Hong Kong – Symphony of Light

Every night at 8pm, Hong Kong’s skyscrapers shine spotlights and lasers from their rooftops in what’s billed as a “Symphony of Light”. Tourists line up along the harbor for the yawn-inducing light show, which benefits greatly from the ever-present smog that casts the city in a gray-green light during the day. I took the ferry from the southern coast to the northern part of the city (Kowloon) while the show was happening–they tuned the boat’s PA system to the radio station which was broadcasting the music to which the lights were cued.

I caught a taxi at the ferry depot and went to the Temple Street night market, which was hopping at 9pm, but started to close up around 11pm. For sale are all varieties of strange produce, cheap plastic crap, clothing, antiques, jewelry, etc. Everyone I had to deal with spoke English or typed the price into a calculator. They were all open to negotiation.  Fortune tellers were set up at one corner. There are loads of restaurants where you can pick your seafood dinner out directly from the tank, or get a bowl of steamy noodles to eat at picnic tables with plastic chairs. There was even a street lined with saunas, spas, and ladies in high heels.

By: Sarah Landau

Beijing By Train to Nankang

Photo by furibond

After two weeks in Beijing, I moved to the outskirts of town. I liked it better than the center, but I still didn’t love it. It is a city built for habitation by giants; by grinning, five-story-high reincarnations of Mao. It sparkles with new concrete, and its boulevards yawn, eight-lanes wide, crossable only by underground tunnels. Guard rails separate the sidewalks from the street, but you can tell they’re not there to protect the pedestrians: “This is car territory,” they say “You little bugs aren’t allowed in here.” Majestic latticework domes glitter above the skyline, and walking through downtown, one sees architectural wonders that only computers could dream of. Beijing’s quaint, human-scale alleyways, the hutongs, are being torn down at a rate that you could probably measure in inches per hour.

I had a friend in Beijing, a university student called Xing Wei, who had grown up in a small village in southern Jiangxi Province. In October of 2007, he invited me to spend Chun Jie, the fall festival, with him at his parents’ house, and having nothing particular to hold me in Beijing (or anywhere else in the world) I accepted.

Photo by taylormiles.

There are four classes of train-travel in China: in combination, soft or hard, seater or sleeper. When backpacking Westerners take overnight trains, they usually pay the extra 15-odd dollars to pass the night curled up in the comfort of one of the padded cubbies that are stacked three-high in the tall, closet-like cabins of the hard-sleeper cars; but for a Chinese boy from the provinces who lives on five dollars a week and whose parents only recently moved into a concrete house that doesn’t wash away during heavy rain-storms, that’s an unnecessary luxury. Yes, I offered to buy us both hard-sleeper tickets. Several times.

We arrived well in advance of our train to commandeer a strategic position near the front of the lawless mob of travelers gathering in the waiting-area, at the Beijing West Train Station; but when we got to our car, it was already packed with men, women, and children of all ages, filling the seats, crouching and standing in the aisles, the doorways, the vestibules between cars. When they run out of seats in the hard-seater cars, the government keeps selling tickets at the same price but without a seat assignment. During the holiday season, the hard-seater cars of trains departing from major cities are thick with humanity and its detritus. We squeezed through the resulting morass of people, displayed our tickets to dislodge several earlier but less fortunately beticketed arrivals from our assigned seats, and settled in for the sixteen hour slog down through the smog-choked night of the Chinese heartland.

The great national train-travel pastime of the Chinese is eating sunflower seeds. True, a bit of diversion can be got from such popular activities as “Look, the Foreigner Speaks Chinese! Talk to the Foreigner!”—in fact, they have tremendous patience for this endeavor, even when the foreigner in question turns out to speak rather limited Chinese—but, in the context of a 16-hour overnight in a hard-seater car, such games are short-lived. Eating sunflower seeds is eternal. Chinese train-stations and corner-stores sell several brands of sunflower seeds in numerous flavors, but the seeds come in their shells; and therein lies all the fun. Chinese people can shell a sunflower seed with their teeth—a skill that takes literally dozens of hours of train-travel to acquire—and it is the shelling, more than the actual eating, that really passes the hours. And then what do you do with the shell, once you have popped it off the seed? Why, you spit it on the floor of course!

In America, we really have three grades of filthy, that we deal with on a day-to-day basis: floor, trash, toilet. In China, these are all, essentially, one. That situation is changing rapidly, and anyone in the rising, urban Chinese middle class would be furious about that last sentence, but the truth is that the floor-as-trash system is still largely in effect; and while floors are not normally used as toilets by adults, I’ve certainly been in bathrooms where little distinction is made between floor and squat-toilet; and many still consider the floor the proper landing-place for infant feces. At any rate, to the great piles of sesame-seed shells in front of every row of seats, add a scattering of orange- and palmello-peels, discarded chop-sticks, chicken and duck bones, empty paper soup-bowls, phlegm, plastic sausage-casings, etc. Periodically, a railroad employee comes through with an immense witch’s broom, like a bale of twigs bound to a pole, and sweeps all this away, in a breathtaking, bristle-driven exodus of refuse.

But what amount of cultural difference, inconvenience, discomfort, or dirtiness could possibly detract from the supreme coziness of an overnight train ride? The crowded car, the halting conversations with strangers, the general unfamiliarity of it all only augmented and gave color to the delicious romance of the train rolling on through the night, the warm smell of the food-cart coming down the aisle attended by uniformed women with ladles, the wakeful sleep propped up on backpacks and suitcases pressed against strangers, the drowsy passing of unknown towns, the hushed commotion of people collecting their bags in the darkness of sleeping cars and disembarking onto empty, yellow-lit platforms. And when, at last, the blue-green of dawn fills the broad windows of the train, who can feel anything but excitement for the new day and the unexplored country?

We arrived around midday in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi Province. From there, we took a bus to a desolate patch of concrete buildings and pavement where several kids from Xian Wei’s village were attending university. We spent the night in a dormitory, surrounded by posters of Yao Ming and Chinese pop-stars, then returned to the center of Nanchang, to catch a train to a prefectural capital in southern Jiangxi, called Ganzhou (not to be confused with the much more famous Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province, better known in the west as Canton.) From Ganzhou, we took a bus to the town nearest my friend’s village, an unheard of city of 800,000, unmarked in the Lonely Planet map of Jiangxi Province, called Nankang (not to be confused with the city commonly known in the west as Nanking, the site of all those war-crimes.)

We reached Nankang in the evening and walked across town to the restaurant where Xian Wei’s mother worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to put him through college. Along dark streets, lined with shuttered shops, we passed, here and there, an open glass store-front, dimly lit with pink neon; in the bare and dingy interiors, three or four or five young women in jeans and turtle-necks would sit side by side on a lone couch, knitting. These, Xian Wei said, were prostitutes. Farther on, we came to an even emptier neighborhood. A blind alley lead off into impenetrable darkness, beneath the overhang of wooden awnings, crumbling masonry, indistinguishable vegetation. Just before we got to the restaurant, we passed a vegetable garden, sunk two feet below the level of the road and lined with a low brick divider. Alongside this, a narrow path lead off towards ramshackle brick tenements beyond.

The restaurant was bright white and bustling. Xian Wei’s mother and her coworkers lead us past the main dining-room, through back hallways, to a narrow private room where they served us a feast of local delicacies. As was to happen many times over the next few days, and despite many attempts on my part, I was permitted to pay for nothing.

The next day we met up with a pretty girl, who had shared a desk with Xian Wei in high school. She had asked him out, he told me, but at the time he had been too busy with schoolwork to think about girls; now, lonely-hearted in Beijing, he had developed a long-range crush on her—but, alas, she had a boyfriend! This girl was attended by a chubby college-buddy in a T-shirt that said “Ready for Boarding.” I asked her if she knew what it meant and she said, yes, it meant that you are ready to get on a train. I was too embarrassed to say anything.

The four of us wandered the dusty streets of Nankang, through a maze of back-alleys that sprawled and twisted behind the buildings of the even city-blocks and, with their cracked and wild rambling, belied the modern storefronts and the well-paved streets. Alongside these alleys, and crossed by them on narrow dirt-paved bridges, ran black stagnant rivers in deep stone gutters, and all manner of garbage floated in them. We wandered past back-yard gardens and low crumbling walls, ruins of old buildings, the remains of a decaying older city woven in and between modern Nankang. As we walked, we collected a motley retinue of small, dusty children, come to follow the foreigner, as he walked piper-like through their city. If I turned to look at them, they would rush back around the nearest corner; but a moment later, they would glide back into view, to stand and stare awestruck, and the boldest among them would wave back when I waved.

“I like this place!” I said to Xian Wei.

“You like it here?!”

“Yeah, it’s beautiful.”

“What? But it’s so small and old and dirty!”

“Yeah,” I said, “I like small, old, dirty places.” But this was an aesthetic so foreign that Xian Wei couldn’t even take it seriously. He only laughed and cocked his head at me, as if trying to tell if I was making fun.

By: Max Bean

India In Photos 5

After an overnight train to Goa, I found myself a shady motorcycle rental guy on the corner and headed north to explore some beaches. My trek buddies suggested Anjuna and I only had a few days in Goa, so that seemed like a good start. Other than the shady hustler trying to scam money from me by attempting to convince me that my ears were really dirty (no joke, I saw a few people trying this scam…so bizarre), arriving in Anjuna was pretty amazing. When I got to the edge of the cliff, I just looked up and down the jagged coastline that carved out several beaches and rock formations. People were out exploring and sun bathing and enjoying the perfect weather. So I joined them.

And so did this guy. Did I mention cows are everywhere? They absolutely run the show.

After a few days of motorcycling and reading and sunshine and prawns, I jumped on a train (8 hour train in sleeper class = $4USD. Score.) and headed to Hampi to explore some ancient ruins. The main temple near the Hampi Bazaar is occupied by this big fellow named Lakshmi. Apparently he will bless you (tap you on the head) if you give him a rupee. I just took his picture. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can help bath Lakshmi in the river at 8am. I showed up late and snapped some photos, but didn’t get in and get my hands dirty.

Hampi has a ton of monkeys. They are everywhere just trying to steal a snack or a bottle of water or a camera…they’ll basically take anything they can get their paws on. This guy was hanging out in the temple and I was able to get up close and say hello. Tried to catch the sunrise over Hampi at the top of a temple, but it was cloudy both days so I just had a morning hang session with more monkeys. Watching monkeys does not get old.

The Queen’s Palace and the royal elephant stable are a major tourist attraction in Hampi. And after walking the grounds for a bit you might stumble across an overgrown field with lots of rock piles. Another cool aspect of India is that they don’t regulate too much (which also has its downsides), so even at a national park or tourist center, you can usually wander around and find interesting little spots that are slightly off the beaten path. That’s one of my favorite parts of traveling. So when I came across these rock piles amidst these ancient ruins, I decided to make a contribution to the future of India’s past. This was my first attempt at making a rock pile and I thought I did an OK job.

By: Will Noon

India In Photos 4

This picture reminds me of being young and staying up really late and getting bummed when the theme song for M*A*S*H came on. You knew there was nothing left on TV to watch when you heard that song…and it meant you had no choice but to go to sleep. This was overlooking rolling hills of tea plantations on the ride from Kumily to Kottayam. From Kottayam I took the commuter ferry to Alapuzzha. The 2+ hour boat ride costs about 12 rupees (25 cents?). If I had more time (or wouldn’t feel creepy doing it by myself), I would’ve rented a house boat to cruise the backwaters of Kerala, but for the quick and dirty backwater experience, the commuter ferry was awesome. I think I was reading “confederacy of dunces” at that point.

After a quick dip in the Indian ocean and a night in Alapuzzha, I took the bus up back up to Kochi to explore Fort Kochi and Jew Town. Unfortunately, my scheduling was sub-par and I ended up in Jew Town on a Saturday so I wasn’t able to actually get into the 500 year old synagogue. I was a bit heartbroken. But I really enjoyed Jew Town. I picked up a small bronze statue of Shiva and got schooled on Tibetan singing bowls by a beautiful Indian woman. This shot shows just outside the synagogue as the winding streets lined with vendors eventually lead north towards Fort Kochi.

The rocky shore to the north of Fort Kochi are most famous for their ancient Chinese fishing nets. One of the really cool things is that you can buy fresh fish and have it cooked for a small fee by the fish mongers. (They’re really called fish mongers). If buying a kilo of fresh tiger prawns for $6 USD doesn’t tickle your fancy, then having a fish monger frying it up had better stir something in your loins. But among all that chaos, it’s also nice to just take a stroll along the water and watch a canoe float by.

By: Will Noon

India In Photos 3

Walking to the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady. This was the first day that I was 100% by myself so this sign hit me like a ton of bricks. I ended up doing a short morning trek with a couple from California (who hooked me up with a lonely planet book because mine arrived from amazon.com 2 days after I left). If you plan on going to India for less than 2 months, be prepared to feel foolish when you meet other travelers because it seems that everyone traveling in India is out for 2 months, 3 months, 5 months, or more.

After trekking the perimeter of the reserve I headed towards the Periyar Lake. Here I met up with an Israeli couple from London who design furniture (check out their awesome super modern stuff – http://www.raw-edges.com/ ). We crossed the lake on a simple raft made of logs by pulling ourselves across with a rope anchored on both banks. Such a simple yet effective system. It’s probably been in place for hundreds of years…why change it? Unfortunately I wasn’t able to do any real boating on the lake. One of the problems with India’s “get it done” philosophy is that it often supersedes safety. A few months prior to my arrival, a wildlife watching boat was apparently over capacity and capsized when an elephant was spotted to one side of the boat. Approximately 50 people died.

Monkey knife fight! Ok so they didn’t have knives, but it was a monkey fight. On my way out of the Periyar Tiger Resreve, I had my first of many encounters with these mischievous little guys. Funny thing is that in addition to NOT seeing any tigers at the Periyar Tiger Reserve, nor elephants nor anything giant and exciting/scary, I actually saw more on the way in and out of the reserve. Monkeys, giant squirrels (its a real thing, not just a fat squirrel – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_giant_squirrel), wild boar, etc.

By: Will Noon

India In Photos 2

If only I had been able to snap a photo of the guy carrying 75 dead chickens on his bike. No joke, 75 minimum. It was like a giant pile of chickens with a dude sticking out the stop slowly gliding down the street. This was on the way out of Peddapuram. One of the most amazing aspects of India, or rather of the Indian people, is how they get things done. Family of 5 in the US = minivan (or giant SUV), family of 5 in India = motorcycle. (I don’t mean they share it, I mean all 5 of them are on it at once). How many people can you fit in a jeep? My trekking buddy from San Francisco was 1 of 22. There are people on the train who fix broken zippers on luggage. Indians are pretty bad ass. They just get it done.

Case in point. When you need to move 8 billion pounds of hay, you don’t make multiple trips. you just get it done.

When people tell you there are cows everywhere, it doesn’t really sink in until you get there. And then a week goes by and you don’t even realize that you’ve become accustomed to it. Everywhere. Hanging out snacking on some garbage. Sitting in the shade on the side of the road. Walking aimlessly through insane traffic without the faintest hint of fear or even concern.

By: Will Noon