Tuesday, November 1, 2011


呼和浩特 Hohhot

I'm afraid that if you're reading this blog in hopes of exotic places or beautiful scenes on par with my previous blog posts, you should stop now. This final blog post about Inner Mongolia will match the reality of our final day: not quite as cool as the days before. The Gobi desert is difficult to upstage.

Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, is not terribly different from most other cities its size in China. It retains small areas of charm in an increasingly meager old city and a few preserved temples, but most things have been torn up to make way for wider roads and huge skyscrapers. We enjoyed wandering around for a while, but one day was satisfactory.

Below you can see old and new posing nicely for me. Cars around the temples, and (pictured below) construction sites strategically dug around historic buildings and minor temple complexes provide an excellent visual summary of China's current state of development.

The best part of our time there was actually part of Hohhot's newest developments. We saw the Inner Mongolia Museum, and despite the bland title, it's the best museum I've seen in China. And that's a not a small number.

First of all, it's enormous and well-designed. The museum is probably about as big as the New Parliament House in Canberra, which I say because it looks oddly similar too.) The inside was even more impressive though. Among other things, it has a mind-blowing collection of dinosaur bones. I couldn't help thinking how big of a splash it would make in the US, compared with crowd-drawers like Sue the T-Rex or King Tut's tomb collection.

There were also many lovely Mongolian crafts and cultural artifacts, exhibits on the natural environment, history, and current development of the area. All in all, if you've got one day in Hohhot, spend at least half here.

That's all, until my next adventure.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Claire de Lune

The Gobi Desert

The Earth is not a Cold Dead Place

Explosions in the Sky

I’ve never been in a desert before, at least not without some ruins or other feature that was the focus of my attention at the time. It was far more impressive than I expected, and I’d expected impressive sights. There was also more life than I’d thought there would be. Besides the camels that some of our group rode out on the second day…

…there were also little lizards, beetles leaving veined tracks in the sand, and plenty of shrubs and grass.

We spent the night camping in the desert, which was the best decision we made the entire trip. Not only did we see the sunset…

…and sunrise…

…but the stars as well. You really can’t see the stars at all in Shanghai, so this was especially wonderful. The title of this blog post is particularly appropriate because the moon was unbelievably bright. Flashlights were unnecessary, since you could easily find your way under the moonlight. I didn't think to take a picture at night, but you can see the moon even in this early morning shot:

We could often see efforts to combat desertification:

My strongest memory is of the enormous beauty of the desert. It is easily my favorite place to have traveled in China.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


希拉穆仁草原 Xilamuren Grasslands

First stop was the grasslands. We just took a day trip here. In the area we saw, the grasslands were very dry, with winds that swept the dirt and dust into the air.

On our way we saw the mountains from our bus window, and I snapped a quick picture while at a rest stop.

Once in the grasslands, we had the opportunity to ride horses if we liked, but we declined in favor of walking around. (I asked the woman in charge if we could ride fast. Her immediate response was, “No.”)

The people in the area obviously raise cattle, so as we meandered we passed cows and horses kept within loose wire fences.

The grasslands were beautiful, if in a rather brittle way. The wide open blue sky - a feature of all of Inner Mongolia, so far as we could tell – was absolutely dazzling though. I already miss it.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


Inner Mongolia

Happy National Holiday, everyone! This past week two friends and I went to Inner Mongolia for our October break. Inner Mongolia is a province of China, just south of the independent country of Mongolia.

An arid province, Inner Mongolia is usually known for its horse-riding, yurt-living nomadic peoples roaming the beautiful grasslands. We were lucky enough to see horses, yurts, the grasslands, and much more.

Inner Mongolia has had Han immigration for centuries, so the population is actually about 80% Han Chinese, and about 20% ethnic Mongolian. Since most of the population is Han Chinese, we didn’t have any trouble getting around with our Mandarin. Many people also spoke to each other in Mongolian though, and Mongolian script was everyone. It’s really beautiful, as you can see below:

(In Mongolia, because of Russian influence, they use Cyrillic to write Mongolian.)

Under Genghis Khan and then his grandson Kublai Khan, the Mongolian empire (Yuan dynasty) was established. Though we tend to remember Genghis Khan for his cruel wartime tactics, Mongolians tend to remember him as a unifier. Pictures of a benevolent-looking Genghis Khan are everywhere:

Mongolia has also been heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, which we could see in the Buddhist temples and Tibetan prayer flags everywhere.

And, in case you're curious, Mongolian food is heavy on potatoes, mutton, and dairy products, all of which we ate in abundance. It’s cold there!, and high-calorie food was just the ticket.

On our trip, we saw the grasslands:


And Hohhot, provincial capital:

Details to come.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Chiang Mai, Mountain Retreat

Trip to Thailand Part Three of Three

(Apologies for this much-delayed last post. The Chinese government blocked the program I was using to get around the Great Firewall. I bought a new program for my birthday though, so I am back in business!)

The last part of our trip took us to the mountains of Northern Thailand to the 2nd biggest city,Chiang Mai. Of all the places we visited, Chiang Mai is the one I could see myself wanting to settle down in for a while. It's a laid back city, with an obviously long history (the city walls and temples from centuries ago still stand and outline the city's structure) and a ton of great activities to choose from. Unlike other places, the focus of Chiang Mai is not sightseeing per se, but rather actively participating in various ventures. You can go on hill treks to see the waterfalls or forested mountains, learn to take care of elephants, spend an afternoon, a day, or even a week learning how to cook Thai food, or visit the ethnic minority hill tribes, some of whom still maintain their lifestyles in villages up north.

We narrowed down our list of priorities to go see some of Chiang Mai's most famous temples, take a day long trek in the mountains, a day long cooking class, and lots of trips to various night markets.

The first thing we did though was visit the Flower Festival. We were lucky enough to have coincidentally planned to be in Chiang Mai for their annual flower festival. Thailand is known for its orchids, and we saw plenty! There were giant moats made of flower, tropical plants of all varieties, and even a shop selling seeds for the ambitious (read: my mom.)

A Buddha made out of flowers.

There were also displays of many other types of plants besides orchids. I thought the cacti were quite attractive.

Of course, like every other Thai city, Chiang Mai has lots of temples, both flashy and new and old and decadent (like the one pictured above.)

I think you could guess that Chiang Mai was my favorite city in Thailand by how picture-heavy it is. Special thanks to Erin for reminding me to post and expressing appreciation for the pictures.

The next day was our trek in the mountains, which included almost everything you can do in the mountains of Thailand, crammed into about 7 hours. We visited an elephant camps and took a brief ride, watched some weaving in Karen and Hmong "villages" (more like a small market really, but that's fine by me,) hiked to a waterfall, and finished the day off with the grand finale of bamboo rafting down a river. It was a fun, if cursory, trip.

This part of Thailand is mountainous and covered in jungle. We were so lucky to be able to relax on the beach and hike in the mountains all in the same vacation.

A rice paddy high in the mountains.

For me, the cooking class was the highlight. We took a trip through an open air market, where we were informed about a number of basic Thai ingredients. Who knew eggplants came in so many varieties?! Then we were off to make 6 different dishes of our choosing. Luckily we got a recipe collection as a souvenir, or I'd never remember the recipes. The food was delicious, of course, and not at all difficult to make. The real difficulty will be finding authentic ingredients, I think. Pad Thai, Coconut Soup, Red Curry - all are things I can make from scratch, if I'm ambitious enough.

Sadly, there aren't any terribly interesting pictures.

Kho Phi Phi, (2/3)

Trip to Thailand, Part Two of Three

Our next leg of the journey took place in the south of Thailand, on the Malay peninsula. We flew into Krabi, a city on the coast, and from there took a combination ferry/boat ride to Phi Phi Island. It's a tourist hot spot, so the pier on Phi Phi was teeming with young, sunburnt Westerners, but our resort was thankfully peaceful and quiet.

We did lots of snorkeling around the various islands. Most of the coral was sadly dead, but the fish were plentiful and colorful. We didn't have an underwater camera, but as my mom points out, the pictures wouldn't have done the sight justice. The fish came in the most amazing spectrum of colors, and we happily spent our mornings with our heads under the water watching them.

Kho Phi Phi was the site of the movie The Beach, chosen for its idyllic, beach-paradise vistas. I've heard the movie is rather awful, but the scenery - as we can vouch for - is fantastic.

The island was uninhabited until the tourism industry arrived though, so there is no town or facilities besides resorts and boat rentals. Everything has to be shipped in from the mainland, so there were always boats coming with supplies and leaving with trash. Below you can see a picture of a boat being unloaded with supplies for a small restaurant next door to our hotel.

And, as always, Buddhism was a constantly in view. In general, Thais are devoutly religious, and you can see temples and shrines everywhere. Most buildings have a smaller "house" built outside for spirits to reside in. Some are more elaborate than others, but I think my favorite was our hotel's (pictured below.)

Beautiful Bangkok (1/3)

Trip to Thailand, Part One of Three

สวัสดีค่ะ! (Hello!) This year for my Chinese New Year break I headed to Thailand with my mom. I'd had Thailand recommended by many people for its accessibility, diversity of activities, friendly people, and delicious food. Thailand did not disappoint on any count; in fact, I'm beginning to think I chose the wrong Asian country to live in.

We started our trip in Bangkok, which sounded rather intimidating to me, but since we stayed in the older, more laid back area, we had a lovely time. Our hotel was adorable and within walking distance of the places we wanted to see.

First up was the Chatuchak market - 6,000 stalls and counting. It was shoppers paradise. We had only just arrived, and lots more trekking around the country to do, so we didn't buy much. Instead we walked around, marveling at the beautiful goods and delicious food.

I could write odes to Thailand's food. It is just incredibly delicious, and will be my go-to answer if anyone asks me my favorite type of food in the near future. Pad Thai is just the tip of the iceberg. We ate mostly from street carts during our stay, and will sorely miss them when we leave.

(A Tuk-Tuk, ubiquitous three wheeled golf cart masquerading as a taxi. They're fun, if you're ok with the potential for adventure.)

In Bangkok we also visited the Grand Palace - easily the most beautiful site we saw, in my opinion. It's terribly touristy outside, with friendly-seeming Thais approaching you to helpfully inform you that the Palace is closed for the morning, but they'd be happy to show you around elsewhere (like a fake gem market.) Luckily we were well informed of the scams before we went.

That didn't hurt our impression of Thai people though. The vast majority are incredibly friendly and helpful. "Land of Smiles" indeed.