Thursday, August 25, 2016

Weird mornings on Market St, part N

Parked my bike outside Equator Coffee by 5th and Market. Locked it and got a seat looking out the window so I could watch it in case someone was trying to steal it. Lo and behold, not 5 minutes after I sat down, a couple guys were standing around it, eyeing it suspiciously. I was trying not to Nextdoor* them, but I started making eye contact, and they were like "is this your bike?"

*racially profile

Turns out the one guy had his bike seat stolen, and it was a black and white Novara seat. My seat is a black and white Novara seat, on a not-Novara bike. It's probably a $10 seat, that I got from my friends Iris and Jim in Pittsburgh because Jim had taken it off his bike. Then, when I bought my bike, it had a leather saddle, which is cool but doesn't do well in the rain, so I took it off my bike and put on this Novara seat. So, weird story, and he was convinced I had either stolen his seat or bought it off a guy.

Dude calls cops. Ok, I got nowhere to be, I can wait for the cops. But A. cops are going to take forever to show up for a small bike part theft (and I don't blame em, really) and B. how the hell am I even going to prove it's my seat? I start texting Iris, who can back me up, I guess. I mean, it's better proof than this guy has.

And like, I don't even care about this seat! But the cops are called. And his story checks out; he has another bike seat with him; says he was going to put it on my bike, so at least I've got a seat. I'm eyeing his extra bike seat, which is also worth about $10, and I'm like "want to just trade?"

So we do. Go down to a local shop, borrow some tools, trade the seats, and we're all happy. Hell, his new one (plain black) looks better than my old black and white one, on my bike, anyway. I'm pretty sure he's actually legit, despite my first inclinations with randos on Market St, because if he's running a scam it's the weirdest/dumbest scam of all time.

Strange morning. Anyway, counter-story to the typical Market St Rando story: not everyone is a terrible bike thief? Sometimes a guy who has some crazy story about his bike seat is actually telling the truth? I'm not sure what to learn about this, except that I feel like I did a Good Deed, and that feels good?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

On being a taker

Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, is this book where a telepathic gorilla (Ishmael) explains the history of humanity. One crucial point happens around the introduction of agriculture. You've got everyone running around, nomadic hunting-gathering, and then some people figure out how to grow and store food, and this split happens. Some people settle down and grow crops; Ishmael calls them "takers." Some people keep hunting-gathering and nomading, Ishmael calls them "leavers." The leavers really have better lives: they eat healthier food, live longer, live in the moment and don't worry so much, don't have issues of hierarchy or power. But the takers are better able to survive as a society, live through famines, make weapons, so slowly the nomads are forced out of their land and die off, and nowadays 99.9% of people are descendants of the takers.

Importantly, Ishmael means the words "taker" and "leaver" to be value neutral. He could have called them group A and group B, but that implies one is "first." He's just trying to say, here are two groups, they differ in this one big way. (Still seems a little loaded to me but I'm going to run with the terms anyway.)

Now, modern day. Obviously we're not choosing to use agriculture or not. But I feel like we do still have a basic choice in life: to take or leave the deal that's been handed to us. Taking tends to include some variety of a career, family, "normal American life." Leaving has all kinds of forms: traveling full time, starting your own business (outside the VC world), becoming a monk, whatever. (Of course, there are degrees to this too, and you can Take in some ways and Leave in others. Plus, it all depends on your upbringing; if you grow up a monk, then staying a monk would be taking, I guess.)

Now I'm 30, and I've decided, slowly over ~10 years, that I'm a taker. This isn't something I necessarily expected; sometimes I thought I'd be a full time traveler or move to Nepal, sometimes I thought I might not ever get married, and I had (still have!) a running understanding with my friend Ram that one of us may one day drop everything and go live in a cave on a mountain. But taking is the best thing for me now.

And it's not a decision that happens quickly; it's a series of slow decisions that I've all consciously decided. Yeah, I'll be happiest and most helpful if I join the corporate world, after a stint in the academic one. Definitely married, and with that, gonna have a family. Not going to be a monk. Not even going to be a full time artist.

Respect to the leavers! If anything, I find leavers cooler than takers. If you can make your own separate peace, whether that's through punk zines or religion or hippie communes whatever else, and you're not hurting anyone, power to you.

But respect to the takers too. My skills, abilities, and preferences mean I'm probably going to do better taking than leaving. And taking doesn't mean I'm cool with the world overall; there are many (many!) systemic problems. But for my individual self and life, I've got to decide to take it or leave it, and I'm taking it.

(Perhaps the most interesting point in this, to me, is that I felt compelled to write it. Like I've got to justify why I'm a taker when I think leavers are cool and the world is full of big problems.)

Friday, August 12, 2016

A couple logistickey things about costs and gear

Costs of some things:

A double hotel room, not fancy but clean, usually with bathroom, in a not-dumb location: $20 (small towns) to $40 (big cities)
Hostel bed: $4-15 (the low end can be pretty dank (as in socks, not as in memes))

Meal of noodles, baozi, dumplings, or something else at a little joint on the street: $1-2
Meal at a sit down restaurant with a menu: $4-8
Hot pot or other fancy meal for two: $20-30
Watery Chinese beer: $1.50-2.50. But at a bar it's not just "buy yourself a beer"; you buy like 6 or 12 for table then drink shots of it. You may drink a lot of beer quickly, but it's probably OK because a lot of the beers are 3% ABV.
German or Belgian beer in a fancy bar: $5-8, and then you sit there with one beer for yourself you selfish antisocial goober
Tea: you usually can't even buy this, it comes with the meals and is green and weak.
Tea at a teahouse: $2-3. Yesterday I tried to buy tea with fruit and sugar at an outside teahouse and she said "yi bei, er shi", which means "one cup, ¥20 (about $3)." But I thought she said "yi bai er shi" which means "¥120 (about $20)." So I made a face and said how that's too expensive and got a beer instead. I'm wondering what she thought of the whole thing.
Coffee: $4-7 (or $33 at that bizarro-world drug front coffee shop we ran into) By the way, the best coffee shops in Western China, based on my extensive survey, are Xiangcheng Coffee in Shangri-la, Greenhouse Coffee in Xining, and Let's Grind in Chengdu.

Entrance fees: significant! Yading and Kanbula were both $40. Lots of others for things like Yubeng, Zhangye Danxia, the pandas in Chengdu, Songzanglin monastery in Shangri-la, that Qinghai Lake tourist trap, and some frickin' gorge in the middle of nowhere outside Xiahe where some goons set up a ticket booth were in the $10-15 range. I mean, they've got you over a little bit of a barrel because it's clearly worth it, but be sure to budget for these.

All day bus (e.g. Chengdu to Zoige, or Shangri-la to Daocheng): $20
21-hour train, hard sleeper (which is not "hard", really, it just means that there are 3 bunks, not 2): $45
2 hour express train: $15
Hiring a car and driver for a day: $70-100
Gas: $6/gallon

A nice thermos: $15
A nice scarf: $15
Cheap baijiu (liquor): $1 for a 6-oz bottle with a beer bottle cap
Expensive baijiu (Moutai is the one brand I know): $200 for a big bottle
Cheap Pu-erh tea: $0.15 for a one-serving rock
Expensive Pu-erh tea: remember those old ads for K'nex? "If you can imagine it, you can build it"? Well, if you can imagine it, you can pay it for Pu-erh tea.
Is Pu-erh tea really The Best? I mean, up to you, but sure, in the way that caviar is The Best but so is peanut butter.
Clothes: not way cheaper than the US. You could pay $20 for a shirt or pair of pants that are probably like a step down from Gap. You can get amazing sayings on it though, so point, China.

Some more thoughts about gear:

Phone: we are clearly in the age of the smartphone. (This is not a given. 5 years ago we were not.) So glad I didn't bring a computer.

Coats: if you're going to China in July and August, you don't need two down layers. I still like my current plan of rain jacket shell + down jacket + down vest for when it's really cold, but God it was 80 degrees for 90% of this trip, I really could have skipped the vest.

Toiletries: I thought I was really clever by packing one toothpaste for the both of us. Guys, don't do dumb micro-optimizations like this. Just bring two lil' toothpastes.
I brought one 4oz and one 2oz bottle of contact solution (ssh, don't tell the TSA). That was the perfect amount. Or really, the perfect amount is, get Lasik like Tati and bring no contacts.

Oh my god Towels. Maybe bring a towel? For the first half of the trip we mostly got towels included; the second half, I often didn't. It should be a law that a guesthouse gives you a towel: look, guys, you launder your sheets, just launder towels too. There's no way I should have to carry this. But anyway, especially if you're super-budgeting it, maybe bring one of those REI-ish super-towels.

Socks: I'm finally kinda happy with the Smartwool PhD like quarter-length socks. They still make my feet too hot but not wayyy too hot so that's nice. It might be just finally going shorter than crew-length. Added bonus: they pack smaller.

Amount of clothes: I'm updating my recommendations to 3 T-shirts and 4 pairs of socks. Socks are so small and sometimes you really need new ones. Shirts, you don't need new ones as badly. (also, 2 pairs of pants, one button-down shirt, 2-3 underwears, and whatever coats you need. these numbers all include the one you wear on the plane.)

Shoes: Got these Salomon something something light hiking shoes that are waterproof and breathable and blah blah but what I really dig is that they have this drawstring doober instead of laces! I can very easily leave them loose and very easily tighten or loosen them. Never tying anything again. Love it.

Vacuum packing bag: I finally tried one. I think it saved me space? It's kinda neat? It also takes up a little space itself? The jury's out.

Kindle: wow, when I have infinite podcasts and infinite Ascension (video game) it turns out I read zero. Welp.

Chinese Phrasebook: didn't actually need this - Google Translate has it covered, and even when it makes you say something that doesn't really make sense, it still kinda makes sense.

Medicines you might need: only bring a bunch of medicines if you'll be real rural. If you get sick in a city, worry not, just go into the pharmacy and describe stuff (Google translatin' like a boss), and they'll hand you three drugs: one will be western-looking (maybe even a name you recognize), one will look like Skittles and have plants on the box, and the third one's a wild card, could be Western or plant skittles. Take 'em all as the pharmacist says (they'll cost $6 total), and something will work. Not sure which.

Plug adapters: you probably don't even need these! Every Chinese plug I saw can take the standard American two-pronged plug (in addition to others). If something has a 3-pronged plug, then bring a 3-to-2 adapter, but you're probably only bringing plugs for your phone so you'll probably be fine.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Let's talk about Chinese food more

Someone asked me "what's your favorite Chinese food" and I was really kind of puzzled. What IS it? Like, maybe baozi (steamed buns)? But that's so unfair to lots of way more interesting foods. I hate picking favorites; I want to eat every food.

They were also talking to me about the "northerners eat noodles, southerners eat rice" thing, and I realized, oh yeah, I _have_ been noticing way more noodle joints (and wonton, and dumpling, and baozi) since getting north of Chengdu. Anyway, point to the Northerners; nothing against rice, but they make some amazing noodley things.

Speaking of which: short history of some noodles. So Lanzhou, Gansu became known for its Muslim beef noodles, or niu rou mian. This is fine. However, in nearby Qinghai, there was an area called Hualong, which used to make a bunch of guns. (They started making guns a few decades ago, when Mao and his revolutionaries sent all the gun makers out to this faraway place because they didn't want gun makers all over the place.) But then they started sending guns to criminals (because, who wants guns?) so the new government wanted to get Hualong some other industry. So they started training them to make niu rou mian. Clearly, not quite as well as the Lanzhou folks, but whatever; the industry flourished and they started exporting niu rou mian shops around the country, and now most niu rou mian is second-rate knockoff Hualong stuff. I met a reporter named Chris who's doing a story about this and other intricacies that come in when you dig into the noodle world; fascinating stuff. (And Chris, sorry if I messed up details here. Readers, I'll try to remember to come back here and link to his full story when it's published in a few months if I can remember.)

Folks in Gansu/Qinghai have a way of making lamb. I think it's a Hui (roughly, Chinese Muslim but not Uighur) thing. On menus I've seen it something like "boiled lamb" ... which sounds terrible, but it's really good. More for tenderness than taste - but you can add flavor by dipping it in these spices that are also really good.

Aged vinegar is a thing I haven't noted much about yet. It's everywhere. There's always a thing of red pepper and a thing of aged vinegar on the table. This is awesome. It's savory and tangy and good on just about everything.

Tibetan food gets dumped on a lot, and it's true, I wouldn't rank it among the world's great cuisines. But they've got a few high points. A lot of them are the breads. Not only the qing ke bing (highland barley cake) that Tati and I have grown to love, but also just a bunch of different breads that probably have names that I don't know. They're great kinda in the way that naan or pita is great, not like French or Italian or German bread.

Fuqifeipian, or "Husband and wife lung slices", named after a husband and wife who used to sell lung slices. (luckily, not their own.) Now it tends to be all sorts of organ meats, spicy Sichuan style. Totally great.

Another standout: liang pi, or a cold noodley thing. I'm not sure quite what it is besides kinda chewy wide noodles that are cold and spicy. (About time; everything else here is piping hot.)

Let me know if there's any iconic Sichuan dishes I ought to be cooking or trying. (or Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan, or Tibetan, really, but I'm going to be focusing on Sichuan.)

Monday, August 08, 2016

What's up in Xining

Xining is neat. It's ~2 million people, putting it on par with Pittsburgh or Cleveland (metro). So, tiny by Chinese standards. Here's a mash of thoughts about it and areas or things I liked:

The Tibetan Medicine Museum. I found this way more interesting than the average museum, for two reasons:

1. all these old medical and astronomical charts. When it comes to writing stuff down, Tibet goes big, not home. So they try to codify everything they know about medicine, and it's 60 volumes, 78 chapters, 60 million words. I mean, and we're not even getting into their religious stuff. This kind of baffles me - how is the rest of the world not all bowing down to their medical knowledge superiority? I'm assuming, with my casual built-in Western chauvinism, that maybe _some_ of those 60 million words are unnecessary. Like, maybe in Tibetan medicine, conciseness is just not a virtue, so if you write the same thing in chapter 71 that someone else wrote in chapter 32, no worries. More darkly, maybe it's an academia syndrome, where all those monks had to do something to prove that they're smart and not wasting time, so they just kept writing. I'm harsh on them because I've been frustrated by their religious writings too; if it takes 100 billion words to understand existence and your mind, then might as well give up. Isn't there a faster track to it? But I digress. It's neat to see.
 This is one book! It's about 6 feet across and 2 feet tall.

Tibetan skeletons: even creepier than Western ones

Here's the 60 volume compilation.

2. The Giant Thangka (Tibetan painting). This thangka, the world's longest, is literally 600 meters long. They say it contains all the history of Tibet, and as I walked along I was like, ok, first king, second king, etc, 27th king, cool, now here's Buddha, ok, life of Buddha, ok, ... and then I figured they'd get into the Dalai Lamas or something. Nope! Way off the rails! There's about 400 meters of various deity-looking creatures with names like Abhiyatsangkhavidayachakra who has 28 arms and is stomping on babies while breathing fire. Interspersed with some abstract diagrams that say something like "the deity of universal truth" but look like an intricate Parcheesi board. Remember how Tibetans aren't known for conciseness? They go big, not home, and I can admire that. (though I'm glad I don't have to study it!)

Xining is close to the outdoors so you can go to Qinghai Lake or Kanbula or all sorts of other
beautiful spots, that's cool.

You know how Pittsburgh is 2 or 3 million people and all single-family homes? Xining is all high-rises and mid-rises. Even as a small city. I appreciate that. Still doesn't feel crowded!

My view

It's moderately easy to get around. Moderately. It's got only buses, no subway, and is occasionally really pedestrian-hostile. Like, instead of a crosswalk they'll have a bridge over the road. Or a terrible mazelike underpass! To say nothing of the cars who do not give a good goddamn. And guess what: traffic's still bad! But it's small enough that I can walk to most places I want to go.

Xiadu Dajie. This street is just one after another, cool bar or coffee shop. I could live on this street. (and some days, kinda did.)

Wenhua Jie and nearby, it looks like, north of Dong Dajie, is where more people go out though. It's funny, bars and cafes are all clustered in bar/cafe areas.

I'm near Mojia Jie, which is I guess a "market street"? But we're in China, so this doesn't seem to distinguish it from a lot of other streets. Eh, it's central anyway.

I'd give more info about the place, but who here is going to Xining, anyway? Eh, hit me up if you are, I'll dish on where to get a good baozi or the best gin and tonic I've ever had (surprisingly enough).

The parks are cool. Central Park has a bunch of people dancing in different ways. Xining's People's Park has nothing on Chengdu's People's Park: Xining's is half amusement park and gaudy tchotchke shops.

If you're around here and you think you hear bombs or gunshots, don't worry, it's just someone setting off fireworks to commemorate their new store opening or something. Loud as nuts, though.

Woof, and it's hot. Mid to high 80s and sunny all week. Drier than Chengdu though.

I feel this trip winding down: I have kinda one last jaunt of traveling: one day in Zhangye, one day in Lanzhou, one day on a train, like half a day in Chengdu, and back to home! It's nice to alternate some moving fast with some sticking around in the same place. And it's all easy from here: see a couple tourist sites, eat some Lanzhou beef noodles, run around Chengdu for a day, hop on a dumb flight back. (via Paris. No, that is not the quickest way back. So it goes.)

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Some Helpful Tips for Traveling in Western China

(Particularly Kham and Amdo, where we've spent most of our time, aka parts of Yunnan Sichuan Gansu and Qinghai)
(also feedback is welcome, help me fill this out)

Where I've been and am most qualified to give advice about: Kunming, Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Feilai si, Shangri-la/Zhongdian, Yubeng, Daocheng, Yading, Litang, Kangding, Chengdu, Langmusi, Xiahe/Labrang, Tongren/Rebkong/Rongwo, Xining, Kanbula, Zhangye, Lanzhou

Learn Chinese! This trip was more language-intensive than I think anywhere else I've been. If you're in Germany, say, everyone knows English. In a place like Korea, a lot of signs are English and you can usually app your way around. But China's a mega culture of its own, and while there's a lot of English signage, and many English speakers, I think it'd be really hard without knowing any Chinese.
I did Pimsleur lessons 1-90, which were mostly good. Practice listening and speaking is crucial, because it's what you'll do the most. Their context is kind of dumb - they always assume you're an American businessman in China to do business - but it's maybe 2/3 useful and 1/3 business fluff. I also tried this app Skrittr, which was good for learning characters - not as crucial as the speaking, but very useful to at least be able to identify maybe 50 or 100 characters.

Phone: get a phone! Or, a sim card. Or, get Project Fi which has reasonable prices overseas. (Maybe t mobile too?) This seems really essential. A common occurrence:
Me: huh, I'm at the address of the guesthouse, or at least close, where is it?
(Calls guesthouse, lots of Chinese ensues, which I don't understand, but I manage to say where I am)
(5 minutes pass)
Someone from the guesthouse: oh hi! Are you Mr. Dan? (Shows me phone convo record to authenticate himself) follow me!
(We go around a corner, into an alley, up an elevator, across a way, up another elevator to the 32nd floor, into someone's apartment that has been converted into a guesthouse.)
Seriously. Things are not so walk-in here.

The Land of Snows
The Adventures of Jonas
These two are the two best English sources I've found for the whole region. Especially Land of Snows - everyone reads it, and Lobsang, the writer, can even answer questions if you email him. Jonas is more under the radar, but has lived in the area for a long time and writes really great bits about places to get you excited about places you didn't know much.
Other solid blogs that have helped me here and there:
China Nomads
To Go Back
Bamboo Compass

ATMs: I think the only ones that work with foreign cards are Bank of China, ICBC, and China Construction Bank. ATMs from these big 3 are in all big, medium, and small cities, but not very-small cities. So Feilai si, Yubeng, Litang, and Langmusi were lacking them, the rest had them.

WeChat (it's the Chinese SMS, WhatsApp, and Facebook. Everyone is on it. Easier than phoning even.)
Ctrip (for booking trains) (for hotels, better than Ctrip's selection)
Airbnb (it's getting pretty popular; often guesthouses just use it to advertise, but whatever, you found a place to sleep.)
Uber (works here! even better: if you have the Chinese characters for where you're going, you can copy paste them into the Uber app, and then you don't have to explain to the driver where you're going)
Pleco (draw a Chinese character and it can tell you what it is)
Google Translate (and download the offline Chinese language pack) - this does photo translation too which is occasionally super baller. It also does draw-a-character but whatever I like Pleco. (best offline maps I've found, though I've heard good things about Galileo too. That's a caveat - it uses OpenStreetMap, which is still not quite Google Maps quality, but getting surprisingly close! Make sure to download the China provinces you're visiting for offline access)
Baidu Maps (all Chinese, but useful for copy-pasting an address sometimes)
A VPN or three - usually the VPN provider will have their own app.
Anything else you might need! China blocking Google means that the Google Play Store won't work unless you're on VPN. So make sure to download all your apps just in case your VPN isn't working.
Other online helps: China DIY Travel helped me book a train at one point.

VPNs: you need at least one of these. China blocks all sorts of sites (incl Google, Facebook), but if you've got a VPN going, then instead of you asking for, say,, you ask some rando computer in the US, then that computer asks for, and sends the website back to you. China doesn't see you asking for, it sees you asking for some rando computer in the US, so it doesn't block you. Sounds complicated, but most VPNs make it pretty easy to set up. The thing is, it's one more thing to fail, and when you're dealing with crummy wifi and poor Edge connections, one more failure sucks. So I have two VPNs (Privateinternetaccess and OpenVPN) and sometimes one works better than the other. Sign up for them (pay them money, usually like $6-10/month), and make sure you get them fully set up before you go - like actually connect to them at least once. If you've got a VPN for your university library or something, don't count on it - turns out my CMU VPN only VPNs traffic to paywalled journals/conferences. Which is useful, but not enough for me in China.

Watch for gouging: on tourist goods and taxi rides. That's the only places I've ever felt ripped off or like you need to bargain. Bargain for tourist stuff, and either agree to a price beforehand or use a meter in a taxi. (Or use Uber!)

Books: two books I really enjoyed were Country Driving by Peter Hessler (about China in 2010ish) and Trespassers on the Roof of the World by Peter Hopkirk (about Tibet in the 1800s)

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Traveling with a purpose beats wandering

I had another post entitled this, but Blogger's Android app, which is hot garbage, ate it. Seriously; it's 2016 and we're making software that loses data? I like how "hot" is now an intensifying adjective for "garbage"; really gives you a visceral sense of how frustrating this is.

Anyway, the post was long, but it's probably good that Blogger ate it because it should be short. All I was really saying is: traveling with a purpose is cool. Traveling without a purpose is less cool. We've got this idea of traveling as vacation, which naturally implies wandering - "I'll go to Hawaii or Thailand or Paris, and then I dunno, good things will happen." But all the coolest travelers I can think of are either working or going there with something in mind - whether it's kitesurfing or visiting an old friend or searching out the best wines.

You want to play the tourist/traveler game? (this is the game where "tourists" are any travelers you don't like, and "travelers" are travelers you do like.) That's the difference: having a purpose or not.

I should mention that touristing, or traveling without a purpose, is about as big a sin as drinking bad coffee - like, I'm not going to get on your case, you're not a Bad Person, you're not even doing a Bad Thing. It's just less cool - you might enjoy traveling more (and you'll get more cred) if you travel with a purpose. But hey, sometimes you need bad coffee, sometimes you like bad coffee, sometimes you want to show up in London and wait for neat things to happen to you. That's ok too.

(I'm just personally tired of purposeless traveling, like I'm tired of bad coffee :)

Kanbula nuts and bolts

If you find yourself in Xining and looking for an adventure, skip Qinghai Lake and go to Kanbula Forest Park. (I mean, or go to Qinghai Lake too, just be sure to rent a car and don't take the bus. Kanbula's easier to have a good time in, if you're by yourself.) This post will attempt to cover all the nuts and bolts to help you get there, because I couldn't find a lot of great English info when I was looking. It's oriented to people googling for Kanbula (or Zhakanbula, or Khambra, as it's also called) - hello googlers! if you have any questions, please leave comments.

Getting there: take a bus to Kanbula from Xining's coach station (right next to the train station). Cost me ¥22.5, and left at 10:30 AM, with other options throughout the day, at 12:00PM and I think 1:30 and maybe another one too? Took about 2.5 hours. The bus arrives in Kanbula town, and a bunch of drivers had vans to take us the last couple of km to the entrance to Kanbula park, for ¥10 each.

Getting back: I don't know exactly when buses go back to Xining. One person told me 10am, one person told me 12:30pm, one told me 11:30am. Who knows, they may all be right. At any rate, it's possible to get back. I think you can also get back the same day, but you should spend a night, it's more fun.

Where are things: the park is around the Lijia reservoir. There's one road that goes around the whole thing. The entrance is at about four o'clock. There are free buses that will take you around this road, counterclockwise usually, and stop at tourist viewpoint sites. There's also a boat that goes across the reservoir (also free); catch it at the first bus stop (around one o'clock on the map) and it takes you near Nanzong monastery (which is in the middle of the clock). That's the route I went: on the bus from four o'clock to one o'clock, took the bus to the center, then walked to Dehong at about seven o'clock, then eventually got a ride back to the entrance and out of the park. So I don't know what's in the western half.

Sleeping: there are some guesthouses in the villages along the south side of the road around the park. I stayed in Dehong, with a Tibetan guy who approached me along the way, for ¥70 including dinner and breakfast. Basic (outhouse etc) but it was fine for a night. There are guesthouses too that I think are a little nicer for about ¥100. Other travelers around the internet report staying in the Nanzong nunnery, but I didn't try; didn't want to impose on them.

Food and drinks: not a ton. Bus stop #1 (at one o'clock) has instant noodles and stuff, and the boat dock has people cooking bread, potatoes, and eggs. Supposedly there's a restaurant in Dehong; I got dinner and breakfast from the folks I stayed with. There are a lot of places you can buy water and non-perishable junk food though.

What to do: you _could_ just take the bus and boat around and take photos at all the tourist sites. Luckily, you can also get off the path by just getting off the bus and walking somewhere. I can't really recommend hiking routes because I didn't have a map, though some other people did so there must be one somewhere (maybe Chinese only). You can hike up to Nanzong town and monastery, and nearby there is also a wooden stairs thing that goes up to a very high place. Shoot, there's viewpoints all over the place. You'll get some good pictures however you go.

Cost: ¥240 to enter the park, as of 2016. (oof!) But only ¥22 for the bus each way, and ¥70-100 to stay the night. Plus a few bucks for food and drinks, and you've got a two-day trip for ¥400-450 per person. Not super cheap, but you could do worse, and it's worth it.

Why's it worth it: I mean, mostly great views. You get the red rocky mountains, the high altitude lake, and some nice forests. It's not super touristed; it is a little bit, and will undoubtedly get more, but you can still get off the path a bit. (as opposed to, say, Qinghai Lake.)

Another day, another couple of Chinese families adopting me

Seriously! Folks here are so over the top friendly. Like, to a fault, but really the fault is mine because I'm the weirdo here.

Went to Kanbula Forest Park, and it was totally great, and I'll write another post just about it, because it was totally great. Arrived around noon, and at around 2, these guys were saying "hey, where are you sleeping? you should come stay at our house! we're in Dehong Village, only ¥50." They offered to drive me there right away. It was really hard to express "no, I want to go walk around first, then I'll come to your place," but somehow I did... and then actually found one of the guys! (Dehong has literally one street, so it wasn't impossible, but still.) Now he's running a guesthouse, really, but more like a bed and breakfast and dinner, and even more like "ok, you're one of our family for the next 12 hours." I sat with them and ate dinner, and then sat around more while everyone talked and I didn't understand, and there was an amazing Tibetan drama on TV with super cheesy special effects (a bunch of princes and princesses and magic and warriors and a monkey guy? like a story of Hanuman or something? but Tibetan?) Eventually we went to sleep. The only one who didn't make me feel right at home was their amazing yappy little guard dog, who was about the size of a bread loaf, but I was still glad he was chained up.

Wake-up call at 6am (which was fine b/c we went to bed around 10, because sunset and what else are you going to do?), scarfed down some bread and instant noodles, and off we all go, them to work, me to take pictures. There's this great gesture/saying that I've gotten a couple times on this trip, like, "then you can go chk-chk chk-chk" (miming a camera), meaning "go take some pictures!" as if he's saying "go refill your oxygen tank" to a scuba diver. Of _course_ you want to take pictures, so all we have to do is suggest it and you'll get the idea.
Of course I did go take pictures, though, because sunrise over these amazing mountains and etc etc, and then it's 7am and dude had told me the bus was at 10am. So I kept walking along the road, which was calm and peaceful and perfect temperature and forests and mountains, and not even many cars, though about 1/3 of them stopped to make sure I was ok. Yes, I just like walking!

One lady was super insistent and kind, though, and it was a big hill and I was tired, so I did accept her offer to the top of the hill, squashing into the backseat along with her mom and kid. (Grandpa was in the passenger seat.) Her name was Lisa, and between us we shared about 10% of a language. With Google Translate, though, we were up to about 50%, so we could communicate, albeit haltingly. She asked where I was going, I told her Xining, she said great, we're going there too! Can we go together? Sure, I said.

This was great for about 15 minutes, we were all talking, until I realized they had just arrived last night and hadn't been around the park at all. I'd spent all of yesterday walking around the park, and would really rather gargle vinegar than go to all the Touristic Viewpoints again, but had no way to communicate that. Outs I tried:
- "oh, don't worry, I don't want to slow you all down. thanks anyway."
- "there's a bus, I'll just take the bus."
- "if you really want to give me a ride, you can take me to the park entrance, where I'll catch the bus back to Xining."
and of course she was having none of it. Eventually she decided the thing to do was to leave right now for Xining. I mean, great, that's what I wanted to do, but don't cut your trip short! I only relented when she kept insisting and I also realized that stopping at the couple of viewpoints we'd been to and taking a couple of photos is really all they wanted to do anyway.

(on the bus to Kanbula, some guys were saying to me "why would you stay overnight in Kanbula? you can see all the sights here in like 2 or 3 hours." Strange view on tourism - though I expect I'd get the same if I was traveling with a random family back in the US)

Like the last time I was temporarily adopted, everything was a discussion, and I never knew what was going on. Worse, it was a discussion between two cars - they were going caravan style with the other half of their family! Argh! I'm glad I had chosen to run with the following half-truth: "I have to leave Xining tomorrow, so I want to have time to see Xining first" so I was able to kindly leave them when we got to Xining.

(to drink coffee and sit at my phone and keyboard and type blog posts like a frickin' antisocial weirdo... eh, y'know)

Man, when your biggest complaint in a place is "the people are too nice here"... Like, it's a legit issue, but also does leave me with a positive view of a place.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

One of the hardest things about traveling is you can't be yourself.

Or really, you can't do what you want to do, what you _would_ do at home. Especially when you don't know the language, but even when you do. Instead of doing what you want, you can pick from a narrow range of choices which you usually don't actually like.

Think about it: when did you last go sightseeing in your home town? (new residents don't count) It's not actually much fun.

Instead, you get to choose from a narrow range of things that the local culture has made available to you. Luckily, this almost always includes food. And looking at natural things; we can almost all look at things. Museums are just one notch less accessible: if they can afford a translator into your language, you can see those too. Sometimes sports, live music, other cultural things.

But what do you _like_ to do? I like doing a lot of nothing with friends. Riding bikes. Making art. Cooking. Playing board games and solving puzzles. None of those are in the above list. So we end up doing a lot of things that we don't like to do, when we travel, because it's the thing to do. And we often can't control most of that experience, especially if we don't know the language.

Case in point: I am just about to leave the god-forsaken hellhole called Erlangjian Scenic Area on Qinghai Lake. I ended up here due to a lot of things:
- internet guides failed to really explain how to get to Qinghai Lake, other than "share a car"
- I'm alone now, so renting a car and driver for the day would be $100
- I couldn't find other passengers to share the ride with me at the bus station
- there was another bus station I could have tried, but it was mismarked on OpenStreetMap and missing on Baidu
- plus, I was a little wary of drivers on this route anyway, given stories of trips to Qinghai Lake including long stops at jade and jewelry shops
- my guesthouse host told me it was "inconvenient" if you take the bus, not "terrible"
- I figured, ok, public bus to Qinghai Lake, at least it gets me there. Then I can rent a bike maybe, and if not, I can just walk along the lake. Plus, it was late morning, and if I'm going to go I better go.
- oops shit the "scenic area" is *entirely fenced in.* Like, fence going down into the lake. You can rent a bike or walk, but you can't leave this one-square-kilometer area.

I wanted to spend a little time alone looking at a big lake. Biking would have been a bonus. Instead, I got an hour and a half of a crummy crummy tourist trap.

Like, I can't explain in Chinese, "I want to go to the lake, but not the tourist holding pen on the lake." I didn't even know there _was_ a tourist holding pen. I can't explain "no really, I want a bike, and a ride to the trail where the annual race around Qinghai Lake goes, and then just leave me alone and I'll come back in 6 or 8 hours." That's not one of the options on the Xining Tourist Menu.

Eh, so it goes. More thoughts to come about having a purpose when you're traveling, but I'll save that for another post.