Sunday, September 19, 2010

Transmongolian part 1

My second experience in Beijing was much better than the first, but then again most things are better than standing on a train for 13 hours.

This time it was cold and rainy the whole time, and the tour I had planned to take was canceled. Instead I decided to use the day to prepare for the train trip - go to the tour company and pick up the information and tickets, and go last-minute shopping. It also turned out that a friend from Spanish camp was in the city, visiting family, so I got to meet up with her.

Transportation is always the biggest issue in Beijing, and this time it was taxis. Much of my day in the city was waiting for taxis and being told that, for whatever reason (it's too far, it's in the opposite direction that I am driving right now), they could not take me where I wanted to go.

Despite missing my alarm clock at 5:45, I was able to make it to the train station in time for the 7:45 train. I was supposed to meet my co-traveler there, but as I later found out, she missed the train. Instead I shared a room with a nice Mongolian girl who studies Chinese in Beijing. She was really friendly and helpful.

It took about five hours to fully cross the border between China and Mongolia, between immigration and customs on both sides, and the changing of the wheels on all of the cars (Chinese train tracks/wheels are more narrow than they are in Mongolia and Russia). The only real hassle about this was that bathrooms are locked just before, just after, and during stops.

Because I slept late, I missed most of the Gobi desert this morning. Instead, I got to see the countryside, which is very nice.

After arriving at 2:00, I've been wandering around Ulaanbaatar and doing a bit of shopping. Tomorrow I plan to go to Terelj National Park for the night, then back to the city for a quick shower before I have to get on the train again.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Thailand re-cap

Thailand was a nice ending to the first leg of my trip.

We spent almost a week in Ko Lanta, an island in the southwest near Phuket and Phi Phi. Because we went during low/rainy season, a lot of the activities on the island were not in business, so we spent a lot of time relaxing on the beach or by the pool at the resort. Unfortunately, we weren't able to visit Phi Phi, but near the end of our time there we were able to do a boat trip to four nearby islands. This was probably the highlight of Thailand - we swam through extremely choppy water through a pitch-black cave to a pretty cove, went snorkeling on two of the islands, and ended on a really pretty beach.

I was not expecting much from Bangkok, because most of what I had heard was very negative (dirty, smelly, loud, etc.). In fact, I thought Bangkok was an average big city in Asia. We only had one day to explore, so we went to Wat Pho to see the enormous reclining Buddha, then went to the river to see Wat Arun (though we decided we weren't up for the ferry ride across to the temple). After that was a quick trip to the Royal Palace, then a walk around Khao San Road (the main tourist area).

Now I've said goodbye to Jackie and am on my own again (at least for a day or two). My tour in Beijing was cancelled and it's raining today, so I'll probably spend most of the day preparing for my trip - picking up all of my documents and vouchers, doing a little shopping, arranging my luggage and logistics. And by total luck, one of my friends from Spanish camp happens to be in the city as well, so hopefully I'll get to meet up with her later today.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cambodia re-cap

It seems like we've spent ages in Cambodia, when it's really only been about four or five days.

We started our Cambodian adventure in Siem Reap. The first full day we got up at 4 a.m. to try to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. It's an interesting experience arriving at that time of day, but unfortunately the clouds made for a kind of disappointing sunrise. The rest of the day we spent touring some of the many ancient temples in the area.

Because we were able to see so much the first day (it's amazing how much you can get done when you wake up so early!), we spent the first half of the second day relaxing. We should have
taken advantage of the nice weather, because the rest of the day was rainy. Still, we braved the weather and took a small boat cruise of the river.

Siem Reap is an amazingly touristy town. It's impossible to go anywhere without encountering people trying to sell you something. It's also interesting that a lot of people in Cambodia refuse their own currency - they list prices and accept payment only in U.S. dollars (they do not, however, accept coins, even when they list prices that include "cents").

Yesterday was a travel day, so we didn't see much. This morning we got up early and were able to see the National Museum, Royal Palace, Killing Fields and S-21 prison (the last two from the genocide of the 70s). The Royal Palace was a bit difficult to see because, although it is beautiful, it's incredible that just outside there is such poverty. The Killing Fields and the S-21 Genocide Museum were also very sobering experiences. Even though it happened so few years ago, most Americans (including myself) have no concept of what happened here.

It is the middle of the rainy season, so the weather has been a bit uncooperative. Mornings are usually sunny (again, one of the hottest suns I've ever felt), and afternoons and evenings are rainy.

Cambodia has been a lot more difficult than Vietnam in many ways. It will be interesting to compare it to Thailand. Tomorrow afternoon we have another travel day, and by 11 p.m. we should be in Phuket, ready for another early morning and a transfer to the island of Ko Lanta.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Vietnam re-cap

We've been on the road for almost a week now, apparently just in time to miss the typhoons hitting South Korea. I wish that I could include pictures, but I won't be able to upload those for a while.

The first five days of the trip we were in Vietnam. Since we had so little time to work with, we spent a day and a half in Hanoi, then headed out to Ha Long.

Hanoi is a really interesting, fun city. There are so many people and so much traffic (crossing the street was an adventure in itself), but it's nice because there are so few people who bother you. There is a lot of interesting architecture, too. The day that we left was actually the beginning of the 1000-year anniversary of the city and the 65th anniversary of Ho Chi Minh coming into power, so the city was decorated and there were a ton of events going on.

The highlight of Vietnam was definitely Ha Long Bay. We went on a three-day, two-night boat tour of the bay, and it was even more beautiful than it looks in pictures. The first day we went into one of the many caves, then went kayaking. We went swimming and watched the sunset over the islands.

On the second day, we went to Cat Ba Island. We did an unexpectedly demanding trek to the top of a mountain - it was muddy and steep, and kind of dangerous in places because there were more people than should have been allowed. After slipping a number of times and falling (hard) once, I had a nice afternoon on the beach at Monkey Island.

I was really surprised how much I enjoyed Vietnam. It is accessible and easy to navigate by tourists, but it's not overly touristic. I kind of wish I had more time to explore central and southern Vietnam, but we're in a time crunch so we had to move on to Cambodia.