Purpose one: writing a travelogue to describe my various trips.

Purpose two: muse.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Jiu Zhai Gou

I have seen a lot of mountain areas, but a visit to Jiu Zhai Gou still stood out. It's unique with all the azure lakes and the meadowy water-falls. The overall terrain reminded me a bit of the Canadian rockies, probably because of all the limestone in both places.

I shall let the pictures do the talking; here are some tips for anyone going.

I had seen several references to a bus from the airport to the park, but I could find no such bus. I got on a shuttle bus from the airport, but it was a hotel courtesy shuttle, and I was obliged to lodge with one of the hotels it went to. The taxi getting back to the airport was quite steep, as the meter rate goes up for longer trips. That was something I hadn't expected, and I ran out of cash.

Inside the park, get the bus pass, even if you plan to mostly hike. The first three or four miles are not that interesting, compared to the rest. The bus rides will take longer than you think, because they stop often with mandatory changes. Some go straight through, but you can't tell which they are or when they leave.

I spent two days there and didn't feel the need to spend any longer. Spending a night in the park is dicy and you shouldn't plan on it.

There are a lot of Chinese tourists, but as with most nature areas, you don't have to move that far from a bus-stop to escape the worst of it. All hiking is on gang-planks or similar artificially constructed trail works.

Long Lake is the highest spot the bus goes to, at 10,500'.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Hottest Meal Yet

In Chengdu, I had a hotpot dinner that was the most spicy meal I ever ate. I have perhaps tasted food this spicy before, as for instance when cautiously dipping a chip in the extra-hot salsa in a renowned taqueria. It is very different consuming a full such meal. You know you are eating spicy food when you pour raw garlic on it to soften the flavor!

In general, the Chinese food has been a pleasant surprise. The variety is amazing. It shouldn't really be, given the size and the history of the country -- I think my perception has been colored by the limited experience at Chinese restaurants in the states.

One of many culinary delights: The famous Shanghai squirting dumplings. You cannot really tell they are squirting, except if you notice they are sagging with the liquid inside.

In contrast, the food in Vietnam was a disappointment. The best meals I had in Vietnam were French. Curiously, the main Gaelic influence there seems to be a slight over-representation of French restaurants, plus a few loaner-words.

I did have some really good hotpots, but even here, China has outshone Vietnam so far, both in variety and overall quality. Two problems with Vietnamese food is that you have to spice it up yourself - which can be tough with unfamiliar sauces and herbs - and the best places are often local hole-in-the-walls that don't have names or addresses. Also, they often change around, as they go in and out of business. Thus, for the best experience, you really need to go with a local.

Vietnamese hotpot meal from Lau Tu Xuyen in Hanoi

That Other Chinese Wall

I have escaped momentarily from the Chinese firewall. In addition to blocking content, and some sites outright, it slows things down more than I had realized. My impression is that sites fall into a green-amber-red spectrum, where greens are passed through, reds are fully blocked, and ambers go through a filter that slows down access, sometimes to a crawl.

I will try to get some posting in while my access is unadulterated.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Old Great Wall

Two features make the Great Wall of China impressive: its age and its length. It's also neat how they used natural features, but that is a corollary to the length. When you build something that is 5600 km long, incorporating terrain becomes mandatory.

I have mixed feelings about the Great Wall.

On the one hand, it is a testament to human accomplishment. It is the largest man-made structure in the world, and the only one visible from space. Its length is nearly equal to Earth's radius. It was built over a thousand year period. Its newest sections are 400 years old, not considering renovations.

The Wall also signifies Chinese freedom from Mongol rule. I don't wish oppression on anyone.

On the other hand, the Great Wall also stands as a symbol of isolationism and protectionism during the Ming dynasty, which was partially responsible for bringing China from the forefront of civilization to a backwaters relevant only for its size.

From a military perspective, the purpose of the wall must have been to stop a large, horse-based army. It seems to me that smaller raids conducted at night could not have been prevented, except with a massive guard along the entirety, which is unlikely. The wall was defensible from both sides, and has internal defensive features, so that one breach would not compromise the whole defense works.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Two Towers

Shanghai is awe-inspiring. Above is a picture of two of the largest buildings in the world. On the left is Shanghai World Financial Center, the second tallest in the world. On the right is Jin Mao tower. The latter has an observation deck on the 88th floor, where I went up. I couldn't see much, thanks to the clouds, but it was still an impressive experience. The last 30 floors is a hotel with an atrium you can look into.

Neither building is boring. They each have interesting architectural features. Jin Mao tower took an idea from ancient pagoda construction, with the decorative terraces all the way up.

When we went to the Yu gardens in the old town, we got glimpses of the Pudong skyline, which created an interesting contrast.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Poor Vietnamese

That should be taken literally. The Vietnamese economy is a shambles. I knew that decades of communism had devastated their economy, but I thought they were escaping that and joining the tigers. I did see some new buildings and construction around Saigon and Hanoi, but it seemed haphazard.

Picking up the pieces

I spent an evening with Tiet, who works in Saigon translating to and from Japanese for a Japanese company running a factory there. He makes $300/month, while the factory workers make $100-$150. That's well below the per capita GDP, which is $2600. GDP captures more than national income, so a difference is not unusual, but it should not be by several factors. It suggests that little of what wealth there is gets into the hands of ordinary people. Tiet told me that the policemen around Saigon are well off, better than even doctors. They get bribe money and lots of special favors.

I spoke with another woman in Nha Trang making $3 working in a guesthouse. That's barely double the UN poverty threshold.

Like in other underdeveloped economies, activity follows the sun. Nightlife is scant, but the Vietnamese are bustling shortly after first light.

Eking out a living

What's extra sad is that in addition to poverty, Vietnam shows stark inequality. Contrasts between paucity and opulence are everywhere. In Hanoi, you'll see street vendors like the one on the right, selling meager pickings straight out of a basket in front of a big, marble government building. Another example was my hotel in Hue, where I literally stepped from a dinky gravelly alley into a clean, air-conditioned hotel with flashy floors and shiny mahogany furniture.

Pollution is palatable. The cities are covered in a visible haze. A long ride on a scooter, and you'll rub guff from your eyes and cough up crud from your lungs for at least two days.

The Vietnamese deserve much better. My every impression is of a hard-working, conscientious people. Judging from all the police checkpoints I saw, it seems that, like other communist countries, they also lack civil liberties.

Middle Class Living

This style socialism results in poverty, inequality, pollution, and a police state.

I don't see the upside. I understand Scandinavian style socialism. My Danish friends don't have to worry about whether they can retire in comfort, send their kids to college, or will go bankrupt from a big medical procedure. They may choose a reduction in choice and effeciency to gain this tranquility. I don't agree with it, but I understand it. If there is a benefit to Ho Chi Minh socialism, I haven't seen it.

It doesn't stop the Vietnamese from revering him, still.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Ride in Vietnamese Country

I went for a ride in some beautiful country. Similar limestone cliffs that make up Ha Long bay can be found west of Hanoi.

This geography is not representative of Vietnam. It's flat around both Saigon and Hanoi. There are mountains in Central Vietnam, but not this dramatic.

It was a good break with many little fun incidents. For instance, I was stormed by school kids and had tea with the locals.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Descending Dragon

Ha Long means Descending Dragon. The story is that during a crucial battle with the Chinese, the gods intervened and sent two dragons down to help. The islands in Ha Long bay are supposed to be the jewels the dragons spit out to stop the invading armada. It was the site of one of the most famous battles of history.

I went in for a couple of days, including a kayak trip and a cave tour. The kayaking was the best part.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hue, City of Kings

I spent today at Hue, the capital during Vietnam's latest dynasty, early 19th century to 1945. The most impressive thing about it was the scale. The buildings went on for miles, it seemed. In reality, the main compound is about one square kilometer.

Some of the buildings were well-maintained, others were in disrepair, and interspersed were ramshackle worker or tool huts, broken rock and even garbage. This picture from the moat demonstrates the contrast a bit.

The temple at Tien Mue was almost more impressive. It was in a scenic location, with views over the river and to the mountains. It had some impressive Buddha statues, and the gardens were, well, zen-like.