Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Europe’s Worst Airport?

16 January 08

Having recently run the travel gauntlet and sworn like a sailor over security, I’m pleased to discover I had the good fortune to transit through some of the best airports in Europe – Madrid’s Barajas airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

I’ve always known that Schiphol is an amazing place. I’ve been flying through there for 15 years! Barajas, on the other hand, seemed poorly designed to me. Anyway, Barajas is nothing like London’s Heathrow, which wins top prize as Europe’s worst airport. Heathrow should be avoided at any cost. Read the NY Times article and the comments to get the full picture.

Happy Traveling!

Advertisements

It Seems

2 January 08

I spoke too soon!

The DH and I have decided to return to China for an additional 3 months. I’ve come to realize that China has woven a magic chain around our ankles, sort of like the one in Stardust, and no matter what, we somehow find our way back there.  We are still planning on moving somewhere new, we’ve just delayed it a bit… We should be back in Qingdao on the 15th, after a stopover in Hong Kong.

For the last few days my in-law’s house has been full of people – the DH’s brother and sisters and their kids, cousins, and an uncle. We had a full table for New Year’s Eve dinner and it was a lot of fun. More stories to come now that the house is quiet again and I have time to sit down and think! (And I’m finally over the jet lag – it was awful!!)

Happy New Year!

I Should Be Happy

30 December 07

But I’m not. I’m on vacation. I’m in a beautiful country. I’m surrounded by family. I’m not happy. I love traveling, I just hate the actual traveling part. I’ve passed through 7 airports in the last few days. I’ve spent hours on airplanes and hours in airports, and I’m not happy. I’m angry. I’m pissed off that those of us who choose to support airline companies and airport economies by flying the so-called friendly skies must endure ridiculous security measures made to make the human race “feel” more secure, when they do nothing but cause grief, anger and delays. And oh yea, by the way, they don’t actually do anything to make us more secure.

I’ve been going over and over in my head exactly how to write these feelings and thoughts. Imagine my surprise when I open the New York Times website today and find an editorial that exactly expresses my frustration. Patrick Smith writes an aviation column for Salon.com and it is always right on. His NYT editorial should be required reading. We’ve got to do something about this airport situation, it is beyond reasonable! If I hear one more person say something along the lines of, “We have to endure it, because it is for our security!” I’m gonna scream! Wrong!!

An excerpt:

Six years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, airport security remains a theater of the absurd. The changes put in place following the September 11th catastrophe have been drastic, and largely of two kinds: those practical and effective, and those irrational, wasteful and pointless.

Indeed, the security measures I have endured over the last few days, (remove your coat! remove your belt! remove your shoes! remove your laptop! keep moving! bla bla bla), were definitely of the irrational, wasteful and pointless variety. I would, as one airport security agent suggested, avoid flying, but it is kind of impossible in my situation. Is there any sanity left in the world?

Tai Shan Sunrise

19 December 07

Tai Shan

Tai Shan Sunrise
Mt. Tai, China Dec 2007

For more Wordless Wednesday see here.

Commune by the Great Wall

17 December 07

Looking for some swank at the Great Wall? Try Commune by the Great Wall by Kempinski Hotels. Definitely that is a new definition for the word commune. Looks pretty luxe to me. The hotel features villas designed by 12 Asian architects. There are suites as well as standard and deluxe rooms. While I don’t usually stay at ritzy, expensive hotels, this one is worth it for the design alone.

They have Christmas and New Year’s packages starting at 1588 RMB per night. ($215 or 150 Euro)

And no, this is not an advertisement! I just like the way this place looks!

Conquering Tai Shan

12 December 07

In the steps of the emperors…

We start our climb at 9 PM from the base of Mt. Tai in the city of Tai An. It is dark and cold. I’m worried about freezing, so I wear a lot of layers. Five layers, in fact. Thirty minutes into the climb, I’ve stripped down to three. The imperial route up Mt. Tai is lined with steps and whew! I work up quite a sweat!

DSC02080.JPG
I’m tired!

We can’t see a thing, so we just clomp along in the dark. Eventually, our eyes adjust to the darkness and we can make out the outline of stairs ahead (never ending stairs!). Of course, we are instantly blinded anytime we approach a shop or temple that has a light on. We stop at one temple to light some incense and my friends pray for prosperity.

DSC02184.JPG
A tame staircase

We are among only a handful of climbers. They say during national holidays the mountain is full of people. The solitude and quiet are great for reflection. The stars overhead are brilliant.

DSC02076.JPG
Wendy & Ivy

At midnight, we reach the half-way point. We are cold, hungry and tired. Sunrise will be at 7 AM. We decide a nap would be a good idea. We check into a small hostel for a few hours sleep. The beds are hard, the room is cold.

DSC02100.JPG
DH makes a friend

At 5 AM we are up again, groggy and grumpy. The hardest part of the climb is straight ahead.

DSC02156.JPG
Stairway to heaven?

My friends, who are all 5 to 7 years younger than I, bound up the steps. The DH and I plod along slow and steady. The trail is not particularly strenuous, but it is good to pace yourself.

DSCN2418.JPG
My Chinese pose

There is ice and snow on the ground all around us. We can hear it crunching under our feet.

DSC02119.JPG

The stairs seem never ending as we get closer and closer to the top. Slowly, the sky brightens.

DSCN2398.JPG
Azure Cloud Temple on the summit

At 6:30 AM we reach the top of the hellish staircase (Actually, it is the staircase to heaven!) We’re almost to the summit.

DSCN2416.JPG
1400 meters, 100 more to go

Another 10 minutes and we are settled in on some big boulders to wait for the sunrise. Crowds begin to gather around us. Everyone is wearing army style coats – thick and green – to keep warm. It is windy and brutally cold. I notice quite a few ladies are wearing high heeled boots. I assume they’ve just woken up and left their hotel rooms to view the sunrise. (Although I observe some intrepid climbers in high heels later.)

DSCN2394.JPG

Just after 7 AM the sun pokes through the clouds. We all ooh and aah. Airplanes pass by, leaving contrails across the sky. We can just make out the trail we have climbed, through the clouds below us.

DSC02012.JPG

We begin our descent (too cold to linger at the top) and almost instantly we feel the effects of our climb – soreness! Our knees are screaming!

DSCN2404.JPG
Jo-Jo, DH, me, Wendy & Ivy

Looking down the mountain at all the steps we’ve climbed, we all agree it was a brilliant idea to walk up in the dark. If we’d seen what was ahead of us, I’m not sure we could have continued!

DSCN2414.JPG
It’s a long way down!

The walk down is fun, but long. We stop every few meters to pose for photos and to admire the views we missed on the way up. We pass lots of stone carvings and small temples.

DSC02145.JPG
Jo-Jo

The mountain is covered in cypress trees and boulders. It all looks straight out of a traditional Chinese painting.

DSCN2451.JPG

By the half-way point, we are starting to wonder if taking the cable car/bus down would have been a better idea.

DSCN2455.JPG
Ivy touches heaven

When we’ve reached the base, our knees are destroyed, our legs are sore, and we are starving. But we’ve had a blast! After lunch, we’re on our way back to Linyi (and bed!).

DSCN2443.JPG
Piece of cake!

13,000 Steps Later

8 December 07

It was a crazy idea…but I enjoyed it. I’m in bed now, eating ibuprofens and feeling sorry for myself. I’m sure I’ll be able to walk again at some point later this weekend.

Even my mouse finger is sore, so pics will come soon.

DSCN2396.JPG

We made it!
Sunrise at the top of Mount Tai
Freezing!

Wish Me Luck

7 December 07

While you are tucked safely into your beds this evening, I shall be climbing a 5,000 ft mountain.

Tai Shan 泰山, or Mount Tai, is one of the five famous mountains of China. It has been recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. It is located a few hours northwest of Linyi in Shandong Province. The route up the mountain is made up of almost 7000 steps and is dotted with small temples. Some info here, here and here.

We’ve been wanting to make this trip for a long time now, but for some reason we decided to wait until Winter. It should be close to 0℃ during the night, probably below the higher we get. We’ll climb at night so we can be at the summit for sunrise.

I guess I will know if this is a crazy idea or not in a few hours! See ya after the climb!

Fish Tales

11 November 07

Mui Ne & Phan Thiet are fishing villages. Everyday we ate seafood at least once – fish bbq, seafood soup, fried squid, etc… (I’m drooling.) But the biggest export and most important local product is Nuoc Mam – fish sauce. Sometimes you can smell it in the air – the odor of drying and fermenting fish. It really wasn’t as bad as I’d read it was going to be. The smell of fermenting fish might make you gag, but to me it smelled like the sea. And fish sauce is so yummy who cares what it smells like! If you buy fish sauce, check the label, it might just be from Phan Thiet!

One day when there was no wind, we hired a motorbike and drove ourselves through Mui Ne Village and Phan Thiet City. We saw a lot of drying fish.

DSCN2132.JPG

Mui Ne Village fishing boat fleet

DSCN2138.JPG

Fishing baskets – used like small boats for fishing/setting nets out

DSCN2139.JPG

Baskets used for carrying fish

DSCN2137.JPG

Drying fish in Mui Ne Village

Driving down the windy streets of Phan Thiet, we were sure we’d get lost. But we didn’t, and somehow we ended up at the fishing docks. (Must be the DH’s homing mechanism, since he grew up next to the sea.)

DSCN2173.JPG

Narrow streets in Phan Thiet – usually filled with motorbikes

Contrary to what you might think, the fishing docks do not smell like fish. The fish here is fresh off the boats and fresh fish doesn’t smell. (Try saying that out loud three times.) There was a flurry of activity here, with some workers unloading the fish from the boats, some loading the fish into crates, others separating the crated fish by type into piles, and some arranging the fish onto drying racks. Some of the fish was packed with ice and carted off for shipping somewhere else.

DSCN2180.JPG

On the Phan Thiet fishing docks

DSCN2182.JPG

Fresh fish on drying racks

Further down the dock we came across a huge open pavilion where hundreds of people, mostly women, were cleaning and gutting thousands of small fish. And no, it didn’t smell there, either.

DSCN2186.JPG

We stopped to take a look for a few minutes when the DH spotted a food vendor. The DH is the king of street food. I’ve seen him eat more street food in more places than any non-local should. Once, I watched in horror as he ate barbecued mystery meat, cooked on a makeshift barbecue pit made from a tire rim, in the dark at 2 AM in San Jose, Costa Rica. That was before my street food adventure days really got started. He’s actually been sick only once in the entire eight years I’ve known him.

This street food vendor was selling Ban My – baguette sandwiches filled with…well, we’re not sure, but they can have just about anything inside. We used to eat them in Toronto’s Chinatown. The Toronto version cost $1 and had a filling of something like bologna and cheese. The real version was incredible. It contained boiled egg, cilantro, fish?, and a spicy-vinegary sauce.

DSCN2189.JPG

The banh my lady

The ladies in the fish pavilion just went crazy over my white feet. At least, I think that was what they were going on about. They kept pointing at my toes (I was wearing sandals) and calling their friends over to see. Like most Asians, Vietnamese women like to stay as white as possible. I might spend the rest of my life in Asia just so I don’t have to be chastised over my white skin ever again. (I don’t tan, people! I just don’t!!)

She was also selling these steamed dumplings wrapped in leaves. Again, we have no idea what they were made out of, but they were yummy. In fact, every kind of Vietnamese food I tried was delicious. (And no, I didn’t try any of those half-egg, half-baby chicken things.)

DSCN2187.JPG

Steamed dumplings

Fishing is a way of life there, just as it is in thousands of cultures across the world.

DSCN2307.JPG

Locals and fisherman pulling in nets on Mui Ne Beach

No War, Just Wind

9 November 07

So what did I see? I saw people going about their lives just as people do the world over. And a lot of motorbikes!

It’s not like I expected to see barb wire, mines and land scarred by napalm or agent orange (although evidently you can find that in the DMZ and other areas)… In fact, the only ones who think much about the war are the visiting American tourists. That’s right. For the Vietnamese, the war is pretty much behind them. And why wouldn’t they want to leave it in the past? They’ve got a bright future.

We chose to visit Phan Thiet and Mui Ne Beach not because it was the site of some fierce fighting in ’68** (rumor is there are still mines at nearby LZ Betty) but because Mui Ne Beach is one of the best sites in Southeast Asia for Kitesurfing.

There you have it. Our vacation was not a journey to discover the Vietnamese psyche. Nothing high minded at all. It was a chance to withdraw from reality and practice some fun water sports. (At least for the DH. Those of you who know me know that “water” and “fun” are not words I often use together. I’m terrified of putting my head under water, but I am getting better.)

Mui Ne Beach is a very long, half moon shaped bay that receives a fairly consistent wind 45 degrees to the beach, which is perfect for wind sports like windsurfing and kitesurfing. The wind is almost always good, except for the exact 12 days which we were there. Of course. We chose to visit during a sort of dead zone between the two big wind seasons. Who knew?!

Nevertheless, there was enough wind a few days for the DH to learn kitesurfing techniques and skills, which are a little different from those used for kiteskiing on snow/ice.

DSCN2230.JPG

DSCN2241.JPG

Ivan and Instructor Steve setting up the kite and getting it in the air.

DSCN2206.JPG DSCN2237.JPG

The scene on the beach in front of Jibes, the water sports
center and restaurant/beach front lounge.

DSCN2278.JPG

Ivan in the water (on the right)

DSCN2277.JPG

The view down the beach – a light kiting day.

I kind of suspect that for the rest of our lives, our vacations and living arrangements will somehow be associated with good kitesurfing locations… 🙂

**LZ Betty is located south of Phan Thiet. We did not visit because the area supposedly contains buried ordinance, grenades and mines left over from the war. What was at one time a narrow ditch beside the runway has now eroded into a huge canyon, potentially exposing some of the ordinance. There is also talk of “quicksand” in the canyon. So we stayed away. Others, however, have braved the area and have the photos to prove it (along with photos taken circa 1968-1971). See LZ Betty, Rolando’s Photos, Currahees and the Battle of LZ Betty. For photos of Phan Thiet during the war see Photos & Notes of a Very Personal War (Let the page load and scroll to the bottom to see a large collection of photos. Warning – there are some shots of deceased VC soldiers.)