Bangkok Broiling

January 29, 2016 — Bangkok, Thailand

After five hours on the tarmac – nearly 10 total on the plane – a pair of two-hour delays, and another two hours sitting in the basement of the Bangkok airport waiting for the metro service to start, it was a relief to finally step into the heat-soaked air as morning light began to gray the Thai sky.

My hostel was situated in the heart of Chinatown – ironic, I know, or maybe comfortable? – and as I stalked half asleep through the streets I got familiar with the defining characteristics of Bangkok: Swelter and bustle.

Packs of motorbikes ripped through the crowded streets alongside gaudy Tuk Tuks, each spewing bluish smog that gave the city a whiff of gasoline and seemed to add to the boiling air. And it was only 7 a.m.

Bangkok is overrun with swarms of motorbikes.

Bangkok is overrun with swarms of motorbikes.

I found my hostel among Chinatown’s twisting alleyways, sandwiched between car-parts shops overflowing with piles greased and rusting gears and rods, and I checked in nearly nine hours late. After a cup of much needed iced coffee on the rooftop terrace overlooking the sound-clogged alley, I passed out under the air conditioning. When I woke in the early afternoon, it was time to explore.

Chinatown is one of the older neighborhoods in Bangkok, with a history of more than 200 years dating to when the Chinese community in the city relocated to the “new” neighborhood to make room for the construction of Bangkok’s Grand Palace on the riverbank.  Part colonial architecture, Chinatown is still a rat-maze of warrens lined with the aforementioned parts shops and makeshift markets selling fruit, flowers, stereo equipment, and pornography.

Dozens if not hundred of Chinese-style temples hide among the porn and parts. Snarling red-and-green Dragons slithering up the gate poles announce their presence.

I spent my first day popping in and out of said temples and wandering the market streets before watching the sun set over the Chao Phraya River, which bisects the city and acts as an artery for both tourist boats and trade.

As the neon lights lit up above me while I ate street-vendor pad thai at a fold out table street-side, I was struck that Chinatown indeed feels like a mini Hong Kong. Only maybe hotter.

Early the next morning I relocated to Bangkok’s famous – or infamous – Khao San Road, long a hive for Southeast Asia’s unwashed backpacker army. The culture of the place was immediately obvious, the street littered with discarded food trash and browned cigarette butts from the night before.

I sought out the cheapest bunk I could find in a hostel three sets of stairs above an Indian restaurant – a creaking metal contraption in a room of 12 others just like it, topped with a stained mattress and no sheets. It wasn’t going to be good sleeping, I knew, but at just over three USD for two nights, at least it was cheap.

I threw my bag down and headed back out, across Ratchadamnoen Road lined with both its massive portraits of the Thai king and the city’s Democracy Monument, and toward the temples that bump up against the river.

I picked out Wat Pho, one of Bangkok’s oldest and most important temples.

Despite their shared Buddhist focus, Thai temples and Chinese temples could hardly be much different in style. Wat Pho is a collection of glittery, bright spires and halls under the watch of fierce-faced stone Chinese guardians. Built sometime in the late 1600s, before King Rama I established Bangkok as the kingdom’s capital, the wat is home to Thailand’s largest collection of Buddhist images – more than 1,000 – and a 46-meter long reclining Buddha.

After a couple of hours wandering the various halls, removing my shoes at the entrance of each to walk barefoot as is the Thai requirement at holy sites, I walked back along the river to Khao San to find the street transformed. Vendors selling  mostly t-shirts, but also jewelry, DVDs, and fake IDs of all kinds had billowed out into the street. The bars and restaurants were already bumping.

I walked the adjoining streets, trying to find a cheap towel and marveling at the sheer variety of tattoos and dreadlocks that covered the areas short- and long-term denizens, then pushed my way back through the crowds of revelers dancing in the street as the restaurants transformed into open-air nightclubs blasting hip-hop and electronica into the thick night air.

When I finally returned to my bunk room, I found that despite the two rotating fans rattling on the ceiling, the place was hotter inside than out. I crawled into my bunk, trying not to pull the whole thing down along the way or make more noise than necessary, stripped to my shorts, rolled those up as high as they could go, and positioned myself at the very edge of the bed where every 10 seconds or so I could catch a quick blast of the fan.

Sometime in the next couple of hours, I feel asleep in a soggy nest of my own sweat. Sometime in the next next couple of hours, a group of other backpackers filed in. The hostel management finally deemed it appropriate to turn on the air conditioning – at the lowest possible temperature. My sweat turned to ice. I pulled out every item of clothing I’d brought, including my coat, and spent the rest of the night shivering anyway.

“Just three dollars” I kept telling myself. It didn’t seem well spent. I’d never again be so happy to walk out into the Bangkok sun.

Wrong to be Right at Mogao

August 9, 2015 — Dunhuang, Gansu Province

While I picked away at my yellow donkey-meat noodles, Matt stared into the bowl of steaming beef noodles that had just been placed on the wooden table in the back of the tiny Dunhuang restaurant crowded with musty vegetables and bottles of sauce.

He breathed in.

“These are the thing that finally makes me sick,” he said with a cheerful chuckle, then dug his chopsticks into the tangle.

He was right.

We got up early the next day, planning to go to the Mogao Grottoes. When I asked the hostel desk how to get there, however, they asked if we had reservations. Apparently we’d needed to book slots on an online reservation system some weeks before. Oops.

I told my friends. They were bummed. I said I’d fix it. We’d go out anyway. We’d figure it out.

Morning from our Dunhuang hostel balcony.

Morning from our Dunhuang hostel balcony.

We arrived at the caves, some 15 kilometers outside of town. I approached the ticket window while my friends leaned against a wall in the shade. Matt was looking a little funny.

I told the attendant we wanted three tickets.

“Do you have a reservation?”

“No, but …”

She cut me off.

“You need a reservation.”

“But my friends…”

“You need a reservation. You can try to join a group tomorrow.”

We had to leave that night. I went to the next window, right next to her. My friends glared at me, skeptical. Same story. This time I got some more words in, though.

“My friends, they’re here from America. They’re really interested in Chinese history. We didn’t know we needed a reservation and we have to leave tonight. They’re really disappointed. Is there anything you can do?”

“No,” she said. “You need a reservation. You can try to join a group tomorrow.”

“But they really like…”

She shook her head.

I went to the third window right next door and started the same story. “My friends … Chinese history … disappointed .. really interested …”. The lady from the first window strolled over.

“Come with me,” she sighed.

We went to a closed window. She sold us three tickets. We were in. Then the food poisoning hit.

Dave and I ate some rice and beef and drank some coffee – after replacing it due to expired, curdled creamers – in the café while Matt struggled with a disease of his own foretelling. After two trips to the bathroom, we walked out to the big line. I told one of the workers we had tickets. They were unmarked for either a time or group, so they just shoved us through the door.

We herded into a massive, planetarium-style theater that explained the history of the Mogao Caves, complete with 3D rendering of many of the place’s most impressive caves.

According to the legend, a monk named Le Zun stumbled into the Gansu desert sometime between 353 and 366 CE. Cresting a dune, he had a vision of a thousand Buddha’s bathed in golden light. That sign inspired him to dig a cave at the site that’s now the Mogao Grottoes.

My friend Aaron Hedge was born in the wrong era in the wrong region. He would’ve been a perfect wandering monk.

Somewhere over those hills, a thousand shining Buddhas shone.

Somewhere over those hills, a thousand shining Buddhas shone.

Over time, other monks joined Le Zun, and a community began to grow around the caves. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), more than 1,000 caves had been carved out of the desert walls, those in different areas reflecting the different Buddhas and art styles in fashion during different eras, most of them owned or funded by individual families who bought cave sites as worship sites and to demonstrate their wealth and prestige.

Also during the Tang, Dunhuang became a critical commercial and religious heart in the region. From the 4th until the 14th century, the region buzzed with construction as more and more caves were added to the five-story cliff walls. Scholars believe that at its peak, Mogao was home to more than 1,000 caves, although today only 492 cells have been opened, housing more than 2,000 sculptures and about 45,000 square meters of murals.

When the Silk Road was abandoned during the Ming Dynasty, Dunhuang slowly depopulated and the caves were largely abandoned and forgotten, fading into memory as the desert sands reclaimed them.

By the late 1800s, however, Western explorers began to explore the lost cities of Central Asia and to show archaeological interest in the ancient artifacts that would surface along the old Silk Road. By the turn of the century, a Chinese Taoist named Wang Yuanlu had become something of a self-appointed guardian of the Mogao site and had started to clear some of the caves blocked by the desert’s reclamation. In June of 1900, he unblocked one such cave and discovered a veritable motherlode of Buddhist texts and artifacts – more than 1,100 scrolls and 15,000 paper books, which had been walled off since the 11th century. He later sold them to western archaeologists, among the Aurel Stein, for a trivial sum of money.

Due to a lack of interest from Chinese authorities, many of the artifacts disappeared overseas or were stolen over the next decade. Some of the caves were further damaged in 1921 when they housed Russian loyalist soldiers fleeing the Russian Revolution, then again in 1939 when they housed Kuomingtang. Finally in 1961, the caves were declared a state cultural relics site, then earned UNESCO World Heritage status in the late 1980s. To this day, Mogao is an unfinished archaeological project. Seven hundred and thirty five caves exist today, the earliest dating back to 366 CE.

The film was beautifully made. All three of us fell asleep.

We took the shuttle bus an hour out to the caves. We sat next to a group of old Malaysian men who told us all about the glories of Malaysia, as well as just how impressed they were with the Chinese infrastructure, even in these far-flung towns.

Since we had no numbered tickets, we weren’t attached to any particular tour group, so when we arrived at the cave site, we weren’t sure exactly what to do. We bade goodbye to our Malay friends, then we walked from worker to worker, asking for some help, until someone finally set us up with a guide – a stick-thin, 22-year old college student. We were to be her first English-language tour. Just the three of us.

She took us from cave to cave, telling us the history and legends of each. Tours are somewhat random in that only certain caves are open only some of the time. Each cave was unique in its carvings, paintings, and more. Buddhas, most of them made of mud-covered wood, of varied sizes and colors generally dominated the center of the caves, while around them swirled Asparas, bodhisattvas, and other mythical beasts painted in oxidizing blues and reds and golds. Some caves told stories; some repeated their images in trippy, overlaying fashion. Some caves had crumbled, while others were near-pristine. In one, we looked up over the feet of a Buddha that stood 34.5 meters (113 feet) high. We squinted at others just two centimeters tall.

Some of the woodwork and murals are more than 1400 years old.

Some of the woodwork and murals are more than 1400 years old.

I was enchanted by all of it. Matt was dripping sweat and starting to sway.

We wrapped up our tour and walked along the outside of the caves, marveling at some of the woodwork which was original to the 6th or 7th centuries in some cases. Matt sat under a tree and tried to curl into himself.

Dave and I strolled the museum, which featured more of the history of the site, as well as some impressive reconstructions of some of the more unique caves which aren’t open to the public. Matt disappeared into the bathroom.

After another hour or so, we queued up under the desert sun to catch a shuttle bus back to the visitor center. The line wasn’t going anywhere fast. Matt had gone white. He swooned, keeping from the concrete only by falling onto Dave’s back.

“Dude, don’t vomit on me,” Dave said.

After a few moments to center himself, Matt stumbled off into the parking lot corner to projectile vomit. Now it was coming out of both ends.

A serious problem began to crystallize: Not only did we have the hour-long bus ride back to the visitor center, we had a 3.5-hour drive over ragged country roads after that. Our night train that would take us to Urumqi in Xinjiang left from a train station 130 kilometers from Dunhuang.

I could see the fear in Matt’s eyes as he eyed the tiny wastebasket in the center aisle of the shuttle bus.

We made it back to the visitor center without Matt having to do something horrible, then back to downtown Dunhuang, where we bought Matt some water and some medicine and left him on some steps outside a shop while Dave and I walked to the bus station to buy tickets to the train station. When we returned, Matt lay sleeping on the steps, while old men glared at him and muttered to each other.

Matt steeled himself for the final leg of the journey. Then, for three hours we bounced around the back of a minivan as it cruised a pockmarked two lane highway past donkey carts and tractors in tiny villages and empty stretches of desert, stopping once at a barren gas station to fill up and watch a crowd of half-naked men pound liquor and slap each other in the gathering twilight. Those hours may have been the longest hours of Matt’s life, but he held it together … or at least in.

It was a bad day to be right about the noodles.

Beer in a bag

The first thing to know about Qingdao is that they serve beer in a bag. Like the kind of bag inside which you’d take a fish home from a pet store.

Nearly every corner store, market, and restaurant – even some hotels, it looked like – has lurking in its doorway a keg or two or three of Qingdao’s most famous export: Tsingdao Beer. Because foremost, Qingdao is a beer city. A German beer city. In China. And they serve beer in a bag.

Stop your car! Buy some beer in a bag!

Stop your car! Buy some beer in a bag!

Nestled on the Shandong Province coastline, Qingdao today is a city of about three million people and small for The Middle Kingdom.  It always has been. For centuries it existed as a fishing village and strategic port, exporting salt instead of beer. The beer came in 1903, just six years after Kaiser Wilhelm II set his mind to turning Qingdao into a little Germany in Asia, wresting control of its strategic seaward batteries in 1897 and signing a 99-year lease on the territory. With the Tsingdao Brewery came electric lights, the railroad, and many of the Bavarian-style buildings whose red-tiled roofs still line the gently rolling hills looking out over the bay and make the city a sharp break from China normal.

Despite the castle-like mansion the German governor built in those then-empty hills, the German dream didn’t last. Qingdao was the site of the only World War One battle fought in Asia, a standoff between the cutoff German garrison under orders to hold out as long as it could and a sleek new fleet of Japanese warships eager to prove their mettle. A months-long joint British-Japanese naval bombardment brought the city under Japanese control in 1914. The Rising Sun was rewarded with a strengthened grip over Northern China at the Treaty of Versaille in 1919, sparking the May 4th Movement, a massive student protest movement which would spread across China, which is where a young Mao Zedong would cut his teeth, and which is credited today as the seeds of the later-day communist faction. Although the city was returned to the Chinese in 1922, the Japanese would retake it in the Sino-Japanese theater of World War Two and hold it until their surrender.

The brewery, however, didn’t go away, first being absorbed by the Japanese brewers of Asahi and Kirin, then reverting to Chinese control later in the century. Today it’s modern, still holds with German brewing purity law and known all over the world, its label emblazoned with the Huilan Pavilion that sits in the waters of Qingdao’s harbor off the shore of its old town and the edge of an always-packed pier.

Despite the crowding, the pier is one of Qingdao’s many pleasant walks, especially on a clear day as the sun sets when a stroller can watch the lights pop onto the German architecture lining the Oceanside street while the megasized container ships ply the waters heading out of the container port down the coast. And Qingdao is full of pleasant walks:

Walks past the endless little seafood restaurants serving up fresh seafood picked – by you – from tanks in front of the restaurant. When you pick a fish or octopus, the staff will beat it to death on the ground in front of you. We tried the clams at three different restaurants. Dabbed in garlic infused oil and topped with hot peppers, they were all delicious … for clams.

Clams. I don't they they beat these to death before the cook them. But they do add peppers.

Clams. I don’t they they beat these to death before the cook them. But they do add peppers.

Walks through the leafy avenues of European-style houses now filled with coffee shops and restaurants and residences.

A Chinese police station.

A Chinese police station.

Walks under the turrets of St. Michael’s catholic cathedral – the capping crosses of which were buried during the Cultural Revolution by locals in the nearby hills to keep them safe and found by accident during construction work in the early aughts – and the old protestant church stocked to the gills with Chinese bibles and song books for the Chinese hordes, locals and tourists alike, to flip through.

For those who prefer to play 007 missionary and milk their congregations for greenbacks, though, I’m sure there are some house churches to skulk around, too. It’s all very hush-hush, I hear.

Walks along the boardwalk under central business district’s glass and steel towers and past May 4th Square and the now-dark torch overlooking the waters which hosted the 2008 Olympics’ sailing event.

Qingdao's CBD and the May 4th Square overlook the Olympic sailing venue.

Qingdao’s CBD and the May 4th Square overlook the Olympic sailing venue.

Walks through aristocratic halls of the governor’s mansion which hosted military men Germanic and Japanese alike and their families.

The first governor was sacked for the exorbitant cost of his palace, which overlooks the bay from a hilltop.

The first governor was sacked for the exorbitant cost of his palace, which overlooks the bay from a hilltop.

Walks across the decks of retired Chinese destroyers and past the rusting parts of jets, anti-aircraft guns, missiles, and mines at the naval museum. All of the exhibits on China’s naval development were in Chinese. A shame. I’d have loved to learn the “facts”.

Walks through lines of old brewing equipment explaining the history of Qingdao’s most famous export, and past the endless kegs of that export. The original 1903 buildings are still standing and house a museum of the brewery’s fascinating history. Outside is Qingdao’s “Beer Street”, a collection of all-the-same seafood restaurants offering the standard fare plus on tap the unfiltered and stout versions of Tsingdao beer, which are difficult to find anywhere else in the world

Walks under the late-night blaze of neon lights in the back alleys of Qingdao’s food street where those so inclined can buy fried crabs on a stick; ice cream crepe; scorpions; shrimp dumplings; all variety of fish, clams, and prawns; fire-seared squid; and of course, beer bags with a straw.

Beer bags are a good way to reduce your inhibitions for practicing your Chinese. They are also a good way to reduce your inhibitions for prodding live scorpions with your pointer finger.

Walks over boulder-strewn slopes of Laoshan Mountain, on the south side of Qingdao. It took a sickening cab drive to get there, but the mountain park is a sprawling and enchanting collection of naked stone, seaward views, and millennia-old Taoist temples. China’s first Emperor, Qin Shihuang, even ascended the slopes seeking immortality and in the fifth century, the pilgrim Faxian landed on its shores in a return from India bearing the first Buddhist scriptures to enter China. All along the routes winding through the rocks are teahouses and snack shops where you can stop and take in the slopes and the sea over a cup of green tea. Chinese ingenuity shows up here, too, as the shopkeepers have all diverted the river with little plastic pipes and created mini waterfalls cascading gently downward from one bowl of fruits or drinks to the next keeping everything cold by letting gravity do the lifting.

Walks through the bright blue-tiled gate to one of China’s first Taoist temples, Taisqing Palace, sheltered hulking, leafy Ginko trees and by the rocky slopes of the rolling mountains above. For atmosphere, as well as beauty, this temple ranked among my favorite. It seems the temple is also in the process of constructing and monumentally sized monument – Lao Tze himself – to glower out at the crusty, wooden fishing boats bobbing in the sea, circling their nets around the catch under the afternoon sun.

Walks under the white walls of the lighthouse that sits on Little Qingdao island. The lighthouse was destroyed during the Japanese bombardment in WW1 but was rebuilt to look out over Qingdao’s old town and keep ships clear of its shores.

The Little Qingdao lighthouse watches over the harbor and the seawall protects it.

The Little Qingdao lighthouse watches over the harbor and the seawall protects it.

Walks through the Qingdao Eastern Bear Park, where you can see hundreds of Asiatic Black Bears laying atop of one another. They can be fed with peanuts, while they hop up and down begging for a treat. Then you can watch grim-faced trainers lead bears around by a chain leash and tap them with sticks until the ride bicycles, walk on balls, walk a tightrope, juggle fire, and more. This place was utterly weird and utterly depressing, even if the view of the aquamarine ocean was lovely and even if we did get a VIP tour from one of the grizzled trainers who told us all about the different bears and asked us about America. When I asked him why two of the bears were fighting he shrugged and said “I don’t know. They just hate.”

Walks along the yellow sand of Old Stone Man beach, past the touts begging you to go on a boat ride on their speedboat moored just strides of the swimming beach. With the sea on one side and the mountains on the other and Qingdao’s modern skyline splitting the difference, this beach really was pretty nice.

Old Stone Man beach.

Old Stone Man beach.

In three days, we did a lot of walking, but that’s pretty standard for us. And if it’s not clear, I came away impressed with Qingdao. It’s skies are clear, it’s old buildings gorgeous, and it’s modern streets clean. It’s got stunning mountains on one side, stunning ocean on the other.

Plus they serve beer in a bag.