Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Southern China


China is foggy. If we hadn't seen the blue sky at the Great Wall near Beijing, we probably would have left thinking China's sky is a nondescript gray color.

Which it is in most places.

It was also cold— I was wearing pantyhose, two pairs of leggings (thank God for India and punjabis), legwarmers, my short-sleeved shirt, and my long-sleeved shirt. On top of which I had my sarong on as a scarf (can't think why I didn't think of it before), my Scottevest, and my Marmot.

And gloves. And a hat. And my hood.

Not to mention socks.

And on top of this, if we weren't walking fast, I was still cold!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Back to ...China

Freedom is a perception. It is different for different people. I grew up in a communist country. As a child I thought I had freedom and I felt safe. The same militia that guarded my returning home from a concert at two o’clock in the morning in 1981, was preventing other people gathering to protest the communist rule in December 1989. In the following years I would change drastically my view of freedom and what it means for me.

As the sign for seat-belts is turned off I am relieved: I am out of China’s territory. Why this reaction? Personal protest. Leaving China last time was not a pleasant experience. They opened our bags looking for books (Lonely Planet guides are forbidden, as are Dalai Lama’s pictures). I would understand looking for them when we entered the country, but leaving? This would have been a forgettable incident if it would have come before Tibet. But not after seeing so many soldiers and SEAL troops like the Tibetans would live in a military fort and the way they treated them, less then human, watching them like an unpredictable animal. I wish that I could not judge. I reason: these are politics, the Chinese need the metals from Tibetan soil. But I can’t. History was one of my favorite subjects in school and I believe that many people died for my country to be free, to have the right to speak my language, to have the religion that I have. So it cost me a great effort to reason and not to react to the Tibetan cause.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Macao and A Card Game

Macau is a different thing altogether. I still don't know in which language is Macau and in which is called Macao. My mother asked why do we stay two days, they had a few hours in the city and didn't really like it. When we were children we played all the time a cards game, called Macao. The fact that they have a country named after a cards game, or the other way around made us curious and we always wanted to come here. Half a million people live on a small peninsula and the two adjacent islands of Taipa and Coloane. It was a Portuguese colony until 1999 and now, along with Hong Kong is part of the China's one country-two systems scheme. The historic center of Macau is designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reason is that it is a unique blend of western and eastern culture. The Portuguese arrived in early 1500s and stayed throughout the following centuries, being the forefront of the interaction between the two worlds.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hong Kong

Sunday morning we took the train to Hong Kong. It was a travel day and by the time we reached our new apartment we were all tired. The high speed train Guangzhou-Hong Kong, seems very slow, but it's a very civilised way of travel. From the station we changed three subway trains - it's a breeze to navigate their metro. Some people say it is the best in the world, but I prefer the Paris Metro with their one price fits all. You can stay all day underground in Paris for one euro, here the cost increases with every station travelled and the ticket is time limited.

Hong Kong was a special attraction since I was a little boy. I read the “Eighty days around the world” and I was curious to see their port. Then the events of 1997 added their share of interest. Hong Kong was under British jurisdiction for almost 150 years and at some point was one of the most developed cities in the world. I remember reading 20 years ago about their economic and social policies and the cost of their development. But 14 years ago it was taken back by China. Is there anything left? YES, there is. They drive on the right, they speak English and use it in all the signing, the political freedom is just a pretext, but the economical freedom is there and the city is doing quite well. There is a border with China and we got a note in our passports that we cannot return without getting another visa. In Hong Kong we didn't need a visa, we got a stamp and permission to stay for 90 days.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Welcome, Day 100!


It's here! Our 100th day on the road. We left October 16th, and now it's January 23rd.

That said, it's been nuts. We've been all over the place (so far: Japan, China, Tibet, Nepal, and India), heard all sorts of languages, and walked probably more than is healthy. 

Just joking. You can never walk too much.

So, what am I doing to celebrate our 100th day? Writing this blog post, full of small snippets of our life over the past hundred days.

Before I begin, though, something Melly, a friend from the Write Write And Write group, said before we left:

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Refuse to yellow, gambling and poison

The second coming to China! I don't know what was on our minds when we made this decision. I mean I know what I was thinking, but why did they let me do it? There was no way we could fit everything on our first trip, they limit you to 30 days at a time, the distances are huge and the winter was coming over Himalaya.
But we wanted to get a glimpse at South China, rural China, industrial modern China. We also wanted to experience the Chinese New Year and to see Hong Kong.
We left what China calls China (and what we call Tibet) with a sour taste. The occupation, the military, that's all we saw in the last few days of our first trip and the enthusiasm we had when we bought plane tickets faded away. I even considered for a minute skipping this part altogether. But it was important to come back and try to warm up again to China.
We left Kochi very smoothly, even though I cannot understand why in a country so free and open as India they have these militarized airports. Especially contrasting with the airport in Kuala Lumpur. A vast open space where stores and restaurants and traffic blends almost seamlessly with the check-in operations. We arrived there at midnight and had our next flight at 6 am. Time flew by, dozing off on some chairs, eating at MacDonald's and checking in at 3.45 am. Ileana stayed up all the time, there was free Internet. Ioan napped for a few minutes. There was still more than an hour when we got to the gate and I was impressed with Ioan who had a very long conversation with a nice Irish-Australian man in his fifties.
We arrived three hours later in Guilin, we had booked a van to take us to Moon Village.

The main reason people come to Guilin is a cruise on Li river for the surreal landscape. It is another World Heritage Site. A few hours down the river there was once a little village called Yangshuo. Now it's a 300000 people city, full of touristic amenities. We went further, a few kilometres out in the country. But we arrived at the best hotel in this area, Village Inn. Because we got a family room, it was cheaper than anything else I could find. We were spoiled, but in their defence, there were no other tourists, it was cold and misty, "low season now". We did catch a period of unusually cold weather that would follow us to Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau. Some of the things I planned we couldn't do. We did take the one cruise on the river, by "bamboo boat", we climbed one mountain and visited one cave. We spend a few minutes on the famous touristic street in Yangshuo. After three nights the same van took us back to the airport in Guilin. We never saw one piece of Guilin, and that is OK.
On the first day we climbed the Moon Hill, right across from our hotel. A nice path in the woods, some 600 steps and a different kind of tout. Two old ladies, trying to sell postcards and soft drinks, one of them quite annoying in following us up the mountain. There we met some Australian alpinists, they have been there for 10 days climbing rocks, they never went to the river "It's too cold" (!!!)

On the Moon Hill
View up the Li river, the carst formations in the fog

Panoramic view

The bamboo rafts made of plastic and regulated (so we had to take two boats)
This is the Li River highlight
The cruise down the Li river was nice, despite the clouds, the fog and the freezing temperatures. We went from Yángdì to Xìngpíng. The image of the karst formation here is imprinted on every 20 yuan bill. If it would have been warmer we might have spent some time in Xìngpíng, apparently is a nice little old town. Not now. We were happy we got through the boat ride and we jumped in the first available bus. One water trip was enough in this weather, otherwise we would have added a trip on the Yulong river.
There are many caves in this area. We visited just the butterfly cave, it was too tacky for our taste and one cave was enough for us. It was followed by a path through the woods and ended with a free show of local art. We saw the big banyan tree and while visiting a little museum/store with stones we had a brief but very pleasant encounter with a German student in engineering, he was in Shanghai for one semester and now he was trying to see some of China before his visa expired.
The entrance to the butterfly cave

Some Chinese tourist helped us take this picture
Having fun on the mountain

The big banyan tree is really big!

The bridge over the Yulong river. She needs an umbrella.
One other famous activity to do here is to see the cormorant fishing. We would have gone, but we found out just in time that it's a show! Besides the questionable ethics of this practice, if it is what people do and have done for centuries to feed their children, I can understand. But if they turn it into a show, I'm not interested. The cormorant fishing it's famous because the fishermen use the birds to do the work. They tie their necks so they cannot swallow the catch and take it for themselves. The poor birds keep working at it all day.

80 cents for a picture nobody wanted

Next step, Guangzhou. It is a 24 hour train trip, a 9 hour bus ride or a short 50 minute flight. Except that the guys from Expedia couldn't figure out our itinerary and it looked as we were going to fly twice, at 10 am and 6 pm! Eventually, after talking with them for half an hour, I gave up, we were going to find out in the airport what time we fly. And all was nice and smooth, a half empty Boeing 737, and we arrived in another place where we didn't know anything and anybody. It took a long time to get to our hotel, only to find out that it wasn't one. It was a room turned into an office and janitor's closet at the 12th floor of an apartment building! The apartment I rented wasn't free, "the guy doesn't want to leave", so we got two rooms. There was no heat "obviously", after all they might need air conditioning here 350 days per year. Not now. We came with the cold and the rain and at best we had some 15C in the room. It took several requests to get the extra blankets. We had two empty kitchens, no utensils or dishes or anything. Two washing machines on the balconies, we didn't use because it would have been unlikely for our clothes to dry. The internet, which we had to pay for, worked only in one room and only for the first two days. I was unhappy with the place, but there was no alternative and it had to do it. When we went to search for food we found a perfect little Chinese restaurant with pictures, set menus, really good food. We were going to return for more meals, but it was always closed, probably for the New Year.
Guangzhou it's huge and modern. We learned that Canton was just the English mispronunciation of the original and current Chinese name. High rise buildings everywhere, very civilized traffic, clean side walks, it seems a little like Japan. There is a long history in this city, but only a few areas have some older buildings, the rest was and is continuously modernized. The typical one-two floor buildings, some of them with colonial architecture, are replaced with 30-plus stories sky scrapers. We stayed in one of them and it was nice, except for our rooms and the cold.
We took one trip in the city, visiting the Museum of the Nanyue tomb. This was an amazing discovery from 1983, the intact tomb of the Wen Di emperor who ruled in southern China in 137-122 BC. It is a nice, well organised museum and it was a very good presentation of the life in those times, a primer on some more Chinese history. A couple of hours in the afternoon then we turned toward our apartment and looked for food for two hours. We did some shopping for groceries and improvised a great dinner. The children were particularly patient and displayed their great sense of humour during these trying hours.

The beautiful entrance to the museum
This Chinese emperor was told that jade can protect him in the future life; the jade remains, restored

Two hours of adventures and trials for this dinner
We did less than I wanted in the first day, but the next day was scheduled for rest and nobody wanted to leave again. It didn't help that it was raining and really cold. It's funny how excited the children are for school work when the alternative is going out and exploring for a few hours. I left alone. Without map and with only limited information, I jumped in the first bus going west. When the bus turned around, I jumped off and continued West for a bit, but eventually I took a cab. Eight kilometres later I finally reached my first destination, the White Swan hotel, a splendid five-star on the banks of Pearl River.
I continued with a famous fish market and then got lost in the crowds shopping for the upcoming New Year celebrations. I don't really get all the traditions that the Chinese have for this, it seems they have to have big bouquets of fresh flowers, baskets of fresh fruits plus cases of oranges and pomelos, various fish and sea foods and all the meat in the world. All get new clothes, new shoes, new electronics, their shopping spree is interminable. They have more stores than anyone can count, the stores are overflowing of merchandise and customers. I am very proud of myself for being able to find the Haolin Si, the most important temple of Guangzhou, said to be founded in 526. It is hidden on some narrow alley, no signs and no guide, but I asked people one after another, they answered in Chinese, I just followed the direction of their finger. The actual building is newly restored and it houses some 500 statues of the pupils of Buddha. It's nice. Sorry, hard to find another word.
Part of the hallway of the White Swan hotel 
So many choices...
One of the hallways of the Haolin Temple 
From there I took the subway to the other part of the town where I wondered on some modern boulevards until I found what must be the biggest shopping mall ever. People do actually keep track of these things, and the biggest malls are in the States, but this was in the middle of the city on seven floors with rows and rows of escalators, it never ended. I was looking for some computer store, for an extra hard drive. Here are some pictures.

Some of the hundred pictures taken in this mall

We are almost done with China. Not the country to fall in love with, but the combination of their past and present makes it a very attractive destination. Not to mention their future, they're the ones that will rule my grandchildren's world and they are getting ready for it. At some point during our stay they became an "urbanised" country, just passing the 50% mark of urban population. Their infrastructure is amazing, and they clearly build for the future. Most roads are empty now, but they know they will be filled soon.
The few Chinese that we had direct contact with were very nice and pleasant. Most of the others didn't impress in any particular way. Not happy, not grouchy, just busy people going by their life.
In the North, the language can be a severe barrier. In the South they seem to speak much more English, and they clearly make an admirable effort despite occasional monumental mistakes. The best laugh we had was when Ileana Ruxandra explained to us that the sign for yellow is the same as the one for prostitution. Here is the full board and a good ending to our story of China.
I am sure they wanted to say "refuse" instead of "refused"!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Driving in India

First things first: they drive on the other side! It is a British inheritance and at the beginning you have to think twice and mirrored. You use to change gears with your right now you have to do it with your left. But after a while you get used to it, and it is easier.
Old Goa.

Close to Humayun's Tomb
The road means a special area designated for traffic. It is a way to move from one place to another. You can find exceptional highways, with lanes and shoulders. On the billboards you can read: “It is safe to drive in lanes” and most of the cars will try to stay between those white lines. But not everyone, you will find some tuk-tuk driver who decides that he had enough, and will try to squeeze, honking left and right. And while you are beeing driven and thinking how nice it is, the traffic slows down and you realize that is an Indian’s sleeping policeman (a speed bump). These are very efficient, and so frequent that you can never go over limit (not that we’ve seen one).
There are other kind of roads. The ones with potholes and crumbling blacktop. Or without blacktop.

These are busy most of the times. In the city you can find cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, bicycles and cows all in the same time, in a very small space.
Agra, going to Taj Mahal.

 And guess who has the right of the way?...Come on....Yes, the cow! She will walk slowly toward the next pile of garbage. After her, it’s the biggest: bus trumps truck, truck trumps car, this one trumps rickshaw. Or the swiftest: the car. Why not the motorcycle? The drivers go slowly. They are the only ones wearing a helmet, if they are wearing, and behind them there are two more people, either two men or a child and a woman dressed in saree, sitting sidesaddle.

A child, a man, a goat and an old woman.
You already know that everyone honks, and on the majority of vehicles is written “Please sound horn.” Like the French policeman’s whistle, the horn is a language in itself. “I’m right behind you/ I want to pass you” and the other car honks back, saying it’s OK. “I’m already passing you, move to your left! Everybody, pay attention. Just stay there and don’t cross.” I’m sure you can find your own translations. I think they like honking. There were lots of cars and motorcycles waiting for the traffic light to change. One driver waves us to cross the street, and we do that in a hurry (you never know) and by the time that we were on the other side they started honking like we were the ones holding them there. Go figure!
Red Fort, Delhi.
The traveling books are recommending you to hire a car with a driver, because he knows the roads, and the language, and is used to drive on the other side. Sometimes he is a calm person, who will wait for opportunities to pass another fellow driver. Sometimes not, and you have a lot of honking, you see the incoming traffic getting closer and closer, you start cringing and lean to your left, like you could make the car be slimmer, you hold your breath and pray to God not to have an accident, but still have your eyes open. When you see that you are alive, you rewind that last second and realize that everybody made room by moving on the sides. And you start breathing again, until the next time.

Kerala, Vypeen Island.
The traffic follows other rules, not the ones that you know, the most frequent one being not to stop. As long as you are moving, you are OK. You have to be quick in judging the situation and position yourself behind other moving cars, that are not likely to stop (because signaling was never heard of). If there is no incoming traffic, the whole street will become one way, the faster passing the slower. An incoming motorcycle will still be pushed on the side, everything going back to normal only for a truck or a bus. The last ones will stop, but only for a short time, so you have to be quick, jump on to it, and move fast so the other people from behind could get on.
 In Delhi, where it was around 60 F, I could never understand why would the Indians insist on open windows. In Goa, at 100 F, I got my answer: if we were not moving, the air would not move, and we would feel the sweat trickling down on various body parts. Maybe they just like fresh air!
Buses come in all sizes and shapes. The cheapest is the “metro feeder” the one that transports people to and from bus station and subway. It looks like is going to die any second now, old, battered, with grates outside of windows, and with benches that could accommodate two children. The other ones are better looking and some have air-conditioning (these are expensive). 
The drivers embellish them with signs of their religion: pictures of Hindu gods, prayer wheels, crosses, something written in Arabic, all with a wreath of flowers around them. One bus had all of them. 

Christmas is coming!

Bus in Goa.

In Kochi they have names, like “Success” or “Vijey.”
In Fort Cochi

Bus in Goa
In Goa cars have under the front bumper a lemon stringed with a few chillies.
The tuk-tuks, or rickshaws are fun to be in. They don’t go over 30 miles/hour so you have time to notice things. They too are decorated with hearts or tassels, even on the wheel. Some have rolled up doors, in case it’s raining. Up to 12 people, including the driver, can be transported inside, but I can’t understand how.

On the cart there is a huge metal pipe and the motorcycle carries a window pane and a big piece of plywood.

We hired cars with drivers, because for us it would have been too much stress. The drivers didn't know all the roads, and though there were big signs telling them which way to go, and we had the map on iPhone, they would still pull on one side to ask for directions from their fellow countrymen.

Would you drive in India?

Monday, January 16, 2012

India, My Love


“How long do we want to stay in India?” We didn’t know. Two weeks to visit the Golden Triangle seemed too little, but could we last five weeks?

Qutub Minar, Delhi
  The signals from different people that we know, who visited India, were mixed. My gut was telling me to choose the latter.

India, take two


There are occasional good moments on a trip like this

Maria turned 17 in Agra

There were some moments when something clicked and some insidious, indescribable change that happened during our five weeks of India. After getting almost sick to see the misery of Old Delhi, things got only better. There was misery in Agra and a glimpse or two during the rest of our trip. There were the eyes of my son and the younger girl who was begging to take his chips from his hand. The lady who stood next to us for several hours on the ground in the Agra station. It was her home, there, on a piece of plastic with two bags around her. And maybe a few more images. 

I didn't discover the magic of India. I did not get enlightened or amazed or reborn. Slowly, things that were incomprehensible when we arrived, started to make sense and a while later I didn't remember if there is any other way.