Xi’an Day One

I brought a new notebook with me on my recent trip to parts of the Shaanxi and Henan Provinces. It fit in my jacket’s inside pocket, and even at seven-thirty am, after having already been up a few hours, I was taking notes as the plane ambled around on the tarmac. As the plane lifted off I asked my friend how to say things like, “board plane,” “fly in the sky,” “gate,” “take off,” “land,” and “turbulence.”

I’m not afraid of flying in the least, but now that I’m older I prefer the aisle seat over the window. More leg room.

I feel like I could write about plane experiences all day long. Especially as a foreigner on an Asian airline. I go back and forth about how to talk to the flight attendants—Chinese or English—in my head, and no matter what I choose, they use the opposite to respond. I don’t get it, either. People are fun, too. Just like anywhere in mainland China, if there is the slightest chance of standing in a line everyone and their brother will fight to the death to be the first in it. Of course all this accomplishes is a long, crowded, irritated line where people are just holding their carry-ons and staring at one another for ten minutes.

The other day I looked up how to say, “Don’t push me,” surprised I had never used it before. In fact, to this day, I’ve never heard anyone utter the words. It reminds me of the time I asked my friend how to request privacy when speaking with a doctor. She looked at me, baffled for a moment, and then told me that Mandarin doesn’t have that word. She was serious.

Now of course they do have the word for privacy, and even a really indirect way to ask for it, but the fact is, when asked, she had a hard time thinking of a response, and it wasn’t due to poor English skills. It’s because they just don’t consider an individual person’s personal space. I haven’t gotten a chance to ask for privacy with a doc, but next time I need to see one you can be sure I’ll be shooing the half a dozen strangers lurking in the room out of it.

I digress.

The trip from Dalian to Xi’an, one of the ancient capitols of China, was pretty quick. Only about 2 hours.

Just like in Kunming, a shuttle bus from the airport got us to the hostel. This hostel, like many of them, is located on a skinny back street that many would just pass by without a second glance. I like narrow streets. People are forced to interact, children play in them and tangle with the “adults,” and when a little restaurant has an outdoor area almost everyone on the block is there chatting and eating. Skinny streets have a lot of life.

The Han Tang Hostel, not to be confused with the Han Tang Inn located 100 meters away on the same street, is a hostel to contend with. You walk in and realize you could be in a bar, restaurant, or some snazzy hotel, not just a haven for the weary trekker.

Every week the place hosts “events and outings” for their guests at no cost. A trip to the Muslim Quarter, Tour of the Wild Goose Pagoda, Dumpling Making Night, Live Music, etc. The food is Western style, and even though it’s a bit overpriced, it’s freakin’ good. The rooms themselves are comfortable, too. You’ve got your normal choices: dorm of 4-10 beds, doubles, or privates. Always go with the dorms, guys. Why travel if you’re just going to be a strange loner. The beds are bunk-beds that are almost too comfy, and the shower is AMAZING. It was better than two of my old apartments’. Just saying. Friendly staff with buttloads of intel on the area, and ridiculous work ethic. Seriously. One girl who checked us in around 1 pm and closed that night at midnight also opened the next day at 6 am. The girl’s a beast.

We dropped our stuff in our room and got cleaned up. Ever notice when you travel you just feel like you need a shower even if you took a shower that morning? Once we were good to go we checked out a few nearby sights. We got to the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, two largely remodeled and refurbished structures that served true and useful purposes back in the day, around the Ming Dynasty. Today they are about a block apart and a large, busy intersection separate the two. A fancy looking shopping center sits behind the Drum Tower. At both there are ancient relics from the past, as far back as the mythical Xia and Shang Dynasties, about 5,000 years old.

Me...next to a big bell...
Me…next to a big bell…

At the Bell Tower there is a complete replica set of bells that were dug up from the first emperor’s tomb, Qin Shi Huang. We caught a Bell ringin’ show, complete with a few other traditional Chinese instruments. They played two legitimate Chinese songs, and then on the third one I found myself humming along…because they were playing “Old Lang Syne,” the New Year’s Song. Yup.

The replica set.
The replica set.

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At the Drum Tower it was much the same, except for, you know, the show being a Drum show.

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That in the distance there is the Bell Tower....
That in the distance there is the Drum Tower….

But at both places I picked up some souvenirs. Two that I got for my mother and brother I picked up from a woman with Ox Bone necklaces. She was a tough old bird who I worked on for a bit before I got her from 63 Rmb to 35. There was this really cool eagle carving that had the head of an eagle and the bottom part was a talon. It reminded me of my brother’s tattoo, so that was his. My mom’s was a necklace that had the two characters for “Peace,” “ping,” and “an.” The woman wanted 28 for my bro’s and 35 for my mom’s.

We had scanned them without much comment accept to ask the price before going to see one of the towers, but then we came back on our way out. It’s my “Haggle Policy” to never come back to a merchant once you’ve already walked away, but since I hadn’t really initiated a negotiation with her the first time, I let the rule slide. Plus, I wanted them.

I started looking around at other carvings I knew I didn’t want, asking prices and holding them up to my neck. I eventually asked about both of the ones I did want, but passed over them nonchalantly. When I picked up one (that I didn’t want) and asked about the price I tried to haggle her down without much success. I gave in easily and set it down. Then, acting like it was my consolation prize, and catching the look in her eye that said, “Buy something, Pleeease,” I picked up the eagle one and asked. I asked her to come down a bit and she did, a little. I then made a move to group two together for a lower price. She was for it, but still wanted too much. When I finally snatched up the two I actually wanted we had been going around for about ten minutes, with me “almost” walking away. She was eager to sell something at this point.

Being a foreigner speaking and negotiating in Chinese, I had brought a bit of a crowd to the table. This wasn’t good. She was representing China now. So she didn’t want to bend. So I cooled it, and bided my time. Once most of the others had wandered off I began talking to my friend about how these would make good gifts for my mother and brother. The woman perked up then. The Chinese are Big into family. You have no idea. So then she started helping looking for other nice ones and we reentered into the wheelin’ and dealin’. When I got her down to 45 she was pretty hard looking. She kept waving her hands, and my friend said that was the best. It wasn’t getting’ any prettier.

Then I told the woman in Chinese what I told the man in Thailand using English. “35 and I’ll buy these right now.” I added that they weren’t for me, but for family, and….she caved.

And then I had them carve “Xi’an” into the back of my brother’s necklace just for good measure…and the memories.

My friend couldn’t believe I got her so low without the merchant being royally pissed, but I knew it was fine. She wouldn’t have kept talking if she wasn’t willing. And plus, in the time we stood there she sold a bunch all because we were creating a crowd.

Don’t look at me like that; saving money on vacation is a tricky endeavor.

We wandered around the streets then, taking in some local scents and scenes. Another skinny street with a bunch of merchants, restaurants, and overhanging trees…and people, people, people. There’s an idiom in China that goes, “People mountain, people sea.” It basically means there’s a lot of flippin’ people. But you already knew that.

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We headed to the Great Mosque next. It wasn’t far, just a few blocks away. We had to shimmy and shuffle through tightly packed alleys with a million merchants hawking their wares. Everything from imitation Dynasty currency to T-shirts sporting Obama with communist slogans on them could be seen. Once we got through it all, though, we came to the “Great” Mosque. With a name that literally brags about its awesomeness, I was expecting something…greater.

"Wei Ren Min Fu Wu" "Dedicate service to the people." This is a phrase good ol' Mao made well known. It's a phrase still used by the military.
“Wei Ren Min Fu Wu” “Dedicate service to the people.” This is a phrase good ol’ Mao made well known. It’s a phrase still used by the military.

The Mosque is definitely an ancient, meaningful, still-in-use place of worship, but when you hear Mosque certain images are conjured. What I saw fit none of them. The whole place is Chinese style. Built in a long rectangular shape with big open-air courtyards and symbolic gazebos and stone tablets, the place looked more like what you’d see in an old Kung-fu movie, not the Middle East.

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In that notebook I mentioned earlier I had a running commentary on the trip. Let’s see what I wrote about the GM: “Blond children Kung-fu fighting in the Great Mosque, Muslims in business suits, and a wooden sign protruding over the top of the wall proclaiming free wi-fi at a nearby café.”

The kids were with one of the very few Western families we saw. The bother and sister were running around the courtyards chopping at each other. The business men seemed to have just finished up with a meeting and were walking around in a herd. The wooden sign peaked over the stone walls of the Mosque and made sure we knew we were in the 21st century.

Afterward, we hiked it to the South Gate of the City Walls. Xi’an’s City Walls are, I think, the only fully intact city walls. The existing wall was started by the Ming Dynasty in 1370. It encircles 5.4 sq mi, a much smaller part of the city than the original. The wall measures 8.5 mi in circumference, 39 ft in height, and 49–59 ft in thickness at the base.

We got there around 6:45 and bought a ticket to get in and walk on the walls, but renting bikes and riding along the whole perimeter was our goal. Problem was, the rental place turned us away because they were closing at 7:30 and it takes 100 minutes to cover the whole wall. We went back down, told the other people, the gate people, the problem, and they just said we should have still been able to rent the bikes up until 7:30 with no issue. We ended up wasting 15 minutes arguing with them to either give us our money back or just let us ride the damn bikes. It was actually a good set up because the gate people sold tickets to get in and walk on the walls. Technically they had fulfilled their side of the bargain. The bike people were a separate organization that owed us nothing.

In the end, they rented the bikes to us for 50 minutes and grumbled about just wanting to get off work. We took the bikes and zipped off into the fading light as evening truly descended. It felt great riding on the walls at night when no one else was there. We could even see a few stars, something that’s actually more amazing than you might think…especially in a Chinese city.

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We rode along for a while, picking up speed and just watching as parts of the city passed by. And then, around 7:45, we peaked behind us and noticed an electric cart following us. We kept going, but eventually they caught up and told us we needed to hop on with them and ride back. They wanted to get going. The whole time they’re talking to us I’m circling them on the bike. I ask my friend what time it is, and then I say, “Okay, see you back there.” I take off back in the direction we had come and dart through the night. I ride as fast as my legs can take me, looking back just a few times. The cart didn’t even come close to me. The cool air is circulating in and out of my lungs, my legs are burning, and I’m fairly certain the chain on the bike is about to bust any second…but I keep going. Something about the whole hassle with them closing earlier than they should have, the way they just were jerking us around…it propels me like a bat out of hell.

I made it back to the bike rental place and had enough time to hop off and put the bike back in the line where it belonged before the cart rolled up. The two workers look like they want to lop me off the side of the wall, but my friend just smiles at me and says, “You’re awesome.” I ask her what happened when I took off and she says they were irritated, but when they tried to catch up to me they couldn’t. Immature? Probably. Would I do it again? You bet I would.

Of course that night I began coughing. It would be the start of a two week cold that I’m pretty sure I deserved.

When we got back to the hostel we found that we shared the room with a Chinese guy, a Chinese couple, and two Norwegian girls. With day one down, we grabbed some western food, more showers, and slept like babies in the bunk beds.

Day Two would be the day we saw the Bing Ma Yong, Terra Cotta Warriors.


Growing up I never had recurring dreams, but since moving to China I’ve begun to regularly dream of three different things: Floating on air currents and jumping around the city, zombies, and being back in America.

Now the first one, floating on the wind, is pretty cool. In the dream I run and leap into the air just as a gust of wind comes along and can ride it like you ride a wave at the beach. It carries me up and through the air in a big arc and I land softly back on the ground. I can leap and bound across large distances quite easily, and when I’m in the air I throw my arms out and just enjoy the lift. Actually, it’s a little like how the Hulk gets around, except when he just jumps it’s his crazy thigh muscles that propel him half a mile away not the wind. The dream is fun. I wake up feeling good and light-hearted. I’ve had this dream a handful of times; more than five or six time, for sure.

Yeah, just like that...
Yeah, just like that…

Zombies could very well be attributed to my love of The Walking Dead and the fact that I live in a country of more than a billion, and no one owns a firearm. So basically, if the zombie apocalypse breaks out my best bet is to pull a Michonne and find a sword because just pulling a shotgun from a hillbilly’s pick-up or a pistol from a regular home isn’t going to happen.

My most recent zombie dream had me…and, yes, a few of the folks from TWD holing up in a house that looked suspiciously like my father’s house, except it was in a rural area. Anyway, we get in, make a perimeter, and settle in for the night. Four or five choose to pull out tents and set them up in the back yard (I don’t know why. Such a stupid idea, right? Maybe it was my mind pulling from season one). It’s night and I’m patrolling around the area when I notice someone’s left a light on and because of the position of the house, it can be seen from a long ways off. Sure enough, even though I douse it a horde comes along and all hell breaks loose.

Some other notable zombie dreams include me in a house while I fight off a few zombies with shovel, having to kill two zombie children after they crawl through a doggy door in a house and I can’t get away from them (I could even feel the vibration of the pipe in my hand as I struck their heads), and last week I held my dying brother just after he got bit by one of the undead (that was an emotional dream).

Yup, that about sums up fighting zombies in China. At least Michonne could send a few heads rolling. This guy can just turn a couple into fowl bawls, man...
Yup, that about sums up fighting zombies in China. At least Michonne could send a few heads rolling. This guy can just turn a couple into foul balls, man…

Arguably, even more distressing than zombies is the third recurring dream: being back in America before I want to be. These dreams take on different specifics as well, but at some point in all of them someone in the dream world finds out I’ve been in China and begins asking me stuff about it (the language, holiday info, culture, etc.). Now usually right before they ask me I’m already thinking something like, “I should be getting back there soon,” or “How can I get back?” or even about the people I’ve left behind.

The thoughts always bum me out in the dream and when I do answer their questions I find myself increasingly depressed that it seems like my American life is overrunning me and any chance I’ll have of getting back to the Middle Kingdom. Oddly enough, I’m always back in a school in these dreams. In some I’m a new teacher starting the school year in my hometown and in others I’m either a HS student or a college student again. Always one or the other.

...I could be dealing with crazy shit in China, not trying to figure our why the hell the first train beat the second train even though the first one left first...this is nonesense...Where are my skittles?
…I could be dealing with crazy shit in China, not trying to figure out why the hell the B train beat the A train even though the A one left first…this is nonesense…Where are my skittles?

At first I thought maybe it was just my subconscious making it obvious that I don’t want to leave yet, but now that I think about the dreams it’s not so much leaving China as it is being STUCK in the USA. A lot of what got me here was this restless spirit, the discontent with the norm of “back home.” Someone once said that I’m just, “a wanderer,” and I think she was right. And the worst thing for a wanderer is to be stagnant, unable to move about. For some reason I get that feeling at times when I think about going back home, that a level of freedom will be stripped away. It’ absurd, I’m sure, but it’s there anyway.

These are the three dreams that I have most often. It’s not uncommon for me to dream about random stuff on Monday, flying on the wind on Tue, and then on Thur or Fri battle zombies, and end the week stressing over how I can get a ticket and visa back to China. Imagine that on-loop. It’s weird, man. Okay, there are some reprieves between the dreams, random dreamy stuff that is also vibrant and vivid as well as some dull ones that I don’t remember, but these three pop up quite a bit.

And this has nothing to do with dreams....I don't know if this is a new thing starting here, but my friend just gave this to me. It's her friend's dog....Yeah, he does look depressed. I would, too....
And this has nothing to do with dreams….I don’t know if this is a new thing starting here, but my friend just gave this to me. It’s her friend’s dog….Yeah, he does look depressed. I would, too….

I’ll write about my week-long trip to Xi’an and parts of the Henan Province soon!

Anyone want to psych analyze me?

Just a Wednesday

Two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, my Business class was cancelled. The students all had meetings to attend, or at least that’s what they told me through e-mail. Either way, I was happy. That night I had planned to tell them I’d be canceling the following week’s class, too since I would be traveling to the Shaanxi and Henan provinces, so really, they had two weeks off.

I spent the day relaxing and writing, but in the late afternoon I went wandering around looking for a nicer traveling bag to take with me on the next week’s trip. I scoured a few local spots, but nothing stuck out. At the six-floor, maze-like Xin Ma Te (New Mart) I found a lot of chincey bags, but did see one style that I really liked. When I was looking at it I realized it was a much better quality than any of the others. I immediately realized where I should go to get a good bag: The Decathlon in downtown Dalian.

I hopped on the Qing Gui (Light Rail Train) and took a trip downtown. The last time I was at Decathlon another friend went with me and we set up a membership card for me using my Chinese name. It’s pretty cool having a membership card with just “Li Zhuo Xuan” (Li-family name. Zhuo-Oustanding. Xuan-Tall, High-achieving. Everything I am, naturally. Hah). Anyway, I found the bags easily and spent the next fifteen minutes debating and comparing the merits of each one until I settled on a dark grayish green and black Quechua brand bag, the same brand as my jacket.

At the check-out I whipped out my card like a pro and threw out some Chinese and the woman in front of me spoke to me in English about how brave I was to walk around alone and use Chinese. I have no idea why she said that.

Back on the Qing Gui I read my Kindle and a few men began talking about the “Wai guo ren” (foreigner) using his computer, ignoring people. So I politely told them it was a gift and that it was a book, not a computer. They laughed and just continued on, this time laughing at my funny pronunciation. I continued reading.

I was tired, but felt like I wanted to sit and study some Chinese a bit, so I went to Starbucks. Lately I haven’t been drinking any coffee or consuming many dairy products at all for that matter. Every time I do I seem to get bad stomach aches and whatnot. I think I actually might be becoming Lactose Intolerant. Which kind of sucks since I love cereal, ice cream, and burgers…ok, I know that last one has no connection to Lactose Intolerance, but the beef is from the cow whose milk has now become my stomach’s nemesis. Anyway…I buy some subway and head to Starbucks (I swear I do live in China and eat Chinese food, but I wanted something different that night. Don’t judge me. Hah).

As soon as I step into Starbucks James, one of the workers I’ve befriended, yells my name. When I look at him his says, “Come here, please,” (qing, lai le) really loud. I tell him I’m coming and head to the counter, ignoring all the stares I’m getting. I’ve put a lot of face time in the joint, so now I don’t get stared at as much as I used to, but having my name yelled when it’s packed is like walking in there naked.

James asks me to translate for two friends of his. I have no idea why he thinks this task is something I can do, but I tell him I’ll try. Turns out his “friends” are a couple from Singapore who are an hour late trying to catch their Merchant Ship out of Kai Fa Qu’s port. He doesn’t know them at all, but is trying to help them get to where they need to go. Actually, all the guys on staff are helping.

I chat with the couple in English and find out that the husband is a sailor and his wife has joined him on part of his journey throughout this part of the world for a few months. They were supposed to meet their group at a certain spot an hour ago, but no one was there. They wandered around, trying to find help since they knew no Chinese or anything about the area until they came into Starbucks.

We all talked back and forth, James and the guys making some phone calls to local ports and me trying to ascertain the exact details of the predicament. The hang up seemed to stem from the fact that they weren’t sailing on a passenger ship but a container ship. This concept was incredibly difficult to convey, and I have almost no vocabulary for this particular area of the language. Eventually we got a lead and name of a port. With luck this would be the one they needed.

They asked me if I could help them, and since I had nothing really better to do and because I’d want someone to help me if I were in the same position, I said sure. I got them a taxi and directed the driver to where we needed to go (a part of Kai Fa Qu I’d never been to). Once we finally got to the port we drove around looking for the right gate or for anything, really, that showed some sign of being the right spot.

I directed the driver and even tried to talk with a police officer at the port, and in the end, we got to a gate and the couple was met by their people. The woman and man who pick them up are pissed, but I tell them about the mix up and how they got lost, hoping that I can smooth things over…I don’t know if I do.

The couple is really grateful and we exchange info to keep in touch later down the road. On the way back I laugh and the taxi driver asks me what I’m laughing about. I tell him that I think those two were in big trouble because the Chinese man and woman were yelling at them. He nods; no smile. Eventually I realize I haven’t eaten in a long time, so I pull out two cookies that I bought at Subway and offer one to the driver. He takes it and thanks me. We eat in silence for a moment and then he asks me if they were my friends. I tell him I’ve never met them before tonight. I don’t really know them. He laughs hard and repeatedly asks me if I really didn’t know them. He seems utterly flabbergasted that I’d help strangers like that. I tell him it just feels good, and we wash our cookies down with our drinks, me with my OJ and him with his tea.

Pai and back to Chiang Mai, Thailand Part 2

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View from the Hostel
View from the Hostel
Some huts
Some huts
Rickety old bridge
Rickety old bridge

Pai, a small town in Thailand’s northern Mae Hong Son province, has that laid-back, coastal paradise feel, only without the coast. Packed dirt roads, grass-roofed shops, and a tightly nestled community surrounded by hills and a lot of green make the place cozy and calm. Once the four of us climbed out of the suicidal driver’s van we hiked through the town and up a dirt path for about a mile or so before coming to a beautiful hostel. The Darling View Point Hostel is a burgundy wooded, clubhouse-looking place designed to keep everyone who stays there in a chill mood. It succeeds. For the first day nothing but Reggae played on the speakers, and I swear at all times there was at least one trekker swaying in a corner to a beat only he could hear. Even the owner, a French guy named Peter, seemed to have been on the down slope of a very substance-friendly lifestyle.

Pai is definitely a place to see in Thailand. The island feel and the scenery alone is worth a two-day stay.

The main building of the hostel we stayed in...I wish I lived there...
The main building of the hostel we stayed in…I wish I lived there…
By far the nicest hostel I've seen so far...
By far the nicest hostel I’ve seen so far…

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Although the sleeping arrangements were a bit...eh, who cares, it's a hostel.
Although the sleeping arrangements were a bit…eh, who cares, it’s a hostel.

Once the four of us got checked in at the hostel I walked back into town and rented a Scooter. Within an hour I managed two almost crashes and one legitimate tumble when I attempted to start and turn at the same time. No worries, though, by day three I was riding like a pro…

That first day I just rode around a lot, taking in the area and watching the people. There were so many tourists I had a hard time discerning who was a local and who was just passing through. I ran into the Finnish girl a few times, and even the Chinese couple from Shanghai Dean and I met at the Doi Suthep temple. Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I travel I seem to run into people multiple times. It’s amazing how that can happen. You bump into people once and then find them later on and share a meal and a story with them. Anyone else ever feel that way?

I don’t know what it is about me wanting bags or hats, but every time I go somewhere I seem to want one or the other. In Pai I wanted a hat. A fedora, precisely. So I bought one off a local merchant and haggled her down, but not as good as when I bought the brown bag I was still totting around. And unfortunately I did wear both of them together. I wish I could have gotten a picture of what I must have looked like on the scooter.

The food at the hostel was fantastic and each morning I made sure to get up around 7 and get some. On the second morning I happened to leave my fedora (my awesome fedora) on the table. When I came back for it it was gone. Peter said the tall English guy took it, but swore he’d bring it back later. Apparently the hostel has hats it lends out and the English guy thought this was one of them. On one hand, he’d given his own black fedora to Peter for collateral, so I knew he’d probably be back with it sooner or later. On the other hand, the guy was a loon. The first night we were there we hung out around a fire pit and this guy just kept rambling about this young woman he was traveling with and how she was the sun in his life, the energy and heart that keeps him sane (obviously not so good with the last part). The guy was so burnt-out he made Peter seem like a calm, calculated accountant.

When he did finally come back to the hostel I happened to be around and I asked him for the hat back. He relinquished it easily enough, but the look on his face made it seem like I punched his dog in the face or something. He mumbled again and then spoke up so I could understand him. He asked if I’d be willing to trade for the hat. When I told him I just bought it he looked just barely Okay with the refusal, but then asked me what the story behind it was. I asked him what he meant. “You know, the story, man. What’s the story about this hat? It feels like a story to me.” I told him I just bought it in town and that I doubt it had a story. He persisted by saying, “Well, surely you spoke to the woman you bought it from. Did she say anything about it?” I suppose this would have been a great opportunity to embellish, to say, well, shit, yeah this thing has a GREAT story! Each straw thread used in it had to be carried across war-infested borders, and the little girl who made it sold it as a means to feed her family…I don’t know. I just looked at him and shrugged, put the hat on, and walked away.

Great scenery
Great scenery

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Making our way down the "canyon"
Making our way down the “canyon”
Now there's a rickety bridge...
Now there’s a rickety bridge…

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Yes, I did indeed by a straw fedora for this trip. What? What? You got somethin' to say 'bout it?
Yes, I did indeed buy a straw fedora for this trip. What? What? You got somethin’ to say ’bout it?

On the second night we hit an actual Reggae concert in town. Along with a few Leo Beers and dancing, the night consisted of meeting a group of Australian girls who gloriously over-used the word, “Oi” to the point that I had to simply walk away from them, a guy with dreadlocks following us around, and a song with a chorus of “do, do, do, do, da, da,” that is still stuck in my head. Pai isn’t a party town at all, but that night we did all right.

The next morning while I was eating breakfast the tall English guy strolled into the common area wearing a tightly wrapped, multi-colored skirt, ankle-high snake skin boots, a woman’s denim jacket, and sunglasses. Clutched in his right hand—at 8 am—was a large Leo and a thin cigarette. He called Peter over to him and told him twice, “You’re name is Peter. That’s like ‘teacher,’ but funnier because you’re funny.”

To his credit, Peter just nodded and continued taking orders for breakfast.

Eventually we all got together and headed out for some trails. We rode for hours, up and down hills, weaving around on the dirt roads and paths. We got to a few waterfalls where we swam for a bit and even one where we did flips off the rocks. I met a Chinese woman named Sara at one of them. She works for Tabao, a Chinese internet company like Ebay. She filmed us jumping around. I’ll link to the video below.


On the day I was to catch the 3:30 bus back to Chiang Mai Dean, Brendan, and I went for a hike that was supposed to be like two hours. Four hours later found us deep into the woods where we waded through several twists in the river, trekking deeper and deeper in search of a waterfall. I decided to commit to the hike and just catch the last bus out of Pai, and eventually we made it to the waterfall. Honestly, it was a bit underwhelming, but it was a fun hike through actual forest trails. When we got back to our scooters we careened down the roads until we reached the Hostel. I grabbed my gear and headed into town to arrange my exit strategy.

Once that was done I met up with the guys for lunch and we talked about our plans. Brendan was going home soon like me, but Dave and Dean still had a lot of traveling left to do. It was a good meal—American style Cheese Burger, baby. We said our goodbyes and each of us extended offers for room and board if any of us were in each other’s neighborhood later down the road. At about 7 I said so long to the guys with whom I’d become fast friends and hopped on the bus back to Chiang Mai.

Thailand 159

Gathering our wits and regrouping.
Gathering our wits and regrouping.

The ride back was just as crazy as the one in, but this time it was in complete darkness. Twice the driver stopped for wild dogs and once for a random herd of cows crossing the road. How he saw them in time to stop I’ll never know. Somehow I slept a little.

I checked back into the Little Bird Hostel I stayed in a few days before and dropped my stuff on the same bunk as before. I was wired, so I headed out. I hit the night bazaar again and wandered around for a while by myself, lost in thought. I felt completely alone for the first time my entire trip. The next day I would be catching a plane to Kunming and the day after that one back to Dalian. I wouldn’t meet random strangers and begin traveling with them again. I couldn’t really chat with the guests at the hostel, either. All of them seemed much busier than the ones who’d been there before. Although Yanis, the French guy who designed those abstract graphs, was still around. I thought about him and how his life seemed perfect. After working in a massage parlor for a year training, he decided to branch out. He figured he could help someone start their own massage place, and that’s just what he did. He helped create a new business and even designed their website. He doesn’t have a lot of money, but the work he did for them keeps him comfortable. One time I remember him complaining that sometimes he even has to work four hours a day! No wonder he possessed such zen calm half the time and reminded me of Garfield the cat the other half.

But as I wandered around on the streets I began thinking about the hostels I’d stayed in throughout some of my recent travels. There were definitely levels to them, but the comfy ones were truly special. The one in Beijing and the one in Pai, those were great. Sure the owners probably weren’t rich, but if it was a good location I’m sure they did all right for themselves. Back at the Little Bird I asked the owner about what it takes to open a hostel in Thailand and he said it was pretty easy. A lot of other Westerners also had book shops or cafes in the area. When I was younger I dated a girl and we sometimes joked about a combination book and café shop we’d someday own. MJ’s Book & Café, we’d call it. Now I wonder if owning a hostel could be possible…

Just as I was deciding on turning in for bed I decided to take a look at the second level of the Little Bird hostel. I’d never been up there, so I just wanted to see. When I got up there two Chinese girls were chatting. I said hi in Chinese and asked how they were. They commented on my Mandarin and asked me to sit with them. We chatted a bit, but it wasn’t long before we switched back to English, my Chinese having run out rather quickly. B. and W. were both traveling, but were friends. W. was studying for a Thai Language test the next morning and B. was just enjoying the evening, thinking about her recent travels to a monastery in Nepal where she met someone and fell in love. After about an hour W. turned in and B. and I walked around the market. I bought a pair of black fisherman pants that looked cool, and got the merchant down more than half. B. was impressed, but I just told her it was from living in China. We walked and talked a lot that evening. We ended up hanging out by the western side of the mote surrounding the town until the night air got a little too cool. She told me about her family, about how her parents couldn’t have children years ago, so they went to a small village and bought her as a baby from a local and raised her as their own. A few years later they finally had a son, but all through childhood B. felt divided, separate from them some how. Originally she wanted to go to Japan, but there were money problems, so that’s how she ended up in Nepal instead. She still seemed determined to make it there some day soon though. I walked her back to her hostel and then I headed back to my room where I fell asleep and dreamed about my family.

The next day I packed up my stuff and decided to lounge around and finally finish the book I was reading, The Psychopath Test. Just as I turned the last page B. walked by. She asked me if I’d seen W. and I said no. She plops down and we chat a few before I ask her if she’s eaten, “Ni chi fan le ma?” It’s a very common question in Chinese. About the closest they get to small talk. In my case, though, I meant it. I was hungry and so was she, so we set out for some lunch. After ten minutes of looking for the “right” Pad Thai place I happened to spot Yanis and asked him for directions. He pointed me down the right alley and soon B. and I were munching on some good Pad Thai. After the meal we said goodbye and I caught a cab to the airport.

I still had one more night before I had to be back in Dalian, so I decided to find something to do once I got to Kunming. When I landed a friend of my friend directed me through texts where to go to catch the right bus to the Youth Hostel. Once I got situated in the room I tossed my stuff on the bunk, changed my shirt, and headed out. I wandered around the streets of Kunming, China’s Spring City, and then found my way into a packed bar. Filled with mostly college students, the place was dark, flashy, and loud. Dancers in wild outfits gyrating and lip-synching to Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, crowds of young Chinese, and one Westerner—Me. I grabbed a drink, stood by a tall table, and within five minutes was invited over to a table with girls and guys all dancing and drinking. Once they learned I could speak to them in Chinese the drinking games began and the dancing and laughing continued. We hung out for a few hours, everyone laughing and joking like we all grew up together.

The next morning I slept in a bit too late and found myself rushing to catch a taxi to the airport in time. Before boarding I sent out a few texts to the people I’d met along the trip. I didn’t worry about goodbyes, just told them how much fun I’d had with them all. And then I got on the plane and headed home to Dalian.

Some art work back in Chiang Mai at the Night Bazaar