussed my reluctance to go to the killing fields, and he asked me what my inner fears were, which of course I knew what they were.

I was then invited to see his temple which was very close by, as we leave a street urchin with her brother on her hip, approaches me for money and as is my habit I said no, but I will feed you. So off we wandered to find some food, we came to a shack were the children bought rice and a hot dog with ketchup, while the rats ran around. As she sat down to eat, she got up very suddenly and said “Thank you” in such a gracious way, that I got teary eyed.

We then proceeded on to the Temple where I was to see the holy water. An older man opened up the shrine and dipped what looked like twigs tied together into the water where a lotus flower was floating. He then sprinkled me in what almost looked like Catholic Benediction movements, while chanting something, at the end he poured water into my hands that I then patted my hair with. By now it was getting late and I had to get back. So I said my goodbyes, we exchanged cards, and that was when the surprise came, the monk was the executive director of the Temple. He had dispensed his monks out for the day to talk to tourists and see if they could get volunteers to come and teach at the school he has established. It seems that Cambodia’s social system would not exist without the monks and their good works at least that is what the newspaper said.I have since received e-mail from him and it turns out that he adopted me as his “Good mom” which is rather nice.

That night 5 of us went out for dinner to a Khmer Restaurant, then it was time to go clubbing. Remember I am with people in their 30’s. We started out at a club on a boat that was very quiet, don’t remember the name, we ended up at “Heart of Darkness” which was an experience in itself. I counted 45+ prostitutes one of the bouncers said there were 100+. The place was packed and the music rocked, I have not danced this much in years, my last two rounds of drinks were club sodas, and I couldn’t understand feeling that tired next morning, forgot that I sampled everybody else’s Mojitos, we finally called it a night around 3 am.
What a day in contrasts, I was really sorry to have to leave the next day for Siem Reap, we all agreed that Phnom Penh is a city to linger in and it deserves more than a day or two. The others decided to stay on for an extra day and we would meet up later in the week.

Took a minibus to Siem Reap and am met by the driver as arranged and taken to Angkor Holiday my home for next few days. After I had settled in I wanted to go find Samot the fabled restaurant. Nobody had heard of the Alley, it was not marked on the hotel’s map and the Tuk Tuk driver did not know where it was. We proceed down to the area, me thinking I would find it but no such luck. I then ask for a Cambodian restaurant that is not touristy, he takes me to Borey Sovann Restaurant where all the tour groups eat. I have a less than mediocre Chicken Curry and return to my hotel. Am picked up at 8 am next morning by my guide and we go to Angkor Wat. Poor guy he didn’t get to do much guiding since I spent most of the morning in the bathroom, fortunately the attendant had some Imodium which really helped. I had found the telephone number of Samat in the phone book and we tried to call them, only to be told that the service had been discontinued. So I figured the restaurant is closed and that was why I stopped looking for it.

That night I went to Foreign Correspondents Club and ended up sitting with another New Yorker who was stranded because of the airport shutdown in Bangkok. We are sitting next to the guitar player, who was German and had been drifting around the world for many, many years. He invited us to come to Dead Fish Tower the next night where he was playing. It seemed like an excellent idea so that’s where we met up again. It turned out it was a fund raiser for an orphanage, one of the volunteers an Australian girl stood up and made a public plea for funds. You could literally hear her knees knocking from fright and she sat down as quickly as she could. I knew that she was not going to get any money this way, I borrowed Peter’s hat and did the rounds. We collected $175 which would buy a generator, but when I saw the list of what was needed I felt like crying. Such simple things that we take for granted, like warm blankets and clothing. Pens and note books, a dry toilet. The needs are endless.
To be continued



Meet some fellow travelers who steer me to a hotel called Hahn Hoa Hotel on Pham Ngu Lao Street in Ho Chi Min City or Saigon as I prefer to call it.. They have two rooms to choose from one for $30 with a view over the park or $20 with no window, I choose the window. I get

an enormous room with two queen sized beds, flat screen TV and a computer with internet connection. This area of Saigon is apparently and obviously home to all the back packers that are visiting. Since it was quite late when I arrived, went out for dinner almost next door to

Pho 20, Pho is the national dish of Vietnam, a soup which can contain many different ingredients, but always noodles. Pho 20 is a chain of restaurants where they have 20 ingredients to choose from. It was quite good, and inexpensive. Wake up the next morning to the sight of people exercising in the park across the street, through my picture window.

What is it that makes one react to cities as to people, you can feelan instant attraction, be lukewarm or even not care within seconds of meeting. Of course the instant attraction may not survive a closer relationship. However that was not to be the case with Saigon. I knew

it as soon as I arrived at the airport, I could feel it even as we sat in traffic for over an hour. Even my funny cavernous room felt good, then to be greeted each morning as I come down for breakfast "you are so beautiful, " how can one not be in love, or at least in like. Wrinkles and bags under the eyes seem to recede, as I venture out, somehow I am slimmer and yes prettier. We should all wake up to be told we are beautiful. This by the way became a daily routine said by the lovely receptionist, and confirmed by the chambermaid.

Since the Cho Ben Than market is very close by I start out by walking there. This is the largest market in Saigon with again everything you can imagine except electronics sold there. The prepared food stalls are intriguing as are the fruit stands, and the varieties of teas and coffees sold. A large part of the market is dedicated to clothing, linens and house wares and on the periphery are the meat and fish merchants. Though I am approached I don't feel myself as hassled as in other markets. The bargaining is as fierce as anywhere else, but I do find that embroidered articles are less than in Hanoi. I can only take so much of any market, and decide to explore the Chinese Pagodas, and China town.

Saigon is a very large city area wise comprised of 12 districts. I am staying in District 1 and Cholon the Chinese area is in District 5.The Cyclo's and Moto's are lined up outside the market, vying for mybusiness, somehow they seem less persistent and annoying than theirHanoi counterparts. Since I wouldn't dare to go on the back of a Motoand it is too far for a Cyclo, I take a taxi. By the way a Moto is ataxi scooter and a Cyclo is a bike with a seat in front like a rickshaw. Spend the better part of the day looking at Chinese Pagodas.They are different from the ones I have seen in China or at least Idon't remember seeing ceramic friezes. These are decorated with veryintricate scenes of clay or china figures on top of the lintel or roof as you enter. They remind me of Neapolitan nativity scenes minus the crèche, or perhaps an elaborate stage set. Inside the temples are also very decorated, one of them has a life size horse that is supposed to ring good luck to travelers. I light a stick of incense just in case.

It is getting hot and time for an iced coffee, stop by a coffee house where there are a lot of men and even some women having drinks. Why I noticed the women, have no idea, order my Iced Coffee which is delicious and sweet, it is made by adding sweetened condensed milk to

very strong coffee. I am also served iced tea, which is totally different and very good. After reviving I am starting to look at my surroundings and the waitresses, they are all very cute, young, dressed in black, some with the skimpiest shorts, and there seemed to be a lot of them for such a small place. Several of the girls sat down with the customers. It could be that the men were regulars, and they just sat down to chat, I didn't notice any goings or comings so I don't know. I had more important things on my mind, the Iced Tea I wanted to know what I was drinking. The Madame or was she a Madam, comes out and very graciously gives me some dry tea, writes down the name of it as well as what it should cost, as usual a great afternoon.

Am now trying to find the Chinese market, which according to Lonely Planet should be directly west of the strip of herb shops. The herb shops, they make you almost want to become a herbalist, seeing sacks and sacks of totally unknown things, that are displayed, the way we usually see rice and legumes, sitting on the ground, there are strings of mushrooms and twigs in bundles. Shops where everything is very neatly bundled in stacks to the ceiling, many of the sacks are labeled for medicinal purposes unfortunately my photo of one of them was too blurred. There is a lot of roadwork going on and I proceed to walk towards the market. I don't think I reach it but instead am in the middle of the auto parts market, then metal workings, cook wares and basically heavy metal stuff. Am unable to find the recommended Chinese restaurant and take a taxi to Quan An Ngon, the same restaurant where I had had that great meal in Hanoi, a different branch only. Had a very very good barbecued steak and a Papaya salad.

I feel that I have put in a good days work and head home, prepared to get ready for this evening's spectacular eating experience. The elements are not cooperating the heavens open up and I go for Indian food around the corner. The next day I decide to explore a different part, walk up Le Loi past the market and see some very elaborate Christmas decoration, it is almost Thanksgiving, am so lost in my own time schedule that dates and months become meaningless. Walk down Pasteur and am trying to find some shops by the river, it is hot and against my better judgment I succumb to a cyclo, we agree on 15,000 approx 90 cents, since it is quite close, a taxi would have been 10,000. We arrive and now he wants 150,000. I offer him 20,000 since I don't have change. Oh no, he wants his 150,000 I told him he could take what I offered or nothing, it was up to him. I had no more time to argue, of course he took the 20,000 and left. This is the problem with the Cyclos you agree on a price and then it changes, I heard some really awful stories of people getting fleeced.

The place I was looking for was no more but I found Ngyuen Freres, which had been so elusive in Hanoi, where I was finally able to buy some great gifts. Coninue my amblings, walk by many beautiful stores and come to yet another market, this one is an open area, obviously not geared for tourists, with the usual mix of meats, fish,fruits, vegetables and wines and spirits. This was a new for me, had never seen alcohol sold at any of the markets.

It is time for lunch again walk for what seems like miles to find Bibi a French restaurant that has moved from its previous location to 17 A Le Than Ton Street. The prices have also gone up a Pris Fixe on weekends is 250.000 and weekdays 200.000. The daily specials didn't appeal so instead I had Japanese Sashimi next door.

Went to the Ho Chi Min museum and have now seen as much of the American or Vietnamese war, depending on your nationality, as I care to.

Continue strolling around and all of a sudden it is 4 pm and I am on my way to Lang du Lich Binh Quoi. One can get there by taxi or public bus, I opt for the bus #14 from the main bus station. Pay 3000 dong and am on my way, the bus rides through some pretty seedy parts of northern Saigon, am getting a little apprehensive but figure the worst that can happen is I stay on the bus and return to the city. 45 minutes later the ticket taker indicates that I have arrived at my destination. I get off at this beautifully landscaped area and have arrived at food nirvana. Every weekend there are 80 kinds of Vietnamese foods served in this beautifully landscaped place. You pay $8 entrance fee and then you are free to sample as often and as much as you like from different food stations. This was the absolute best food I had had at any time in Vietnam. I have different barbecued skewers, grilled clams, fish soups, rice dishes, noodle dishes, wraps, desserts and lots more. The seating is open in this lovely outdoor space and I end up at a table with a Taiwanese man and what I presume to be his 3 daughters. For once I keep my mouth shut and discover that one of them is his girlfriend and the others her girlfriends. When I can eat no more take a walk around the gardens. There are several party pavilions where people seem to be having a grand old time. It starts to sprinkle and it is time to return to Saigon. Since the buses stop running fairly early I grab a taxi and arrive in yet another rainstorm.

Saigon and boat trip on the Mekong

Saigon and overnight boat on the Mekong!

The morning is glorious, I receive my usual wonderful greeting from the staff and wander off in search of I don’t know what. Saigon is a city made for exploring, and I still have presents to buy. I walk up Le Loi to the Opera House, admire the wide boulevards and lovely plantings. Amble down side streets, and backtrack until I get to Parkson’s a very fancy department store. The ice cold air feels good, but there is nothing enticing about the store, at least I have now seen it.
Continue down to the Tax Department Store on the corner of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi. It was once known as the Russian Market and it has a kind of faded beauty about it. I go up to the souvenir floor where all the prices are fixed and many of them at the same or better price than at Ben Thanh Market. I purchase a few items and it is time for another Iced Coffee at the cafeteria in the store.

While I am sipping my coffee, there is a woman obviously a tourist looking out the window I can not tell if she is crying, but her demeanor is a little off. Since I am next to her I ask if she wants company, and she eagerly accepts. I have willingly let myself in for this so I listen to her story. She was not crying but suffering from jetlag, having arrived from London this morning. All the same she had a troubled tale to tell. She was divorced from her farmer husband who was very vindictive, her children who are in their 20’s have not spoken to her in years. Her father’s hand had been cut off mowing her lawn, he could not get the proper help because of all the immigrants in England had used all the available resources. After awhile I excused myself, since this was a litany that I have heard too many times in different geographic locations. When are we as people going to stop blaming the minority immigrants, for all the ills in our society? Better not go down that road or this will stop being a trip report.

I had purchased some items in Hanoi, that I thought I had lost on the way and since I wanted these same items I returned to Ben Than and haggled them down to a very reasonable price. Then it was time for lunch, which I ate at the market, what delicious foods they served. Managed to buy the tea that I had sampled the previous day and felt the day had been spent profitably.

Now it was time to plan for my trip to Cambodia as much as I was loath to leave Saigon. Before I even started this journey, I knew that I wanted to go by boat up the Mekong to Phnom Penh had also read that Delta Tours operated a trip. Went in and booked my ticket 2 days and 1 night $55 using the slow boat.
What could be nicer than drifting up the river in a leisurely pace?

The bus picks me up at 7 am the next morning, we drive around to various hotels picking up people and then we circle around for an hour because 1 couple were either lost or mis-communicated. Finally left Saigon at 8 am and arrive at Cai Be a few hours later, where we transfer to a boat. The passengers are split up depending on whether they are returning to Saigon or continuing to Cambodia. We are supposed to see the floating market, which is a joke, since the market starts at 6 am and it is now 11 am. Even if we had been there at 6 am it would not have served us, since you need a small boat to explore the market, which seemed to be wholesale anyway.

Then we proceed to a factory for making coconut candy wrapped in rice paper, lots of souvenir shops and in general a cheesy atmosphere. We finally leave and continue to An Binh Island for lunch. I share a dish of deep fried Elephant fish with Elaine. The dish was very nice, I don’t recall the price. By now we have started to make friends, I have partnered up with Stephanie from California but lives in Raleigh N.C., there are Ian and Elaine from Ireland and Charlotte and Erwan from Paris. They are all in their early to mid thirties, and continuing on, except Stephanie who is going back to Saigon.

We are back on the boat after some people played with a boa constrictor and others rode bikes. The guide is doing a very hard sell on upgrading to the fast boat, he makes the slow boat sound so uncomfortable and inconvenient that I buy the upgrade. We have been informed that we will have private cabins on the boat and Stephanie and I will share.

Back on the boat and then a bus on to Sadec where we and our luggage get off. After a fair walk, with our luggage, we get to the house which Marguerite Duras either owned or her Chinese lover owned, it was never quite clear. We wait here for the boat to arrive. Now it is time to schlep the luggage again to the boat. Surprise, there are no private cabins, we all sleep on bunk beds in one large cabin. By this time I have decided to make this a 3 day 2 night trip, and I am really glad that I did, final cost $90. The reason for my decision was mainly that on the 3 day trip you do get to see a few things, whereas the 2 day trip is mainly bus travel. We all get settled in while waiting for dinner, I discover some Vietnamese wine, my travel companions are all beer drinkers, but a German lady of my vintage is willing to share a bottle with me. I don’t recall dinner, so it couldn’t have been too bad, the wine however was less than memorable but by the time we finished the second bottle who knew.

We are awakened at 5.30 am to a glorious sunrise, breakfast and transfer to our floating hotel in Cha Doc. This time we have a private cabin and the boat/hotel is actually quite nice. It is berthed or anchored next to a small island opposite Chau Doc and Victoria Hotel. Sitting on deck watching the river traffic is everything I had imagined and more. There are fishing boats, rice barges, river taxis and general daily life passing by. I don’t know why the Mekong has such a pull on me, more so than many other rivers but it does and I am savoring it to its fullest.

Now it is time for the touted tours, we pass by what is designated a floating village which is no more than shacks on pontoons, the majority of houses seem to have fishing boats or nets attached. We proceed onto the Cham village which was one of the most distasteful visits. The Chams are a moslem minority, the purpose of the visit is ostensibly to visit the mosque, which is closed. It really is to see their sales room and be hassled by the children to buy waffles. The children were most aggressive, as we are walking back to the boat I stop by a doorway leading into a house to photograph a cat, not until I have taken the picture do I notice it had just killed a large rat. Then we proceed to a fish farm where the catfish is kept in bamboo cages in the water. The owner pours in some fish pellets and a feeding frenzy occurs, the water literally boils with the fish fighting for the food. Next door is a factory for what we were told was fish food, which I hope is correct, they were grinding up fish heads, bones and offals and mixing it with some substance, all in all so far a pretty unsavory morning. It does get better.

We are now on the way by bus to Sam Mountain and Cavern Pagoda. The bus ride goes by some very pretty landscape and interesting sculpture parks. We arrive at the mountain and start to climb the stairs until we get to the Pagoda,
Where we admire or not the various Buddhas, go into the cave and then climb up some more stairs to admire the view. We are all barefoot, I step out on the wet tiles and take a flying fall, land on my back and head all the while holding my camera high, all I can think of is saving the camera. Fortunately I am alright, have a lump on the back of my head and some soreness, otherwise I am fine.

That afternoon after lunch we head up the river again, it really is a highway, ferries crossing with scooters and their drivers, fishing boats, drifting by, cargo boats, women doing their laundry, people bathing and a few outhouses here and there. We are on the way to see a rattan mat factory and a silk factory. After a 2 hour ride up river we arrive to where they weave straw mats. If ever I thought to haggle for any of those products never again. It is a mind numbing job, dangerous as well, as the reeds are hand fed into the loom. We never did find out how many accidents there are but can imagine quite a few. Then we proceed onto the silk factory, where the silk thread is put onto commercial size spools. This is where we saw child labour, pretty skilled, but still young children, their daily wage is just over one dollar. Many of the children will work all day and if they are lucky attend school in the evening. It was a very sobering sight.

Dinner that night was not included so the 7 of us decided to go into Chau Doc, we have a boat at out disposal to ferry us across, we are given the name of a restaurant, which we realize after having trekked through the rain is not the kind of place we were looking for. We finally find a local joint that seems to please everybody. We are not sure what to order, since nobody speaks English, so I go investigate a few tables and as usual am given a few tidbits. Chicken gizzards and liver is not what we want, though very tasty. I end up with noodles and seafood as do some of the others, there is also steak and fish. While we are waiting a decision is made that spring rolls would be nice for the table. but how do we communicate that? Yours truly says no problem, and proceeds into the kitchen where I explain to the proprietress what we would like, she understands instantly, and we negotiate how many portions. Kitchen language is really universal. The table that had treated me to a food sample now decides I should have Vietnamese Vodka so a glass is sent over. I think it is some kind of Rice Wine and we end up ordering a small bottle for our table. Tomorrow we cross the border into Cambodia and more adventures.


Hoi An
One of the advantages, or is it a disadvantage of independent travel is that you can change your mind and direction, even before you have finished walking down the block. Now if you are with other people plans are less flexible, decisions are made as a group and usually adhered to. I am sure that I have missed many “must sees” because I was tired, bored couldn’t be bothered and also because I had no daily itinerary, or anybody else to prod me along. Vietnam was deliberately not a very planned destination, wasn’t sure whether the elements would cooperate. As it turned out they didn’t, though I had a preliminary itinerary it had to be tweaked considerably.

I tried to go to Hue, though the weather reports were terrible, there were no flights, however I did get one to Hoi An leaving at 6 am. One out of two towns was not bad. I did manage to see the town, as well as having several pieces of clothing made from different shops. Was I thrilled with what I had made? I would say I had very mixed results even from the same shop.

Since I arrived at 7.30 am, by taxi from DaNang, to glorious sunshine, the first order of business, was breakfast, which was noodles with shrimp that I ate across the river. Then it was time for the market, it is an amazing market, everything seemed to be sold there. I walk by a vegetable stall and the woman looks at me and says “you are beautiful” those may be the only English words she knew, I didn’t care, it made my day. As I walked further in I get cornered by Kim who has a haircut shop and does $1 pedicures. I wasn’t in the mood for a pedicure but promised to return, which unfortunately I never did, since she was quite the character. It is time for lunch and I hit Cargo Club where I had my first all Western meal, a delicious perfectly cooked Hamburger, did that taste good. Go back to the hotel to unpack and watch the rain pour down, I did venture out a bit later, after a nap, with my plastic raincoat and umbrella. The rain coat selling women jump on me to buy, what did they think I was wearing?

HoiAn is a cute little town basically consisting of a main street where many of the antique shops and tailors are located, as well as some of the sights. The outskirts are very nice with rice fields and the river appearing every so often, it was appealing despite the downpour.

It came time for dinner and I decided to try Brother’s Café, after quite a lengthy walk I reach it to discover, that I would have been a solo diner, at extremely high prices, nixed that idea. Next door was DaoTien which supports disadvantaged youths. Do not consult my notes, which tell me this is the one restaurant to skip, don’t know where I got that information. Have a nice dinner with steamed Crab, for about $12. There were a few other restaurants that had been recommended but they were no longer in business. Since the rain had really picked up by now, I take a taxi back.

The next day the rain came and went, I explored a bit further and signed up for a cooking class at Citronella, which is across the Japanese Bridge. I was the only student and it was a hands on class. Made Shrimp Fritters, Squid grilled in Banana Leaf, and Crab Soup. The cost was $15 including my meal Did I learn something, yes that grilled Squid in Banana Leaf is not as good as plain grilled Squid. It was a pleasant enough evening and the food was tasty. Since the rain didn’t seem to ease I decided to move on to Saigon the next day. I had booked an afternoon flight, in order to visit My Son in the morning, while on the way to the airport. Well that didn’t work out since the road was closed because of flooding. My really sweet taxi driver, who was the brother of one of the shop owners where I had some clothes made, suggested Marble Mountain. Why not, I had a lot of time. We arrive, pay my entrance fee, receive a map with the caves and temples clearly marked and start climbing the steps. It is drizzling, I am all alone and realize that I must be insane even thinking of doing this, the climb looks interminable and I turn around. Take a few photos of the Marble Statues and we leave for DaNang, so the day shouldn’t be a total loss culturally, I do get to see the historic museum before we head to the airport and on towards Saigon or Ho Chi Min City.

Hanoi continued

Dinner that second night is at Cha Ca La Vong, there are at least 3 restaurants with that or similar name on the same street. Since I had the wrong street number it took me a while to figure out which one was which. For 90.000 you get a slew of greens to cook with the fish, of which there were a very few fried pieces, though I have read it is broiled, it wasn’t, set over a clay brazier and a bowl of noodles. To say I was underwhelmed is probably accurate. It was a pleasant enough meal, but not worth the effort.

Hanoi continued.
Before I set off on another day, I call my sister-in-law in Sweden totally mindless of the time difference, I wake her up. I need her to tell me why Hanoi is so fabulous, I want her to explain to me why she likes it so much. She tells me about the French Colonial Architecture, I see squalor, disrepair and very little charm. We have a horrible connection and finally I realize my mistake in the time difference.

I am pondering, what am I missing here? All I have read are glowing reports of Hanoi, everybody I know loves it. One of my favorite cities is Mumbai, so it is not the squalor, or the teeming amount of people, poor infrastucture, or traffic. It doesn’t talk to me, or maybe it does but in the wrong language. The only way to find out if we can have a conversation is to venture out again.

This time I walk towards the Opera House, this is the area where all the posh hotels, and boutiques are located. It is nicer not so run down, The Opera is a lovely building in front of a large square, next to it is the Hilton. Somehow, in my mind Club l’ Opera is at the Hilton and Opera Café is not. It doesn’t matter, am not ready for lunch I walk to the History museum which is a stunning building, and walk around the courtyard admiring some of the exhibits.

There are no brides here to be photographed, but this seems to be one of the spots where romantically inclined portly, middle aged Western men take their young Vietnamese girl friends, tottering on impossibly high heels while holding hands. Am not sure why my reactions to those sights are mainly negative. The men are as a rule not particularly attractive, so why shouldn’t they feel as if they are, if even on a delusional holiday. The girls may view it as a language lesson, one of the best ways to learn a foreign language is in bed, or so I have heard! Or is it the same way I feel when I see old men with very young girls, disdain mixed with pity.

Time for lunch, wander in and out of the Hilton and end up at Sofitel Metropolitan for their Vietnamese Buffet Lunch. What a treat, the crabs are the largest, sweetest and most succulent I have had so far, or even in a long time. The rest of the seafood is not far behind, I try most of it. Skip the meats and soups, since a main course is included in the Pris Fixe of $20 plus tax and gratuities, the final bill came to $30. My choice was grilled Shrimp on Lemon Grass, very mediocre, dry and tasteless. It really didn’t matter though, since all the other items were impeccable, as was the service. Walk out and can even smile at the Cyclos, and Taxi drivers. Perhaps Hanoi has some good points?

Walk slowly up Hoan Kiem Lake, past Memorial House 87 Pho Ma May. It is a small building that has been restored to its original state of being a merchant’s house. There is a very small admission fee, and each floor and room has merchandise for sale but it is still a nice look into old Hanoi. Walk the by now familiar streets, some of the shop keepers smile in recognition, but am still asked to come in and look.
My last day in Hanoi is spent doing more walking. The Ho Chi Min Museum is closed, or so I am told, which apparently was not quite correct. Anyway I don’t go there, instead I am going to yet another market. The Dong Xuan Market, which is to the far north of Hoan Kiem Lake. Nothing has prepared me for the experience. As you approach the building, there are streets and alleys with merchants selling specialized merchandise. There is a row of nothing but office material, another row where they are selling red lanterns, a third alley with tools etc. etc. One line of shops had nothing but plastic shopping bags, including the blue IKEA ones.
This is not unusual when approaching markets except this was a different kind of market.

I get to the building and am almost knocked over by people exiting with enormous bags and bundles. This is a wholesale market for clothing, shoes, bags, suitcases, trinkets, fabrics, cheap cosmetics, but no food. The commerce is fierce, you can see the buyers on the staircases doing their calculations in note books. The bundles piled up next to them, impossibly thin men with carts lug them outside to be piled on cyclos. In one stairwell there is a long standing wooden pipe being circulated, the men have glazed looks and who knows what substance was in that pipe. I was not allowed to photograph it. There is no room or time for individual purchases, you want children’s pajamas, they come in bundles, take the lot. The frenzy is palpable, I walk around a bit longer and then leave.

My flight out to Da Nang leaves at 6 am next morning, am still not sure if Hue is on the agenda or not it all depends on the rains.

Dinner that night is on the corner of Hang Bong and one of the side streets. Every day I had been watching the young girls carefully prepare skewers of food in this tiny corner shop. At night the whole sidewalk becomes a café. I select my food to be cooked over a charcoal fire and sit down on a tiny chair. Have a beer and feel that all is well with the world.

Good Morning Vietnam

Good morning Vietnam
Checked into the Hanoi Elegance 3 early morning, was met with a glass of lemonade, my welcome drink. The room is quite nice, with a shower that looks like a space capsule. Wake up the next morning to a lovely breakfast, and am off. The hotel is in the “old quarter” and very conveniently located to everything.

The first order of the day was the Temple of Literature, it was within walking distance, and for not the last time I took my life into my hands walking the streets of Hanoi. The traffic is intense, scooters everywhere and if the street is not wide enough they drive on the sidewalk. Am not sure how I am reacting to all this cacophony, and crazy traffic. As I walk along I come to a street that obviously have a few catering rental places, chairs are loaded onto a truck, tables stacked in a corner. Dishes being washed Hanoi style, crouching on the sidewalk, dipping the dishes into a plastic bowl filled with water. Now I know why people use the hot tea to rinse out their dishes in restaurants.. Another street is filled with florists, the arrangements are all triangular and can be for the table, in front of a store opening or funeral procession. I reach the Temple of literature but turn the wrong way, which means I walk almost the entire city block to enter.

After China the entrance fee is a shock, 15.000 dong that is less than $1. The temple is very lovely, it is, dedicated to Confucius, and was founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong. In 1076, Vietnam's first university was established here to educate Vietnam's administrative and warriors class. Am wandering around, enjoying seeing all the young to-be-married in a few months, posing in their wedding dresses, full make up and hair dos. The custom or so it was explained to me, is that you get married on a day that is considered lucky by the Buddhist calendar, but you pose for all the photographs weeks or months before the ceremony. Have probably missed some of the details, in the translation, if anyone knows better please let me know. Met a lovely young couple Anne Marie from Ireland and Antoine from Madrid, actually they are both from Madrid and traveling the world. We decide to go for lunch together at Koto, Banana flower salad with fried dried tofu, watermelon juice, Crème Brule and warm cake 165.00 dong or less than $10.
This is a little high for Vietnam but Koto is very special it is a training school for street youths started by a Vietnamese-Australian man. The students learn everything from the front of the house, to the kitchen and back of the house. I thought this was the only school like this in Hanoi but was to learn differently After lunch we part our ways and I mosey along.
Walk by a lot of art galleries. Adele by Klimt seems to be a favorite, to copy. Most of the galleries have at least one copy, apart from the monks and peasant women with straw hats, Not very inspiring, finally I get to the lake and as I confer with my map, I realize that I am very close to Fanny’s. This is supposedly the most famous, and best ice cream parlor in Vietnam with 2 locations I order Passion Fruit, it was a sorbet but still very good. Walk partially around the lake, until I decide it is time to head back.

I walk back past many, many stores and I feel besieged by the Cyclos “ one hour”, shopkeepers “come look Madame”, Scooter drivers and taxis “Where are you going?”. They all want my attention, horns are blowing non-stop. Walking the sidewalks is an exercise in agility, between the parked scooters and the ones that think the side walk is part of the street. The secret to crossing the street in Asia, when there are no lights is to do it in segments, you do the first part when there are few bikes and cars then you do the next part permitting the scooters to swerve around you, or at least give them a chance to. They will not stop for you, the really young kids will try to get as close to you as possible on a dare, I suppose., Get back to the hotel and am really ready for a drink, fortunately had my stash in the fridge, courtesy duty free.

I am trying to gather together my first impressions. Hanoi reminds me of India, but without the good nature of the Indians. The infra structure is very poor, sidewalks in bad repair if at all, roads full of pot holes, buildings are pretty shabby. I do so want to like this city, but my first day is a disappointment. I don’t see the beauty and charm that was, or still is

Time for dinner which is at a nearby restaurant called Quan An Ngon, at 18 Phan Boi Chau, Hoàn Kiếm, which is very well known except I didn’t know it. The receptionist Amy who became my restaurant adviser called it “Always delicious restaurant” and that is what I went to. It was totally packed but since I was single, I was seated right away at a table with two Singaporeans, who left fairly soon, to be followed by two Vietnamese young men. The restaurant is in a garden under a large ochre tent. There are cooking stations all around the perimeter, and the menu is very large. It is supposed to be an upscale version of street food, and the food and quality is great. I have to go back to the pictures to remember what I ate. My two Vietnamese companions, one was a taxi driver and the other a police man insisted I should try some of their food as well. My perceptions of Hanoi are shifting, am not a convert yet, but my sanity is returning.

Next morning I take a taxi to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, and buy a ticket for the Water Puppet Show which was being performed there that week at least. Walk around and visit several tribal buildings from around the country. I find it a bit unsettling walking barefoot, on bamboo mats, with nothing but bamboo slats underneath and quite high off the ground. It was enjoyable to see the different types of houses that were represented.
The Water Puppet Show was very interesting, The actions were narrated by a man who did a great job, impersonating different figures and moods. The translation read by a woman left a lot to be desired. The action was also accompanied by musicians, and singers. 40 minutes was perfect to watch, though one had to wonder how it all happened. At the end,,3 young men came out to take their bows dressed in waist high wet suits.
When the first young man emerges from the tent after he has changed, I ask if I can see the puppets, my theory is always, that “No” is also an answer, but he said yes .At this point several others have joined me and we get to walk backstage and see how it all happens. It really made me admire the skill of the puppeteers even more than I had during the performance.

Time for lunch, the restaurant at the museum is run by yet another not for profit group, teaching under privileged, handicapped and street children restaurant and other skills. The lunch was very pleasant, had a salad and a lime ade. Then it was time to see the museum. Have barely stepped inside before a young woman comes up to me and explains that she is an English Major and can she join me, it turns out she is with a young man with no English knowledge. Am I going to be churlish and say I like my museums solo, unless you can give me a docent’s tour, of course not, so I smile and say “with pleasure”. Am not sure what she wanted from the encounter, but they left after awhile. The museum is very well laid out and it shows the different minorities, as well as their different customs and lifestyles very well. The museum shop is run by a not for profit organization selling handicrafts, I make a small dent in their inventory.

Talking about students, I was approached on several occasions at tourist spots by young women who claimed to be students and wanted me to buy matches for the Red Cross. Finally I said to one before she even gave me her spiel “how much” without missing a beat she said “whatever you want” China has the tea ceremony, Vietnam the matches.

Take the public bus back, I think the fare was less than 5 cents. Am dropped off at the last stop, which is the north part of the lake. I have read about Nguyen Freres and their pleated silk jackets. The shop is supposed to be right by the lake according to my map. I walk down the side of the lake, I walk up the side of the lake, I buy another map from the tourist office, and suspect I was scammed. Walk the entire west side of the lake and there is no shop. It’s time to go home, but since I am there I might as well do some more sight- seeing, I go to the temple on the lake, walk past the shoe street, Imelda Marcus would have been in ecstasy, perhaps not by the quality, but surely the quantity. Manage once more to get home unscathed, it is always an amazement to me that I can actually manage to cross a street unaided.

Walk by an alley where there appears to a supermarket, go in and buy some juice, while on the checkout counter I stand next to a German man, dressed in long pants, sandals and socks, probably saved his whole life for this trip, with a shopping basket full of green tea. He is very happy, he even got the very large leafed one his guide had shown him . On the bag says it’s good as a diuretic, for rheumatism and backaches, as well as anything else that ails you. May be he will relegate it to the back of the pantry when he gets home.

Dinner that night is at Cha Ca La Vong, there are at least 3 restaurants with that or similar name on the same street. Since I had the wrong street number it took me a second to figure out which one was which. For 90.000 you get a slew of greens to cook with the fish, of which there were a very few fried pieces, though I have read it is broiled, it wasn’t, set over a clay brazier and a bowl of noodles. To say I was underwhelmed is probably accurate. It was a pleasant enough meal, but not worth the effort.


China farewell!

Spent my last day in Lijiang going back to the market, wandering around, filled with greed for all the cooking implements. The cleavers were so sharp and beautiful, the fact that I already have one, hardly ever used is beside the point. Skimmers in all different sizes and all those woks, I wanted them all. Don’t worry I restrained myself, didn’t buy one item.

Walk by a store in town, that have caramelized small fruits on skewers, they look like jewels laid out in the window. Finally I get to the Mu mansion, the Mu’s as chief of the Naxi’s have kept their status for 22 generations and 470 years. It is quite magnificent, one would think that after having seen so many historic buildings I would have had my fill, but this one really thrilled me. There were some old frescoes on the walls in one of the buildings. The Mu’s were apparently very scholarly and had an extensive library, to which scholars of the day were invited. As I am walking around, I see a group of elderly Naxi women who appear to be out on an outing. They permit me to take their pictures and indicate that they would like copies. One little problem, none of them seem to know how to write, I corral a youngish woman walking by and appeal to her better instincts, she does reluctantly copy down one of the addresses, which I had translated later in the day. Am not sure if they were illiterate or exactly what their story was. I remember meeting many women, some quite young in Turkey, who did not know how to read or write, but am not sure about China.

Time to leave Lijiang, for my one night in Kunming which I spent at the Guandu Hotel, it is very near the airport, and can be recommended. Leave for Guangzhou at 6 am next morning, have still not seen Kunming.

Guangzhou in the heart of Canton, what does one do, one shops and eats Dim Sum. It took a little while to deposit my suitcase at the airport, give an English lesson to the attendant, she had difficulties differentiating between fifteen and fifty, and finally catch a bus into the city. It was hard getting information, apparently there is not one airport bus, but many going to different destinations. I finally got on the #1 which took me to the terminal. The information I received there was to go to Shang Xiu Jiu, for shopping, as well as eating. From there I took a taxi. The #5 bus would have taken me directly/, bypassing the need for a cab.

My first stop was, HongXing seafood restaurant. I had wanted to try Abalone while in China but it didn’t happen. I ordered a Sharks fin soup with crab meat, with every intention of ordering more items. However the experience was so uncomfortable, with the young waitress staring at me and every morsel I put into my mouth, then gesturing to another waitress to join her in giggling at the “Laowai” that I left as soon as I could.

Shopping was something that I have really not indulged in, I had regretted not getting a computer bag/knapsack on wheels in Yangshou and that was the first order of business. Almost as soon as I entered the mall I discovered the bag section, found the very same fake copy of a Swiss Army Knife bag that I had seen earlier and it was mine for $19. If only I was a shopper, there was floor after floor with so much stuff, and no hassle. Then I got to the 4th floor with all the fur salons, that sold mainly mink coats. Most of it seemed geared for the Russian market given the styles and colors but there were some real finds at incredibly low prices. However I resisted temptation, because now it was time for Dim Sum. I know my priorities and went to Lucky ???? am unable to find the card but it is a huge very popular place. There are many stations where you go to order whatever small plates you want, then at strategic locations there are women with dumpling carts. I ate until I couldn’t anymore, took my new knapsack and left for new adventures in Vietnam.

Lijiang part 3, Baisha and Mu's Mansion

Lijiang, Naxi sites and Baisha

9 am Lu is waiting for me by south entrance to the old town. We are going sightseeing. She is a young girl studying English, who trained as a tourist guide but unfortunately studied Japanese. She lives in Baisha, and her English teacher is the other partner at my hotel.

We start off at Jade Water Village which is a big park dedicated to Naxi rites and traditions. The top of the park has a wonderful golden statue with an inscription, that says in essence we should not pollute what we eat or drink. I could make a few comments, but better be polite to the host country. It is standing in the middle of a pool that has a 800 year old tree and a spring that is very holy to the Naxi. From there many waterfalls come down, most of them with manmade stones. We walk around and see copies of Naxi food in one building at another area there are some Naxi farmhouses which show how the Naxi wine is made, as well as paper. Outside the building there are Yaks to be ridden, and no tourists. I give in and have now ridden a Yak, the same sensation as a camel, except this was for much shorter time.

We then continue Jade Peak temple that has a Camelia Tree that is supposedly 500 years old and bears 1000’s of flowers when it blooms. This tree like everything else is on top of many, many steps but it is very impressive. On the way up we pass some monks, it appears as if one of them is having his fortune told with playing cards. Unfortunately could not get that confirmed as Lu’s English is very limited. There were the usual group of elderly Naxi women by the entrance singing songs, am not sure if Lu’s grandmother was one of them but she came down the path as we were leaving. I did get a couple of nice pictures of them together.

On to Baisha, Lu’s home village, one of her friends has a restaurant and we had lunch there. I got yet another version of Jidouling Fen this one was warm, she also served sautéed cucumbers with scrambled egg and hot peppers, eggplant with a special greens from the region, wild mushrooms and a soup with tofu and greens. Dessert was an apple and an orange. They had such a good time talking to each other and when lunch was over, I was taken to the neighbor’s house to see her hay, dried corn, the cow and the yard. The neighbor spoke a little English and invited me to stay,unfortunately we had more visits to make. We walked around Baisha through lanes of souvenir sellers to a temple that had some ancient frescoes. By this time I am sightseeinged out and don’t quite get what it is all about. I know that Baisha once was a capital of a kingdom, now it appears as a tourist spot and an agricultural village. We do end up visiting Lu’s other grandmother, where I am shown the pigs, they all have separate quarters, depending on their age. Also see the dried corn, and wheat, as well as the rape and its grinder. Do so wish that I could communicate better, it strikes me that this, as many of the other houses in the village are quite self sufficient. As you drive down the street, you don’t realize that behind those doors are yards with farm animals, barns and living areas.
By now I am really tired, but there is still one more stop to yet another place, I don’t remember the name but it was totally touristy. I did however see eighty year old man finger paint, and he was proud of it. Since Lu and I have a language barrier I indicate that I am really tired and enough is enough. Lu drives me back and we call it a day.

In recapping my day it was a wonderful experience. Though we couldn’t really have a conversation as such, we certainly communicated, Lu showed me so much of her culture, and I was very grateful for her taking me to all these places. I also finally saw the pine cones that produce pine nuts. What I have come to realize, once again while traveling, if there is intelligence, and a willingness to share, lack of language is only a hindrance not a barrier.

I get back to the hotel, the architect is around and we sit down in the courtyard with some of the wine I bought. He is totally amazed that Chinese wine can taste this good. We then start to discuss the dining room addition, it is being painted, his words, IKEA blue and yellow. He likes it edgy, am not sure that the Swedish colors are edgy except perhaps in China. He is 29, from Beijing, and we talk about the difference between Lijiang and Beijing. He tells me that he was party boy and lived on the edge, did a lot of drugs, not quite sure how much he has given up. According to him drugs are no longer part of his life which is why he likes Lijiang, according to some of the other characters, he is a pot smoker. The whole place is a puzzle to me. Part of it is definitively a hotel/guesthouse with paying guests like myself, but then there are so many 30ish, stylish in a funky kind of way people flitting around that I cannot quite figure out what their function is. Are they staying there, are they friends of the owners and visiting for the moment, whatever they are they certainly rule the lounge. This is so familiar, I could be back in NYC but I am in China and in my mind it is not supposed to be like this.

One more day to go and I don’t want to leave

Lijiang part 2

Lijiang continued.

Since I have 4 ½ days here, decide to take it easy in the morning. I get out around 11 am and the town is quiet. People are out doing their thing, especially around the pools. Laundry is big here as is washing vegetables. The water comes down from the mountains into town in small canals. There are three pools in strategic positions within the canals, throughout town. The first is for drinking water, the second for washing vegetables, and the third for laundry. Shops are gradually opening up, and since I am only walking the main streets meet a few people coming back from the market. Apparently this is the beginning of the Yangtze river.

I am on a mission, that is having lunch at the Buddhist temple Anthony Bourdain went to in his Lijiang episode. I do find the temple nestled inside an alley, it looks awfully empty, but I find the outdoor eating area, and am invited to the kitchen to select what I want to eat. I don’t know what I want so I just nod yes to everything she suggests. I then go and sit outside in the garden, watching the roof tops, the water flowing below and truly enjoying the silence. A monk looks in on me every so often, and there is one other man at a table who is joined by 3 others for lunch. Would I say that this is the place where the working men of Lijiang go for lunch hardly. They must have hired a lot of extras for the show.

Lunch comes, I get Naxi bread, started in a dry pan finished on a brick in a wood burning oven, eggs with tomato and scallion, seems a popular dish, had a different version last night, then I get Jidouling Fen. The same kind of cold noodles I had eaten at the market except these were dark grey. Have still not been able to get a recipe, but the jelly is made from Chick peas that grow in this region. They are served with soy sayce, 5 spice powder, hot peppers, cilantro and scallions, totally delish. I devour everything and pay my bill of 10RBM including tea.

I walk slowly through town, past the large square with the water wheel towards black Dragon Pool Park. Yet another entrance fee, but because I have my city card I don’t pay. The park is lovely, there is a Dongba cultural center, which I climb a lot of stairs to reach. Dongbas mean “master interpreter of scriptures” and in my ignorance didn’t quite understand the significance of the old man and a whole room devoted to paper making and writings. This is what I since learnt . The Naxi are the only ethnic group in the world to have their culture preserved in a textual writing system with images and pictographic characters (sijiulujiu) still in use. The ancient scriptures on paper or wooden boards and scrolls remain in their thousands preserved in libraries and museums worldwide. Of artistic importance are wooden boards with paintings of gods planted in sacred spots in nature or used in ceremonies. We saw the boards used at the performance but didn’t know what the significance was.

I continue through the park and stop several times to admire the pool, which is really a lake and the pavilions built around it. There is a large area where people are congregating, at one end there is a stage with musicians on it. I am informed that they will start playing in 15 minutes, and sit down. The sun is shining, an elderly lady is playing the Gu Zheng, a Chinese Zither, old men are shooting the breeze, children are running around. The musicians start to play Naxi music and it is lovely. What a perfect way to spend a few hours. As I am ready to leave one of the old men indicates that his friend is 95 years old. I take pictures and they all think this is great.

Walk out the north gate into the modern part of town and follow the line of the old town. It is a big street where many young mothers with small children sit on stools outside their shops. I stop to admire the children, and am invited to sit down and share the baked potatoes. I accept the invitation, but the children got so scared by my looks that I quickly got up. The adults were all laughing, but I don’t need to make Chinese children scared of blonde hair. Have finally realised why I only see children 2 years old, or younger, because the rest are at school. As I continue down the avenue I pass a large statue of Mao Ze Dong it is the only one I have seen so far in China.

Walk back into the old town, now I know what they mean by tourist town. The Yaks are waiting for riders in the main square, the tourists, and tour groups, mainly Chinese are everywhere. I walk on one of the back streets, which is full of restaurants. The kitchen and wait staff are on break before the dinner rush and hang around, smoking and gossiping the way they do all over the world. It is cute seeing the very young boys in their whites and many of the waitresses in minority costumes. I sit down at one place and have a beer, have been drinking more beer here, these few weeks than I ever had before. It really took care of my thirst. The tour groups have discovered this street, I am as much an object of interest as the old houses, time to go back to the hotel.

Lijiang and Jade Dragon snow Mountain

My last major stop on the China tour is Lijiang. One more night in Kunming and Guangzhou for the day until I reach Hanoi in Vietnam. I have 4 nights here and as many days, it is perfect.
The bus from Dali pulls in at 2 pm after a 3 ½ hour trip at the cost of 50 RBM, taxi to the parking lot outside the old city 7 RBM, where I am met by a young man who takes me to my home for the next few nights. I can tell he is struggling with my luggage. The street is very uneven so the suitcase doesn’t roll as well. We arrive and it is a construction site, a new dining room is being added. I enquire of the person whom I presume to be the owner what are the working hours. I am told 10-4, no big deal, I can live with those hours. Get checked in and am shown a double bedded room, I explain that I am single and only need one bed. Get moved to the honeymoon room, have a round bed, fresh roses and a lovely fruit bowl.

My friend off the internet, Aline from Shanghai and her husband Michael are also staying here, but they are away on a daytrip. I get a map and start walking and am in total like again. All the literature says what a tourist town this is, true but not true. I walk along ancient streets and come to the market, I know, 3 markets in 2 days but I love markets. This is a real market for the locals, no trinkets sold. As I walk along I see a sign for “Chinese Vegetarian Burger” this I have to try, what it is, it is a bun baked in a clay pot so it puffs up, then filled with noodles that I have been unable to figure out exactly what they are made of .It is some kind of bean jelly that become noodles when a piece is shaved off from this gelatinous mass that sits on a plate. The noodles are cold and mixed with various herbs and spices. A totally delicious sandwich and I am happy. Walking along, this market is very large and there are also many food vendors. I try deep fried duck from one, and potato chips from another. This is obviously a culture that uses a lot of potatoes, the piles of potatoes are everywhere, and weighed on small handheld scales as they are sold. It is time to head back, I pass a stall that sells what I think is Yak Cheese, I buy the smallest possible piece, bite into it, it is butter. My face says it all, there is laughter all around. I return it to be discarded, since I bit into the piece. The sales woman insists of giving me my money back, which I refuse, but accept in the end. I know I like this town already.

Return to the inn and my friends have arrived. We sit in the courtyard until dinner, which the owner’s very young and new wife has cooked. It is delicious and I tease him that he married her for her cooking abilities, he very seriously responds, it was her good heart. There are two partners and an architect, plus some other people that I am not sure of who they are having dinner with us. There is also a party of 10 non-resident guests who have ordered special meal but they are seated apart from us. We have eaten and are sated, a young girl sings a Naxi love song, one of the owners part of a Chinese opera, the other owner gets his guitar and starts singing pop songs. Very catchy tunes and of course yours truly is up dancing, so are others at our table, I get a few of the other guests to join in and we have a great evening. The construction crew is still working it is now past 10 pm. The room is freezing, despite the heater and I put on the heating mattress as well.

The next morning we are leaving early to go to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Impression Lijiang. There is no hot water, breakfast is rice gruel, fried bread and scrambled eggs. I survive all of it and we are on the way. It turns out we need our staying in historical town ticket, Aline runs to get them @80 RBM each. Will not bore you with individual prices but by the time we were done with the park, show, cable car and transportation within the park the tickets alone cost 540 RBM or $79. It turned out to be a spectacular day that I had not planned on.

Part of the park are a series of waterfalls, which we start off by going to, Aline gets on a Yak for picture taking. We take a bus around the lake, it is all very pretty and quite rustic. What has amazed me throughout China and even here, are the young girls in impossible high heels and flimsy clothes going on hikes. We return to the main area by bus and have lunch, excellent dumplings, I also buy some dried Yak meat. Then it is time for the Lijiang Impression show. This is quite extraordinary, an outdoor show performed under the snowcapped mountain. It is about the minorities in the area, mainly though the Naxi. There is a cast of hundreds who sing, ride, walk, dance in their native costumes. The underlying message is about brotherhood and peace. I don’t think there are too many dry eyes at the end. For the English speaking there is a simultaneously translation projected on the cliff wall. Most impressive, especially when you realize that they are all amateurs, who perform as they were the Rockettes. With the ticket comes a red cap, I finally get to be like the other Chinese.

The show is over and now comes the reason we are here, a cable car up the mountain. I had rented a large padded coat and am I ever glad that I did. The ride takes 12 minutes to reach 4506 meters above sea level. It is an amazing sight, also very cold. Aline and Michael had prepared by taking altitude pills and inhaling oxygen. I figured that 10 minutes were not going to affect me too much and I was correct, had no problems on top at all, but was really tired when we got back to the hotel. I am still not sure if we were in the Himalayas, as Aline claimed, or a mountain range on its own. I really don’t care, it was a fabulous day and am really looking forward to the next few days here, I will be on my own, but this is a place and an area worth exploring.
Will continue with my days in Lijiang later and experiences with Naxi food.

Bus journey Kunming to Dali

The New Era in Kunming have the most extensive breakfast buffets that I have ever seen. I think that there were at least 6 stations, each quite enormous, featuring Chinese, Japanese and Western foods. Being no slouch in the food department I made sure to sample quite a few of the items, before I left for Dali.
My original plan was to spend the day in Kunming and take an evening flight out. What I had forgotten was to book the flight, which was probably just as well since the bus only took 4 hours. However there were not that many buses running, I opted for the 1 pm bus which basically left me no time to explore the city.
The traffic in Kunming is the worst I have seen here in China, bumper to bumper every which way you look so am glad that I got an early start. I have heard about these luxurious buses, I think they are a rumor. The bus was large and reasonably comfortable, but not as comfortable as a Greyhound bus. I find my seat, it is an aisle seat, but the gentleman who had the window seat offered it to me, which I gratefully accepted. I sit down and pull out my knitting, have promised myself that I will finish this sweater within the year. My seat companion indicates that he knits as well, he also makes it quite clear that he only speaks Chinese.
He falls asleep, and when he wakes up I have my dictionary ready to ask if he slept well. Apparently he did not sleep the night before as he just got back from Thailand. He shows me pictures, am not quite sure but I think he went for more than a beach vacation quite a few women appear in these pictures. He borrows my dictionary and goes through it very diligently until he finds what he wants, turns to me and says “You have a nice body” I know I am blushing and say xiexie, (thank you) then he says “I like” by now I am really uncomfortable. It’s a good job that I have “The Rough Guide” phrasebook and not Lonely Planet’s which has some rather graphic language, and a lot of pick up phrases.

Pull up the computer and start to write, let him think I have important business to take care of. Then he indicates that he is driving me to Dali when the bus arrives. The bus stops in the new town and I am staying in the old town. I very politely decline saying that he must be tired after his journey and I will take a taxi. This dance continues for a few more turns until he gets that I am taking a taxi when we arrive.
The landscape is very pretty, we pass a lot of buildings with paintings on the outside walls. It seems as if they have the same design for a few miles, several villages had dinosaurs, then a new design made an appearance for a few more villages and so it went. There seems to be a lot of agriculture and several different kinds of crops. Wheat was one of them but there were some other greens, I did not recognize but acres and acres of it were planted.
We arrive and I get a taxi, my travel companion helps me explain to the driver where I am going, at least that is what I thought. We get to old Dali and he doesn’t have a clue, refuses to look at my map and in the end I am left, in the middle of the city. As usual my travel karma is with me and this very kind woman walks me to my hotel.
The hotel is an old Bai building that has been converted into a hotel. It is beautiful and my room is lovely with a canopy bed and old wood work. It is time for dinner and am give a recommendation to go to Yi Heng on Renmin Road. I find it and am totally confused, at the entrance there is an array of vegetables, dried mushrooms and fresh fish. The chefs are in front with their woks, do I select the food and they cook it or what is the deal? I turn to a young man and ask him if he speaks English, a woman dressed in a Bai costume pipes up and says I do. It turns out that she is a guide and is there with her clients a middle aged couple from North London. She invites me to join them and pay my share of course which I accept. All or at least most of the restaurants in Dali have the fresh produce displayed in front I discovered the next day. It was a pleasant enough dinner, the food was mainly very good we had spare ribs, roast duck, broad beans, some tasteless soup which was supposedly a specialty of the region and some other vegetable dish with celery. Am not sure I would have eaten better on my own, but certainly differently. I paid my share which came to 60 RMB and said goodnight.

As I walk home I am thinking that I have hardly had a dinner by myself since I arrived in China. Haven’t even been that much by myself, or have I? Get back to my lovely court Hotel and go to bed. Lovely it is, sound proof it is not, I just try to imagine living a communal life as a Bai and find that I rather be a Laowai(foreigner) fortunately the din end at 11 pm. The next morning I wake up with a sore throat and beginning of a cold, Self medicate with airborne and zinc lozenges. Have my noodle breakfast and lovely Yunnan coffee, before setting off for Zhou Cheng village and its market. Two buses and 20 minutes later I am left on the main road, and start to walk towards the market. I pass a shop that makes rape seed oil, a very fascinating machine that grinds the seeds into oil and leaves a very hard olive green residue.
I arrive at the market and am deluged by women who have trinkets to sell. They will not leave me alone, I don’t know where they keep it all but one item after another is brought up and put in front of my eyes. “Looka, looka very pretty” finally I am really annoyed and show it. All but one scatters, we are haggling over a pair of ear rings that I don’t even want. I am offering 10 RMB she has come down from 380 to 40 as the market is winding down she makes one last attempt, and smilingly walks away when I stick to my price.

I return to Dali and walk around, run into a Canadian couple who I had met at the bus station in Kunming, they tell me about the market in Dali. This is a food market only, quite large and sells meat as well as fish. Tiny little crabs, crayfish not much larger than a thumb, carp and catfish and other varieties I don’t recognize. It is a lively market, but the food for sale does not tempt me. I finally end up having a Tikka Masala at an Indian restaurant. My throat needed that kind of heat, the Chinese chef all of 20 may be comes out and anxiously asks if I like it. The Nan is the flakiest I have had in a long time, yes I like it.

Wander aimlessly around, there are hardly any non-Chinese anywhere, I see maybe 10 in all Westerners, and all of a sudden I am crashing. Too many tchotchke shops, too many Bai handicrafts, too much of everything, all I want is to leave. On my way back to the hotel I see a shop with really nice linen goods, end up buying a jacket which I am pleased about. Get back and read what someone had sent me, about traveling on your own and how to deal with the moments when you are low. It does the trick of course, tomorrow am off to Lijiang and new adventures.



Correction, I did not eat bearded crab, it is called hairy crab, as it was pointed out to me so now you all know.

The taxi was waiting for me in the morning just as agreed, butit wasn’t the driver I expected. I forgot to mention that the taxi I had taken the previous evening to the restaurant had an English speaking young man as a driver. We had arranged for him to pick me up in the morning, except he sent someone else ,who took me to the airport, and when we arrived handed me a handwritten note saying that he was sorry he couldn’t drive me but sent his nephew instead. I was very touched by that gesture.

Arrived in Guilin and was met by Mr. Tan as arranged by Lilly. The airport was a little surrealistic, as much is here in China. There were palm trees lit up in different colours and of course raining. The airport is 1 1/12 hours from Yangshuo, and when I arrived at Yangshuo Culture House, Lilly and Mr Wei the proprietor were waiting for me. The Hostel was fully booked, bur because of my pre booking,I got a room on the first floor which had 3 double beds which was fine with me. It was late, I made arrangements to meet with Lilly the next morning to start our sightseeing, but it was raining again. Lilly made arrangements for me to go on a tour to the Silver Cave. This was an all Chinese group, but I didn’t get a hat. Actually it didn’t matter very much, the cave was pretty spectacular with all the stalactites and stalagmites lit up in different colors. What was very fascinating to me were the guides, they all worked at the cave. Some had a little English, but there was no interrupting to ask a question. They had the descriptions of the formations down by rote, and could not be interrupted .The tour took an hour then it was time to board the bus back to the city.

It is still raining intermittently, Lilly decides we should go to the Minority village. It is a tourist village where you take a boat trip, past minority groups that perform for you. Then you walk through the village and see the various handicrafts made by the different native groups. There didn’t seem to be much else to do since the weather was really crappy. The trip was actually quit enjoyable.

It is time to go back to Yangshuo Culture House where dinner is served. It is a great concept, all meals are included in the price of the room, I paid 160 RBM or $23 per night for a single room with all meals. The dinner is served family style and there are 10-12 different dishes. You really get to know the other guests which in my case was a double blessing because I acquired some great playmates and tour companions.

There were a young Austrian couple and two Swedish students who joined me for a trip to the market in Xing Ping and then onto a cruise up the Li River. Lilly arranged for a van with a driver and a boat up the river. I had read about an artist in Xing Ping and made sure that I got to his gallery that was diagonally across from “Old Place Café” I bought for lovely ink drawings, by the artist. As we were ready to leave Verena the Austrian girl saw two paintings, hidden in the back, on silk rolls of a Qing empress and emperor. I managed to bargain them down to 300RMB or less than $50. She was thrilled and they looked great.

We arrived to board our bamboo boat. It was covered so the rain which was only intermittent didn’t really disturb us. The trip was lovely, we saw the karst formations that are pictured on the 20 Yuan bill, and had lunch at a small place by the side of the river. We basically ate omelette, stuffed tofu, rice and some greens, turned down the offer of fish, the river didn’t look too terrific. With our stomach full once again we continued to drift up the river, the landscape is stunning with the Karsts in the background, green vegetation going up the hills and hardly another boat on the river. We managed to see a brilliant blue Kingfisher and some other birds that I don’t know the name of. The trip with lunch cost 670RMB for the 5 of us. Mr. Wei had arranged tickets to the Li River show that night. We paid 150 RMB each including the driver to take us and pick us up. The show is produced by the same man who produced the Olympics. It was very lovely, but as usual I kept on dozing off. They sold Cd’s and Dvd’s at the end but I resisted the urge.

The next day it was supposed to be good weather so we booked a van again to take us to the rice terraces. The drive is 3 ½ hours from Yangshuo, when you arrive there is a 50 RMB entrance fee since these are minority villages. The women have very long hair which is artfully arranged, They are very persistent sales people and also in offering their services as a guide. Our driver did not want to climb the hills, so he was left behind. We started to walk up and and when we came to village number 2, the women were told that we did not want a guide. One of them would not take no for an answer, and continued following us.Tthere was an older woman watching this whole scene, she came over and gave me a walking stick. What a blessing that was, we proceeded almost to the top as we were hiking up, two bamboo litters carried by four young men and holding a Chinese couple were being carried down the mountain. My feeling was if I cannot make this trip by my own steam, then I should stay away from the hike. True I had 4 wonderful companions that waited for me and assisted me when necessary. We get as high as everyone decided is high enough. The view is spectacular despite the fact that the rice has been harvested. We make a last effort to reach a house that appears to be a restaurant. No food, the owner said she could get some but it would entail a wait so we decide to descend.
We finally reach village #2 and stop by a restaurant. We are the only guests, and order from the English menu amongst other things “Bamboo Chicken” the normal assumption would be that it is chicken cooked with bamboo shoots. Not so, first you go and find a chicken in the yard, then you kill it, pluck it and cook it in a bamboo stalk. The chicken was very scrawny, we had rice and greens and some other vegetables with the meal and for the 6 of us it was less than $20. When it is time to leave we take a few pictures and the Yao woman, who I presume is the owner gives me a kiss on the cheek and a big hug, I wish I had a picture of that. We drive back to Guilin to drop of the Austrians, return to the Culture House where we are served a late dinner.

I cannot sleep, the election is taking place, I am so nervous, and what if McCain wins. There is a big discussion going on the next morning, the results are not in yet but it looks good for Obama. There were many nationalities at the hostel, all without fail including Mr. Wei were rooting for Obama. I had to leave for Kunming and still didn’t know the results. Get to Guilin airport, that was one of the few that did not provide Wi-Fi so I am still in the dark. I spot some Americans going into the First Class Lounge and ask if they knew. I am told in a most bitter voice, Obama won 2-1. I guess they were Republicans.

I checked into my hotel in Kunming, it is very posh, I had booked it on purpose, thinking that a nice hotel might be welcome after the hostel. It was welcome but not necessary. Am watching Chinese CNN and I am crying, I am so proud of America, to be an American and the Americans at this moment, the fact that race was put aside and a black president, who proved to be the most capable to make rational decisions was elected.
Never got to see Kunming, the flights were sold out so I took a bus to Dali. Which is a whole other story.

More later



Arrived to the hotel at 7.30 pm. Tired and cranky after all I had not eaten since noon. The airline, since the flight was so delayed, provided some weird box lunches for us, Chicken, warm lettuce, peas mixed with corn and of course rice. I took the airport bus for 27RBM which stopped a block from the hotel across from the Bell Tower.

I am staying at Xi’an city hotel at a rate of 168RBM or $25 including breakfast. Expected a dump but it is not, the room is small, but it has all the necessities including internet, a comfortable bed a TV with 50+ Chinese channels.

Hook up the computer to make my phone calls. Before I left I took out a 2 months subscription to Skype, this enables me to make phone calls to land lines and mobil phones from my computer, also packed earphones and a mike. I had sent an e-mail to Clarence Guo, since I had asked him a long time ago to be my guide in Xi’an. Had also hired Lilly Lu for Yangshou, both for transportation from Guilin, since my flight gets in at night and as a guide, these were the only places in China where I felt guides might be helpful. Clarence in particular because of his interest and expertise on the Terracotta Army, I I have recently read a play called “The Great Wall” about Emperor Qun, he was the Emperor that unified China, started to build the great wall and had the warriors made, and wanted to get Clarence's opinions..

True, though this trip has been planned for months, of course did not print up a lot of information that might have been helpful, nor did I reconfirm my arrangements, going on the assumption that once it was agreed upon it was. This method of functioning has usually worked for me, but not always. I wish I was different, I admire people who think to print out a picture of a hotel, at least I printed out the Chinese names. I tried to call Lilly, a woman answers and hangs up, recheck the number it is correct, call again this time a man answers and hangs up. Haven’t heard from Clarence either, but there I have a plan B, to take public transportation and self guide. Go down to the reception and ask them to call for me, they tell me to have the house keeper make the call. The housekeeper does not speak English so she is clueless to what I want her to do. Go back to reception, they claim they have no outside lines. Go tell that to the Marines, all I can hope for is that Lilly got my e-mail and that all is well. By now I am really cranky and go out the front door. WOW!!!!

It was Times Square and Las Vegas combined but in China, Xi’an all lit up with neon lights. The energy was exhilarating just walking down the street, seeing the Drum Tower illuminated next to modern shopping malls, the modern underground passage and bouncers at a night club dressed up for Halloween. How could I even think of being cranky. I walk over to the Drum tower and towards to Moslem night market that I have read so much about, all of a sudden it is there in all its glory. I am transported to heaven, All the foods that are being cooked. Am looking for a place that may perhaps have a similar lamb sandwich to the one I ate in NYC, made by a man from Xi’an. Don’t even see anything similar, try an egg vegetable fried turnover, nothing to write home about. The cooking odors are intoxicating, lamb skewers, chicken wings covered in cumin and coriander, the numerous shops selling dried fruits and nuts, some which I have no idea what they are. In the middle of this chaos are tuk-tuks and of course people.

I walk by several tables that have hotpots built into them. Stop at one and ask if I can photograph them and the table. Guess what, I end up having dinner with these two Chinese couples, they speak a little English and keep putting all sorts of strange things into my bowl. It is all very tasty if a little spicy. I recognize tripe and intestines. Before any of you go “yuck” unless you are vegetarian or kosher, chances are you have had intestines and not known it. Most sausage casings are intestines, you know that because it’s edible, plastic you have to peel. Anyway I am sitting there, feeling like a queen drinking beer and eating wonderful food in the middle of Moslem street. My hosts refuse to let me pay and leave. I wander a little while longer then it is time to return to my hotel. I didn’t feel like going the long, safe way, so like the fool I am braved the traffic and lived to tell the tale.

By now I have heard from Clarence and Lilly. Clarence picks me up at 9 am, and then drives around picking up 2 Italian women who are here on business, a young American couple who live in China and a Chinese couple. The tour is almost as described, the warriors, a silk factory visit, where we were supposed to have lunch, but fortunately did not, then for me transportation to the airport. We started out seeing a movie about the emperor, his battles, and the discovery of the warriors, it was a wonderful costume drama. Then onto the warriors, which were very interesting to see, one also realizes the enormous amount of work involved in unearthing and putting them together. There are two pits, #1 is where most of the unearthed warriors are, #2 there are some including horses and charioteers, most of that site is still unexcavated. There were also exhibits in glass cases of different ranking soldiers. The this building houses various exhibits, which are all described only in Chinese, as well as 2 bronze chariots that were found close to the tomb of the emperor. Then it is on to the silk museum which was hugely overpriced. Though I haven’t done any shopping to speak of I had still priced items in other places. We had all agreed that we would prefer lunch elsewhere. Clarence took us to a restaurant called Ling Long Xue in Lin Tong, that had the best dumplings and food I have eaten so far. Apart from the “Jiaozi” as they were called here, there were many other various dishes that kept on coming out. A truly memorable meal.
A fter Iunch it was time for me to leave for the airport, the others were continuing on their sightseeing tour. Clarence has been described as laid back, that is probably an accurate description. He gives you the information needed,and then lets you fend for yourself. My impression is that he has built a very good business for himself, through boards like Fodors, Trip Advisor and Thorn Tree and at this point puts out the minimum for maximum return. Did I think he services were worth 700 RBM, probably not, but that meal for me outweighed everything!

See you all in Yangshuo

Suzhou, Tongli and Hanhzhou

Suzhou, Tongli and Hangzhou

Am sitting at Hangzhou airport waiting for my flight to XiAn to depart, it is at least 5 hours delayed due to weather. It gives me a good opportunity to catch up.

After my very brief visit in Shanghai, the next morning I boarded the train to Suzhou. What I haven’t revealed so far is that I am not traveling as lightly as I usually do, not that I am ever a minimal packer. This time there is the laptop that is small and lightweight. However the transformer, universal adapter plug, ,and make up that I never put on as well as guide books all weigh a ton. My clothing is minimal, have basically worn the same black pants and shirt for 3 weeks. Whatever it is I have packed weighs a lot.

When I get off the train in Suzhou I discover that there are stairs a lot of them to exit the station. Not a porter in sight, I am finally by myself on the platform with a station employee, he had a fancy uniform so I supposed he was the one that waves the trains on. Anyway he first indicated that he was calling for help, when noone appeared, I tried to carry my suitcase myself.

Nothing doing this kind gentleman took everything down all the stairs for me. As I thank him profusely, or as profusely as my Chinese will permit another young rescuer appears. He speaks English and takes my two bags to the taxi stand. I didn’t have a hotel booked, but knew the area where I wanted to stay, he tells me that is in the direction he is going and offers to share the cab. When we approach the old town he tells me he knows of a Chinese chain hotel aptly called My Hotel and suggests it. He refuses any money for the cab takes me to the front desk makes sure I have a room and then leaves. The hotel is very basic, but my room is nice with a terrace, if only the weather was better I could sit there in the morning. The cost is 258 RMB or approximately $38.

I am very happy and start exploring. First I go to the tourist office to find out about the overnight boat to Hangzhou. Unfortunately it stopped running for the season. I feel my travel karma continues. This way I can still get to see another water town and take the bus to Hangzhou. Also like the feel of Suzhou. Those of you, who know me, know that I have a thing for Chinese gardens. Suzhou, though it has canals and bridges is all about its gardens. I start out at the Master of Nets Garden, this supposedly is the garden that was copied at the Metropolitan Museum in 1981. Though I go there frequently, I didn’t recognize it, however it seemed exactly like the Chinese garden I saw in Portland. Whatever, it was lovely and I was very happy.

Decided to go for lunch, and whatever possessed me I don’t know but I ordered a tuna fish sandwich. It did take care of the hunger pangs, next it was time for one more garden, since I never got to the Summer Palace in Beijing I selected the Humble Administrators Garden which is supposed to rival the Summer Palace. It was very large and very lovely with a lot of pavilions , water flowing through the gardens and courtyards in the most unexpected places. What a treat it was to see and to be there. Now I am getting hungry again, having read in one of the tourist brochures that Sofitel, the French hotel chain was having a Bearded Crab Festival with a buffet dinner for approx $20.

I had read about bearded crab and knew this was on my list of things to try. My natural inclination is to stay away from hotel dining rooms, especially the buffet dinners, the crabs were the draw. Also didn’t know where else to go to try them. Took the bus to the hotel and walked into an empty dining room, was seated with my back to the television that was showing some American movie. The Assistant Manager comes up, he was obviously looking for something to do, and proceeds to explain the buffet. We walk through it together, he raves about the oysters of course I try them, watery and tasteless. Will I ever taste oysters like those we had in Cape Town again? I try a few more sea food items and then it is time for the crabs. The young man, they are all young men and women here it seems, then informs me, that he will show me how to eat a crab. It is pointless to explain that I ate crabs before he was born, so I graciously accept the lesson. The main difference is that these crabs are eaten with a sweetish vinegar ginger sauce. He also told me that I should not eat more than 4 or at the most 5 since my stomach would be upset. To the amusement of the staff I ate 4, had some salad, cheese and dessert including a beer the total bill came to $23. Money well spent in my opinion the crabs were delicious.

Since my schedule had been turned around I decided to go to Tongli, the closest of the water towns. The hotel was fairly near to the South bus station so I decided to take a bus. Missed one and waited for 15 minutes for the next and thought I’ll take a cab. It was a woman driver and I had all these great feelings about women taxi drivers, since I hadn’t seen one yet. I very clearly explained where I was going showing on the map and using the dictionary, she takes off to where she is going, which was to the train station in the exact opposite part of town. Took another cab to the North bus station and finally got a bus. There is a specific ticket booth for Tongli, you pay 80 RMB which includes the bus fare. Tongli is a very cute little water town with many canals and bridges, old houses and lots of vendors. If you haven’t already, you can buy pearls, silk comforters, pigs trotters and hocks, amongst all the other merchandise. A different variation on the black sesame crackers,I had seen in Pingyao, these were made on a large electric griddle as opposed to a wok with black pebbles. There is too much merchandise everywhere for me to get engaged in shopping, or perhaps I need a shopping companion. I did discover one street that was obviously geared to local residents, with furniture, household goods and a super market. Lunch was had by a canal where the cooking was done in one of the local residences. I had a delicious lunch consisting of local white fish, hairy crab and edamame with water chestnuts.
It was time to return back to Souzhou, on my way to the bus I see a man deep frying something am not quite sure what, there is an American standing there so I ask him what it is, it’s onions and potatoes in a batter. A Chinese version of latkes, he treats me to one, next time I think I will pass. On my way to the bus I pass a store that sells wine, having not had any since Beijing I decide to explore. Buy a bottle of white, brand name Dynasty and bring it back with me, surprise it is drinkable, not quite Pouilly Fume but not gut rot either for $5.

Next morning I get up early to catch a bus to Hangzhou. Try to catch a taxi outside the hotel, this is a city that wakes up late, nothing seems to come alive before 10 am. There are neither taxis nor Tuktuks. I walk down to the main street, thinking I will grab a bus, fortunately a Tuktuk comes along and off I careen through Suzhou. Surprisingly I did arrive in one piece, to be met by a very old looking man who wanted to be my porter. I have no idea what price he was asking for his services, the usual crowd gathered who seemed to have an auction amongst themselves. The dictionary with numbers was useless, I offered 10RMB, which he accepted. It was worth every penny and more, he took my luggage, made sure I got the ticket, went with me to get some food, got me seat in the waiting room and stayed with me and the luggage for 45 minutes until the bus was to take off. Showed me where he had put the luggage on the bus and was off.
The movie shown on the bus had English subtitles am not sure if it was supposed to be inspirational or what, since my Ipod managed to erase itself, with a little help from me, I knitted and watched the movie. My knitting is of great interest to the women. It seems that the majority of knitters use four needles and do it all in one piece as opposed to me who uses two needles, and if it ever gets finished will sew the pieces together.

Am now in Hangzhou, the weather is very grey, it looks like it might rain. I am staying at the West Lake Hostel because it is close to the lake and my friend Sue had recommended it. It is very nice pleasant and as usual the staff is delightful and young. By now it is lunch time so I ask where to go, with a little map drawn. I think I have found the are but not the restaurant so I ask a doorman for this place, he indicates that it is around the corner, the map is crude I take his word for it. What I find is a hole in the wall with a lot of people, it is obviously not the place but who cares. I have a very good lunch of stirfried pork and a potato dish which was it seemed a specialty of the house since everyone was eating it.

Took a bus which wound its way around the lake to Lingyin Temple. It was founded in 326 and is one of the most famous Zen temples in China. You pay an entrance fee to the grounds and a separate one for the temple. As you approach the temple you pass 380 Buddhist images carved in the rock, dating from 10th-14th century. I only saw some of them and they were both beautiful and impressive, especially viewed in the misty grey light. I did go to the temple it was rebuilt after having been destroyed many times in 1956, still impressive. I met a woman from Taiwan who was there with her little very cute daughter, we took the bus back together and she told me about the night market. The buildings were white with black roofs and obviously old. There were many, many tea merchants and clothing shops with really nice things, unfortunately I was not in the mood to try on anything. By now it is late and time for dinner I go into a restaurant on the main street, actually not too many to choose from except McDonalds. Am tolod that the fish I wanted was not available, instead I was recommended a fish and dried bean curd dish that was not good. The braised pork belly was heaven and the vegetable dish acceptable. By now it is raining and as I leave the market and go to the next street to get a taxi I see an entire street full of restaurants.

Next morning it is grey,cold, foggy and raining I stay in and catch up on things. It is a blessing that every place has wireless connections. Kathy thanks for your advice to bring an extra cable. Finally I decide to brave the weather and walk to the Pagoda that is a few minutes away. Pay my obligatory fee, at least here there are escalators and elevators. The view did not exist due to the weather I was cold, my feet wet and stopped by a place by the lake for lunch. Then back to my room, all the other guests were Chinese who did not speak English, so my room it was. That night I put on my Crocs and took a taxi to supposedly Hangzhou’s best restaurant “Grandmother’s kitchen” It was located in an extremely posh shopping Plaza in Hangzhou Towers on the 8th floor. Again my travel karma is with me, am informed the wait is an hour, but there were two Germans and a Chinese girl waiting and if I was willing to join them there was no wait. We had a mainly vegetarian meal except Fish Head and I got to finally taste Smelly Tofu. It was a very good meal, I was not allowed to pay my share since the total bill for the 4 of us came to 130 RMB or $20. So ended my trip to Hangzhou. When I return it will be a different time of year and I will stay much longer, making day trips.