Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Monday, August 27, 2007

China's SARs

We couldn't leave China without checking out the country's SARs. Not the disease SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) that hit the headlines back in 2004, but the two Special Administrative Regions of Macau and Hong Kong. Both islands off the south coast of China technically fall under Chinese rule, but exercise a high degree of autonomy. We were curious to see how life in Macau and Hong Kong compared with what we'd experienced in mainland China.

The Portuguese landed in Macau in the 16th century, quickly establishing a lucrative trading relationship with China and making Macau their home, with the consent of the Chinese. During China's Cultural Revolution, Portuguese presence in Macau came under scrutiny and finally in 1999 Macau was returned to China as a Special Administrative Region, or SAR. We headed to Macau in search of balmy tropical weather and a unique fusion of cultures.

A Macau street sign in Cantonese and Portuguese, near Monte Fort.

We arrived by ferry from Shenzhen on the mainland, and sensed that Macau had its own distinctive character as soon as we stepped off the boat. We'd landed in an altogether more cosmopolitan place where signs were in English, as well as Cantonese and Portuguese, tourists were welcomed and people formed an orderly queue for taxis. We enjoyed the novelty of waiting our turn instead of competing with multiple pairs of elbows to secure a vehicle, and were soon on our way to the Institute of Tourism Studies, where we'd booked a room in their training hotel. We weren't quite sure what to expect but were pleasantly surprised to be shown to a lovely suite by extremely professional student staff. In fact, the facilities were of a five star standard at one star prices, which suited us perfectly.

Enjoying a glass of wine (Portuguese, of course) in the comfort of our hotel room.

We were equally impressed by the Institute's restaurant, a classy establishment offering a tantalizing selection of Portuguese and Macanese specialties. We dined on delicious fresh clam soup, salmon carpaccio, bacalao with pork belly and roast octopus with nicoise salad. The meal was complimented perfectly with a Portuguese Chardonnay and concluded with pineapple gazpacho and fruit crumble with creme brulee ice cream. We wholeheartedly agreed that the students could practice their cooking and service skills on us any time!

Macau's real attraction is its uniquely blended culture. Chinese & Portuguese, Buddhist & Christian and old & new influences can be found everywhere.

A bustling Macau street, with all sorts of merchandise on sale from warm pork jerky to dried shark fins and birds nests.

Irresistible egg tarts can be found in every Macau bakery, a lasting legacy of Portugal's presence here.

The scent of burning incense cones fills the air around Macau's many Buddhist temples and shrines.

St Paul's Church has been a Macau landmark since the early 17th century. Designed by an Italian Jesuit architect and built by Japanese refugees, the church's facade features carved skeletons, angels, dragons and pagodas - an interesting mix of Eastern & Western imagery. Most of the church was destroyed by fire in 1835, leaving only this spectacular facade, which remains one of Asia's most important monuments to Christianity.

Attractive colonial buildings can be found around Macau, most of them beautifully preserved and providing a classy, resilient alternative to the enormous, modern casino complexes. Since gambling is illegal in mainland China, Macau has found a lucrative niche, catering to Chinese tourists in search of pleasure and fortune. The half built gold monstrosity in the background of this photo is the Grand Lisboa Casino. We tried our luck at the Wynn casino but lost 100 Macanese Patacas ($14) in about 100 seconds. Just like Las Vegas!

Many Macau buildings look like this. The black mildew is caused by the humid climate and makes these apartment blocks look more grim than they really are.

Three days gave us ample time to check out a few museums, digest several Macanese meals and sample some good Portuguese wine, before hopping aboard a ferry to our next SAR: Hong Kong.

Our accommodation in Hong Kong was a shoebox compared to the fancier-than-we-can-usually-afford place at the Institute of Tourism in Macau. It didn't matter though, as the bright neon lights and bustling streets of Hong Kong enticed us out from our 'den' at all hours.

The neon lights of Causeway Bay disguise the distinction between day and night.

Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 as a SAR, after 99 years of British Crown rule. Like Macau, Hong Kong's history has resulted in a fusion of Eastern and Western cultures, leaving this cluster of islands with a unique and extremely cosmopolitan character. We immediately found ourselves caught up in Hong Kong's frenetic rhythm, and within just three days there, we'd decided it's a great place to visit, and perhaps to live. Here are a few reasons why.

Cosmopolitan with a capital C
Hong Kong is one of the most international places in the world, up there with New York, London and Paris. Walking the streets you hear some Cantonese, but more English, which is often the common language between Asians of different nationalities. International businesses and products are everywhere, including Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Vivienne Westwood, Chanel and even Marks & Spencer. The whole of the city is truly a shopping mecca. In fact there are so many interconnected malls, you could feasibly walk from one end of the city to the other without leaving the air conditioned world of retail. You could also purchase a Rolex watch approximately every 100 meters, if you so desired (and could afford it). We restricted our shopping urges to a bucket of popcorn and two tickets to see "The Bourne Ultimatum" in one of the city's many cinemas.

The Lippo Center is one of Hong Kong's most distinctive buildings. Nicknamed 'The Koala Bear' because its design supposedly resembles koalas climbing a tree, Hong Kongers live, work and, of course, shop here.

Feeling Hot Hot Hot
If heat and humidity are your thing, Hong Kong could be the place for you. The tropical climate makes for beautiful greenery on the rolling hills outside the city, which is actually a hiker's paradise. The warmth also lends itself to public Tai Chi sessions in the city parks. You might feel silly bending, stretching and balancing in the park at home, but everybody's doing it in Hong Kong.

Dreaming of Dim Sum
Hong Kong boasts a restaurant scene that might rival Chicago. That's a big claim, but we had plenty of great dining experiences to support it. Dim Sum is something of a local speciality, which we tried at the famous Maxim's Palace restaurant at City Hall. A team of women in smart gold uniforms patrolled the aisles with trolleys of dim sum, ready to serve diners whatever they fancied from an array of steaming treats. This can be dangerous after a 50 minute wait for a table, especially when a new and exciting trolley is wheeled by every few minutes.

Here I am, about to seize a roll of glutinous rice with my chopsticks, as the trolley approaches behind me, loaded with baskets of steamed goodies.

Jason pauses between dumplings & jasmine tea for a photo.

We also struck gold with sushi, Indian curry, a French bistro lunch and even a night at an Aussie pub. We certainly ate our way around Hong Kong. As regular Donkey Crossing observers will notice, that's not exactly out of character for us.

Kowloon to Causeway Bay and back
Getting around in Hong Kong is blissfully easy. There's an efficient, clean subway, as well as classic trams and reliable buses, which makes exploring a breeze. There's no need to drive a big fancy car around the city, but we saw plenty of those too.

Jason takes in the urban view from the front seat of an antique tram.

Dizzying heights
Perhaps our most memorable Hong Kong transport experience was riding the Peak Tram funicular up to Victoria Peak. The ultra steep gradient made it more of a white knuckle ride than expected, but the views from the top richly rewarded the stress of getting up there. Hong Kong Island viewed from Victoria Peak is surely one of the world's most impressive urban landscapes. The tropical trees flanking the concrete jungle make Hong Kong even more attractive. Property is suitably pricey here though, which explains why our hotel room was a bit on the small side.

The stunning view of Hong Kong island with Victoria Harbour and Kowloon in the background. Instead of riding the funicular back to the city, we strolled down the lush, forested hillside.

The obligatory tourist shot at Victoria Peak.

We savored every minute of our three days in exciting, exuberant Hong Kong. But with Thailand calling our name, and our bank balance diminishing faster than you can say "more shrimp & pork dumplings, please", it was time to move on.

Saying farewell to Hong Kong with a bang at the Saturday night fireworks display. We had a fantastic view of Hong Kong Island and Victoria Harbour from the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.

Stay tuned for tales of temples, Thai massages and lemongrass soup in steamy Bangkok.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Pingyao and Xi'an:
Quiet Courtyards and Terracotta Dudes

After leaving the lush, Buddhist bliss of Wutai Shan, it was time to pack the bags and make our way to the ancient Chinese city of Pingyao. Pingyao is a gorgeous city with 72 distinct towers spread across the impressive city walls. Home to the first banking system developed in China, many of Pingyao's sights and museums are related to the country's early financial and accounting practices. We spent our days searching for daring street food, peeking into the well-preserved courtyard homes and ancient banks, and braving the winding alleys and hidden corners on a tandem bicycle. We also enjoyed spending time with our friends Andy and Jane, who arrived to town the same day. Our accommodation in Pingyao was a definite highlight, as we booked an excellent room at the Harmony Guest House. The photo above is of the recently renovated courtyard, surrounded by traditional rooms and suites.This local street vendor was selling a variety of pickled vegetables, sauteed noodles, fermented tofu and several variations on the theme of fried dough. However, we couldn't figure out what he was doing with the large feather duster.We procrastinated quite a bit over hiring a tandem bicycle. We'd had no problems on previous continents riding our own bicycles, but 'bike pooling' was a different thing entirely, and we found our debut tandem experience a bit daunting. With the temperature pushing 100 degrees, and me inappropriately dressed in denim dungarees, we decided it was "now or never" and had a great time attempting land speed records and chiming our faulty bell through the crowded arteries of Pingyao.

Pingyao ended up being a great place to socialize with fellow travelers, soak in classic Chinese architecture and ride our bike through a gorgeously preserved, ancient city. As we ate lunch in the Harmony Cafe one afternoon we met a kind American couple named Arvid and Irina who had recently retired from the Detroit penal system (as employees, not inmates) and started traveling around the world last November. It was great to meet fellow Americans on the road, especially two that have decided to dedicate their pensions toward their travel dream.

After a final night in Pingyao celebrating life and friendship with Andy and Jane, the four of us woke up earlier than we wanted, inhaled some banana pancakes and caught the early bus to Xi'an, the staging point for a day trip to the famed Army of Terracotta Warriors.
The six hour bus ride into Shaanxi province ended up being the most pleasant Chinese road journey we had in the previous three weeks with comfy chairs, a well operating a/c system and back-to-back-to-back Jackie Chan flicks.

Xi'an is a busy, modern metropolis, with plenty of historical sights to occupy a visitor for a day or two, in addition to the Terracotta Warriors. The Bell and Drum Towers, and the Muslim Quarter, with its unique Chinese style mosque, were Xi'an's biggest highlights.
Our hotel was located in the center of Xi'an, directly across from the famed Bell Tower. This photo was taken from the rooftop of the equally renowned Drum Tower.

As for the Terracotta Warriors, our highly anticipated visit certainly lived up to all of the hype. The underground life-size army, originally built to protect the tomb of China's first emperor Qin Shi Huang, thoroughly impressed us with their freaky life-like appearance and overwhelmingly detailed facial expressions and attire.
A portion of the army in battle position.A close-up of the terracotta dudes.

The morning sun made for a dramatic effect on these archers, cavalrymen, horses and generals.

An interesting fact we picked up during our visit is that the bodies of the 60,000 strong army were originally cast without heads, as the heads had a tendency to combust in the kilns.

The day trip from Xi'an to the Army was well worth braving the crowds and heat. We were glad that one of the final sites we visited in China was one of the greatest.

A final impression left upon us from Xi'an was the Muslim Quarter. After spending so much time in Muslim countries earlier in the year, we were excited to visit the Great Mosque and witness the blend of Chinese and Arab culture. The mosque was built in the Chinese architectural tradition, with the primary minaret taking the shape of a pagoda. We found it quite bizarre to see Arab script engraved on a structure with classic Chinese design.

An archway leading from the entrance to the prayer hall.

Prayer time

Leaving Xi'an was both sad and exciting. It was the final stop on our journey through mainland China, so we knew our time was up. Having said that, the idea of new cultures and better air quality got us excited to pack up and head for Macau!

The midnight view from our Xi'an hotel room overlooking The Bell Tower.

Coming soon on Donkey Crossing:
We've come a long way since leaving Xi'an. In upcoming posts you'll read about our week in Macau & Hong Kong, our hot & sweaty time in Bangkok and our arrival to Ladakh, India (sandwiched in the northern tip of the country between the borders of Pakistan and China).

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sacred Sites and Green Scenes: Discovering Shanxi Province

Although we got hooked by the buzz of Beijing, after two weeks we were ready to brave a sweaty, overcrowded train ride to see more of China. Our next destination was Datong, a large city in Shanxi province. Datong boasted most of the urban characteristics of Beijing, including smog, heavy industry and droves of Chinese people, but lacked anything you could call charm. However, we were there to visit two reportedly jaw dropping sights, the Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Caves, so we were unfazed by Datong's lack of aesthetic appeal.

This Datong entrepreneur had a charcoal grill welded to the back of his bike, catering to any passerby with a taste for cheap grilled meat.

We first visited the famed "Hanging Monastery", which clung to the side of Heing Shan, a sacred Taoist mountain. We joined the crowds gazing upwards at it from Jinlong Canyon valley, marvelling at the precarious structure, shored up with wooden stilts. It didn't look entirely stable, but we were not dissuaded from venturing into the sacred site to explore.

The "Hanging Monastery" from solid ground below.

Originally, the monastery was built further down the side of the cliff, but the whole structure was later raised up, out of the way of flood waters. While we had every confidence in this unusual feat of engineering, we did wonder why nobody was keeping track of the number of visitors walking around the monastery. Surely there is a maximum capacity? Evidently it wasn't reached while we were up there.

One of the monastery's many stilted temples.

Back on the bus, we headed to the Yungang Caves. The man made caves, chiseled out of sandstone cliffs 1,500 years ago, contain more than 51,000 statues of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas as well as musical instruments, dragons and pagodas. The caves are a favorite with pilgrims and visitors alike, and have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This cave features a 'Thousand Buddhas' motif, with each tiny Buddha statue carefully carved and painted.

The giant Buddha pictured here resides in one of the oldest caves. The holes in the stonework once held wooden pegs onto which a clay covering was applied. The clay and pegs have been victims of time and the elements, so only the holes remain.

Cave 18 is one of the most memorable, containing this stunning crowned Bodhisattva. The stonework is incredible, and this cave has been beautifully preserved.

These pilgrims place three lighted incense sticks in front of a seated Buddha.

A few moments by the lily pond after a long day of monastery & cave exploration.

Back at our extremely Chinese hotel in Datong, we signed ourselves up for foot massages. Jason was looking forward to having his feet rubbed by a young Asian masseuse, and seemed rather surprised when a burly masseur with a squint sat at his feet and started rubbing. My masseur was even scarier - a middle aged pot bellied Chinese gentleman, wearing a white vest, boxer shorts and flip flops. The two chatted and joked in Mandarin throughout our 'treatments', but certainly put plenty of effort into their thorough massaging. Every so often we heard them moving phlegm around the back of their throats, and expected them to spit on the floor, true to Chinese form. They refrained from doing so until after the massage, which we thought was rather polite.

After about 30 minutes, our masseurs turned their attention to our shins, calves and hamstrings. The leg massage turned out to be more of a battering than a soothing rub - not ideal for legs still recovering from a strenuous hike along the Great Wall. In fact I was so taken aback by the heavy handed leg hammering technique that my foot shot towards my masseur's throat, completely involuntarily. Thankfully it didn't reach him, and nor did a string of expletives I suppressed by biting my lip. He must have got the message though, as he didn't spend more than 30 seconds on my tender legs. In spite of the leg hammering finale, the experience was well worth the $5 each we paid for it.

The next day we boarded a bus bound for Wutai Shan, a region of five holy peaks. The 'short journey' turned into a seven hour ride due to bus breakdown. While the bus was being fixed, we made friends with a lovely young Chinese couple, which more than made up for the delay. By the time we reached Wutai Shan, having driven through miles of stunning misty mountain scenery, the bus breakdown was all but forgotten.

The scenic green valleys around the five holy peaks of Wutai Shan

Arriving at Wutai Shan with Jia Jia, one of our new Chinese friends. His wife, Yu, took this photo.

Our accommodation in Wutai Shan turned out to be even more Chinese than our hotel in Datong. In fact, the management of the Wtshrine Hotel were so unaccustomed to foreign guests that the check-in process took over an hour. The language barrier proved to be just about insurmountable throughout our stay, and in spite of some creative and valiant attempts on our part, our communication efforts basically failed. Concepts including, but not limited to, "this toilet leaks, please fix it," "we need sheets on the bed," "our room is filthy," and "please deduct the deposit we paid from our bill," were returned with blank looks, whichever way we tried to convey them.

Breakfast also proved to be an interesting event at Wtshrine. Each morning we were served a typical Chinese breakfast of pickled cucumber rind, millet porridge, fermented bean curd with chili sauce, steamed buns, deep fried dough sticks and eggs hard boiled in brown water.
To be fair, what our hotel lacked in amenities it made up for in authenticity. We truly felt like we'd made it off the beaten path. Furthermore, the gorgeous mountainous area of Wutai Shan exceeded our expectations. We spent our first day there exploring some of the holy buildings and soaking in the atmosphere.

Pagodas at Shancai Dong, one of the many temples in Wutai Shan.

This stupa at Tayuan temple is Wutai Shan's most distinctive monument to Buddhism. Along with hundreds of pilgrims, we spun the prayer wheels at the base of the stupa.

Sedan chairs are available for hire for those who fancy playing Emperor for a day, or just don't feel like walking.

One reason for venturing to Wutai Shan was to hike into the hills, beyond the reach of China's ubiquitous crowds. After an hour of climbing uphill, the sound of horns being honked in the village began to fade, and we were finally alone, for the first time since arriving in China. We savored the peace, quiet and solitude as much as the breathtaking scenery.

Prayer flags can be seen all over Wutai Shan, even on remote hillsides. We were very fortunate not only to find solitude, but also to see blue skies. At this time of year, visibility is notoriously bad, but an early morning downpour cleared the skies for us.

This stupa is located on a particularly pleasant peak, overlooking the village. It was a great place to pause and reflect.

Sanquan Temple sits serenely on a hillside surrounded by beautiful wild flowers. With such a stunning setting, it is not surprising that Wutai Shan is considered a holy place for Buddhists.

After a couple of hours of hot, hard hiking we reached a summit, from where we could see all five of Wutai Shan's famed holy peaks, and the temples on top of each of them.

We exchanged pleasantries with three locals on our way back to the village. At least, we extended some pleasantries to them. We have no idea what they were saying to us!

After our hike, we feasted on spicy tofu, bamboo sprouts, fried rice, steamed greens, chicken with potatoes and Tsingtao beer. We managed to procure everything on the table using a bizarre mixture of sign language (including the chicken dance), pointing and, of course, big smiles.

Bon appetit!

Stay tuned to Donkey Crossing for the final installment of our adventures in China.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Braving the Heat and Mania
of China's Forbidden City & The Great Wall

A trip to China is not complete without a visit to the Forbidden City and The Great Wall. The two most popular attractions in the Beijing area, we braved the high season crowds and spent a couple steamy days immersed in ancient Chinese history.

The Forbidden City, named so because it was off limits for over 500 years, was the luxurious residence for the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is located directly across from Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing. The Forbidden City is home to dozens of ornate palaces and impressive halls which kept us occupied for an entire day.

Taking a break from the crowds with the Hall of Union in the background.

The classic Chinese architecture never failed to impress with every corner we turned.

No matter which attraction we've visited in China, the number of Chinese tourist groups has been overwhelming. Observing the herds of Chinese on vacation, in all their cigarette smoking, pop-sock wearing glory has been interesting and even mildly entertaining at times. Every group has a leader equipped with a megaphone and easily recognizable banner on a short stick. Some leaders get creative attaching flowers, kites or umbrellas to their banners. We certainly won't miss the banner toting tour groups when we leave China.
This guide was charging ahead with his group before a storm drenched the Forbidden City.

Look! Look! Who is it? Brad Pitt? Yao Ming? No,...'s an ancient Ming throne!The unique masonry surrounding the halls and gorgeous yellow roof tiles make the Forbidden City's physical characteristics just as impressive as it's historical significance.

We spent a sweltering day at the Forbidden City, walking through the former temples, libraries, gardens and living quarters of the former dynastic rulers of China. Not unlike the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, we would recommend checking out this attraction in the crisp and cool low season, rather than during the sweaty days of summer.
Although just as popular as a visit to the Forbidden City, The Great Wall offers more options for getting away from a mainstream tourist site. Most visitors on a package holiday to China visit the Badaling section of The Great Wall, which is 70km from Beijing. We were told this part of the wall is overflowing with souvenir stalls and touts offering guide services. Looking for something a bit more adventurous, we opted to hike 10km along the wall from Jinshanling to Simatai.
We didn't find ourselves completely alone, but were able to enjoy the wall without too many distracting crowds or touts.

One of the most impressive aspects of The Great Wall is the gorgeous, green countryside in which it resides.

The grandiose structure careens around the highest part of each mountain it covers.

The day we chose to do the hike along the wall was well over 90 degrees with blazing sunshine. It was the first time we saw blue skies since we arrived to China and a welcome change from the smoggy haze of Beijing. It did, however, make for a fairly challenging trek through the midday sun. We thoroughly enjoyed the sweaty exertion!

Here we are before another steep ascent on the Jinshanling-Simatai route.

The ruinous condition of the route on this particular part of the wall can be quite treacherous. The steep, slick terrain is certainly for those accustomed to a hearty walk.

At the end of the four hour hike all we wanted was a cold beverage and...
...a ride to the bottom on "The Flying Fox"! Here's Rachel all strapped in and ready to fly.

There she goes!

The couple days we spent at the Forbidden City and The Great Wall certainly lived up to all childhood visions and previous expectations. While the intense heat and ubiquitous high season crowds convinced us to come during a different season next time around, they also assisted in making our visits very memorable experiences.

Next on Donkey Crossing: We finally leave Beijing after two weeks and head toward some of China's most important Buddhist sites: The Yungang Caves, Hanging Monastery and the five holy peaks of Wutai Shan.