Train Ride

Australian snores
Angkor book robs James’ sleep
Lucie doesn’t stir

February 23, 2011
We took a 16 hour train ride from Hanoi down to Danang. At the first stop a group of Australian cyclists hopped on (their bikes had been shipped ahead to meet them in Danang). Two of them joined us in our cabin. They were very cheerful mates constantly making fun of how load each other snores. After a bit they went of the drink car. Much later they stumbled in, crawled into bed, and good to their word started snoring as loud as any snore I have ever heard. I was engrossed in a very bad book which I had only bought from Amazon and downloaded onto the Kindle because it was $2 and was about the ancient Angkor kingdom whose temples we plan to visit in Cambodia. Despite being an awful piece of literature I ended up reading it the whole night through, gently being serenaded by the Australians. Despite the noise Lucie managed to sleep right through it. Never did I think that I would be admiring someone else’s sleeping skills, but my wife never ceases to amaze.

Hoi An Nights

Sitting riverside
Mango ice cream slowly melts
Rainbow lights reflect

February 25th 2011
In general we were delighted by the good food in touristy Hoi An. One hot night after dinner we found an ice cream shop that was quite good, bought a few cups, and ate it on a bench by the river. On the other side of the river, the multi colored lights of restaurants and bars and various shops reflected off the still river.

Hoi An Beach

Beachseller with drool
Wounded turtle but alive
Basket Boat in waves

February 26th, 2011
We spent a good bit of the day at the white sand beaches near Hoi An. Round basket shaped boats floated by being push along by men using a large pole. We ate a very greasy lunch at a restaurant there which ended up not sitting well with me later that night. (My 2nd food poisoning in Vietnam – who would have thought?) Several times some beach sellers came up to us trying to sell us fruit, snacks, or other items. One came up to us three times was selling English language newspapers – drool was forming in bubbles by the side of his mouth.

Hoi An has a large number of disabled people, both physically and mentally, who live and work together doing arts and crafts. There are several NGO’s set up to help them out, including one by a friend of Vang’s who we met up with earlier in the day. This newspaper seller did not seem at all rabid, so we assume the drool was due to other issues. His persistence in trying to sell us one paid off – we bought a paper.

The paper has a story about a turtle that had been injured in Ho Kiem lake in Hanoi. This was the lake that we visited when we where there and knew of the legend where a giant turtle took a holy sword that had been used to drive out the Chinese invaders over 800 years ago from the hands of the famous warrior back into the lake to return it to the gods. This turtle it turns out is only one of three giant turtles of this species left, the other two being in a zoo in ironically, China. It’s age is guessed at over 200 years and the injuries it sustained were caused by other non-indigenous turtles of a smaller variety that had been released into the lake. We were assured that a vet was taking care of the larger one.

Cham Museum

Snakes, birds, yoga pose
God of Time and Consequence
Headless Cham statues

February 26, 2011
At Danang’s bus station early in the morning we got off a minibus going to Kon Tum because they were trying to overcharge us, made us sit in the back of the bus, and in general treating us rudely. The next bus that left was fortunately a Mai Linh Express, however it was going at 2 pm so we had the day to kill. We hopped a taxi to the center of town and checked out a museum of Cham artifacts. The Cham kingdom existed a millennium ago throughout modern day Cambodia and southern Vietnam, during around the same time as the temples were built by Angkor Wat. Their beliefs were a mix of Hinduism and Buddhism and so many of their statues were of Krishna, Vishnu, and other gods. Often their limbs would be a bit longer than they should be proportionally and stuck out at weird angles. There where many statues of the bird god Garadu and dozens of Naga which are mythical water snakes. The story of Garadu and the Nagu comes from the Hindu Ramayana.

While there was no statues of the “God of Time and Consequence” there where several depiciting the God of Time. A neat God to have in and of itself, the printed guide wrote it as the “God of Time and consequence” and then on the next line: “ly, many of the….” We liked this title better. The God of Time was depicted as a single floating head without a body – this was in stark contrast to many of the other statues in the museum which had bodies, but whose heads were removed due to invaders who chopped them off, or collectors who decided that the heads were all that they could carry away.


Altars

Red lights in dark house
Worship ancestors’ spirits
incense, pictures, fruits

Febuary 27th 2011
We left Hoi An by private car to Danang bus terminal early one morning before sunrise. On the road there we saw houses that were entirely dark except for two red lights glowing inside eerily as if they were haunted houses lit up for Halloween. After passing another one whose lights were on the outside of their house we saw it was part of their altar to their ancestors. Every single house in Vietnam has an altar devoted to honoring their recently departed, in which they put up pictures of their relatives and burn incense and give them gifts such as fruit.

Mai Linh

Mai Linh, our safe bet
Crossed Lao border, jungle view
Relaxed sleepy towns

Febuary 28th 2011
Throughout Vietnam there were taxis whose meters would charge at twice the rate, taxis who would drive in a big triangle to let the meter run longer, and taxis who if you negotiated the fare before hand you could go 3 times cheaper by pitting one taxi drivers rate against another. Then there was the Mai Linh taxis. They were dependable, with a cheap meter rate, and drove straight to the destination (we have a GPS to check to make sure they do :). Our friend Vang told us about them in Hanoi and we went with them ever since. They also ran a bus company Mai Linh Express (Looking up Mai Linh website online they seem to be one of the bigger conglomerates doing not just transportation but construction, washing powder and who knows what else) which we took both from Danang to Kon Tum, and then from Kon Tum over the border to Attapeu, Laos.

The road over the border was windy and jungly crossing over the paths that were once part of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Once arriving in Attapeu we were stuck at how much more laid back it was to any town in bustling Vietnam.

Rip off

See my foreign face
Rip me off without disgrace
Vietnam oh Vietnam

From our tour guide up Fansipan who tried to fool us into thinking we need another permit to visit a nearby waterfall, to a bread seller who forgot to give us back 50,000 dong in change ($2.50) until gently reminded, to a bus conductor who blatantly charged us as foreigners more, we had our share of Vietnamese who seemed only to see us as two walking wallets.

Inspiration

Jesse and Christy
Oh intrepid travellers
Haiku, now us too

Finding the time and motivation in between all of our activities and traveling to write has been difficult.
Blog entries take so long to write, because there is just so much to tell, that it becomes overwhelming and a chore, and then we don’t end up writing at all. However the last few days we have been churning out Haikus. The inspiration comes from our friend Jesse who when traveling with his wife Christy wrote one Haiku a day in order to capture the spirit of the day in just three lines. Short, sweet, and fun to do together we have started to add entries for days gone by. This one might not be the best one ever written, but we need to give credit to whom its due. Hopefully in time we will get better at writing them.

Kunming’s Western Hills

It is said that nobody really has visited Kunming until they have been to the Western Hills.  Somehow in the year and half that Lucie had been living or visiting Kunming, she never got the chance to go to the Western Hills.  On the fourth day that we were in Kunming, Lucie and I decided it was finally the time.  We hailed a taxi and were driven south of city center, passed the deluxe spa we had visited on our frst day, through the expensive apartment complexes, and along the promenade at the north eastern side of Lake Dianchi.  A cable car departs from there and crosses the lake and heads up the hills.  It took about 25 minutes for the taxi to arrive at the base cable car station (the taxi cost only about $6 – taxis are pretty cheap compared to the West) .

Lucie and I hopped in one of the cable cars and headed out over the lake.  It was a rather cloudy day so we couldn’t see far.  A very tacky building that stood on a peninsula jutting into the lake caught my eye. It had towers that mimic a castle from Europe, or more likely Disneyland, but came across even more plasticy and definitely out of place.  Lucie tells me that in the 90s China went through a period where it built quite a few buildings like that.


Half way across the lake the cable car started to head down to an intermediate station on the other side (which for a few moments we worried was the last station and we were ripped off) before continuing steep up a cliff to a small paved over square which had a few souvenir shops and a reasonably priced restaurant.  We stopped there for some lunch and I was a bit taken aback when the man at the table behind me started whacking himself over the head with a hammer.  I realized right away that it was a special kind of wooden mallet meant for message, but nonetheless could not help but smile as the man knocked on his noggin with the hammer unable to fathom just how pleasant or unpleasant that self administered massage must feel.

After lunch we climbed some stairs and passed a building where men were working painting T-lift seats a puke green color.  The smell of the paint was noxious and overpowering.  We hurried through, pitying the men doing the painting, one of whose overalls were covered head to toe with the same puke green paint.

Once we got passed the painting though we noticed that the air was much fresher than down in the city where car fumes mix with cigarette smoke and burning trash to assault your olfactory glands at every turn.  We continued along a road forbidden to cars which had small stalls along one side and a steep forest on the other.  We enjoyed the quiet and the sense of almost being in nature, when Lucie remarked “It is so quiet up here we can even hear the mechanical birds sing.”  Ahh nature!  Indeed at one of the stalls along with wooden massage mallets, were little plastic eggs which opened up to show three little plastic birds tweeting away.

Soon after that we caught our first “Burr”.  In the cable car up I had just been telling Lucie about a conversation I had with Graham.  Graham was relating to me some humorous show on travelers that he had seen or article that he read. In it they had tried classifying backpackers from the “Hungry Complainer” who does nothing but talk about all their favorite ice creams and junk food that they could be eating if they were back home to the “Burr” – that single traveler who due to loneliness or discomfort with the language or culture differences attaches themselves to other travelers, going where they plan on going, eating where they end up eating, and generally trying to get by without figuring things out for themselves.
As Burrs go, ours wasn’t so bad.  She was a student from Guangzhou, China, and asked Lucie what else there was to do in the area, and then continued on walking with us the 10 or so minutes to the gate where they make you pay if you wanted to continue up the steep steps, temples, and carved passage ways that lay beyond.  We paid and Lucie got a little plastic audio guide which had lots of little LEDs which lit up when you passed a particular pagoda, temple, or carving of note, and played some classical chinese music in between.

The story of the Western Hills is that long ago the people of Yunnan noticed that where no Mandarins – government officials of the highest rank – coming from Yunnan.  One enterprising, or perhaps crazy, stone carver discovered that all the current Mandarins where coming from places that had “Dragon Gates”, but Yunnan had none.  He reasoned that if he built one then Yunnan would also be blessed with these enlightened Mandarins.  So for 14 years he worked chiseling a passage way out of the cliffs and made the Dragon Gate and sculptures.  When he had finished he decided to just work a little bit more on this one part of the Dragon when a piece fell off.  No longer perfect, he felt his 14 years of work where for naught and threw himself over the cliff, much to the distress of his wife who had been waiting to have a family until he had finished the carving.  The temples were built at a later date.


We wandered up the steep steps and I had to duck through many of the passage ways as it turns out that I am much taller than Chinese from long ago (not to mention present day Chinese).  It was a neat place, and would have had great views if the weather wasn’t so foggy, however it was quite touristy and our Burr was following us much of the way.


It was not until we passed through the gate at the top of the steps where the tourists dropped off and we went along a path that wound its way through the twisted tree forest and rock outcrops at the top of the hill that we found a discovery that made our trip to the Western Hills really worth it.  At first we thought it was little bits of tissue that were stuck in the bare branches of a bush.  Despite trash cans every few steps along the path, there was plenty of litter everywhere – Chinese are not in the habit of letting people tell them where they should toss their trash.  But there were too many of them, so we speculated that the bush was infested with moths which dotted the bush with their fuzzy white cocoons.  Lucie poked at one with a stick though and claimed it was hard.  It was not until I touched one with my finger and a piece broke off and melted that I realized that they where made of ice!


The bush was covered in these most delicate ice flowers that only form when the conditions are just right.  Up at the top of the mountain the wind whipped through the trees and rocks, getting into little currents and spinning around.  The ice flowers grew in spirals following the path of the wind.  Some has several layers of ice separated by just a few millimeters.  Each flower was its own unique, delicate, piece of perfection.  For a good hour we examined almost each and everyone of them along the path, admiring their beauty, and marveling at the physics whose simple rules could lead to structures of such complexity.


We blew on some of the flowers and watched as the white ice gradually warmed and became translucent.  As the flowers melted we could see their inner layers and little water droplets moving within each micro-thin ice sheet.  In their transition from the perfect white flowers to a few drops of water our enchantment with these beautiful natural sculptures only increased.

Usually the winter here is mild and marked by clear blue skies day in and day out.  However it had been exceedingly cold and cloudy over the previous few days we spent in Kunming.  The day before there was even a few snow flurries which had delighted the kids in the streets.  We thought we where unlucky to be experiencing such bad weather for Kunming but without it we would never have experienced such a wonderful sight as those ice flowers on the top of the Western Hills.

See all Western Hill pictures: