Sunday, May 25, 2014

Impressions of Bhutan

View from my hotel room balcony (The huge building is Bhutan's biggest Dzong and was built in the 17th century): 

Hanging up prayer flags for all my loved ones

17th century wood carving in one of the Dzongs:

Potentially Bhutan's smallest store:

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Interesting Things About Bhutan

So I am sure I do not have to tell you in length about how great this place is. Pretty much all the rumors you hear about this place are true. My Western trained brain is constantly trying to find problems and bad things, but I am really struggling. This goes to the extend where the national newspaper will write about patients in hospitals and readers can send in money or gifts to the person. The news here really is not like the news we know back home. It appears to be focusing a lot on the positive developments. 
It really is something weird to get used to. 
I don't want to bore you with the usual descriptions of how beautiful this place is, because no words would do this place justice. 
Instead, I would like to share some things/fun facts I have learned about this country, which you probably did not know about. 

1.) No Killing 
I am sure you are aware that Bhutan is a Buddhist country, however they really take it to the next level and there are no slaughter houses in the entire country. Also in villages no one will actually kill their chickens and cows. Because meat is actually being consumed the country imports all its meat from India. 
This is goes to the extend that no one can really do anything against all the stray dogs, which are really in abundance in this country. (As in any other country in Asia. The other countries just seem to have less mercy) So there is a national sterilization campaign, which asks people to bring in their dogs for sterilization. Tuesday is national love-your-dog day and you will get a free gift with sterilizing your dog. 

2.) "Life is a journey, complete it" 
This was written on a road sign asking drivers to drive carefully. In China the government just leaves the damaged cars along the road to warn its citizens, but in Bhutan they remind their drivers with a very philosophical sentence. 

3.) Most speak English 
And this to a very good extend. Some people will actually have an Indian accent, because for a long time Bhutan only had Indian English teachers. Now there are more Canadians and Americans coming to Bhutan to teach. But I can speak with so many people! It is truly great to have this many good English speakers in Bhutan. 

4.) Smoking Cigarettes is illegal 
That is right. Completely illegal in the entire country. The government is thinking about loosening the restrictions on this law though, because since the law has been put in place the illegal sales of cigarettes has picked up and has become a huge business. In Bhutan cigarette smugglers will get between 3-5 years in prison. 
I have seen many people smoke though so it doesn't seem to really work anyway. 

5.) The Beer is REALLY good! 
I mean.... really good! Just think about where Bhutan is and now imagine them producing beer. I know! It doesn't make any sense. But, the beer is really delicious! They even produce their own Scotch, which I am very eager to try and I will most likely buy a bottle to bring back home. 

6.) The Bhutanese love to party! 
They seem like pretty intense party goers to me. They love their beer and scotch and frequently chew Beetle-nut. I have talked to some guys in my age and they told me all about rap music and Bob Marley. Most are huge soccer enthusiasts and the guys could list all the players on most of the important soccer teams. 

7.) The Good Merit 
It is really amazing to watch the Bhutanese collect their good merit by either walking around stupas, bowing in the temples or any other mean. We went to a big stupa in the capital of Bhutan and the older generation all had their food packed for the day so that they could walk the entire day around the stupa swinging their prayer wheel in one hand and going through their prayer  beads in the other. 
Today I went to a temple where I saw 3 boys, who were probably all around 4 years old do their prayers and bows. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Last Few Days In Kashgar

After the dessert I spent the last few days in Kashgar buying little things for people back home and for myself (an amazing Afghan carpet, which no one will be allowed to step on). Kasghar is really a gem. There are no Western influences yet, which means that by today I was about ready to eat chocolate and drink coffee again. The old town dates back many thousand years, but the Chinese government recently decided to destroy it and rebuild it so it is safer in case of an earthquake. Even though I have to say the Chinese government surprisingly did a pretty good job one cannot ignore the fact that Kashgar is not really near an earthquake zone......(Also these buildings have been standing for 2000 years and when the terrible earthquake in Sichuan happened in 2008 the worst damage was caused due to new school buildings collapsing, because they were so incredibly poorly built. I could go on.) 
If you ask my personal opinion it looks as if the government just kind of wanted to show the people what it is capable of doing and I couldn't ignore the fact how many security cameras were installed EVERYWHERE. 

Never the less, Kashgar is awesome and very far away from everything I know. The spices are mind blowing. I bought some spices to bring back home and no matter how many plastic bags I pack them in they smell so intensively that I am currently keeping them outside my hostel room, because the smell just penetrates everything. It is pretty awesome when it is in food, but I am getting sick of all my clothes smelling like cumin all the time. 


 I had my Kashgar city tour on a Friday and when I saw Tudajim that morning he told me that we need to take a break in between 12.30 and 2, because he wants to go to the mosque and pray. I learned that day that the praying on Fridays at noon is the most important and I did not really want to believe it, but surely enough the city completely shut down. Every Uighur man closed his business and went to the nearest mosque to pray. The mosques filled up quickly, which meant that men were rolling out there praying carpets on the street (all facing West of course). 

After praying there is a huge market that opens every Friday and 30 seconds after the quietness of the praying the screams broke out. People were promoting there products all over the nearest streets to the main mosque and quickly the masses all venture to these tiny streets. People were selling everything (mostly targeted towards men, since they were out praying) 

Afterwards I went to the local steel production place where a man was making every possible tool. I really wanted to buy one to bring back home, but the Chinese police would have taken it away from me (yes, even in checked luggage). Watching the process was pretty great and I would have loved to support such great craftsmanship. My guide told me that the local people who make knifes are running out of business, because the police is taking away any sort of sharp tools from luggage and so no one is buying them anymore. 

Okay. I just had a really long travel day and am really tired. I hope you forgive me for my short post. 


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Bonding With a Baby Camel

Yesterday, I went to the dessert and spent the night between dunes, which was pretty awesome, but cold cold cold. 
Before that I went to the biggest natural stone arch in the world, which was also pretty impressive. You had to hike up a bit to get there, but me, an Israeli hiker we picked up along the road, and my guide were the only ones up there besides some Sichuanese construction workers who were sadly in the process of making the place more accessible to lazy tourists. 

The most awesome thing though was that I rode through the dessert on a camel. (Really uncomfortable by the way. I think hiking would be the better option I think) However, I was riding on a female camel, which had just given birth two months earlier and the baby was following its mother everywhere. I obviously bonded with the baby camel. 

It was a great moment as I am sure you can tell. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Kashgar Livestock Market & The Karakoram Highway

Ever since reading Peter Hessler's Country Driving I have always had an urge to visit the Karakoram Highway (KKH) myself. I had google searched plenty of images and had read numerous blogs about the experience and all in all it seemed like everyone enjoyed the time on the highway a lot. The reason why the highway is famous is because it connects China with Pakistan and it is the highest altitude paved road in the world.
So I was really excited when despite all the issues arising out of this region I could come visit this place and see for myself.

After a day in Kashgar my guide first took me to the livestock market outside the city and I wish my words could describe how truly unique this place was. It is rumored that this market is over 2000 years old and visiting the place really is only reaffirming the rumors. Generally sheep, camels, goats, horses, cows, and bulls are sold on the market and locals bring in their livestock from near and far. The numbers vary from person to person. One guy might bring one goat and another might arrive with 50 sheep. The whole market was moved three times by the government, but it looks like its pretty stationary where it is right now.
The whole culture and feeling around it is just so amazing. Nothing I have ever experienced.
For now I will just include a couple images and maybe sometime find me in person, because by then I might have found the words to describe the incredible environment.

This was great, because the bull was massif! My guide told me that just a couple weeks ago a bull ran around the market blindfolded and no one could stop him until he was tired out. Apparently he tore quite a lot of huts down, but no one got hurt. 

After the Market Tudajim, the driver and me headed for the KKH. The thing that was making me nervous was that just a day before my arrival there was a huge sandstorm and there was still so much sand in the air. You couldn't really see all that far and I was really worried that I couldn't see any of the mountains and glaciers along the highway.  
This KKH is not really a highway. It is a two lane street, which is to 75% paved and to 25% barely existent. The Chinese government is putting great effort into finishing the road soon. I can't imagine how difficult it is to pave a road in such high altitude. 
Our first stop was a 3 hour drive away from Kashgar. I spent a night at a local shepherd's house along the Kala Kule Lake. These families usually live in 2 villages. One for the summer and one for the winter. The one we were visiting was the summer village, even though it was freeeeezing cold. These people's lives is pretty amazing. They spend most of the day outside herding their sheep and yak in really cold temperatures (in the winter time it can get as low as -20 degrees celsius) for around 10 hours! 
Anyway, in order to get to this village we had to drive for some time and the awesome thing was that 
along the way there are numerous intersections leading to other countries. 

This intersection was for a road to Afghanistan, which was around 30km away. Obviously it was illegal to use the road. 

Here the sign for the road to Kyrgyzstan! How awesome is this!!!!

Anyway. We got to the tiny village and were greeted by the family. The house looked a lot like a box made out of clay. It was amazing how well insulated it was though. It was heated by one tiny stove, which was also their stove at the same time. I knew the surrounding should be beautiful, but I couldn't see much, because it was cloudy:
BUT, when I woke up the next day and opened the door I could barely catch my breath. What I saw in front of me was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.  
This is what I saw: 

It really was one of these moments where I wanted to rub my eyes and see if it really was real. Hard to believe, but it was real. 

After a quick breakfast we ventured on to get to Tashkurgan. First though we had to get over a pass, which obviously was also a great picture opportunity. 

(Kein Unterhemd... Ich weiss) 

And then we got to Tashkurgan and I really could not believe that I was still in China. No one looked Chinese! Everyone looked far more European than Chinese. Their clothes, language, food and entire culture was way more European than Chinese. No wonder they don't identify themselves as Chinese no matter how many propaganda posters the government plasters along the roads... 

Okay I will post this now and will continue writing when I get another chance. I am heading to the dessert tomorrow and will spend a night there. Hopefully I won't get lost. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Flying First Class to Xinjiang / so far this place is pretty surreal

I am in Urumqi, Xinjiang, which is so so so far away from anything I know or am used to. In order to make it a bit easier for you I stole this from google so you can better see how far exactly I am from home. (where ever that might be) 

However, I want to keep this is organized as possible, because currently there is just a thunderstorm of thoughts in my head and I am trying to write everything in such a way that you do not get lost. 

First things first: The Flight (which was totally awesome) 
When I was a child my mom would always wait until the very end to board the plane so I have adapted the same habit. I usually only approach the counter when they do a last call, simply because there is no real reason for me to be in a cramped airplane for longer than I absolutely have to. 
However, in China this is quite different. Everyone's life seems to depend on being the first one at the counter so even before they announce the boarding process people will "line" up. (In Switzerland one would laugh at the line, since its really just a lot of people surrounding the gate). ANYWAY. I waited as usual until they made the last call and I approached the lady in front of the gate. She checked my ticket and let me enter that tube thing that connects the airplane to the airport. 
Because there was a line in the tube I stood further back a bit and suddenly saw a person in a suite appear next to me. I turned around and saw that the pilot stood right next to me. He points at my passport and says "USA?" and I reply in Chinese that I am in fact German. (Sometimes I choose Swiss. It always depends if I feel like talking about watches and banks or about Cars and Hitler. Today I felt like talking about Cars and Hitler) 
The pilot seemed relieved about the fact that I speak German and tells me he always wanted to spend a lot of time in Germany because the Beer is so good. 
We chat for a bit longer until we are inside the plane and I gesture that I am heading back to row 14 where my window seat was waiting for me. 
The pilot just looks at me and points at the first row (first class, baby) and tells me to sit there. I don't really want to believe what just happened, but he insisted on me sitting in first class so I obviously do not want to say no. So I flew first class. 

After take off the pilot comes and sits with me and chats with me about things while drinking coffee. (don't ask me who was flying the plane) We had a pretty good chat and he told me that I should let him know if I fly Hainan Air again, because he can give me upgrades and we exchange name cards. Then he had to quickly land the plane in Lanzhou for a quick stop to pick up more passengers. 

After we left Lanzhou he came again to me and told me to open my backpack. He put slippers and towels in my backpack and gave me a plastic bag full of stuff from the airplane. I wanted to laugh, but I knew this was a sincere thing so I thanked him. This is what was in the bag:

I did not want to question if he was allowed to do this. So lets not tell anybody. However, then this happened: 

So we spend the next 10 minutes taking pictures. IT WAS PRETTY AWESOME. 
He has been flying for over 30 years and he was pretty awesome. You can do the math why this is the case. 

Okay. Then I got to Urumqi at around 6.30pm. The air is pretty dry and it is oddly hot, but not hot at the same time. I went into the taxi lane to get a cab to my hotel and was puzzled when the taxi driver got back out of the cab to get more people to get into the cab. Some sort of technique I did not want to question. I have learned not to question and not to get frustrated by these things. 
The taxi driver was Uighur. I am sure you know there is a HUGE problem in Xinjiang between the Han and the Uighur people. Just last week a bomb exploded in the train station here, earlier this year there was a knife attack at the Kunming train station and there was the incident on Tiananmen square . I am not really the one to read about these events and opinions in the news paper, which is the reason why I decided to come to Xinjiang. 
Anyway, the Han couple got out of the cab and the driver continuing on to my hotel. He hadn't said a word, but now he asked me "USA?" and we started talking in Chinese. He told me that Uighur and Han do not get along well and told me about his frustrations. It was truly fascinating, because it made me realize the problem that is going on. (Granted I have only talked to one, but it was enough to get an insight). When we got to the hotel he apologized for being so frank to me and I reassured him that it is no problem at all. I actually really liked talking to him. I was greeted by a security guard in a metal detector thing in his hands and I entered the Hotel. 

I decided to get dinner outside in a side street and talked to some cool people that came to Xinjiang from Gansu ten years ago. I chatted with them a bit and I think it is then that I realized that I am understanding 90% of what is said to me in Chinese. (YESSSSS!) Their noodle soup was pretty good, even though I can not tell you yet if my stomach will approve of it. 

Another indication of how far away I am are the signs everywhere. Usually they are in Chinese and the local language, but there are also a good amount in Russian, which is another interesting thing. 

Also Xinjiang is on Beijing time even though it really is 2 hours behind. There is apparently a problem, because locals will use local time, whereas the Han will use Beijing time. 
It still is sort of light outside even though it is nearly 10pm.... weird. 
Oh and there seems to be no official weather forecast. Peter Hessler wrote about the same thing in his book and when I asked my travel agency for a weather forecast they told me that there is no official one. 

Okay. that is enough for today. I am tired. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Monday, May 5, 2014

Poorly Planned, Arguably Well Executed

I owe a post to this blog and it so happens that I had a great day today, which I think is worthy of my blog: 

I am done with my semester! There were points where I was certain that I would live my life forever chained to the program, but Friday evening eventually came and I graduated from my program with pretty satisfying grades. Before I finished we had to give a huge symposium in which every student represented one country (I was Laos) and we had to analyze and negotiate current issues in the GMS (Greater Mekong Subregion). Each country had to write Papers and present on the issues in their perspective viewpoint. This is not easy, because one topic was dams and Laos is pro-dam, whereas personally I would not parade around like Laos proclaiming that dams are the best thing ever. But I lived a day as a Lao official and debated the hell out of my viewpoint. I ended up doing pretty well - better than I thought. 
ANYWAY. After my program ended I packed up my 7 things and started my 6 week journey through Asia, which I am doing mostly by myself. I really want to travel by myself and see how it is. I am 3 days in and so far am loving it. 
I sat in a bus for 8 hours and drove to Shaxi. (This time with my passport) I am staying in a cute hostel right next to the main square and went for a quick walk in the afternoon to stretch my legs. When I stepped out of the East Gate of the village and walked towards the river I noticed that about halfway up the mountain opposite of me there appeared to be a small temple. It looked something like this: 

(If you open the picture you will see my little ret arrow pointing to the temple) 

I wanted to go. No reason why. I just wanted to see what the temple looked like and my uneducated eye thought the hike would not be too difficult. So I went back, had dinner, met a girl while dancing in a drum circle who wanted to come with, slept and started walking the next morning. 
I had no plan, had not looked at any maps and didn't ask anyone about the path up. I figured it would be nice to try something really unplanned, since I usually try to extensively plan everything else in my life. 
So me and the Chinese girl started off with her two friends (who quickly abandoned us when getting closer and we all got a more realistic view point of the matter). My general plan was up and over and so we walked more to the left on the bottom of the mountain and then up and approached the temple from the left. If you look closer at the picture you can see that there is a cliff, which looks like nothing from far away, but actually was pretty scary. 
The walk was truly beautiful. We walked through old fields on the mountain side, battled with bushes and saw some beautiful old trees. There was no clear path and we just walked from terrace to terrace. I fell once and scratched my hand open. After about 2 hours of me guessing my way along the mountain side we saw the temple on the other side of the cliff: 

It looked so close, but the hardest part was the cliff and then the hill up to the temple was incredibly steep and no one had walked on it for a long time, which made it sort of exciting, because we seemed to be the first in a while to go up there. 

(Down in the valley)

After slipping and sliding we were at the bottom of the cliff and had to climb it up again on the other side and then up the steep hill to the damn temple. It really was much harder than I initially had anticipated, but it was still great fun. We eventually made it and it was so worth it. 

The Temple was already falling apart a bit, but the view was amazing. 

The way down also proved to be difficult, since we took a different route and ended up stock on a cliff and didn't know how to get town. We just chose the most direct way and it was a little scary. We also had to climb a couple dam construction that were built in the riverbed, but we eventually made it back. 
Not planning things can be really great sometimes. Also the other great part about hiking is that the food afterwards just tastes so much better. 


I really had a great start to my journey and I can't wait where it will take me. This Friday I am heading to Xinjiang! 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Here's To Cambodia

After a night in a rural fishing village on the Tonle Sap, I am back in Siem Reap and I am once again tired. Cambodia is great as always and I am enjoying my fourth time here as if it was my first time. 
Tomorrow I am heading back to Angkor Wat, Monday I am teaching English for a day, and then I am on my way back to Kunming for my final final project. A huge symposium in which I am representing Laos.... 
I am also having issues with my Chinese visa, because I did not get multiple entries and will be stuck in Bangkok without an entry to China after Bhutan. But it is the excitement of the unknowingness that makes me look forward to whatever happens after the 3rd of May. I am really hoping I will make it to Xinjiang, Bhutan and now also Bangkok where I have to wrestle with the Chinese embassy to give me my 3rd visa in 6 months... let's hope that works.  

But for now let's raise our glasses and toast to this amazing country I love so much. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

VIETNAM - Food, Sweat, Water Monitoring & A Constant Lack of Sleep

I am in Vietnam! 8 Days, 5 cities and a serious lack of sleep. 
It is all okay though, because when do I ever get the chance again to do everything I am doing here? 
I have been able to talk to professors from the Trade University in Hanoi, get dinner with Students from the University, talk to the Asian Development Bank, discuss economic issues with the American Consulate in Saigon, listen to a talk about the Mekong Delta given by one of the most knowledgeable experts on the topic, talk to a mayor of a rural town about water issues, go out measure water levels and conduct interviews with local farmers and then present our case findings to him and finally eat all this amazing food. 
The heat is really intense though and does make you realize that a slower pace is key. 

The people here are so incredible! The smiles I receive are in the ten thousands and I am so happy that people seem to share my enthusiasm for happiness here. It is truly great to talk to such energetic people!

It has been 8 wild days and I am exhausted! We are heading to the Cambodian border tomorrow and then will spend the next 7 days in my favorite country EVER. I CAN'T WAIT! 

Due to my exhaustion I do no want to bore you with an extensive post and will use this lighting speed internet to post some pictures of the past couple days. 

My birthday lies 10 days in the past and I still have not replied to any of the amazing emails I have received. I had my birthday right during finals week and we drove down to Vietnam 12 hours after our last final. Time really is not something I have here. However, I am so incredibly happy to have so many loving and great people around me who support me every step along the way! Thank you all for your great thoughts! It is very much appreciated. 
I will write as soon as I have time! 

I am pretty sure the best Asian food I have ever had

This was Breakfast
The Coffee here is absolutely mind blowing. They make it with condense milk, which makes it incredibly unhealthy, but so delicious. 

Presenting on the Mekong Delta - Yes, I am aware of the hat 

First time I have seen a pineapple plant!!! 

More mind blowing food! This is called Bun Cha. It is barbecued pork in fish sauce with everything great about this earth. 

I found my name sake and this friendly nun showed me around 

Looking for animals in a wanter plant's root system 

Checking Water Quality 

After one of the interviews

Gathering all the info from the interviews and making a presentation. Most tired I have ever been. 

Presenting our findings 

Picture with the mayor. (white polo shirt)