Thursday, November 30, 2006

Norgay on Mt. Qolomangma

7 Days in Tibet. Like that cheesy Brad Pitt movie. Actually it is 8 today, and I leave tomorrow on a three day train for Shanghai. For now I am back in Lhasa, after a five day trek to Everest. I will recount my journey in condensed form.

Day 1: I almost didn't make it, as I got some sort of food poisoning from undercooked eggs. I woke up at 5am to go pee, and proceeded to watch my insides exit from both ends. Even less fun on a squat toilet. After, I felt surprisingly better, and slept until it was time to go. When I woke up, I popped pepto and altitude sickness meds galore, and climbed into our land cruiser. I was joined on the excursion by Rachel and Annushka (two Long Island Jewish girls), Philip (Austrian) and Hanjo (Korean, aka Jo). Our driver was a Tibetan named Neemah.

We began our drive, and I wasn't sure I was going to make it. I was not feeling well. I sat in the front seat, playing with my worry beads and often opening the window for fresh air. After driving for a while, we reached a beautiful vista point. It was overlooking a crystal blue lake. We were nearly 5000meters up. There were people trying to sell pictures with their yaks and tibetan masthead dogs. It was a beautiful sight.

We drove, and drove, and drove some more. We drove to where the road ended, and we were on a dirt path. The lanes were divided by large rocks. Then we drove more. The view was beautiful, through mountains and deserts. The scenery was compared to the badlands in South Dakota, only on a grander scale. We finally reached some Tibetan town called Gayntse. It was the first of many little one-yak towns thats we stayed in. The group went to the town monastery while I slept. Kind of like Europe with castles and cathedrals, in Tibet monasteries become a dime a dozen.

Day 2: We drove to Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. We stopped at a fantastic monastery, the Tashilunpo monastery. It is one of the biggest monasteries in Tibet. We wandered the monastery during lunch time, so there weren't too many people there. Jo managed to sneak himself in, just as he had to Tibet without the papers we all had to overpay for. Jo convinced a monk to let us in to see a giant sitting buddha statue. He knocked on the door for ten minutes, begging, pleading and cajoling the monk to let us in. He told the monk he paid to see it (he didn't) and that he was a buddhist (half). Finally, the monk let us in to see the 50ft buddha, but only after he checked our tickets. Jo finagled that one too. Later we wandered into the monks eating lunch. They were eating their lunch in silence, it was pretty cool.

After, we drove on for hours through bumpy backroads until we first spotted Everest with a cloud hanging like a pillow on its neck. Finally we reached Chegar, another little one-yak town.

Day 3: We left Chegar and drove on until we reached Mt. Qomolangma base camp. Never heard of Mt. Qomolangma? That is the Tibetan name for Everest. We got there in the mid afternoon. It was amazing, it was stunning, it was... a big mountain. At 5000meters, another 3000 for a mountain doesn't look so bad. We tromped around base camp for a while. I, ummm, left my mark on base camp as best I know how. I won't get into details, you either get what I mean or you don't. I also poured out my flask of baijo in the graveyard for those who didn't make it to the top. Sarcasm aside, it was pretty cool staring at the highest peak in the world, up close. Now I begin my descent which will ultimately take me to the Dead Sea at the lowest place on earth.


We were supposed to stay at a monastery at base camp, but apparently the monks ditched out. There was no one there, so we drove back to a village where we had lunch. We stayed in the tiny Tibetan town, it was cool.

Day 4:
Left the little village and drove 7 hours all the way back to Shigatse. Stayed the night in Shigatse. Nothing too exciting to report, other than my first shower in days. I was gross!

Day 5:
Went wandering around the Shigatse market outside our hotel. There was a meat market with lots of hanging carcasses. It was cool. I went around the market trading old shirts for Tibetan trinkets. Eventually we left, and drove for a bunch of hours back to Lhasa.

It sounds so much easier when I recount the journey, but it was very cool. It was more about getting there, then actually arriving. We drove through stunning vistas and beautiful landscapes. The views were stunning as we drove through the Tibetan desert and past lakes. We also had numerous times where we were stopped by cows, sheep and yaks crossing the road. Now I will upload my pics. I'm actually excited for this 3 day train, it should be beautiful. I am also excited to get out of Tibet and back to China proper. Pics online. Sir Paul Hillary signing off.

PS: What do Tibetans and Frat Boys have in common? Both drink Pabst Blue Ribbon. That's right, the number one import to Tibet is good ol' PBR. They have it everywhere. Strange.

PPS: I was trying to be civil but one of the Long Island girls, Rachel, was such a JAP! I hate japs. I came all the way out here to avoid them. Ugh. At first, we got along. By the end, I would pray that my ipod had enough juice so I didn't have to listen to her. My ipod got sick from the altitude too. Anyway, I was going to leave her out of my blog, since I really don't care about one little LI jap, but she just yelled at me for having the front seat too much on our trip. Whatever, I'm gone tomorrow, but she will be stuck as a JAP for the rest of her overprivileged whiney life.

PPPS: Ok, she offered me a truce. Not even an apology. Should I remove the angry post? I felt a little guilty for railing on someone in my blog, as that is not what my blog is for. Delete the former angry text, or leave it?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Sisterly Advice

I had been dithering back and forth of whether to join a group going on a 5 day excursion through Tibet to Everest base camp. I am still sick, and I had already bought my train ticket out for Monday to Shanghai. But the group was looking for a fourth, and one of the girls, Innushka said in a tone dripping with Jewish guilt, "don't worry about it, next time you are in Tibet you can go to Mt. Everest."

So I changed my mind, and went about working on changing my ticket. However last night, I was up half the night coughing and sneezing so I thought I might skip it and follow the original plans. I called my parents for shabbat and to ask advice about if I should go. My little sis put it rather succinctly. She said, "let me get this straight. You are not going to Everest because of a cold? You better be on your death bed, otherwise you are a (insert feline name here)." Thanks for the verbal bitch slap. So I took two buses over to the train station, and spent a lot of time trying to change my ticket. Eventually, I was able to figure something out with the ticket lady, and paid a stupidity tax of 160rmb ($20) to change the date.

Otherwise, I managed to find every Jew in Tibet. Last night, I went out with 4 Israelis and 2 American Jews. We are also being joined today an Aussie Jew. My jewdar must be emitting a homing signal. During our discussion, we got on the topic of literature. All the Israelis were talking about Raymond Carver as being one of the most famous American authors in the last century. The Americans, myself included, had no idea who he was. And this was a pretty well-read crowd. I'm convinced some publicist has played a cruel joke on the Israelis, convincing them that this guy is really famous in America, therefore they should read him. So I have 1RMB for anyone who can tell me who Raymond Carver was.

Chapstick

Straight out of an old Saturday Night Live skit. I was at a monastery yesterday with my friend Philip from Austria. We were walking past this old couple, when the man motioned to me if I had any chapstick for his wife to use. She happened to be wearing a white mask over her nose and mouth, which is pretty common here. So just as I start reaching to give her chapstick, she takes off the mask. Her lips with covered with black, festering blisters. I motioned for her to keep the chapstick, and they seemed rather happy at the gift.

So in the end, thanksgiving was interesting. No turkey, but plenty of yak! We managed to round up about 10 Americans, plus two Israelis and the aformentioned Austrian. It was actually pretty nice, we just talked about thanksgiving traditions and anecdotes (the mashed potato incident made my comments). If anything it was a memorable thanksgiving.

Today, I called the family for their turkey dinner, which was 9am for me. Went to the Potala Palace, which was pretty amazing. Where all the lamas hung out. Absolutely beautiful, with shrines dimly lit by yak butter, and the smell of incense pervading the air. There were pilgrims, both young and old. Statues of different buddhas, and the golden tombs of the previous lamas. It was beautiful.

After I did my Black Friday shopping in a market near one of the holiest shrines of Buddhism. I circled the temple with all the other pilgrims, then broke away for lunch on the roof of a nearby hotel. We could see the pilgrims prostrating in front of the temple, while we waited for lunchYak dumplings and jasmine tea, while sitting beneath the Himalayas.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Turkey Day

I have a rare feeling of homesickness. Due to Thanksgiving, compounded by the fact I am a little sick, and the altitude here is tough. I was sitting on the roof of my hotel (YAK!), staring at the Potala Palace in its grandeur. Yet I couldn't help thinking that I would have preferred at that moment to be sitting on my parents couch, watching Thanksgiving football and waiting to dig in to the turkey and other accoutrements. Ah, the sacrifices we make. This isn't the first thanksgiving I haven't been home, but for some reason this one hit me harder. I had turkey in Turkey, along with mashed potatoes and stuffing at the hostel next to Haggia Sophia. Also, when i was in Israel we had a proper turkey dinner, as the expats all celebrated together. This year maybe a duck and some french fries or baked yams. Perhaps a yak feast. In any case, journey on.

Yakkity Yak

The big food in Tibet is yak. There are huge hunks of it in butcher windows all over town. Last night for dinner, I had yak fried rice. Really not bad. On the other hand, I had some yak butter tea later that night. Tibetans love the stuff. It tastes about as good as it sounds. Imagine drinking thick, warm cheese tea that tastes a little moldy. Ranks up as one of the strangest things I have ever tried. I barely got through my glass, as I didn't want to offend the Tibetans around me.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

More photos up

Another photoshop taken over, more pics on my website:
http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18

Lhasatude

My day began at 5am, as my Thai friend woke me. Lucky for me, as I woke up the person from the hostel who was supposed to do the job. I took the shuttle to the airport, along with two Jewish American girls, a Swede and a French guy. The French guy apparently is like Jacque Costeau as was carrying two suitcases full of diving gear.

The roads were utterly foggy and I wondered if we were going to make it out. The driver dropped us off at the airport, and we all went to check-in. To visit Tibet, you need to get a permit. Something that doesn't matter once you are here, but a requirement to get on a plane. When I got my ticket confirmation from the hostel, they told me it was all I needed. When I got there, they started asking about the permit. I told them I thought I was carrying it on the paper I had. The rest of the group was having the same problem, then our guide appeared, papers in hand. We got our tickets, past through security and got on the plane. It was so foggy, you couldn't see the airport just 50 yards away. I wasn't surprised when they said the flight was delayed, but I got worried when they announced they were serving breakfast and drinks. Then you know you are not going anywhere for a while. Utterly appropos, they decide to show the movie while we were on the ground, "The Terminal Man."

It was fine though, as I slept for two of the three hours we were on the ground. We just cleared the clouds, when "Wo De Tian!" "Oh, my heavens" as the Chinese say. Just as we crossed through the clouds and into the blue skies, there were mountains peeking above the clouds. We were flying just above mountain ranges. It looked like chocolate brownie mountains, covered with powdered sugar on top. I sat stunned with my hand over my mouth. Unreal beauty. Nothing that these wides eyes had ever seen before.

The words of the prophets are written on hostel walls, as someone wrote that flying into Tibet is liking flying into a dream. It was so beautiful, I got shivers and goosebumps. The "godbumps" as my friend Terry Lowry says.

I have been overwhelmed with beauty a handful of times in my life. The train ride down Scotland's coast, in between the blue seas and green fields. Driving through the Lesotho highlands. The fields of Joshua trees on the road to Monterrey, as their praying hands lead up to the Sierra Madres. The sahara sunrise. I think this flight could have beaten them all.

The mountains look like they are covered in silk threads. And like that, the world was covered in white silk. Clouds poolomg in the basin of sugarloafs. The snow-capped mountains look like the crest of rippling waves. I spent the entire flight snapping photos, and pressing my head against the glass.

Now I am in Lhasa. I departed from the group after we had walked a long way to a hostel. They wanted to go to on further down, but the Yak hotel offered rooms for the same price, and I didn't feel like moving another step. Now I am trying to acclimate to the altitude. My provisions seem completely pointless, as it is 40 degrees farenheit, and the sun is beating down. Who wouldda thunk I would need sunscreen, not a scarf and hat.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Pandas

I went to a panda research park today. I went along with an old thai backpacker, named Ken. He is 75 and backpacking around China. Very interesting fellow. He used to be the captain of a fishing boat, but has retired and travels on his pension and savings. We met cause he is in my six-person dorm room. When he arrived there were no more bottom beds, so I gave him mine and perilously climbed the the ladder. I pray that at 75, I am still traveling about like that.

So Ken and I set out this morning to find the pandas. We took two buses, both which incidentally were number 001, but with completely differnt routes. We arrived at the panda park about 45 minutes later and saw some of the adorable sloths. We saw the red panda, which is really cute. Looks kinda like a fox, with an red coat, white face and black ears. Also a stripped red and black tail. Also saw the traditional black and white ones. In my next life, I should be a panda. The life is, as my brother like to quote, "eats shoots leaves." I also saw a movie on the breeding of pandas, and think I would have been perfectly content never watching a panda birth.

After our two buses back, we had lunch at the packed local noodle bar. A nice chicken dish, rice and beer for $1.50. As for the rest of the day, just stocking up for Tibet.

Unhappy Ending

There is a massage parlor next to my hostel, so with the afternoon free, I decided to get a foot massage. It was 20RMB ($2.50) for an hour long foot massage (plus tea soaking and steaming), or 30RMB ($3.75) for a hundred-minute full body massage. I decided to go for the full body. So I am getting ready for my initial steaming of my toesies like dumplings when the masseuse comes in. Rather than a sweet-smelling, cute chinese girl, it was a spikey-haird chinese dude. So not what I was expecting. I pointed to all the other girls, and asked if there more girls to do it, and they said there were none. Not what I had in mind, not really my cup of chrysanthimum tea.

After a while of steaming my feet, and laughing over the situation, I had a nice foot massage. I mean, I had a massage in the Istanbul bathhouse from a dude, and this was much less weird than my chinese bathhouse experience a few days before. In any case I opted for just a foot massage, and got my 7 rmb back for the rest of the body. Just when I thought I was understanding this place, it reminds me I don't.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Hostel Environment

I love hostels, even if I could afford better, I think I would still stay here. It is so much fun being surrounded by backpackers from all over the world. I spent the afternoon speaking hebrew with some Israeli post-army backpackers. Then for dinner, I went out for hotpot with a German and Dutch. You get such an exchange of ideas. People from different places with vastly different perspectives. Love it.

I spent the rainy day here shopping in possibly the biggest market I have ever seen. Huge, went on for blocks, and in and out of alleys. Clothes, upon clothes. Amazing. I bargained tooth-and-nail for Tibet provisions. I think I did pretty well, by foreigner standards. I got a hat for 8rmb ($1), scarf for the same, vest for 20rmb ($2.50) and long underwear for 25rmb ($3.12). Not bad. Meanwhile I munched hallal kababs for 12cents a piece. yum.

As for dinner, the aforementioned hotpot, they brought us fish still breathing before they dumped them in the boiler. Weird. Tomorrow, off to play with pandas! Manasa, a very bright Indian seed mentioned that I should take one with me for warmth in Tibet. However, after the experience of the worker at the Beijing zoo, who was drunk and climbed in the panda cage to pet the panda- was bit, and bit the panda back- I think I will pass.

A happy little Buddha

is me. I'm off to Tibet! Not exactly the way I planned, but getting there no less. I'm in Chengdu now, after a rather enjoyable 17 hour trainride from Xi'an. Despite being alone, it is rather hard to be alone when surrounded by 1.3 billion people. After two weeks, my head has ceased spinning, and the place is starting to make a little sense.

So the Tibet deal is this. It is hard to get a train ticket there, but easy to get a flight in. It is much easier to get a train out. As one of my most favorite songs goes:

"Just a few more weary days and then, I'll fly away. To a land where joys will never end, I'll fly away. I'll fly away, ol' glory, I'll fly away, in the mornin'. When I die, hallejuah bye and bye, I'll fly away.

So I will fly to Lhasa, eat yak butter, freeze my butt off and train down from the "Roof of the World." I was so impressed with the "Roof of Africa" in Lesotho, that I am giddy for this one. Please note, dear bloggies, my emails and blogs will be monitored when i am in Tibet, so no politcal emails and no mention of the guy who gave a graduation addres at Brandeis.

In the meantime, I am spending the rainy day at my 15 rmb ($2) palace, amid backpackers from Europe, Japan, Israel and a lone American. This is actually the cheapest and possibly the best. Tomorrow I am going to play with pandas! All for now, zi jian (adios).

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Darkness at Noon

The immortal book by Arthur Koestler so aptly titles my entry. I have never seen a city so enveloped in smog. It is a sunny day, but you would never know it. Just smog abound. I can see the sun trying to peek through the coal-filled air, but it is powerless to break through. Thomas Friedman is in China and has been writing about eco-China. I just hate it when he steals ideas from me.

I spent today wandering through the Islamic district, and to the Great Mosque. The Great Mosque was amazing as it looked just like a pagoda. The only way you could tell the difference was the Arabic caligraphy over the doorways. The gatekeeper and I became fast friends as he told me how much he loved Yao Ming, and I gave him a Texas pin.

Earlier on a train, I was told I was "as cool as Yao Ming." That is a pretty tall compliment. Ranks up there with the Yeshiva boys in Mea Shearim telling my friends and me that we were "the holiest" when we were yeshiva dancing for Simhat Torah. So now, I am off to Chengdu, but first taking advantage of free internet at the hostel.

Random thought, in Latin America people say "Jesus" when you sneeze. Should I say "Buddha" when people sneeze here?


Sadly, I finished "Around the World in 80 Days" by Jules Verne. I enjoyed the book's company, as it seemed rather appropos. I left it in the hostel for the next traveler to read. Now on to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." I sure can pick reading material.
PS: To Du from the train, I tried to write you but the email didn't work. If you want to email me, try the gmail account.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Terracotta

I'm in Xi'an but moving on today. Xi'an was the first capital of a unified China, and was capital of China for nearly a millennia. It is about 4 million people, and utterly smoggy. Its like london fog throughout the city, without the fog. Its scary. I never thought Houston could seem so pristine, but Houston is green compared with some of the cities I have been in.

Xi'an also has a large Muslim communitym about 80,000. There are 10 million or so Chinese Muslims, called "Hui." Hui means "go-away " people, because the Muslims always said they were going back to from where they came, only to stick around. It's nice being able to find food stands where I know I won't get pork.

I have spent a nice time here, two days and some change. I have been in a hostel with all the smatterings of British, Scandanavian, German and Canadian folks. I am the only American. I love the "hostel" environment. My first day here, I just wandered around the city with an English bloke named John. We found ourselves in a wet market with giant fish, eels, turtles frogs and even our favorite canine friend. It took me a second to recognize what a hanging carcas was, until it struck that I was staring at a skinned fido.

That night, I drink seasnake liquor and partied it up on the bar street with John, and a Danish and Swedish girl. Alas, I picked the wrong horse. The Swedish girl loved Manu Chao so I translated it for her. That's how I made my choice. Too bad she had some other swedish shmo named Linus that she was pledging her undying devotion to, even though they weren't together. Meanwhile, John with a girlfriend got the cute Danish girl while i am left with simply a kiss on the hand. C'est la guerre.

Saturday I went on a tour of the Terracotta warriors. I was apprehinsive about going on a tour, and my apprehensions proved correct. I HATE TOURS. We stopped at a pottery factory that was just a tourist shop. I booked outside to flee from the tourists. Meanwhile I met a lovely Israeli backpacker who was on my tour. She was adorable. I was quickly falling in love, until I asked her if she had a "Chaver", boyfriend. Alas, she did. We spent the day speaking hebrew, and flirting, with me trying to convince her to leave her jobnik boyfriend.

The Terracotta warriors were pretty amazing. They were 2,200 year old statues burried with the first chinese emperor. They were lost, and only found two decades ago. Fascinating stuff, almost made it worth it to deal with the tour.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Sea snake shots

The ingredients of the perfect drink (oy, it's hard to type after two): crocus, ginseng, seasnake, tiger bone, glossy ganoderma and chinese winterberry. Better than baijo (112proof chinese rice wine) and hits you like a Long March. Happy Shabbos to all, and to all a good night.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

WTF in the Chinese hammam

Amid the dim lights, I found myself lying naked in a chinese bath house. Staring up at the mildewed concrete ceiling while being scrubbed clean by an abrasive mitt. Wondering myself , how the hell I got here, I will now explain. Having realized that it was no big deal that I lost my guide book, because of the internet, I hopped a night train to Xi'an. I found myself up on the top bunk of a moving coffin, with an adorable chinese girl named Show-ua across. We share the same proficiencies in language, but my saying "maylee" (beautiful) got a "you come back with me" response. Thinking I struck the chinese lottery, I thanked my karmic blessings and tried to get some rest in my crawlspace of a bed.

Of course, this being China, nothing is ever as expected. This morning we got off the train, and went back to her apartment. She shares an apartment with her brother, rendering my conceptions of the one-child policy dead. So my chinese fantasies did not exactly turn out, but rather I ended up in the bathhouse with her brother. Now I really feel like a rockstar. I was scrubbed clean in afformentioned manner. Possibly the weirdest experience of my life, and now this is probably the cleanest I have been since visiting the hammam with my host brothers in Morocco. Show-ua and her brother dropped me off at the local hostel, where I am now residing. Possibility of a date tonight, but this being China, I expect little to turn out how I think it might. In any case, I was able to pick up plenty of hostel brochures, so between those and the internet, I am back in business.

PS: Trying to speak chinese is like the old Saturday Night Live skit about the French teacher. I say "Datong," they look at me blankly. I repeat "Dah-tong," still not getting it. Third time "DAH-TONG" in my most exaggerated Chinese accent. "Oh, DAH-TONG, why you no say so in first place?"

Wo I Nee Jega (I'm Lovin' it)

I had lunch in McDonald's today because sometimes you just need the warm comfort of the golden arches. After my morning travails, I treated myself to a big mac, fries and a coke. I skipped the grean bean pie (instead of apple). Call me a philistine, but when I have spent days in strange territories, it is so comforting to have something like Mickie D's.

I met to Africans from Cameroon living in Taiyuan. One was a an English teacher, the other was staying with him. Their voices peaked with frustration at recounting the number of times people would point at them, or whole crowds would form around them in a park. And I thought I was exotic here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Tao of Paul

"I am a leaf on the wind, watch me soar"
-Serenity

This place is so utterly confusing. Each day it becomes more so. I have been all over, but I have never encountered a place so utterly befuddling. Yet once you accept the fact that it makes no sense, you can let go. It is liberating to accept that it won't make sense. All I am is the smallest of fishies in the largest of ponds. I can live with that. It is so humbling. I see the multitudes of people on their bikes, and in their cars, and I realize that I am so small in this world. I can accept that.

KPFT Interview

More press for the book project that I set up, about 8minutes in:
http://archive.kpft.org/mp3/061114_170001news.MP3

Wakeup call, part deux

I committed one of the most unforgivable of traveler sins- I lost my guidebook. Amid the 5:30 morning slumber, I left the book sitting on the middle bed of my hard sleeper. Granted, I was disoriented from the jostling wakeup, and my stuff had been moved around during the night as other passengers got on. This makes an already disorienting place all the harder. However, it could be far worse. It wasn't my passport, wallet or camera. Still frustrating. But thank god, I remembered my New Yorker magazine at the last minute, cause god forbid I had lost that.

I am regrouping at an internet cafe. I will print out info, and deal as best I can. I'm in Taiyuan, many km from the nearest Borders or English bookstore. Hopefully, a hostel will have an old guidebook or I can photocopy. In any case, nothing to be done about it. To paraphrase Golda Meir, can't get off the journey and can't change the weather, so sit back and enjoy the ride. Besides Marco Polo didn't need no stinkin' guidebook. Nor Phileas Fogg, but he was only traveling for 80 days. Nor Bilbo Baggins, but he could call on Gandalf when he was in trouble. Regardless, I will make do.

But my dear bloggies, on the off chance anyone knows of any English language bookstores in Xi'an or Chengdu, please feel free to post.

Pics now up

I have commandered a chinese Kodak store, and pics are now being uploaded. For the Forbidden City, Great Wall and General Beijing, visit:
http://levantine18.blogspot.com

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Buddhist Petra

I began the day moving out of my $12 splendor of a room, and into a backpacker style room for $3.50. I had a rather frustrating start to the day, as I went from bank to bank searching for either an atm that would accept my card or change money. I visted 5 or 6 in the process. After a lunch in a hole-in-the wall noodle shop, I went out to the Youngang caves. I took to buses to get there, and when I finally arrived, I was speechless. It was literally a Buddhist Petra. The caves are more than a millennia and a half old. There were 50 ft. Buddhas carved into the cliffs, caves and grottoes. They had little buddhas and big buddhas all over. Each cave was more and more spectacular. Meanwhile, the sound of buddhist musical chants were in the background. Sweet, perfumed incense filled the air as it softly floated on the Mongolian wind. It was amazing.

After I took a chicken bus back into town and visited another buddhist temple. I accidentally wandered into a service. Everyone was chanting and prostrating as they were playing gongs. Then I walked in, and everyone was staring at me so put my hands together like everyone else, bowed my head and said the "shema" under my breath.

I left the temple and wandered around town. I stopped at the Chinese equivalent of McDonalds, Uncle Lee's Noodle House. The workers were wearing red aprons, with red-and-white striped shirts and old McDonalds style white hats. They punch in your order on a cell phone. I ate something so spicy, I got a bloodynose. My lips were numb. Good stuff.

Tales of a Wandering Jew- Beijing

I was lost outside the subway, searching for a bus to the Summer Palace, the old stomping grounds for the Emperor. I stopped the only Westerner I saw to ask for directions, but he was lost as well. As we talked, we established that we were both "MOT" (Members of the Tribe) and both from Washington, DC. As it was Friday, I told the fellow traveler about Shabbat services at Chabad in Beijing, and how the website offered printout directions in Chinese for a cab to the synagogue. We went on our respective lost ways.

Later that night I arrived at the Rabbi's house-turned-synagogue, leaving the unfamiliar Chinese world behind, and entering a far more familiar surrounding. My fellow traveler was there, as well as forty or so members of the Beijing Jewish community. Surrounded by Jews from Israel, Australia, Russia, Canada and America, together we celebrated the Sabbath and shared a delicious kosher meal. Ironically, I even ran into cousins of mine at the synagogue, proving once again how small the Jewish world can be.

The Beijing Jewish community numbers roughly one thousand people, hailing from the world over. This number includes 30 Jewish families at the American Embassy and the families of the Israeli Embassy. The community is growing and thriving, and that is in no small part thanks to Chabad.

I spoke with Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, the veritable Chief Rabbi of Beijing, and he gave me the story of the Beijing community. Before Chabad came 5 years ago, there was little to no Jewish infrastructure. Today there is a Jewish day school, a community center, and a Chinese pagoda-style mikvah. Chabad of Beijing distributes kosher meat all over China, receiving it from either Israel or Australia. Meanwhile, once a year, a container of dry goods, kosher wine and long-lasting milk is brought from Israel. The Rabbi said that at the Western supermarkets, it is possible to get some kosher foods in the form of Western products that happen to be kosher.

In addition, kosher foods and kosher products are brought to Chabad Beijing by the many business people who pass through Beijing. More than two thousand business people come through Beijing, many bringing kosher products for Chabad. Many of them stay at hotels close to the synagogue or Jewish Community Center, and these hotels often have a relationship with Chabad as well. Rabbi Freundlich noted that they have ties with hotels ranging from backpacker hostels to 4 star hotels.
Those planning on visiting Beijing, who would like to bring food or stay close to the synagogue can find information on the Chabad Beijing website (www.chabadbeijing.com). The Chabad Beijing website, along with the Chabad Thailand website, are the most visited Chabad websites in the world.

Judaism is not one of the five recognized religions in China, but Rabbi Freundlich stated that the Jewish community has a good relationship with the Chinese government. The Jewish community is pushing for status as a non-recognized Western minority community, which will accord the Jewish community status as a community in China. He stated that the Chinese government understands that the Beijing Jewish community respects the Chinese culture, and the wishes of the government and the Chinese people. Chabad is not able to perform conversions of local Chinese people, and local Chinese are not allowed to participate in rituals unless they are married to a Jew.

Rabbi Freundlich mentioned that Chabad gets a call at least once a week from someone in a far-flung province who wants to convert to Judaism. They counsel them that if they are serious, they can do a conversion in Hong Kong or Australia, but not in Mainland China.

The gregarious Rabbi said that rebuilding the first Jewish community in Beijing since World War II has been tremendous. On the horizon is the construction of an actual synagogue building, and the establishment of a kosher restaurant. Meanwhile, they will continue building the community and imbuing the Beijing Jewish community with a sense of purpose. As the Rabbi noted, the survival of the Jewish people comes from both the physical community and the spiritual learning. Chabad of Beijing helps create that for the community. The Beijing Jewish community is growing at a frenetic pace, and is as enigmatic as the land in which it is found.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Dragon's lungs

I am in Datong, in Inner Mongolia. Datong is one of the worst polluted cities in China, and that really means something. I saw the sun coming up amid pink and orange hues, and while it is beautiful, it is really not healthy. The smog is thick here. The Chinese dragon is going to face the prospect of lung cancer if Red China doesn't go green.

Chinese rockstar

I have left Beijing as a total rockstar. I'm in Datong, in Inner Mongolia. I left Beijing in force. Yesterday, I got a new winter coat. A fox fur lined winter jacket for $35 from the Silk Market. I went bowling with Kurtz and his friends Mike and Huan-Huan. Huan-Huan was a beautiful chinese girl, who I made a bet with on the bowling match. I got crushed. My punishment was to drink some firewater called "baijo." I left the motley crew for a while to interview the Rabbi of Beijing for my series, then met back up for foot massages. I had a thirty minute foot massage. First they bathed my feet in tea, then gave them a rub. Happy ending for my toes.

After that, I went with Huan-Huan, her sister and a friend to have hotpot. Hotpot is a local special. There is a burner in the middle of the table where they cook the food. It was a combo of spices, oil and veggies. We had the scorpion's friend, frog. Kermit was delicious, and so not kosher. The hotpot was spicy, and for me to say so means it was really hot.

Then we went to a lounge called "The World of Suzie Wong." We hit bats in the middle of the lounge, sitting at the table. Then we went to a great hiphop club called Mix. Fantastic place, the beats were heavy as I danced with my chinese harem. Without getting into too much detail, the night got rather strange. It ended at a party at someone's gorgeous apartment. I sat out on the vista and watched the lights of Beijing dance across the night sky like strobe. My dreams are filled with neon chinese characters. I can't figure this place out in the slightest. To paraphrase Costner in JFK, it is a chinese enigma, wrapped in a question, covered in a chinese riddle. I loved Beijing, but it utterly confused me. I needed to get out, or I would have been there six months from now.

Meanwhile, the train out of Beijing was stunning. We rode past mountainous crags, past rivers and through the beautiful countryside. Without words to describe. I was the center of attention on the train. One girl spoke english and she translated everyone's questions for me. When we arrived in Datong, one of the women from the train came with me and bargained down my hotel. It costs $14 for a hotel room. Yet I had to pay a deposit that was equal to the night's stay. Again, I don't get this place.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Through Chinamen eyes

I woke up this morning lost, with a pounding head. I wandered out into the Beijing haze, and hopped in a rickshaw. The rickshaw man was in a suit, and his bike had one gear. With me on me on my journey was one Colonel Kurtz. The captain and I arrived and walked into Americana. Pulp Fiction. A fifties diner, with Johnny Cash on the radio. I found anywhere America, in the middle of Beijing. Eggs sunny side up, with yokes winking at me. Grits that would make the Mason-Dixson line proud. A bloody Mary and endless cups of coffee. Lemon meringue pie. I am wandering in and out of the dreams of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Just meandering down the river of life.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

On a stick

So I went tonight with my nextdoor neighbor Kat to a night market for dinner. It was a long line of hawkers stands much like Djema al-Fina in Marrakesh. It was awesome, just skewers of weird stuff waiting to be cooked. They had your standard beef, chicken and lamb. Not just the meat, but all the weird organs and stuff like lamb testicles and lamb penis (which I incidentally realized I ate in Morocco, and was grossed out 5 years later). I had a venison skewer and a emu skewer. They also had all sorts of squid, octopus and prawns. Starfish and seahores kebabs. Then we got to the weird stuff. They had skewers of silk worms, grasshoppers and scorpions! I went for the scorpion kebab. It was fried, and covered with chilies. Tasted like fried chicken! Yum, scorpion- so not kosher. They even had the lives ones running around. Scorpion on a stick is something everyone should try. Yummm!!!!

What the rest of the world costs-China

A periodic update to what the rest of the world will set you back:
2 RMB (25cents): breakfast- double Egg McMao sandwich from a street vendor
4 rmb (50 cents): chrysanthimum iced tea
8 rmb ($1): 500ml beer "piju"
15 rmb ($1.90): lunch - noodle soup with chicken and cabbage
50 rmb ($6.15): entrance into the Summer Palace, where Emperors lounged
100rmb ($12.50): dinner- a large veggie pizza and a gin and tonic
150 rmb ($19) dress shoes bargained at the market, down from 380 rmb
200 rmb ($25) Chinese running shoes, down from 400 rmb
300 rmb ($37.50) A fox-fur lined winter coat from the Silk Market

Friday, November 10, 2006

the revolution will not be blogged

at least in China. Hmm, every time I try to access my blog, or any other blog for that matter, it won't load. Repression is a funny thing, as that I can sign in to write my blog, but I can't see it online at the blogsight.

Instant Karma

In the words of John Lennon. So when I travel, I often find myself buying food for homeless people. One of those things. Yesterday, I bought some old chinese lady KFC. Later that night, the next door neighbor Kat bought me Beijing roast duck from a nice restaurant. It was damn good. Not a bad return on karmic investment.

Wakeup call

I got caught up in a daydream, wandering down a street I had little business on. Meanwhile, someone got into my bag and knicked a memory card. Thankfully, there were no memories on it. Either I hope he is a photographer, or some sort of Saudi lefty justice. Unfortunate. It is a subtle wake-up call. I always say the stupidty tax is around $25. This one was $28 worth of 512 mb memory from Duty-Free in the San Jose airport. Put some wear into my new worry beads, but I got a new card that is even bigger, and a reminder to be more careful.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

How do you say "gross" in Chinese?

I find myself in a land of spitters, inveterate nose-pickers and unrepentant belchers.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

chasing the dragon

Day three of the journey of Marco Paulo. I am truly a stranger in a strange land. In the words of Mark Twain, I am an innocent abroad. China is absolutely mercurial. I can't even come close to figuring it out. I just duck and cover from the swarms of bikers going past me. The best way I can explain is offering an anecdote from the morning. I was walking down the street near my hostel, on an errand. I passed a budhist shrine, and there was a man with no legs sitting there. I decided to buy him some food on my way back, so I purchased two dumplings for him. Yet when I returned, he was gone, and I was left puzzled holding the bag.

Yesterday I visited the Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City. I tried to go to Mao's shrine, to see his pickled dead body and perhaps steal the keys to the middle kingdom from his cold, dead hands. But alas, for no reason, the extremely long line was told to disburse and there would be no more visiting that day. It was in the middle of visiting hours, no answers given. So I headed over to the Forbidden City. It was amazing. i wandered through the labyrinth of gardens and museums of treasures. Stunning jade swords, filigree gold clocks and lapis statues. The halls were magnificent, with giant bronze dragons standing guard. The ceilings were covered with gold dragons on blue tiles. It was truly a world apart. And I saw the Starbucks in the Forbidden city. It wasn't too bad, just a corner in a gift shop. I didn't feel the need to ransack it.

Last night I went out with a family friend named Steve who lives here in beijing. He is a lawyer for a big firm, and he opened their Beijing and Shanghai offices. He has an apartment in both cities. I am now staying at his place, and he is off in Shanghai. Truly a Jeffersonian movin on up. I went from hostel to deluxe apartment in the sky. Anyways last night was nuts. Extreme karoke for someone's birthday. Chinese girls are curious about my curls, scruffy beard and body hair. They just aren't used to it, I am exotic.

Today I watched the Dems take back the country with the Dems Abroad club at a diner called "Steak and Eggs." I didn't need to leave Tenly for that. I ate steak and eggs as the Dems ate the Republicans.

While I can't figure this place out, i am happy to spend my days slurping noodles and sipping chrysanthimum tea until I figure it out.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Great Wall

From Great Wall

"The wall is so tall because it is stuffed with the bones of soldiers.
The wall is so deep because it is watered with the soldiers' blood"
-a Song-dynasty poem to the millions of conscripted laborers and thousands upon thousands who perished in the Great Wall's construction

I was uberjetlagged yesterday, and woke up at 3am China time, which is 4pm in DC. I couldn't fall back to sleep, no matter what I did. So as I watched the great big blue full moon set, and the golden sun rise over my first day in China, I thought about going to the Great Wall.

I had spoken with some fellow hostelers who were going by private car to the Great Wall. They were leaving at 6:30am to go to the Wall, and were paying 250 RMB ($31) each to do it. I had previously spoken with another girl who went out by cramped mini bus, and she payed 170 RMB ($21). Since I am trying to conserve my yuans (currency), I was apprehensive about going with the car since I could do it cheaper on my own. However, in typical Paul fashion, I bargained for a deal. They gave me the tour to the Wall for 200RMB, as long as I kept it a secret. So my little bloggies, keep it a secret. It was more expensive than the minibus but the comfort and prospect of a deal got me. So I joined Stefan the German IT person on 3 week holiday and Andrew the aeronautics person on vacation.

We drove three hours out of Beijing, stopping at a grocery store to buy lunch for our trek. My feeble attempts at charades brought much confusion to the Chinese at the store. Yet I was able to get a lovely pink scarf and hat (the only one that would fit my fat cabeza) to keep me warm from the blustery mongolian winds. We arrived at the section called Jinshanling. It is one of the least visited and most beautiful sections. At other sections, there are throngs of tourists and hawkers, but here there was blessedly nobody.

We began our 10km hike across the walls amid the splendor of the hills, valleys and mountains that surrounded the wall. The views were absolutely breathtaking and the wall was stunning. It curved around the plenispheres like a dragon's curved spine. It is truly one of the wonders of the world, I was in awe.

As I mentioned it was a 10km hike, but this was no ordinary 10km hike. We climbed up steps into the hillside, across mountains and down again, only to go back up. For a great portion of it, it was just the three of us. You could hear the winds whistling across the plains. I'm still without words to fully describe the beauty. At times, it was like treking on the moon or another planet. My gse team will have a little idea of the landscape when I say it looked a little like the Lesotho highlands.

We hiked for four hours, stopping for lunch half way through. Stefan the German brought a flask of whiskey, which we had to wash down lunch. We got to an end point/beginning to another section. Stefan and Andrew wanted to keep hiking, but I had enough so I trekked down to the visitor area and had some piju. Also the strangest tomato soup of my life. I just sat amid the other exhausted tourists, sipped beer and relaxed. My compatriots hiked another 2 grueling hours that I am glad I missed.

In all, it was a stunning first day on my journey and in China. The Great Wall has earned its spot in the wonders of the world.
From Great Wall

Sunday, November 05, 2006

BeiJING!

I'm now in Beijing, and I love it already. I arrived after a long flight, and hopped on the bus in town. I fumbled my way around in Chinese on the metro, trying to get near my hostel. It's freezing here, and I don't have a coat. Apparently the winds whip in from Mongolia, leaving Beijing rather cold. I searched aimlessly for my hostel, butchering chinese in asking people where to go. I was nowhere near the place I was looking for and uberlost. Everyone kept pointing me in different directions, and laughing at my utterly feeble attempts at Chinese. I am turning into a national joke, which causes great laughter at my butchering of chinese. After wandering for at least an hour in the cold winds, I ran into an American and Swede who were staying at a hostel nearby. I hopped in the cab with them, and found a place. It's called the Temple Hostel, it is in some back alley, next to an old temple.

After I checked into my $9 palace (upscale), I went foraging for food. I found the local noodle bar, and promptly realized I had no idea what the menu said. Thanks to Brian for teaching me the word for beer (piju) in Chinese, I was able to get a drink. And a drink did I get. The locals were astounded that an American was in the place. These two local guys around my age kept pouring me glass after glass of beer as I slurped my noodles. We fumbled in chinese and english as we kept toasting. China good, piju good, cheers! I can get used to this. Tomorrow, I'm off to Ti'anmen's square and the Imperial palace. That is if I can get past the jetlag, since it is 13 hours ahead here. I'm wide awake and it 11pm. We'll see how I handle this.

Friday, November 03, 2006

So it begins


I'm on the eve of my "sabatical," and in a semi-detached manner I'm preparing. I have been packing what amounts to six days worth of stuff for what will be six months of travel. It doesn't seem real. Tomorrow I embark on a most amazing endeavor: to circumnavigate the globe. I was going to title my journey, "There and back again" but that has already been taken.

I wake up tomorrow, completely beginning anew. I wake up the day after in a shaolin temple on a faraway corner of China. I wake up the following day, orange-robed in a monastary on the roof of the world. I wake up tomorrow a photographer. Rather, a photojournalist. I will tell the world's stories through my eyes, my lens and my words. Surrounded by the multitudes of humanity. Billions. I will witness the triumphs of humanity. I will see its pyraminds, wats, temples and walls. I will also see unspeakable poverty and misery.I will see humanity in all its avarice, and humility. And the sounds i will hear. I will hear it in prayer and song. I will taste it, in all its sweets and spices.

I wake up tomorrow to say the prayer I say every morning. I said it at a kid at camp, and again as an older kid at camp.

"Oh God and Father, source of all life and blessing. We lift up our hearts in thanksgiving, for thy loving kindness towards us. Thy goodness, which is without end, has given us the refreshing quiet of sleep, and permitted us to awake to the joy and beauty of a new day- gladden with the blessing of health. Grant we pray thee, that this day will pass with no evil thoughts in our hearts, and no wrong deed to stain our hands. Help us to be good and obedient children, deserving the love of our parents, teachers and counselors. Aid us to join all together in kindness to one another, and teach us to do all that thou would have us do."