5 Stan/Caucus tour: Almaty, Kazakhstan & Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 2017 & 2019

Part 1: Almaty, Kazakhstan (October 4 -9 & October 14-18 of 2017; July 4-8 of 2019 )

Mountains above Almaty

I have visited Almaty twice by plan and once by necessity.  My first visit to Almaty was for a few days rest after six weeks of continuous travel thru Sweden, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia, and China and to begin an eight-country tour of Central Asia and the Caucuses along the famed Silk Road.  On my first visit, I spent the first 4 days exploring the city on my own and the final day on the first day of my planned group tour.  And quite frankly, if ancient history and culture is your interest you probably ought to skip this city.

The only pre-Soviet building I came across in all of Almaty was the Zenkov Cathedral built-in 1904.  

The Cathedral is still a functioning Russian Orthodox Church.  Unfortunately, the building was undergoing a major facelift during my visit and the scaffolding and plastic coverings seriously detracted from the wooden Cathedral’s obvious charm and beauty.  But the interior and frescos were still worth the visit.

The Zenkov is situated on the edge of the very pretty Panfiov Park and just across from the city’s spectacular Green Market.  The park has lots of large old shade trees and the stroll amongst them is very peaceful and relaxing.  There is a large Soviet-era bronze statue of Communist propaganda featuring a wall of bigger than life angry World War II Soviet soldiers charging out of the statue’s base prepared to bayonet women and children.  It seems out of place in such a quiet and peaceful park.

Almaty’s Green Market was the highlight of my planned and scheduled Almaty stop in 2017.  Vendors from all over Central Asia bring fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts, spices cheeses, honey, clothes and household goods to sell. The produce, meats, and dairy is all fresh from the farm and the prices are very fair.  The place is alive with aggressive sales pitches and eager but haggling customers. 

Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments

There is a small museum on the edge of Panfiov Park near the entrance of the Market worth a visit for an hour or so.  The Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments was the highlight of my second and unscheduled visit to Almaty.  The museum has amassed an interesting collection of Central Asian Musical Instruments.  The collection runs the gamut from strange to exotic with a few rare traditional instruments.

Arasan Baths in Almaty

One very cool thing I did all three times I visited Almaty planned or unplanned is spend one afternoon during each trip visiting the Arasan Baths.  These baths are the largest in all Central Asia for sure and maybe all of Asia.  Built during the Soviet Era this enormous marble structure takes up an entire city block.  The baths have everything a man or woman might need or want for an afternoon of relaxing, sweating, soaking, flogging yourself with birch branches, being scrubbed, massaged and polished before enjoying a nice glass of wine or beer.

There are separate facilities for men and women and the only place the sexes intersect is in the coffee shop/bar after their sessions.  As you walk in the imposing marble building you can stop and buy a traditional felt sauna hat and birch limbs complete with dried leaves for flogging your back, chest, buttocks, and legs while in the sauna.  Once inside a cashier will rent you towels, locker, rubber clogs, and charge your wrist band with all the services you wish to indulge in.  From there you enter the large locker room and change to begin your treatments. 

The Arasan has Turkish Steam Baths, Russian Banyas, and Swedish Saunas to choose from.  I, of course, chose all three just to be able to evaluate the differences.  Without question, the Russian Banya is the hottest temperature-wise and this seems to be where all the self-floggers hang out.  One interesting and shocking custom they have – is that after you can not possibly stand one more minute in the bath/sauna/banya there are a bunch of large wooden buckets suspended from the ceiling outside the hot rooms with ropes hanging down from the handles.

As you come out of the lobster pot you grab the rope and give it a yank.  You are then immediately dunked with 5 or 10 gallons of ice-cold water which sucks the air from your lungs, the strength from your legs and heat form your skin all within a nanosecond.  And then you are ready to go back for more boiling in the lobster pot. There are also several pools available for swimming or just soaking but I passed on those options, and grabbed a quick shower and presented myself to the massage room for a body scrub and deep tissue massage. 

The massage facilities and personal are unlike any I have come across before or since.  First of all, all massages are conducted in one large long tile room.  Every surface in the room is tile including what passes for massage tables.  The massage tables are simply large slabs of concrete covered in 4-inch tiles and you lie naked directly on the hard tiles for both scrubs and massages.  There are 8 or 10 slabs all in a row with no dividers for privacy – everything is out in the open in one large communal room. 

The second thing that is different is the people providing the massages.  They are young men that look to range between 18 and 30 wearing only very small tight swimming trunks from the 1950s or 60s.  All the boys just hang around toward the front of the tile room until their number is called and they go to work on some old fat guy like me.  I confess the first time felt a little awkward but in time I got used to it and the guys really do give a great deep tissue massage.

Once your massage is complete then it is back to the showers, street clothes, cashier, and bar for a nice cold beverage.  A great way to spend an afternoon before changing for the local pub for dinner and a night out.  And, in fact, this brings me to the best reason to visit Almaty.  The nightlife!  Even though this is a predominantly Muslim nation these people are secular and know how to party.  And Almaty has some great English style pubs that serve great food, offer a variety of good cold beers on draft, and live music on the weekends.  Whether you choose the Guinness’, Shakespeare’s, Mad Murphy’s or any of the other many fine pubs in Almaty you will have a good time. 

Pubs in Almaty

My introduction to the Pub scene was on my first night in town in 2017.  I was finishing dinner on the restaurant side as the band started up on the bar side.  Deciding what the hell, I don’t have to be up early to catch a flight or train I entered a packed pub with a decent band and a crowded dance floor.  I managed to find a spot at the bar and ordered a local beer and began watching the crowd cut loose on a Saturday night.  After a while, I hear a deep woman’s voice say “Why you so boring” I turned around to see a somewhat small-framed younger woman with the deep voice and asked, “You talking to me?”  She repeated, “Yes, why you so boring” Incredulous, I asked, “Why would you think I am boring?”

Which she answered by crossing her arms while making an exaggerated and comical frown with her face.  “You just sit here all night like this – you say nothing to nobody.”  And in my defense, I replied, “What the hell am I supposed to do I don’t speak Kazaki and no one here speaks English.”  That’s when she reminded me we were speaking in English.  And the big Russian guy sitting next to me at the bar nudged me and said in a booming voice “I f__king speak English.” Then the three-cute young local girls sitting on my other side started giggling and said in unison“ we speak English!” Then a guy from somewhere behind us with an Aussie accent said, “Hey mate I Speak English” and finally someone else pipes in “hell I am English.”

Bottom line – I had been sitting in a pub for two hours drinking beer, enjoying just watching the crowd and enjoying the show without saying a word to anyone afraid to start a conversation that would end in pantomime only to find out everyone in this city speaks some English.  The rest of the night was a blur because suddenly I had become part of the pub family and everyone wanted to buy me a beer or vodka.

Needless to say, I checked out other pubs during the remainder of my first stay in Almaty and when I ran into trouble between the Tajik and Uzbeki border (I will explain this cluster f__k in my next blog) and had to seek refuge back in Almaty for a week – back to the pubs I came.  I won’t bore you with all the details but will share one funny and bizarre experience.  When I flew back into Almaty from Tajikistan with only the clothes on my back and a day pack (all my clothes and most of my money was trapped in a hotel room in Tashkent, Uzbekistan) – the first thing I did was go shopping for some fresh clothes (had been in the same clothes for 3 days), the second place I went was the Guinness Pub.  And after way too many beers my friend Gulmira (You so boring) took me to a disco at 3 am where I could easily have been every person there’s grandfather!

As you might expect after too many beers at some point nature calls.  As I stood at a trough like urinal and began to lighten my load my eyes focused on the mirror in front of me and realized I wasn’t seeing my face in the mirror.  I blinked a couple of times, shook my head and tried to figure out what the hell I was seeing.  Slowly my mind cleared and I realized I was watching women in the lounge part of the ladies’ room fixing themselves up looking into the backside of the mirror I was looking at them thru.  The large mirror above the sinks in the ladies’ lounge was two way.  Men using the urinal to relieve themselves either had to watch women applying their lipstick, combing their hair, adjusting their bras ect… or close their eyes and risk missing the urinal and pissing down their pant leg.  A serious dilemma.  That’s when I decided it was time to go back to my hotel and act my age. Lol

Why I don't recommend Medeu Ice Rink & Kok-Tobe Hill?

One last point about Almaty before I tell you about Kyrgyzstan – the local tourist board will encourage you to visit the Medeu Ice Rink and the top of Kok-Tobe Hill.  Do not waste your time on either place.  The Medeu Ice Rink is billed as the highest ice skating rink in the world and maybe during the few months of winter it is – but the rest of the year it is drained and basically just a big concrete pit.  Definitely not worth the long drive out of the city to see what Jethro Bodeine (Beverly Hillbillies for you young folks) would call an empty cement pond. 

The Kok-Tobe Hill is billed as a major tourist spot but again is a major disappointment and 1960s style Florida cheesy tourist trap.  There is a cable car that can take you to the top for a panoramic view of the city but it only works some of the time.  I had to take a bus to the top.  The view is nice but not worth the ride and the only other things up there are souvenir shops, broken down kids’ carnival-type rides, photo booths, overpriced café’s and an oddly out of place bronze statue of the Beatles.

But to be honest the real charm of Almaty will not be found in historical sites, museums, or organized cultural tours.  To find the city’s real charm meet the people where they live, work and play – the Green Market, Parks, the Aarsan Spa, and any of the many Pubs scattered throughout the town.  In any of these places, you will run into a strange but friendly assortment of native Kazakis, Russians that never went back to mother Russia after the fall, expat Brits and Aussies all just out for a good time, good beer and good music.  If the old TV show “Cheers” were to take place in a city instead of a bar – it would take place in Almaty!

Part 2: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (October 9-10, 2017)

Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan and was the second Stan on my 5 Stan/Caucus tour. Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous landlocked country settled by nomadic tribes from Siberia in the 13th century.  Before their arrival, the land was controlled by the Karakhanids.  This sparsely populated country has been the center of Asian conquest, trade and empires.  Traders from China, Europe, Persia, India, and Russia all passed thru the ancient cities, traded in the Silk Road Open Air Markets and stayed in the ancient stone caravanserai of Osh and Balasagun

Eventually, by 1867 the land now called Kyrgyzstan became part of Tsarist Russia and was lumped in with the other central Asian Stans to form Turkestan.  After the formation of the Soviet Union Kyrgyzstan became the Krighiz Soviet Socialist Republic.  In 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet State the Republic of Kyrgyzstan became an independent country.

Burana Tower/museum/gravestones

During my brief visit in 2017, I began my tour at the Burana Tower/museum/gravestonesBurana Tower is all that is left of the great 9th Century Silk Road city of Balasagun.  From the top of the tower, you can see for miles across the plains to the Tian Shan Mountains, a few remnants of the old city defensive walls, a small hill of 33 feet believed to hide a temple or palace complex, and some very curious gravestones with interesting markings.  The tower is actually all that is left of an ancient minaret that originally stood 132 feet tall.  After an earthquake in the 15th century only 83 feet were left standing. The tower is decorated with geometric designs in the brickwork and its pattern has been copied throughout Central Asia

You can climb up a very small claustrophobic spiral staircase for a great view of the area from the top of the tower.  The small museum associated with the tower contains a collection of relics and artifacts found around the complex.  Looking down from the top of the tower the most interesting site is a field of gravestones called bal-bals.

These bal-bals were originally used by the local nomads of the 6th century to represent enemies killed in battle.  But over time became memorials to their own departed love ones.  Some are simply pictographs on rounded rocks, others are carved slabs with faces and hands.  I have attached photos of the tower, the view from the top of the tower across grasslands where once stood temples, palaces, caravanserai, workshops, and homes in what was once one of the greatest cities of its time, and the graveyard of bal-bals.

Bishkek’s Open Air Market

Next up after our visit to the Tower was Bishkek’s Open Air Market.  And Bishkek’s Market was just as busy and wide-ranging in products as the markets from Irkutsk to Kashgar to Baku.  Spices, fresh fruits, dried fruits, nuts, vegetables, cheese, diary, meats, clothes, hardware or whatever you can imagine you can find in one of these markets.  

As we drifted from one end of the market to the next our guide challenged the group to taste a glass of Kumis (fermented mares milk).  The rest of the group was less than impressed and the few that tried it turned a little green.  But after drinking way too much Airag (what the Mongolians call their fermented mares milk) at a Mountainside Buddhist festival in Mongolia – I had developed a taste (or at least tolerance) for the tart and foamy alcoholic beverage.

Traditional Kyrgyz dinner

And finally, we sat down to a traditional Kyrgyz dinner in a large yurt.  In my never-ending effort to try every culture’s food and drink, I ordered an appetizer tray of grilled donkey and a horse meat T-Bone Steak.  And no neither tasted like chicken!  The donkey was sort of sweet but tasty and the horse T-Bone Steak was much leaner and stronger than a cow steak but pretty good. 

In fact, the only thing I ate throughout 5 months of travel thru Eastern Europe and Asia in 2017 that I absolutely did not care for was Camel Toe.  Now that was downright nasty!

Camel Toe is the part of the Camel’ hoof inside the hard shell and pad.  It has a consistency of jello if you mixed it with sand and it is served cold with a huge side of whipped cream.  I have been told since that the camel’s hump is very tasty and I look forward to trying that.  But I will never eat camel toe again.  And on that disgusting tidbit of culinary advice, I will conclude this blog and photos are attached from both countries.

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Last stop of China: Xi’an (July 3 -4)

I finished the China portion of my nine-month 36 country adventure in Xi’an because I wanted to try again to see the Terracotta Warriors.  I had also finished the China portion of a Silk Road trip I had taken in the fall of 2017 in Xi’an.  Unfortunately. I chose the wrong week to visit Xi’an in 2017.  Unknown to me at the time – the Chinese celebrate that same week as one of their most important holidays which means no school and no work for 4 bazillion Chinese.  And every Chinese family in all of China chose the day of my visit to see the Terra cotta Warriors.

Xi’an 2017 Wild Goose Pagoda

To say the 2017 visit was chaos and less than worthwhile would be an understatement.  In addition to four bazillions Chinese creating a massive mile long and 15 feet wide scrum spoiling the day – it rained!  So, I was not only shuffling along one six-inch step at a time with 15 person wide rows of shoulder to shoulder (in my case –their shoulders to my waist) people holding umbrellas with the points of the ribs at my eye and ear level.  Additionally, Chinese are used to crowds and no personal space and use their elbows liberally to create a little extra breathing room.

Unfortunately, a 5 foot 2 inch old crone’s elbow reaches the exact wrong spot on a 6 foot 3 inch wide-bodied American.  So, between the umbrella ribs to the face, the elbows to the family jewels and the fact that I never got near the railing of the pits containing the Warriors for a good look and quick photo the day was a major disappointment.

No crowds this time

With the last trip’s disaster in mind, I scheduled my time to be at the site when they opened and on a week day.  The plan worked – we were among the first people there and managed to stay in front of the unwashed masses throughout my tour.  I spent as much time as I wished along the observation railing of all three pits and took as many photos as I wished.

And this trip was very rewarding as I got to see and photograph many of the ranks of warriors in pit one as well as the archeologists reassembling the clay statues.  You probably think as I did that all the warriors were found entirely intact.  And you would be WRONG!

The clay army which includes 8,000 infantrymen – cavalry – archers, 130 horse-drawn chariots, 520 horses and the commanding generals were built by Qin Shi Huang, the 1st Emperor of China in 210-209 BCE to accompany him into the next life.  To ensure no one would disturb his army and leave him defenseless the emperor had everyone associated with the project murdered upon completion to protect his secret.  He must have missed someone because the tomb was discovered, looted and burned.

You might be wondering how clay figures in dirt pits could burn.  They didn’t, the timber roof above them that was then covered in dirt burned.  And as the heavy timbers burned thru the entire roof fell upon the Clay army breaking most into pieces large and small.  Only a very few clay statues were found intact.  In fact, the most famous is known as the kneeling archer and the only reason he survived was because he was kneeling instead of standing.

The archeologists have done an incredible job of piecing thousands of soldiers back together from millions of pieces of clay shards.  The government has also done an incredible job of creating an infrastructure that allows for the orderly viewing of the main pit and two additional smaller buildings containing the best intact figures and relics.

But their work is far from complete.  They still have hundreds of warriors, chariots and horses to reconstruct in the main pit.  Additionally, there are more pits that have not even been opened yet.  And all this massive archeological find laid hidden under a farmer’s field for over one thousand years.  Until his plow unearthed the first small clue as to what was below in 1974 and he carried it to the authorities.  Photos attached.

Xi'an City Wall 2017

But there is more to Xi’an than the Warriors.  The old city is surrounded by an incredibly well preserved great city wall with all its gates intact.  In the center of the old city stands two 13th century towers (the Bell and Drum) that are beautiful pieces of architectural art and a very interesting.  As you might guess the Bell Tower contains a huge bell that was rang at dawn and the Drum Tower contained a huge drum that was beat at dusk. Also in the very center of the old city is the chaotic and crowded Muslim Street Market worth loosing yourself in after dark. 

Xi'an City Wall 2017

Xi'an City Wall 2019

And finally, there is the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda that was built during the reign of Emperor Tang from 649 – 683 and stood 177 feet tall.  The Pagoda originally constructed of mud fell 50 years later and was rebuilt with bricks taller and sturdier but was damaged again by an earthquake in the 13th century.  Today’s pagoda was reconstructed after the earthquake and stands 210 ft tall.

On my 2017 visit, I walked part of the city wall this time I rented a bicycle and rode about half of it on the evening of my arrival.  And yes, I rode atop the city wall.  The wall is easily 10 meters across and provide plenty of room for walkers, cyclists, and even golf cart like little trams for the extremely lazy or unfit.

Murphy Feng, of Wind Horse Tour (https://windhorsetour.com/) selected the perfectly placed hotel for my visit.  The hotel was a short 500-meter walk to the city wall and a short 500 meter walk in the opposite direction to the Bell and Drum Towers and Muslim Street.  The hotel would have been perfect if the damn air conditioning actually worked!

Bell and Drum Towers

Xi'an Muslim Street

Due to some issues accessing the internet in China and a later problem on the Uzbeki border in 2017 I got so far behind on the blogs I just didn’t bother once I got my computer back in Turkmenistan.  I will write one last blog about my 2017 Silk Road adventure from Beijing to Kashgar.  And then as I write my 2019 blogs on Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan I will include things I saw and photos I took in 2017 in these three Stans as well as Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.

2017 and 2019 photos of Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors, City Wall, Drum and Bell Towers, and Muslim Street Market are all attached.

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6 Days in Tibet (June 14 – 19)

Tibet and Nepal have been on my bucket list for over 30 years and this year I will finally visit both.  I spent 6 days in Tibet in June and will spend 16 days in Nepal in the Fall.  My tour of Lhasa, Shigatse and the mountains and lakes between was organized by Murphy Feng of Windhorse Tour of Chengdu (https://windhorsetour.com/).  And, again, she provided me with an excellent itinerary, guide and driver.

Topsang, my Tibetan guide promptly presented me with a white silk Kadhak (welcoming scarf) upon our meeting and I found him to be friendly, knowledgeable, and most accommodating.  In fact, he was a little too zealous in trying to protect me from the effects of altitude.  I know that is his job and most of his clients are not accustomed to the rarified air of Lhasa (11,482 feet above sea level) or certainly not the 16,568 feet above sea level of the viewpoint of the Karolha Glacier we hiked up to.

Eventually, Topsang understood that I was familiar with altitude and its effects on the human body.  After all, I spend my winters in my condo at 9,400 feet and the tops of the mountains I ski daily are about the altitude of Lhasa.  And thru the years I’ve climbed a lot of 14 to 20 thousand foot peaks with no issues from altitude.  So, his constant “slowly slowly” was wasted breath on his part. 

But he was a great guide and companion for 6 days and I hope to see him again soon to visit more of TibetTopsang is a University graduate, part-time guide and part-time nomadic shepherd.  His family are nomads raising 300 yaks and 400 sheep in the far eastern province of Tibet.  

Yaks have been critical to the Tibetan culture for thousands of years.  Yaks provide meat, milk, butter, clothing, material for constructing Yurts and is also the primary beast of burden in the mountains.  They are well suited to grazing at high altitudes and traversing mountain trails.  Sheep and goats also do well at altitude and in cold weather and provide an alternative source of protein and clothing.  The remaining staples of the Tibetan diet include barley, potatoes, onions and garlic which are all grown locally.

 To reach Topsang’s home village from Lhasa requires a day train ride then a 5-hour drive.  His nomadic family lives in a regular house part of the year and a black tent (a waterproof/windproof tent made from tightly woven yak hair) during the grazing months in the high pastures.

Day 1

The first surprise I had was that the Lhasa airport is nowhere near Lhasa.  In fact, the airport is in a totally different city and hour’s drive from Lhasa.  Once we reached Lhasa, Topsang gave me a quick tour of the old city, checked me into the Yak Hotel, gave me a couple of tips for dinner, and suggested I take it easy to rest and not drink any alcohol the rest of the day to adjust to the altitude.

After assuring him I would follow his instructions I waited for him to leave the hotel and then headed over to the Dunya Restaurant and bar for lunch and a nice big mug of cold beer.  The Dunya is owned by a guy from Holland and features both a Tibetan and western menu and is right next to the Yak Hotel.  But the nicest feature to the place is its 2nd story veranda overlooking the main street in Lhasa’s Old Town.  Perfect for catching a nice breeze and people watching.

After a tasty Yak burger, fries, and a Lhasa beer, I was off to explore Lhasa on my own for the rest of the afternoon.  All total I walked over 10k in my wandering around while I rested and adjusted to the altitude.  And all the walking and resting worked up an appetite so back to the Dunya I went for a nice big plate of spaghetti with meat sauce, Buttered Nan (a delicious flat bread) and a couple more cold 20oz beers on the veranda. 

Day 2

Next morning Topsang met me as I finished my breakfast and we headed for the Potala Palace about 3k from the hotel.  As we began walking toward the palace, Topsang began briefing me on the history and dimensions of the palace.  About halfway there I think he decided that maybe the walk to the palace and then the climb to the top (650 vertical feet of stairs) would be too taxing for me so he hired us a bike-powered rickshaw to take us the rest of the way.  I didn’t bother to tell him I had already walked there and back on my exploration the afternoon before.

The Potala Palace is divided into two distinct palaces – the Red and the White Palaces.  The White portion of the palace was built in the 7th century by King Songtsen Gambo and the Red portion built in the 17th century by the 5th Dali Lama.  The Red Palace is the portion of Potala that is the domain of religion mainly consists of living quarters, chapels, tombs, stupa chapels, and monk dormitories.  And the White Palace deals with administrative matters, governance, and politics.

The 5th Dali Lama is the most sacred of the line of 14 Dali Lamas and is credited with building the Red Palace and Unifying Tibet.  The red pigment of the palace is from a plant that grows on top of the mountains of Tibet called Bom that creates a red pigment when combined with juniper. 

The 5th Dali Lama’s funerary stupa is the grandest in the palace.  It is solid gold with 10,000 turquoise, red coral and elephant pearl (elephant pearl is from the elephant’s brain and considered by Buddhist as very sacred) inlaid.

At the time of the Chinese Liberation or Invasion of Tibet depending on your politics in 1950 7,000 monks and the Dali Lama lived and worked in Potala Palace.  Today the 14th Dali Lama and most of the monks that managed to escape or were not murdered live in India with only about 300 remaining at the Palace.

After we toured the Palace we walked down to the local park to watch the locals participate in a Circle Dance (Traditional Tibetan Folk Dance).  I have included photos of the Palace, Park, Circle Dancing and various street scenes. 

Before I continue my travelogue, I would like to take a minute to talk about Tibetan BuddhismBuddhism was brought to Tibet in the 7th century by King Songsten Gambo. But the native population had practiced the Bon religion for centuries and resisted.  It wasn’t until the end of the 8th century that two Buddhist masters from India Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita built the first monastery in Tibet and combined the teachings of tantric Buddhism with the Bon religion and Tibetan Buddhism was founded.

There are Five separate sects of Tibetan Buddhism with Gelugpa or the Yellow Hat Sect being the most popular.   Master Ztsongkapa was the founder of the Yellow Sect over 1000 years ago. 

One oddity is that only the Syakapa sect allows the lama to have hair and marry.  And they practice tantric sex as part of their religious observances.

Saka Dowa is the most holy and sacred holiday in Tibetan Buddhism.  The holiday which ran the entire month of June celebrates the Buddha Shakyamuni’s birth, enlightenment, and death month.  Pilgrims from all over Tibet flock to monastery after monastery to pray, make offerings of money, yak butter, and Golden Liquid and to perform three Koras – the walking around a temple or monastery’s circumference from right to left chanting a mantra carrying a rosary or Prayer wheel.  My six day visit just happened to be during the climax of Saka Dowa for 2019.

The offerings of Yak butter and the golden liquid are deposited in large candle bowls to both make a physical offering to the gods as they ask for favors and to keep the candles burning to light the way for their dead loved ones to pass thru the darkness to the next life.

Prayer wheels, rosaries, and prayer flags are all central to the Buddhist pilgrim’s routine

The prayer wheel looks like a coffee or tuna can with a stick thru the middle.  The inside of the drum is covered with Buddhist scripture and the pilgrim will rotate the can on the stick as he recites his mantra while performing three Koras around the monastery. The rosary performs the same purpose as the prayer wheel and you see lots of people carrying and fondling the beads as they recite their mantra.  

You will see prayer flags strewn all over mountain passes, stupas, monasteries.  They are comprised of five colors repeated in the same series.  The red flag represents fire, the white the wind and clouds, green represents water, blue the sky and yellow the earth.

After watching the traditional circle dancing in the park and lunch we next visited the Sera Monastery the second largest in Tibet and founded in 1419.  The Monastery has an Assembly Hall, Three Colleges and thirty-three houses – none of which we saw.  Our purpose for visiting Sera was to watch the monks debate.

The debate takes place outside in an open-air shaded courtyard once a week.  And the way the debating works is the young monks will be paired off and debate Buddhist scripture and doctrines.  I admit the entire process confused me and led me to totally misunderstand what was going on.  I’ve attached several photos of groups of young monks in what looks like heated arguments.  You will see one monk standing the other sitting.  The one standing looks quite agitated slapping his hands together vigorously and yelling at the seated monk.  And the seated monk seems to be responding in a very quiet and measured tone.

Turns out that the standing monk is not angry at all, nor is he making a declarative statement.  The standing monk is asking the seated monk about a point of Buddhist doctrine or scripture and he winds up like a baseball pitcher and slaps his hands together as he asks the question for emphasis.  And the seated monk is explaining the doctrine.  This is how they learn the scripture and how to articulate doctrine.

The entire process is totally foreign to anything I have ever seen and if Topsang hadn’t been there to explain things to me I would have left there with a totally erroneous interpretation of what I had witnessed.  According to Topsang, every Monastery devotes one afternoon per week to this kind of Q and A and every monk participates both as a questioner and responder sharpening their rhetorical skills and understanding of Buddhist teachings.

Day 3

Day 3 in Lhasa and we were visiting two more monasteries.  First stop was the Jokhang Monastery in the morning and then the Drepung Monastery in the afternoon.  The Jokhang Monastery predates the Potala by several decades and was built in the early 7th century by King Songstan Gambo in the heart of old Lhasa

The most important statue in the Monastery is the one of Shakyamuni at age 12.  The statue was made in India and given to China as a gift.  When King Songstan Gambo married a Chinese Princess, the statue was brought to Lhasa as part of her dowry.

Inside the monastery is a labyrinth of halls and chapels filled with hundreds if not thousands of statues and images of Buddha.  In the meeting hall sits a large throne covered with a gold silk covering – this is the throne of the 14th Dali Lama currently living in exile in India.

After lunch, we drove about 10k out of town to the Drepung Monastery.  This is one of the largest monasteries of the Gelupa (Yellow Hat) Sect.  It was built in 1416 by Jamyang-Choje-Tashi-Phlden and before the “Great Liberation” over 10,000 monks resided within its massive walls making it one of the largest monasteries in Tibet.

There are six main temples – Garden Palace, Tsochen, Ngakpa, Losaling, Gomang nd Dyeyang.  The most important in these temples are the image of Maitreya, Yamantaka, Mitrukpa, Sutra-Kangyour with golden letters, thangkas silk scrolls, tomes of ancient Buddhist scriptures and countless golden butter lamps.  Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the temples so there are only photos of the exterior of the temples themselves but no relics.

After a day of exploring the two monasteries, Topsang left me on my own for dinner and any other trouble I might like to create.  After a quick bite, I walked back down to the Potala Palace to catch the sunset from an elevated perch.  Photos are attached of the sun setting, the Palace from a different angle than the morning before, and a little park and lake at twilight reflecting both man-made architectural art as well as a beautiful skyscape of puffy white clouds on a blue canvas of evening sky.

Day 4

Next morning, we were off for our long drive to Shigatse driving over and stopping at the Gambala Pass, Lake Yarndrok Tso (one of three sacred lakes of Tibet), Gyantse Town, Pekor Chode Buddhist center, the 35meter high Kumbum Stupa containing 100,000 statues and murals of Buddha and a stop to hike up a short ways to view the Karolha Glacier.

During the drive over the pass I saw the Tibetan Mastiff breed of dog for the first time, rode my first Yak, and took tons of photos of mountains, glaciers, lakes, fields of yellow flowers which the Tibetans use for making oil, and villages dotted with ancient stone houses.

After I checked into my hotel and grabbed a quick dinner I came across more circle dancers in a nearby park. I spent several hours enjoying the traditional music and watching the dancers.

Day 5

Next morning, we visited our final monasteryShigatse’s Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.  The Tashi Lhunpa was founded in 1447 by Gedun Drupa the first Dali Lama.  The Tashi Lhunpa is a Yellow Hat Sect monastery.  The most significant treasure is the tallest sitting statue of Maitreya Buddha in the world.  The statue is made of an alloy of copper and gold.  Additional, beautiful items include Banchan Lama’s Stupa, the golden stupa of the 10th Dali Lama, congregation halls, chapels, and too many sacred and cultural relics to list.  This monastery is the seat of the Panchen Lama linage.  Photos attached.

And after a long six hour drive back to Lhasa along the Northern Friendship Highway following the scenic Brahmaputra River I was back for one final night in Lhasa before flying on to my last stop on my Southern China excursion – Xi’an (home of the famed Terra Cotta Warriors).

And yes, the roof of the world was everything I had imagined – beautiful mountains, glaciers, lakes, rivers and grasslands dotted with herds of yaks, sheep, goats, and a few horses and cows at the lower elevations.  The stone buildings of the old cities and villages are like a time capsule preserved for hundreds of years.  And most Tibetans still dress, worship, and live as they have for centuries.  The land is harsh but the people are friendly and reflect the gentle calm of their Buddhist roots.  All in all, an excellent place to spend a week or month refocusing your priorities.

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Chengdu – Home of Pandas, the Blight Marriage Market, and the Changing Faces Opera

Wendy pretending to be old

I wasn’t expecting much from Chengdu.  As far as I was concerned it was just a transfer point from Lijiang to Lhasa.  Boy, was I mistaken!  I really wasn’t that interested in Pandas but the little firecracker of a tour guide (Wendy) would make watching paint dry interesting.  Wendy who I would guess is in her early 20s was bursting with energy and a silly streak a mile wide.  Which makes me wonder why in the world she majored in Petroleum English at University. She is a natural entertainer and communicator and really should find an outlet for her talents. 

But let’s talk about Panda’s now that I’m an instant expert on the lazy bastards.  As we toured the Chengdu Panda Base and walked from one area to the next Wendy offered up the following information about Pandas.  The first thing I learned is that Pandas have been napping daily on the earth for 8 million years.  And there are two types of Pandas the Great (White and Black) Pandas and their smaller cousin the Red Panda (kind of looks like an overgrown raccoon).  And there are only about 2000 Great Pandas left in the world. 

The role of the Panda Base is to help Pandas breed and then raise the offspring to eventually be released back into the wild.  You may wonder why Pandas need help breeding – simple they don’t reproduce often because they are extremely lazy.  In fact, Wendy gleefully told me they make the pandas watch panda porn for two months leading up to the mating season to get them in the mood and to overcome their lazy nature.

Mating season is from March until May but the female may only be in heat for between a few hours and a few days.  The male panda not only has to be virile he has- to be quick!  And if the magic happens in 4 months a brand new shiny panda is born weighing in at only 100grams.  Eventually, the little guy will grow to over 100 kilograms (220 lbs). 

A couple of pieces of panda trivia for your next game of Trivia Pursuit – panda milk is green and a Panda whenever they get up the energy to run can run at 40k per hour.  And a full-grown panda will eat 100bs of bamboo per day.  To which my first thought was the age-old question “Does a bear Sh_t in the Woods?”  The answer for Pandas – hell yes! A lot!  But Wendy says it is no problem because Panda Poo is quite fragrant and the Panda volunteers enjoy picking it all up.  I’ll just take her word on that one.

Up until the 1960s, only the people in the mountains knew pandas even existed.  Then some French guy stumbled onto one, captured it, and tried to smuggle it back to France.  The panda died in route but the French panda smuggler let the panda secret out of the bag.

And now you know as much about lazy pandas as I do.  I’ve attached photos of both the Great and Red Pandas as well as a photo of myself striking the Kung Fu Panda Pose (not very convincing but crazy Wendy insisted).

The next stop after our Panda adventure was a stop at the Wenshu Monastery.  This is the largest and best-preserved Buddhist Temple in Chengdu and was built in the Tang Dynasty.  You can see from the photos that the temple grounds are beautiful.  You will also see photos of both Wendy and I excitedly holding the giant stack of coins under a golden dragon’s claw.  Wendy says that touching the coins will bring you good fortune and by fortune she means riches!  I figured it couldn’t hurt.

Wendy and me trying to get rich quick

After the Monastery visit, we walked over to the People’s Park and observed one of the strangest processes I have ever come across.  It is called the Blight Marriage Market.  Apparently, Chinese parents believe any daughter who is not married by 30 is damaged goods.  So, the mother takes the initiative and tacks her daughter’s matrimonial resume to a tree or fence in the park for would-be husbands to peruse. 

Since I can’t read Chinese I asked Wendy to read a couple to me.  They say things like University educated, owns their own home, healthy, good cook, obedient, etc…  And, there are also ads for men looking for wives – some placed by the man’s mother others placed by men themselves.  One ad tacked to a tree was from a 40 something widower looking for a second wife.  His ad gave his vitals and what he was looking for in his next wife.

I didn’t do a very good job of framing but in a couple of the photos you can see some of the dozens upon dozens of older women sitting patiently waiting for either a man on the hunt for a wife or more likely a man’s mom to read her ad.  If she sees someone reading the ad she is ready to pounce and makes an in-person pitch for her adult child.

Wendy tells me many of the daughters or sons have no idea their mothers are posting these ads.  And when the Chinese version of a helicopter mom finds a match and the other prospective spouse’s parents agree it is a good match – they go thru a charade that they just met in the park or thru friends and thought the couple were ideal for each other.  Seems a little weird to me but I suppose it is no weirder than throwing divining blocks and leaving it to a god to pick your spouse.

Our next stop was another part of the park to watch all the local old people dressed up in their costumes dance.  I asked Wendy how old was older people and she replied you know old – retired over 55.  I had to tell her that her tip was in severe jeopardy as I turn 67 in just over a month and I don’t consider myself OLD!  Quick on her feet she immediately began telling me how I barely look 50 and how handsome I am and charming.  I’ve been in politics all my life and I know bullshit when I’m hearing it but she was so earnest I just let it go by telling she forgot to mention how fragrant I am.

Our final stop of the day was to the Shufengyayun Opera Tea House where we sipped green tea and watched a series of performances by Chinese folk artists before the main event the Sichuan Opera’s Changing Faces.  We saw a traditional Chinese Stage Performance with elaborate costumes and surreal Chinese instruments and singing, A Chinese Puppeteer, a shadow puppet show where a woman behind a screen and light made rabbits and birds with her hands, a Chinese version of the Honeymooners but with a skinny version of Ralph Kramden.

Then came the main event the Sichuan Opera’s Changing Faces.  I have no idea how the actors do it but they will be in one character then snap their fan over their face and in the blink of an eye their mask has totally changed.  And they will change mask four and five times in as many minutes without giving a clue of how they do it.  Wendy told me for centuries only men could perform in this opera.  And only in recent years have women been taught the secret art of face changing.

And as the curtain came down on the Opera so did the curtain come down on my time in Chengdu with my fantastic tour guide Wendy.  But before we parted she clued me in on a couple of facts about the people of ChengduFirst of all, they love spicy food.  Second the women have a reputation of being a little spicy themselves, and third, the rest of China considers people from Chengdu lazy.  I asked Wendy if the reputation was fair and she quickly agreed that they are as lazy as panda’s and proud of it.  And finally, she told me that the goal of most Chinese is to work for the government.  She says it is called catching the Golden Ball because once you have a government job you are guaranteed a lifetime job, good pay and a good pension without too hard of work.  And now I’m off to Tibet.

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Dali & Lijiang, China (June 23 – 26)

From Guilin, I flew to Dali and was met at the airport by Linda, my Dali guide who promptly proudly informed me she was Bi.  Our first stop was to look at Erhai Lake (also called Ear Lake – because it looks like an ear).  The lake is 45 kilometers long and 3 to 9 kilometers wide depending on the location.  And at its deepest Lake Erhai is 21meters deep.

While walking the promenade of the lake, Linda informed me that there are 16 ethnic minority groups living in the area.  And it turned out Linda was not Bi but Bai – the largest ethnic group in the area at 1.7 million.  The Bai people can be identified easily because they dress in white and their homes are all painted white with black trim.  The rest of the city’s population is made up of the Han people.

My hotel was located in Dali’s ancient town established by the Bai people in 1382 during the Ming Dynasty.  The town is laid out like a Chinese checkerboard with four outer gates and one center gate.  The Bai are known as expert silversmiths and jade, stone, and woodcarvers.  I found it interesting that the Bai have their own ancient language but the Chinese government prohibits the teaching of it in the local schools.

The walking tour of the old town was one of the highlights of my visit to China.  The old city has retained its old-world charm, its ancient buildings and its local flavor with the local ethnic groups still wearing their traditional dress. 





A couple of oddities in Dali that I came across included: men’s bathrooms not intended for 6 foot 3 inch Americans – see the photos of both urinal and light fixture placement, a McDonalds shoehorned into an ancient building surrounded by traditional Chinese offerings, and a Catholic Church that looked more like a Buddhist Temple than a western church from the outside.  Photos of all three attached as well as photos of local ethnic group members in traditional clothes and white Bai homes.

Besides Dali’s ancient town the only other remarkable tourist site in the area is the Three Pagoda and Thong Sheng Temple Complex.  The First pagoda stands at 69.13 meters high and was built between 823 and 849ad.  The two smaller pagodas that flank the large pagoda were built in the 11th century and are only 42 meters high.  Only the tall center pagoda has stairs and can be climbed.

“Lake, Mountain, Put Down, Dragons (Earthquakes) Forever”.

The pagodas overlook Erhai Lake and along with a golden Roc bird statue atop a temple-like structure or pavilion in a direct line between the center pagoda and the lake was supposed to protect Dali from earthquakes.  The ancient people of Dali believed the earthquakes were caused by the dragons living in the lake.  The Roc was supposed to pluck the eyes from the dragons each night and the pagoda was supposed to calm the big lizards.  There are four Chinese characters in front of the large pagoda that read “Lake, Mountain, Put Down, Dragons (Earthquakes) Forever”.

Three Pagoda complex

Thong Sheng Temple Complex

We made one last stop in Xizhou Village before driving down to my next destination Lijiang.  During this stop, we walked thru the Village morning market and then visited a tie-dying center in a Yan Compound of the Bai town.  I enjoyed the walk thru the market of fresh fruit, vegetables, spices, fish and meats but not so much the tie-dying center and the attempts to get me to buy their products.

Photos of the lake, ancient town, catholic church, ethnic people, pagodas, temples, and morning market attached to the blog.

Day 1 in Lijiang​

I was met in Lijiang by my guide Cindy and given a brief run-down of the itinerary as we walked to my hotel for the next few days.  And I seemed to be on a streak with excellent guides!  Each one seems better than the last.  If you are planning a trip to China I would highly recommend Wind Horse Tour out of Chengdu (https://windhorsetour.com/).  They have helped me organize both my 2017 and 2019 three week trips to China and both tours came off without a hitch.

Cindy is a member of the Naxi ethnic minority and the ancient city of Lijiang is a Naxi community.  The Naxi are a fairly small ethnic group at only about 300,000 people.  Naxi means black people and while the Naxi are not black they are darker than your average Chinese. The Naxi have their own ancient pagan religion and their Shaman is called a Dongba

The Naxi also have their own written language that is over 1000 years old.  According to Cindy the Naxi language is based on 1004 characters and is the only language based upon pictographs left in the world.  It is kind of cool that all the stores’ signs have their names in Mandarin, Naxi, and English.

Walking thru the town on our way to a traditional tea ceremony, I marveled at the quant streets and lanes lined with beautiful old stone buildings remodeled and now housing modern shops and cafes.  Every street, lane or alley was spotless and decorated with flowers, artwork and overhead in many of the small lanes – colorful umbrellas fastened edge to edge created a shaded ceiling of a rainbow of colors and patterns. 

And I have been to well over a dozen tea ceremonies and lectures during my 2017 trip and now this year’s trip but I learned more about tea in Lijiang than all the other programs put together.  A very nice lady, He Li Yun conducted the tea ceremony and her family the Fu Sing Chang family have been in the tea business for over 80 years.  The first thing I learned is that Lijiang is the home of Pu-Er Tea which most experts will tell you is the best tea in the world.  The second thing I learned and was stunned by – is the tea from Lijiang is not from bushes but from trees. And the difference between green Pu-Er Tea and Black Pu-Er Tea is fermentation.

The green Pu-Er Teacake is not fermented and the black Pu-Er Teacake has had the tea leaves fermented for 45 to 60 days at 30 degrees.  And when judging the quality of the tea cake the two variables to consider are the age of the tree and the age of the tea cake.  Both these variables have a major impact on the quality.

The very best tea comes from trees that are over 300 years old and tea leaves from these trees can be used up to 30 times without a decrease in the taste of the cup of tea.  Leaves harvested from younger trees (less than 300 years old) can only be reused 5 or 6 times before the taste of the cup of tea suffers in quality.

The tea trees of Lijiang are harvested three times per year.  The first harvest season is the spring tea harvest for 7 days in March and this is considered the best quality tea.  The second harvest is called Rain Season Harvest and it runs from August to September.  And the final harvest is at the end of October.

An old tea tree will produce over 100 kilos of tea leaves through all three harvests. And there are no Tea Tree Orchards.  The trees grew naturally and were never planted by man.  There are less than 5,000 trees on the one mountain outside of Lijiang.

I was served 7 or 8 different types of tea some fermented some not fermented. The wild black tea served me was from a 400-year-old tree. After over two hours of sipping tea and soaking up all the knowledge that He Li Yun shared I purchased a cake Pu-Er spring tea with tea flowers from an old tree and a large tin of wild black tea from an old tree.

After a very interesting and enjoyable afternoon learning about and enjoying cup after cup of tea – Cindy and I continued our exploration of the ancient city and finally ended up at the Blue Papaya Music Restaurant.  For dinner, I tried the local favorite – Yak cheese, Naxi rice, and Yak onion and pepper stir fry with a nice cold local beer.  And dinner was excellent!  And after having my fill of excellent tea, wonderful yak and local beer I walked back to my hotel for a well-deserved sleep.

Day 2 in Lijiang

We began our day walking thru a beautiful park and along the lakeshore and across the picturesque bridges of Black Dragon Pools.  You will see in the photos that the setting is straight out of a picture book.  Graceful arched stone footbridges, brightly colored pagodas and pavilions, brightly colored flowers, and lush green trees all come together to make the park the place to be.

And, apparently, it is the place to be!  Everywhere I turned there were groups of people exercising.  Some to music others going thru the slow-motion discipline of Tai Chi, and still others being led thru an entire series of exercises focusing on every part of the body.  I joined a group of about 40 older women around one of the pagodas in their exercise regiment to the delight of the ladies.  They enjoyed correcting my attempts to match their routines and teased and taunted me good-naturedly thru the workout.  Even my young guide Cindy joined in on both the exercising and ribbing me.

After my workout and with the ladies and having provided them with their morning comic relief it was on to the Naxi Ethnic Museum.  The museum was fascinating from the plaza before the entrance to the last exhibit.  One of the photos you will see has a floor mosaic with a center symbol for good luck but then also with images of bats in the corners.  The Naxi believe bats are harbingers of good luck and honor them as well as eat them.

Inside the museum were displays on the Dongba view of how the world was formed, and the Dongba belief that everything in the world has a spirit that they worship including heaven, ancestors, and ghosts.  There were ancient pictograph books of scriptures and samples of the written Naxi pictographs discussing the very ordinary.  Displays on how the Naxi dress, how their homes look and are decorated, and even marriage rituals.

Speaking of marriage rituals and customs.  Cindy told me about the marriage customs of two local ethnic groups that are so odd that they are worth mentioning.  The first is the Mosuo.  The Mosuo is an ethnic group that today only consists of 30,000 members that live on Lucy Lake.  The Mosou are called the “Kingdom of Women” and is said to be the last remaining Matriarchal society in the world. 

All property and wealth are passed down thru the women of the group.  In fact, there is no such thing in this society as a marriage or husband.  The women choose their temporary lovers and if a child is born out of the tryst the child never knows who his father was. 

The procreation process begins when a girl turns sixteen.  She is then moved into a small house next to the extended female family’s communal house.  The small house is called the flower house and she is to live there alone.  A dance is organized to celebrate her coming of age and at the dance, she selects the boy that will join her in the flower house for her first time.  She will approach the boy to take his hand and dance with him and during the process will use her finger to discreetly scratch his palm three times as the signal that he has been chosen.

If he agrees they will part company and then later that night he will slip over to the flower house carrying three objects: pork, hat and flashlight.  The pork is to give the dog so it will not alert the family, the hat is to place on a peg on the outside of the door so that if a family member wakes up to go outside for the call of nature she will see the hat on the door and not to disturb the couple and the flashlight is to find his way in the dark to the right flower house.

The boy will continue to come to the flower house every night to service the girl until she stops opening the door for him.  Then he will give up and she will repeat the process with a new boy till she becomes bored with him.  Now that is Girl Power!  I wonder if whoever wrote that song “Girls Rule the World” had any idea that the Mosou girls DO!  I have included two photos of Mosou women working in their stores in Naxi.

The other strange matrimonial custom is that of the Tibetan minority that lives high up in the mountains in Southern China but near Lijiang.  It seems that it is very common for two brothers to marry the same woman or a man to marry two sisters.  The custom began as a result of a scarcity of resources and suitable mates.  So, I guess the logical thing to do was to take turns.  According to Cindy, the brothers don’t take turns each night but rather seasonally or yearly.  But still, it must make family get togethers a little awkward. 

Our next stop was to Bai Sha (White Sand Village) – a Naxi settlement that is over 1300 years old.  In the village, we viewed ancient frescos celebrating the harmonious coexistence of the Dongba, Buddhist and Islamic Religions in the region over 1000 years ago.  I’ve included several photos of the beautiful old building in the village. 

While we were in the village Cindy took me to a silk stitching school whose mission is to teach the next generation the art of using silk thread to create incredible works of art that look like paintings.  One of the girls who has been at the school for two years demonstrated how the process works and showed me around the gallery.  Incredibly, a master can separate a single silk thread into 10 strands and use one almost invisible strand to stich into the artwork.  I’ve included photos of some of the students at work and several of the finished pieces.

And our final visit was to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to see the mountain and glacier made up of 13 picturesque peaks.  Unfortunately, I will have to take their word for the beauty of the mountain and glaciers because the low clouds and fog obscured the view of everything above the alpine meadow we were walking thru.

My time in Lijiang was well spent and I hope to revisit again next year.  The city is beautiful, the people friendly, the food was incredible, and my guide Cindy was a sweetheart.  If you are going to China I would strongly recommend making Guilin, Dali, Lijiang, and Chengdu the centerpiece of your visit.  And you will not find better guides than Jenny, Linda, Cindy and Wendy.  All of which you can find thru Murphy Feng at Wind Horse Tours in Chengdu.

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The Chinese Countryside: Guilin, Yangshuo, Fuli, and Longji (June 19 – 23)

This portion of my China tour began in Guilin city but honestly, all I did in the city was spend the first and last night in a downtown hotel and eat a couple of meals.  The city was just a jumping-off point to some incredible sites, interesting people, fascinating history and culture.  In fact, there are 28 separate ethnic minorities living in this part of China each with their own culture, customs, dress, and dialect.

I was met as I left the baggage claim by my guide, Jenny.  She belongs to the Zhuang minority and I liked her at first site.  Jenny is one of those people that just radiates positive energy and fun.  Always quick to laugh and overly helpful she made my time in this area a delight.  Her English was good, her people skills excellent, and her ability to convey a lot of history and culture in a fun and interesting manner effortless.

Our journey together began with a four-hour (83 kilometers/51.6 miles) boat cruise down the Li River to Yangshuo.  This area is famous for their vegetation-covered limestone karst rocky peaks that seem to rise out of the forest floor like giant towers and tower clusters.  And a cruise down the Li is the best way to see the largest number and most beautiful.  Jenny proudly informed me that 4 American Presidents have taken the same boat tour and 2 of the 4 stayed in the same Yangshuo hotel that I would be staying.

Apparently, Nixon, Carter, H.W. Bush, and Clinton had all taken the scenic cruise.  And, I must admit the limestone formations were amazing.  In fact, one formation’s image is used on the 20 Yuan(CNY) note.  I’ve included a ton of photos so I will only say that this is one of the top tourist destinations in all of China and there were easily a dozen large boats carrying 100 or more tourists each parading down the river.  The site of the tourist armada cruising down river in formation was a pretty cool site.

Sampling peach wine

Once we arrived at the wharf in Yangshuo, we had to walk another 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) down a large covered pedestrian street to and thru town to the hotel.  This was way more fun than it might sound.  The first part of the walk (from the wharf to town) was lined on both sides with stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs and street food.  Once we made it to town we immediately took to a large pedestrian street that I was too soon learn has two totally different vibes by day and night.

After a short break at the hotel to change clothes it was off to the bicycle shop to rent bikes for a 4-hour bike tour of the rice paddies and countryside.  I was surprised to find this turned into one of my favorite times not only in China but the entire trip!  The leisurely ride began by dodging cars and scooters on a busy city street but quickly turned into a pleasant afternoon cruising down a backroad with mile after mile of rice paddies to my left and little farmhouses and villages nestled against the hills, limestone monoliths, and mountains on my right.

Our return trip back into Yangshuo was even more beautiful and peaceful than the trip out.  Jenny crossed the rice paddies and brought us up on a bike path that had the paddies on our left and a scenic river on our right with absolutely no cars or traffic to contend with.  Again, I’m attaching a ton of photos.

While on our ride Jenny mentioned that Yangshuo has a very elaborate cultural show put on every night in an outside amphitheater with the Li river and beautiful Limestone formations as the stage.  How could I resist?  Turns out it is quite a production with each ethnic group contributing an act in the show.  I am not quite sure about his role but Jenny swore that the Canadian born/American Film Director James Cameron had a role in developing the show.

And it was quite a show using a cast of hundreds, at least 100 actual small fishing boats fitted with lanterns and poled with choreography and perfection in scene after scene.  Oh yea, and a couple of water buffalos thrown in for the hell of it.  I’ve provided a few photos but the lighting and the light generated from lanterns and torches sort of screwed the shots all up.

Day 2: 800-year-old village of Fuli

Day 2 began with a visit to the small 800-year-old village of Fuli.  The entire village specializes in the art of silk painting.  As I walked down the small uneven stone lanes every house’s door was open and silk fans and paintings were drying on the floors, tables or anything flat.  House after house had silk artwork in various stages of completion and all done by hand one at a time.

I stopped at one house (photo included) that had the floor entirely covered in red fans with a black dragon painted across it.  They all looked so uniform I asked if it was a silkscreen process where an original is drawn and then the rest are copies.  But no, the lady had hand-painted each and every fan individually and I couldn’t see one bit of difference in any of the dragons.

We went into one home and talked to a couple of the artists.  Turns out this family is the most famous of the Fuli silk painters and the house was full of completed work covering every wall and hanging across the ceiling.  When I asked how one artist could be so prolific I learned that there are 7 artists representing three generations working in this family.  The grandfather and grandmother started the business and still paint fans but now they have been joined by their son and his wife and their 3 daughters.  Incredible to think 5 very talented artists all from one family.

“You Can Catch Everything in Your Eyes from the Top” / “Great Fricking View”

After touring Fuli we were off to Xianggong Hill also known as Husband Mountain(Because the mountain looks like the hat of the prime minister in the ancient time, and name of the prime minister and husband has double entendre, both called “xianggong”) And I have no idea why they call it Husband Mountain.  But the Chinese have a funny way of expressing themselves anyway.  Everything is Charming, Handsome, Romantic, or Fragrant. In fact, you will see in one of my attached photos a picture of the entrance to the trail to the top of the mountain.  You will notice that there are 4 Chinese symbols above the entrance.  I asked Jenny what they said and this is the translation “You Can Catch Everything in Your Eyes from the Top”.  Why couldn’t they just say “Great Fricking View”.

But, the truth is, the view was spectacular!  No matter which direction you looked the views of the Li River and Karst Mountains were breathtaking.  Photos attached as always.

Zhuang ladies

After our hike back down Husband Mountain we hopped in the car for a long drive to the Longji Rice Terraces and the ethnic minority village of Longji Ping’en. The village has about 700 people living in it and everyone has the family name of Liao.  And the Liao family are Zhuang ethnic members like Jenny.  You can tell the Zhuang ladies by the way they dress – they wear a towel looking thing on their heads and wear black slacks.

Yao women

The other ethnic group living in the valley are the Yao and the most interesting difference between the Yao and the Zhuang is that the Yao women wear bright colorful dress and Yao women never cut their hair.  Some Yao women’s hair is as long as 2 meters.  They wear their hair wound on top of their head almost like a turban.  If a woman has a big knot of hair in the front that means she is married with children (I have attached a couple of photos of a Yao woman showing me her hair).

The village is high up in the mountains and we had to leave the car and hike up another 30 minutes to reach the village high up on the top of the mountain at 1900 meters.  By the time we reached our guesthouse for the night I was tired, hungry and wet from the long day and hiking up the mountain in a light drizzle.  But after a great dinner, a cold beer and a look at my room with a balcony view of the rice terraces I was pumped for hiking thru the terraces the next day!

I will share a few more useless bits of trivia with you.  The farmers’ houses are typically three-story wooden structures.  The first floor is the lobby, living area, kitchen.  The second floor is bedrooms for the extended family and the third floor is for storing dried rice, corn, potatoes, and other agricultural products.

A village family can grow 250 kilos of dried rice for the family’s consumption and sale.  I found the growing cycle of terraced rice quite interesting.  Rice is grown in a bed for the first 15 days as seedlings.  After the 15th day, the seedlings are transplanted into flooded rice paddies and planted 20 centimeters apart.  They grow for 2 months in the flooded paddies and then the water is drained and they grow another two months in the mud and soil.

The rice terraces have a complicated irrigation system that was created 800 years ago during the Yuan dynasty.  The water begins to flow from a tank on top of the mountain and drains thru a series of channels and pipes from one terrace to the next.  It takes 5 weeks for the water to drain from the top terrace to the bottom one.  The entire system is based entirely on gravity.

Day 3

I woke the next morning to a sound I had not heard any many years.  Roosters crowing!  I grew up on a farm in West Virginia and had not thought about the morning crowing of roosters in over 50 years.  I was so excited I made several short video clips of nothing just to capture the sound of the roosters meeting the morning. 

We spent the day hiking up to the top of the first Terraced mountain they call Nine Dragons and Five Tigers to take photos from the top. (“Nine Dragon” refers to the nine hill beams where the main ridge of the Longji is separated. The “five tigers” refer to the five slightly raised hills here.) And guess what – the terraces on this mountain actually do look like a tiger’s back!  Not sure where the dragon fits in though.  After taking a bazillion photos we hiked back down to the village and up the mountain on the other side of the village – Thousand Layers to Heaven Mountain for more photos. Once that mission was accomplished, we retraced our steps down the mountain collected our bags and headed back to the car for the long drive back to Guilin, Guangxi Province and one last night before heading to Dali, Yunnan Province.

Nine Dragons and Five Tigers Terraced Mountain

Thousand Layers to Heaven Mountain

One last thing before I move on to Dali.  The Liao has a couple of interesting food choices.  The first sounds very appealing the second not so much.  The first is a local specialty of chicken or duck with sticky rice cooked by steaming it in a bamboo stalk.  The second is fried rat.  And with that, I am on to Dali.  Hope you enjoy the photos.

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Shanghai, Suzhou, & Hangzhou (June 15 – 19)

Day 1: Shanghai

My three-week tour of Southern China and Tibet began in ShanghaiShanghai is a relatively new city by Chinese standards at only about 150 years.  Shanghai is also the largest city in China at either 25 million or 30 million depending on who you are talking to.

My whirlwind tour of the city began at the Bund on the Old British Concession side of the Huang Pu River.  Back in the mid 19th Century Britton, France and the United States all set up shop in the city to capture a share of China’s economic riches.  The British section which runs along the riverfront looks like London of the 19th Century.  The huge brown stone buildings are now the home of the Shanghai financial district.

Across the river stands the new and modern Shanghai with shiny streamlined skyscrapers and Towers stretched out across the skyline.  The remarkable thing about this stunning skyline is that 30 years ago this was all pastures and rice paddies.  The entire new city of Shanghai has grown like weeds from the rice paddies to 100+ story towers and futuristic skyscrapers.

But the truth is modern architecture does nothing for me.  So, after a quick look I asked my tour guide for the day to take me some place more interesting.  Our next stop was in the French Concession and Shanghai’s Yu Garden.  And I found this part of the city much more interesting and charming.  The buildings are all traditional Chinese architecture and the gardens were elaborate and intricately laid out.

The Yu Garden dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was owned by a government official named Pan Yunduan.  Beautiful lotus filled canals and ponds are surrounded by expertly landscaped trees, shrubs and flowers.  Graceful bridges span the canals and small pagodas, pavilions, and huge Rockeries highlight each garden.  And the walls separating the various gardens have a myriad of gates from moon gates, to gates that look like jars and jugs to geometric designs.

The furniture is elaborately carved with marble inlays and if I understood my guide correctly were also from the Ming period.  After spending most of the day in the Yu Garden and Yuyuan Bazaar I visited a traditional tea house for a tea ceremony and tasting.  I finished my Shanghai day with a weird visit to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall to look at old photos and plat maps of Shanghai.

Day 2: Suzhou, Jiangsu Province

Day 2 in China began with a high-speed train ride to Suzhou (Land of Fish and Rice) to spend a day visiting the Humble Administrator’s and Lingering Gardens, taking a small boat down the Grand Canal, and walking the ancient 1000-year-old Pingjiang Street.  The Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Lingering Garden are considered two of the four best classical gardens in all of China.

Like the Yu Garden of Shanghai, the Humble Administrator’s Garden was created during the Ming Dynasty and is an exquisite work of art.  I found the odd name of the garden amusing once I learned the back story of the man who built the garden.  It seems the humble administrator was actually a corrupt high-level bureaucrat in the Ming Court. He was responsible for the governing of the provinces and used his position to extort or happily accept bribes from anyone and everyone who wanted to curry favor with the emperor.  The emperor caught wind of his activities and fired him.

Fired him but did not confiscate the ill-gotten gains nor imprison him.   So he used part of his dirty money to build this beautiful garden to sit and admire in his old age and exile from the court.  But the name of the Garden is not the only thing oddly named in the garden.  A short list of locations within the garden with odd names would include:  The Tower of Reflection, The Floating Green Tower, The Keep and Listen Pavilion, The “With Whom Shall I Sit” Pavilion, The Fragrant Isles, The Pavilion of Lotus Breezes, The Hall of Distant Fragrance, and the Far Away Looking Pavilion. 

Regardless of the weird names the gardens are definitely one of the most important historical sites in China and has the UNESCO designation to prove it.  If you are planning to visit this garden plan on spending at least half a day and a knowledgeable guide will make the time spent much richer.

Perhaps the coolest thing I saw was an ancient wisteria planted over 460 years ago and is still growing and blooming.  Check out the photo of this huge tree. 

And speaking of trees, one section of the garden is dedicated to Bonsai Trees.  Many of these miniature trees are hundreds of years old.  I had no idea that so many types of trees can be made into Bonsai art.

After the Humble Administrator Garden, my guide and I boarded a small canal boat for a peaceful slow drift down the Grand Canal

x-men marvel GIFThe boat was powered and guided by a middle-aged woman who I made the mistake of giving a 10 yuan note to the lady to sing for me.  God it was terrible! I have no idea what the lyrics were but the sounds emanating from her shifted between someone stepping on a cat to the croaking of a frog.  I suggested my guide offer her 20 more yuan to stop but he refused to pass on my generous proposal and told me that would be rude.

After the canal cruise, we walked down the ancient Pingjiang Street.  The narrow road runs alongside the Grand Canal and has never been widened from ox cart days so automobiles are prohibited.  The old cobblestone street is very scenic with old willows along the canal side and small shops and café are in the original stone buildings on the other side of the street. 

The most interesting shop I saw was one that sold huge grasshoppers. Unlike in Cambodia and Java – these grasshoppers were not for snacks but are kept in small wooden and screen bird house looking containers.  People buy the grasshopper house and large grasshopper and place them near the front of the house as an organic alarm system.  The grasshopper chirps constantly until something startles it and then it clams up.  When the property owner no longer hears the grasshopper he/she knows something is amiss and needs investigating.  Interesting system and certainly cheaper to feed than a large German Sheppard or Doberman.

Next stop on my Suzhou agenda was the Lingering Garden which was just down the street from my hotel.  The garden only occupies an area of about 6 acres but man has they crammed a ton into this small space.  And like the Humble Administrator Garden, it is considered one of the four most famous gardens in all of China.  Also like the previous garden it was listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1997.

The garden was first built in 1593 during the Ming Dynasty.  It was purchased by Liu Shu during the Qing Dynasty and the gardens were enhanced with elaborate calligraphy and stone carvings.  Subsequent owners added to the gardens until it was bought by the government and opened to the public.

The gardens somehow manage to blend trees, flowers, temples, homes and other buildings into a harmonious masterpiece of landscaping architecture.  Again, to properly enjoy this garden plan on spending some time there.  This is not the sort of venue you just breeze thru.  Take your time sit in the many pavilions and just soak in the beauty.  Tune out all the other tourists and enjoy the tranquility created by the masterpiece of landscaping.

Day 3: Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province

jaguar raining GIFDay 3 began with another high-speed train ride to Hangzhou for visits to West Lake, Six Harmonies Pagoda, the Linyin Temple, and the Meijawa Tea Plantation and Tea House.  Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate for this day and everything was marred by a constant drizzle of rain.

First stop for the day was the famous West Lake.  Supposedly this is one of the most romantic places in all of China.  According to Leo my tour guide, there are four classic love stories in Chinese literature and two of the four use West Lake as the scenic backdrop.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling it.  Between the rain dampening the mood and limiting visibility and my guide demanding I sit in the last row of seats (which were windowless) on the boat to leave the window seats to the Chinese tourists I saw very little of interest and thought the entire hour and half a total waste of both my time and patience.

Leo quickly found the magic to getting back into my good graces was thru my stomach.  He suggested we have a buffet-style lunch at the Lakeside Shangri-La Hotel.  And I enjoyed an incredible western-style lunch with entire cuts of beef, pork, and chicken instead of the Chinese chopped and diced crap.  Vegetables I actually recognized, potatoes and bread.  I was surprised to learn that this property (part of a Malaysian Chain) was China’s very first five-star hotel.

The next stop was the Six Harmonies Pagoda which was also a bit of a waste of time.  The huge pagoda built on the bank of the Qiantang River is nearly 200 feet tall.  The 13-story octagonal pagoda was built over a thousand years ago to calm the dragons that the ancients believed caused the catastrophic river tides that flooded the city regularly. 

The river tidal surge reaches 30 feet and to the uneducated populous of a thousand years ago must have seemed both frightening and puzzling.  So, of course, the tidal waves must have been the result of angry river dragons thrashing around under the water’s surface.  Based upon the recommendation of some enlightened monk the pagoda was built to calm the dragons.  My question is – what happened to the Monk when the big ass pagoda failed to stop the tidal waves?

Next stop after the Pagoda was the Lingyin Temple and Monastery and this place was definitely worth the price of admission and a day in Hangzhou.  According to the legend, sometime in the 3rd or 4th century a Buddhist monk from India came upon this site and was so taken by the natural beauty of the mountain, stream and valley he began building one of the most significant and beautiful monasteries in China. 

The name “Lingyin” means “Soul’s Retreat”.  The temple complex sports a large number of caves and religious rock carvings.  On the walk in to the temple complex you pass by hundreds of rock grottos with carved big bellied Laughing Buddhas

During the Temple and Monastery’s prime Lingyin boasted nine buildings, 18 pavilions, seventy-seven palaces and halls and was the home to 3,000 monks.  The site has hundreds of statues, reliefs, paintings and relics.  Both the temple and monastery are still active so there are plenty of the faithful worshiping throughout the complex.  Proper decorum should be practiced – no photos within the temples, knees and shoulders should be covered, no shoes beyond the temple thresholds, and never enter or exit a temple from the center door – it is reserved for the monks.

My final stop of the day was at the Meijawu Tea Plantation and Tea House for a very interesting explanation of the process of growing, harvesting, processing and packaging green tea.  And finishing by participating in a tea ceremony and learning about tea culture, health benefits and serving. 

Green tea comes from bushes grown in rows on terraced hillsides.  The leaves are picked by hand by women during a very short 6 week harvest and it takes 4 kilos of leaves to make one kilo of dried leaves.  I am personally not a big fan of green tea but according to the experts, green tea provides a host of health benefits such as lowering blood sugar, lowering blood pressure, weight loss, fighting cancer, and improves digestion.

One last interesting set of statistics for the city of Hangzhou – the city is home to 70 Buddhist Temples which sounded pretty impressive until I learned that the city is also home to 80 Kentucky Fried Chicken stores and 360 Starbucks outlets.

Next stop/blog Guilin

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Jeju Island, South Korea (June 7 – 11)

Jeju Island is located just off the southern tip of the South Korean mainland.  After a short flight, I arrived on what is known as Honeymoon Island in South Korea.  The island has a reputation for natural beauty with pristine beaches, romantic settings atop small mountains for watching sunrises and sunsets, and cooling waterfalls to sit beneath and let the spray and breeze cool you during the heat of the day.

But I was not on a honeymoon, but traveling alone and in fact, I have been told I don’t have a romantic bone in my body anyway.  I came to the island because next to Seoul it looked like the most interesting location to spend a few days.  The fact is, you don’t have to be a honeymooner to like mountains, waterfalls, sunrises, sunsets and beaches.  But in addition to Jeju’s natural wonders there are additional sites to enjoy; the Haenyeo Women, Gwansumsa Temple, the Seongsan Folk VillageSanbanggulsa Temple, and lots of quirky specialty museums.

But before I could enjoy any of Jeju’s natural and man-made treasures I had to rent a car and GPS to get around.  I thought I had planned this out quite well.  I reserved a full-size sedan and GPS unit to make finding my way around a snap.  I even thought to have the young man checking me in set the GPS to my hotel on the other side of the island and since the rental site was not on the airport grounds program in the location for the return trip.

What I failed to anticipate was that the GPS was programmed in Korean.  All verbal and written instructions were in Korean and I was a ways down the road before it occurred to me that I couldn’t understand Korean Karen’s instructions – I had just been following the blue arrow on the map.

And being a man, returning to the rental car office and having it reset was out of the question.  Men never turn back nor admit not knowing something or needing help.  At least not this moron!  So, I plugged the hotel address into my IPhone’s Mapquest and navigated using both screens and with instructions blaring at me in both English and Korean at the same time like stereo.

And I made it safely to my hotel in Seogwipo, checked in, enjoyed a nice Korean Barb B Que dinner of Black Pork Shoulder and Korean Beer before bed.

Day 2

Next morning I was on my way to Mount Sanbang and the Sanbangulsa Temple when I saw a sign for the Museum of Sex and Health.  

interesting thinking GIF

I thought – Hmmm I’m into health I think I will check this museum out.  One strange thing about Jeju is that there is a museum for almost anything you can imagine – Teddy Bear Museum, Hello Kitty Museum, Maze Land, Haenyeo Museum, Woodcutter Museum, Trickeye Museum, Kim Man Duk Museum, Ceramic Culture Museum, Drama World, Dado Museum, Tea Museum, Airplane Museum, Old Car Museum, Museum of War and Peace, Greek Mythology Museum, and many more that I saw signs for but can’t remember.

And the “Health” museum was quite comprehensive and mostly about sex with only small exhibits on STDs and erectile dysfunction.  And the exhibits on sex ran from the informative to eroticism through the ages.  Who knew our forefathers and foremothers were just as randy as we are?  Lots of cool appliances and inventions for pleasure from ancient times until today. Attached are plenty of photos of the “Health” Museum.  Hope you don’t find them too offensive.

shy GIFBut to me the most interesting subjects in the museum were the middle-aged Korean women’s reactions to the various displays.  They came in twos and threes and fours together giggling and whispering excitedly with each other.  They would scan the room to make sure no one was watching before they seriously studied an exhibit.  I enjoyed when our eyes met and theirs dropped immediately in embarrassment.  But one can only play deviant voyeur for so long – so off to the mountain and temple I went to cleanse my corrupted soul.

Mount Sanbang is not much of a mountain but it is located right above the coast providing spectacular views of the coastline and sea.  The Sanbanggulsa Temple complex clings to the small Mountain’s flank with temple structures scattered up the wooded mountain side culminating with a shrine in a small cave high up on the mountain side.

Once I felt I had spent enough time in the temple to cleanse my mind of any remaining unclean thoughts from the “Health” museum, I drove across the island to Hyeopjae Beach and watched newlyweds take their wedding photos.  And it didn’t take long to get bored with that and wish I were back in the “Health” Museum.  Since that museum was on the other side of the island and two visits in one day might brand me a pervert I chose to drive to the Manjanggul Cave.  The cave is a very cool and long lava tube that you can explore with hundreds of other tourists.

Next up was a sunset visit to Seongsan Lichulbong (Sunrise Peak).  The hike up to the top of the old volcanic plug takes about 30 minutes and is right at a 600 feet elevation gain.  Attached are plenty of photos of the day.

Day 3

I began my 2nd day visiting the Jeonbang Waterfall, Cheonjeyeon Waterfall and Bridge, Oedolgae Rock (a formation just off the coast), and the Jusangheolli Cliffs.  These natural wonders were spectacular and I will just let the photos speak for themselves.  After lunch, I drove to the world’s strangest Theme Park – The Loveland Adult Theme Park.

Jeonbang Waterfall

Cheonjeyeon Waterfall and Bridge

Oedolgae Rock (a formation just off the coast)

Jusangheolli Cliffs

The Loveland Adult Park is an outdoor Sex Theme Park.  It seems many years ago some college professor decided that a great class sculpting project would be to sculpt erotic statues of men and women in sexual poses.  Over the years, the place has grown to a top Jeju tourist attraction.  So how could I visit Jeju and not experience the “Art” Park?  The sculptures ran from the erotic to the hilarious.  I’ve included photos that I hope are not too offensive.

After I had my fill of “Art” I moved on to the Gwanumsa Temple.  This temple is high up in the central wooded mountains of the island abutting a national park.  The complex of temples, shrines and gardens blended in nicely with the surrounding forest tract.  And my final stop on the second day was to the Jeju Folk Village.

Gwanumsa Temple

The Folk Village was quite large and covered all aspects of village life on Jeju Island.  Exhibits on the types of houses farmers, hunters, fishing families used thru the ages.  

Day 4

My last day on Jeju I spent in the very interesting Haenyeo Museum.  The Haenyeo are Jeju’s world-famous women free divers.  These women have been earning a living since the 1600s diving as deep as 30 feet holding their breath for minutes while holding only a knife and until the 1970s wearing only cotton clothing.  The women, some in their 80s dive to collect seaweed, shellfish, octopus, and other seafood daily.

I didn’t know it at the time but I had seen six or seven of these elderly women as I was parking my rental car to hike up Sunrise Mountain the previous afternoon.  I was on the wrong side of the mountain from the parking lot so I just parked on a street above the cliff and walked across the clifftop to the park’s entrance for the climb up.  As I was gathering my day pack and water from the trunk of the car I noticed the old women sitting on the curb in a line just talking and lounging.  They all had leathery and wrinkled skin from sun and wind exposure and several were wearing parts of wet suits which I thought was strange but didn’t make the connection.

The next morning as I was walking thru the museum looking at the exhibits I saw photos of several of the same women on the walls of the museum.  Attached are photos from the museum including photos of photos of some of the women who have spent their lives doing this dangerous work. 

American women mark the 1970s as their decade of liberation.  The Haenyeo mark their century of liberation as the 1600s.  They have been both bread winners and fulltime mothers for over 400 years in the most difficult of professions.  Quite a feat!  On to Japan.

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Seoul, South Korea (June 4 – 7)

My visit to Seoul began as a somewhat misadventure.  It started out fine – I managed to find and board the correct high-speed train from the airport to Seoul Central Station.  And things were looking pretty good until my roller bag/backpack (weighs 45 pounds), and my two-day packs each weighing about 15 pounds managed to unbalance me at the worst possible time. 

About 15 steps up the escalator as I was looking at the map on my iPhone and not focusing on the escalator my bags shifted backward and I along with the three bags went tumbling back down the escalator backward landing upside down on my big bag on my back with my feet in the air.  Fortunately, a young 20 something girl and her mother came to my rescue and helped me up, helped me chase down my hat and phone which had flown halfway across the station, and helped me collect myself.

Fortunately, no broken bones just some nasty scrapes and bruises to both my body and ego.  The young girl tried in vain to convince me to go to the hospital to check for injuries but I was having none of that.  So back on the escalator I went – a little more focused this time thinking that the worst was behind me.  Not quite, the Seoul Station is huge and is both the train station and subway station.  My train was on one side of the station and my hotel was on the other and there are 12 or more exits out of the maze that dumps you onto different streets.

I spent another hour trudging from one exit to another dragging my bags and bruised and battered body cursing the Korean engineer who designed this tangled mess of tunnels, dead ends, and halls that double back on themselves.  Ultimately, I found my way out and earned my piece of cheese and checked into my hotel.  And from that point forward my Seoul adventure improved.

On my first day in Korea, I booked a tour (the only way to visit unless you are the President) of the DMZ between North and South Korea.  The drive to the DMZ is less than an hour at speed limit – makes you wonder how fast North Korean tanks and troops could reach Seoul without the United States presence as a deterrent. 

Once at the DMZ our schedule included visits to Imjingak Park to see the Freedom Bridge, a walk deep into the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, DMZ Exhibition Hall, the Dora Observatory for a (not so clear) view into North Korea, and Dorasan Train Station.

Imjingak Park is your typical tourist trap containing a few statues, some large photos and historical descriptions on the walls, a few museum-quality historical pieces and lots of souvenir shops, cafes, small grocery stores, and restrooms.  But everyone must stop here to get their tickets/passes and proffer passports for further passage to the Observation Area, 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, and Dorasan Train Station.

From the Dora Observatory, you can look across and into North Korea and on a clear day and see Gaeseong, Songakasan, Kim Il-Sung Statue, and Geumamgol(Cooperation Farm), and a very tall North Korean Flag. Unfortunately, I was not there on a clear day.  It was overcast and foggy.  I could barely see the mountain that has a North Korean observation post atop it.  I could not see the statue of Kim or much of anything else except the Cooperation farm

I could see the very huge North Korean Flag Pole.  The North Koreans originally built it as the tallest flagpole in the world to intimidate the South.  Of course, both countries were run by men and the leader of the south couldn’t come up short in a phallic measuring contest so he had his pole erected 10 meters taller than Kim’s.  Which as you might guess, inspired North Korea to grow their staff a little bigger.  I don’t remember which side gave up first but eventually the flag measuring completion ended peacefully.

While at the Observatory we watched a very moving video on the war, America’s sacrifices in blood and treasure to protect the South Koreans, the truce and the construction of the DMZ.  There were also many large photographs and commentary about the war and America’s contributions displayed on the walls throughout the building.

Next stop after the Dora Observatory was the 3rd Underground Infiltration Tunnel.  This tunnel stretches over 1.6 kilometers and is 2 meters high by 2 meters wide built along with at least two others in complete secrecy right under the South Korean and United States Army’s feet.  The tunnel could flood as many as 30,000 rabid zombie North Korean troops an hour into South Korea.  And though the guidebook claims the tunnel is 2 meters tall that is total bullshit.

Fortunately, the tour of the tunnel requires a hard hat but still I had to bend at the waist at a 45-degree angle and walk in a crouch for the entire 3.2 kilometer walk roundtrip into the tunnel and still banged my head on the uneven ceiling at least 100 times.  And what was the payoff for following the dark, damp, claustrophobic midget tunnel to its conclusion? A steel door with a small opening about one foot by 6 inches you could yell obscenities at Little Rocket Man into if you wished.

The last stop on the tour was an ultramodern train station to nowhere.  The station has been built in preparation for reunification.  Once opened the plan is to link South Korea by train with North Korea, China, Russia and even Europe.  Very ambitious considering the leaders of the two countries are still having phallic symbol measuring contests.

Once back in Seoul I visited the Deoksugung Palace (became the Royal Residence in 1575).  I arrived just in time to see the Palace Changing of the Guard.  I’ve included plenty of photos of both this palace, the Gyeongbokgung Palace (established in 1395) and the Sungnyemun City Gate (built in 1396) and Changing of the Guard Ceremonies.  And as you might predict the ancient buildings are beautiful and the lavish gardens are immaculate.  However, the people visiting the Palaces are the show stoppers.

Deoksugung Palace (became the Royal Residence in 1575)

Gyeongbokgung Palace (established in 1395)

I was fortunate to be in Seoul for their Independence Day so many of their local tourists were dressed up in rented period costumes.  I’ve also posted many photos of pretty young ladies dressed in their period costumes.

Sungnyemun City Gate (built in 1396)

One odd moment as the South Koreans celebrated their Independence Day was when all the sudden the band switched gears and some Korean dude began singing our patriotic songs.  It was a very nice gesture but hearing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and America the Beautiful sounds a little different coming from a guy with a thick Korean accent and a crappy sound system.

Two of my favorite moments in Seoul was a wonderful Korean Barb B Que Steak at the famous Maple Tree House Restaurant followed by an evening listening to Jazz at the appropriately named “All That Jazz” Club.  In addition to the Maple tree dinner I enjoyed street food at the Namdaemun Market, and a couple of lunches as I wandered around Bukchon Hanok Village.

The Bukchon Hanok Village is a traditional Korean Village surrounded by busy modern Seoul.  The village is wedged between Gyeongbokgung Palace/Folk Museum, Changdeok Palace and the Jongmyo Royal Shrine.  The traditional village has hundreds of hanok (600 year old traditional houses) that have been converted into trendy stores, cafes, tea houses, and cultural centers.  And seeing all the women dressed in dresses from centuries ago added to the charm of the old cobblestone hanok lined streets, lanes and alleys. 

Bukchon Hanok Village

Gyeongbokgung Palace/Folk Museum

The only other places I visited were the Jogyesa Temple and Jongmyo Shrine and photos of both are attached.

Jogyesa Temple

Jongmyo Shrine

My next stop was a flight to Jeju Island but that is a blog for another day.

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Kyoto, Japan – (June 12 – 15)

I began my Kyoto tour with a series of temples – no surprise there!  My first visit was to Ryoanji Temple originally a country house for the Tokudaji Clan.  It was bought in 1450 to be used as a Zen training temple.  Ryoanji was registered as a World Heritage site in 1994.

The most prominent feature of the temple is a 25 by 10-meter rock garden built in the 15th century by a Zen monk.  The garden has a clay wall, no trees or plants of any kind and 9 rocks and a bunch of gravel that has been scraped with a rake into some design that is supposed to be art.  Frankly, I didn’t get it.  Looked like a big ass litter box to me.  Photos of the entrance, Kyoyochi Pond, stupa, temple, and Tsukubai (a stone wash-basin) are attached.

The second temple visit was the Rokuon-Ji Temple.  The garden was originally owned by a powerful Shogun but upon his death, he had stipulated that the property was converted into a temple.  The most prominent feature of this temple is a beautiful Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku).

The pond with the Golden Pavilion and large and small islands are the centerpiece of the garden.  Additionally, there are large rocks strategically placed along the paths around the pond donated by various lords throughout Japan during the 13th century.

The pavilion has three levels and the top two are lacquer wood covered in gold foil.  A golden Phoenix stands atop the golden shingled roof.  Attached are photos of the pond, pavilion from several directions, as well as several other buildings on the grounds.

Kogosho (Place for Ceremonies and Imperial Audiences)

Next I visited the Kyoto Imperial Palace.  The palace was rebuilt in 1855 to match its glory days during Japan’s ancient imperial dynasties.

The Imperial complex includes the Shisinden, the Seiryoden, the Kogosyo, the Ogakumonjyo, and the Otsunegoten all reflecting the architectural styles of their eras. 

The palace grounds are enclosed by huge imposing walls and accessed by several gatehouses.  Visitors access is limited to the gardens and the palace buildings but unfortunately, none of the buildings can be entered.  Still the palace is worth a visit if you admire architecture and history.  Photos of the exterior of buildings and the gardens are attached above.

The photos include the Shinmikurumayose (carriage porch) which was reserved for high ranking officials attending rituals or audiences with the emperor.  

The Shodaibunoma (Waiting Rooms) – three rooms divide into sections where visitors waited according to their rank.  The highest ranking officials used the “Room of the Tigers”, the next level visitor used the “Room of the Cranes” and the lowliest visitors used the “Room of the Cherry Blossoms”.  Each room had beautifully painted representations of the room on the sliding doors leading to the room.

The Shishinden Hall is the most important building in the palace and is used for State Ceremonies.  This hall was used to enthrone Emperors Taisho and Showa.  And of course, the interior is off limits to tourists.  So, no photos of the emperor’s or empress’ thrones.

I’ve posted photos of each of these buildings as well as the Kogosho, Seiryoden, and the gardens.

Day 2

Day 2 in Kyoto and I was up early to visit the Kiyomizu-dera (Pure Water) Temple – a World Heritage Site.  The temple was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall.  The Temple, built without the use of a single nail, is renowned for the terrace or stage that extends out from the main hall 50 feet above the forested hillside below.  The view from the terrace is beautiful with a forest of mature maple and cherry trees extending out for acres below and modern Kyoto in the distant skyline.  The vista in June was beautiful but I can only imagine the view in spring with the cherry trees in blossom or the view in the fall with the maple leaves turning golden and crimson.   

Behind the main hall is the small Jishu Shrine dedicated to the god of love and matchmaking.  Unmarried women come to the shrine to ask for Okuninushino-Mikoto for help finding a husband.  You will notice in the photo of Mikoto a statue of a rabbit – the rabbit is the messenger to the god.


The Otowa Falls are located at the base of the main hall and visitors can drink from the falls using cups with long poles. Drinking from the stream is believed to provide long life, success in school and a healthy love life.  You can choose one benefit – choosing all three is just damn greedy.  On the far end of the temple grounds stands the three story Koyasu Pagoda.  Other structures on the temple grounds include the Okunion Hall, halls dedicated to Shaka Buddha and Amida Buddha.

Just outside the temple grounds are a virtual steep maze of small streets and lanes crammed full of small shops, souvenir stands, cafes and tea houses.  The walk into the temple and then out again walking to the Kodai-ji Temple is a visual treat in itself.  I have included plenty of photos of both the temple and the street scenes with this blog.

Next after a 15minute walk and 30 minute Starbucks break I began my tour of Kodai-ji Temple. Kodai-ji was built in 1606 and consist of several lavishly designed and furnished buildings surrounded by more Zen Rock Gardens.  Buildings in the complex includes: the Main Hall, Kaizando memorial hall, the mausoleum for Hideyoshi and his wife Nene, a tea house, and Entokuin Temple.  In addition to the Rock Gardens there is a much more interesting tsukiyama style garden with a small pond, man-made hills, and beautiful pine and maple trees.  Finally, walking back down the hill from the tea houses is an incredible bamboo grove.  Photos of all are attached.

With just a short but interesting walk (photos attached above) of ten minutes I reached my next destination – Yasaka Shrine.  Founded in the 6th century the Yasaka Shrine has an elaborate entrance gate and main hall (containing the inner sanctuary and offering hall).  Photos attached below.

Next up – the Chionin Temple built in 1294 and on a grand scale.  The temple sports the largest bell in Japan at over 20 feet tall and weighing 74 tons.  Seventeen monks are required to ring this huge bell.  In fact, every building on the temple grounds is wooden and is built bigger than life.  Photos are attached below. 

The Nanzen-ji Temple was my next destination – one of the most significant Zen temples in Japan.  The temple was founded in the 13th century when the Emperor built his retirement villa on the site and then later converted it over to a Zen temple.  The first thing you see as you approach the temple are the huge Sanmon Gates (over 80 feet tall).  The extensive grounds contain elaborate Rock Gardens, a pond garden and an oddly placed aqueduct built much later in the late 18th century to carry water to the city.

The best part of this temple visit is that you could enter the various halls and buildings.  Tons of photos are attached.

After spending way too much time visiting the Nanzen-ji Temple, I walked the Philosopher’s Walk to the Ginkaku-ji Temple.  The 2 kilometer stone path that follows a cherry tree (over 100) lined canal from the Nanzenji to the Ginkakuji Silver Pavilion.  The path also runs along a small street lined with small cafes and tea houses.  I had a great club sandwich and glass of ice tea in one of the cafes.

The Ginkaku-ji Temple was originally a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa in 1482.  Today’s temple complex consists of the Silver Pavilion, half dozen additional temple buildings, a moss garden and sand garden.  The Silver Pavilion is a two-story structure with each story constructed in a different architecture style.  I’m not sure why it is called the Silver Pavilion since there isn’t a hint of silver on the building.

Following the path past the Pavilion leads you to the dry sand garden called the “Sea of Silver Sand”.  At the end of the sand garden, there is a large sand cone called the “Moon Viewing Platform”.  Beside the garden stands the Hondo (main hall).  Next to the Hondo is the Togudo.  Once past the Togudo the path takes you by the moss garden featuring ponds with islands and bridges, small streams and tons of different plants.  The photos will help you follow the narrative.

Day 3

Day 3 began with a false start. I had scheduled a visit to the Katsura Imperial Villa but after my taxi driver spending a half hour trying to find the place and realizing I would never find a taxi back – I decided to skip this site and move on to the more centrally located Tenryu-ji Temple.

The Tenryu-ji Temple was originally built in 1339 but has burned to the ground eight times over the centuries.  The current structures only date back to 1868.  However, the gardens have survived in their original form.  There are three significant buildings the main hall (Hojo), the drawing hall (Shoin) and the temple kitchen (Kuri) all built between 1868 and 1912.  Photos attached.

My final site to visit required a short walk thru town, over the river and up to the top of a small mountain to visit the Arashiyama Monkey Park.  While on top the mountain with the monkeys the sky opened- up and this was the one day that I brought neither a rain jacket or umbrella.  I had a very cold and wet walk down the mountain and wait to catch a taxi.  I’m not sure the monkeys were worth the climb up the mountain or the wet return trip.  Photos attached anyway.

One final comment about Japan – their food sucks!!!  This is the only country I have been forced to search out American Fast Food for survival.  I have enjoyed the cuisine in the 14 other countries I have visited so far – but not Japan!  The food they eat looks and smells absolutely disgusting.  And it explains a lot about why they had such an imperialistic past.  They were starving and in search of a decent meal.

Normally I can find something on an Asian breakfast buffet that I will eat – boiled eggs, watermelon, bananas, tomatoes, toast.  I just need to look past all the rice, noodles, freaky fruit and half cooked seafood.  This was not the case in Kyoto.  My hotel buffet offered no breads of any kind, no tomatoes, and the only fruits on display were tropical crap fruits.  I finally found a bowl of boiled eggs and thought at least I would have something to begin my day.

I don’t know how most people crack and peel their boiled eggs but I give the egg a firm squeeze as I hit it on the edge of the table.  This works very well with an actual boiled egg.  Not so much with a fricking raw egg!  My meager breakfast exploded and raw egg flew out in a 360 degree spray all over me, the table and a few neighboring garbage eaters.  Not a pretty site!

Who the hell eats raw eggs for breakfast you might ask? The same World War II losers that eat everything else not fit for human consumption – that’s who!  So, if you are going to Japan – pack your own damn food or starve.

And that ends my Japan excursion.  On to Shanghai and some good Chinese food!

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