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Tour de Asia

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Hiking in Rice Fields

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Sapa has been an intense and amazing 4 day excursion. I am traveling with Vivian, Jocelyn, Carl and Aaron. Getting to Sapa involves an overnight train from Hanoi. There was excitement right from the start when the train started moving while some passengers were off the train. A brief chase resulted in dashed hopes for two unfortunate souls. Those who were safely on board experienced a 9 hour train ride that was clean but sans A/C, definitely a test of our limits given the heat and humidity of summer in Vietnam.

Once we get out of the train, there is a 1 hour ride in a mini-bus to Sapa. Climbing from 600 meters to overal 1600 meters, the views are breathtaking. Steep lush mountains covered in rice paddy terraces at unbelievable angles. Water buffalo, ducks and pigs graze over the remaining open spaces.

The 2 day hike starts in Sapa and includes 2 "Homestays" with local villagers (Black Hmong mountain people). The trails are slightly perilous as the path is steep and often muddy. Several sections involve walking along the rice paddy walls themselves. The terrain is extremely scenic with huge granite peaks jutting up from the river valley. The flanks of the mountain are covered by two distinct bands of foliage: dense bamboo forrests at the upper reaches and ubiquitous rice paddies lower down.

For most of the trip, women selling handicrafts vastly outnumbered the mosquitos whiched proved to be an interesting trade-off. In the villages and at various points along the trail we met many fellow travelers but sadly had limited contact with locals (outside of the sales pitch). Our first night with a host family was the best- the children were very playful and at dinner we learned A LOT about rice wine.

A highlight for the trip was the waterfall on our last day of hiking. The current was strong but the water was cool and refreshing. A lowlight was definitely the food: after Thailand, its hard to understand how basic ingredients don't always come out tasting fantastic.

As we wrapped up our hike today, we decided to hitch a ride on motorbikes back to Sapa. To add to the adventure already provided by high speeds along perilous cliffs, we also had (1) rain that turned the roads to mud (2) road construction that forced us to wait while giant rock sections were being dynamited in front of us.

We are all hopeful that our overnight train ride back to Hanoi will have A/C but more importantly we are looking forward to relaxing on a boat in Hulong Bay.

permalink written by  benjgolf on June 17, 2007 from Sa Pa, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Tour de Asia
tagged VietnamSapaHikingWaterfall

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Scuba Diving - Alor + Pantar Islands, West Timor

Kalabahi, Indonesia

Fantastic visibility + crazy macro and pelagic diving (translation: small + big fish) + True Remote Destination = Lifetime Memory.

I arranged to dive with Alor Divers for a few days as the pinnacle of my scuba trip.
GETTING THERE: A minor adventure on its own, Alor is located in the Southeastern edge of Indonesia, near Australia. It’s a 1.5 hr flight on Merpati Air from Dempasar, Bali to Kupang (capital of East Nusa Tenggara province). Next is a 40 minute flight on Trigana Air from Kupang to Kalabahi, Alor. Flights have the most amazing island/volcano scenery you will see anywhere. I wish I had chartered a sight-seeing plane. I am met at the airport by a minivan and taken to a dock where I take a half-hour boat ride from Alor to the island of Pantar.

NOTE: For a crazy blog story detailing some of the traveling challenges in this area circa 2001 check out http://www.twogypsies.com/html/indonesia1.html

This part of Indonesia is incredibly remote and poor. Many different tribes and languages exist but most of the communities I see seem to be divided into Muslims and Christians. There is a history of distrust and violence between these groups but I don’t see any of this first-hand. 90% of the visitors come for the diving as this area is blessed with all the right attributes: clear warm water, strong nutrient-rich currents, incredible biodiversity. Scientists come from around the world to explore and routinely discover new species of aquatic life. Added bonus is that this area tends to be more arid so there is less humidity and standing water for mosquitoes to breed. June just happens to be the rainy season so I experienced a few afternoon showers.

The dive resort is fantastic- kind of a luxury Robinson Crusoe sort of experience. Gilles, the French owner, is a great dive master and points out a lot of amazing creatures. He and his wife have a newborn baby for which they plan to eventually return to society for schooling. In the meantime, what an incredible place to grow up! The other dive guests include couples from the Netherlands, France and Germany. Everyone speaks English to make the ignorant American (me) feel comfortable.

Gilles spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of running his dive resort. One challenge is poaching- generally Chinese boats that are illegally fishing. They hunt for sharks (just the fins thank you) but also tuna, etc. He and some of the other dive companies keep watch and alert the authorities. They also chase the ships down and photograph them to scare them away.

Another issue is getting supplies. The economy is horribly inefficient and there is almost no access to credit so businesses can’t grow or stock things easily. Paradoxically, many shop owners sink a disproportionate amount of their assets into inventory. It’s safer to keep your money in tangible items as a hedge against currency risks (devaluation/ inflation). Inventory has little variety and there’s almost no chance to get special order items unless you prepay and get them shipped. Consequently, most customers depend on the entrepreneurial Chinese minority. This group maintains informal business relationships where credit is provided based on the strength of family ties. The Chinese have been quite successful providing products where the rest of the market seems to have failed.

permalink written by  benjgolf on June 3, 2007 from Kalabahi, Indonesia
from the travel blog: Tour de Asia
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Insights from Bali

Kuta, Indonesia

Tourism is definitely a buyers market in Bali. The economy is still suffering from some bombings that occurred several years before but the experience in Bali is very safe- you have more to fear from traditional risks such as crazy drivers and aggressive vendors than from terrorism. Upshot is that hotels and food are inexpensive and plentiful. People are friendly. Scenery is beautiful. It’s simply a great place to explore!

Withdrawing Cash. ATMs can be a challenge if you need large amounts- which for Indonesia can be anything over $60. I was in a tough situation because I needed extra cash to pay for an upcoming scuba trip. Solution: Head to the international airport where the Citibank ATM allowed individual withdrawals of $160 at a time. I was able to talk my way through the airport security and 4 transactions later I was on my way.

The Singapore Factor. Singaporeans come to party at the swanky clubs in Semanyak. I learned from them that Singapore’s society faces some interesting gender challenges. As women have become empowered and entered the work force, they have less interest in the traditional wife role. Marriage and birth rates declined. The Singapore government became concerned and has made efforts to encourage socializing (cocktail parties, etc.) in the hopes of reversing the trend. I don’t know how successful they’ve been but anecdotally I have heard that many Singaporean men have taken on wives with traditional values from China while Singaporean women have increasingly married progressive westerners.

permalink written by  benjgolf on May 30, 2007 from Kuta, Indonesia
from the travel blog: Tour de Asia
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Slumming it in Kuta, Bali

Kuta, Indonesia

Two separate groups of MBA’s are crossing paths in Bali: Kevin, Nathalie, Tiphanie and Irena in one group and Vivian, Jocelyn, and Carl in the other. I am staying with the latter group in Kuta, a slightly seedy backpacker district of Bali, consisting primarily of Australian surfers.

Carl booked us at the famous Poppy II. This walled garden sanctuary filled with a handful of bungalows provides a peaceful contrast to the incessant street hawkers and their repetitive low-grade wares (t-shirts, fake watches, etc.). It’s also only $20/night which includes a fridge and some friendly mosquitoes.

Kevin’s group is staying at the beautiful Westin, an isolated resort just a bit further South. Fortunately, taxis are plentiful so it’s easy to get around. We met up for dinner twice: once in swanky Semanyak and second near the Westin. Highlight: hanging out at the Westin’s private beach in giant cushioned chairs with nothing do but relax, look at the moon and drink some local brew.

Carl, Jocelyn, Viv and I took a day tour of Bali with Made (Ma-de) Wijawa, an entrepreneurial tour guide with his own van (wijaya7@hotmail.com). We had a relaxing day seeing some of the local tourist attractions such as Monkey Forest and Ubud (arts and crafts). It was refreshing to have such a reliable guide so we recommended him to Kevin’s group as well.

permalink written by  benjgolf on May 28, 2007 from Kuta, Indonesia
from the travel blog: Tour de Asia
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Welcome to Bali

Sanur, Indonesia

Bali is exactly the bustling little paradise that you might imagine when you hear the name. It’s also a place that has yet to recover from the twin crises of Indonesia’s currency devaluation and terrorist bombings. This is unfortunate because the overall tourism levels haven’t recovered despite the island being such a great bargain.

The upside is that you never have to wait for a table at a restaurant and you can always catch a cab. I’m meeting up with two different groups of MBA trekkers but first I have a week of SCUBA diving on the east side of the island. I’m using Blue Divers which is run by Jonathan, a friendly British ex-pat.

I’m diving three times a day with my own private dive master, Komeng. Not cheap but considering the last minute arrangements, it’s definitely worth it. First, I am staying in Tulamben for some shore diving around the USS Liberty Wreck. Shore dives require a little more work because you don’t just put on your gear and fall off a boat. Fortunately, the locals swing into action and carry our gear to the beach for us. I split my feelings between guilt and awe as I watch middle-aged women balancing 50 pound steel scuba tanks on their heads.

The wreck itself is not in great condition and the visibility has been relatively poor but there is plenty of marine life, including some very rare species. This is “macro” diving which refers to the macro camera lens used to photograph small sea life. Without Komeng’s experienced eye I would probably miss about 80% of the fish because they are so well camouflaged. Top sightings include a ghost pipefish, circling schools of jack fish and an octopus.

Just as important are the gentle conditions since I am a little out of practice. Plus, I’m breaking in my new SCUBA gear and underwater dive camera. The dive camera is really just an underwater case for a standard Canon point and click digital camera. It’s a cheap solution but it works pretty well, at least until 40 meters deep.

The next dives are off the island of Nusa Penida. The currents here can be very dangerous but Komeng is familiar with the conditions so risks are pretty low. Unfortunately the currents are too strong to visit Manta Point (to see Mantas). Also, it’s a little too early in the season to spot sun fish (mola mola). I’m going to have to come back for that. We did see a few sea turtles, moray eels and various types of scorpion fish. I don’t recall ever seeing this many different types of sea life- which makes sense because the Caribbean only has about 600 species while the Pacific has 4000. All this diving is great but I’m getting tired of the solo travel. I’m looking forward to taking a break from the diving and being social with the other MBA grads coming into Bali.

permalink written by  benjgolf on May 21, 2007 from Sanur, Indonesia
from the travel blog: Tour de Asia
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China's Second System

Hong Kong (historical), Hong Kong

Hong Kong captures the best of Great Britain (beer, traffic laws) and China (noodles, bargain shopping). This city runs day and night with a bustle that makes midtown Manhattan seem like Mayberry. Think upscale Blade Runner. I am staying in Wan Chai which has most of the big shopping malls as well as a hopping night scene. Unfortunately, the night scene is largely "adult" bars so I headed towards some the cleaner trendy area around NoHo (North of Hollywood Road).

NoHo sits right on the Central Escalator which at 800 meters is the longest in the world. The escalator is a perfect way to move up and down the steep hills outside of Central Hong Kong. The sides of the escalator are littered with dozens of charming restaurants and bars. Most are full with European and Australian expats creating an exciting international vibe. Glad that I came. Wish I had time to stay longer.

permalink written by  benjgolf on May 19, 2007 from Hong Kong (historical), Hong Kong
from the travel blog: Tour de Asia
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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Panda

Chengdu, China

Chengdu in Szechuan Province is famous for the spiciest food in China, forests of giant bamboo (as featured in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and the national icon that feeds on the bamboo leaves. This is my last stop on the mainland. My mom heads back to the US after this and I will continue on to Hong Kong.

At dinner, I found out that Szechuan is correctly labeled as ridiculously spicy, but it is also served with the mouth numbing Szechuan pepper that is actually a fruit and not related to chili peppers. Numb does not mean that your mouth doesn’t burn. Even the locals at the restaurant were frequently wiping the chili-induced sweat from their faces. We also learned about an interesting technique that China is using to collect taxes on restaurants. The government adds a lottery ticket to the receipt so that customers will ask for a written bill, thus enabling the government to track restaurant revenue.

The pandas are best seen at the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center, just about an hour outside the city. We got there right before feeding time at 9 AM so that we could see them while they were active (pandas sleep for most of the rest of the day). Pandas are really amazing- I went through 100 photos as they played. The adults and cubs were both fun to watch but we had planes to catch so we sadly bid farewell.

permalink written by  benjgolf on May 18, 2007 from Chengdu, China
from the travel blog: Tour de Asia
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Three Gorges, Yangtze River Cruise

Yichang, China

Plans for Tibet fell through due to changes in the visa situation there so we decided to go on a four day cruise on the Yangtze River to see the famous Three Gorges and the infamous Three Gorges Dam. Our cruise runs up river from Yichang to Chongqing (unpleasantly referred to as the Oven of China because of the heat).

Our ship is the East Queen, reputed to be the most luxurious on the river. The service is great but the ship’s age is starting to show. Our ship is less than half full which we’ve been told is partly due to upcoming renovations that will take the ship out of service. Also, the up river tours tend to be less popular because they add an extra day to the trip. Fellow passengers consist of a rowdy group of English retirees and a few Chinese-American couples.

We reach the Three Gorges Dam early in the cruise and it is immense. This is one of the largest dams in the world and was built for the dual purposes of protecting the down stream communities from dangerous flooding as well as to generate much needed power for the growing population. The water level will rise about 165 meters (~500 feet) and had already risen 150 meters when we were there. Officially there will be 26 turbines to generate electricity but the ‘public secret’ is that there will actually be 34 turbines when all construction is completed.

The dam required the displacement of over one million Chinese citizens including entire cities. In addition to concerns about the environmental impact, a whole way of life for river people is being destroyed. For these folks progress means entering the tourism industry, rowing boats filled with Westerners up some of the smaller tributaries. As we enter the locks, concerns for these people fade away. It takes three hours for our boat to pass through, rising almost 500 feet. You almost forget the millions of tons of water threatening to come gushing through.

After the dam, we continue several hundred kilometers through immense gorges. We spent hours on the top deck in awe of steep lush cliffs rising up on either side. This is a welcome period of relaxation after the hectic cities of Beijing and Xi’an. Next we are off to see the pandas in Chengdu!

permalink written by  benjgolf on May 17, 2007 from Yichang, China
from the travel blog: Tour de Asia
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Xi'an, China

Turns out that this is a huge city of 6 million people. Not a sleepy village. Should have arranged for less time here (read: just big & industrial). The Terra Cotta Warriors are amazing though and well worth the visit. The scale of this emperor's tomb is mind-boggling. Apparently, he became preocuppied about his death and went to great effort to make the transition to the afterward as well-defended as possible. I give him an A+ in preparation considering the thousands of warrior statues assigned to protect him.

An interesting highlight for our trip was stopping to ask directions one day. The helpful woman (a traditional medicine sales person) ended up walking with us for over a kilometer to a famous restaurant known for its traditional Xi'an food. These are mostly lamb dishes contributed by the Moslem minority. The dish we ate, Yang Rou Pao Mo, involves breaking a partially cooked loaf of bread into tiny pieces. This takes about 5-10 minutes depending on how thorough you are. Then add your 'crumbs' to the lamb stew. Yum.

permalink written by  benjgolf on May 11, 2007 from Xi'an, China
from the travel blog: Tour de Asia
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Beijing, China

We're starting off being kind to ourselves, staying at a western-friendly Marriott. While the language and cultural barriers in China are high, we were pleasantly surprised by Beijing’s awesome subway system. It proved to be an easy way to get around the city- better and cheaper than taxis!

Finding food that looked appetizing was usually pretty tough but not as hard as finding internet access. Several times we found ourselves at the "business center" of the hotel spending $30 US/hour.

Day 2. Forbidden City/Tian na men Square. The intricacy of design, coupled with the symbolism and historical significance are almost overwhelming. Given all the behind the scenes political intrigue I can see where kung fu movies get their inspiration. Tian na men Square is still safely in the top 10 list of Orwellian-style government monitored public locations. The government is scared that protesters will tarnish the hard-fought impression that China has civil rights -and that the Chinese are happy with their leadership. The resulting show of force includes security cameras, marching troops, and frequent police patrols. All of which are necessary when your people have more civil rights than they could ask for and are happy with the government.

Day 3. The Great Wall. Truly amazing- not just an overhyped destination. You can really get into how the wall was used as a strategic tool to move troops and defend Mongolian incursions along the perilous mountain range. Better than Friendster (and about tied with Facebook) this network [of walls] greatly improved communication along this rugged border. We had grown accustomed to getting a little dose of propaganda at each tourist spot and we weren’t disappointed here- a museum showcases all the great leaders of the world who have visited the wall, a subtle hint of China’s role as a mover and shaker in the world of international relations.

Day 4. The Hutongs (Ming-era 'alley ways'). These bustling narrow streets filled with small shops and homes with tranquil courtyards are all that’s left of old Beijing. Many of the homes are actually owned by the State and rented out to various state employees. Thank goodness the UAW hasn’t heard about this benefit. We arranged the tour through the hotel, so it was overpriced and slightly under-delivered (the guide was a student in training).

However, the tour was still great because we would have missed a lot if we had set out on our own. For example, China’s social hierarchy is reflected in the design of each home's entry way. Three steps leading to the front door instead of one is a sign of middle class. There were at least four other ‘portal’ factors that indicated the tenant’s status. I am now embarrassed by the entryway of my apartment back home with its cracked cement stairs, peeling paint on the banister and unread newspapers strewn across the lawn.

permalink written by  benjgolf on May 10, 2007 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Tour de Asia
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