August 28, 2010

The Hanging Monastery

Sixty five kilometers away from the dusty city of Datong is a sight to behold. A 1400 year old monastery is perched halfway up a sheer cliff wall. Constructed fifty meters up the rock face, the monastery is shielded from flooding of the river below. As I approached it from ground level it did not look that high.

The staircase grew increasingly narrow as I ascended the precipice. The monastery is supported by pillars of wood, which act as stilts. The stairs wind their way underneath the monastery, allowing zany Chinese tourists to vigorously shake the lumber that supports the very temple atop their heads. Once I had climbed up and peered down, my attitude about its altitude changed. With narrow pathways and knee high railings, the monk hang out was quite scary from above. I stuck as close to the walls of the monastery as I could.


"Don't push! Safty first" - an unheeded warning sign atop the Hanging Monastery

August 26, 2010

Crash Landing

I soared through the air. This time I had taken flight willingly in a hot air balloon and not because I was at the mercy of a Chinese driver. Hovering thousands of meters above the earth, I surveyed the majestic scenery of Yangshuo below. Jagged peaks dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. I sailed up into the clouds as the wisps of air evaporated around me, just barely out of reach. But the beauty of the clouds also posed a threat. The skies were becoming overcast, an ominous portent of things to come. Soon the first drops of rain started to fall, quickly picking up strength until it transformed into a full scale shower.

It was time for us to land but we were not near our base camp, having floated away in the opposite direction. We started our descent, but there was no chair to put back into upright position or seat belt to buckle up. After soaring at high altitudes for nearly an hour, the balloon was now only several hundred feet above the earth. We hovered over paddy fields and then drifted over to a nearby town. A spotter ran through the narrow lanes until he located an opening. He beckoned us towards an apartment complex with a basketball court. My trip to the troposphere became even more memorable as the pilot gracefully guided the hot air balloon on to the court. A few bemused spectators who had come out of their homes watched me breath a sigh of relief as soon as my feet touched the ground.


"They say any landing you can walk away from is a good one." ~ Alan Shepard 

August 15, 2010

Full of Hot Air

I staggered outside before dawn and was ushered into a van. The door slid shut and darkness enveloped me. The van started moving. About half an hour later we were outside the city limits. The vehicle came to an abrupt halt. I stepped out. A truck was parked ahead of me. Further ahead I saw a crew dressed in combat fatigues assembling several large canisters, a basket, and a massive amount of multicoloured material into something altogether extraordinary.

It was around five in the morning. I was in the outskirts of Yangshuo, surrounded by magnificent karst peaks and a crew of workers putting together my means to see them from above. I went to inspect their handiwork. Suddenly a massive flame leapt into the air. I turned away, the heat glancing of my stubble in a ferociously sexy manner. The workers eagerly motioned me towards them. I walked towards the fire and climbed into the basket beneath it. I closed my eyes and felt myself floating up into the sky.


"Sometimes you are overwhelmed when a thing comes, and you do not realize the magnitude of the affair at that moment. When you get away from it, you wonder, did it really happen to you?" ~ Marian Anderson

August 14, 2010

Xian Shenanigans

As a capital for a thousand years and the eastern end of the Silk Road, Xian played an important role in the development of Chinese civilization. After seeing the army of terracotta warriors firsthand, I journeyed to Xian's famed Muslim Quarter for some snacking. Street vendors sold tasty items such as chuan (meat on a stick) and cold noodles, which I slurped from a plastic bag. I headed back to the hostel in a three wheeled miniature paddy wagon. Pedestrians leapt out of the way as the three wheeler careened haphazardly through alleyways and sidewalks to avoid the traffic in the main streets.

The next day was left solely to explore the city of Xian, beginning with the world's largest city walls. Rather than take the easy way, I scaled a rickety old ladder up to the top of the fortifications. Chancing upon a reenactment of an ancient court, I went down from the wall to investigate. A bevy of Hawaiian beauties had also come to the city for a visit so they were being entertained by the local officials. I watched the performance along with the rest of the foreign dignitaries. My final stops before catching an overnight train back to Beijing were the Drum Tower and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the emblem of the city.


“I have not told half of what I saw.” ~ Marco Polo

August 08, 2010

Once Upon a Restaurant in China

I spot a restaurant in China that looks like it serves tasty food and take a seat inside. After being offered someone else's bill, a look of bafflement, and a pack of cigarettes, I finally receive a menu. A piece of paper with Chinese writing and a sauce stain is provided to me. The waiter stares at me with piercing eyes, darting impatiently from side to side. 60% of the dishes on the menu are not available. "Don't have, don't have." drones the waiter, distaste dripping from his mouth at my ignorance of the state of the current food inventory at his place of work. I look at what the other customers are eating and point at the items I want, the waiter's blank stare not revealing whether I have made myself understood.

I order a starter, one meat dish, and a bowl of rice. It is hot outside so I cannot ask for a glass of water, as that only comes in the piping hot variety and I need something cool and refreshing. I am brought a room temperature bottle of beer. It is left unopened and I am not given a glass. Soon my main course arrives, followed 45 minutes later by the appetizer, and 5 minutes later by my bowl of rice. I try to explain that I need a plate or bowl to eat from, and am finally provided with some napkins and a glass. The next attempt brings forth chopsticks, and I begin my meal eating directly from the large dishes.

The ratio of staff to customers is 1:2 but most of the workers are clustered into groups chatting with each other or solitary types who are often found to be staring into space. It is hard to attract the attention of a waiter without yelling at them, but that is not my style. Sometimes there is a glimmer of recognition that I am motioning for them, but after 15 minutes have passed I realize that this is not the case. Eventually, the staff all sit down at a nearby table and start eating their meal. One notices that I am still trying to attract their attention. I ask for the bill and am given the menu. I ask for the bill and am given a toothpick. I ask for the bill and am given another bottle of beer. I ask for the bill and am given the bill. The figures are within a reasonable range of my estimates. Similar to when I ordered food I am under pressure now. The waiter hovers near me, fixing me with another impatient stare as I struggle to provide exact change. I decide to give him a 100 RMB note instead. Still eyeing me suspiciously, the waiter holds up the note and examines it to see if it is counterfeit before walking back to the counter to retrieve my change.


"It is a good thing that life is not as serious as it seems to a waiter." ~ Don Herold

August 02, 2010

Going Dutch

As part of my Eurotrip, I caught a train in France that crossed Belgium to get to Holland. I dropped off my luggage in Eindhoven, where  former Bangalore roommate Stein lived. Eindhoven is more a residential city than a tourist one, with its claim to fame being that the electronics manufacturer Philips was founded there in 1891. We headed to his university town of Maastricht, which claims to be the oldest city in the Netherlands. Roman fortifications, churches, and public squares abound. As with many European towns it feels like a living museum. We enjoyed some cognac at his college buddy's pad before heading back to Eindhoven.

The next day we went to the Hague or Den Haag as the locals refer to it. Although not the capital of the Netherlands it is the seat of government and plays an important role in international politics. Home to the International Court of Justice and over 150 other global organizations, the Hague bills itself as the legal capital of the world. After traipsing past some parliamentary buildings and estates of the nobility, we caught a tram to the nearby seaside resort of Scheveningen.

Stein was about to begin a new job and his company had provided him with an apartment in Scheveningen. We walked around the the most visited beach town in the Benelux region until we located it. He had not yet received the keys to his house, so we perused it from outside before heading to the coast and enjoying the windswept sands of the Dutch coastline.


“Whenever I found out anything remarkable, I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof.”
- Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Dutch biologist

August 01, 2010

One Country, Two Systems

I had come to China with a double entry business visa. Each entry could last 45 days. Although I could stay for 3 months in total within the country, I had to leave and reenter during some point. Despite being reunified with the mainland over a decade ago, Hong Kong or Macau are treated as distinct entities. I would be crossing international borders to visit them, so for the purposes of my visa it would qualify as leaving the country.

Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of the People's Republic of China. The former British and Portuguese outposts retain their distinct charm while embracing the opportunities provided to them by a modern China. Falling under the "one country, two systems" principle originally proposed by Deng Xiaoping, they maintain most of their past political and economic autonomy. The policy will remain in place for 50 years from the time of their respective handovers in 1997 and 1999, as was agreed with the United Kingdom and Portugal when China regained sovereignty over these territories. I spent five relaxing days in the SARs before returning to China.


"The future comes one day at a time." ~ Dean Acheson