Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Frank and Susan Do America

America is really freaking empty.

I don't think people understand just how wide America is. It's really really wide. And most of that is empty space. I forget it all the time. I live in California, in a densely populated area. It's my fish tank. But once you get out of the cities, there's... nothing. A whole lot of nothing.

So we set out from Sacramento, California, heading to Nashville Tennessee. Nevada was beautiful. Strange, barren, Martian landscape, but it had it's charm. It's towns and cities, however, do not. Totally crappy. Over the next three days, we drove nearly 2400 miles. We passed through Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Kentucky, before ending our trip. The farther east we got, the better it was. The ground gained some shape, no longer flat as a pancake. Fields and trees took over from the barren plains. The towns gained history and life, a spark of vibrancy.

Nashville is wonderful. I had about 36 hours there all-told, with one of my greatest friends in the world. What followed was a sleepless, moonshine-ridden marathon of Tennessee experience. We walked through Music Row at 5am, passing blocks and blocks of recording studios as we discussed the music industry. We had some excellent barbecue for lunch, before heading to rural Tennessee and checking out the famous Bell Witch Cave, site of a supposed haunting in the pioneer days. More bbq, a whole lot of fudge, some afternoon naps, and we're at a country bar while it's pouring rain, drinking cheap beer and listening to music. Life is good. Top that off with a two mile slog through floodwaters, trying my damndest to keep a bag of White Castle burgers from drowning, and that was my Nashville experience.

I remember fireflies and music and warm air, and that's all I needed out of that trip.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Sort of Homecoming

All I wanted was a burger from In N Out. 

My last few days in China were a blur of crappy buses and longing. I just wanted to be home. My adventure was over, and I was just killing time till my flight. After a meal of pig's feet, pig heart, pig ear, some other pig-thing, and potatoes, I set out for the airport. Slept on my backpack for a few hours and I was off again.

My parents greeted me at the airport, waving little American flags. It was incredible to see them again, but twinged by the harsh reality that they were getting divorced. It was like a false reality that I had to keep reminding myself of. But I got my In N Out. And it was so good.

I was jetlagged. I was up for nearly two days straight, in all. I felt out of whack and misplaced, but god was I happy to be home. I spent the next few days just puttering around the house, taking it all in. It still hasn't set in completely that I'm back. Within a few days, I set out for SF for a reunion tour. I hit the city hard, and loved every second of it. Something about the fog and the wind and the people and everything. The culture and the chaos. A breath of fresh air from Hong Kong, which at times seemed all but devoid of anything but consumer culture.

The day after I arrived back in the mountains, I got a bombshell. My mom would be moving out to Tennessee, and I'd be driving her. It would take four days to get out there, I'd hang out for a day, and fly back the next. The day after that, I'd drive to Arizona to work a gig with my dad. And a few days after that, I'd head up to northern California to work a hippy festival.

Things ain't good, but things ain't boring. -Grace Potter

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tibetan Redux

I wanted so badly to go to Tibet, but China stopped me.

As an American, it's exceptionally hard to get passage to Tibet. There's a lot of conflicting opinions, each one leading to rolls and goddang rolls of red tape, in traditional Chinese style. So I did the next best thing. Hitchhiked with a Mongolian guy to the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in western Sichuan province. My goal was to hit the highest town in the world- Litang. But due to time restrictions and almost inevitable altitude sickness, I readjusted my expectations.

So my Mongolian buddy Li Rur and I roll into a town that appears to be a block long. We're both hungry, so we roll into a noodle shop and get some beef noodles. The workers and patrons are all Chinese, and I can understand a bit of what they're saying. Rur asks them how far away Xinduqiao is from the restaurant. "This is Xinduqiao." He repeats it back to me, a little slower, so that I can understand it. We laugh. I had him ask about a hotel. "This is a hotel." Alright. I'm in Xinduqiao. Weird. Rur and I say our goodbyes, and he continues driving to Lhasa. I take a walk with the owners to the nearby temple, and check out the stupas and prayer wheel there. Get back to my cozy hotel room and crash for a few hours.

I wake up and start walking. It's beautiful out, but that doesn't mean that it's interesting. I get all of 20 yards when a young guy starts talking to me. His name is Doijee, and he's a local Tibetan. He studied Buddhism in India for four years, and his English is great. He offers to show me around the town, and I gladly accept. I quickly find out that Xinduqiao has a larger downtown area that can't be easily seen from the road, and it happens that the day I come into town is Buddha's birthday. It's bustling with activity. Doijee knows everyone in town, and immediately begins answering questions about me. He and I get along well, despite not having a whole lot to say to each other. He invites me to stay with him and his family. It was what I had been secretly hoping for, and I eagerly accept.

The next day Doijee has to work. He and his father are helping to build a small hotel, built in the traditional Tibetan style. With them are a dozen Chinese migrant workers. The whole lot of them shares a worker dorm situation in a nearby building. I decide to head up to the Tagong Grasslands, an area of beautiful high altitude plains about 40km away. I hitchhike there, and catch a ride with two younger Chinese guys in a pickup. They ask me a lot of questions that I don't understand, and the only thing I can really make out is when one of them says "Your Chinese is bad." Screw you, mang. I got this far on my Chinese. Once we roll into the town of Tagong, I thank them and jet. It was uncomfortable.

The grasslands are beautiful. Granted, I get winded with the tiniest amount of effort, and I'm already turning crimson red from my lack of sunblock. For all my experience, I will say this: I am not a smart traveler. I'm impulsive and stupid, but it tends to work out. It just brings a lot of stress with it. I walked along the highway for a bit, before finally deciding to just climb one of the many rolling hills nearby. I passed a sky burial on the way- a traditional Tibetan way of dealing with the dead. They're just left to the elements and the birds. There's something so cool about that. It's so ceremonial and traditional but at the same time seems to me to be a much more casual, light way of dealing with death. Screw it, throw them out on the plains. See what the birds do.

I spent a long time on the hills, just watching the clouds pass by and looking down at the town below me. With Doijee still working and lots of time till dinner, I made another stupid decision. I decided I'd try and walk the 35km back to Xinduqiao. Now, being an American, I have to get by with only rough mental conversions between kilometers and miles. But it seemed doable.

It wasn't.

The first four hours were spectacular. I passed by rivers and mountains, temples and stupas. I saw a monk painting prayers on the river rocks, so that every time the water flowed by, that prayer would be repeated. I helped some old men load logs onto their tractor. I waved to and talked to all the locals I encountered. I got horribly sunburnt. Eventually, my huge backpack started to weigh me down. My feet started to hurt. My skin was bright red. But still I persevered. In 8 hours of walking, I was offered a ride four times. Unprompted. The Tibetan people are that friendly. They see me walking, they offer me a ride. My little regret is that at one point, I began to hear this little puttering noise. I turned and saw the old men before, riding on their tractor back to town. They beckoned for me to get on, but I turned them down. I should've taken that ride.

I got back to town after catching two rides. Doijee and I hit a local restaurant for some beers, to "celebrate being friends." I dug that. While there, his coworkers showed up. What went from having one beer each went to having six big beers, in rapid succession, with a bunch of Tibetans. One of the most vocal ones knew one phrase in English: "Welcome to Lhasa!," which he repeated every time we skulled a glass. We weren't in Lhasa. Instead of having a traditional Tibetan dinner, I ended up getting drunk with a bunch of Tibetan guys and stumbling back to the dorm. I thought I'd be sleeping in the grimy area that most of the Chinese workers slept in, but instead I was treated to a huge, open room, filled with beds. It was carved and painted beautifully, and was definitely the coolest bedroom I've ever seen. In the morning, Doijee, his father and I had a traditional breakfast: butter tea. Black tea, mixed with salt and yak butter. Then you add dried yak cheese. And then more yak butter. You basically drink melted butter until you feel sick. And right when you think you've finished, Doijee makes you add two huge scoops of sanba, an oaty powder. You mix it into your remaining tea using your hands, and add a bit of sugar. Now you have a huge dough ball. That's breakfast.

I caught a ride with some of his coworkers back to Kangding. I was sad to go but happy to be on the move.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Transit Survival

I'm not one to get scared or back down from a situation. 

But I found myself in a dingy hotel room in Ya'an, in my underwear, sweating bullets in front of a tiny fan. I had just realized that not only had I lost my only Chinese phone that my roommate had given me, I'd also forgotten my laptop power cord. I didn't have a map. I was starving. I was freaking the hell out. 
I was alone in western China with only a rudimentary knowledge of Mandarin. I just had a destination- the small town of Xinduqiao, in the Ganze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. I was trying to get to Tibet, but as an American on his own, it just wasn't happening. So I was doing the next best thing: getting to the border. Or close to it.

Ya'an is a polluted transit town, seemingly used a stopover for travelers taking the bus. I fit that category. I eventually left my hotel room in search of food. I stopped in at one restaurant and was laughed out of the place after not being able to read the menu. I found a noodle shop shortly thereafter that would sustain me for the rest of my time in Ya'an. I eventually got some sleep, still stifling a panic attack and a direct flight home. 

The next day, I walked across the street to the bus station and caught a ride. I was heading to Kangding, the capital of the prefecture. What followed next was a 9-hour crapshoot of breakdowns and random stops. My bus was full, and old, and with nothing but low-grade movies for entertainment, I became the focal point for most of the passengers. The Tibetan passengers were all smiles, and would talk to me a bit in Mandarin. The Chinese passengers just scowled.

I got to Kangding after dark, and it was raining. It looked like a single-street town, and I walked up and down it trying to find a good hotel. There were two. I chose the cheaper one. By some miracle, I got myself some food as well. I was fed, I had a bed. Things were looking alright. In the morning light, I realized that Kangding was a sprawling city, nestled in a small valley. It was a very cool mix of Tibetan and Chinese culture, and I enjoyed walking through it. Today was the day that I decided to start hitchhiking. I was nervous.

I walked for about 20 minutes before being flagged down by two Chinese girls. They were from Chengdu, and were heading out the same way I was, also hitchhiking. We talked for a bit in broken English and broken Mandarin, before I sent them on ahead for a better chance of getting picked up. Within a minute, they were in a shiny new SUV, heading west. I was encouraged. After another hour, however, I had lost that sense of excitement. Now I was sweaty and a little put out, climbing some steep hills high above the city. Out of the blue, a sleek sportscar rolls up beside me. I tell the guy that I'm heading to Xinduqiao. He laughs and says that he's going to Xinduqiao. I get in. His name is Li Rur, and I can't pronounce it. He's Mongolian, from Erduoci, but he's traveling to Lhasa. He's incredibly friendly and patient, working with me to figure out more complex Mandarin terms. His English knowledge begins with “I really love Americ” and ends with “I really love music.” To me, those are the only two things he would ever need to say to make it big in the USA.

We drive through some of the most beautiful terrain I've ever seen, stopping to take pictures and admire the view when we feel like it. He gives me some food and water. We talk about music, and movies, and many other topics, as best we can. He's a good guy.

I'm starting to think that I made the right choice. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Holy Buddha

Spicy food, early mornings, and Buddhist mountains don't mix. 

My first stop after leaving the comforts of my roommate's Chengdu apartment was meeting up with my travelling buddy at the main bus stop in town. He and I tower above the rest of the patrons there- two huge white dudes laughing and chatting in a crowded building. I use my rudimentary Mandarin to get us tickets to Leshan, just south of Chengdu. Once there, we instantly get flocked by guys with taxis. My buddy makes an executive call- we're not going to take a taxi. We're going to take motorcycles. So I negotiate with the gentlemen by their bikes, and soon enough, we're careening through Leshan. Our large frames dwarf the drivers, and with every turn our bikes threaten to tip and throw us all into the gutter, but somehow we make it to our destination.
Leshan is famous for just about one thing and one thing only: the Great Buddha. Unlike Hong Kong's modern, metal Giant Buddha on Lantau Island, Leshan boasts and incredibly old and impressive statue of Buddha, carved in a seated position into the side of a river cliff. It's hard to describe, and was almost harder to fathom once I was standing in front of it. The idea that people could craft something of such size and beauty is beyond me. Regardless, Leshan was hot as hell and we didn't linger at the feet of the Buddha.

After a strange and tiring negotiation to take a private car to our next stop, we arrived at the base of Emei Shan, or Mt. Emei. Mt. Emei is one of the four holy mountains in Chinese Buddhism, and it lives up to expectations. After a few hour bus ride, we were 2500 meters in the air, surrounded by lush, misty forest. Due to time limits, we decided to keep our hiking to a minimum. From our bus stop, we hiked a few hours, till the sun set and we couldn't see three feet in front of us. Luckily, around that time we happened upon a restaurant and hotel, attached to someone's house. We hung out with some Chinese travelers who were very obliging with their speaking speed, and shared a meal of spicy pork skin and soup with them. Finally, we drifted off to sleep in certifiably damp beds.

We were up at 5am, shivering cold from sleeping all night in our icy bungalow. I had a crippling stomach ache, the effect, I was learning, of eating nuclear hot food before bed. This was a mistake that I would make time and time again. We gathered our belongings and hiked the remaining 45 minutes or so to the Golden Summit, one of three peaks on Mt. Emei. The trail was packed with other pilgrims, mostly impressively advanced in age and, apparently, stamina. I've never seen old folks carry on the way they were, and I guarantee I will not look as good as they did when I'm that age.

At the top was one of the most beautiful temples I have ever seen, highlighted by an enormous, multi-faced golden Buddha. We waited patiently along with the hundred or so other tourists for the sun to rise, and when it inevitably did, we were not disappointed. As the sky went from grey to azure blue, and the sun rose slowly over Mt. Emei, it was easy to see why it was such a destination. I don't know that I've ever seen an area so magnificently beautiful. And all the while I was trying not to vomit and pass out. It's hard to fully appreciate the relationship between the earth and the heavens when your stomach is trying to expel peppers as fast as it possibly can. Somehow, I persevered. Didn't vomit. I'm a legend.

We hiked and bused back down to the base, where we parted ways. My companion set off towards Beijing, and I was heading towards Tibet. The next few days were some of the longest and strangest of my life.

The Hong Kong Goodbye

I ended my stay in Hong Kong like I began my stay in Hong Kong- hungover. 

So there I was. I spent my last day in Hong Kong sleeping my karaoke hangover off, courtesy of an 8-hour singing bender at some shady cocktail lounge the night before. I was able to summon just enough energy to begin cleaning and packing my year's worth of clutter. After some light meal, I was able to force my poisoned body down to our local pub, Billy Boozer. This mecca of alcohol was the focal point of Monday nights for all the exchange students at City University, and it was my last night. I couldn't say no. So I didn't.
A long (sober) night and dozens of heartfelt goodbyes later, I'm back in my dorm, frantically packing up at some ungodly hour in the morning. Around 4am I finally get all my stuff packed with relative success, and I set off in search of a night bus. In the rain. With no sleep. Needless to say, I didn't find much. What I did find was one of my beloved friends, getting out of a taxi cab for some strange reason at the very intersection I stood drenched at. She gave me some HK dollars and put me in a taxi bound for the airport.

Flash forward one very long day later, and I'm landed in Chongqing, in the Sichuan province of western China. My roommate has graciously allowed me to not only go with him back to his hometown of Chengdu, but also to stay with his family for a few nights. Carrying all my baggage, we take a train and a taxi to his home in the province's capital city.

His family is incredibly hospitable, and make sure that I am well fed and comfortable, but I did not intend to stay comfortable for my last 10 days in Asia. With nothing but a backpack with some clothing, I set out on my Sichuanese adventure.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Prodigal Son

It's been a long time since I last posted.

A lot has happened. I went to Thailand and Malaysia. I went to Beijing shortly after. Both trips were incredible experiences. In south-east Asia I experienced night buses and hostel friends. I experienced my first primarily Muslim country. I ate more fried chicken than I ever should have. I sweated for nights in a bamboo bungalow and jumped rope with fire. I also jumped through a flaming hoop. All my body hair was left intact.

In Beijing, I lived in the hutongs, the traditional housing areas of the city. I saw an incredibly vibrant community there, and enjoyed every minute of it. I discovered the joys of chuanr, the delicious lamb skewers sold in most restaurants. I dined with UN staff, ambassadors, journalists and best-selling authors from around the world. I traveled with a beautiful woman and never got sick of her.

Now I'm in Hong Kong for two more weeks, before hitting the Sichuan province of China with my roommate and backpacking for ten days. I couldn't be more excited.

So here I am, in the home stretch. It almost feels like a vacation, it's such a short amount of time to spend in a city so complex. At the end of these nine months, I'm finally dreading leaving. Hong Kong is what I know and what I'm comfortable with, and soon I'll have to change all that and throw myself headlong into repatriation. It's an odd feeling, to be so excited and scared at the prospect of going home. I can't rightly put it into words right now.

I've got a lot of learning to do, and a lot of living.