Archive for Cool

A real lazy river

Limestone karst by the river - Vang Vieng
Miha jumping into the river - Vang Vieng

In Vang Vieng, a tiny town halfway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, a crowd of backpackers a few years ago discovered a mountain-bound oasis from the heat and disorder of traveling in Laos. A small river flows among hills composed of limestone karst, and enterprising locals have gathered a stock of tractor tires to rent out to tired travelers with which they can float effortlessly through the mystical landscape. In a stroke of commercial genius, they’ve also constructed bamboo platforms like something out of the Swiss Family Robinson, spaced nicely along the banks, at which “tubers” are greeted with complimentary shots of Lao Lao homemade rice whiskey and chilled Beer Lao for $1 a bottle. Sputtering sound systems blast Bob Marley and the like (and this was the first context in which it’s felt appropriate and less than grating that I’ve encountered since at least sometime in high school), and the hideaways also feature various kinds of jerry-rigged swings and zip lines. Braver people than I took turns jumping into the river using these apparati, but I was, unsurprisingly, content to drink and watch my temporary traveling companion, an enthusiastic law student from Slovenia, abandon caution and leap into the water.

You can see him in action by clicking play below.

Posted by on December 6th, 2006

Khmu can do….

…but Sartre is smart-re, as Homer Simpson would say, if he knew that Khmu is pronounced like Camus, and that it’s the name of a tribe indigenous to the area around the Nam Ha river in Luang Namtha province here in Laos. I’ve just returned from an amazing two days of kayaking along that tributary of the Nam Tha river (itself a tributary of the mighty Mekong), during which we stopped at a number of villages, inhabited by such groups as the Khmu and the Lanten (close relatives of the Hmong).

Driver unloading kayaks from the tuk tuk - Nam Ha River
Women in a Lanten village - Nam Ha River

We left from the office of Green Discovery at 9am, after leaving our backpacks in storage there and stuffing bare essentials into dry sacks for transport in our inflatable two-person kayaks. Together we were four: a friendly Danish couple P. and S., myself, and our guide Ket (pronounced something like Get crossed with Ed). We boarded a tuk tuk and headed for the highway, on which we drove for about an hour before we reached the flooded iron-rich paths that will form the base of a new road once construction is finished. We jerked and bumped our way down toward a village for another 20 minutes or so until we reached the Nam Ha River, inflated our red kayaks, donned orange lifejackets and yellow helmets, and pushed off into the muddy water. We made our way through some minor rapids, P. and S. in one boat, me providing the engine power in front of the other while Ket maneuvered us down the course as if it were a video game.

Hut in a rice field - Nam Ha River

As we entered the Southeast Asian jungle, propelled by our own force down the chocolate river, I couldn’t help but think I was floating down the “Irriwaddy,” as the simulacrum river that flows through the Bronx Zoo, surrounded on either side by free-ranging tapirs and bathing elepants, is known, at least within the borders of the zoo (outside, it transforms back into the slightly less exotic Bronx River). Fluorescent blue birds swooped from bank to bank, while smaller aviators with black-and-white striped tails seemed to skip across the surface, pursuing some subaquatic prey, perhaps. Branches overhung the river, and I pushed them out of my face with my paddle as we passed, wary of the gigantic spiderwebs that spread among their crevices.

Sticky rice in the field - Nam Ha River
Sesame seed pods - Nam Ha River

After a while, we stopped on the right bank for lunch. Ket took a kayak to the other side to climb a banana tree and cut down some of its huge leaves with his knife, to use as both table and chairs, of a sort, back where the three of us hovered helplessly waiting for our leader to return. At this point, I was still a bit afraid to take out my camera, so lunch, like just about every other meal during the trip, passed unrecorded, except in my memory. The company staff had prepared a bountiful lunch of pork stir-fried with green beans and cauliflower, the smallest, freshest peanuts I’ve ever tasted, an omelet with dill and other, unidentified herbs, sticky rice in a bamboo basket, and wonderfully spicy chili paste, pounded with jungle-green herbs, into which we dipped our balled-up rice. After eating, I abandoned my fear and took my camera out of the dry sack, and we walked up the hill to the rice fields that soared above the river along this stretch of shore. There, we saw a hut used by the locals for resting and eating while they’re working the fields, and Ket explained to us what many of the plants would yield in a few weeks’ or months’ time: sticky rice (grown not in flooded paddies like the more common variety, but in dry fields), eggplant, cucumber, pumpkin, sesame seeds, thai basil, and ginger, among a number of others for which he didn’t know the English name. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t identify the vegetables from the plants either.

Dinnertime for the piglets in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River
Houses in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River

After lunch we resumed paddling until we noticed some huts rising above the river on the left. We had reached Ban Nalan, home to some 400-odd members of the Khmu tribe. Ket showed us around the village, pointing out the school, which was built by an NGO about eight years ago, the source of running water, in place for only a year, and the solar panels, another gift of some development agency. My favorite part was all the farm animals running around, particularly the piglets, some of which were as young as five days old. I wanted to take one home, but I figured that might be a problem at Customs (disregarding the problem it would be when my mom saw it jump out of my backpack).

Rooster by a door in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River
Pig in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River

Once we’d had our fill of Ban Nalan, we pushed back into the river and headed another hour or so downstream to Ban Nalan Tai, or the southern village of the same name, also inhabited by Khmu people. It was here that we were to spend the night.

Tubercular woman gathering water in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
Houses near our hut in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

First, we changed out of our wet suits and shorts (and I realized that my legs were lightly seared, like good steaks should be) into warmer and drier outfits. Then we explored the village, saying hello to the women and children hanging listlessly around outside (the men were still in the rice fields, and many of them would stay there overnight, as the fields were well over an hour away from the village), soaking each other in. As the light began to fade and the mist move in (around 5pm), some of the village women came over to our hut and started preparing our festive meal. One of them slaughtered a chicken and threw it in a boiling pot of water on the fire stove inside our hut. A young girl joined in, cutting dozens of small water squash into slices, to be made into squash soup and squash curry. Later, when the cooking moved definitively inside (as the sun had certainly sunk behind the mountains), the same girl mashed up chilies with a fragrant herb called lemon balm, to make a distinctive and delicious jeow redolent of lime juice, with the nice crunch of salt to balance the sour and spicy flavors. Through Ket, who speaks not just Lao and English but also the Khmu language and that of a few other hill tribes, we found out about the culture of the Khmu, and some details of the lives of the women who had prepared our meal for us, and whom we had asked to share it with us as well.

Pet monkey in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
Close-up of chicken slaughtered for our dinner in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

Then, no later than 9pm, with the sky pitch dark, our bellies full, and our tongues burning, we strung mosquito nets from the ceiling and crawled inside them on the mattresses that had been laid on the rattan and bamboo floor. While it had still been light, I’d inspected my set-up for scary creatures and rated it okay, and the mosquito net instilled a sadly false sense of comfort in me. I was zonked out within five minutes of lying down. However, in a couple of hours I woke up, jerked from sleep by the sensation that things were crawling on my face and back and, lo and behold, they were. I had ants on my face, on my neck, and, yes, in my pants! They were tiny ants, nothing to be frightened of, but I was still petrified, and spent most of the night turning from side to side and swatting myself with my sleeve. It’s not like there was anywhere else to go, so I just snoozed and swatted alternately until 7am or so, when I got up, made my way to the surprisingly modern toilet, and literally shook as many of the insects off me as I could. I was ecstatic when, after a breakfast of fresh-laid eggs and sticky rice, swallowed down with two cups of Lao coffee (sweetened with condensed milk but happily likeable), I was able to jump partway in the water as I climbed back into my kayak. Ants can’t swim, can they?

Ket smoking out the bees from our hut in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
Our hut in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

Today, we visited a village that the Lanten people call home, though this cluster of huts was in sorrier shape than the other villages we’d seen on the trip. Ket said that the Lanten people, especially in this village, have a huge problem with opium addiction, and that the addiction was at the root of their relative poverty. Even here, most people seemed to have enough to eat, what with subsistence agriculture and all, but a woman came up to us and held out her baby, whose head was a gaping, oozing, wound, and asked us (Ket translated) for money to take him to the hospital. Ket told us that his company sometimes helps the people here get medical attention, that part of the fees we’d paid go toward helping the inhabitants of the villages we visit, and that we shouldn’t give them money because they would spend it on opium. Sadly, we agreed with him and walked away. We didn’t spend too much time in this village, though each of us did buy a little handmade bracelet woven with a traditional Lanten pattern of multi-pronged asterisks.

Cows in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
High-class facilities in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

Upon leaving the Lanten village, we made our way over the largest rapids we would encounter, though even they were nothing much in the dry season (Ket said they were probably only class 2 right now, though in the rainy season the same rapids can be class 3 or even 4). Then we stopped a bit further down on the left bank, sat down on some more banana leaves cut from the tree by Ket, and devoured our lunch, another chicken from Ban Nalan Tai, which they’d barbecued over a spit for about three hours before we left this morning, accompanied by more sticky rice and perhaps the best jeow yet–very salty and sour, and not quite as hot. After lunch, we only had a short way to go before the Nam Ha joined the Nam Tha and we pulled our boats out of the river, at yet another Khmu village, this one just a tiny agglomeration of homes overlooking the broad and muddy Nam Tha. We waited there for a bit until a tuk tuk came for us, and then we clambered back to town, climbing all the way over a rocky road mirroring the turns and dips of the Nam Tha.

Posted by on November 16th, 2006

More Hangzhou Kudos

Hangzhou Book Cover

Apparently‘s China Travel editor likes my Hangzhou book. She recommends it in her article on (what else but) visiting Hangzhou. Pretty cool. And since I never posted a photo of the book, here’s one now.

Posted by on November 5th, 2006

Famous in Hangzhou

Two weekends ago I was invited back down to Hangzhou to schmooze the press at a launch ceremony for the book I wrote about the city. It was pretty fun to sit up on the dais and half-understand all the things the (probable) party members and higher-ups in the Tourism Commission and city government were saying about me and the book. I gave a short speech and read from the book (the section on my visit to the three temples at Tianzhu) in front of a crowd of forty some-odd reporters, and even a crew from Hangzhou Television. Apparently, in addition to being on the nightly news, I’ve also been featured on at least one website, in an article which seems to be a write-up of the press conference and descriptions of the book. If anyone wants to translate, drop me a summary in the comments!

Posted by on August 5th, 2006

Happy New Year

And again, sadly, it’s been a while, but things in Beijing have been as hectic as ever. I started a new job two weeks ago, as the Managing Editor of a new digital travel guide company that’s about to launch this month. It’s called Schmap, and I’m enjoying my work there so far, even though it means I have a schedule like the rest of the world and have to be in the office at 9 each morning, and I usually don’t get out at night until after 7. I’ve also been busy finishing my Hangzhou guide project–and watching the fireworks. Yes, it’s with noise and light that the Chinese celebrate their New Year, which in practical terms translates to three weeks of nonstop fireworks and firecrackers.

From my aerie on the 22nd floor, I’ve had a great view of all the artful gunpowder, which has been more exciting and interesting than annoying, even though at times it’s sounded like Dresden must have on Valentine’s Day in 1945. According to R., who was around last year for Spring Festival–the name for the two-plus weeks of festivities surrounding the actual lunar new year–the government banned the setting off of fireworks in Beijing last year, and the ruckus wasn’t close to a match for this year. Apparently, the people weren’t happy about losing a chance to celebrate life. I can understand that–until now it hadn’t really seemed like the people here took life by the throat at all, but these two weeks have given me some new insight–Spring Festival seems like the only real chance they have to let loose. What’s most interesting to me, though, is the notion that they must have been celebrating like this for centuries: warding off the dark and cold that characterize north China this time of year with colored lights and echoing booms.

Posted by on February 5th, 2006

Christmas comes to Hangzhou

These santas were milling about by West Lake on Saturday morning. I love how they’re wearing their mustaches on top of their noses and their beards over their mouths–charming!

Posted by on December 13th, 2005

Awesome video

Shot by me on my trusty digital camera in the Banana Leaf Curry House here in Hangzhou, tonight while eating dinner. Click on the image to launch the movie:

link to video

Posted by on November 28th, 2005

Searching for the huguai

This diving blog, which from its name–Divester–I at first assumed was about getting corporations to stop investing in morally suspect countries and companies, had a post about China’s own Loch Ness monster. Living as I am in a town famous for its lake, thoughts of possible lake monsters (huguai in Chinese) had crossed my mind, inspired by Matthew, who had suggested that if I needed an excuse to head back to Beijing early I could always say I’d been spooked into leaving town by the Xihuguai, which is probably what a monster inhabiting West Lake (Xihu) would be called. The original feature (from the A.P.) on the “real” lake monster, which supposedly calls Kanasi Lake in Xinjiang Province home, is an interesting look at a cross-cultural phenomenon, that, with careful scholarship, could probably be traced back and related to dragon myths, one of those hugely pan-global narratives. Something to look into.

Posted by on November 26th, 2005

Making (the daily) paper

The other day I hired a driver to head out to a city about an hour south of Hangzhou called Fuyang. L. had arranged for me to be met by a representative from that city of 620,000 people’s tourism office, Mr. Chang, who tailed me for the rest of the day, paid for lunch, and failed to say more than three or four words the entire time. After lunch, however, which was surprisingly delicious (the best dishes were xihongshi xiaren guoba, crispy rice cakes in a sort of tomato sauce, congyouguiyua large white fish with fresh scallions and no gloopy sauce, shanyao jue, purple Chinese mountain yams wrapped in crispy rolls of something lightly fried, and jiwei xia, steamed shrimp netted from the Fuchun River, gorgeous with bright red and white stripes–I apologize that words have to suffice alone here: I was a bit embarrassed to photograph the lazy susan in front of a number of city officials whom I didn’t know and whom didn’t speak English) he had a reporter from the daily paper, the Fuyang Ribao, intercept us at a park overlooking the river in order to write a story on me. She took photos of me enjoying the scenery, gazing pensively, and taking my own photos of schoolchildren and local women practicing for an upcoming group exercise contest. She asked me a bunch of inane questions about things like my impressions of the city (I had been there for about five minutes), how I thought it compared to other small cities in China, and others of that ilk. I tried to be both obsequious and humorous, quipping (via an interpreter) that if Fuyang were in the States it wouldn’t be such a small city at all. Hysterical, I know. What’s actually hysterical is the fact that my presence as a foreigner in this city of more than half a million people is so unusual as to be newsworthy. It’s not like they thought I was writing a book about Fuyang–I told them it would have a page or two in the book on Hangzhou (which is probably a stretch too). It really just is the boondocks, I guess, even though since it, like Hangzhou, is in Zhejiang Province, China’s wealthiest, it’s a pretty nice second- or third-tier city.

Before lunch, I had the chance to visit an “ancient papermaking village,” which in reality was actually more like a factory in old buildings using manual labor and old-fashioned techniques. I saw the men pulling bamboo frames through a freezing cold suspension of wood pulp and water, crafting perfect sheets of paper with each draw. I saw women printing classic tomes with wooden blocks on loan from a local museum. I got to try both of these things, and they were surprisingly harder than they looked–I guess these skills are actually hard to master. When I asked the man in this photo how long he had worked in the job, I found out that he had studied and apprenticed for three years first, followed by over twenty years of experience at this factory. The site was worth a short visit, especially for someone like me who’s more than mildly interested in/obsessed with paper, notebooks, and the other paraphernalia associated with writing.

Posted by on November 25th, 2005

Street food in Hangzhou

Today I happened upon what can only be described as a “snack street” here in Hangzhou. It was off of Hefang Lu, otherwise known as “History Street,” a pedestrian shopping area where old, probably restored, buildings line the street, housing souvenir shops, restaurants and tea houses. I’m still a bit amazed that the city can be full of tourists without there being more than a couple of other foreigners walking around–they’re just all Chinese. There are so many of them (as if I could ever forget that fact of demography)!

The snack street clearly caters to their tastes, while at the same time highlighting the ghastly specialities for which Hangzhou is famous. I saw giant snails, fried sea creatures on a stick (with their shells still attached below the tempura-like crust), chicken feet, pigs’ feet, unidentifiable feet, duck heads complete with bills, skewered giant silkworm pupae, scary stews and porridges, and some more appealing treats (to my tastes, anyway) like black sesame candy, naan-like bread stuffed with pineapple, rou chuan(r)–the Chinese take on shish kebab–and pancakes with noodles and vegetables inside.

I was actually still full from lunch and looking ahead to dinner with L., so I managed not to eat anything myself, although I did buy some of the sesame candy for my room, and I’m sure I’ll return to snack street at least once before I leave. I mean, who could resist?

Posted by on November 21st, 2005