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Feb. 18th, 2011 @ 06:45 am Open water, orcas and seals!
A few nights ago we had a big wind storm tear through town. The wind stirred all evening, into the night and come morning we awoke to discover that the wind had blown all of the pack ice out of the water in front of the station. What was once a collection of cracked ice had suddenly become a sheet of shimmering water, as far as the eye could see. We had a lot of open water last year but this is more than we have had for decades (short history: we used to get a lot of open water here but about 10 years ago a massive iceberg (b15) broke off from the shelf and clogged the passage).

All of this openwater has not gone unnoticed by the local wildlife. Last night while hiking I spent about 30 minutes watching a pod of orcas (killer whales) playing in the distance (you could tell what they were by their behavior and dorsal fin shape). They eventually found a group of about 30 penguins hanging out near the ice edge and spent some time checking them out. Every few minutes I would watch a giant head pop up out the water, right in front of the penguins, and stare. Luckily for the penguins they weren't close to the edge.

There was also a seal swimming in the shallows near our shoreline. I noticed it as I hiked right by it, probabl like 15 feet from it. I have never been that close to a seal down here before. I think it was most likely a weddell but it might have been a leopard seal.


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In the center, you can see three dorsal fins. On my copy I can zoom and make out the fins.

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Feb. 11th, 2011 @ 12:25 pm Slipping the tongue to the Pole
There is a scene in a Christmas Story where one of the kids is "triple dog dared" to lick a flag pole. If you have seen this the you know what happens, his tongue bonds to the pole and then, much to the amusement of his classmates, the fire department is called to free him. I had always wondered if that was an urban legend. I mean, could something really freeze that fast?

Last night I went out to the pole markers with a friend of mine to take some pictures and video of me hanging out with the Pole, both geographic and ceremonial markers. Now for many years now I have taken photos of me licking stuff, or at least pretending to, all over the world. I figured the Pole would make a great licking photo.

So I lined up, made sure my friend was ready and prepared to pretend to lick the ceremonial pole marker. Except the "ball" is a mirrored surface, which is both metallic like and screwed with my depth perception. My pretend lick became a real lick and before I knew it, within a fraction of a second my tongue tip was frozen to the ball. Not realizing how fast it could happen I recoiled my tongue only to leave a small piece of it attached to the pole. sigh. There was a some blood, some stinging and some good video. I tried to find humor in the situation and was glad that it wasn't my whole tongue as then I would have had to call medical on my radio and that would have been REALLY embarrassing.

I leave the South Pole Station, to return to McMurdo, in less than 24hrs. I will miss it.

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20 images of me playing at the pole (some blood)Collapse )
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Feb. 6th, 2011 @ 11:30 am Inside the South Pole station
Most of the living activity at the south pole centers around the main building. It's the newest structure at the station and generally is what I always imagined an Antarctic research station to be. Unlike McMurdo it isn't sprawling or spread out. The windows aren't drafty. Things aren't jerry rigged together. And it is possible for me to go from my room to my work center without having to totally venture outside. This is a nice thing.

Last night I walked around the interior of the main station and took a bunch of pictures. The station is basically two levels with two long hallways and then 3 spokes that branch off of the main hallways that hold the dorms. A lot of people during the summer, since there are more people than beds, have to live out at summer camp. Summer camp is basically 10 jamesway tents that are old, drafty and either too hot or too cold. It's a ten minute walk from the main station and bathrooms are outside of the tent. Many people bring in pee bottles with them so they don't have to rush out in the middle of the night. Those same people will often find their pee bottls frozen by morning. Or come home to find their bed covered in snow. I am very happy I am not living out there!
63 picturesCollapse )
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Jan. 30th, 2011 @ 08:12 am South Pole photo dump
We don't have continuous internet access at the South Pole. We get limited service throughout the day, at bad times, when 1 of 2 satellites pass overhead. Most of the bandwidth is devoted to science (one of the recently completed projects, Icecube, uploads 65 GIGABYTES of data a DAY), what remains is given to the crew for websurfing or calling home.

Which is to say that the satellite window is about to close here and I spent most of my time uploading the following 40 or so pictures. I don't have time to go through and caption them (in part because LJ makes uploading photos such a pain in the ass).

Basically the time line is: took off from Mcmurdo, was invited to sit in the cockpit for the first half of the trip, had engine trouble and turned around, got on another plane (which made it all the way), flew over the transantarctic mountains, sat in the cockpit for landing, arrived, took pictures of the cermonial pole (the mirrored ball) and the actual geographic south pole. This is basically my first day of pictures.


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39 photos followCollapse )
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Jan. 29th, 2011 @ 05:55 am At the South Pole
I feel small.

I walk out to the geographic South Pole marker, with the wind tearing into my back, and a horizon that is obscured by blowing snow, to read the two quotes that are on display from Amundsen and Scott, the first few people to make it to this place.

I think about their journeys. The hardships they endured. The sacrifices (including death) that each made to slowly trudge their way to the pole. For no other reason than just to say they did it, that man can endure.

I stand at the marker and look at the changes, changes that I doubt those two fellas could have imagined. There is a giant, new, beautifully sleek station surrounded by supply storage. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes buzz in the background as they make their way slowly through town. The airfield (which sees 3-7 planes a day) sits a 2 minute walk from the main building.

I guess the biggest change of all is the ease of being here.

Things are alright at the South Pole. I haven't been here 24 hrs yet but I already feel at home, like it's a place I am meant to be. I dare say I love it here.

Pictures will come, whenever I get new batteries for my camera on Monday. (doh!)
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Jan. 22nd, 2011 @ 11:37 pm counting down...
At the risk of jinxing, by publicly announcing something I have known for about a month now, it I feel it is time to reveal something I have been looking forward to for weeks (years, even) now:

In 6 days, on Friday, I will be boarding a plane and flying three hours to 90S: the geographic south pole, home of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station! A location where men have died trying to reach.

I will be spending two weeks there, covering for someone in my department who had to return to McMurdo. I am pretty lucky to get sent there as I am supposed to be working at McMurdo and am quite thankful for the opportunity.

What this means is that after spending 24 months on an island 25 miles from the technical continent I will have finally set foot on the actual Antarctic Continent. I will also the chance to run around the world, as all degrees of latitude converge at the pole and have a part of my body in every time zone at once.... :)

There will be lots of pictures though few will be posted until I return to McMurdo as the internet is supposed to be very, very slow (limited satellite bandwidth).
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Jan. 19th, 2011 @ 06:46 pm spam?
A few weeks ago I let my LJ account lapse and since then I have noticed an influx of spam comments throughout my journal. Does LJ cut back on spam protection if you aren't a paid member?
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Jan. 16th, 2011 @ 12:30 am being back
I suppose it was bound to happen. The brain can only reinvent something so many times before it falls to normalcy, to the known. Arriving at Pegasus Airfield, Antarctica's largest airport, felt like I was arriving at any other airport, anywhere in the world. All it needed was a duty free shop and I could have been passing through JFK, SFO, LAX. Gone was the gasp of wonder when I first stepped out of the plane. Gone was the slow lingering walk trying to take it all in -- the mountains, the volcano, the ice that seems more solid and more permanent than the greatest roads of Rome -- as I walked from the plane to the shuttles. This time I said hi to a few friends and quickly shuffled -- more mindful of the ice -- off to the waiting shuttle bus. Not one picture was taken.

The ride back to town was slow and long, as most trips at this time of year are. The back of my shuttle was filled with new people, full of smiles. You didn't have to look carefully to catch the wonderment that had filled their faces the moment they took that first step outside the plane. They wore that excitement as if it was a prized neck gaitor, wrapped tightly around their face, protecting them from the elements, from the assualt on the senses that Antarctica is known for.

Questions raced their frozen exhalations out of their lips and veterans on the shuttle made a sport of pointing out landmarks, relating antecdotes and speaking fondly of seasons gone past. Heads were shaken -- in disbelief, having not yet acclimitized -- as extreme low temperatures were rattled off like they were badges of honor by those that have lived here during the coldest months. Explanations of what permanent winter darkness -- and all of the stars and auroras that go with it -- were doubted as the 24 hr sun streamed through the window, reflecting dangerously off of the ice. It was through this, this easygoing recollection, that I was able to recapture a bit of what it means to arrive at this place but it was only for a moment, and only for the ride.

After 3 years the magic is starting to fade, the charm is starting to wear off and this place that once haunted dreamscapes and lingered in my heart has lost some of it's mystery. It is all to be expected.

I have been here 4 days now and it's like I never left. Old routines, old habits, old friends are picked up right where I left them 3 months ago. The galley menus remain largely unchanged, products of the limited ingredients that we have. The dorm I spend this part of the year in still smells as it did last year. The seasonal sea ice that rings McMurdo sits fractured and thin, waiting for the icebreaker and a good storm to blow it all to see. These are all things I have seen before. For I have returned not to the frozen continent, not to the great unknown, not to the place where explorers with the most basic of provisions once pocketed discoveries as if they were gems at a jewelers, but to the town that has basically been my home since 2008. There is comfort in this. There is also loss.

I wonder what this season has in store for me? I wonder if McMurdo still has mysteries for me?
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Jan. 10th, 2011 @ 03:13 am here i come...
all checked in. waiting on the plane. mcmurdo... i will see you in 9hrs!

Posted via m.livejournal.com.

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Jan. 7th, 2011 @ 09:07 pm (no subject)
I am tired.

That is the result of all of my travels these past few months. The cost, one could say, of those wonderful memories, jaw dropping photos and newfound friends. Since arriving back in the US I have been having a lot of trouble sleeping -- no more than 5 hours a night and that is starting to drain me.

These past few days, as I make my way back to Antarctica have been rough. I had to awake at 330am to catch my flight to Denver and then my two nights here were spent with friends and inevitably turned into late nights with early morning starts. In an hour I start the flights to the ice and will continue to be exhausted. I have one night in Christchurch before having to board an 11pm flight to McM.

In a rather humorous moment they have had to change all of the flights to McMurdo to "night" flights because it has been too warm there lately. The ice runway is softening up. This means I will be arriving at 4am, when it is colder, and since I can't sleep on flights I will continue to be tired.

My season at McMurdo begins on Jan 11 and I am probably less excited to go back than I have been in the past. For some reason the season seems a lot longer this year. It still doesn't seem like I am going back, it doesn't seem real. That happened last year also after being off for 3 months. You kinda get into the habit of not working and that is a habit that takes a while to break. I am still lamenting the loss of the good moments from last season and the missed opportunities.

I still think it will be a good time and I am not regretting my decision to return. In fact in three weeks I will most likely get a really awesome Antarctic opportunity that I am very excited about. More on that if it happens.

I am just tired.
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Dec. 30th, 2010 @ 06:44 pm Pindaya Cave

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Pindaya Cave, in Myanmar, is not a place you really plan to visit. Sure it's in the guide book, tucked between the real highlights of the country. And sure it looks interesting but unless you are really into Buddhism you probably won't go as you simply don't have the time to make it over there. I certainly had no plans to go -- it was guidebook filler for an itinerary already bursting at the scenes with the awesome.

But travel plans don't always work out the way you plan. So when I found myself holed up in Kalaw, waiting for a freak 2 day storm to blow out (it was the dry season), I decided to share a taxi with some other guests of the hotel to visit the cave. At about 2 hours away it made for the perfect day trip and, more importantly, it would be inside.

The draw of this cave, what earns it a write up in the lonely planet and attracts locals from all over the country, is what is inside. See, it's not just a cave. Inside is one of the largest collections of gold plated buddha statues I have ever come across. At last count there are over 8,000 statutes all cramped into the cave passages ranging from hand held figurines to towering monstrosities that seem to loom over you, their gold glittering in the florescent lighting.

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Two months in Asia, seeing more Buddhas than I ever thought possible, and I had never seen anything like this. It was gaudy. It was tacky. It was interesting. There are paths throughout the cave, wide avenues and at other times narrow trails, whose edges are guarded by statute upon statue. Walking around, checking them all out, you can't help but wonder about how they got there, who put them there and why.

Every statue has a placard with it listing the person(s) who donated the statute and paid for the gold. After the names the placard lists their country of residence. Most were local Burmese but there were a bunch of Europeans as well. Out of all of the statues I counted 1 that was from an American. So I wrote their name down with plans of googling them when I got home. I was curious.

A few days ago I tracked them down on facebook and sent a message: "this is going to sound really weird..." I didn't plan on getting a response. But to my surprise and delight this morning I received a reply. Yes, the person was the person who donated the statue. I had asked how it came about, how one goes about donating a statue to the cave.

She and her husband are both from Myanmar but moved to the US decades ago. A few years back they returned, for the first time, and visited the cave. When she was there she was overwhelmed and inspired to donate the gold plating for the statue (this explains a lot, when I was there I saw them installing some new stone statues). And so they did.

I've been thinking a lot about my visit here and comparing her experience and my own. While the cave was interesting I wouldn't suggest a traveler go out of their way to visit it. I certainly wasn't inspired. And yet she was. And I wonder if it was the cave or simply returning to her native country that did it. Maybe both. But either way her experience, her journey as much different than mine. In ways I can't even contemplate.

And that, on a smaller scale, is the mystery of Burma. It is a fascinating country, one whose peoples seem so far removed from the pariah government that rules the place. Hopefully I will write a bit more in the coming days. But I return to Antarctica next week and will be very busy....

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Dec. 26th, 2010 @ 02:46 pm Merry Xmas

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Merry Christmas to all!! I am back in NY now, with my family, enjoying the holidays and the last 11 days before I start to make my way back to Antarctica.

It's been so long since I last posted I don't know where to begin. Pictures and stories of my most recent travels will be coming soon. I hope.
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Nov. 27th, 2010 @ 07:49 am in which I overuse the word "awesome"
I've been thinking about past trips lately, past journeys that have had me sprinting around the globe gasping for breath and wondering about ancient wonders. In my thoughts it's hard not to start to compare trips, measure up architectural achievements, compare cultural wonders and rate which country has the best KFC (ecuador). When it comes down to it my current trip has been one of my favorites.

Last year I spent time in Malaysia and Indonesia and while I saw some great things and did some pretty awesome stuff for the most part I didn't like the trip. Not the countries mind you but the act of traveling. When it came down to it I burnt out early because I was lonely. For most of that trip I was on my own and in places that were somewhat removed from the backpacker trail. I didn't really meet anyone who I enjoyed spending time with or felt the urge to keep in touch with.

Not so this trip. This trip has been wonderful. I have seen amazing things, covered an awesome amount of distance and, and this is critical, met some awesome people along the way. Some I have spent days hanging out with, our itineraries being flexible enough to mesh up for sometime and others I have spent only a day with, a stolen afternoon spent exploring a city or negotiating the hazards that come from staring at a beautiful landscape for too long. It's been great.

But with this greatness, this lifting of spirits, comes the realization that any truly great trip comes with a certain level of loss. You are saying goodbye constantly. Sometimes it is to places, to hostels that through design and staffing are memorable or scenary that will haunt your memory for a lifetime, becoming the basis for future dreams. More often is to people who you will never see again.

That bit is hard. In a perfect world everyone you meet, everyone who holds some meaning, however brief, in your life will live within commuting distance and those bonds forged on the road will continue at home. But the world isn't perfect so after a day, or two (or three...) you find yourself saying goodbye and suffering the pangs of loss, of grief, of sadness. You wonder what would have happened had you met in a more convenient location. In the days after you find yourself wondering what they are doing, what you are doing and a certain amount of melancholy sets in.

But, if you are still on the road this passes soon enough. The tourist track in SE ASia is well traveled (seriously, it's like nothing I have experienced before) and you find yourself meeting new people within days. Passengers on trains, bunkmates in dorms, individuals in group tours all offer a sense of renewal. And before you know it you are back and those bittersweet memories turn to warm ones, brief memories that will never fail to bring a smile to your face in the years to come.

While traveling alone has its advantages some of the best experiences come with others.
---

Still in Vietnam, for a few more days. I leave Hue this morning to head to Da Nang for a night. Then it is a flight to Saigon for a day or two while I organize a multi day trip through the Mekong Delta that will deposit me in the capital of Cambodia for a visit to Angkor Wat. This trip has been great. And just when I think it is over I remind myself that I still have 2 weeks in Burma coming up, something I have been looking forward to for a year!
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Nov. 18th, 2010 @ 09:32 pm Hanoi arrival
I am in Vietnam. There is Facebook here.

Life is good.

I have only been in Hanoi for about 4 hours so far and I am trying to withhold my first impressions which were chaotic to say the least. This town is not the easiest to get around in when you are on foot. It's made for mopeds and the mopeds clearly out number the pedestrians. Add in a big back pack and trying to negotiate with a map and you have a bad scene.

My bus from Nanning dropped us off about 12km from the area where I am staying. The only way into town is by taxi and the drivers know this. They were waiting at the stop en masse and swarmed everyone who got off the bus. I banded together with two swiss folks since we were going in the same direction to share a cab. We had our doubts with the cab, not knowing if we should let the meter run or negotiate a flat rate.

We let the meter run. But didn't realize until about 2 minutes into the trip that the driver had left the meter running all day and already at the 24km amount. One of the swiss took a photo for the inevitable complaint when we got to our destination.

Of course when we arrived he wanted an obscene amount of money. 15 USD for a trip that should cost no more than 6. An argument in multiple languages ensued. There was hemming and hawing. Yelling and sighing. Finally we just gave the guy 5 dollars and left, closed the door and didn't look back. He didn't pursue.

But I wasn't at my hostel as we stopped at the Swiss folks place first. I had planned on keeping the taxi but that didn't work out. The receptionist at the hotel arranged for a moped to take me to my place and said it would cost around 20kdong (1 dollar). Fine. But I was terrified. I had never been on one of those.. things before.

They gave me a helmet and the driver put my main backpack into his footwell. We were off. Dodging traffic, whizzing through the streets, as I desperately tried to hold on without losing my balance or toppling off. It only took about 3 minutes but it seemed a lot longer. When we arrived I went to pay the guy but he just shook his head and left. I was shocked. It made up for the taxi driver!

Anyway, now I am here.
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Nov. 16th, 2010 @ 08:52 pm (no subject)
This morning I boarded a bus to take me to Nanning, the last city in China I will spend time in. 2 nights here while I wait for my Vietnam visa to come through. The hostel I am staying at has a free visa service which is why I picked it. They take my passport and a passport photo to the consulate and then bring it back the next day. I don't even have to fill out the application form which seems odd, but there it is.

While on the bus there was a couple sitting in front of me with a small child. A small girl, maybe around 3 years old who kept staring back at me whenever she could. I tried not to notice her as I didn't want to encourage it but she stared anyway, mute and curious. When we finally arrived at our destination we all stood up and started inching our way towards the door. After I had safely passed a few rows in front of the family I heard the little girl scream out "hello!!" which was just about the cutest thing I have heard. Her mom looked up at me and smiled and I smiled back. She must have been holding back that "hello" all trip long.

My arrival to Nanning was fairly painless. I had gotten a map and directions from my hostel so I knew I had to catch local bus #6. The only problem was I didn't know where to catch it. I stopped in the bus stations KFC for lunch and to get myself sorted. Over a chicken breast I noticed a bus stand across the street though I couldn't quite see what buses stopped there. Fine. Lunch finished I walked back into the bus station and started to head towards the stand that I saw. Before I could exit though a woman, maybe in her thirties or late twenties and smartly dressed, stopped me and spoke in near perfect english. She asked where I was going. An innocuous question but years of experience at bus stations have made me wary of the phrase. It's the vocabulary of a tout but I looked her over again and decided to continue talking.

She quickly told me that I was going the wrong way to the bus stand, in fact it was up another level and out some doors. And then she offered to walk me to the stand so I went along finding out that she was a local english teacher on her way to visit her grandmother. She asked about my travels, wanting to know the other places I have been. It was a wonderful experience and made my arrival all the more easier.

Nanning is a big city. Nothing too appealing here that I can tell. I wandered around a bit and realized at one place I could spin around and spot 3 different mcdonalds. I discovered that the giant Walmart sells durian fruit (both whole and in individual portions), PBR and salak (a delicious fruit I discovered in Indonesia last year). I wandered into a park, in the evening, and discovered hundreds of locals all dancing to different types of music. It was brilliant -- 100 people or so were all dancing the same steps. Anyone could join and I spotted all ages and sexes. Brilliant!

One more full day in China. sigh.
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Nov. 15th, 2010 @ 09:08 pm saying goodbye, in pictures

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This morning I said goodbye to the 6 people I have spent the past week hanging out with. Two british couples, a belgian and dutch girl we all met, as strangers, randomly in a hostel in Guilin. After finding out our immediate travel plans coincided we banded together, seeking out adventure in the karst filled area of Guilin-Yangshuo. After having constant companions for the past week it was a bit sad to say goodbye, knowing that the rules of the road mean we will probably never meetup again. It's the way it goes, fast friends for experiences that will linger in your memory until you are old and grey.

This is just the first of the goodbyes for soon I will say goodbye to China.
My time is coming to an end. In three days I will hand my passport over to a Chinese border guard, get my goodbye stamp and enter Vietnam. I am going to miss China. It's a fascinating, confounding country filled with more paradoxes than I can list.

It's been a blast traveling around and, having worried about this beforehand, I was quite pleased to discover how easy China has been. It is probably one of the easiest countries I have ever traveled in which surprised me. This is probably a combination of good planning, sticking mostly to touristy spots and previous experience. While I don't really tend to think of myself as such I realize I am pretty travel savvy -- China has been my 26th country, most of which have been places where English is not the primary language. I don't know if a virgin traveler would have the same experiences as I did.

And my experiences, the things I have seen, the things I have done have been epic and grandly unreported on this blog.

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I have hiked along the great wall, trudged through the restored sections to narrowly avoiding twisting my ankle on the unrestored sections.

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I have gazed at the thousands of restored terracotta warriors, guardians of an ancient emperorers ego and been mesmorized by the vivid detail and exacting standard of craftmanship that have survived the ages.

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I stood at the base camp of Mt Everest gazing at the highest place on this planet while my eyes lapped up the vast himalaya mountain ranges.

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I have held a panda in my arms, felt it's coarse fur against my skin and looked deep into it's eyes in an attempt to channel my inner panda whisperer.

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I have hiked through thousand year old rice terraces, getting lost amongst the hidden back trails while being amazed at the ingenuity of the farmers who first claimed this land as there own. And when the sun fell faster than we thought it would I found myself spending the night in a small traditional village, experiencing a bit of China that I just didn't find in the big cities.

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I slowly drifted down the Li River, making my way from Guilin to Yangzhou, amazed at the massive limestone karsts that line the river, on a fake bamboo raft, the size of my group and the pile of our backpacks making us all wonder if the boat would founder before we reached our destination.

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I cycled and hiked through the countryside, dodging trucks and chickens and vendors to seek out natural wonders hidden amongst the trees of the countryside.

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I explored caves, marveling at the intricate formations that water and nature have carved out and then played in some mud.

And all along the way I met fantastic people, discovered local fast food chicken joints, navigated amazingly efficient public transport systems, dodged traffic, stumbled upon choirs singing in parks and had a wonderful time.

China, you have been a blast!
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Nov. 13th, 2010 @ 05:55 pm I'm a celebrity here myself
I have learned something during these past few weeks in China. If 2 or more Chinese people approach me with a camera in their hands and a smile on their face they don't want me to take a picture of them. They want to take a picture of me. With them.

I have become a tourist attraction.

This first started when I was in Lhasa and has continued since. To date I have had my picture taken with 7 people all throughout the country. There have been countless photos taken of me on the sly that I notice at the last second, as they line up a "landscape" shot but then turn to me at the last minute. It's all quite fun but a bit weird. Everyone seems very excited to have their picture taken with me.

The funny thing is that I do the same thing when I travel. I take pictures of the locals, asking for some others taken on the sly. Now I know how they feel!

While I would like to say I am the only one this happens to it's just not true. A common source of conversation when westerners gather is the photo op. Chinese just seem to be fascinated with us. One of the girls I have been traveling with has been getting a lot of attention as she is taller than me and blonde. She doesn't find it exciting anymore.

Me? I still think it's great. I feel silly but at the same time it's the closest I will ever come to being a "celebrity"!

and now panda video:


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Nov. 7th, 2010 @ 10:03 pm (no subject)
Chengdu is known for being the location of the largest Panda breeding facility in China and probably the world. It was one of the reasons why I came here, a chance to see the giant panda in a semi natural state. This morning I headed off, with a group from my hostel, to see the giant Pandas.

I think I saw about 15 and 4 babies that were barely able to stand. Cute, cute cute! But Panda's are lazy, they just lie around and eat all day. We considered it a rare honor when when would get up and walk 10 feet.

For me though the highlight of the visit was not seeing the pandas but getting to hold a panda. This cost's extra.

It would be crass and unethical if they charged a price to hold a panda so they ask for a donation. It's all up to the Panda though and if he agrees with your offering then he will come over and sit on your lap for a few minutes. Conveniently the Panda seems to agree with 1,000RMB (about 147USD) as an appropriate donation.

So after I paid --err-- made my donation I got to go into a special room with a few other donors. We all had to put on protective clothing so limit the disease exposure to the panda. For a few minutes we just stood around and stared at an empty bench, waiting with eager anticipation for the arrival of the panda.

I didn't know what size Panda would be appearing. It could be a toddler or a baby. We ended up with a 2 year old, 60lb panda. And then for about 3 minutes I got to hold this beautiful creature. It was awesome, so exciting!! The handlers keep the panda occupied by giving it honey while it is held. I just kept stroking it's fur which was not nearly as soft as you would imagine and posing for pictures. It was a great experience. A bit steep in price but when the hell else will I have a chance to hold a panda bear?

one of many photos:
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Nov. 3rd, 2010 @ 09:02 pm just one....
...for now:

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Nov. 2nd, 2010 @ 09:45 pm a tease...
so much to write about but first, and until, a tease:

A few hours ago I stared, humbled and in awe, at the tallest point on our planet. The north face of Mt Everest is one of the most beautiful things I have ever had the pleasure, and good fortune to see. Mesmorized. Spellbound. A day made perfect by there not being one cloud in the sky.

Pictures coming soon. Stories from Xian and Lhasa also soon.....
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south pole
Oct. 26th, 2010 @ 09:26 am Stuck inside of Xian with the....
On my last day in Beijing I spent a few hours wandering around a fashionable part of town free of tourist attractions. It was a generic section of town, that architectural style known as "anywhere". Eventually I got the sneaking suspicion that something was just not right, something was off. So I stopped every so often and looked around. Though my suspicions grew I still couldn't put my finger on the cause. I didn't feel unsafe. Just a bit... off.

Eventually I realized what the problem was. Everyone was asian (presumably, Chinese). This might sound obvious or even silly but everyone in BJ, in the area where I was, was dressed in western style clothing. They were wearing fashions that would be at home in NYC. Viewed from behind everyone looked the same. I found this to be incredibly odd and a bit strange. I couldn't help but notice then that I was the only westerner anywhere.

I am in Xian now, home of the terracotta warriors and some other cool stuff. O haven't seen any of that stuff yet though as within hours of arriving I spiked a 101.2 fever and have pretty much been laid up in bed ever since. By the evening I was back down to 97 but still felt kinda crappy: sore, tired, sniffly. I am feeling a bit better now but will be spending another day inside, hanging out in my hostel.

This really sucks. I am in a really cool hostel (and nice, the dorm has crown mouldings!) with a bunch of, seemingly, awesome people that I would love to socialize with but instead I am just mopping around. In two days I am taking a 36hr train ride to Lhasa which I had been really looking forward to but now I am just dreading. The elevation gain is already churning my stomach. The 8 days bouncing around in a minivan en route to Everst Base Camp in tibet sounds a little less appealing.

This is all terribly timed. The only portion of my trip that is tightly scheduled is the first 2 weeks, everything else is pretty open. Ahh... well, what can you do? I will spend another day in the hostel, reading, sipping tea and trying to convince the hostel cat to curl up in my lap or the golden retriever to keep me company.
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south pole
Oct. 23rd, 2010 @ 09:19 am Picture post
Current Location: China, Beijing
Some pictures from my first few days in Beijing...
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south pole
Oct. 23rd, 2010 @ 09:16 am and here I am
Current Location: China, Beijing
The opening tones of Ode To Joy fill the subway as the man standing across the way from me reaches deep into his pocket and answers his ringing phone. The guy next to me spends the entire subway ride watching some TV show on his iphone while the girl sitting across from me furiously taps out a text message to some friend or relative. A woman in her twenties clutches her prada bag close to her chest. Families smile, friends laugh, couples nuzzle in close and life goes on all around much like life does. and yet...

And yet, I can't access facebook in this country (but LJ works)!

China is not quite what I expected it to be. So far, and this is after 3 days, it's much easier in some respects than I thought it would be. Teh subway is a breath of fresh air, quick, cheap and efficient it gets me just about anywhere I want to go with an English announcer calling off the station names. My arrival was notable only for it's lack of issue. After 25 hours or so of flying I joined the queue of foreigners waiting to get stamped into the country. There was a guard making sure we kept in a line formation. When I approached the immigration agent I handed over my passport and, while I waited, I noticed there was a small computer terminal asking me to rate my checking in experience. I declined but thought it was interesting. 25 countries and I have never seen that before. From the airport I paid 4 dollars for a train to take me into town, paid 30 cents to transfer on to the subway and walked about 10 minutes to my hostel.

The streets, though busy, are easier than I expected. This is no Cairo. All of the really busy roads are closed to pedestrians and you have to use underpasses to cross which makes it a whole lot easier. The smaller streets you are on your own but still it's pretty easy to navigate them, just pay attention to oncoming traffic and follow the locals. I do like wandering though. My hostel is in a hatung, a traditional alley type street characteristic of this area where people throng and smells of the street: food, sewage, human mass all gel together, a olfactory congumeration known best as Life. Neon lights, from stores, shine down, lighting the paths.

My first day here I asked my hotel to book me a sleeper train car to Xian later this week and when they called their guy I was told that only hard seats were available. This was not how I wanted to spend 12 hrs in a train so I asked if there was another way, expecting to be told about some overprice blackmarket but instead it was suggested that I go to the train station. I did, easily by subway and again was reminded how easy it all was. I walked into the wrong building at frist, the departure hall and after looking all around for a ticket window I found an information booth. I inquired in English and was told where to go. The next building, window 10, the foreigner window. Found that, told what I wanted in English and was given the ticket I wanted, in sleeper class. Easy.

Far from standing out in this city of millions I feel as if I have put on a cloak of anonyminity as no one pays me any mind. People move on about their day, the novelty of a westerner having long since been tapped out. Even at the main tourist sites the touts leave me alone, feeling it better to prey on the massive amounts of Chinese tourists better suited to their sale pitches. And this amazes me. Never have I been in a country where the western tourists are so outnumbered by local tourists. At all of the tourist sites you can come across thousands of chinese tourists, all wearing their specially designed tour group hat or tshirt. It's rather refreshing to see this.

I have done a bunch in my few days here. I watched the flag be lowered at Tianenmen Square, spent a morning wandering through the forbidden city (massive), visited a few temples, walked 3 hours along the great wall and visited the Olympic stadium. The olympic area was most impressive to me. The much maligned bird's nest is a work of art. It's brilliance matched only by it's uniqueness. I found myself drawn to it, turning around when I walked by to look one last time at something that resemebled nothing I had ever seen before. The whole Olympic area is interesting. They built a special subway line to service it, a three line stop, and the stations are immaculate. TV monitors play greatest hits of the Olympics but there is an eeiry lack of people filling the massive cooriders. But once emerging from the subway I found the pavillion filled with people, flying kites, playing music, snapping photos and generally being amazed by the area.

My biggest complaint so far has been the weather. Even though each forecast promises sun and warm temperatures the reality has been thick, unpenetrable, clouds and cold temperatures. It hasn't rained though. Just been rather depressing. This greatly hampered my visit to the Great Wall when a thick fog obscured my vision beyond 30 feet. It was cool to walk along the wall, from a restored to an unrestored section, but it would have been nice to actually see it stretching out into the distance as far as the eye could see. The wind and the fog left a layer of mist on the wall which made the walking quite difficult at times as you scrambled up and down some really steep sections. My calves are still throbbing.

Like most times when I travel food has proven to be the biggest source of concern for me. I am a picky, unadventurous eater and I am finding that I just don't understand the food here. It goes beyond a language issue, I just don't know how to eat some of the food. Last night I had peking duck (delicious), selected from a picture menu. I was handed chopsticks which for some reason I didn't expect. Instantly I was thankful for all of those childhood trips to Benihana. I hve eaten at KFC a few times, which blessedly has an english menu. I know I will eventually have to break through the food issue and start trying stuff. It just takes me awhile. It's very intimidating.

I love the experience of being in a place where I don't know the language at all. Chinese is all around me, on billboards, on street signs on the lips of the millions who live here. But it might as well just be birds chattering for all I can do with it. It makes to sense to me. Which is fine. I like being reminded how easy one can get by without having to speak. To travel in this way one has to have an imagination, a creative side to offer explanations to observed things that make no sense. Of course there is probably a logical explanation that could easily be offered in afew words but without those words you are on your own. But that's where it gets fun.

I met a french girl the other night who was here for the Olympics. She said things have gotten a lot easier for westerners since then. More people know some english, picture menus are more prevalent. I am not trying to get too used to this and I know it might be unique to Beijing but so far I have to agree. China has been a bit easier for me.

It's been a blast, so far. Off to Xian on Sunday, the terracotta warriors on Tuesday and then this time next week I will be in Tibet.
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south pole
Oct. 19th, 2010 @ 05:30 pm and here I go...
In like 26 hours I will be landing in Beijing, China to begin my 2 month "oriental odyssey." I am filled with nerves and excitement. But mainly excitement. I hope to maintain my blog while traveling but since China blocks LJ I will only be able to post entries and not keep up with my friends list or respond to comments.

See ya in a few months! ;)
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south pole
Oct. 15th, 2010 @ 07:29 pm getting the visas
Unlike all of my other travels my upcoming trip has required that I obtain visas before showing up in the country. Every other country I have visited in the past allowed me to obtain a visa at the airport. These weren’t free. I still had to pay a token amount of money, say 20 dollars or so but the convenience was fantastic. I could just show up, flash my American passport and in I would go, no questions asked. This time around though two countries that I plan on visiting require a pre-arranged visa: China and Vietnam.

Since I am visiting China first it was the one I had to get. The airline, even though I am properly ticketed, wouldn’t let me on the plane without it. If I show up in China without a visa they will grunt, turn me around and hand me back over to the airline that is then responsible for getting me back home. Who pays has never really been defined to me.

As the planning for my trip progressed I discovered that Myanmar (Burma), a country I have been really excited about visiting, had recently suspended their barely 6 month old visa at arrival program. This meant that I needed to get three visas before I could show up in the countries. Luckily for me I live outside of NYC, the city where, thanks to the UN, just about every country has a consular presence. But... timing was going to be an issue. I just didn't think I would have time, given my 2 weeks here and prior commitments, to get China and Myanmar done here (Vietnam is easily arranged in China).

I knew the situation wasn’t ideal. I knew this going into it but at the time I didn’t think I had any choice. One of the curious quirks of the Chinese consulate in NY is that it is closed for both Chinese and US holidays. When I planned on going into NYC to get my visa I didn’t take this into account. It wasn’t until about a week before I got to NY that I realized that the big week long Chinese National holiday fell during the day I wanted to submit my visa paperwork.

Luckily I still had time so I decided to go the first day the consulate was open, a Tuesday. This is what I knew to be a bad idea. The website warns against coming on the day after a holiday as they are often very busy. This makes senses, of course, since the consulate serves all of the NE and the ONLY way to get a visa from them is to show up in person (either you or an agent). Mail ins are not accepted.

I arrived at 830, 30 minutes before the consulate opens for business. When I approached the massive complex I was shocked to see that there was no line. But then I realized that I was on the wrong side. Turning the corner I discovered about 125 people online. Ahhh, that's more like it. I joined the line and about 30 minutes later I was allowed in, after going through a metal detector and having my bags scanned.

Waiting online I noticed something interesting. For an additional fee I could get the visa that same day. My brain started mulling this over as I knew that I could dash up to the Burma consulate and submit my passport to them later in the afternoon. The additional fee was 30 dollars which wasn't so bad considering I was already spending 140 dollars for the China visa.

When I finally got to the window at 10 am I was nervous. I had never applied for a visa in advance before. I had already purchased my non refundable plane tickets and all it would have took was a grumpy attendant to ruin my plans. Before arriving I rehearsed my plans, I got my itinerary down straight in my head, careful not to mention Tibet at all and thought of possible questions that I might be asked. In my lighter moments I envisioned them giving me some travel advice, suggesting towns a bit off the tourist track.

But in the end it was quite simple. I approached the window and handed my forms and passport. I asked if I could have it that day and she said come back 4 hours later. She asked one question, just wanting me to write out the full name of my employer (RPSC) and that was it. Painless. I wandered out and noticed that the line had now tripled in length. Glad to be free of it I called the Myanmar consulate to ask for directions.

I like to walk in NYC but I tend to underestimate distances. So when I found out that the Burma consulate was 40 blocks north and over about 10 blocks I didn't really think too much of it. An hour later I finally arrived at the consulate. It was a bit different than the China one. It was located in a converted brownstone a stones throw from Central Park. There was no security, no metal detectors and no lines. I had no nervousness about getting this visa. Not sure if this was because of the location or simply because it wasn't critical to my trip.

(I couldn't help but wonder what it must be like for the people who work at this consulate to live in NY. Burma isn't quite a first world country. Their military junta makes them a pariah amongst world governments. ATMs are non existent and credit cards aren't accepted. What must it be like for the Myanmese people who come over to NYC to work? Do they like it? Do they hate it? Do they resit returning?)

I simply walked in, spoke to the girl at the counter who printed an application for me and found out what I would need to support the application. The one thing I didn't have was flight info so I stopped in the Apple store, borrowed their one of their computers and got some flight info from AirAsia. Before I could submit all of this I had to pickup my China visa so I walked back down. again.

Pickup was a breeze. I waited on line for a bit, walked in and scanned my receipt. Was pleased to see that it was ready for pickup. I didn't have to wait in line for this. Went to the window and the woman retrieved my passport and handed it to the woman at the next window. I moved over there, paid my 170 dollars and was done. That was it. Easy. No need to worry.

I had to walk pretty fast back to the Burma consulate to get it in before they closed. When I made it there was a different person at the counter who checked all of my stuff out, accepted my hand written itinerary and took my 20 dollars. He told me to come back in a week. Today I did and got my visa for Burma. The sticker has a digitized version of my picture printed into it!

So that's it. I am ready, I suppose. On Monday I fly to China! For a month! And then I head through Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma (plus a few hours in Malaysia and 2 nights in Bangkok).
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south pole
Oct. 10th, 2010 @ 01:50 pm MY stuff
THe problem with my semi-nomadic existence is that I haven't always been this way. For most of my live I was a sedentary, over consuming, American living in the suburbs of NYC. What this all means is that I have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years that really has no value for me anymore. Most of it came from my 9 years working at a Borders bookstore. I have 23 boxes of books that have been in storage since 2006. I haven't looked at them, haven't read them, haven't touched them since then. The boxes have been shuffled around a bit, from basement to basement, from storage locker to storage locker.

For the past year I have been sharing a storage locker with my sister who has recently bought a house. This morning we emptied out the locker, moving her stuff to her home and my stuff to a new, smaller locker in the same facility. Eventually I might move some of my stuff into her basement. Going through my stuff I was a bit amazed at the stuff I have been keeping. Part of me wants to throw it all away as it hasn't been used in years and I really don't envision using it in the near future. But the part of me that is materialistic is repelled by the idea of just throwing it away -- it's MY stuff. Aside from my books the biggest culprit is music. I have hundreds of CDs, many still sealed, that I got as promo copies when I worked at the bookstore. Most of it is classical stuff, which is great and I love it. But I can't imagine ever listening to it all.

I don't like this stuff. I don't like being weighed down by it all and, since over the past few years I have become a bit anti-materialistic, the stuff embarrasses me. I have been trying to whittle it down. I threw a bunch of stuff out today, including some old computer equipment. I am sure I could have sold some of it but I can't be bothered. I do have a plan to become stuff free. The books are going in December when I am back in NY. I have three boxes of paperwork/pictures etc that I have to keep, one bag of clothing and one bag of CDs that I have to keep. Then there is my car which I will be selling in December. If all goes well I will start the new year with 3 boxes, 1 bag of clothing and a small computer. I will finally be setup better for my lifestyle. Of course in 2012 I plan on "settling" down a bit so will have to rebuy all of this crap.
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south pole