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freezing rain
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Link to an article about traveling that we liked.

Ni hao, we are going to start detailing our great visit from my good buddy and former college roommate, Matt Busa. Before we left for China, many of our friends told us that they would definitely visit. Of course we knew this was a blatant lie, but we hoped that at least 1 person would be able to make the long trek to the far East. A few months ago, Busa told me that he would be coming to China with his friend Bill, who I had met before and liked. Unfortunately Bill’s place of employment underwent some turmoil, and he was unable to go at the last minute. That didn’t stop Busa, who had organized a pretty action packed excursion, first landing in Hong Kong for 3 days, then off to meet us in the midwestern city of Xi’an, then heading to Tangshan and Beijing on the last leg of the journey. I gave him a detailed itinerary of what he should try to do in Hong Kong, and tried to make it as easy as possible for him to make his desired destinations in one piece. This can be difficult for a person, especially a person that doesn’t know a word of Chinese. Remarkably, he made it to Xi’an right on time, looking well tanned after 3 days wandering around Hong Kong (which sounded like a great time!). This post will detail the trip to Xi’an, since that is the part of the trip that we first met my globe trotting friend.

Xi’an is a city in midwestern China with an urban population of about 7 million. It is one of the most highly regarded cities in all of China, by foreigners and Chinese, because of its blend of modern and ancient culture. The cities major tourist attraction is, of course, the Terracotta Army. Thousands of soldiers made of Terracotta were built over a period of 36 years (by 700,000 artisans!!!!!!) to commemorate and protect the emperor of China. For the Chinese people, Mount Hua (Huashan) is another major tourist attraction, being one of the 5 sacred mountains for the Taoist religion. I wanted to hit up both of these spots, so we had to move pretty quickly. After struggling a little bit to find the hotel, we were met in the lobby by a smiling Busa. He told us a little about his trip to HK and the differences he had noticed thus far, but we didn’t have a ton of time, and we wanted to go see some stuff. We headed out to walk around a bit and make our way to the train station to go see the Terracotta Army, stopping at a typical Muslim noodle house on the way. This was Busa’s first real intestinal test, and we were glad that we were able to help him experience a side of China many travelers are too afraid to. The train station was much farther than I anticipated, and it was very hot, so we hopped on a rickshaw and made it to the station. After 1.5 hour bus ride (which cost 7 yuan (about $1) per person), we were at the Terracotta Army.

We walked about 15 minutes past souvenir shops to get to the Army, walked through the completely underwhelming museum, and made our way to the 3 pits with warriors. Pits #3 and #2 were still being excavated, and were very ancient and fragile looking. I was a bit disappointed with the pits, because I was expecting an endless sea of warriors (700,000 people worked for 36 years making these things(!!!)). Pit #1 was what we were looking for, with rows of soldiers in traditional Chinese battle formations. Hard to imagine that a farmer discovered these pits only 40ish years ago after digging a well! After walking around Pit #1, we hopped back on the bus to try to see the fountain show at Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, which our friend Ada from our school had told us about. After a fun ride with an extremely friendly taxi with some nasty looking teeth, we made it to the fountain. The fountain was multiple levels, stretching about half a mile away from the Pagoda. There were THOUSANDS of people out, many of them families letting their children run in the fountains before the show began. At 9 pm, the fountains were cleared of people, and a half hour long musically choreographed fountain show took place, which was pretty amazing. It gave the city some real character, especially considering it happens twice every night! The huge crowds all watched and got sprayed, and after watching for a while, we got some food on a REAL food street (after wandering around trying to find the Muslim Quarter). We ate some noodles and Busa was starting to get a true taste of China, and he was loving it.

The next day, I wanted to get up and head to Mount Hua, to Erin’s dismay. It was a 2-3 hour bus ride each way, so it was quite a trip. We grabbed some breakfast on our favorite food street, and I must say that Xi’an’s street food is easily the best I have had so far. We found the bus station, and were ushered onto our bus which wasn’t leaving for another hour, and told to sit and wait in the baking bus for an hour. We decided to wander around, and happened upon a real commodities market, which was 6 floors of basically everything made in China. These are a real site to see, so I was glad that we had stumbled upon it by complete accident. We then got back on the bus, and unfortunately the blistering heat didn’t subside very much for the 2.5 hour ride. Busa got to sit next to a father and son (on the dad’s lap), and the son was so hot that he actually vomited! People stuffed onto the bus and were sitting on stools set up in the aisle, and I think this was something that any foreigner would find amusing, vomit included. We got to Mount Hua, and after wandering for a bit, took the bus up to the cable car station, then the cable car to the mountain. Busa and I thought it was worth the painful bus ride and steep entry fee, because it really was beautiful. The mountain is remarkably smooth and white, and had some spectacular views until the smog returned. We were luckily that the smog, an ever present cloud which settles over every city I have been to in China, had cleared just enough to get some really good pictures. We hiked up 2 of the peaks with tons of other tourists, who were singing and yelling and in especially good spirits. The mountain is famous for being dangerous, but other than a few spots where you were basically climbing vertically, it seemed pretty safe to me. Highlights included singing trash collectors that hiked the mountain everyday carrying stuff up on a pole which they balanced on their shoulder and of course a massive line to get back down the mountain on the cable car. The ancient Chinese tradition of cutting as many people in line as possible was in full effect, so we had to lock down our positions so nobody could cut us, climaxing with me squishing a short and fat kid against the wall so he could not get by. We barely made it back in time for the bus to Xi’an, thankfully with some real air conditioning, and met another very friendly taxi who took us to the Muslim Quarter to eat.

The Muslim Quarter is an area of Xi’an which consists primarily of restaurants of the (you guessed it!) Muslim variety. Muslim food is pretty delicious in China (see our previous posts about the subject), and we stopped at a place where you cooked all of your own food on a hot skillet in the center of the table. It was pretty solid, and we drank our second batch of Ice Peaks, an orange soda exclusive to Xi’an which EVERYONE was drinking. It is pretty tasty and only costs 1 yuan! Erin really wanted to try the mutton soup that is famous in Xi’an, so we stopped at another place on the way out. It was a good time just sitting and talking with Busa, and I think he was really starting to see some of the most fun things to do in China. Eating outside with friends and being looked at and treated like a celebrity is pretty fun, and our reactions to certain situations are also interesting and sometimes have a big impact on the Chinese people that witness (or that is what I tell myself). After Erin had her delicious mutton soup, we headed back to the hotel and passed out.

The last day (I realize this is a book, but hey, Busa only comes to China once (I think)) we wanted to rent bikes and ride around the city walls which surround the downtown of Xi’an. The walls are one of the major reasons people think Xi’an blends ancient and modern, and it definitely is striking to be driving in a taxi past McDonalds and shopping malls, and then having to go through a 40 foot wide wall constructed hundreds of years ago. We had to walk through an extremely busy traffic circle in order to reach the city walls, and after dodging traffic, we rented bikes and rode around. The ride was fun and hot, and the smog had returned big time. We took some pictures of strange parade float type things which were located on the southern side of the wall, one of which Busa is hiding for our “Where’s Waldo?” picture from the trip. We got off the bikes just in time, grabbed some grub from another food street, drank our last (2 for me and Busa) Ice Peaks, and headed to the airport.

Find him!

Find Busa!

All in all it was a great trip. This is only the first installment of the Busa experience, so please come back soon for the other portions (I am hoping he will write one of these portions). I would give Xi’an a 9 out of 10, with minus 1 being the smog, which was pretty terrible. The food was excellent, the tourist sites were world class, the prices were China cheap, the people were uber friendly, and they were out at all hours of the night. Our fellow foreign teacher, Arzola, will be moving to Xi’an for the next semester, so I will have to get back there to visit at some point. Happy Birthday to my lovely brother Andrew, who is back at school (I think) after his trip to South Africa (potentially another guest post about their travels brought to you by the best travel blog this side of the Great Wall!) My sister just had her own birthday, and headed off to grad school, and I hope that she, and all of you, are doing well. Alrighty, nighty night! Enjoy the pics (and try to find Waldo)!

The Master said, “The demands that a gentleman makes are upon himself; those that a small man makes are upon others.” Analects, 15.20

It was a trying three nights in Beijing this past week, and we got a good dose of some of the challenges to come in Beijing. Sunday night we took the bus from Tangshan to Beijing to meet back up with Matt, and checked in to a hotel. It was a pretty crap one, with huge dips in the center of the bed and pillows, and the room stank of beef. Anyway, we headed to Wanfujing for dinner, but unfortunately it was a Sunday night and most things were closing down. We attempted to take a taxi to Hou Hai, the western bar and restaurant area, but the taxis weren’t using meters and only charging “foreign” rates, so we ate at one of the only open restaurants.

On Monday I woke up sick and felt like I had the flu. I wasn’t too tempted to stay home from work though…as sleeping in the crud bed was a nightmare, so I headed to the subway. I tried a few times to take a cab to work, but for some reason I don’t understand Beijing cabs seem very lazy and they always told me it was “too far.” When I entered the subway, I knew it wasn’t going to be fun. There was some type of back up, and I was shuffled into a large crowd of people waiting for the trains. One came, didn’t stop…and went by us. The second came…picked up a small amount of people, and left. By the third train I felt like I was about to pass out from heat, but I was literally shoved off of the platform and made it on. It was definitely uncomfortable to have no control of where the crowd moved me, but at least I made it on.

David and Matt also had transportation problems that day. They found the local buses going to the Great Wall, but the driver and passengers wouldn’t let them on. Despite the fact that David was communicating in Chinese, the Beijingers seemed to be saying that these buses weren’t for foreigners. Instead of causing a scene, they left the buses and shared a taxi with two nice guys that were also going to the wall. My best guess on that one is that they want foreigners to pay more to do touristy things. Fortunately, the Wall and visit to the Silk Market proved to be much better experiences, and Matt bought some sweet gear to bring home. A North Face jacket for $35, anyone?

On Tuesday I had to take a cab to a visa office, and was very worried, since it really WAS far away. The first guy we asked didn’t know where I was going, but I really got lucky with the second driver. He talked on my cell phone to the office to find out the directions, we chatted on the way there, and he even agreed to stay and wait to take me back into the city after the meeting. He was really good at understanding my Chinese, and even pulled out a little chair to wait for my appointment to end without charging extra! Unfortunately this excursion and work caused me to miss Matt’s last day, but I did get to meet two US Embassy employees who worked in cultural outreach. Apparently Hillary Clinton has set up a new office dedicated to women’s issues at the Embassy, so there should be some growth in women’s initiatives in Beijing. Also, one of the women is married to a guy who grew up in Vienna, VA, ahhh! On Tuesday night David and I also had a fun conversation with some locals in a Hutong outside of our hotel.

By Wednesday I was feeling better, but David was sick. I headed off to work, made some progress in planning the women’s program and headed off to another meeting at restaurant (Alla Osteria) that would potentially be a host for some events. It was an incredible stroke of luck that I found the place (I almost started crying when I realized I had no idea how to find my way around, I wrote down the wrong metro but the cab driver miraculously took me to the general vicinity), and the owners were such characters. The husband is an extremely laid-back and generous Italian who speaks very little Chinese, while the wife is a Beijinger with sharp business skills and no-nonsense attitude. Well, the place was great and so were the owners, so I was so glad I managed to make the meeting. It even turned out that the wife’s family is from Tangshan! Of course…after the meeting my phone died and I had to go to starbucks for free internet to try and find where David was in the city. We tried exchanging emails but didn’t connect and ended up taking separate buses home. When I got back, I was greeted by the nice surprise of our neighbor who had printed out the two photos we took with him.

What a roller coaster, and I’m sure there’s more to come. My only thoughts are that I need an iPhone. Odd conclusion, you ask? Not really. An iPhone would allow me to translate and show directions to cab drivers more easily, help when I’m lost and allow me to contact David! But alas, I will have to continue to be resourceful.

The posts have slowed, but that is because we are very busy. We just got back from a trip to Xi’an with my buddy from Georgetown, Matt Busa, which will be discussed later. This post details some of the more interesting Tangshan happenings in the last few weeks. As you all know, Tangshan was devastated by an earthquake 34 years ago. Our boss was given two tickets to the earthquake anniversary commemoration concert at the Tangshan stadium, but was unable to go. So Erin and I went to the concert on a hot and smoggy night. There was a big crowd, and an elaborate stage with a massive screen in the background. Erin and I understood 1 of about 50 words that were said (most of which were Tangshan), but it was an interesting concert. Many emotional songs and speeches were delivered, which were received with extremely tepid applause. I guess Chinese people don’t like to applaud very much, because it was bizarre how little they clapped from a Western perspective. The highlights for us were the dancing by some of China’s minority groups, but the highlight for the rest of the crowd was an apparently famous comedian. He seemed like a jolly enough fellow, but overall it seems that the Chinese sense of humor is quite different from the Western world. Comedy is Rated G, for children and adults. I was expecting the concert to be a bit more touching than it was, but I think I should expect things to be much more corny in the future. It didn’t seem like the crowd was particularly moved either, but we were glad we went.

One of our favorite restaurants in Tangshan is a Uighur restaurant. The Uighurs are a muslim minority group from western China and their food is an interesting blend from many different regions. We have frequented this restaurant dozens of times, and have become friendly with the staff who treats us like royalty (we translated their menu into English). We went to the restaurant for our boss’ birthday, and had a feast as always. The owner of the restaurant is a hilarious and friendly guy that looks like a Uighur version of the rotund laughing buddha, and he of course wanted to make the birthday special. After multiple attempts to give us the meal for free, he instead brought out an ancient looking disco ball and strobe light. After pumping up the Uighur jams, the dance party was on. The 2 Uighur boys that man the outdoor grill came out in Uighur clothes and did some traditional dancing, then pulled all of the foreigners out onto the floor to give them a dose of Western dance. It was very fun, my favorite part being when the owner’s 2 year old son who can barely walk went out on the dance floor and seemed to know how to dance. The Uighurs know how to party, and we all had a very good time.

The last story I will share took place in our apartment complex. We were walking to get a cab for something one day, and said hello to the guard and another Chinese fellow who was standing there. Instead of replying with an awkwardly pronounced “Hellooooo”, the man simply said “Hi.” This was an instant sign of fluency for me, so I asked if he spoke English. In perfect he started talking to us, explaining that his wife’s family lives in Tangshan, but that he lives in Baltimore with his wife and daughter. Such a small world, that we can be wandering in our little apartment complex in a somewhat obscure Chinese city and meet a guy that is from our neck of the woods. His name was Luke, and he asked us to get lunch with him, his daughter and his niece. We had a great lunch with them, and his niece will actually be headed to the University of Texas in 4 days for graduate school. It was a little sad to learn that in Tangshan, Luke was a surgeon at the hospital and in the USA he is a researcher, but he said he likes the USA and obviously likes it enough to keep his family there. Even a Chinese guy who has lived in the USA for 6 years maintains the tradition of being a great host, and we were certainly happy to have stumbled into him that day.

Alrighty, some pictures of the concert and random shots of Tanshan are below. Hope all is well with you, and expect some new and exciting blog updates in the next few days. My friend Busa is currently by himself in Beijing, so we are a little worried about him but he made it through Hong Kong on his own, and now knows the words for thank you, hello, goodbye, and can count to 3, so he should be fine. Good night/morning!

The Master said, “The gentleman calls attention to the good points in others; he does not call attention to their defects. The small man does just the reverse of this.” -The Analects, 12.16

Hey travel and adventure lovers, how about an awesome story from a totally different part of the world?! Our friends Scott and Linda recently took a trip to Cairo, Hurghada (on the Red Sea) and Luxor, in Egypt. Here’s the sweet essay Scott wrote about their journey:

After a 12 hour plane ride, Linda and I landed around 5:00 p.m. in Cairo and took a taxi to our hotel. Our cab driver offered us a miniature tour of the city in broken English on the way there. “Palace” he said, pointing to what we later would learn is the presidential palace. “School,” was a University, “mosque” he pointed out a large mosque. I was doing my best to take in the city, but I was also struggling to suppress my gut feeling we were about to die in a fiery car accident.
Driving in Cairo is…well something else. Road lines are completely meaningless, even stop lights seem optional. It seemed that people were using their horns more often than not. At first any trip in the car was a terrifying experience. I did not understand how anybody drove anywhere. As I spent more time being driven around the country, I noticed that there was a seemingly unwritten code in the chaos. Most noticeably, drivers seemed less aggressive and more willing to be passed and yield to a car moving in and out of their lanes. They would honk at every single car on the road, but I learned this was not out of anger as I’m used to in the U.S. It’s just part of how they drive- as if they need to let everybody on the road know they exist. After the first couple of days I hardly noticed the madness on the streets.
We arrived at the Marriott hotel, met our friends and travel companions, Christine and Efstathia, and checked in. Our room had a beautiful view of Cairo overlooking the Nile. The next morning we got up early for the tour you go to Egypt for- Giza and the Pyramids.
We took a van with our tour guide, Hesham, and a driver to Giza. Hesham is an archaeologist for the Egyptian government, and he is a licensed tour guide as a second job. He explained that this is a common arrangement in Egypt- government jobs offer very good retirement and low-stress working hours and conditions, however many people take second jobs because the salaries or wages offered are not enough for many families. He was very friendly and an excellent guide. We were paired with camels to take a short ride from Giza to the base of the Pyramids. The part of riding a camel that I, nor the rest of our group, realized about riding a camel is just how high off the ground you are actually sitting. I compared it to riding a horse before I got on- I sized up where the head of the camel was and prepared myself to sit a few inches higher; so I’d guestimated my head would be about 7-8 feet high. In fact, the hump you sit on is about a foot higher than the camel’s head, and your body goes up from there so my head was probably somewhere around 10-12 feet high. The other part of riding the camel I wasn’t prepared for was the “ride” up to that riding height. Again, to offer a comparison, when you get on a horse the animal is standing. You hop on and that’s it. To get on a camel it bends down on its knees for you to get on. Then, without warning, the guide shouts an order at the camel (in Arabic, I did not understand even that it was the order for the camel to rise) and the animal stands up. You shoot up from a comfortable 5 foot perch to a 12 foot riding height in a matter of seconds. That lunge up was quite a surprise!
We got settled quickly (some of us quicker than others) and started riding into the desert. This trip started in a crowded, hectic and noisy city street. Then, we turned around a sand hill, and the sounds of the city were instantly gone. The sudden change was startling, but the silence was incredibly peaceful. As we approached the Pyramids, my anticipation grew. Once they were before us I can only describe the feeling as a brilliant sense of awe. On one hand, they look exactly as they do in pictures. There is nothing visually lost in postcards, textbooks or other pictures you’ve seen before. Even their size was not necessarily surprising to me. On the other hand, even without any “surprise” in their appearance or size, the Pyramids still elicit a powerful sense of importance and mystery. Part of it is wrapped up in the knowledge of how old they are- built over 4,500 years ago. Part of it may be their symmetry (though, technically, only the “Great Pyramid” is mathematically perfect and symmetrical, while the rest have flaws that were not noticeable to me). I think part of it is how alien they look. There’s nothing like them in the world, and in some ways these giant tombs do not look like they belong on the planet. No matter what the cause, the Pyramids left an indelible impression in my memory.
As we rode around the Pyramids, we came to what Howard Carter (the archaeologist that found King Tutankhamun’s tomb) often called the “magical point.” It is a spot where all 9 of the Giza Pyramids can be seen together, and they are lined up in a way that they seem to be pointing in the same direction or as if they are looking at some object in the distance. It is a beautiful view of these monuments to ancient kings. We also walked around the base of the Pyramids and went inside the second or middle Pyramid. The walk into the tomb was difficult. The ceiling of the passage was low so everybody had to bend down as we walked down a steep decline. Inside it was hot and smelled like sewage. The tomb itself was a large room with a high ceiling. It was actually fairly bare, with only a few carvings and inscriptions. The Egyptians did not start decorating the walls of the tombs elaborately until later periods, especially when they stopped building Pyramids and instead hid the dead Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings.
The same place in Giza also contains the famous large Sphinx (with the missing nose). The temple around it served as a sort of royal embalming building. The different rooms served distinct purposes during the embalming process. The other fact I found impressive about the Sphinx is that it was carved out of one large piece of stone on site.
One of the feelings I repeatedly experienced throughout Egypt was the sense of how old everything is. Coming from a country and culture that praises century old buildings as impressive, the concept of buildings, statues, engravings and art (not to mention actual bodies) that are several millennia old is difficult to fathom. Even more impressive about these ancient feats is the kind of condition they are in. Some of the temples we walked through look strong and sturdy despite their age. The hieroglyphics are not worn down or faded; they are still clear and precise. Many even kept their colors not only intact, but seemingly as clear and bright as when they were painted.
Another fact I heard repeatedly is how much from this culture has not been found. Archaeologists have found lists of tombs, temples, even pyramids and other artifacts that they believe should still be intact in some form but they have not found. We heard this at every site we visited- that there is more to be found, and that active excavations are still going on everywhere. We even saw active excavations of more tombs around the Giza pyramids from a distance while we were there.
The rest of the tour took us to Memphis, where the capital of Egypt was located for several dynasties. There they had older, more primitive “step” pyramids. As opposed to the more famous structures in Giza, these did not have the same smooth, even outer walls. They also were not built in the way you would imagine. I don’t remember the details, but our guide explained they were built as a one room tomb, then an outer casing was added to protect and hide the entrance of the tomb which completed the bottom “step”. Then the next level up was built to house other items that would be buried with the Pharaoh. I don’t remember the order of the levels, but this would include the organs of the mummified king, certain possessions and treasures, some pets, and maybe servants of the Pharaoh. Family members would usually have their own pyramid built, or some other sort of tomb close by. Also, we visited some more temples in Saqqara, including a temple that appeared to have been built around a fallen 40-foot statue of Ramses.
Finally, we visited the Citadel complex in Cairo. This was a military complex at one time, a presidential palace at another, and the location of one of the largest, most significant, and most beautiful mosques in Cairo. My favorite part was the mosque. When it was built, the president of Egypt, Mohamed Ali, brought architects and engineers from around the world to build it. As a consequence, there are engravings and inscriptions from other religions, cultures and countries in many places. Some of the most surprising were Jewish stars of David in several locations of the mosque. Some were inscribed on the ceiling. Others were built into a metal gate closing off a memorial built into the tomb (though I forget who the memorial was for). Other stunning features of the mosque were the characteristic domed rooftops, which inside this one had Christian paintings on the ceiling, and hanging chandeliers (now electric lights, but originally they held candles) whose frames were so thin that the lights looked as if they were floating above you. I also loved the minarets characteristic of Muslim mosques. The Citadel also offered some incredible views of the city of Cairo.
Before we headed back to the hotel, we visited Cairo’s largest and most well known street market, Khan el-Khalili. This was a fun experience, going through different souvenir, art, clothing and jewelry shops and haggling with the merchants. I learned to enjoy the haggling process, and had a lot of fun with it (even if I’m not skilled enough to get great deals out of the process). While this market used to be a staple of Cairo life, it has transformed into more of a tourist attraction as more “western style” shopping malls open with fixed prices. Entering the market was the first time in Egypt I questioned our well being as our tour guide had arranged to have an armed bodyguard with a pistol on his hip follow us through the market as an added safety measure. I did appreciate the extra security he offered, but before that moment I did not think we would need this sort of protection, especially in Cairo. I had done my research on the state department’s website, in several commercial travel guides, and other travel websites on the issue of safety in Egypt. Most of them said that there were some areas of extremism where extra precautions were necessary, but none of the high-tourism places we were visiting. This question of safety due to our American citizenship stuck with me through the rest of the trip since there were other accommodations we needed to make I was not expecting. While I had an incredible trip and it was a fantastic experience, this underlying uneasiness about safety was a very stressful factor to carry in a foreign country.
The Khan el-Khalili market also demonstrated a cultural difference between Egypt and the US very clearly: differing views on women. This does not come as a surprise, but it is a good opportunity to exemplify some of the differences. We came prepared for different expectations, for example, the women all brought clothes that covered at least their shoulders (no spaghetti strap tank tops) and shawls or pashminas to wrap up their arms and/or head if necessary. We really did not want to offend anybody if we could help it. But I can’t help contrasting their views and treatment of women to those views of the US. First, the offers to “buy” the girls from me to marry them were everywhere. While most of these were jokes from the merchants, they are jokes based off of actual practices that still take place. One tour guide also told us that men are still allowed to have up to four wives in Egypt. In some of the shops, when one of the women was trying to negotiate, the merchant would look at me to continue negotiations, or even for payment after the price was agreed to, and I had to explain that his business was between him and the woman. Another example was when we were walking through the Citadel mosque, and our guide (who was a Muslim) explained how women were segregated to either the back of the prayer floor or the second level. He said this was so that the men were not distracted from their prayer as everybody bent down on their knees because all the focus should remain on their prayer to Allah. My immediate thought was about the assumptions this argument entails: either that women do not have the same sexual desires as men when they see a man bending down the same way, or that it is not as important for a woman to be focused on her prayer to Allah for some reason. Either way, that view is considered degrading to women in most of the US. I obviously was not willing to pick a fight about this issue- I was a guest in their country and must respect their differing views even if I do not agree with them. If you put aside the practices that the US would generally consider sexist, the bargaining for a woman’s hand in marriage did lead to some of the funniest quotes of the trip. If I had taken the highest (joke) offers for each woman I was traveling with, I would have come back to the US with 4 million camels and a jewelry store! (Of course, as I write this in the US, a commercial advertising Axe shower gel or body spray is running for a scent that changes because, “women get bored easily.” Glad to see how far we’ve come…)
Our next adventure was a bus ride to the beach town of Hurghada, located on the Red Sea. The bus gave us a view of the deserts around Cairo, and then rode along a road that overlooked the Suez Canal down into the shore of the Red Sea. Our hotel was a gorgeous setting with several massive pools, a water park and a beautiful beach looking into the sea. The staff of the hotel was incompetent and frustratingly unhelpful. We had some trouble booking a ride out of Hurghada to get to Luxor too. We thought there was a bus to get there, but it turned out to be a bus for hotel workers considered unsafe for tourists. While trying to make reservations for a car to drive us there instead, we ran into problems getting the proper paperwork and/or security escorts to get through check points on the way. This appeared to be required by the US government for the safety of American tourists. This added to my underlying feeling of being in undetermined danger, though there was never a specific event where I felt as though I was in any sort of imminent risk.
In Hurghada, I ran into one of my biggest cultural misunderstandings of the trip. While trying to arrange for a car and driver to take us to Luxor, we asked for a receipt that we paid a certain fee to get our paper work processed. The employee helping us make the arrangements told us we didn’t need to worry; he would take care of it. We asked to have a receipt anyway. At this point he started to get frustrated and asked why we didn’t trust him. Despite our assurances we did trust him, and that we did think he could do his job, we still demanded proof that we paid him. For me this is instinct- if something goes wrong in the US and you have a receipt, you have proof and you are likely not going to be ripped off. I realized after the incident that the person making our arrangements was genuinely hurt by our request- to him it meant we did not trust him. We had insulted his integrity by not taking his word. Later, when we were leaving and paying him for the rest of the car service, I had a discussion with him that I did not mean to offend him- I did not know that by not accepting his word I was attacking his integrity the way he thought. I felt like he understood, and he explained that in Egypt we needed to trust people when they give their word- that their word and reputation are one of the most important things to maintain for an Egyptian. When I got in the car and we were about to drive away, he tapped on my window so I rolled it down. “Always trust Egyptian,” he said smiling. “Always trust Egyptian.”
Also, by the time we left the resort, all four of us had at one point started to feel slightly ill. Not sick enough to worry any of us, however. Part of this was our stomachs not being used to the cooking oils, food preparation methods, sanitary standards and natural bacteria found in fresh produce that, while not dangerous, our bodies are not accustomed too. Part of it might have been exhaustion of waking up early, going to bed late and being under hundred degree heat most of every day. I think part of it was the buffets at our Hurghada hotel had bad food in them. We were warned ahead of our trip several times that most western tourists have stomach problems, and I had been good about taking some Pepto Bismal after every meal, but this was the point it started to catch up to my body, as well as the body of my companions.
When we finally arranged to leave Hurghada, we had to drive through a fascinating mountain range to get to Luxor. I don’t even know how to describe the mountains. They were a dark reddish-brown color with an intimidating jagged shape throughout. They appeared to be peppered with black sand that almost looked like charcoal dust. Finally, the mountains just appeared out of the desert with no warning. Our driver said this mountain range had no name, though in was a continuation of a set of mountains from a different beach town farther south on the Red Sea. Adding to the beauty, and the mystique, was that we were driving through the middle of them at sunset. The red sun going down over these mountains was a beautiful light. Even more stunning was on the other side of the mountains the terrain changed drastically and rapidly. We left the mountains into the desert for several miles, and then, out of nowhere, we were in a lush green area with woodlands and farms. There was no transition, just a sudden line of dark, vibrant green.
In Luxor we spent the first day exploring local sites and museums. First was Luxor Temple. This temple was smaller than some others that we had seen, but it had some unique aspects to it including lots of art and hieroglyphics etched into the walls and columns. Its entrance way had a line of sphinxes with rams’ heads on lions’ bodies. This line used to go clear across Luxor to a second temple, but in the millennia that passed the city was built over this impressive footpath. My favorite part of Luxor Temple was the back room that was turned into a Christian church around the time of the Crusades. They plastered over the stone walls inscribed with hieroglyphics to paint Christian bible scenes. Over the years, the plaster started to fall, exposing the original carvings of the Egyptians. The juxtaposition of these Christian paintings blending into ancient Egyptian codes is fascinating.
We made a stop at Luxor’s mummification museum on the way to Karnak Temple. This museum had intriguing exhibits of the mummification process including tools, drawings, artifacts left with the mummies, and (of course) actual mummies.
Karnak Temple is the most famous site within the city of Luxor, and probably the largest temple from ancient Egypt. It was actually built in many stages as several separate temples all connected together. One room has 134 columns all inscribed with hieroglyphics. This was the largest collection of columns in a single room in the world, according to our guide. There were also some famous statues, two large obelisks and some un-revealed treasures that will be unearthed and hopefully restored for the public in the future. Unfortunately, in 115 degree heat, we had to rush through the temple and could not take as many pictures as we wanted for fear of our digital cameras overheating and causing permanent damage.
The last day in Luxor we toured the Valley of the Kings across the Nile River from the city. This is where the Pharaohs from the “new kingdom” of ancient Egypt were buried. This is where King Tutankamen, a/k/a “King Tut” was discovered. The goal of the Egyptians in using these mountains to bury their kings was to thwart grave robbers from finding the bodies and treasures buried with them. Considering only King Tut’s tomb was found intact, I’d say they failed. Inside the hallways to these tombs are intricate hieroglyphics, well preserved and outlining the path to the afterlife for the Pharaohs. The inscriptions were again in magnificent condition, and many of them in vibrant colors. Later that day, we visited Deir el-Medina. This was the site of where the workers who dug out and inscribed the Valley of the Kings lived and were buried. These tombs had different artwork that talked about the daily life of the common worker in ancient Egypt. It was a different view of the past culture from the views offered in the Pyramids and royal tombs and temples.
After Luxor, Linda and I separated from Christine and Efsta. We took an overnight train back to Cairo. For one more day we visited Cairo and the Cairo Museum. In there were thousands of the artifacts from the sites we had been visiting. Finally, we took a taxi back to the airport. Exhausted and exhilarated at the same time, we boarded our twelve hour flight home.

Wuddup wuddup, its been a while since I posted, mainly because nothing too exciting has happened. We haven’t gone anywhere except for Beijing which is growing commonplace now. Don’t worry though, we should have a flurry of exciting updates coming in the next week or so. We will be going to Xi’an, a “new, old city” most famous for being the location of the Terra Cotta warriors. More importantly, my friend Matt Busa will meet us there on his trip to China! So we are excited and hope that he can make a guest post about his experience.

Yesterday , I watched the highest grossing movie in Chinese cinematic history, and it was about the Tangshan earthquake (English subtitles). I think it is hard to imagine the kind of devastation that the city endured, but basically everything in the city was destroyed and the majority of people living here died. The movie did a very poor job of depicting this, as it focused mostly on one families struggle AFTER the actual earthquake. We really haven’t encountered situations where the earthquake was brought up, but I think the spirit of resiliency and perseverance is very strong with people from Tangshan. The movie was not very interesting, but what I did think was interesting is how much the audience talked during the movie. Cell phones were ringing CONSTANTLY throughout the movie, people were talking like they would anywhere else…it was a little strange. As you walked into the theater, which was the old-style with a balcony, they handed you a bag of tissues in case you were crying.

I have been practicing my Chinese more recently and am noticing improvements particularly with my listening and pronunciation. About 1% of the people that I talk to tell me that they can’t understand me, where before it was probably about 40%. It is also very easy to seem like you understand what someone is saying if you just grunt, probably the most common response to any comment or question. It has taken a while, but we are starting to think more in Chinese rather than in English, which is a big step. An easy example that happens all the time is if someone asks you a question such as “Can you speak Chinese?”, the English speaker would respond “yes” or “no”. In Chinese you say “Can.” It is very hard to not respond with the words yes or no, but we are both getting much better at it. I had 2 census workers come to my apartment yesterday, and when I opened the door both of their jaws actually dropped. It is was pretty funny, and I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t wearing a shirt, I was a foreigner not wearing a shirt, or just in awe of my incredibly chiseled physique, but they were so dumbfounded that they couldn’t even utter a sound. I told them 2 people lived here, both Americans, and that we are teachers, and they both had huge smiles and said that was all they needed. It is going to be hard going back to America and not treated with the same level of awe, but it will also be nice to just fit in, so what can you do?

Alrighty, as I said before, check back in a few days, we will have some updates with our travels and friend visiting (picture of him and his girlfriend below). We are almost at the 20,000 views mark too, so we will have to have a huge tonedeaftravelers post/pictures extravaganza when that happens. So get excited!!!!!!!!!!!!! WOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!! Bye bye everyone.

The Master said, “From a gentleman consistency is expected, but not blind fidelity.” (Analects, 15.36)

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