Friday, August 31, 2007

Making Your Life Easier

A lot of you have complained that the address for this blog is a bit difficult to remember. In honor of our one-year anniversary of arriving in Beijing, we have simplified our URL so you no longer need to remember all that shuanglong and blogspot stuff. Our new address is: www.jamesinbj.com (the old address will still work though). Feel free to share it with your friends and loved ones!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Siem Reap Photos

The photos from our trip to Siem Reap have started their slow way onto our photo site, so if you're aching to see a bunch of temples (only 342 when they're all up there), point your mouse here.

UPDATE: The photos have been reorganized into separate galleries by major temples that we visited. The link has been amended to take you to the top-level gallery.

Macaques at Angkor Thom

While in Siem Reap we found this group of long-tailed macaques just inside the gate of Angkor Thom. Kids sell bananas and lotus heads for tourists to feed to the macaques.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Leaving Siem Reap

We are about to leave Siem Reap, flying via Kunming back to the wonders of Beijing. This has been a great trip, not just because we got to see our great friends and traveling companions, but also because the temples really are magnificent, and the Cambodians are wonderful hosts. We certainly did justice to the archeological sights of the area, visiting all of the major temples and most of the minor ones, too, including several very out-of-the-way locations that require you to pay your driver a bit extra to make it worth his while. (Apropos of which, I thought it interesting that the car we drove around in on our last day had a sticker indicating that it was sold by a Toyota dealership in the Bronx.)

As usual, we have zillions of photos to sort through when we get home, so there will be ample opportunity for you to take an armchair tour of the monuments once they are categorized, processed, and uploaded. Suffice it to say, that our four days here produced well in excess of 2,000 images, so this process may take a little time.

If you're thinking of traveling to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, we can only recommend it very highly. There is lots to see, of course, but also the food is great, the accommodations more than adequate (and that's for a budget place, you can also get very fancy accommodations if you're willing to pay for them), and the toilet facilities are top-notch (that last is particularly for members of my family, who can be particular in that regard...).

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Siem Reap (Temples--Day One)

One of the things about Khmer temples is that they afford the visitor opportunities to visit them several times during a visit, since they look very different at various times of day. Some of them are renowned for sunrise views, other for sunsets, and still others at other times of day, but Angkor Wat, the Big One, is a particularly big draw for sunrise, and thus we found ourselves stumbling around in the dark at around 5:45am working our way to the center of the complex for the views. Unfortunately, this is the rainy season, so the skies were filled with clouds (wispy ones though, rather than rainclouds) and our viewing was not ideal. But it's a wonderful temple anyway, and made our visit worthwhile. In one spot you can climb up some remarkably narrow and steep steps to get a view over the complex, which several of us ventured (though not all of us then dared to step away from the platform, since one of our friends suffers from periodic vertigo).

After visiting A.W. we decided to treat ourselves to breakfast at one of the many restaurant stalls nearby, where we were astounded by the high quality of the coffee (we each ordered second cups) and the slowness of the service. But it was good, and we were hungry, and when we were done it still was not 7am.

Since we had a car and driver for the day, getting around the temples was a piece of cake, and there was no particular incentive to plan the day strategically to minimize our driving around. But the sun was a strong motivator and we made an effort to avoid it as much as possible, since the clouds proved short-lived and before long it started to get hot and muggy. We thus decided to go to the Bayon Temple first, followed by Ta Prohm, since the former is relatively exposed while the latter has dense tree cover. This turned out to be a wise course of action, since just when it was getting too hot to stand Bayon any longer we had finished our visit (though J2 and I plan to return at least once, since this is one of our favorite temples, with its iconic towers with 216 large faces of Buddha facing in all directions and at all levels). Unfortunately, our friend's nephew, who joined us as part of his high school graduation celebration, had misplaced the entry pass that all visitors need to get into the sites, and had gone back to the car to get it when we entered the temple. We thus found ourselves at the end of our visit, never having run into him inside the temple, so we had to go in search of him, which ended up taking a bit of crafty thinking (where would I go if I were a teenager in a strange country with no way to contact my traveling companions) and a short amount of time (he was, of course, chatting up a young female salesgirl at one of the stalls).

After moving on to Ta Prohm, and then having some lunch, we continued the day with more temples--Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei, and Phnom Bakheng specifically--intending to spend the sunset hours at the last of these, though it turned out to be not quite the view we had hoped for, so after climbing to the top of another steep temple we turned back and headed to town for a relaxing evening and delicious dinner at the quixotically named Dead Fish Tower restaurant.

Siem Reap arrival

Our trip to Cambodia could not be in starker contrast with our recent trip to Tibet! Whereas in Tibet the weather was at best tepid, and the food at best surmountable, in Cambodia we are generally sweating through three sets of clothes a day (and taking an equal number of showers) and the food has generally been excellent, particularly the coffee (about which in Tibet the less said the better).

One definite downside to Cambodia, however, is the flight from China. Not only is there not much choice in route or carriers, but the connections are universally awful. We wound up leaving Beijing at around noon on Friday, arriving in Kunming in the southern province of Yunnan around 4, but not connecting until 9pm, leaving us with a lot of time on our hands in an airport that makes JFK seem user-friendly. Fortunately we were able to check our bags in a left-luggage room so we could head into town for an early dinner of Yunnan's famous Cross-the-Bridge Noodles, which were OK, but nothing I'd cross a bridge for everyday.

Luckily for us, our international flight left Kunming on time (early, actually), and we arrived in Siem Reap's new modern airport (a far cry from what was here when I last visited, in 1998) at 10:00pm. Incredibly, the Cambodian entry procedures made those in China appear efficient and laid-back, since the inspectors use no fewer than five separate stamps to mark your passport for entry, and then have to write in some other information by hand. And here I thought that the fact that we could apply for our visas online meant this was a fully modern place!

Since our flight got in early, there was no one from the hotel at the airport to meet us, and since it was late, there was no bank open, so we debated how we'd get in to town given that we could not figure out how to call the hotel on my mobile. Fortunately for us, everyone here accepts US dollars, and it turns out that the ride from the airport into town is free so long as you us the same driver to cart you around the temples. We found a suitable car, explaining that we would not need him until our other friends left town, and got to the hotel around 10:30.

Our friends had arrived some time earlier, and were very jet lagged, so were not anxiously awaiting our arrival, but instead left us a note to tell us we'd leave the hotel the next morning at 5:15 for sunrise at Angkor Wat temple. I checked the note several times to make sure it was authentic, since it was inconceivable that Barbara would agree to such a wake up time (I know if I had suggested it, it'd have been laughed off as one of my jokes), but all indicators pointed to its veracity, so we set the alarm for 5am and went to sleep. Too bad for us China is 1 hour ahead of Cambodia, since I had not correctly changed the time zone on my alarm clock, so we were up at 4am, rather than 5...

Friday, August 17, 2007

Off Again

Yes, we know that we just got back from a holiday in Tibet, but that was July, and here it is mid-August and it's time to travel again. This time we'll be leaving China for a change, heading to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat with our great friends, Abdo and Barbara. We will of course report on our trip later on, and with luck post a photo or two when we're back. We should be back in Beijing on Aug 23.

Monday, August 13, 2007

From the Department of Weather Modification

August started off with terrible pollution in the city of Beijing, with each day breaking with gray skies and chewable air. Suddenly, after the ceremonies marking the year-to-go mark before the opening of the 2008 Olympics, the weather experienced a dramatic turn, with blue skies dominating and air that you would not dread breathing. Sure, the city government took approximately 1,000,000 cars of the road, and closed several factories to bring this about, but if it works, why not? (We're told that we can expect this lovely situation to last until the 20th, whereupon those cars will return to the streets and the factories will reopen.)

But yesterday was stage two of the experiment, apparently. Whereas the day had been clear and warm all day, all of a sudden, and without any warning, the skies suddenly opened with a very dramatic hail- and thunderstorm in the early evening, releasing a torrent of rain that we had no warning would arrive. In fact, when I checked my weather station and the online weather reports, all said that we were experiencing clear weather, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

The mystery of this situation was explained this morning--apparently the storm was man-made, an opportunity to test out the ability of its Department for Weather Modification (it really does exist!) to make the weather suit its needs. I'm not sure that it's ultimately a good idea to modify the weather like this, but we were safely ensconced in our apartment when it happened, so who am I to complain?

Friday, August 10, 2007

More Chinese-English Translation Trouble


A colleague shared this with me today, and I just had to share it with my audience. If only someone had written the word "stick" more clearly when they sent this job to the printer....

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Shanghai Again






I spent the past 2 1/2 days in Shanghai looking at sites for us to set up a new facility and of course had to bring my camera with me to allow me to photograph the prospects to show my colleagues back in Beijing. Of course, since I just got a new camera (I upgraded from my old Canon 20D to a new Canon 5D) I also took the opportunity to take some pictures of my own. Thanks to a typhoon somewhere in the East China Sea, we had clear-as-a-bell skies in Shanghai, though it was also quite hot and humid, so my preference was to go out at night and in the early morning to shoot photos.

Incidentally, while in Shanghai, I found myself having dinner my two nights there at two different very Japanese restaurants a block or so from my hotel. I had known that there is a large Japanese population in the city (our hospital there has to offer our paperwork and forms in Japanese to cater to them) but I had not really seen it for myself. But these two restaurants could just as easily have been in Tokyo as in Shanghai, with all the patrons (other than myself, obviously) Japanese businessmen and the waitresses all dressed in typical Japanese waitress fashion, speaking Japanese. At one of the restaurants, a yakitori place called Hanasen, they even bowed (rather robotically, I thought) before and after placing your order in front of you, taking it away, or any other interaction with the clientele. Very weird.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Tibet Loot







During our trip to Tibet, we managed to make a few purchases, some even for ourselves! The first thing we bought was the little square rug, which we found at the Dropenling shop. Dropenling is the retail outlet for a program that is partially funded by an NGO to promote native Tibetan crafts, which, since much of the stuff that is sold in Tibet comes from Tibetan communities outside of the province (including India and Nepal), are under threat. Their prices are reasonable, and shipping to Beijing is very inexpensive, so we did not even have to schlep it around.

The thangkas are both from the Mani Thangka Shop, where we also bought two thangkas for our friends from the hospital. Unfortunately, the photos do not do them justice. The prayer wheel and the dorje or "thunderbolt" we both got at the airport, after looking fruitlessly for something like them in Tibet itself. The prayer wheel is around 90 years old (supposedly) and the dorje is around 50 years old (supposedly). Even if they're not old, we don't really care.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Shopping Day




You'd think after our ten-day holiday in Tibet, during which we ended up doing a lot of shopping for religious paintings (thangkas), prayer wheels, a dorje (thunderbolt), and assorted pieces of jewelry (just in case there is any question, those of you who receive Christmas presents from us should not be surprised when they turn out to be Tibetan), we'd be shopped out. When the carpet that we ordered on the day of our arrival in Lhasa arrived the day after I returned to work, we almost immediately called the people we bought it from to order another one. And even more amazing, we wound up deciding that we had to visit the Panjiayuan "Dirt Market" today to see about finding some other Tibetan knick-knacks that we were unable to find in Tibet. As it turns out, our memory of the breadth of the selection at Panjiayuan was a bit exaggerated, as we turned up empty-handed, though it did give me a chance to try out my new camera a bit, and the photos you see here were taken with it at the market.

From the Dirt Market we proceeded to Beijing's Home Depot to pick up some assorted house things, including a bin to store our dog food in and some replacement extension cords. While there we figured we'd also look for a new oven, since the one that came with the oven is so unsatisfactory. As luck would have it, today they were having a sale on Whirlpool ovens, so we were able to get one made by a company that understands that the racks should be designed to stay in the oven when you pull them out to flip cookies or remove the roast from the oven (our Ariston oven has no such safety device, so you have to remind yourself to stop pulling the rack out before it drops to the floor). The oven should arrive on Friday, so my Easy-Bake days will soon come to an end!!

Friday, August 03, 2007

First Glimpse of Olympic Venues




Here it is, nearly one year before the opening day of the Olympics, and I just happened to be riding in a cab to a meeting in Haidian when I suddenly realized I was approaching the new National Stadium, aka the Bird's Nest, and the National Swimming Center, which are the centerpieces of the Olympic village. Fortunately, I had my new camera on me, and was able to snap these three pictures.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Tibet Photos!


I have culled through the 2,000+ photos that we took in Tibet and reduced it to a more manageable 450 photos, which I have then broken up into several galleries on our Smugmug page. Click here to see them, or enter http://shuanglong.smugmug.com/Travel/356267 into your web browser.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Tibet Trip Summary

No one ever said that you go to Tibet for the food. For someone who generally travels for culinary as much as scenic and cultural interest, Tibet was decidedly a one-sided experience. While it's definitely interesting to sample bocha (yak butter tea), yak meat, tsampa (ground roasted barley mixed with bocha, yak butter and probably ground yak, too), it's not something that you find you crave once you return to sea level. However, the scenic beauty of the place, and the amazingly friendly people make up for the cuisine. Besides, they say that you should not overeat when at high altitude, and Tibet, unlike Peru, makes following that advice very easy.

Aside from the cuisine, and the threat of AMS (acute mountain sickness), the main other ailment most likely to befall visitors to Tibet is AMF--Acute Monastery Fatigue. Pretty much every day of your stay in Tibet is occupied with visiting monasteries, and then with driving for hours--often along among the worst roads you'll ever experience outside of New York City--to visit another monastery. Just like the great cathedrals of Europe, each monastery has basically the same layout, with the same pantheon of gods, paintings, statues, etc., and once you have seen, oh, about 15 of them, they start blending together in your mind so you can hardly remember which is which. In contrast with the great monotheistic religions of the world, Buddhism appears to be a very steep religion, so the Tibetans tend to put their monasteries on the sides of mountains, so at the very least you have the potential for amazing views (in particular at places like Ganden and Drak Yerpa outside of Lhasa) and of course you get to work off all that bocha, yak meat and tsampa as you trudge up the mountain to visit them.

Traveling around Tibet and staying in progressively worse accommodations the further we got from Lhasa made me realize that Tibet in 2007 is a lot like metropolitan China was around 20 years ago. However, if anything, the pace of change appears to be much faster in Tibet than in China, with new construction in evidence everywhere and more and more migrants coming in from the crowded cities of China to make it rich in China's Wild West. I am not sure whether this is ultimately a good thing for Tibet or not; on the one hand, even the Dalai Lama says that Tibet must modernize, but it seems that Tibet runs the risk of losing its Tibetness as more and more Chinese come in, displacing the Tibetans and making them even more marginalized than they already are. I'm glad we visited Tibet, and probably will go again, but I really wish I had been there about 20 years ago.