Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Days 150-???: Philadelphia, USA

We’re going to spend the rest of the summer in Philadelphia, living with Mary’s parents for a bit while we rebuild our savings accounts and rest up from a tiring journey. It won’t quite be all leisure time, since we need to find a place to stay in Pasadena and get our stuff out there (which Monica and Gif have VERY graciously stored in their basement while we’ve been gone!). Plus I will continue contracting over the next several months and need to find a permanent position in the LA area (if you know of interesting startups out there, give me a holler). Not to mention that we have quite a bit of travel still to come this summer: 1 graduation, 4 weddings, 1 Bar Mitzvah, and 1 family reunion. But our circle around the pacific is complete, and so is this blog.

If you ever have any questions about the trip, please feel free to ask. I’ve acquired mad trip planning skills through booking all of this! Only one travel agent was used during the entire trip, and that was because you can’t book flights on Vietnam Airlines over the web. A big thanks to Lonely Planet, Wikitravel, Wikipedia, and Google for all the help! Thanks also to our parents for helping provide logistics at home (dealing with mail, helping with taxes, etc)!

We’ll be up in Boston at least a couple times this summer to see everyone there, we miss you all!

How we travelled

Modes of transportation:
  • Planes
  • Trains
  • Automobiles (taxis, private cars)
  • Subways
  • Monorails
  • Buses
  • Tuk Tuks
  • Motorbikes
  • Bicycles
  • Cyclos
  • Ferries
  • Longtail boats
  • Double-decker bus
  • Escalator (Hong Kong)
  • Trams
  • Van
  • Maglev
  • Elephant
  • Horse

What we skipped (due to lack of money usually):

  • Helicopters
  • Dune buggies
  • Submarines
  • Cable Cars


We built up pretty good carbon footprint from all of our travels that we'll be trying to offset as we rebuild our savings a bit. We flew over 36000 miles during the trip and drove (mostly in New Zealand) almost 3000 miles. I can't calculate our emissions from hotels, buses, trains, and other assorted transportation, but from everything I can include, we generated around 41,000 pounds of Carbon Dioxide during the trip.

Debriefing

By Mary

In case any of you are planning a similar trip, I have prepared a list of what you might want to take. Everything on this list we used during our trip, or really wished we had. Thanks to the people at OneBag for helping us build this list!

  • A great backpack
  • Daypack
  • Travel locks
  • Nice sewing kit
  • Earplugs
  • Eye mask
  • Heating pad or hot water bottle
  • 2 long sleeved travel shirts
  • 2 quick drying T-shirts
  • 2 pairs convertible nylon travel pants
  • Swimsuit/goggles/swim cap
  • 6 pairs of cotton underwear
  • 6 pairs cotton socks (thin)
  • 2 sports bras or 2 undershirts with built-in bra*
  • Hat
  • Running sandals
  • Walking shoes
  • Fleece jacket
  • Waterproof shell
  • Ibuprofen (hard to get in Asia)
  • Anti-diarrheal medication
  • Ciprofloxacin (prescription)
  • Waterproof bandages and band-aids
  • Sunscreen
  • Antihistamines
  • Insect repellant (DEET-based)
  • Anti-malarials (prescription)
  • Toiletries
  • Liquid lysol or other disinfectant
  • Rubber or latex gloves
  • Mosquito net
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Travel clothesline
  • Rubber doorstop
  • Flashlight/headlamp
  • Travel bath/sink plug (for washing clothes)
  • Compass
  • Glasses AND contacts (if needed)
  • That stuff you put under your nose to block out bad smells
  • Bed sheet or thin sleeping cocoon
  • Neosporin (bacitracin/neomycin antibacterial ointment)
  • Tampons (for the whole trip)*
  • Towel (thin, with lots of surface area)
  • Books that you can read at least three times
  • Crossword or Sudoku books
  • A small laptop if possible
  • Universal travel adaptor
  • Digital camera + extra battery, memory, and waterproof case
  • Cell phone with world-wide GSM card
  • Passport (with all the visas you need)
  • Credit cards (preferably both MasterCard and Visa)
  • ATM cards (preferably both Plus and Cirrus)
  • Travelers Checks (we only used 1 the entire trip, but still a good backup)
  • Security pouch
  • Copies of all important documents and numbers

(* most men don’t use these)

Things we should have packed:

  • More ibuprofen
  • Hot water bottle
  • Latex gloves
  • Another camera
  • Lysol
  • That stuff you put under your nose to block out bad smells

American things for which we are grateful:

  • Friends and family (that we can see!)
  • Legible road signs
  • Twinkies
  • Potable tap water
  • Cable television
  • Reliable plumbing
  • Trash pickup
  • Clean streets and sidewalks
  • Not looking conspicuously wealthy
We were able to fit all of this into our 2 REI Vagabond Travel Packs, two small daypacks, and one small travel tote. Ideally we'd have avoided the travel tote, but weren't quite able to fit everything in the two bags. It's hard to find room for presents!

5 months is a long time. You’ll be really glad to come home. :-)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Days 144-149: Los Angeles, USA

We stopped in LA for a few days on our way back to visit with my family for a bit. My sister Rachel and her husband Bruce graciously hosted us (in high style) for a few days and put up with us while we switched our sleep schedules around (raiding their kitchen at 4am!) and readjusted to being back in civilization. My parents joined us in LA and we were able to spend Mother’s Day with them, then the following day attended an awards ceremony for Rachel and Bruce honoring all their work with their temple and greater community. It was a great transition back to US, but also still felt like traveling a bit, since we were stilling living out of our backpacks. We’re excited about getting back to Philadelphia and being able to wear more than just the clothes we were able to fit into our two backpacks!

We’re going to do a couple last posts with epilogues, but this marks the end of the trip! It’s been wonderful, crazy, and entirely impossible to summarize. We’re really glad we wrote this blog, since it’s helped us remember what we’ve done! It’s amazing, but after five months of travel (nearly to the day) a lot of the trip blends together and it’s easy to transpose memories from one country to another. All of the photos have helped too, we’re really sad that the camera died towards the end, but at least we had it for most of the trip. Thanks for all the supportive comments about the blog, it’s been great to hear from people and get feedback about the writing and photos. We can’t wait to see you all!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Days 142-143: Osaka, Japan

Our original plan for Japan was to fly into Osaka, then visit Kyoto, Nara, Nikko, and fly out of Tokyo. We cut that down to the bare minimum of flying into Kyoto, taking the train to Tokyo, and then flying out. We spent an extra day in Osaka to avoid the rush at the end of Golden Week, but otherwise spent no more time here than was required. It’s really a shame, since it’s a beautiful country that we’ve both been really excited about visiting. But we’ll come back and do it properly when we can, hopefully soon!

We made the best of what time we had in Osaka. We arrived late one evening and immediately headed out for food. We were staying near the Umeda train station which had a large selection of places to eat and picked a sushi place that was both popular and affordable. The food was superb! Not surprisingly, it was some of the freshest, tastiest sushi we’ve ever had. What was surprising was that the prices were in-line with a mid-price sushi restaurant in Boston; we ended up spending about $40 for a dinner for two, including a beer for me. We had a great time watching all the young Japanese kids walking around, gawking left and right as one costume more intricate and colorful than the next was paraded by. Gone is the fear of sticking out and the prohibitions on showing too much skin that we saw in the rest of Asia. Micro-skirts (sometimes with stockings underneath, sometimes without), princess outfits, goth get-ups, punk stylings, and many outfits I can’t start to describe were all quite popular.

The next day we woke up early, bought our train tickets for the following day, and then went out walking and exploring. We stopped by the huge Yodobashi Camera store to see seven floors of technology for sale. After getting our fill of gadgets not available in the states, we moved on to Shinsaibashi area, a huge shopping area for Japanese clothes, accessories, and other odds and ends. This area, like many of the others in Osaka, is comprised of a combination of streets and long covered alleys. When we got hungry, we walked to the neighboring Dotonbori district, filled entirely with restaurants and street vendors. We had some superb noodles, breaded octopus, and several other great dishes. The people watching was extraordinary! It was also fun seeing all the Pachinko parlors and vending machines with strange contents.

On the final day of our trip, we woke up early and took the Shinkansen Nozomi bullet train to Tokyo then another train directly to Narita airport. The train ride was a lot of fun, since we got to pass by Kyoto, Mt Fuji, a dozen nuclear reactors, and probably a hundred golf courses. Even moving at three hundred kilometers per hour, you can still see a lot of scenery and get a decent feel for what the country looks like. Certainly much more than you can from a plane!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Days 137-141: Beijing, China

By Mary

Three things one cannot avoid noticing in Beijing are: the smog, the Olympic fervor, and political situation.

Smog

I cannot overstate how bad the air quality is in Beijing. You cannot see clouds or blue skies anywhere (except after a rainstorm). The city is covered in a thick, overcast haze. The air doesn’t smell or anything, it is just harder to breathe here than in any place I’ve ever been. LA does not compare. I can’t stay outside very long, except in the places that have a lot of trees; they make a noticeable difference. Is it possible to be allergic to pollution? The smog and pollution don’t affect Dave as much, so he’s been the intrepid explorer here. Based on how bad the smog is now, it seems unlikely that enough improvements to the air can be made in time for the Olympics. The track and field events might be in trouble.

Olympics

The Olympics are a really big deal to the Chinese, and in Beijing especially. The people here are really excited about getting to host the Olympics – to them it’s a symbol of how far they have come as a nation.

Dave and I went to see Tiananmen Square. In front of the National Museum right across from the square, there is a giant clock counting down to the Opening ceremony of the games. It was extremely crowded when we went; both because of May Day (Labor Day) festivities, and it being exactly 100 days before the start of the Games. There were policemen everywhere, who seemed to be in charge of crowd management. This mostly consisted of blocking passage along the sidewalks, and marching back and forth in front of the Mao Mausoleum. It was really, really strange to see such a huge police presence, but what was even more strange was to see what I assumed to be a large Party presence as well; great crowds of men in matching black suits who seemed to be higher up the chain of command than the uniformed police.

I’ve said that the Beijing Olympics are a source of national pride. The Chinese view their hosting of the Olympics as evidence that they have entered the global stage as equals. Most of the people here appear really happy about the presence of (non-Russian) foreign tourists like me and Dave, as a further sign of China having ‘arrived.’ In aid of this, the Chinese government is making a big effort to ‘get ready’ for the national spotlight. What does that mean? Well, it means getting the public to stop spitting on the ground, severely restricting smoking in public places, and emergency efforts to reduce the heavy smog in the air. There is even talk of shutting down factories in nearby towns to improve the air quality.

Politics

I suspect that the average Chinese person has no real understanding of the West’s objections to the Chinese government’s human rights record. In Hong Kong, Shanghai, and here, the people have been very proud of the Olympics and what it symbolizes to them. When the Western protests against the Beijing Olympics are reported here, they are reported as anti-Chinese demonstrations, and there is no mention of Tibet except as troublemakers or terrorists. If there are any significant protests during the Games, I doubt that the protesters will be warmly received by the locals.

One gets the impression that the Chinese government agreed to the reforms suggested by the IOC because it was what the IOC wanted to hear, and had little intention of actually implementing the reforms. For instance, the ethical treatment of “dissenters,” environmental improvements, and press freedoms, are probably not going to happen. And when those things don’t happen, there will most likely be more negative press for the Chinese government and the IOC. After the Olympic torch PR nightmare, the Beijing Olympics doesn’t need anymore bad press.

Overall, I am doubtful that Beijing is ready for the worldwide scrutiny that is to come. Practically speaking, accommodation near the Olympic complex is pretty scarce, and there don’t appear to be good, fast transportation options across the city. (For instance, the Olympic Stadium subway stop doesn’t exist, yet, and will have to be built in less than one hundred days.) Also, the spitting, smog and pollution are extremely off-putting, and the large police presence can be intimidating. It’s a bit sad, because I actually really like the city, and I empathize with the Chinese people’s pride in their country. The food is outstanding, and the people are incredibly friendly and helpful, and genuinely excited about re-entering the national stage. At the very least, one can safely predict that the Beijing Olympics will be interesting.

By Dave:

The Forbidden City and Summer Palace are both wonderful, just as much fun as when I visited them as a kid. We didn’t make it to the Great Wall since it was pouring rain and freezing the day we intended to go. I met a really nice German man named Daniel and spent a day walking around the city with him. We visited Jingshan park, which overlooks the Forbidden City, but whose view is much diminished by all the smog – you can’t even see half a mile through it! I also visited some of the new architectural icons of the city, including the National Swimming Center, the National Stadium, as well as the National Grand Theater, and the new CCTV building.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Days 132-136: Shanghai, China

We’ve decided to cut the remainder of our trip a bit shorter than originally planned, removing several destinations in China and Japan from the itinerary. We’re running out of time, energy, and money, all at the same time. It’s been a wonderful trip, but all things must come to an end. China is so huge that we were never going to do a very full job of it, but instead of visiting Guilin and Xi’an like originally planned, we’re going straight to Shanghai. Then will pass through Beijing briefly and home via Japan. Due to the nature of our tickets, we can change the dates of our flights but not the itinerary, so we’ll still be flying back through Japan but not spending any real time there.

Shanghai has always been China’s most westernized city and the architecture of the Bund area clearly reflects that. Built in the early part of the century, this strip of buildings along the Huangpu River are straight out of Europe and America. You can see Art Deco masterpieces, Neo-Classical and Gothic buildings standing next to one another. This area has been heavily redeveloped recently, restoring the buildings to their former glory and installing in them the latest fashion houses out of France and Italy. Across the river is Pudong, the financial center of China, with its crazy architecture and neon lights. Along the river on the Shanghai side is a river walk that was so crowded every time we tried to walk along it that we eventually decided it wasn’t worth it, no matter how nice the views might be.

Along with the architecture, Shanghai also embraced capitalism from the West early on. Although this meant that it was a second class city for many years, snubbed by the Communist leadership, Shanghai has now reemerged as the financial and commercial center of China. Walking down Nanjing or Huaihai roads, no one can doubt how thoroughly China has opened up to capitalism. Amazingly, the crackdown on illegal knockoffs of western goods seems to be making a difference. Although people will still grab you on the street and offer bootleg DVDs and jeans, the infamous Xiangyang Lu Market has been shut down and hasn’t reopened, as have most of the stores containing similar goods. In their places are stores like Li Ning, featuring shoes, clothing, and sports stars all copied directly from Nike. Even their symbol is very swoosh-like. Shockingly, the prices at Li Ning are also very Nike-esque, leaving me wondering what their competitive advantage is supposed to be.

After how good the Hong Kong Art Museum was, we didn’t have very high expectations for the Shanghai Art Museum. But given the glowing recommendations we figured it was worth a shot, especially since it’s free. Much to our surprise, the quality of works there was even higher than those in Hong Kong, and there was so much on display that we had to come back a second day in order to see everything. The display on the clothing and ceremonial wear of the ethnic minorities was beautiful, although it certainly felt duplicitous to praise their arts while suppressing their culture and religion. Such thoughts came to mind frequently, such as when walking down Tibet road or having the Great Firewall disrupt our web surfing.

Despite what the guidebooks said, Shanghai proved to be a nice walking city. There is a long stretch of public parks along one of the main east-west thoroughfares, there are large sidewalks in most parts of the city, and there is even a section of the city with nice cafes. You have to be careful of people spitting (still a national pastime), and the beggars have unusual tactics (yanking on your arm and shouting “MONEY”), but it’s a pleasant city to explore.