July 22, 2017

Mall Mania – KidZania

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 7:27 am

July 18 – kidZania. 

Two days earlier, Tak had told us about a place called KidZania a place inside of one Siam Paragon, the largest mall in Asia. It is an amusement park of sort, except that instead of doing rides and paying money, you do jobs to earn money. For example, you can be a flight attendant, pilot, firefighter, bank manager, singer, etc. Depending on the job, you earn a different amount of Kidzos, the currency of the place. When you are done you can trade your Kidzos for stuff like toys.

The kids were super excited to do it and the reviews we had read were all very positive. We had read it could get crowded so we aimed to be there right at 10am when they opened. We arrived at 10:05 and sure enough it was packed with a vision school. Since adults don’t need to be present, we gave Evie and Tyler Sue’s phone and went downstairs to the amazing food court. We did a few laps and discovered a dizzying array of options including the first actually international IHOP, a mission-style burrito food truck, and a Maine lobster joint in addition to KFC, McDonalds, and Starbucks. We opted for a quaint pastry place with amazing creme brulee croissants and lattes next to the small stream being fed by programmable water fall art.

Beneath us a level, but not visible to us, was a huge under ground aquarium that was hosting a popular penguin exhibit. No, this is not the Great Mall of America.

As we enjoyed our coffees, Sue made some phone calls and Tom responded to some emails and we both enjoyed the incredible water patterns being made. It rotated through abstract patterns to Christmas trees to hearts to stars to flowers and more. Crazy.

Before knew it it was 1pm. The kids had texted they were having a great time and Tyler sent a cute picture of Evie being a flight attendant. We decided to brave the outdoors and walked the 15 minutes to Jim Thompson House. Jim Thompson was an American business man who fell in love with Thailand in the 50s. He discovered their intricate silks and after showing them to designers in NY and Paris launched a very successful export business. An architect by training, he set about building his own house out of other traditional Thai houses. He used 6 houses in all, each one a traditional one room house, to create his combination house. Inside he furnished it with antique statues and paintings many of them over 1,000 years old.

In order to view the house, you had to be on a 40 minute tour and it was informative and enjoyable. Jim Thompson disappeared in the Cambodian jungle in 1968 when he went out for a short walk and never returned. Shortly thereafter his sister was murdered in the US. His previous connection to the CIA fuels conspiracy theories and there is no credible explanation for his disappearance. 

Our tour ended around 3pm just about the time Evie texted to say she thought she’d be done around 3:30. As we walked back towards the Siam Paragon, we got another text from the kids who were now at McDonalds having lunch with a pair of American friends they had made. No rush now, said the message. Sue and Tom took the hint and inspired by the kids’ burger, stopped at an actual food market and Tom enjoyed a Monster Trucker burger that lived up to its hype as ‘thebestdamnburgerever’ $4.50 and topped with Bacon, cheese, onion ring and secret sauce. Yum.

KidZania closed at 5pm and the kids were the last to emerge at 5:15. 7 hours of childcare / educational fun for $30. Can’t beat that! Tak had invited us to see him at his TV studio and the kids were eager to go, but also were eager to see the largest mall in the world. So, Evie went with Sue on her continuing quest for a purse that cost less than $100 and Tyler and Tom visited the uber high end car dealerships (Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Maserati, Porsche) and the Apple Store. Around 6:30 we reconvened at the mall next door, the smaller Siam Discovery where Evie had found the illusive purse and had negotiated the 30% off to be 50% off and borrowed the $30 necessary to buy her purse.

Everyone was happy and hungry. If only there was a massive food court nearby where you could get anything you wanted for $5 within 10 minutes. Oh, wait…

We walked from the mall to the SkyTrain which took us 15 minutes to, you guessed it, another mall where Tak’s driver met us to drive us the last 15 minutes to the TV studio. We were escorted inside where they were finishing up filming a pilot for a soon-to-be launched TV game show, a take off on Hollywood Squares but with famous Thai actors & comedians. The kids were slack jawed at the awesomeness of the studio experience and especially enjoyed watching the live news broadcast we saw after the game show filming ended. They each took turns pretending to be announcers much to the enjoyment of the film crew.

Around 9pm, we took our leave as Tak went back into the studio for a series of post-filming meetings. His work schedule is truly bonkers. This night wouldn’t end until 11pm next day he was out past 11pm accepting TV awards on behalf of his studio. We were happy to be able to squeeze into his schedule. So fun to see all the success he’s had 30+ years after Tom and he had starred in the Odd Couple on stage in high school.

Back at home, we spent our last evening packing for our long journey home the next day. Already China felt like a distant memory and Tibet a lifetime ago. Travel has a way of forcing us into the present in a way that is hard to do at home. 5 weeks was just the right amount of time and while we could have done with a few days more here or there we all had a sense of being ready to head to familiar surroundings. 

What Wat is Which?

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 7:12 am

July 17 – Bangkok tourists 

Our wonderful driver arrived at 9:30 to escort us the Grand Palace and the Wats (temples) nearby. Tom and Tyler woke around 8am and walked around the corner form our hotel to find the highly rated coffee hours nearby. Of all the bars they passed on the way, the Hooters was by far the least seedy. 

By 9am they were back at hotel, lattes and paninis in hand, and we got dressed for our day of exploration. On the drive, we got our history lesson about the impressive King of Thailand. Unlike China, where there are plenty of images of Mao but a limited sense of true love for the man, the Thais truly loved their king. Nearly 9 months after his passing in 2016, mourners are still lining the streets, dressed in black, waiting their turn to observe his body. 

Our first stop was Wat Pho, home of the famous reclining Buddha. The enormous gold gilded stature is 45 meters long and his pillows are 10 meters high. He looked very comfortable. Around the complex are hundreds of Buddha statues as well as an institute dedicated to Thai medicine and Thai massage. 

From there we walked past the crowds of mourners to visit the impressive grand palace and Wat Phra Kaew. The Wat was gorgeous and we enjoyed seeing the diminutive Emerald Buddha who is actually made of jade. While packed with tourists, the grounds still managed to give off an aura of peacefulness. Every direction we looked was a photo op more beautiful than the last and we enjoyed the eye candy for over an hour. It was lovely to see our driver equally impressed as he snapped more than a few cell phone pics along the way. 

Around noon, it was time to head to our next destination, Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) across the river from the Grand Palace. Before succumbing to modernization in the 1980s, Bangkok was crisscrossed with rivers and canals and examples of those river ways could still be seen in the long boats ferrying passengers up and down the river. After a low quality mango shake (the islands had spoiled us) we took the 10 cent, two minute ride across the river. 

The smaller temple was quiet and quaint but still enjoyable to visit. The kids each attached a wishing bell to the stack of bells and after an hour we took the ferry back across the river. It was nearly 3pm and we were templed out, so walked ack to the car for the hour long drive back to our hotel. The streets were clogged mess, but we enjoyed looking out the windows at the insanity. 

Around 4:30 we were back the comforts of our hotel and the kids went up to the 9th floor pool deck to cool down from the heat. The guests at our hotel were we international as the city itself. Perhaps because of its proximity to the Arabic part of Bangkok the majority of the guests were middle eastern and most of the women were dressed head to toe in black burkas. 

About 7pm, we left the hotel to experience another part of Bangkok culture – the mega-mall. We walked 1/2 mile from our hotel to Terminal 21, the 7 floor mall styled after a huge airport. Each floor represented a city and we enjoyed riding the escalator from Paris to London to Istanbul and finally to San Francisco, complete with a cable car and the Golden Gate Bridge. At the top floor was an enormous food court with over 40 different food stalls – think classic Thai night market but cleaner. We got $0.75 Pad Thai and $1.00 curry chicken and $0.50 mango sticky rice. For $6 the whole family was fed and happy. 

We toured the mall and Tom was impressed to see his friend’s surf watch company kiosk (Nixon) near the departure lounge for Hong Kong. Around 9:30 we made the stroll back to our hotel and along the way Tyler completed his shopping goals by purchasing 4 awesome spinners from a street vendor. He got the spinner the vendor in Koh Samui wouldn’t sell for less than 400 baht for 300 and his joy could hardly be contained. 

While it is somewhat bizarre to consider a mall a cultural experience, this somehow qualified. And the contrast between the noise and chaos outside the mall and the serenity inside the mall was fascinating. As we walked back to our hotel, you could feel the city waking up as the bars that were empty when we walked past 3 hours ago, were now well occupied. 

July 20, 2017

3 Nights in Bangkok and the World’s Your Oyster

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 3:27 pm

June 16 – travel day!

How hard could it be? By now we had our travel days down pat. Pack, load into crazy open air taxi, wait for ferry, etc. With that as our blueprint we grabbed a casual breakfast overlooking our gorgeous beach as the kids consumed some well earned screen time. 

Before we left, Evie took some quick picks of the place we didn’t stay and their ‘pool.’

Our ferry left at 12:00 and we wanted to do some last minute shopping so we got a 10:00 songthaew-taxi. At 10:45 we were back in Thong Sala..Evie quickly tried on and bought her second $7 romper, this one even cuter than the first. Tom and Tyler enjoyed fruit shakes for $1 and perused flip flops. Unfortunately the food market wasn’t really going yet so no ice cream was had. At 11:45 we joined the masses at the pier and waited in the heat to board the ferry. 

The ferry was not going to Nathon pier as scheduled but instead to Maenam pier, 20 minutes closer to the airport. At 12:30, we were at Koh Samui with plenty of time to catch our 2:45 flight, so we decided to grab lunch at a beachside restaurant. This turned out to be much slower than hoped and at 1:30 we took our lunch to go and hopped in an actual taxi for the 25 minute drive to the small airport. 

We had underestimated the size of the airport and the place was jam packed with tourists and the check in line was out the door. Using our Kramer-powers, we bypassed the line and learned that our 2:45 flight was delayed until 6pm, but they could put us on the 12:00 flight that was now delayed and leaving at 2:40. Fine with us!

During the flight, we met a couple who had also been diving a Sail Rock a few days before us. They had seen the elusive whale shark that we had hoped for. They shared the photo of the baby whale shark which was amazing. I guess we’ll need to go back!

We scampered though the open air airport to the departure lounge and around 2:40 they began the boarding process. Organized chaos reigned but by 3:15 we were up in the air and by 4:15 we were back on the ground. At 5 we were on the efficient airport train in Bangkok and after negotiating the Skytrain we arrived at our swishy Landmark Hotel in the center of Sukhumvit around 6:30pm. 

Our evening plan was to meet up with Tom’s high school roommate Tak, who had followed his theatrical passions and in addition to managing a local TV station, directing Thai plays, and producing original works, was responsible for the building a 1,500 seat theater that enabled touring productions like Phantom of the Opera and Cats to come to Bangkok for the first time. 

After some quick showers, we met Tak in the lobby and drove to a nearby, high-end Thai restaurant. Our dinner was exceptional and it was a pleasure to reconnect with Tak. His life story was riveting and entertaining and for most of the evening the kids held it together despite the late hour and the long day. Around 10:30 it was finally time to head home. 

It was Sunday night and the streets were packed with buses, cars, tuk-tuks, street vendors, ladies of ambiguous gender, tourists and a surprising number of middle easterners. Tak had graciously offered to have his driver take us to the main sights near the grand palace the next day. Around 11pm we bid Tak goodnight and dashed into the quiet respite of our 5-star hotel. 

Sailing Through the Certification at Sail Rock

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 12:47 pm

July 15 – dive certification day

By now we knew the drill, so we got up right at 7am and got some pancakes and eggs to go for the breakfast, bounced along on the back of the pick up truck, and waited at the now familiar pier. The seas were forecast to be rougher today and as a result there were only 8 divers on the boat today. 

The kids were with Ben, an Englishman they called ‘Sire,’ who had been working with them in the pool the day before. Sue and Tom were with a South African woman named Cass. The rest of the divers were German. We had debated not going today because of the forecast but apparently the day before had been so rough everyone had to ride back below deck. That made sense, as the boat would have been coming back when we were in the car being pelted with rain. Fortunately, the feared storm never materialized. 

We arrived at Sail Rock around 9:00 and got immediately into the water. For the first dive, the kids were on their own to complete their underwater skills assessment, but we planned to dive with them for the second dive. Once underwater, the 4 foot waves were a non factor and we had another amazing dive. 

The kids enjoyed themselves and dove down to almost 14 meters seeing a multitude of fish. The captain wanted to avoid the storm conditions of the previous day, so our lunch break was short and at 11 we were geared back up and heading into the water. Cass took the lead with the kids while Sir Ben grabbed a GoPro and was Mr. Cameraman. 

For this dive, the 4 of us dove together and it was glorious. The sun had come out so the visibility was especially good. We circumnavigated Sail Rock and even did the chimney together. The feeling of being underwater as a family was exhilarating!! The view of the fish, the coral, and the glistening blue with our adventurous kids was heartwarming. The fact that Ben captured the moments with his underwater camera was beyond amazing. 

Halfway through the dive, we came upon Boris, the kids beloved instructor from 2 days before. We had requested him for our div, but he we previously booked. The kids smiled through there regulators and gave him a big underwater hug!! Tom’s mask filled with tears of joy, which he adeptly cleared. What a treat!! We continued our dive and watched the kids complete their skills assessment (sharing a regulator during assent, clearing a half full mask, removing and locating on’s regulator and the like). The kid clearly had been paying close attention as they had no trouble completing their assignments. 

Back above water there were smiles all around. The kids were rightfully proud of themselves. The feared storm never materialized and we cruised back to the Lund pier arriving just before 2pm. Sue and Tom were done, but the kids still had 2 hours of final exams and dive table assessments. Tyler rightly verified that we had 18 hours before our flight as required. 

Around 5pm the kids had finally finished their certification and they were rewarded with ice cream and t-shirts. We opted not to go to the popular restaurant and instead went to the family favorite, the place we had gone on our first night. It was Saturday night and all of the beach front tables were taken, but minutes after we sat down ‘our table’ the one in the corner closest to the beach opened up. It was a fitting end to our brief but epic stay at Pirates Beach. 

It was hard to imagine that only Bangkok stood between us and returning to America. When we started our journey just over a month ago, it seemed like forever bore Bangkok. But now Tibet was a distant memory, the Pandas of Chengdu a mirage, and the rain of Tiger Leaping Gorge a past life. Even the placidity of Lamai seemed distant. We had never intended for Haad Salad to be a diving destination, but fate put a Swedish run dive shop in our path and true to the Kramer family approach, we made the most of the opportunity presented to us. 

While we can’t imagine becoming a ‘diving family’ the fact that we could ‘go for a dive’ is enthralling and as parents we are beaming with pride. Equally satisfying is the fact Evie and Tyler chose to do it and invested the time, while on vacation, to master the skills required to become certified. And finally, having circumnavigated the island, it was wonderful to know that we had selected one of the nicest beaches on the island. 

Tomorrow we leave the tranquility of Koh Phangan for the bustle of Bangkok!

Going to School to see Schools of Fish

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 12:32 pm

July 14 – classroom day and island exploration 

After a quick breakfast including American style pancakes and eggs at our new hotel, the kids walked up the road to begin their first set of lessons for the day, 3.5 hours of video instruction. Meanwhile, Sue did what she enjoys most – slept, while Tom did what he likes most – plan. Around 10am, Sue came down to breakfast and we both enjoyed a lazy morning of this and that. Tom had arranged a rental car and around lunch time we checked in on the kids. 

Sue got the kids lunch while Tom swam with them in the pool. Around 1pm, the kids were sent back to their classroom and Sue and Tom set off in their purple Suzuki jeep. At the end of the road, our choice of vehicle was confirmed as an ambulance was loading an injured tourist after a nasty motor scooter accident. While the roads of Koh Samui are obviously dangerous because of the abundance of traffic, Koh Phangan is deceptively dangerous as the roads are covered in light sand which when turning often tosses the rider quickly and painfully to the ground; not to mention the affects of the omnipresent afternoon downpour. 

Our first stop was Haad Maenam, the next beach north of ours. Visually lovely, the sand was coarse and the construction was constant. We were glad our beach of Haad Salad was lacking any major construction projects. From Haad Maenam, we continued past the cute fishing village where the fishing and dive boats dock daily. At the intersection we turned south on the road the bisects the island. Our map showed a road that connected Thong Sala with the Sanctuary, a small yoga hotel we had stayed at 15 years ago and we were curious how it had changed. 

About 20 minutes later we came to the ferry town of Thong Sala and turned south as the rain began. The road was dotted with hostels and restaurants and small roads leading to the beach. As we left the outskirts of the town, the road narrowed and the rain came pelting down. At one point the road turned absurdly steep and rivers of water stopped our progress and the car lost its grip. We began sliding back down the road as a car turned the corner. Thankfully we were able to stop and so did the car behind us. They backed up and we changed direction, shifted into a lower gear and managed to make it up the steep incline. 

At the next flat section, Tom managed to shift the car into 4 wheel drive and we continued to the tiny hamlet of Haad Ron, home of the full moon party. The rain pelted everything, the town was deserted and at no point did we see a road leading to the Sanctuary. We did some research and according to the Sanctuary’s website there is a rough jungle track that is a 40 minute ‘adventure’ drive that is passable. We decided we had had adventure enough and turned back for Thong Sala. 

We arrived in Thong Sala around 3:45 and set off exploring the surprisingly enjoyable town. We strolled the fish market and the shops until we found a nice latte place. After a break, we went to the food market for some amazing mango shakes ($1.00) and some spicy green curry chicken. Around 5pm, we set off for home along the coast road. We hoped to find Haad Yuan, but somehow missed the turn off. About 6pm we returned, but the kids were still finishing their work at the pool. About 6:30 they returned, riding in a motorcycle side car loaded with scuba gear. 

They had done well in the quizzes, only missing a few questions and had successfully completed all their skill tests in the pool. The next day they would complete two dives and then the final exam and they would be certified. 

As a reward for their long day of work, the kids were give their choice of activities for the evening. Evie, the super shopper of the family, had her heart set on a ‘romper’ she had seen in Lamai beach but had opted not buy. In Thong Sala Sue had seen more than a few and taken photos to share with Evie. Not surprisingly, she opted to drive back to town to see if any would fit. Tyler opted for screen time with mom. 

While Tyler and Sue had burgers and watched flash, Tom and Evie made the 20 minute journey back to town. They arrived at 8:30 and as they were parking they could see the first target shop closing their doors. They ran over and showed the sop keeper the photo of the romper. The woman found it and Evie tried it on and it fit well enough for a $7.50 outfit. When you run to a closing shop there is not much room for negotiation, but when she said 295 we did remind her that it as only 250 earlier in the day. 

We dashed over to the next set of shops only to discover that they all had closed 15 minutes earlier. So much for the “they stay open until 10pm” we were told earlier. With all the shops closed, we turned our attention to eating. Mango shake, lime shake, chicken curry, spring roll, to start. Nutella and banana roti (like a pancake) followed by home made mango & Oreo cookie ice cream topped with coconut and m&m. 

Around 9:30 it was finally time to head back. We made it home around 10pm and Tyler was already asleep. Delighted with her purchase and her night Evie followed suit and fell quickly asleep. We did need to be up by 7am the next day for another dose of diving. 

July 18, 2017

Just a Couple of Pirate Divers

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 7:07 pm

July 13 – under the sea

We don’t set many alarms when traveling but today was an exception. Our drive shop suggested we arrive at 7:00am for a 7:15 departure, so at 6:45 the alarms went off and we dragged our selves and our bags out of our bungalow. We made the short walk to our new hotel, dropped off the bags in our new (much improved) rooms and arrived at the dive shop by 7:15, sweat pouring down Tom’s face. The pickup truck was loaded with gear and Tom and the kids literally piled in the bed of the truck. 

Around 8 we were at the shared pier as other dive boats loaded up and we waited for guests from another shop to join us. 14 Divers and 7 instructor set off for our hour long cruise to Sail Rock. The seas were calm and along the way we got briefed by our South African guide Jace (Sue &Tom) and the kids’ Slovian guide Boris. The kids were anxious and excited and listened attentively to Boris’ instructions. Tom and Sue eves dropped as a refresher as Sue hadn’t been diving since being certified in Koh Phi Phi 23 years earlier. 

Around 10 we anchored, geared up, and made one giant step into the clear blue seas. The visibility was exceptional and the water warm and calm. The kids were led to a buoy with a rope attached to allow them to manage their decent and practice their buoyancy. The adults paddled backwards to the edge of the rock and when clear sank effortlessly down 10 meters. 

The diving was incredible. Tom later described the dive as “what you think diving will be like, but usually isn’t. There were schools of barracuda, huge grouper, colorful angel fish, parrot fish, trigger fish, gorgeous coral, and many other unknown fish. All experienced with a sense of aloneness in the vast blue of clear seas.”

While there were other divers around (nicknamed bubble fish) we never felt crowded or encroached upon. We even managed to go through the famous ‘chimney’ with no other Divers around. Cool! After 50 minutes, it was time to surface. Neither Sue or Tom had significant issues with equalizing, buoyancy or mask clearing. As promised, the skills we learned 20 years earlier returned with little effort. 

Back at the boat, we learned that the kids had done exceptionally well. They felt confident underwater and their joy was expressed with repeated dives off the boat from the first and the second floors. After a quick lunch, we were all back in the water for our second dive. The kids having mastered the rope decent were allowed to swim freely around the rock accompanied by their awesome instructor Boris. While technically restricted to 6 meters, they actually dove to 10 meters without issue. Sue and Tom swam to a nearby feature called the pinnacle. Half of the boats that had been at the rock for the first dive had left for Koh Tao and the second dive was equally enjoyable. 

Around 1pm we were back on the deck, rinsing with fresh water, dining on watermelon and buzzing about our incredible dives. Boris, with his wonderful Pirate sounding accent, raved about the kids and kept saying ‘they have the bug, now you just need to get them certified.’

The seas on the journey back were calm and we spent much of the time reviewing the dive book, marveling at how many different kids of fish we had seen. By 2pm were back on land and by 3pm we were back at the dive shop, overjoyed with our good fortune. 

We settled into our room and relaxed before heading out for an early-ish night of dinner and card games (exploding kittens and set) at the mot popular restaurant on the beach. Salad Beach is very popular with families and small kids as the quiet bay is shallow for 100m and most of Sweden, France, and Germany seemed to be selected our beach. When we moved hotels, we got the last two rooms and many of the hotels Sue had inspected were fully booked. For our entire time at Salad Beach, were heard only a couple of American voices. 

At dinner we began to discuss options for the next few days on Koh Phangan and doing another dive trip was high on everyone’s list, so while we waited for the burgers to arrive, Tom made the 7 minute walk to the dive shop. Yes, another dive was possible either the next day or the day after. Alternatively, Nick suggested, the kids could spend a day getting scuba certified. If they did, the two dives from the day before would count towards certification. Otherwise, if they chose to become certified in the f untrue, those dives would not transfer. The price for certification and the allure of essentially private lessons was compelling so Tom returned to dinner with the update. 

Spend 3.5 hours in a classroom, followed by 3 hours doing skills in a pool, followed by 2-3 hours of testing? On vacation in Thailand? And then we’d be scuba certified for life?! Tyler needed about 15 seconds to get to yes and after some deliberation, Evie joined him in agreement. Sue ever cautious was mildly skeptical but willing. Wasting no time, Tom wandered back to the dive shop and signed all the paperwork. 

With the kids’ next two days arranged, Sue and Tom decided to rent a car to explore the island while they were in school. After seeing two people walk out of the clinic with major road burns (scooter accident) and witnessing a scooter wipe out on the drive to the pier and having Nick the dive master show us his two chin scars from his accidents, we decided a car was worth the extra expense. 

Around 9pm, exhausted from the day, we settled into our comfy beds and easily fell fast asleep. Welcome to Haad Salad aka Pirate Beach. 

July 17, 2017

From One Koh to Another

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 6:54 pm

July 12 – just another travel day

We have long contended that a travel day is a travel day regardless of how long the trip is. If you take a a 16 hour bus ride, or a 6 hour flight with 3 connections, or 30 minute ferry ride it always consumes a day. Today was the test of that theory. 

The ferry ride from Koh Samui to Koh Phangan was 30 minutes leaving from the Nathon Pier to Thong Sala Pier. But that meant we needed to check out, pack up, drive to the Pier, get from the Pier, check in and unpack. These days with the addition of kids and more financial resources we travel in a bit more comfort than in our previous backpacker days. 

Not wanting to waste a minute at the beach, we got a 12:30 taxi for our 1:30 ferry (waiting at a ferry terminal is rarely enjoyable) so we spent the morning lazing st breakfast, getting a last ocean swim, and enjoying the beach. Of course, we underestimated the pack out time and we were frantically tossing together bags but still managed to be ‘Kramer on-time’ and by 12:37 were loaded in the taxi. Our route around the southern part of the island revealed that we hadn’t missed much by never leaving our beach. 

We arrived at the pier at 1:10 and by 1:30 our ferry arrived from the mainland and we were off. The seas were calm and 30 minutes later we were disembarking on the equally large, but substantially less developed island of Koh Phangan, which still manages to carry its hippy vibe. We found our driver from the Haad Salad Beach Resort who loaded us and a dozen of our new friends onto the back of an open air songthaew. On Koh Phangan all taxi service is via songthaew which is a pick up truck where the bed has been covered and converted to seat 12+ with the passenger luggage tossed on the roof. 

Unlike our first hotel pick up, this one was not complementary (150 baht per person $4.50). 30 minutes later and a few hotel drop offs later, we arrived at our hotel. During check in the manager couldn’t find our reservation and when Tom finally showed them our reservation they said “Not this hotel. This hotel Haad Salad Beach Resort. Your hotel Haad Salad Resort. That way, down dirt road.” Hot and grumpy, we were not in a mood to drag our bags to a different road, but the songthaew had since dashed off. 

Tom walked down the road to find ‘reception’ where the ‘manager’ seemed relieved to see us. They had sent a driver but when we saw their handwritten cardboard sign Tom asked the driver ‘Kramer?’ he shook his head, because apparently on the island they only used first names. Tom thought he had booked the other hotel and only now realized this hotel was a 2-star not a 3 star. We dropped our bags in the rustic 2 room bungalow in front of the green colored inflatable ‘pool’ and set off to the beach for some food. 

The room was clean enough but the grounds were uninspiring and the ‘resort’ was set back from the beach such that your walked rough another hotel to get to the beach. It was remarkably similar to the bungalow we had rented in Koh Phi Phi 20 years ago, but should have cost $25/night not $75. Everyone had been prepped that our accommodation would be a step down from the Lamai Wanta, but this was a bigger step down then anyone was prepared for. 

By now it was 4pm and our stress was compounded by our hunger. We walked through the Haad Salad Villa bungalows – 3 minutes to the beach – to that hotel’s restaurant Thankfully, the beach was lovely and the restaurant was cute and cheap. As our $2 mango shakes were being made, the kids explored the beach and Sue and Tom concocted a backup plan. Our room had a one night cancellation fee and according to the Haad Salad Beach Resort had rooms available for less than we were paying. There were a few other options so Sue and Evie set off to explore our options while Tom cried in his shake. 

An hour later Sue returned with the lay of the land – the hotel Tom thought he’d booked was available and was the best option. We could have it starting tonight or tomorrow but we decided to spend one night at our current place and not pay for 2 rooms and only use one. The management of Haad Salad Resort wasn’t happy, but who cares. Crisis averted, the kids changed into their suits to play in the shallow water of the cove and the adults enjoyed the view. 

After the sun went down we strolled 100m from our late lunch spot to a bustling restaurant on the beach. After ordering, Tom walked back to ‘town’ – a collection of 4 identical supermarkets, a laundry place, and a dive shop – to talk about the possibility of scuba diving the next few days. In Thai, Haad Salad means Pirate Beach and the dive shop is the appropriately named Pirate Divers. The manager is a friendly Swede with an equally lovely Thai wife. Yes, it was possible for the kids to do a 6 meter dive at Sail Rock, a famous destination between Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. Koh Tao is a renown dive island and because we are on the northwest part of the island we are equidistant to a Sail rock. The discovery dive was surprisingly affordable ($100 for 2 dives) and because Sue and Tom are certified their dive was even cheaper ($75 for 2 dives). Leave the shop at 7am and return around 2pm. Perfect. 

At the dive shop, Tom also learned that the confusion over the hotels is not uncommon. Until recently, our hotel was actually named Smile Resort (we noticed all the signage except the one welcome sign said Smile Resort) and the places are owned by the same people. So the confusion is not entirely ‘accidental.’ As a result we felt much less sheepish about our change of plans. 

Plans made, Tom returned to the restaurant in time to enjoy dinner with all the other happy families. As we knew, a travel day is a travel day regardless of the trip length. Our 30 minute ferry ride took us 4 hours door-to-door and another 2 hours to sort our hotel issues. But alls well that ends well. 

Full Moon Part-B

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 6:48 pm

July 11 – full moon part-b

As the thunderstorms raged last night, we wondered how that was going over at the rave 50km away on Koh Phangan. Then we realized that since that was before midnight, it may have had no effect. Maybe the moon came out after that. We’ll never know. 

Today, we were determined to do something. Tyler had purchased a $5.00 snorkel mask and we were surprised to learn that it barely worked. The mask was ‘ok’ but the tube leaked like a sieve. The kids still managed to snorkel a bit in front of the hotel. 

After some deliberations, we decided that today would be a massage day. That counts as doing something. Oh, and a laundry day as we finally arrived at a place where laundry was within our target price range – 40 baht per kilo. Sue took over the full pile of our dirty clothes (Tom somehow still has clothes he hasn’t worn yet) and the full tab came to 160 baht or $5.00. We have decided to move here forever. 

We might have done something for lunch, but no one can recall what it was. We opted for the massage shack next to our hotel and laid down for our hour long Thai Massage. Evie went first and recommended that Tyler wouldn’t enjoy Thai style so, he got oil massage while Sue and Tom got the body bruising Thai style. Tom survived because he had enough body mass to endure the masseuse’s attempt separate his muscle from the bone, but Sue left the shack filling out the “wrongful injury” paperwork in her mind. 

Bodies ‘relaxed’/’ruined’ we hobbled the 200m to town for a late lunch at the Thai place Tom and a Tyler had enjoyed the night before. After Pad Thai, Panang Chicken, and California rolls, the kids went back to the ice cream place from the day before for a pair of hot fudge sundaes. After a quick shopping stroll, we went back to the beach to relax. 

It was a kids choice evening and they wanted to go to the game playing bar. We played all the games – ping pong, pool, mini pool, soccer bowing, and the most unusual soccer pool. After an hour of game playing, the kids choice was to go home and have ‘family movie night.’ Sue & Evie watched Anne of Green Gables while Tom & Tyler watched The Flash. 

Our version of doing something was still pretty close to doing nothing, but after 3 weeks of very active travel in Tibet and China, we were all ready for some down time. 

July 15, 2017

Full Moon Part-A

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 4:20 am

July 10 – full moon ‘party’

It was the full moon and just a 30 minute ferry ride away in Koh Phangan, hipsters from around the globe were getting ready to party the night away. In our case, we were lazing the day away. 

Most of us were at the restaurant breakfast before 8:30, but few of us left before 10am. Just sitting and enjoying the bountiful buffet was enough activity. Around 10, the kids got their swimsuits on and went for a quick dip before returning to the room during the heat of the day. For the first few days in a tropical destination we relax the iPad rules from 11-1pm and let everyone do what they want. Avoiding a sunburn is more important than using our time wisely. 

While the kids vegged, Sue and Tom taught the local kids how to play the math based card game ‘set.’ Since it is 100% visual, we could explain what was or wasn’t at set with the ubiquitous phrases ‘same-same’ and ‘same-same-different.’ The kids s caught on quickly and they enjoyed the game. We enjoyed playing until it was too hot for everyone and we all dashed to the water for swim. 

Around 2pm, it was time for a do-over lunch and we walked down the beach 5 minutes to Baobab for another dose of France. This time we complimented our French fare with some Thai food which was also excellent. After lunch, it was swim time and the kids enjoyed being tossed in the air by Tom. Then we strolled back down the beach for our next adventure – ice cream.

It is not often that banana split ice cream sundaes are sanctioned as a before dinner item, but clearly all the rules are out the window in Koh Samui! The name on the ice cream tubs said “Bud’s of San Francisco” as did the sign over the door, but we remain skeptical that a $5 split with 3 scoops is being air shipped from San Francisco on a regular basis. Whatever the source, the splits were delicious.

After our pre-dinner desert, we wandered down the street for some street market shopping, Evie for bags and clothes and Tyler for spinners. Tyler was enamored with a brass spinner that was 500 baht ($15) which could be had from amazon for $8, so cooler heads prevailed. While the girls continued shopping the boys walked down to the beach and stumbled across impressive fire show. 

We later reconvened at the night market and Sue and Evie decided to head home while Tom and Tyler stopped for a late dinner. Their timing was excellent as 5 minutes after sitting down a massive thunderstorm rolled in. Within minutes, the streets were flooded as the rain streamed down amid flashes of lightning and booms of thunder. Sue and Evie made it within 100m of the hotel before darting into a shop to ‘wait out the storm.’

The storm continued for well over an hour and Tom and Tyler finished their dinner, collected the left over pad Thai, stepped out into the street, and removed their shirts for the short walk in the pouring rain. 

When they got to the hotel, they found Evie and Sue enjoying the light show from the restaurant deck. Around 10pm we had heard and seen enough and retired to our room, walking trough calf-high puddles. 

Another fun day of doing practically noting. 

Day One in Ko Samui

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 4:13 am

July 9 – sunshine makes everything better

We awoke rested and happy in our new home, Lamai beach. Our lovely hotel is right on the beach and we have a 2 room bungalow that is simple but clean and comfortable. Upon arrival the towels were arranged in the shape of an elephant which thrilled the kids. 

Breakfast was excellent and the view from the restaurant sublime. It was 10am before anyone was ready to do anything other than sit and stare at the sea. The kids got on the suits and Sue applied 27 layers of sunscreen and the kids were ready to dive in the sea. The section directly in front of the hotel had a large netting to keep the rare but dangerous box jellyfish away. They loved diving under with their googles and snorkel masks to check out the sand and small fish. 

Around noon, Sue joined them for a frolic in the sea, enjoying the clear, warm water. The salt concentrations is high, so everyone enjoyed floating in a star fish pose. 

When the sun was high, we let the kids “iBernate” – new term we invented that means hibernating with your iPad. Around 2pm, we decided to take the bold step of leaving the hotel grounds to walk through “town” to a highly regard French restaurant on the beach. It was amazing how quickly the temperature grew just 100m off the beach. The sea breeze made all the difference and within minutes we were sweating and dashing from shady spot to shady spot. 15 minutes later we arrived back on the beach at the quaint restaurant Baobab. 

Packed with French people, we grabbed a table on the deck and ordered Croque Monsouir, Penne Bolognaise, and Tuna Tartar. The fresh fruit drinks were divine and we had 2 each. As lunch was ending, the classic later afternoon rainstorm moved in and the waitstaff scurried around wrapping up the umbrellas and pulling in the lounger cushions. Full of food and energy, the kids dashed down the beach after reapplying their sunscreen. 

Good thing too, as we had not brought swim gear, but the kids quickly realized that with the heat suits are optional. They stripped down to their undies and splashed in the sea, happy as the clams they were dancing around. They made friends with a group of German friends and snorkeled with the while Tom and Sue walked to the south end of the beach. Around 5pm, with the sun settling behind the mountain, we all walked back down the beach the 500m to our hotel. 

The kids chose to iBernate some more and Sue and Tom went back out to stroll to the north end of the beach. The sand was white and soft and except for Tom violently stubbing his big toe on a coral rock the walk around sunset was lovely. Along the way, we noticed loads of people, locals and visitors alike, pouring out onto the beach near a night market. 

We watched the 95% full moon rise, and returned to the room around 7:30. After some research, we discovered that every Sunday night Lamai hosts a night market, famous for its street food. The kids opted to stay on their screens while Sue and Tom continued exploring. It is amazing that the quiet of the gorgeous beach is backed by a ramshackle collection of bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors, massage joints, and shops. If you look carefully, you can see that some of the older gentlemen seem to have younger Thai companions but nothing abundantly seedy was visible. 

We made it to the food street after looking at the various stalls selling the same t-shirts, wooden bowls, and plastic junk. Tom did manage to buy a new audio cord for 80baht ($2.40) roughly half the opening price of 150. We stocked up on pad Thai, pork BBQ, mango shakes, mango sticky rice, chicken satay and a blueberry cheesecake. Around 9:30 we returned to our room to share our bounty with the kids. 

They enjoyed it all and by 10pm we were all ready to cozy into bed. This had been the perfect ‘do-nothing’ day we had all needed. 

July 11, 2017

China to Thailand via Air

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 7:51 pm

July 8 – the long travel day

Around 7:15am, Tom got up to explore the old town before the shops opened to get a feel for the city before it was ‘discovered.’ Quiet and beautiful he walked from one end to the other, returned around 8 to encourage the others to come out, which they did around 9am. 

By then the shops were starting to open, but most of the tourists were still waking so the streets had a quiet feel to them, which is much more to our American sensibilities. While the kids did some last minute shopping, Tom arranged a driver to the airport, and Sue packed up our bags. At 11:15 we were walked to our driver who whisked us away to the airport 40 minutes away. 

Our day would be long and challenging as our flight routing was LIJ-KMG; KMG-BKK; BKK-USM and at each stop we would need to collect our baggage and re-checkin. The leg in Kunming was the most difficult as we only had 90 minutes to make our connection. We decided to divide and conquer – Sue and Tyler would go ahead and stand in the check in line while Tom and Evie collected the bags. This ended up working very well and probably was the difference between making and missing our flight. Evie and Tom arrived at the check in gate just as Sue and Tyler we at the front of the line. 

We nearly died when the agent uttered the phrase “the Economy cabin has checked in full” but our despair became elation when she finished her sentence with “so I have put you in Business class.” We were the last 4 passengers to check in. 

We giggled our way to the gate and then nearly missed the final boarding when Tom and the kids tried to find the Starbucks. At 4pm, we boarded the flight for the short 3 hour jaunt to Bangkok. The kids were over the moon at the service in Business Class and we fear they may be ruined forever. When given the choice between going to college or flying business class, they both opted to forego their education!

We arrived our time in Bangkok and took advantage of our premium location to be first in line at the immigration line. After leaving 2 of our 5 bags at left luggage and checking in, we embarked on the final “to do” of the day – Starbucks and McDonalds! Evie got the vente mocha frappachino she had been craving and Tyler stuffed his cheeks with the Big Mac he had been longing for. 

At 7:04 we arrived at the gate area and began the boarding process at 7:05. Along the way, we chuckled at the German family who literally sprinted past us to catch the same plane. While they panted and perspired, we sauntered past, smug in our casualness. 

At 8pm we were in the air and at 8:45 we were back on the ground. At 9, we were being driven in the open air bus marveling at the humidity. The narrow streets of Koh Samui were a noted change from super modern China and after 30 minutes, we turned down the narrow alley that allegedly led to our beachfront hotel at Lamai Beach. 

Arriving in a new place in the dark (very dark in this case) is always unsettling and this was no exception. We dropped our bags in our plain room and walked the 100m to the beach. The first sign we saw warned of box jellyfish. We strolled down the beach past the handful of beachfront restaurants and were pleased that none of them were blasting the thumping music Chaewang beach (the larger beach 2km noth of us) is known for. 

Tired from the long day we plopped in our beds around 11pm. Welcome to Thailand, the last leg of our 5 week journey. 

July 9, 2017

Tiger Raining Gorge

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 9:28 pm

July 7 – the weather we were expecting

Tom and the kids were up at 8:30am and enjoyed the view from the balcony in front of our simple rooms. Little did they know that the view of the mountains would be their last for the day. 

Around 10:30, we had packed up and were ready to go. We took a selfie in the same spot from the day before, but now the backdrop was whiteness. The rain was coming down lightly and we were in good spirits as we left Tea Horse. The Guesthouse was named after the network of trails that connected Ancient China with Tibet, India, and beyond. At its peak, 20,000 Tibetian horses were being traded for 3,000,000 pounds of tea per year!

The light rain dampened the views but not our spirits and the hike was lovely, but wet. Our first destination was Halfway Guesthouse (1.5 hours) which while not halfway for the current route was halfway when most trekkers finished at Walnut Grove. Halfway House is famous for its roofdeck and amazing views. When we arrived just after noon we could see the deck, but not the views. 

The kids were resilient with their new found bamboo walking sticks and we continued on for our final destination Tina’s Guesthouse some 2-3 hours away. Along the way, we passed numerous waterfalls and peeked down at the gorge and the river impossibly far below us. Along the trail we never saw a single hiker although we did meet a few dozen goats. They were quite excited to see us and one nibbled at Tyler’s fingers and for while after, it sounded like they were following us, which quickened the kids pace considerably. 

Around 2pm we could see Tina’s, and by 2:30 we were standing on the bridge 500m above a raging tributary/waterfall. Soaked all the way through, Tom set about ordering lunch while Sue and the kids set about changing clothes. We hadn’t arranged lodging for our last day in case the weather turned wet (which it had) and Tom used the Wifi to book us into a room in Lijiang. We had planned to spend the night at Sean’s Guesthouse 2km down the road and leave early the next day (8am) to catch our 1:30pm flight from Lijiang airport. Time to execute plan B. 

The public bus left at 3:30 for the 3.5 hour drive to Lijiang for 55 yuan per person (220 total). For 400 yuan we could get a private car which would leave whenever we wanted. And yes, the driver would meet us a Jane’s Guesthouse so we could pick up our luggage. The extra $25 seemed worth it, although there was some confusion about the ‘big bus’ that would take us to Lijiang. 

While we hadn’t seen a single hiker on the trail, Tina’s was packed with mostly western travelers drying their clothes and waiting for the bus (think 15-20 people). The Korean guy Tom had met the night before was there too, smiling, but clearly frazzled from the challenge of the day. Alden we later learned made it to Halfway house before calling it a day. 

20 minutes after leaving Tina’s we met our bus. It was indeed a big bus and we laughed at the absurdity of such a big bus for the 4 of us. We stopped at Jane’s and while Sue and Tom collected the baggage 2 passengers snuck onto the bus. 5 minutes later we stopped in the main town of Qiaotou, the gateway to TLG. There the bus stopped and 8 passengers got on, each paying 40 for the ride to Lijiang. It was then we realized WE were the ones being “taken for a ride.”

Sue had suspected as much at Tina’s, but we had never been able to get clarification one way or another. How many stops would we make enroute? Where are we going to be dropped off? What can we do if we now that Tina has our money? These were the questions rattling in the grownups’ heads while the kids happily watched King Fu Panda 3 for the 4th time. 

At 5pm, we arrived at the outskirts of the surprisingly large city of Lijiang and its mass of traffic. Tyler attempted to ask the driver where we were going but was bruskly told to sit down and be quiet. The other passengers were asking where they were being taken and general confusion reigned. Around 5:30, the bus stopped at the south end of the old town of Lijiang and all the passengers disembarked. The driver clearly expected us to get off as well, but with the rain still steadily coming down we were not about to walk a mile on cobblestones, uphill, in the rain to get to our hotel, when there was a spot he could drop us at top end of the city, a 6 minute walk from our hotel. 

The next 30 minutes was a back and forth of Bing translation and phone calls with English speaking “friends of the driver” who all tried to say that ‘this is as far as you can go.’ Tyler was the big hero of the day, when he channeled his “inner Tom” and went on a 5 minute rant detailing, in exceptional Mandarin, how we had been tricked and had paid 400 yuan and were in no uncertain terms going to get out of the bus until they dropped us where we wanted to go. Or the driver had to give us 200 yuan and he could take it up with Tina. Take that Mr. Mean Driverman!!!

That seemed to do the trick as a few minutes later another guy got on the bus and when we showed him where we needed to go, began directing the driver through the maze of traffic to the exact spot we wanted to go. See, that wasn’t so hard was it! At 6:30 we bounced our luggage down the narrow alleys to where the map on our phone said the hotel should be. There was a small hotel there, but with a different name. When we showed them our confirmation they checked their phone and discovered yes, we were in the right place. 

We asked to see the room and they suggested we move to a different room with 2 double beds. Great, we thought as we had booked 2 rooms and now only needed one. We had overpaid for our drive by $25 and now we’re going to save $45 by only getting a single room. And our comfortable, clean room in the center of Lijiang cost the same as we would have spent at damp Sean’s Guesthouse. Apparently things have a way of working out for us.

After showers and some ‘in the shower laundry’ it was time to explore the uber-touristed town of Lijiang. The 1,000 year old town had risen to prominence starting in he 80s as a quaint old town with its cobblestone alleys and picturesque canals. In 1996 the town emerged on the world stage when an earthquake and fire ravaged the city. After being rebuilt, it became a Mecca for Chinese tourists and since then has been overcrowded. 

The main walkway which was 20 meters from our hotel was indeed packed with Chinese at 7:30 when we emerged from our room. We turned right at the stone bridge, past the competing restaurant/music venues, and 3 minutes removed from the mayhem we found our destination at the edge of a surprisingly quiet square – N’s Kitchen, the top rated restaurant on TripAdvisor – famous for their burgers and pizza. The 2 monster burgers, fries and pineapple pizza did not disappoint and bellies full, the craziness of our journey to get here was a distant memory. 

At 9pm, Sue took the kids back to the room while Tom went out to survey the insanity. It was indeed insanity as the alleys and squared were packed with tourists and every shop was staffed with barkers encouraging passersby to sample their wares. Bar street was especially nutty with lasers, smoke, and dancing ladies. 

Around 11pm, Tom returned to the room with the city still pulsing in the background. Tiger Leaping Gorge this isn’t. 

July 8, 2017

Kramer Leaping Gorge

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 10:05 pm

July 6 – tiger leaping gorge

When we arranged this trip, we wanted to do some trekking in Tibet, but the timing didn’t work out. The alternative plan was to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge about 2 hours north of Lijiang and 3 hours north of the Linden Centre by way of the new expressway. 

We had arranged the same driver who had taken us from Tengchong to Xizhou to pick us up at 10am. That gave Sue and the kids some time to do some last minute shopping before the drive. Of course, we ended up having a lovely conversation with Brian and Jeanee so the shopping got delayed. One thing that many people don’t know is that when it comes to deadlines, Tom can get pretty agitated. So when the minutes ticked down towards 10am, he got increasingly anxious. Thankfully, Sue and the kids came scampering down the road just before 10am and by 10:15 we were loaded in the van. By the way, 15 minutes late is what we call ‘Kramer On-time.’ Leaving on-time is what we call ‘Kramer-Early.’ Leaving early is almost unheard of, so we call it ‘Farmor’ (Swedish for grandma) because Tom’s mom is always early!

We wanted our Tengchong driver because he drives very fast and this trip was no exception. 2.5 hours after leaving we were at the TLG ticket office, a solid 30 minutes before we had estimated.  

After buying our tickets to the gorge, we went to Jane’s guesthouse to drop off our bags so we could hike just with our backpacks filled with water, snacks, and a change of clothes. Next we engaged in some hilarious conversations trying to learn the best way to get to our first stop, Naxi Guesthouse. They are building a massive bridge across the river to allow the expressway to continue, so there was some confusion about the best way to go. Thankfully, we had our amazing mini translator Tyler with us and by 1pm we were winding up a narrow road to the beginning of the trail. 

At the trailhead sat an elderly lady selling water and snickers bars. She invited us into the shade to enjoy our watermelon. At that very instant a white dude with a rice hat on wandered up and we invited him to join us in the shade for some watermelon. Alden is from LA but is 14 months into his 3 year journey around the world. He was happy to have some English speaking company and so were we.

Around 2pm we set off for our 1.5 hour walk to Naxi. (3 hours, said the lady. You need snickers, you need walking stick. Little did she know we already had snickers!). Because of the road construction the normally mild uphill had become a rather steep uphill, but despite the heat we all trudged up without complaint. Perhaps the kids didn’t complain because the had each tried to lift Alden’s pack, which full of everything but his tent and sleeping bag, easily weighed 50 pounds. Or perhaps it was because Tom had brought Evie’s iPod and speaker and was blasting Hamilton. Alden, having left the USA in 2015, had never heard of the broadway phenomenon, but within a few songs he was hooked. 

We stopped a few times along the way to enjoy the spectacular views but mostly we hiked. At 3:30, we arrived at the cute town of Naxi (Na-see) and stopped for a late lunch at the guesthouse of the same name. We were the only guests at the place as it is low season in July and we were feeling very fortunate to have no rain thus far and clear views of the impressive peaks. 

Around 4:30 we set off for the 2-3 hour hike to Tea Horse Guesthouse. Alden decided to stay the night in Naxi as his pace was a bit slower than ours. In between us and our beds were the treacherous ’28 bends,’ an infamous section of uphill. In high season, you will be pestered by locals offering a ride on their ponies but we were only halfheartedly offered rides by two folks heading down the trail. Like many things, the challenge was overstated and after an hour we were at the crest. The views were lovely and after snapping a few pictures we set off down the slippery trail and arrived at Tea Horse around 7:15. 

Tom plopped on the wonderful roof deck to enjoy the view while Sue and the kids scoped out the rooms. They selected a pair of twin rooms and 300 yuan later ($45) we were in the restaurant ordering dinner. Surprisingly, we were not the only guests. There were about 10 other guests, mostly Chinese, who had set off from Lijiang at 7:30am and arrived around 4pm. 

We enjoyed our dinner of banana-chocolate pancakes, instant noodle soup, Naxi sandwich, French fries and apple pie. At 9:30pm, we finally fell into our moderately comfortable beds exhausted but happy. 

Happy Birthday Sue (or Hsu as auto-correct likes to say)

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 8:38 pm

July 5 – One long day
It is Sue’s birthday today so she got to sleep as late as she wants. Well, almost, as we woke her at 9:45 so she wouldn’t miss breakfast. At breakfast we tried to decide what to do with our day. We knew we wanted to do the traditional Bai tie dye, but weren’t sure what to do with the rest of our time. 

The lovely couple from New York (who are moving to SF 10 blocks from our place in Noe) were going on a hike we were considering. That was the inspiration we needed so we arranged for a driver to drop us off at the start of the hike, to pick us up at the end of the hike, to take us to the tie dye place and then to take us home. Basically, we rented a car and driver for the day for $40. 

Around 12:00 we left the hotel, and by 12:20 we had driven past Dali Old Town, past the famous pagodas, and to the start of the hike near some at plantations. Thankfully, the driver walked us 15 minutes to the hidden trail for the hike as we probably wouldn’t have found the trailhead. The hike started with a beautiful waterfall, filled nicely with the previous day’s rain. Thankfully the skies were partly cloudy, but not raining. 

The hike was mostly straight up through a fascinating mix of tropical ferns and pine trees. The kids huffed and puffed their way up with limited complaints. A little more than an hour later, we reached the summit and a wide path. 

Well marked, we followed the trail south and after 15 minutes the trail opened up to reveal the valley below. Then the trail narrowed and when we were bold enough, we could peer over the edge to see a precipitous drop. Yikes!! The trail clung to the cliff side and across the way we could see the trail continued with a nice sized railing. In the distance we heard a rumbling and a loud crash. Hmm.

20 minutes later we came upon the creator of the sound. A boulder the size of two basketballs had crashed down on the trail, denting the fence and breaking the top railing. We took the falling rock signs much more seriously after that! Still, the hike was beautiful and around 3pm we had arrived at the top of the chairlift shuttling dozens of visitors up the mountain. $4.50 each to ride the 1,500 feet down seemed like a bargain. And as the only westerners heading down, we were greeted with a friendly ‘hello,’ by nearly all of the visitors heading up. 

Around 4pm, we were back in the car and the kids were enjoying their hard earned ice creams. By 4:30 we arrived at the tie dye factory. The super friendly manager gave us an overview of the various styles and methods for producing the intricate indigo designs. After about a 30 minute education it was time to make our own. Sue decided to go for the easy to execute but gorgeous wave design. The rest decided to do the more time consuming sewing method. Evie did a whale, Tom did the burning man logo, and Tyler did his Chinese name. All of them experienced some significant moments of frustration but they all turned out amazing. 

The intricate designs had taken nearly two hours to produce and we ended up encroaching on the baby shower of one of the employees. They took it in stride therefore so did we. By 7:45pm, tired from the long day, we were back home as the pigs went back to their pen. 

We ordered dinner from the hotel just before the 8pm cut off and at 8:45 the hotel staff and many of the guests convened in the bar for Sue’s surprise birthday cake. Tom and the kids had purchased it 2 days before and everyone managed to keep it a secret. Sue was genuinely surprised and the kids gave her hand made cards which she loved. 

It was the perfect ending to an amazing day. 

July 6, 2017

Fireworks in Xizhou

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 5:58 pm

July 4 – fireworks in xizhou

Happy anniversary to us (18th) and happy birthday America (241th)! After breakfast, we joined 8 guests on the 9:30 market tour; 4 from Toronto, 2 from NYC and 2 from China. Our first stop was at a cheese making shop where we saw a way to make cheese with a wok and two bamboo poles. Our second stop was a noodle factory that produces the vast majority of rice noodles sold throughout the locality. Very cool. 

Then we strolled to the market which was selling all manner to produce – the first section had large catfish in buckets, pools of squirming eels, chickens in baskets, tiny shrimp, and many unidentifiable fish. Then there was the veggie section – huge carrots, giant eggplant, bushels of corn, stalks of bok choi, onions, apples, pears, banana and every other growing thing you could imagine. The locals were colorful with their traditional wicker baskets on their backs, navigating the crowds to their favorite vendors. The meat section had tables of meat of every imaginable kind and a handful of ladies working the meat grinder producing fresh ground meat. And finally the spice section with its colorful array of red, green and orange spices. We picked up a few apples and pears for later and continued our walk through town. 

Back at the hotel just before 11, we quickly set back out to a temple 100m down a road we had never been down. The Bai are mostly Buddhist with each temple being decided to a different god. Today, this temple was celebrating a recently complete renovation. When we arrived the courtyard was already packed with colorfully dressed locals shrouded in smoke from the incense and the firecrackers. A pair of over eager gentleman seemed intent on blasting everyone’s eardrums and they kept the explosions going for a solid 20 minutes while ceremonial stuff happened at the temple and itself. 

The next thing we knew, two guys were on the roof of the temple, one with a large basket. Knowingly the crowd formed in front with them and without warning they began hurling round yellow pillows down to the crowd. Like excited 20-somethings at the bouquet toss at a wedding, everyone went crazy fighting over the ‘good luck pillows.’ Tyler nearly lost a limb fighting for one on the ground. After an extra special red one was tossed, they began chucking smaller round dough balls imprinted with a red pattern. Tom caught one when it hit him in the chest and Evie and Tyler also managed to snag a dough ball. 

Afterwards, the crowd moved to a second courtyard where dozens of worshippers gathered around small tables and benches for a vegetarian meal. Brian and Jeanee were contributing members of the temple and the 10 guests from the hotel were the only westerners in attendance. After lunch, we reconvened in the first courtyard where dancers in traditional Bai costumes performed for the crowd. After 15 minutes of dancing to a boombox, a giant drum was brought toward the front and a man began beating it. Next thing we knew, a dragon was prancing through the courtyard chasing a crystal ball. The dragon, held up by a dozen dancers, circled the courtyard for 15 minutes before being replaced by a pair of golden lions. Around 1pm, the festivities were winding down so we strolled back to our hotel, marveling at our good fortune to have experienced such a local, cultural event. 

One thing struck us was authentic nature of the event. Back in San Francisco, when you see throngs of people setting off firecrackers and standing around watching a papermache dragon twirl around it somehow feels fake. “Dancing dragons? No one does that for real in China! It’s a show for the tourists,” is how it feels back home. But when you see it happen in a small, rural town 2,500 miles from Beijing with virtually no tourists at all you suddenly realize that it IS how major events are celebrated throughout China and that it’s not fake. So cool!!

Back at the hotel, it was unclear what to do with the rest of our day. That’s what happens when your day peaks at noon. So we chillaxed for a while and read while the kids played ping pong. About 4pm, we decided to head back out to the lake, this time not on bikes but in a horse drawn cart. The classic ride was an enjoyable way to get to the lake and while slow, we liked seeing the rice fields slowly going by. Around 5, we arrived at the Tahoe sized lake. We walked to the end of the ‘tongue’ once again noticing the lack of western tourists. 

Back at the entrance of the park, we made the mistake of asking how much a tuk-tuk to town was. 30 yuan was quickly reduced to 20 and the driver started following us down the path and after 5 minutes of walking we happy jumped in the electric tuk-tuk for the 10 minute ride into town. 

At Evie’s suggestion, Sue and Tom went out for an anniversary dinner by themselves while the kids stayed home and ate at the hotel. By 8, we were back and cozied into bed to watch Kung Fu Panda 3 on the iPad for ‘family movie night.’ Sue stayed awake for most of it and by 10:30 it was lights out for everyone. 

Another wonderful day in China. 

July 4, 2017

Rice Fields, Ice Cream and Muddy Rides

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 6:14 pm

July 3 – a quiet day in Xizhou

It is not often that our accommodation is the highlight of our visit to a destination, but The Linden Centre is no ordinary accommodation. The owners are a fascinating couple who have created a unique environment. Brian grew up in an uneducated family in Chicago and when he was 22 was awarded a scholarship to study in Beijing in 1984. He was selected because of all the applicants his background was the most proletarian. His fate was twisted even more when out jogging, he was offered a job as a star in a Chinese movie about a foreign exchange student. Shortly thereafter he found himself working for CBS as a cameraman and translator. In the 33 years since, he has spent more time in China than anywhere else and has felt a deep sense of gratitude to the country and a strong desire to protect its cultural heritage. 

He and his wife Jeanee, who is from San Francisco and knows the founders of Ohlone, ran a successful Asian art gallery before in the deciding in 2003 to embark on an ambitious project to buy and run a boutique hotel in an rural town near Dali. Their dedication to sustainable tourism hasn’t gone unnoticed in China as a few years ago, Brian was selected as one 10 most influential foreigners in China and now has several sustainable tourism projects underway. Here’s an article in The Atlantic from 2009 about their vision. 

For us, result is degree of comfort that makes leaving the hotel grounds challenging. We managed to stroll most of the small town, checking out the daily market and peaking into small shops. (By the way, you know a town is pretty, when every few minutes you see brides and grooms posing in their colorful costumes for wedding pictures.) At the market, we bought a pineapple and watermelon after Tyler’s least effective negotiation in China. (How much? 26 yuan. You take 15? 26. 20? 26. 25? 26. Ok). Around 1pm, we were hungry and ducked into a small noodle shop that was popular with local students. Using our clever translation app, we ordered a veggie soup, braised beef, and fried rice. As always, yum!

After Tom walked the fruit back to the hotel, Sue decided to head back for a nap. Tom and kids continued to stroll the town in the steady rain as the stream of Chinese day trippers continued to pour into this picturesque town. They enjoyed some locally made ice cream and some wonderfully named fake shoe stores. Our favorite being the phonetically spelled Niubalunsi (New Balance with a non-silent ‘e’). We also ordered a cake for Sue’s upcoming birthday and while the cake was prepared Tom and Tyler got their hair cut. 

There was some miscommunication about trimming Tom’s beard and before he knew it he had only half a beard. Oh, well it will grow back. Price for a haircut? $3.00. Cake in hand, we made the 5 minute walk past the rice fields to our hotel for our 5pm baba making class, sometimes called Yunnan pizza. The thick doughy pizza was fun and easy to make. Thicker than American pizza, the toppings are folded into the dough rather than sprinkled on top. Another variation is that they make sweet versions as well as savory and the brown sugar and plum sauce ones were delicious. 

After enjoying our pizzas, we decided to borrow the hotel’s bikes and make the 20 minute ride to the nearby lake. Around 7pm, map in hand, we set off. The first set of turns were easy enough to follow, but after about 5 minutes the directions got harder to follow. 10 minutes into the ride we were off course. Following Tom’s iPhone map we twisted and turned through back alleys and through increasing large puddles. Somehow, we managed to make it to the lake’s edge as the sun was dipping behind the mountains only to learn that the park was closed. 

Not wanting to ride in complete darkness, we turned around and set off home. We tried to follow the same route back and somehow missed a turn and found ourselves in a severely rutted road between two rice fields. Behind us a car came bouncing along and passed us. If they can make it, so can we and to the chants of “keep pedaling!” We managed to power through the ‘up to the pedals’ deep puddles with no disasters. Laughing the laugh of those who have narrowly avoided catastrophe, we arrived back at our hotel around 8:45. 

We all took turns showering, with Tom getting the task of washing the clothes in the large metal tub. Of course, Sue had brought along a small ziplock bag of detergent which we have been using to do laundry along the way.

The kids were disappointed that we had gone to the lake rather than watch a family movie together, but they were placated after promising to download Kung Fu Panda 3 and watch it the next day. By 10:30pm, all was quiet in out comfortable two room suite. 

July 3, 2017

Second to last stop in China

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 8:15 am

July 2 – Tengchong to Dali

It seems like forever ago that we left Palo Alto. Since then we’ve connected with Tibetian monks, gazed at the base of Everest, explored a 3,000 year old irrigation system, marveled at adorable pandas, experienced Sichuan opera, gawked at the ever-present Chinese high-rises, and mingled with rural school children. Along the way we have enjoyed the delicious Chinese cuisine and loved the warmth of the Chinese people. Incredibly, while tourist focused shops have been everywhere, at no time have we been hassled to buy things or even been the target of “hello meester, you want buy? Have look, you like.”

Today, we are driving 5 hours from Tengchong to Xizhou, a small town 45 minutes north of Dali on the shore of the ear-shaped Erhai lake. After breakfast we said our goodbyes to the wonderful families we met through shoulder action. We managed to hold back the tears, but everyone was feeling emotional. Tyler, with his impressive Mandarin and iPad skills, was a hit with the boys and the girls and many emails and wechat accounts were exchanged. 

We had considered taking the bus from Tengchong, and while it would have been an adventure, we thought better of it. That was an excellent decision as the 200 mile trip (think SF to Tahoe) was about 75% faster, twice as convenient, and about 1,000 times more comfortable. We still can’t quite come to grips with how a car and driver for a 200 mile trip can be had for $225?! Our driver left Dali the day before and spent the night in Tengchong before picking us up, drove a comfortable Buick mini-van, had $30 in tolls, and an estimated $100 in gas. Just imagine what the fare would be to uber to Tahoe?

The drive was uneventful except for the one police checkpoint near  the White Golden Gate Bridge.  The police after asking for our passports, had our car pull over for additional questions. The guard (there were 4 of them) we enamoured with Tyler and his white skin and blind hair. One of them reaching through the window to stroke his cheek and arms. When he spoke in Mandarin it blew their minds. And good thing he did too, as they wanted to know why we were here in a remote part of China, how long we’d been there, did we work there, etc. It is pretty awesome having a translator with us! 

We left Tengchong at 10:30 and at 3:30 we were strolling into the courtyard of our wonderful boutique hotel the Linden Centre. We learned of the place from Rachel Bordoli who had visited the year before and raved about the place. It turns out that Jeannie, one of the founders of Ohlone’s Mandarin program also knows the owners of the place and also had excellent things to say. 

The hotel is in a converted Bai (one of the 56 minority groups in China) home that was built in 1947 by a wealthy merchant. In 1949, during the Land revolution it was taken from the owner and given to the military who occupied it until the 70s. In 2003, the local government allowed it to be converted to a hotel on the grounds that it would be the best way to preserve the culturally important building. 

Tired from the long drive, we didn’t stray from the lovely hotel grounds. Instead we had dinner, played ping pong, shot pool, and surfed the internet. The kids were finally able to get to bed before 9pm and the grown ups were asleep by 10:30pm

July 2, 2017

Touring Tengchong with our new friends 

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 7:10 am

July 1 – being tourists in Tengchong 

Today was a later start as we were to meet at 8:30 in the lobby, but exhausted no one made it down before 9am, which was fine as we didn’t leave until 9:30. 

Our first stop was at the volcano center, nearly 45 minutes from our hotel. Tengchong county is a volcano region with 99 volcanos in the area, although none of them are active. The most recent eruption was over 1,000 years ago. Having visited many volcanos around the world, the visit wasn’t super interesting for our family, but getting out for some walking was enjoyable enough despite the light rain. 
Our second stop was a photo op of a huge cluster of columnar basalt. The hillside had worn away so you could clearly see how it had been in the process of erupting when it cooled for some reason forming the classic hexagonal shapes. The kids recognized the shapes as the same ones we had seen at The Giants Causeway in Ireland during our 2015 trip to Ireland. 

Our third stop was lunch overlooking a large wetlands. Lunch took a long time to arrive, but we enjoyed chatting with our new friends while the kids entertained each other with video games and spinning the ubiquitous tabletop lazy Susan. When lunch arrived it was delicious, like virtually all meals in China. The fish was fresh as were all of the vegetables. The mushrooms were especially good and seem to be a specialty of the region. Midway through our meal an elderly lady arrived selling flowered crowns. Of course, we needed a picture as well!

After lunch we decided to skip visiting the wetlands and avoid paying the $15.00 entrance fee. That decision was validated as we drove by and saw visitors snapping photos in front of plastic statues of wetland birds.

Our next stop was at a collection of geothermal pool connected by a lovely walkway. The most welcome sight came right at the entrance – an ATM machine! Few businesses accept credit cards as the majority of people pay with either cash or wechat pay. WeChat’s clever and reliable system relies on QR codes (which are cheap and easy to print) rather than the cumbersome, ineffective and expensive electronic Apple Pay readers in the US. Unfortunately, non-Chinese cannot access this system as it requires a Chinese bank account. As a result we had burned through all our cash 2 days ago and hadn’t seen an ATM since. Two withdrawals of 3,000 RMB ($450) had Sue’s wallet bulging and we paid off our various debts. 

While the pools aren’t as spectacular as the ones we had seen last summer in Yellowstone, the walk was enjoyable. Once again, we managed to avoid the crush of visitors and the park wasn’t overcrowded. We later learned that only two flights had managed to land in Tengchong the day before, perhaps reducing the number of visitors to the region. A highlight of the park was the Big Pot Hot Springs where an enterprising lady had set up a stall selling food steam cooked by the thermal vents. The Big Pot was surrounded by 12 small statues of the Chinese zodiac, so we took our pictures near our individual animals. Tom – horse, Sue – monkey, Evie – rooster, Tyler – dog. 

At the end of our visit we got to walk past a massive jade store. Clearly the most popular souvenir of the region, jade is brought across the border from Burma but the whole time we have been here we have not seen a purchase made by other by our group or anyone else. 

Back at our hotel around 6:30, we rested until reconvening in the lobby to head out to dinner. Dinner was a Yunnan style hot pot which was much less spicy and very enjoyable. Still, hot pot is our least favorite style of Chinese cooking as it lacks the flavors we enjoy. The dinner conversation was lively as we sat with John who is a venture capitalist focused on bio tech. We discussed the evolution of civilization, the advancement of math in Asia, the US political system, the needs of rural schools and evolution of Chinese industry. 

At 9:30, Tyler and Tom walked back to the hotel while Sue and Evie stayed behind to do some shopping. At 10:30, everyone was asleep except for Sue who was up until 1am dealing with last minute house issues in California. Did we mention that while traveling our tenants from SF were moving out on July 1? This necessitated scheduling remote check-out, arranging painting, booking floor specialists, and hiring carpet cleaners. As you might imagine, this work fell squarely on Sue’s capable shoulders. 

Tomorrow we say goodbye to another group of friends we’ve made in China. It is always dangerous to make generalizations about an entire country, but we can safely say that everyone we have met in China has been truly warm, generous and kind. 

Shoulder Action In Action

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 1:35 am

June 30 – Why we came. 

Today we build libraries. Or more accurately, we “build” “libraries.”

We left the hotel at 7:30 for our 90 minute drive along a windy, bumpy road to a small town 10 miles from the Burmese border. We later learned only a few years ago, there was no paved road to this town. In fact, the school is close to the border that most students have dual citizenship. After a quick orientation by the principal and an introduction to some of the teachers, we were divided into groups. Sue, Tom & Tyler got the two classes of second grade while Evie worked with the first graders with her new friend Marissa (who speaks mandarin). 

Building a library consisted of unpacking the books, having the students apply stickers assigning them to a classroom, and putting them into the pre-assembled bookcase. The kids were SUPER excited about the books, grabbing them like a long awaiting Christmas present. 

After the bookcase process, we played games with the kids. We sang BINGO and taught them “head-shoulders-knees and toes.” We tried to teach them how to say “my name is ___” but many students couldn’t grasp the ‘insert your name here’ concept and kept saying “my name is Tyler. ” 

Tyer bounced back and forth between Sue’s class and Tom’s class and was an invaluable translator. Everyone has a hilarious time, students, teachers and us. After 40 minutes, we combined classes to show what they had learned. Much to his chagrin, Sue’s class significantly out performed Tom’s class in head-shoulders-knees-toes. 

Classes complete, we reconvened in the staff lunch room for a simple but delicious lunch. After lunch and a nice visit with the school principal, we joined some of the students during PE class and the little ones were hilariously scared of Tyler.  Him walking into a group of them sent them squealing with yelps of delight. 

Around 1:30pm, we were off to our next school an hour back toward school. We thought we were doing the bookcase exercise, but instead we learned about the school and just did a lesson. 

This school was smaller, 7 full-time teachers for 150 students compared with the 20 teachers and 400 students at the earlier school. Once again the students were excited to see us and enjoyed the head-shoulder-knees-toes game. This group was 3rd and 4th grade students and they did a better job of understanding the “hi, my name is” practice. 

Around 3:30pm, as the clouds opened up and rain poured down on us, we loaded into our vans to head off to our next destination. 15 minutes later we pulled up in front of a large museum dedicated to the Anti-Japanese War and the creation of the Burma Road. 

It was incredibly educational as our western education spend virtually no time discussing the atrocities committed by Japan before and during World War II. Beginning in 1933, Japan launched a systematic assault on China and by 1941 had control over 70+% of China. Further, Japan had control over all of the major seaports creating an effective blockade of the remaining holdout, the Yunnan province. With control of Vietnam and Thailand, Japan was launching a fierce attack to secure the remaining section of China. In response, desperate for a supply line to the outside world, China set out to turn the southern silk trade route into a full fledged road. They mobilized 250,000 workers and within a few back breaking years, the road was completed. 

As supplies began to trickle in, Japan increased its assault on the region, and this is where the US came to the rescue. A retired Air Force colonel had been retained as an advisor to the Chinese military. At China’s request, the colonel assembled an all volunteer force of 100 US pilots and equipped with 100 P-40 airplanes began and assault on Japanese positions through the region. Their bravery and skill earned them the nickname “The Flying Tigers” and it is no exaggeration to say without their efforts China would not have defeated Japan. During their short tenure, they shot down nearly 300 aircraft while only losing 14 of their own. More info here.

This history lesson explained the many tributes to America throughout the region, including a huge stature we had seen just after arriving at the airport. As a final note, the loss of life during this time is staggering. For example, in Tengchong alone almost 60% of the population die from fighting or disease. Villages were systematic burned to the ground after the Japanese soldiers brutalized the inhabitants. It is no wonder that elderly Chinese still harbor great animosity towards Japan. 

Our sobering visit behind us, we went back to the hotel to rest before heading our to a lovely dinner at the nearby town. During dinner, Debra (one of the Americans of Chinese descent) suggested that we go to the local “hot springs” after dinner rather than the next morning as scheduled. Quick to agree, Danny, our lovely tour organizer said it was possible and within minutes we were scampering back to our hotel. At 8:30, the vans had arrived and by 9pm were in the lobby of an immense hotel spa complex. The “hot springs” were indeed fed by underground springs but rather than being the cauldrons of sulfur we come to expect, there were a collection of 15 cement hot tubs ranging in temperature from 95-108 degrees. We later learned that the hotel was in fact a Hyatt!

After enjoying the pools for 2 hours it was finally time to go home. At nearly midnight we passed out in our comfy beds. While the day was long it was incredibly fulfilling, further validation that coming all this way was worth it. 

July 1, 2017

The Saga Continues

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 3:54 am

June 29 – Kunming to Tengchong

The hotel phone rang at 4:50am! In polite English, they told us we had to check out by 5:20. In a daze, we rolled our bags down to the lobby and jammed them into the bus. At 6, we were in the security line to get into the airport. Then we stood in the re-check in line for our bags. Then we stood in the security line to get to the gates. By 7am we finally arrived at our gate in plenty of time for our 8am departure. 

Our 7:20 boarding time came and went. At 8am, they posted that the flight was delayed until 9am. At that announcement the 130 Chinese travelers went ballistic! A crowd formed around the check in desk and there was non-stop yelling and finger pointing. Not speaking Chinese, we’re not sure exactly what was said, but it probably included more than a few Chinese F-bombs. 

The 9am departure time came and went. Thankfully there was a Starbucks nearby and the lattes were pretty good. There was no posted time for the flight which was not encouraging. We started creating our backup plan – skip Tengchong and spend a few days in Kunming. During this whole time, the check in desk continued to be surrounded by yelling Chinese. Except for a group of about 20 who threatened to march to the front of the airport and chant anti-lucky at r slogans. Eventually a pair of security guards joined the fray to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. 

At 10, Tom booked a hotel as we were sure the flight would be going. At 10:05, without any announcement people began flocking to the desk. At 10:15 we were all checked through. At 10:30 we were happily on the plane. Our flight had been completely full, but now there were about 20 empty seats. Whether those passengers voluntarily left the flight or were left behind we’ll never know. While the actual airline was Lucky Air, we had taken to calling it Sucky Air. 

A short 60 minutes later we were at the tiny airport in Tengchong. Thankfully the hotel had sent a car for us and another 40 minutes later we were checking in at our adorable hotel overlooking verdant rice fields and the attractive old town of Heshun. 

After a quick dip in the pool, we strolled to a local restaurant for a late lunch followed by a rejuvenating nap. At 6pm, we went to lobby to meet the rest of our group. 

Our reason for coming all the way to Tengchong, the far reaches of Yunnan, was to be part of a school education program called Shoulder Action. The program strives bto provide books to schools in rural China in the form of “book corners.” Think mini-librarys of 70 books. A small idea with a big affect. 

We walked to dinner through the old city of Heshun and met 5 of the 6 families on our trip: 4 Chinese families (all from Shanghai but one family lived in the Bay Area for a few years) and 1 from USA (New Jersey). The best part: kids! The American group had a 13 year old boy and girl and among the Chinese families there are 6 kids between 9-12). 

After a delightful dinner the kids ran outside and frolicked among the Lily’s and rice fields. A stroll through the ancient city, which unlike Lijiang was comfortably empty, confirmed what we already felt – it was an exceptionally long journey to the farthest corner of china, but we are very glad to be here. 

June 29, 2017

Chengdu to Tengchong (via Lijiang and Kunming!)

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 7:32 am

June 28 – CTU to TCZ
Our last day in Sichuan province started by getting up by 9am and having breakfast with the others!

After June and Lee gave Tyler a dozen Chinese books, it was time to get pampered. June, Sue and Tom went out to get their feet massaged. Meanwhile Lee, Evie and Wendy went out to have their nails done. And the boys stayed home to play outside and on their devices. 

Over an hour later, our hands and feet were happy and we all strolled back to the apartment where June set out to make us lunch. Somehow he managed to whip up twice cooked pork, stewed beef, bacon, rice, some dough ball things, and a salad in the time it takes for Tom to make a grilled cheese sandwich. 

After a delicious lunch and a final meal selfie, it was time to head to the airport. June had booked us a DeeDee car and to our surprise the whole family came with us to the airport. Then at the airport, they came inside and helped us navigate through to the security line. How nice!!

We said our final goodbyes before heading to the gate for our flight that was delayed “maybe 30 minutes” said June the optimist. Turns out it was 2.5 hours late leaving. The 2 hour flight was uneventful until we arrived over the airport. We circled for about 30 minutes before making an attempt at landing in the stormy weather. 

At the last minute, we pulled up and returned to about 10,000 feet. Another 15 minutes later the flight attendant came on to let us know that we were going to land at nearby Lijiang!? The rest of the passengers were despondent. 

Around 9pm we touched down and sat on the tarmac. Around 10:45, Tom went outside and down the ramp for some fresh air. Shortly thereafter Evie came out to join him. They did some stretches before Tom said “Evie, will you help me clear the clouds?” “Sure daddy.” “It is 10:52, let’s have the plane load at 11pm. How’s that sound?” “Sounds good.”

They faced southwest and began chanting OM, holding their fingers in a circle. They chanted for 5 minutes, visualizing the clouds clearing. At 11pm exactly, the flight attendant told all the people outside to go inside and collect their bags as we are off loading the plane and going to the terminal. 

Hmm, not quite what they had in mind! Evie and Tom walked up the ramp as dozens of people came down, bags in hand. They finally made it back to their seats when people started streaming back onto the plane. Apparently they changed their minds and we were in fact leaving. 15 minutes later we were taxing down the runway en route to Tengchong! Maybe the chanting worked after all!

If only that were the end of the story. 

After flying back an hour to Tengchong and circling for 30 minutes they determined it still wasn’t clear enough and they re-routed us to Kunmin another hour away! Perhaps this is what you get for flying “Lucky” Air. 

We landed in Kunming at 1am. By 2am we were standing outside the terminal waiting to be packed into a bus with a shocking number of travelers making their way through Kunming en route to who knows where. At 2:45am we were in our 1-star airport hotel with 135 of our new friends. Not knowing what tomorrow would bring, we fell asleep on our boards, I mean “beds.” At least the sheets were clean. 

A little Chengdu for you

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 2:49 am

June 27 – day in Chengdu 

The past few days had worn us out and except for the Tyler, we all slept until almost 10am. Sue and Tyler had made a photo book of their trip to China from April and gave it to the family. They loved it!! After a quick breakfast, we set off on a short walk to the excellent Jinsha museum. The museum in the western suburbs is dedicated to the archeological discovery made in 2002 of over 6,000 relocates from the 3,000 year old Shu kingdom. The relics from 1200-600bc include some intricate gold ornaments one of which has become the symbol of greater Chengdu. The discovery helped scientist put together what life was like in the Sichuan basin 3,000 years ago. 

After about 90 minutes of exploration, Sue and Tom were sent on their way to explore central Chengdu while the kids returned to the apartment to play, have lunch and ultimately to go see Transformers 5 in a real movie theater! 

Sue and Tom were given metro cards and put on a pair of the omnipresent MoBikes. The bikes are genius. You use your phone and Wechat to scan the QR code. That unlockes the bikes rear wheel, charges you 1 yuan ($0.15), and starts the 1 hour timer. We rode the bikes the 10 minutes to the metro station along the bike only lane and when we arrived we locked the bikes, which registered the end of our ride. And the best part? You can leave them anywhere! There is no special drop off/pick zone. We love it when we find superior innovation abroad!

The metro was super modern and efficient. The stops are announced in Chinese and English making travel a breeze. We took the subway about 6 stops to People’s park in central Chengdu. The park is a lovely green park with men playing Chinese checkers, paddle boats on small lakes, people dancing to loud music, and old ladies standing around reviewing the “mate wanted” signs. Whether it works or not is unknown, but there were over 100 descriptions of men and women and what they had to offer and what they were looking for.  

While the kids were at the movie theater, we enjoyed some tea at the large shady tea house by the lake, but opted against having our ears cleaned by the ubiquitous ear cleaning dudes. They take their lounging very seriously in Chengdu, as we left after about an hour and noticed that in that time period, no one else had left. We walked past the giant Mao statue and the massive Tianfu Square (now with a shopping mall underneath) and through shopping street after shopping street. 

Along the way, we discovered a copy (or the inspiration for) and impressive burning man installation from the previous year called “sonic runway.” Eventually we found a place to sit and have a late afternoon snack. Fed and rested, we were back on our feet and strolled past an old Taoist temple impossibly wedged between glitzy high rises and toney department stores. The highlight was seeing a “make your own” Magnum store, Sue’s all time favorite ice cream. We hopped back on the metro and buzzed over to Jinli snack street which was in a park and was jam packed with tourist and locals. We wandered the alleys while the kids swam in the pool back at the apartment. 

Around 7:45pm we reconnected at the Shu Feng Ya Yun tea house for some traditional Sichuan opera. The evening was delightful if mostly incomprehensible. The favorites, of course, were the shadow hand puppets and the face changing dancers. At the end of the performance, June (Jerry’s dad) arranged for the kids to play with the puppets and learn how to make the various shapes used during the show. Tyler and Jerry worked diligently at making birds, owls, dogs, and rabbits. They got quite good as the instructor spent nearly 20 minutes helping them and we were the only customers. 

At 10pm, we strolled outside where June had called a DeeDee car (Chinese Uber) and the 8 of us packed into the Buick minivan for the 20 minute drive home through virtually deserted streets. After classic late night meltdowns, both kids were asleep at 11pm. 

Despite being a city of 14 million people where 8 story buildings look small, Chengdu emits a laid back, welcoming vibe. Definitely a city we could live in. 

Kramer-style Panda Express

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 2:31 am

June 26 – Pandas!
This morning we were sad to leave our amazing breakfast and our wonderful friends in Dujiangyan. However, we were excited to see our Chengdu friends and the famous Chinese pandas. 

Through a variety of coincidences, Sue and Tyler had gone to Chengdu in April as part of a school visit that Sue had organized for 40 people from Ohlone Elementary School. During that visit they had done a home stay (of the 15 families who went, only 2 did home stays). There they met June, Lee, and their kids Jerry (11), Wendy (7) and their huge cute dog Wanwan (2). Tyler and Jerry had hit it off and Tyler was especially excited to see him again. 

The family drove the 75 km from their apartment in Chengdu ( the capital of the Sichuan province) to or hotel to pick us up and take us to the Wolong Panda center another 50 km west of Dujiangyan. They met us at 10am in a rented Buick minivan and we were off. Unfortunately the highway was closed for emergency crews who were using it to move large earth moving vehicles for the tragic landslide in the village of Xinmo which had happened 2 days earlier. As a result, the 30 minute drive became and 75 minutes. 

Dujiangyan sits at the foothills of the Tibetian plateau, and within 15 minutes we were winding our way up into the mountains. Like many visitors to Sichuan, we were impressed by the natural beauty of the place and by 11:30 we had arrived at the newly reconstructed panda center. The previous one had been destroyed in 2008 when a 7.9 earthquake stuck 40 km away. 

The new center is beautiful done in a eco-friendly style and were among only a handful of visitors. Pandas are most active in the early morning and we were disappointed to discover that the first few enclosures were empty. We were happy when we saw one young adult out who was pacing around. After enjoying his cuteness for 15 minutes, we continued our walk to the “kindergarten” area where 5-7 juveniles were lounging about. So cute!! We especially liked one that had draped himself over the top of a tree and was fast asleep. 

Around 1pm, we headed back to the car and on the recommendation of a park worker, set off for lunch at a nearby restaurant connected to a farm. The food was fresh and delicious and after feeding ourselves, we returned to the panda center to watch the pandas feeding at 3pm. 

We were glad we did as the sight of young pandas chomping on long bamboo stalks followed by post-meal tree climbing, seesaw riding, and naps was adorable. Tom took a few thousand photos of the whole experience and managed to get a few good ones. Around 4 it began to rain lightly and as satisfied as a well fed panda, we returned to the car for the long drive to Chengdu. 

The kids sat in the back row of the van and watched Kung Fu Panda on the iPad until we made it down from the mountains and past Dujiangyan. They nearly finished Kung Fu Panda 2 in the traffic of Chengdu before we arrived at their apartment. By now it was after 7pm and after a few minutes of playtime in the central playground, walked around the corner for a nice noodle dinner. Exhausted, Sue took the kids up to bed at 9pm while Tom explored the neighborhood on foot. This section of town has a suburban feel despite being populated with dozens of 12 story apartment complexes. 

Tomorrow we will explore central Chengdu which is another 5km from the 2nd ring road, our current location. 

June 26, 2017

Water, water everywhere

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 7:41 am

June 25 – Dujiangyan Irrigation Project

Today was designated a late start day (10:30am). The kids, determined to make the most of the hotel, got up at 8am to use the work out room and go for a swim. The adults joined them at breakfast around 9:30 and at 10:30 we were in front of the KFC being whisked away to Southgate, the old part of Dujiangyan. 

Today’s adventure was walking around the 2,000 year old irrigation project. The ingenious design successfully tamed the Min River (Minjiang), the longest tributary of the Yangtze and turned a perineal flood zone into a well managed source of farming water. Of course, we started by feeding the giant carp. 

The delightful walking circuit took us to the edge of the irrigation, across a bouncy swinging bridge, up to the top of a temple, and back to town. Along the way, the kids had ice cream, watermelon juice, cucumbers, and sugar on a stick. Tom added two more Warriors photos to his collect with a pair of Kevin Durant fans. It was noted that no other basketball jerseys of any kind have been spotted thus far. 

Somehow along the way, Evie turned the 3 boys into a marching troop who obeyed her every command. By 3pm we were back at the cars and by 3:30 we were sitting at a restaurant for our second hot pot meal, this one 500m from the school everyone teaches at. 

At 4:30 Michael and his wife scooped up tom and sue and took them to his artist academy 30km from Dujiangyan. Taking free range parenting to the max, Evie and Tyler were given $20 and Sue’s phone and were driven back to the hotel. We should be back by 7, we said, but we were quite wrong. 

Not fully understanding what was in store, Michael stopped en route to pick up one of the artists and a few minutes later a car with 3 more artists joined us for the hour+ drive to the studio. 

Once there we were treated to a display of classic Chinese art. Each artist set to creating a unique work of art, all classically Chinese brush paintings, but each unique in style. The director/benefactor of the academy (Mr. Liu) came to meet us and gave us a tour of the facility and showed us his office. It turns out he runs an advertising business focused on building brands for small companies. 

After the tour, we returned to the studio to find that all of the works had been completed and after 15 minutes of group photos we were gifted each of the works! 

It is still a mystery to us why we were treated like royalty but around 7:30 we back in the car for the drive home. Unfortunately, because of the mudslide some 100km from Dujiangyan, the highway was closed and instead of a short drive home it took 90 minutes to get back. 

Thankfully, we were able to be in touch via cell phone with the ever responsible Evie and the kids did great on their own for nearly 5 hours. Tom joined the artists for a late dinner while Sue took the kids to KFC and out to Southgate for some late night shopping. 

Tom regaled the artists with photos of burning man and answered their questions about America (What holidays do you celebrate? Why are there so many guns? Does everyone have a lawyer? Do Americans live longer than Chinese?)

At 10:30 we were back in our rooms, tired but chuckling at the absurdity of our day. Tomorrow we will be picked up by our the Chengdu homestay family that Sue and Tyler stayed with during their school visit in April. 

Without question, having friends in china makes all the difference in the world!

Do-ing Dujiangyan 

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 7:05 am

June 24 – Dujiangyan, China

We don’t often splurge on a 5-star hotel when we are traveling, but in this case we knew that Tibet would be challenging and that we all would be craving some extra comforts, like soft beds and a swimming pool. Indeed the day before, the kids had jumped in the pool almost immediately upon arrival. After purchasing the mandatory swim caps, of course!

Another significant benefit of stay at the Balan International was the immense breakfast buffet complete with French fries, pastries, sushi, bacon, fruit, and most importantly – fresh ground espresso!! Oh, and did I mention rooms only cost $75! We may never leave!

Around 9am Sammy arrived at our hotel to take us to Qingcheng Mountain, famous as the birthplace of Taoism. The hike through the forest passed dozens of pagodas and small temples. The weather was mildly overcast, but it was muggy and warm. 

We were joined on the walk by Ann, the daughter of Judy one of the teachers we had hosted in February. She had also visited Bullis so her English was excellent. Also joining us we’re Hunter and Bob, school friends. 

Before the hike, Tom spotted his first Curry jersey and quickly scampered over for a picture. Around 10am, we began the hike along with another few thousand Chinese day-trippers, some of whom opted for the royal treatment of being carried up the path. Up and up we went, until around 1:45 we finally arrived at the 8th story temple at the top. 

Along the way, it was interesting to see the many similarities between the Buddhist statues of Tibet and the Daoist statues of Sichuan. Around 2:30 we began the return journey which was facilitated by a gondola and a boat ride. 

Around 4pm we were back at the bottom and Tom saw his second Curry jersey. The father of a Cal student, he was going full Bay Area with his Giants cap, Cal shorts, and Curry undershirt. 

At 4:30 Sammy picked us up and drove us to the restaurant of a friend of Judy’s. There, will the boys ran off to play laser tag in the extensive garden, Sue and Tom learned how to play mahjong. Fun! And the automatic tile shuffler was a hit with the kids. 

Around 6:30, Judy, Michael, Lori, and Elsie joined us creating a reunion of all the teachers who had visited California in February. Of course, it was a huge feast with dish after dish arriving at our table, until the servers had piled the dishes 3 levels high!

Stuffed to the gills, we were driven home by Sammy to our cushy hotel. and we all fell fast asleep by 10pm, after a surprise bath by Tyler (aka Jack Frost). 

June 24, 2017

Goodbye Tibet

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 7:25 pm

June 23 – Goodbye Tibet, Hello China

Earlier in our trip, as the daily travel times became more apparent, we discovered it was possible to fly from Shigatse to Chengdu. There was one flight per day and it left at 9am. If we could get on it (none of the people we had asked had even heard the ft he flight mich less, known anyone who had done it) we would save the 7 hour drive to Lhasa and would arrive in Chengdu at 11:30am instead of 8pm. 

Tom had booked the flights in Gyangtse as a backup plan once he discovered that unlike in the US flights in Tibet are 90% refundable. So at 6:30am we loaded back into the van and headed to the airport. We arrived at 7:30 and easily checked into our flight and by 8am were ready to go to the gate (there is only one gate as there is only one flight per day). 

Before doing so, we went outside for a last group photo with our Tibetian family Nyima and our driver. As we said goodbye, we were all overcome with emotion and Nyima openly wept tears of joy and sadness. She and Evie had built a special bond as they often walked through the street holding hands. Sue had been reading a book to the kids about a Tibetian girl who after having her dog stolen crosses the mountains and journeys down to Calcutta to retrieve it. We finished the book just before arriving at the airport and gave it to Nyima along with some handwritten notes of thanks (and a tip of course!)

With our eyes misty but our hearts full, we went back inside to head through security. In line, we met the only other westerners in the airport and the conversation went like this. 

  • Us: “hi, where are you guys from?”
  • Them: “we live in Palo Alto.”
  • Us: “no way, us too! Where about?”
  • Them: “we moved from Paris about 6 months ago. We live on California ave above Joanie’s”
  • Us: “no way, my mom lives in Paris and that’s our local breakfast place! We live on the other side of Alma! Where are you coming from?”
  • Them: “we were at Everest 2 days ago and then drove back.”
  • Us: “no way! Us too! (After getting their names one sounded Swedish) “is that a Swedish last name?”
  • Them: “yes, my grandparents lived near Goteborg on the west coast of Sweden.”
  • Us: “no way! That’s where Tom’s mother is from!”

One works at SLAC and the other is a scientist turned startup founder. Needless to say, we spent the next hour sharing stories and being amazed at the coincidences. 

En route the views out the right side of the plane were spectacular as all of the Himalaya were bathed in clear blue skies and thankfully Sue was able to snap some amazing photos. On the ground in Chengdu, we said goodbye to our new friends (after collecting their contact info) and went immediately to, what else, Starbucks! Latte and frappachino in hand we decided to splurge and took a taxi the 70km to our 5-star hotel in Dujiangyan. It was double the estimated $30 but it was worth it. By 2pm we were in our rooms and by 3pm the kids were in the pool!

At 5pm, Sammy (one of the lovely teachers we had met when they came to visit Bullis) met us in the lobby and we walked to a nearby hot pot restaurant. She ordered for us and requested the least spicy option, so it was merely super spicy rather than unbearable. After dinner, she drove us to the old part of town dominated by the raging rivers of the famous irrigation system. Now converted to a shopping / dining section it was easy to see how this area would be extremely popular. 

Around 9:30pm, we were back at our hotel after making arrangements for the following day. It felt wonderful to make our transition from Tibet by landing in a city where Sue and Tyler had been before and to be so well cared for by our friends. And we all commented how strange it felt that China now feels “comfortable” when a few years ago our visit felt so foreign. 

Travel is indeed an amazing teacher. 

Nearing the end

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 6:15 pm

June 22 – Lhtase to Shigatse
On the day before we had driven from EBC to Lhatse (about 6-7 hours) so today we had a relatively short drive to Shigatse meaning we didn’t have to go anywhere until 10am and we spent most of it asleep, exhausted from the long day before. We enjoyed a simple breakfast with the local kitten before heading off. Around 1:30pm we rolled into the now familiar city of Shigatse and went directly to our favorite restaurant The Third Eye. 


After a lovely meal, punctuated by Tyler’s first visit for #2 in a squat toilet, we were off to our hotel which we discovered full of red robed monks. Apparently there were around 50 of them in town for a conference, which somehow struck us a funny. After checking in, we crossed the street (think real-life ‘frogger’) to visit a local market. Somehow we ended up shoe shopping in the fake-Nike section (we liked the brand Abibas made to look like Adidas) and caused quite a stir. Within minutes, we were surrounded by a dozen watchers-on who literally gasped when Tyler took off his hat exposing his blond locks. When he spoke to them in Mandarin it blew their minds. They laughed out loud when they discovered that Tom was his father, not grandfather. 

With our $9.00 shoes in hand (Tyler negotiated from 75 to 60 cny) we set off to do the kora we had so enjoyed the last time we were in town. Once again it was delightful, this time interrupted by a flock of sheep crisscrossing the path. We ended the hike at the fort overlooking the city and then walked through the old town (vigilantly looking for aggressive dogs) and down to the ‘tourist’ market, which was mostly closing up as the sun was about to set. Evie wanted to get some prayer beads and found the perfect ones. Tyler negotiated two sets for about the same price as originally quoted for one set (75 yuan) and everyone was happy with the deal. 

As the sun set, we returned to our nearby hotel, dropped off our bag and set off to the Tibetian Family Restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. There we had a lovely, hilarious and cheap meal of momos, yogurt, yak sizzler, potatoes, and crepes (which were more like tortillas). Tyler entertained the locals (the place had no tourists) by shouting Teche-delay out the second story window at passers-by. We also had an awesome discussion about what we had learned about Tibet and the kids impressed the adults with their insights and observations. Stuffed, we paid the $10 for dinner and strolled home in the dark of 9pm. 

It is amazing how comforting it was to be back in a city we had been in before. When we had arrived in Shigatse 4 days earlier it felt foreign but now it felt like a bizarre second home. The sadness of the final night of our trip was upon us and we all went to bed feeling nostalgic for Tibet. 

June 23, 2017

Everest Base Camp

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 1:44 am

June 21 – Shegar to Everest and back

Today is the big day! We awoke at 5am to be packed and in the lobby by 5:30 so we could make the hour long drive to Pang-la pass at sunrise. If the weather is clear, we will see Everest and 5 other 8,000m peaks as the sun slowly sets them aglow. We had all of our warm gear and our prayer flags all ready for the pass. Unfortunately, when we arrived, well before sunrise, there was a layer of fog from the valley below that obscured our views. 

Evie and Tyler stayed in the car keeping warm while Tom and Sue hiked slowly to the top of the hill to watch the sunrise at 17,000 ft. Even with our long underwear on it was cold without the sun and prayer flags were covered in frost. Standing alone far above the parking lot, Sue and Tom were watching the sun preparing to crest over the clouds in the distance when 4 green SUVs came barreling up the dirt road to exactly where we were standing. Out popped 12 Chinese tourists with there camera and tripods. When we noted that they could go even higher with their SUVs, they said thanks, this is good. A classic example of American vs. Chinese. Americans, always craving more space while the Chinese are extremely comfortable in a crowd. 

Chuckling, we walked a littler higher up to “get our space” to watch the sunrise and hope the fog cleared. The fog didn’t ever clear, so we returned to the van and the kids got out and we put up our flags and continued on our way. 

The road down was an impossible series of switch backs until we reached the valley below and after 2 hours we were at the absurd tent village 5km from the actual Everest Base Camp (EBC). The sun hadn’t reached the village so it was still cold and we went into one of the classic nomad-style tent for some tea, warmth and rest (the kids were exhausted with good reason!). With the fog behind us, Everest was clearly visible with little wisps of clouds in front. Then, around 9am our guide exclaimed, “the weather will be good. We should go now.” And we scampered through the tent village to where the bus was taking visitors the 5 bumpy kilometers to the official EBC. 

Nyima was right and the wisps had disappeared and there, towering in front of us was the great mountain herself. Still another 20km from the actual “base” she provided the illusion that climbing would not be difficult. However, the optical illusion obscured the fact that the mountain was still 12,000 feet above our 17,000 ft perch. 

We spent nearly 2 hours marveling at her beauty, taking pictures, and being in pictures. For even at EBC we were the only westerners. Joining in the photo-fest were, low and behold, the SUV people! Turns out they were on some ad shoot for a car buying service in China and the next thing we knew, Tom was talking on camera about the merits of driving a SUV!!

Satiated with our view, we went back to the bus stop and eventually caught the bus for our 20 minute bump-fest back to the tent village. We planned to have lunch at our tent, but the owner had left so we drive back to the Rompo Monastery (the highest in the world) and had some fried rice, noodle soup, French fries, and sweet tea. We also tried the salty yak butter tea, which, well, wasn’t our cup of tea. 

We had planned to stay the night at the monastery, but we had such good luck wth our view that decided to do some of the long drive back to Shigatse. So around 2pm we set off back the direction we had come earlier that morning. Tyler entertained us by sticking his head out the window and shouting Teche-delay (hello) at all the cars, nomads, and villagers we passed. Around 4:30 we had passed Shegar, the town we had started at nearly 12 hours before. Tom had found a hot springs “resort” 11km past Shegar and we stopped to enjoy a dip in their geyser filled pool. 

The resort had long since passed its prime, but undeterred Tom and the kids braved the 100+ degree heat of the pool. It was raining steadily now and the sound of the rain on the semi-clear roof was enchanting. The resort had rooms, but like most of the place they were a bit dingy. The hotel from the night before was full and rather than head back we decided to push on to the small town of Lhatse, another 3 hours ahead. We had a dinner of instant noodles and around 6:30 we set off for our final destination. 

We bumped and bounced for another 2.5 hours until we arrived at the adorable Lhatse Family Guesthouse. After some reading, relaxation and the all important wifi, everyone was asleep by 10pm. 

What a long, glorious, epic day. 

June 22, 2017

Sakya to Shegar and the mystical conch shell

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 8:30 am

June 20 

By now, you know the drill. Breakfast at 8:30, heading to a monastery by 9am. 

As usual, we were the only western visitors amongst a throng of local worshipers. The Sakya Monastery was a short walk from our hotel and somehow immediately upon arrival Tyler got engaged with a pair of Tibetian monks. It was surreal to watch a Tibetian and an American chatting in Mandarin. A small crowd gathered to watch the encounter and the most interesting question was when the head monk asked who was the new US president. Not our opinion of the president, but who won! Global news is hard to come by in Tibet. 

Meanwhile, Sue and Evie were watching a small group of monks doing their morning chants in the huge assembly hall. Tom and Tyler rejoined them and we continued our visit to the monastery. Incredibly each monastery seems more impressive than the last. In one room we counted approximately 2,000 scripture books, stacked floor to ceiling in a room 20m high and 80m long. The scriptures are protected by walls 3m thick! I’d show you a picture, but taking one would have cost $45!

Later, we heard the sound of a conch shell being blown and learned that it was a gift from Indian Buddhist sages to the head of the Sakya sect, who gave it to Kublia Khan from Mongolia, who somehow ended up giving it back. This all transpired over the course of a few centuries. Oh, and the shell is 4,000 years old and is the remains of Buddha Sakyamuni from when he reincarnated as a shell fish. Having the shell blown for you provides good fortune for you and your parents so needless to say we joined the line of worshippers, made our offerings, and had the conch blown above our bowed heads. 

We continued our tour by circumnavigating the monastery, spinning the prayer wheels, and popping into chapels with chanting monks. Around 11am we were back in the van to drive to our next destination 4 hours drive away called Shekar. Along the way, we crossed the Gyatso-la pass at our peak Tibetian elevation of 5,248m (17,300 ft). We had planned to put up some prayer flags and Tyler negotiated some flags from 50rmb to 30, but it was too cold so we continued on. Around 4pm after passing 3 checkpoints, we arrived at our modernist hotel in Shegar. 

We checked in and after a short break we got back into the van for a 30 minute drive to the old town of Shegar. Along the way we passed dozens of empty high rise buildings built in the past 5 years transforming beautiful farm lands into a concrete subdivision. More on China’s transformation of Tibet later. We parked at entrance of the monastery high up on the hill. We explored the nearly vacant monastery for a while before scampering up above the monastery to explore the ruins of a great fort. Tyler went back to the van while Sue and Evie hiked high above monastery. Tom continued even higher attempting to reach the craggy peak. He stopped about a 100m below the peak and gazed off into the distance. There, much to his surprise, he saw a sharp peak far in the distance. It was Everest. 

Filled with joy, he scampered back down to the van. Sue had walked down to the village we met her at the bridge crossing the river. While she was befriending kids riding ripsticks, Tyler and Tom were buying prayer flags for 20 CNY each ($3). Back in the van, we were at the hotel around 6:30. The kids opted for oatmeal in their rooms while Tom and Sue had the 50 yuan ($7.50) buffet which was clearly designed for the Chinese tour groups. 

By 9pm, we were in our beds attempting to get a good nights sleep for the next day we will be waking at 5am to catch sunrise at Pang-la (5,050m) where you can see Everest and a handful of 8,000m peaks on a clear day. After sunrise we will continue 3 hours to our final “destination” – Everest Base Camp. 

June 20, 2017

The rhythm of Tibetian travel

Filed under: Asia 2017 — admin @ 6:06 am

June 19 – Shigatse to Sayka

We have settled into the Tibetian travel pattern – wake around 8am, head down for a Chinese focused buffet breakfast, pack up out stuff, and meet Nyima around 9am to load the van and head to a monastery. Today we ere visiting Tashilhumpo monastery, the monastery we had circumnavigated the day before. 

A monastery in Tibet was more than just a play for monks to pray. A monastery could also be considered like a small university divided into multiple colleges. Further, visiting a monastery involves visiting many different temples, chapels, courtyards and assembly halls. Tashilhumpo survived relatively unscathed by the cultural revolution and the 10th Penchen Lama is credited with saving it and many other relics in Tibet.

While the entire grounds were spectacular, the highlight might have been the 26m gilded statue of the Future Buddha. The immense statue is the largest gilded statue in the world and it was built in 1914 and took 900 artisans 4 years to complete. Or maybe the highlight was strolling through chapels while seated monks chanted scriptures. Or maybe the highlight was rubbing shoulders with colorful pilgrims as they make their offerings of yak butter to keep the flames alive. We would show photos of some of the insides if the photo permit was $50!



Around 10:30am we were back at the van and Tom wanted to get some Tibetian singing bowls, which were for sale at the market around the corner. He brought his negotiator (Tyler) as locals are more likely to speak Chinese than English. 15 minutes later they were back at the van with 2 bowls, 6 colorful tassels, and a small bronze statue of Buddha Sakyamuni. Tyler’s mandarin skills saves us about 40% of asking price and well within the target range our guide suggested. 

Continuing our travel pattern it was time to drive for 4 hours, this time to the small town of Sakya 150km southwest of Shigatse. Along the way, we gazed at the farmers plowing the fields using the traditional method of riding a plow behind two yaks. The rest of the trip was uneventful and we passed the time singing along to Hamilton. 

Around 4pm we arrived at the “off the beaten path” town of Sakya. Around the 11th century, Sayka was a regional powerhouse and built an impressive fortress like monastery. Of course, we were going to visit that the next morning when the chapels will be open (most are closed around 12:30 each day). After settling into our 2-star hotel, we set off for our now afternoon pattern, hiking a kora around the smaller northern monastery. 

Once again, we were mini celebrities with locals waving and in some cases asking to be in photos with us. 20 minutes into our hike it began to thunder and rain lightly, but we were unfazed. It rained for 20 minutes and then stopped. Given how dry it is in Tibet (it is a high desert after all!) all of our clothes were dry by the time we finished our hike.

Back at the hotel around 7pm we decided to have a family night of dinner and Uno. Nyima joined us for dinner and cards and was a ringer winning her first time around! At 9pm, Tom went out to explore the town as Sue helped the kids get into bed. By 10pm (our new bedtime) everyone was asleep. 

After 5 days, we gave got our Tibetian travel pattern down cold!

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