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The votes have been tallied, the opinions have been weighed, the Chinese have spoken, and the decision has been made:

WE ARE STILL TONEDEAF!

Oh well, maybe a little less so than last year. Certainly we have learned an incredible amount about Asian culture, the world and ourselves over the last year, so we can’t be too upset that our tones are still scoff-worthy. The cabbies still appreciate our efforts!

A big thanks to friends, family and other supporters who have helped us bridge the emotional gap from the US to China over the past year. In some ways this year has felt incredibly long…and sometimes the months seem to fly by. Either way we are experiencing more than we ever thought possible, so we’re not ready to stop yet.

*Below are some photos from Erin’s very authentic celebration of the last day of Chinese New Year. What could be more environmentally friendly than a Hummer, filled with fireworks, in China?!

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Now that I can use the blog on my computer, I have unlocked the wonderful bounty of easily accessible pictures as well. Here are some from Shanghai that we did not include in the Shanghai post. The pictures are of The Bund (the old Western part of the city), People’s Square (a big park), at the top of the tallest building in China (arguably the world), and of the Pudong section of the city, which basically didn’t exist 20 years ago. Enjoy!

I put on a decent guise for being computer and tech savvy by keeping a blog and being a gmail fiend, but really I loathe the technology learning process. I find that it’s often tedious and counter-intuitive and causes me to get irrationally angry. (Can you tell I prefer doing to thinking?!)

My usual plan to increase personal blogging aptitude involves gchatting David or other friends to fix my problems. However, on this particular morning I:
1. Read Amy Anselmo’s sweet new blog about training for her LLS triathlon.
2. Was told (appropriately) by David, to “figure it out myself.”

Thus, I was inspired to forego my typical reaction of shutting down the computer, and actually give the blog gadgets a second look. And watta ya know?! I figured some things out!

I certainly like organizing, planning, information exchange, and planning organizing to enhance information exchange (obviously)…so I have spent months pondering how to make our blog more information-friendly. I spent the morning updating “widgets” and educating myself about WordPress changes to bring you the New and Improved ToneDeaf Blog! Now you can see our archives, choose your own adventure through the tag cloud and even support charity through the blog! We chose to donate to the WWF, as it seemed most appropriate given the environmental situation in China. Also, I certainly can’t take credit for all of these changes, as David was still my primary consultant.

I hope you enjoy the changes, and a photo of the wildly inappropriate toothpaste brand that is a best-seller here in China. I read online that the original name was actually “Darkie” but was apparently changed in 1985 when Colgate-Palmolive aquired the brand. They are careful to say, via Wikipedia, that they don’t market the product. I bought this cultural relic hoping to leave my mouth minty-fresh, but unfortunately all I got was a green tea after-taste.

More Vietnam updates coming soon, and let us know what you think about the updates!

This is the first post that I have made from my own computer in a while, and it feels great! Luckily the Chinese have decided that my capitalist propaganda machine known as this blog is of no threat to the stability of the country, so we are back in business. Erin was in Vietnam during the long holiday known as Spring Festival, which is Chinese New Year, which celebrates the first day of the lunar calendar. It is the year of the rabbit (read more about the Chinese Zodiac here) but I don’t really know what it means. Someone is supposedly more lucky or going to get rich or some other astrological theory that I disagree with.

Erin was gone, my two roommates went home to their families, so it was just little David all by his lonesome, with only the never ending barrage of fireworks to keep him company. Never ending barrage of fireworks you say? Indeed I did. A few days before the New Year, you heard an occasional firework, but as the days got closer, the frequency of blasts increased. On Spring Festival Eve, I really cannot put into words what the celebration was like. Basically everyone in the city, everywhere in the city, was shooting off a ridiculous amount of fireworks. I don’t mean run of the mill fireworks you can buy in the USA, I mean like the finale of the fireworks at the National Mall. It is basically Christmas, New Years Eve, and July 4th only for a week and every day is more intensely celebrated than all of those holidays. A holiday like this simply isn’t possible in the USA, because there is no way US society would be OK with the complete disregard for safety that was displayed. I am in the middle of one of the most densely populated places on the entire planet, and there are fireworks going off less than 15 feet from my window. I saw children no older than 6 lighting HUGE fireworks with their father’s cigarette. I saw people angling gigantic pyrotechnics over the biggest roads in the city so to create the most awesome explosions imaginable. I also saw fireworks tip over and blast through the windshield of a car, start a fire on the ground floor of a building, and idiots pointing fireworks at eachother in some weird Chinese game of chicken. Basically, there is no way this holiday can continue as it currently does. An estimated 6000-11000 injuries occurred this year from fireworks, in BEIJING ALONE!!!! 24 hours a day, for about a week. Its a terrifying and mesmerizing display, and I am glad I was here for it. Article written by a guy named Andrew Jacobs about the fireworks.

Besides the fireworks, there are also temple fairs, which are small carnivals at all the parks in Beijing. I was expecting these to be a great celebration of the storied traditions of this ancient culture. In reality it was a bunch of people eating hot dogs and pigeons and buying stupid hats and other dumb souvenirs. I was thoroughly disappointed but was glad to see a bunch of the temple fairs if for no other reason than there were about a billion people walking around. There was also some sort of game where you wrote a wish or your name or something on a sticker, and then had to jump and put it as high as you could. Everyone was amazed when I jumped and put it on a pole that was above where anyone else had put it, so you can all feel proud to be Americans (assuming you are Americans). Probably the coolest thing I stumbled upon at the temple fairs was a building filled with people playing games. Chess, checkers, mah jong, everything you could think of. It seemed that people could sign up to play a “master” who walked around playing many different games at the same time. Everyone wanted me to play but it looked pretty boring, because the expert was playing so many games that each game took at least an hour. I would have lost so fast it probably would have gone quickly, but I was too scared.

It is so nice being able to access the blog without having to switch computers and send pictures from one place to another, so hopefully more exciting things happen so we can kick the blog back into high gear. A friend of mine took video during the peak of the fireworks, so hopefully I can get him to send it to me. Much like Christmas in the USA, Spring Festival is the most wonderful time of the year. There was NOBODY in Beijing, so the streets were driveable. Cabbies were the happiest people in the city and all mentioned how much better Beijing was when no Chinese people were in the city. The streets were empty, which was great. It was the world’s largest ghost town for a week. Hope all is well with you, congrats to all the people born in the year of the rabbit, peace, I’m out.

Hey everyone, for no apparent reason I am now able to access the blog again. I am crossing my fingers that this is permanent and will have a new blog post up later tonight about my time in Beijing during Spring Festival. Yay.

The train ride to Sapa was nine hours, but I didn’t sleep much. I was excited about visiting the area and worried that someone would steal my things. I was in a cabin with three other French passengers who first spoke, and then snored very loudly…so I arrived to Sapa in a daze. Upon arrival, transportation again turned in to a interesting experience. My hotel wasn’t there with a sign, so I wandered around for a while asking buses if they went to the Sapa Eden Hotel, and eventually noticed that my signed woman had arrived. I hopped in a shuttle bus, only to sit for another hour while we waited for the NEXT train to arrive and took on some additional cash paying customers who didn’t have a reservation, hm.

I entered my freezing cold Sapa Valley hotel around 7am and headed immediately to my room for a nap. There wasn’t any heat, even in the 4th nicest hotel in Sapa, so I blasted the heat fan, turned on the electric blanket and slept in everything I brought. I woke up, had a nice breakfast, and headed out into the rain for my first trek. The group consisted of a young French-Canadian couple, an Australian architect, and another Canadian girl who was teaching English in South Korea and also booked the tour from my hostel. Our tour guide was the incredibly lively Miao (or something similar) who was from an indigenous village a few miles outside of Sapa. She was only 17 and spoke very good English, which she had astoundingly learned from tourists on her treks! We first visited CatCat village, which was a small (and currently rainy) mountainside village. Similar to the buttery yellow buildings I saw in Hanoi, each village had a large structure made of this same color, which Miao told me housed the local school. And look, a Chinese tourist posed to make me feel at home.

After about half an hour the skies cleared up and I took some amazing photos of the landscape and village animals and people. Check out the photo where a water buffalo is in the middle of our path! I have to say, that baby pig trying to drink out of the same bucket as a water buffalo was quite a site. What seemingly gentle giants! I also noticed how awesome even the scraggliest of Vietnamese dogs looked. They resemble different types of Shiba Inus, and seem like the perfect combination of strength and size, because they are mostly under 40 lbs. and can definitely run!

The hike was a short one, and we stopped around lunchtime to have a Vietnamese lunch back at the hotel. Afterwards, Lisa (the Canadian English teacher) and I decided to check out the town of Sapa. It actually felt and looked similar to a Colorado ski town, complete with stores selling North Face jackets, hiking boots and other gear for the inappropriately dressed. As I saw all over Vietnam, there were also lots of French coffee shops and cafes. We first took some coffee (hot chocolate for me) at one shop, and then walked up the street to have some previously recommended cinnamon apple tea from a restaurant called Gecko. Along the way we were harassed by surprisingly good English speaking minority women, who actually waited outside the shops asking, “You buy? You buy from me? OK, maybe later?” Their outfits were awesome, but I had already bought a scarf in the village, so they had to settle for a photo and our change from the hot drinks.

After spending almost a year to date traveling exclusively around China, I took a leap of faith into another Asian country: Vietnam! David’s passport was with the Chinese government getting a new visa, so he couldn’t leave the country. To be honest, I decided on Vietnam mostly because of the reasonable airfare and overall prices in this country during the Chinese New Year. 2/3 of China’s population migrates from big city to their hometowns during the 2-week long Spring Festival in early February, so prices double and triple for transportation and accommodation during this period. I had also heard many friends extol the exciting cities and beautiful beaches found in Vietnam, so I planned a very last-minute trip that went as follows:

Day 1: Arrived at Rendezvous Hostel in Hanoi after midnight, day Tour of Hanoi, sleeper bus to Sapa Valley
Day 2-3: Sapa Valley Trekking, sleeper bus back to Hanoi airport, flight to Hoi An
Day 4-5: Hoi An Beach Town in Central Vietnam
Day 6: Motorbike Ride from Hoi An to Hue, night in Hue
Day 7: Early flight back to Hanoi, Spa and Relaxation Day
Day 8-9: Halong Bay
Day 10: Early flight back to Beijing

As is typical traveling around Asia, my trip started off with a transportation bang! I was seated on the plan next to two rowdy Russians, who were constantly reprimanded by the flight attendant for not putting on their seat belt, failing to turn up their tray table, walking around during turbulence, etc. They asked for three different drinks each time we were served, and made a fuss about putting their bags through the security check! They also thought I was Russian at first, and were slightly offended when I didn’t respond…I had no idea they were talking to me! Anyway, I got a kick out of them and the group of three Chinese families whose kids studied English in their hometown of Guangzhou and spoke remarkably well. By the end of the flight I exchanged information with the Russians and had the kids on my lap.

I had some apprehensions about traveling alone for the first time in a country where I didn’t speak the language (I have traveled alone previously in Spain, but I speak Spanish and am a little more used to European culture), so I decided to play it safe and book a taxi from the airport to my hostel. After getting my on-the-spot Vietnamese visa, I met my driver easily and talked with a nice German girl in the cab. Although I booked a bed in a 6-bed dorm at the hostel, I only had to share with one other person, who turned out to be a really nice Italian guy and we chatted in the dark for about a hour before falling asleep. It was pretty bizarre, since I saw his face for the first time the next morning!

After a free breakfast from the $7 a night hostel, I joined a bus tour of the city. Although David is opposed to tours like this and prefers to discover a city via map only, I thought it was a great deal. My group included a group of young Israeli girls who had just finished their mandatory army time, an IT guy from Austria and another American turned Beijinger who actually wrote the critically acclaimed book The 8th Promise! We saw all the hotspots without getting lost, which included the Ngoc Son Temple, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Residence, The One Pillar Pagoda, Hall of Literature, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Lake of the Restored Sword, and A Ceramic Factory on the outskirts of town. I’m a sucker for the lotus flower, so I really loved the One Pillar Pagoda and its resemblance to a lotus. Ho Chi Minh’s complex with its French-inspired canary yellow buildings were really stunning, and it was neat to see the actual cars he used to drive around and his simple mountain house on stilts. It was very clear from spending just one day in Hanoi how beloved Ho Chi Minh is by the Vietnamese people for his dynamism and ability to be a man of the people.

I also got to try my first taste of authentic Vietnamese, which was nice! I like the staples of Vietnamese cuisine, which include pho noodle soup, spring rolls and chicken dishes. They use much better cuts of meat for the chicken dishes than the Chinese, and I really liked some of the curry and lemongrass sauces.

After resting a bit back at the hostel, I packed up my things and headed north for my first overnight train ride into Sapa Valley. I turned 26 on the overnight train, and felt pretty proud of myself for making the journey.

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