Monday, March 22, 2004

Thailand, Japan, and China: My Asian Vacasian

The short version:

I spent three weeks in Thailand, Japan, and China.

And the long version:

To kick things off, I flew from Islamabad to Lahore in route to Bangkok. At the airport, there was the usual pandemonium as I joined the no-holds-barred struggle to shove up to the ticket counter and get a boarding pass.

The flight was good, though, and Islamabad looks great from the air at night, especially when you are leaving for vacation. I had a connecting flight in Lahore, but due to security everyone was required to claim his baggage and recheck on the new flight.

As I deplaned, I was immediately met by an airport employee. I didn’t know what he was doing, but what I assume happened is that they checked the flight list to see how many Westerners were on the flight, and then they pulled them aside. Me and another woman I didn’t know were the only ones that the man detained. Then he went with us to the baggage claim. For every bag that passed, he was like, “Is this one yours?”

I was like, “No…no…no…no…no…no.”

Finally, he quit asking. My bag showed up, and we grabbed it. When me and the other woman had all our stuff, the airport guy told us to follow him. Then he took us to an empty waiting room and we had to sit there for 2 hours, with a guard at the door, until it was almost time to board the flight to Bangkok. I was later told that they were detaining us for our own safety in the airport. Needless to say, I was bored to death in that room. I was forced to re-read my guidebooks.

Most of the people on the plane were Pakistani, which was no surprise. If you’ve never flown with Pakistanis, I can tell you without stereotyping or generalizing that Pakistanis are the worst overhead compartment hogs in the world. Every Pakistani on this flight had like 3 carry-ons apiece, and most of these were huge bags. Seriously, it looked like some of these people were carrying bales of cotton with them. Others were carrying jugs of water, as if the water in Thailand was any less potable than the water in Pakistan. The worst part was that the check-in staff never seemed to make any attempt at limiting the amount of carry-ons that came aboard.

Anyhow, halfway through the boarding process, the arguing for carry-on space began. Tribal feuds have probably started in Pakistan over overhead bin infractions. The flight attendants tried to help by wedging bags everywhere, but then people were getting angry that their precious stuff was getting crunched. In the end, some people had to check their bags at the last minute, but not without a fuss of course.

The drama passed and we took off.

Mealtime came, and the drama returned. They were serving beef, chicken, and fish. Shortly after meal service began, a flight attendant announced over the speakers that the chicken and fish were gone and that only beef was available.

I was watching as the flight attendants came down the row toward me. After they had already announced that there was only one entrée left, they still asked each person what they would like to eat. That made no sense, but then, wouldn’t you know, almost every Pakistani would say chicken. It was hilarious. Seat by seat, row by row, the same conversation was happening:

“What would you like for dinner?”


“We only have beef.”

“OK, I’ll have the chicken.”

“We only have beef.”

“Yes, I’ll have chicken.”

They must have thought there was some secret stash of chicken that the flight crew was holding back.

The ordering was further complicated because some people had preordered special meals, which lead to several jealous on-lookers and consequently more haggling with the flight crew. The crew was Thai and they only made matters worse I think. They couldn’t seem to hide their annoyance with the passengers, and I was waiting for one to go postal.

The flight attendants finally got to me, and I too ordered the chicken. Just kidding, I took the beef.

After that, I settled in for the night with a good movie and a seat-mate who decided to loudly suck on his teeth the rest of the way. It was maddening.


We arrived in Bangkok, and they opened the plane door. I immediately started sweating and kept at it for the next 4 days.

I caught a cab with a cabbie who had supposedly been waiting for 5 hours in the airport queue for a customer. When he told me that, I was dying laughing. I gave him a good tip, though, so it was all good.

He dropped me at my hotel, and as I walked up to check-in, I caught one of the stairs and tripped into the lobby. Not only was this embarrassing, but I also broke my big toe. I think I did anyway – mainly due to the swelling, the purple color, and the intense pain – but I could be wrong. Being in sandal country, everyone could see the results of my awesome coordination.

I spent most of my time in Bangkok fighting my way through a barrage of go-go girls, street vendors, masseuses, and, the most dreaded of all, tailors. Along the way, I managed to see the Royal Palace and some temples.

I also bought some stuff from the street vendors. And my bargaining skills weren’t bad. On several occasions, I would buy something, and later ask the go-go girls, cabbies, and masseuses how much they would pay for the item. Almost across the board, I came out ahead. Everyone I dealt with (who could speak enough English) would tell me to look them up next time I came to visit. Hmm... on second thought, maybe my bargaining skills weren't that great. In any case, I found their requests to be funny. Like I would be able to remember the location of every food stall, massage parlor, and knock-off North Face vendor the next time I came to Bangkok.

A good many vendors could not speak English, or at least they pretended that they couldn’t. They would type how much they wanted for an item on a calculator. Then I, the customer, would type my price on the calculator, and the bargaining would commence. Actually, even the ones who could speak English would whip out the calculators. Almost always I would enter my low-ball amount and they would laugh. Then they would ask what my serious price was. When the serious price turned out to be basically the same as the joking price, the laughing would sometimes go on a bit longer and then stop, and sometimes it would stop straight away. Some of these vendors showed real resentment. Of course the last thing any of them wanted was to see me walk 2 stalls down and buy the same thing from someone else. So, most would sell after a bit.

Bangkok is, of course, a large urban city, unlike Islamabad. So, all the western and international restaurants were there. I can walk by McDonald’s and Uno’s Pizza easily enough, but I had to hit the Dairy Queen for a blizzard and the 7-11 for a slushie. The rest of the time, I ate from the street stalls. It was so cheap and tasty, it could not be beat. Besides the regular things like chicken sate, squid on a stick, fresh fruit, and whole grilled fish, I also got some more exotic fare like roasted worms and shrimp heads. (That’s two separate things.) A lot of the soups and other dishes were so spicy that by the time I finished eating, I couldn’t feel my lips. It was just spicy enough in other words.

The way I like to explore a city is to go to a destination like an attraction or a shopping area, and then just start walking – for hours. I did this every day in Bangkok, and I got to see some interesting parts of the city. Once I was walking along a canal behind some houses, and the path dead-ended because a house was built across the sidewalk. It wasn’t totally clear that the path was blocked, however, so as I was walking toward the house to look, all kinds of shady looking characters started opening windows and coming from around the side of the house to stare me down. I don’t know what they were doing in the house, but they gave me the distinct feeling that it was quite illegal whatever it was. I gave them a hello and a Thai bow, but they didn’t offer any response. I left the way I came in before I got knifed.

There were stray dogs and cats all over the city. It was so hot that most were sleeping on the sidewalks or else lying there with their eyes open as if they couldn’t move. I’m not sure if the Thai eat dog or cat. If so, there was food everywhere, and easy pickin’ from the looks of it.

I checked out the major red-light districts, and I had plenty of local beer. I’ve heard that one night in Bangkok makes a hard man tumble (or is it stumble?). Either way, probably it’s true.

It seemed like half the people in Bangkok were trying to hustle me. I stupidly hired a guide when I went to the Palace, and the price was somehow double the initial price when the tour was over and it was time to pay. My mistake I’m sure. Cabbies and tuk tuk drivers tried the same tactic. It didn’t work, but it got old. Plus the cabbies and tuk tuk drivers would continually try to stop at shops before going to the right destination because they would get vouchers from the shopkeepers for bringing tourists by (and more vouchers if the tourists spent money). The drivers didn’t shy away from explaining this, and I didn’t mind helping out at first. So, I would go in a tailor shop or whatever and look for a moment and leave. After a few times of this, though, I wasn’t so willing to help a cabbie out. I told them no stops, and they didn’t bother to hide the fact that this pissed them off.

At one of these tailor shops, I told the tailor that I was living in Pakistan. I was trying to explain to him that, living in another tailor-rich country, I didn’t have any need for his over priced services. This joker happened to have been a Pakistani, so he started speaking Urdu to me. At first I wasn’t paying close enough attention, so I didn’t catch the first part of what he said. Probably I wouldn’t have understood even if I were paying attention. I could understand the tail end of what he was saying, though, and I answered him. Then he continued, and I told him that he could stop since I was not even close to being fluent in Urdu. At this point, I could see by the look on his face that he felt he had won some victory. He was like, “I knew you weren’t a Pakistani.” Man, he was sharp. I told him that I never claimed to be a Pakistani. Then I went on to inform him that living in Islamabad, it was hardly necessary to learn Urdu since nearly everyone spoke English anyway, and that it was estimated that less than a quarter of all Pakistanis could speak Urdu to begin with, and that on top of that the official language was English. At this point, he could tell I wasn’t going to be buying any suits. My driver got his voucher and we were off.

Unfortunately, before I left the city, I did end up with a suit and a few shirts from another tailor. I remember reading somewhere that if you can buy off the rack, skip the headache of tailoring. I totally agree. The shirts I ordered were OK, but the suit was crap. The jacket had so much lining in it that I could barely move my arms. I didn’t have time to get it fixed, so I would have to take care of that when I got back to Islamabad.

After four days of hoofing it and riding the elevated train, taxis, tuk tuks, and river shuttles (dehydrating all the while), I caught the bus to the airport.

If I were taking this trip again, I would definitely not spend four days in Bangkok. I’d either go to the Thai jungle or to the beaches.

The passengers on the flight from Bangkok to Tokyo were mostly Japanese business men. Unlike the Pakistani travelers, the Japanese didn’t carry 6 months of provisions with them on the plane as carry-on. The Japanese had their own quirk, though. Almost every one would place some small item like a brief case or a sport coat in an empty overhead compartment and immediately close it. The passengers sitting in the same area wouldn’t bother to open the nearly empty compartment. Instead they’d search for another empty one, and then they’d put one thing inside and close it up. Only when it was necessary did they start putting multiple pieces of carry-on together. Maybe it was more aesthetically pleasing to keep the storage closed as much as possible or maybe they were trying to be super respectful of each other’s space. Who knows?


One of the main reasons I went to Japan was to visit my sister and her family in Misawa in the northern part of the country. Misawa is a four-hour train ride from Tokyo, but my flight arrived after the last train heading north had departed. A friend I was visiting in Tokyo was out of the country on this particular day, so I had to find a cheap place to crash in Tokyo for the night. The answer: a capsule hotel.

You have probably heard of capsule hotels before. The capsules are plastic containers the size of large coffins or refrigerators. Several of these capsules are stacked in a room, 2 or 3 deep, and some capsule hotels have several hundred units on several floors. The capsule hotels are mostly around for Japanese business men who miss the last train home (usually because they are too drunk), and in fact most will only accept unaccompanied men. They are located around train stations. It is simply cheaper for the men to stay in the capsules than to catch taxis home, as Tokyo is one of the most expensive taxi cities in the world.

Getting back to the story, I caught the train from the airport. I found my seat, and then an Aussie sat in the seat next to mine. He commented on how they had assigned the Westerners seats together. It was funny because it was true. The rest of the train car was Japanese people.

An hour later, we were in downtown Tokyo. Anticipating that I would be staying in a capsule hotel, I had printed off a list of hotels and addresses prior to my trip. That didn’t help matters a whole lot since I didn’t have a map of the downtown area and since I didn’t have my bearings anyway. I started asking locals for help. The reaction was mixed to be sure. Some people would walk by and totally ignore me. A good many Japanese, particularly the older ones, don’t know much English. Evidently, they would rather ignore a person than risk looking foolish trying to speak it. The younger people are learning English in schools now, so I would seek them out and the results were usually better. In my search for the capsule hotels, some people really tried hard to help me. Addresses are so tricky in Tokyo, though, that even the locals had to pull out street atlases. One couple was engrossed in their atlas for like 10 minutes before they decided they had no clue where my hotel was. It was nice of them to try, though.

I ended up just walking around and finding a hotel that way.

In the lobby, the floor in front of the reception desk changed from tile to carpet. I made the mistake of stepping on the carpet WITH MY SHOES ON. The clerk rushed around the desk in a bit of a huff. He was like, “Let me tell you something. You do not put shoes on carpet.”

I stepped back on the tile and slipped my shoes off. The desk clerk collected them and put them in a locker. Then he gave me some dwarf sandals to wear in the hotel. My whole heel was hanging out the back. To get a room, you had to buy a ticket in a vending machine along one wall of the lobby. Since I was clearly an ignorant barbarian, the guy collected my yen and put it in the machine for me. I’m sure the customer probably does this part alone normally. Then we walked back to the desk were he took my ticket and gave me the key for my locker. The key was on a Velcro wristband, and the clerk made a big point of telling me not to take off the wristband except in the shower. Then I was off to my capsule.

One end of the capsule was open so that the occupant could crawl inside. Inside was bedding, a TV mounted on the roof, and an alarm clock. The opening was only covered by a curtain, so the capsules were by no means soundproof.

I watched TV for a bit, but as I couldn’t understand a good deal of what I was watching anyway, I just went to sleep to the melodic snoring of 30 drunk Japanese guys.

I got up early and went down to the common bath in my dwarf sandals and dwarf bath robe that also came with the capsule. At Japanese baths, you clean yourself in a shower or with a bucket of water and soap, and once you are clean, you soak in the main tub. I took my shower and went to the tub. I stuck one leg in, and then the other, and that was as far as I could get. The water was so damn hot, I felt like a pot roast. Bigger public baths and hot springs usually have several tubs at different temperatures. There was only the one at this hotel and it was too hot to use. I saw another guy go in and come out quickly like I did, but that was all. Most Japanese bath at night, I think.

I checked out early and the deskman was friendlier than the night before. I turned in my key, got my shoes, and he wished me good luck in my travels. As I was leaving, he bowed. I bowed back. He bowed again. I bowed again. I was unsure of the bowing etiquette, so after 5 or 6 bows each, I conceded and let him get the last bow. Enough is enough, you know.

Next I caught the bullet train to Misawa. The trip takes 4 hours, and it was nice and comfortable.

In Tokyo, it was a bit chilly. When I got off the train in Misawa, it was starting to snow. Misawa is at the same latitude as New York City, and it usually gets several feet of snow in the winter. This year the snowfall had been much lower than normal, and I happened to have arrived in time for one of the few real snows of the season.

As I mentioned, I was in Misawa to visit my sister, Rachel, brother-in-law, Wes, and 2 nephews, Jared and Caleb (3 years old and 4 months old, I think). Rachel is a surgeon stationed at Misawa Air Base, and she was on-call during my visit.

I spent a lot of time just chilling out, and a lot of time with Jared pouncing on me. He was so keyed up that he kept getting scolded for acting crazy. He was hilarious, though.

I gave him a souvenir from Pakistan – a traditional embroidered vest and matching hat – and he was none too enthused. I’m told that he came to like the clothing more after I left (which may have been an exaggeration on my sister’s part for my benefit), but initially, he was really fighting putting it on long enough for me to take a picture. He clearly had his own ideas on what was stylish, and this clearly wasn’t. Caleb was cool too. He spent most of his time lounging around, contemplating things like rolling over. He hardly cried.

Misawa is a small town, and we caught the highlights. We went to see a temple, some lakes, a hot springs resort, a Japanese version of Wal-Mart, a cemetery, the mall, the Pacific shore, most of the Base, and lots of nice snowy countryside. We saw planes flying overhead. I watched DVDs with Jared. We pigged out at brunch. We tried the Japanese beers (Kirin was the winner). We mocked all the hilarious t-shirts and other things with sayings written in nonsensical English that were in the Japanese stores. I would have bought several of these shirts if they had had any in normal human sizes.

There was some good food in Misawa. Sometimes Wes cooked, and sometimes we went out to eat. We had some pretty good Indian.

We also had Korean barbeque. At the barbeque place, each table had a grill built into the center. There was a salad bar with raw meats and vegetables, and you would pick and grill what you wanted. Not only did they have the regular choices like pork and beef, they had things like tongue and intestine. I’m sorry to say, but we grilled up some of both the tongue and intestine and we ended up wasting some. Not that much, though.

I tried sushi for the first time in Misawa. It was good stuff.

We also went to a noodle shop. As we came into the noodle shop, the hostess yelled something out in Japanese and the cooks in the back yelled in response. They were yelling a greeting or something, and I would see this going on in other restaurants while I was in Japan. We opted to forgo sitting on the floor on rice mats, and took a table in the section with chairs. Our large bowls of ramen came out and we all dove in (in Jared’s case, literally). He could have used a raincoat. He had noodles and rice and broth everywhere – on himself, on the floor, on the table. This was more funny because there was another American family also in this small restaurant, and their toddler was having similar eating issues. The Japanese families there must have been surprised (and maybe peeved) to see these dueling droolers in their local eatery.

Once Jared finished eating, we cleaned up the area and paid. On the way out, the hostess yelled a farewell to us, and the kitchen crew echoed.

All told, I was in Misawa for about 5 days before I rode the bullet train back to Tokyo.

I was in Tokyo for two nights, and I stayed with my good friend Paula. She was a super host. The first night we had a few drinks at the Marine House bar and went to her friend’s place for dinner and some movies.

The next day, she went to work, and I went into the city. I didn’t do any real sightseeing in Tokyo. I just rode the subway and walked a lot. Tokyo is famous for its shopping, and I went to a few malls and shopping areas. I went to one of the busy intersections of town where several of the subway lines intersect. One of the people I met described the scene as an anthill of Japanese people, and he was right on the money. I went during evening rush hour, and it was wall to wall people.

Paula and I met for lunch the first day. She took me to a small restaurant full of Japanese salary men. The line was out the door when we got there, but at the rate these men were sucking down their meals, we didn’t have to wait long. We went in, the cooks and servers shouted the greeting thing, and we had a pork cutlet dish. It rocked.

After lunch, Paula gave me a tour of the embassy. It was so fancy, like a real office building, it made the embassy in Islamabad look like a real junk heap. She took me around to all the offices and introduced me to her colleagues. As we were waiting for the elevator at one point, Ambassador Baker came by. Paula was about to introduce me, but I slunk away before she had the chance. I was dressed down pretty good, and I hadn’t shaved. I didn’t feel like meeting the Ambassador like that.

The embassy and the housing compound were located near Rappongi, the bar district, and on my last night Paula and three of her friends (2 men and a woman) took me out drinkin’. The Japanese work hard and party hard. I’ve been told that on the weekends, most of the bars are busy through the entire night and into morning. We went out on a Wednesday night, so the scene was not up to the full weekend frenzy. It was good, though.

As we were walking down the street deciding where to go, the hustle men descended on us. All up and down the street there were Nigerians. Some were just there to corral people into bars, and some were pimping girls. The prostitutes, who looked to be mostly Asian women, were standing around wearing nothing but fur coats.

These Nigerians were very aggressive. We were a group of five and most of the time, they would single out one person in the group for hounding. Once they had picked their mark, they would follow us down the sidewalk harassing that person.

We started drinking, and my yen started disappearing. I was representing Tennessee, having Jack Daniels, and each drink was setting me back over ten bucks a pop. At least Japan isn’t a tipping country.

After several drinks in the first bar, we went to see some of the others. When we went into the second place, we could tell that something wasn’t quite right. There were literally probably fifty men and only one woman in there. My companions had been to that bar before and it hadn’t been that way when they had gone before. The best we could figure, it must have been gay night.

We left and went to another bar and had a few more. Then we went to a shot bar, which was a famous establishment in the neighborhood. By the time we left there, it was past midnight on a school night. Three of the group called it a night, and me and one of the other guys were the only ones left. He was a Marine.

At this point, my memory gets a little hazy. We went to a few more bars, a discount store that was like eight stories tall, and then to another bar. We went through the Nigerian gauntlet several more times.

At one point, my drinking buddy was propositioned by a male prostitute who was wearing furry white chaps. I had gone inside a bar to use the bathroom, and when I came back outside, my companion was dispatching the man for hire. They both took it all in stride, though.

I don’t know what time it was when we went back to the housing compound, but I sure didn’t feel like waking up in the morning.

But, of course, I did, and that afternoon, I was off to the airport. I rode the bus, and the view was excellente the whole way. The problem with the Tokyo leg of my trip was that I hadn't allowed myself enough time. I was there less than 48 hours, and there was much I didn’t have time to do.

At Narita, I was through check-in and passport control in like 15 minutes, so I had plenty of time to lounge around in the lounge. I tried one of each of the beverages. Besides the usual soft drinks and beer, they had the cold green tea (gross) and a drink called Pocari Sweat which was like Gatorade. It wasn’t bad, but the name needed some work.

We left for Beijing, and it was sayonara to the land of heated toilet seats.


It was like 9:30 at night when the flight arrived. At the gate, they made an announcement that all carry-on luggage would be checked and any alcohol would be confiscated. Welcome to communist country!

They never did search us, and I didn’t have any alcohol anyway.

Inside the terminal, I went through the diplomatic passport lane, and entry was a breeze.

My first order of business was to change dollars for RMB, so I could pay for a taxi into town. There was only one money changer open at the time, and there happened to be a retarded man at the counter raising a ruckus, holding up everyone else. On the exchange rate sign, they listed 3 rates: a buying rate, a selling rate, and a cash rate. This was confusing to me as well since the money changers in the other countries I’d been to had only listed buying and selling rates, not a cash rate. As we all had cash, we were all subject to the cash rate, which was naturally the worst.

The stooge tourist at the counter kept arguing, and once he had been shot down by every person in the bank booth, he tried to get the name of the bank’s president so he could file a complaint. Either the employees didn’t understand or they were pretending not to, but they never gave him a name to contact. He left in a huff, but for no reason. Since the banks in China are controlled by the government, the exchange rate is the same at every outlet.

The line started moving, I got money, and then I went to catch a cab. After brushing off several desperate illegitimate cabbies, I caught a ride at the taxi queue. There are many good deals in China, but the taxis are the best deal of all in my opinion. For a 30-minute ride into the city, the fare was $3. And, China is also a no-tipping country. You can’t beat that with a stick.

Unlike Japan and Thailand, and Pakistan for that matter, in China driving is on the right side of the road, like in the States.

In Beijing, I was going to visit another good friend, Lina, and her husband, Bob. Lina had sent me her address written in Chinese characters, so I showed the driver. He nodded that he understood. We ended up getting lost anyway. He kept stopping the car and motioning at places I knew couldn’t be right. I think he was expecting me to get out at these ragged buildings, but I didn’t. After he asked several people for help, we found the right place. It was a very nice tower of apartments, located in a building with some restaurants, some corporate offices, a mall, a car dealership, and a supermarket.

Another of my good friends, Trisa, who was stationed elsewhere in China, was visiting Beijing with her mother at the same time I was there. They were staying at Lina’s apartment in the guest room, so Lina made arrangements for me to stay with one of her friends.

That night, I went to dinner by myself. I found a little restaurant that was pretty busy. I went inside and was seated alone at a table for six. There was one waiter who could speak a touch of English, and I conveyed to him that I wanted a beer and a spicy pork dish. Before long, the restaurant was full, and people were made to wait for tables to open. I was sitting there at the large table by myself, and the people waiting kept complaining about it. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I got the gist.

The food was great.

The next day, I went with Trisa and her mom on a tour to the Great Wall and the Summer Palace. Our guide, Jerry, and the driver met us early in the morning and after maybe an hour in the little van, we were at the Wall. The van couldn’t make it all the way to the parking lot, so we had to walk a little extra.

We went to a touristy part of the Wall, but since it was early, there was hardly anyone else there. It was quite nippy.

We walked along the Wall for a bit. It was a bit dangerous in many places. Some places had steps; some didn’t. In the parts with steps, they were sometimes small, sometimes big, sometimes regular. In the parts without stairs, the incline was often steep. I could feel my shoes slipping, but I never bit the dust thankfully.

On the way back to the van, Trisa and I stopped for photos on a camel, with the Wall in the background. Touristy, sure, but you can’t argue with results. Those pictures rocked.

We went into one of the souvenir shops at the base of the Wall, and I got my first glimpse of shopping in China. Or shopping in the bargaining places at least.

Rule No. 1: if you pause for even a moment to look at an item, a clerk or most likely multiple clerks, will be all over you in a relentless sales pitch.

They would start by giving their price, either spoken or on the old calculator. As the customer, you would then laugh or gasp (your choice) at the ridiculously high price. Then they would ask for your price. You would make your offer, and they would laugh at your ridiculously low price. Then they would come down a little. Then it would be your turn. You wouldn’t come up. They would stop laughing. Then they would tell you how you were taking all the profit away, or how they couldn’t afford to eat because of people like you, or how the craftsmanship was so well done. Then they would ask for your serious price (no joking, now). You would tell them an amount that was maybe a shade higher than your first one, or maybe the same. At this point, they’d usually refuse, or else keep harping on the price they wanted. You’d walk away. They’d come after you, probably physically grabbing your arm. They’d ask your price again (as if they didn’t know). You’d tell them, and they’d refuse. After a few more walk-aways, they would sell at your price almost every time. Of course, it always helps when you don’t absolutely want the item you are bargaining for. That way, you can walk away for good if you need to, just to prove a point.

One of the most annoying shopping scenarios was when I really didn’t want the item at all, but the clerk thought I was just playing hard to get. In these cases, I would find myself doing a real walk-away, only to have the clerk keep bringing me back inside.

Anyway, I didn’t buy anything at the Great Wall.

We loaded in the van and headed back toward Beijing. Jerry informed us that the next stop would be the Jade Museum. A quick poll revealed that none of us were interested in seeing the Jade Museum, so Trisa told Jerry that we didn’t want to go. Instead, she told him he could just tell us a bit about the importance of jade in Chinese culture. Jerry was glad to oblige. He told some longwinded story about how the emperor used to pick his concubines, and the role the eunuchs played and so forth. It was mildly interesting at first, but it had nothing whatsoever to do with jade. Trisa later admitted to having missed the whole story. When he was talking about the eunuchs, she thought he was saying ‘unique’ and so the story stopped making sense to her at the start.

We were all a bit glazed over by the time Jerry finished.

In no time, the van stopped, and we were at the Jade Museum. Doh! Clearly, there was a communication failure between us and Jerry. We told him again that we weren’t interested, and we drove off. The other main thing on the tour was to be the Summer Palace. When we left the Jade Museum, it was around 10:30. Instead of going directly to the Summer Palace (which was slated for the afternoon) Jerry decided we should stay on schedule and go to lunch. Since we had started early, we were sufficiently hungry, and we agreed with his suggestion. He had arranged for us to have lunch at the restaurant in a friendship store. In China, friendship stores are government-run outlets for handicrafts and souvenir-type things. The only problem is that the prices are outrageous and you can’t bargain in a friendship store.

So we pulled up to the friendship store, and the ladies there informed us that lunch wasn’t served until noon. Jerry told us just to shop around for a moment while he went to talk to the chef to get our lunch expedited. We were the only people in the store at the time, so right off the bat like 5 clerks leached on to us. They were annoying to be sure, but also a bit amusing. You would be looking at a vase, for example, and one of the clerks would rush up and tell you, “That is a vase.” It was the same story for every freakin’ thing in the store. “That is a dragon.” “This is chopstick.” “That is pearl necklace.”

It was super boring looking around that store. We looked at everything there was; didn’t buy a thing.

All the while, there was no sign of Jerry. We were contemplating ditching him, and the lunch and the rest of the tour, and catching a taxi to the Summer Palace on our own. Jerry had been paid up front, so he had nothing to lose if we had snuck off.

While we were toying with escaping, Jerry appeared. Low and behold, the lunch was finally ready. And it was only noon at the time. Jerry really did a superb job of getting the lunch expedited.

The lunch itself was nothing special. It consisted of several small dishes, and only a few were being eaten. The rest weren’t super bizarre or anything, just not very tasty.

After lunch, we went to the Summer Palace. It was neat. There were some cool statues, some buildings, some pagodas, a lake, and whatnot. The lake was dug by hand by 10,000 people over six years, back when some emperor decided he wanted a lake where there wasn’t one. It was only 9 feet at the deepest point, though, which left me to think that the emperor should have maybe put 20,000 people on the project for a little more depth.

We basically went straight through the Summer Palace, only stopping to use the “4-star toilets”. Yes, they had a tourist rating system for toilets. However, the rating system seemed to be totally useless. The 4-star toilet was as nasty as any of the others.

In Japan, they had an odd mix of low-tech pit toilets and fancy electronic toilets with different water sprays and heated seats.

In China, they only had the pit toilets, and the occasional American style toilet. All the bathrooms in China were smelly and nasty looking. Plus, none had toilet paper. Some had dispensers outside where you could buy packs of tissue, but for the most part, you needed to carry some with you. Most of the public toilets in Pakistan are also nasty, smelly pit toilets with no toilet paper, but at least in Pakistan, most toilets have a bucket of water available for cleaning purposes. I won’t go into detail, but I think you get the idea.

So, we went to the 4-star bathroom.

On the men’s side, there were a bunch of teenagers sitting inside the entrance. When I walked in, one of them said hello. I said hello back, and this was hilarious to the group. On the way out, 2 more said hello. I didn’t respond. This was hilarious to the group.

Coincidentally, aside from the vendors and shopkeeps, most people I met in China (including cops, restaurant workers, ticket sellers at tourist attractions, and cabbies) knew no English beyond “hello” and “OK”. To complicate things further, when I would try to say things in Chinese using my phrase book, no one could understand me. All I could say in Chinese that could be understood was yes, no, hello, goodbye, thank-you, America, beer, tea, and “I don’t want it”. The whole time I was in China, communication was a real problem.

After the Summer Palace, Jerry dropped us off at a shopping center near the apartment. Like every other one, this shopping center had a souvenir section and all kinds of knock-off apparel from Gucci to Tommy Hilfiger to Levi to Armani to North Face. There were also the Chinese brands you’ve never heard of. We all got some cool stuff.

That night, we all hung out at Lina and Bob’s, watching movies on the big screen. Most of the movies were chick flicks.

We did watch “Lost in Translation” which people had recommended I see before going to Japan. When we watched it, the vote was unanimous: two thumbs down. I think it would have been the same story if I had seen it before my trip.

The next day, Lina and I went to the dirt market. The dirt market is like a huge flea market, and they sell everything there. It was my kind of place. We were there for a few hours, and I don’t think we even saw a third of the booths. We both came away with some cool things.

Over the next few days, I did the see-a-site-and-then-walk-for-hours bit repeatedly. I went to Tiananmen Square (didn’t view Mao), the Lama Temple, the outside of the Forbidden City (by this point I was templed-out and didn’t pay to go inside), and the Temple of Heaven. I went to some malls and some open air markets. One night we went for drinks at a country bar, the Nashville Bar, but I didn’t stay late.

It was breezy in the city, and the wind was gritty. Still it wasn’t too cold. The worst thing was that the sky was gray the whole time I was in China. I thought maybe it was because it was winter, but I’ve heard from other people who have lived in China that the sky is never blue because of all the pollution.

In China, everything seemed to boil down to three things: evil spirits, good luck, and longevity. “Why did they paint this door red?” “For good luck.” “What’s with this raised doorway?” “Keeps out evil spirits.” “Why are you wearing a necklace made of skulls?” “Longevity.”

I had some great food in Beijing. One of my friends in Islamabad spoke Chinese and had spent time in China. He marked some dishes that I should try in my guide book. The dishes in the book were written in English and Chinese, so that allowed me to just point at the characters and be understood. That was helpful in many situations, but there were times when even this didn’t work. At dumpling stalls, for example, I had no idea what I was ordering. I would just point at some dumplings and eat.

At all the restaurants, I was really interesting to the staff. There was always a bit of confusion at the start of the meal, when they would hand me a menu in Chinese, and I would pull out my guide book and order that way. They would discuss this in Chinese and there would be smiling and snickering. Once I would get my food, it seemed like all the floor staff would come over to watch me eat. If another customer needed something, someone would go help him and then come back and stand near my table again. Maybe the waiters and waitresses were impressed with my chopstick skills. Or maybe I wasn’t making enough noises or spitting enough in the floor. Whatever it was, they sure did enjoy watching me eat.

I ate the famous Beijing duck, and it was good. I went to the restaurant between lunch and dinner hours, and so at first I was the only person sitting in my section. The waiter brought out my duck and the accompanying crepes, plum sauce, scallions, and cucumbers. I gestured for him to show me how to eat it. Using the chopsticks, he wrapped the duck and all the toppings up in a crepe and made a little burrito. I copied him and was making and eating my duck burritos using the chopsticks. It wasn’t easy, and I’m sure I looked silly. The wait staff definitely seemed to think it was funny. Eventually, some other people came in my section. When their food arrived, they were doing everything by hand. I then realized that the waiter who had shown me how to make the burritos had only used the chopsticks for my demo because it was not his food and he didn’t want to handle it with his fingers. Doh! I then started using my fingers, and the whole process was a lot quicker. Beside the duck itself, I had some assorted sautéed mushrooms and duck soup.

A few days into my stay, I was approached by a young Chinese couple who could actually speak pretty good English. They explained that they were art students and that some of their work was going to be exhibited in the U.S. They wanted me to come to their studio and tell them how I thought their works would be received in the States. I knew at the time that they would be trying to sell the art to me, but I was so glad to see Chinese people with good English that I went anyway. At the studio, we met another artist, and the three showed me their works. They were nice, and I ended up getting two pieces at very bad prices. The prices weren’t outrageous, but they were higher than even department store prices. There were 3 artists there, and having bought 2 pieces, there was one woman who didn’t sell anything to me. She was like, “Don’t you like mine? Please buy one of mine.”

I told her that I couldn’t afford a third piece, and they led me back to the street.

After that, I was approached by art students on several more occasions. I never went for another show.

Having spent five days in Beijing, I caught a taxi to the train station for the last leg of my vacation, to western China. The train left at night, and on the way to the depot, we drove through the city which was lit up nicely.

At the train station, there was a luggage x-raying station right at the door. Everyone was pushing and shoving trying to get their bags on the conveyor belt first. I was nearly run over by some little old ladies. All the jockeying for position was retarded. Furthermore, I don’t think anyone was really checking the bags anyway. Not a single bag was searched while I was watching.

My train was boarding when I got inside the station, so I didn’t have to wait. In store was a 46-hour trip to Turpan in Xinjiang province in western China. I was traveling by hard sleeper. With hard sleeper, there are 6 bunks, 2 stacks of 3 beds, in each bay. Each bunk comes with a blanket, pillow, and towel. In each train car there are maybe 60 bunks total. There is a nicer class called soft sleeper, but I didn’t opt for that.

By the time I boarded, the other five people in my bay were already there. As such, all the luggage space had been snagged. My bed was the lower bunk, which is where everyone would sit during the day. All my cabin mates were camped out on my bed when I came in with my luggage. They cleared off, and I shoved my backpack under the bed. Then we all sat there, awkwardly staring around, on the 2 bottom bunks.

The other people in my car were all old men. Before I came on the train, I was a little concerned as to how I would be able to protect my stuff. I had envisioned having to carry my luggage with me to the bathroom. Once I saw who I was riding with, though, I wasn’t worried about leaving my stuff unattended.

Before long, the train rolled out of the station. After a few minutes, we were out of Beijing, and there wasn’t much to see. A few hours later, the car attendant closed all the curtains, and it was time for lights out.

That night, there was some fierce snoring. It was worse even than the Japanese capsule hotel.

I was intentionally the last in our bay to wake up in the morning. No one had spoken to me the night before (except for the guy who tried French on me), so when I woke up at first, I went back to sleep. I figured it would be more fun to sleep than to sit on the bed staring at people who wouldn’t or couldn’t speak to me.

When I finally got up, everyone sat on my bed again. Before long they started having breakfast. I didn’t bring much food - just some snacks like crackers and cookies - because I knew I would be sitting on my butt all day and wouldn’t be burning many calories. Also, I knew there was food available on the train.

When I didn’t commence to fixing breakfast, the others seemed to take that as a signal that I didn’t have anything to eat. And they probably figured I wouldn’t be able to order anything on the train. One of the guys had a whole loaf of raisin bread, and he cut off a large slice for me.

I didn’t need it, but I took it and ate it anyway. It was good.

The train stopped every few hours, and at one of the first few stops, two of the old guys from our bay left. Meanwhile, a lot of people who weren’t sleeping in my bay started hanging out with us.

They were having some lively discussions, and I was looking out the window. The scenery was nice. The first half of the trip, the terrain was such that most of the track was either on bridges, in tunnels, or on narrow strips of elevated land. The train would constantly jerk, sometimes quite dramatically. You could almost picture the train jerking itself into a derailment on some bridge.

Lunch time came around, and once again, these people all had a full spread. I ate only a few of my crackers, and my companions once again thought I was starving. One old guy gave me a bowl of ramen noodles and a chunk of meat. The meat was beef I think, served cold. He had his hands all over the log of beef while he was cutting it, and when I went to take a bite, I got a whiff of it. It smelled like an outhouse. I ate it, making every attempt not to smell it. The old guy also gave me some hooch, and everyone leaned in to watch me drink it. It wasn’t that strong, though, so I didn’t choke or otherwise amuse the onlookers. I was stuffed and the old guy kept giving me more packs of ramen. I held them for later.

The train was very hot, so I took off my shoes and socks. To look at all the Chinese people, though, you’d have thought the train was freezing. They all had on 3 pairs of pants – two pairs of thermal underwear and a pair of regular pants. You could tell because they were all constantly pulling at the bottom of the legs and reworking their socks into their long johns. Everyone also had on a sweater and a jacket. I was wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt.

A few hours after lunch, like 20 hours into the journey, the people finally started interacting with me. I took a few pictures of the scenery out the window, and they all wanted to see. I put the camera on review and they passed it around. One of the guys was trying to yank my chain, and when the camera came to him he gave me the equivalent of about USD 5.00. At first I didn’t get that he was trying to “buy” my camera for 5 bucks. It was a good gag, though, and everyone laughed.

One of the people who was just hanging out in my bay but not sleeping there knew a little bit of English. People started firing questions at him to ask me. They would have some long dialogue, the translator would think for a minute or two, and then he would say something in English to me. Many times, he wouldn’t be able to translate whatever had been asked, because after a few minutes pause, he would go back to Chinese, having never asked me the question.

Those people were goofy. After the 20 hours we had had without communication, the first thing they wanted to know was if I could speak Chinese. I thought it was more than obvious that I couldn’t. They went on to ask if I was a student, if I was a teacher, if I was 22, what my name was, where I was from, how I liked China, how long I was in China, where I was going, if I was hungry, if I was married, and why didn’t I wear shoes. I gave them many good answers, and was able to get similar answers from them. Something else I thought was goofy: There was the one guy translating all the questions. Yet when duplicate questions came up, he would still ask me. I had to tell him I couldn’t speak Chinese like 5 times just because different people kept asking and the translator didn’t bother just answering.

What really blew their minds was my family. In the land of government-mandated population control programs and single-child families, these people were amazed at my being one of ten kids.

After the ice was broken, everyone wanted to talk to me. The old guy with the alcohol kept getting in my face and speaking very slow Chinese to me. Like that was going to help me understand. He would pronounce my name like Curse.

At one point, in order to explain where Tennessee was, I drew a picture of the U.S. in my Lonely Planet and labeled New York, Washington, and then Tennessee. They all understood. Once it was out, they all wanted to look at the Lonely Planet. All they could do was look at the pictures and read the sections with phrases and foods since those were the only sections with Chinese characters. In the food part, they were intrigued at the dishes my friend had circled for me. He had also penciled some additional dishes in and the people thought I had written the characters. I explained that someone else had written them, but I doubt it was understood.

That night, they fed me more junk for dinner. More ramen, of course, some spam-like meat roll, and a round of bread. It was almost like I was a stray dog to them (“Eat up little feller. That’s a good boy.”) The feeling of being a pet was only reinforced when one of the guys couldn’t resist rubbing my “furry” arm. The Chinese were all hairless, and I guess his curiosity got the better of him. No big deal.

The crazy alcohol guy gestured that I should take a picture of everyone sitting around in the train. I hadn’t planned on doing that, but it seemed like a good enough idea. I got out the camera. No one bothered to look at the camera, though, so the pictures weren’t very good. Maybe they were wanting me to tell them to say cheese in Chinese.

The next morning, most of my compadres got off the train, and most of the beds in my bay were unassigned for a few hours. I was sitting on my bed when 8 women and a toddler shoved in and took over. All of the ladies had on some serious make-up, but two of them still managed to look pretty attractive. They draped a blanket over their laps and started playing cards. While the ladies were playing cards, the little boy showed me his pogs. They were Pokemon or Digimon or some similar sort of Rodentmon. The little kid kept talking to me, in what was good Chinese I’m sure, but it looked like he realized I couldn’t understand. Of course I got more to eat. This time, they were offering me some of the little kid’s treats. Me and the little man got Chinese moon pies, chocolate covered rice crispies, yogurt drinks, and bubble gum. Eventually, half-pint got bored and started throwing himself on the blanket the ladies were using to play cards with. They got pissed off, and he got spanked. He won the war, though, and they put the cards away.

Next it was my turn to look at them like animals. A few of the ladies pulled out nails (as in pieces of hardware) and they took turns picking the wax out of each other’s ears. It was like watching a troupe of monkeys grooming each other.

They only went one stop, so they cleared out before long.

The little kid who left with the 8 women was potty-trained. There were unfortunately 2 other toddlers in my train car who weren’t. They rode the whole way with me. In China, evidently, they don’t use diapers. All the untrained children were wearing pants with an unstitched crotch. That way when they are standing up, everything was mostly covered. When they would squat down, however, the seam in the pants would open up and they could do their business. When the mothers would carry the kids, their butts were always hanging out.

Anyway, one of these toddlers wasn’t doing very well with his potty training. Every few hours, his mother would rush by with a wad of crumpled newspaper. Then she’d rush by with a wad of toilet paper. And then the attendant would rush by with a broom. Their bay was the next one over from mine.

After the card-playing ladies left, some of the people I had met earlier returned.

Time for more ramen. This time with some salty boiled eggs and bread.

There was a mini TV for our train car and throughout the day I could here people watching shows and playing Nintendo. After we had eaten lunch, the attendant brought the TV to our area. It was all in Chinese, of course. The guy making the selection first chose some stupid variety show. It had singing and dancing and a skit where a couple was talking and the husband fell asleep on the couch while his wife was talking. Without understanding any of the language, I could tell this show was a looser. It had a “Laugh-In” look to it. After that selection ended, the man in control of the TV picked Chinese music videos. I enjoyed that, but the guy didn’t. After a few songs, he changed programs. And he put it back to the same freakin’ variety show we had just watched. It was excruciatingly boring, but this dude was singing along with the songs and cracking up at the jokes that I’m sure were corny.

The attendant was watching the TV with us, and after the program finished, she collected the TV, probably to take to another group of passengers. I don’t know if the TV service was free or not, but when the attendant was leaving, one of the guys kept trying to give her money and she kept refusing it.

By this point, I was only a few hours from my destination.

We came to another stop and all but one of my friends left. In the eleventh hour, he finally realized that he could communicate with me using his cell phone. He would go to work entering Chinese characters into his phone, which took several minutes. Then he would send the Chinese message somewhere and 10 or 15 minutes later, his phone would ring and it would have the message translated in English.

The first message he had for me: “How can I help you? Whot do you lose?” (Yes, the cell phone translations came with typos.) He was asking me this because I had earlier been rifling through my bag for the all-important toilet paper. I had found it, and completed my transaction at the train toilet some time before. I showed him what it was that I had lost, though. We both had a laugh and half an hour had been wasted on a silly question.

Half an hour later, came message two: “Why do you come China, but do not speak Chinese?”

I gave a shrug to convey that I was too stupid. It was easier than trying to explain that I wasn’t going to learn the hardest language in the world for a 10-day vacation.

Thirty more minutes: “I hope you lern Chinese and come back to China.”


And finally: “I lern English for when you come back to China.”

He was getting a little too mushy, or at least the phone translator was making him sound like it.

By now, all the text messaging had used up all the time. We arrived at my stop, the Turpan station. We shook hands, he saluted me and wished me good luck, and I left the train. Even if I come back to China one day, it’s pretty doubtful that I’ll run into him out of 2 billion people, seeing as how we didn’t even exchange e-mail addresses. I hope he doesn’t learn English on my account.

I had hired a guide in advance, so I was met at the train station by a guy holding a sign with my name on it. His name was Alimjan and he was a Uighur (pronounced “wigger”), which is the main minority group in Xinjiang. The Uighur heritage is a blend of the region, with Eastern European and Asian aspects. The Uighur language is unique, but similar to Uzbeki. So, Alimjan could speak pretty good English, fluent Chinese, Uighur, and Uzbeki. In appearance, he looked like a Russian to me, more so than the other minority people I would see there. I think most of the people in town would agree, since most everyone would address him in English until he responded in Chinese. Even his English had a Russian sound to it. He wore a black leather jacket and a leather hat. The driver was Han Chinese, meaning he was regular non-minority Chinese.

The train station was far from the town, so we drove an hour or so to the hotel. We made the usual small talk, and then we talked about Pakistan. As a tour operator, he had been stationed in Islamabad for a few years, arranging trips to China for Pakistanis.

Turpan is an oasis town in the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is the second biggest desert in the world, I think, behind the Sahara, and a lot of the part we passed through was just gravel. It was like a huge parking lot.

Turpan is not a natural oasis. It is in fact watered by thousands of kilometers of underground canals (all dug by hand) that carry snowmelt from distance mountains down to the city. It is famous, at least regionally anyway, for its produce - grapes and melons in particular. And from the grapes, it is also a big raisin and wine producing area.

When I was in town, the grape season was just starting. Over winter the vines were buried, and workers were just beginning to dig them up and hang them on the trellises. There were grapevines all over Turpan. There was a main pedestrian street called grape street or something like that and it was totally covered with grapevines. There were vineyards behind every shanty town and beside the mosques.

We overnighted at the Turpan Oasis Hotel. It was billed as the city’s finest, so the other hotels must have been real dumps. At the Oasis, the carpet in my room was all scruffy, and the towels had holes in them. The bathroom door also had a large hole in it. The room was good enough, though.

Once Alimjan dropped me off, I was on my own. I showered for the first time in 2 days and hit the town. Since there was a mixture of people in town, Han Chinese and minorities, I didn’t attract too much gawking. Still, I was stared at with a moderate intensity. I walked for a few hours and found a market area. It was a large complex with lots of dark alleys, but since it wasn’t market day, most of the stalls were locked up. When I was wandering through this market, some children ran up to me. They actually knew more English than just hello and OK, and they hadn’t seemed to have mastered the fine art of scamming yet. They walked with me, and we shared a wheel of bread the size of a hubcap and as chewy as taffy. My jaw was exhausted. Everything I would say to them was funny, but they got bored and ran along eventually. And I still had my wallet, so I was happy.

After walking around, I found a restaurant and ordered dinner using my Lonely Planet. The servers at this place seated me downstairs by myself, away from the main dining room upstairs where everyone else was sitting. That was cool with me – less eyes to watch me.

I ate and went back to the hotel. I watched a Chinese movie (which in general were good as long as there were subtitles), and went to bed.

I’m not sure when it was – just that I had gone to sleep – but there was some loud banging on the door. I woke up, and I was understandably kind of disoriented. The banging continued and then I could hear Alimjan shouting. “Hello, hello. Are you alright?”

I yelled back that I was fine.

The banging and yelling continued. I was sleeping in boxers, so I put on some pants and a jacket and opened the door. The way Alimjan was carrying on, you’d have thought we were under attack. Anyway, when I came to the door, I wasn’t dressed properly and my hair was probably going everywhere. I had been sleeping after all. Alimjan laughed at me. I wasn’t as amused, and I asked him what the problem was. He told me that he was worried about me because he had tried to call me several times that night without any luck. Evidently, I had been walking and dining past midnight and hadn't been available to take his calls. I was perfectly safe, though.

Alimjan left, and I went back to bed.

The next morning, I had a nasty breakfast in the restaurant of Turpan’s finest hotel as a roach ran across the floor near my table.

When I met up with Alimjan, another piece of the puzzle came into focus regarding his strange behavior the night before. He was hung-over.

Turns out that he had met up with a friend he hadn’t seen in years the night before, and they had spent the whole night drinking. The rest of the day as we were touring, he smelled like a distillery. It was actually starting to make me nauseous smelling him in the van.

Around Turpan, we toured the 1,000 Buddha Caves. These were caves used for burial, and they were once decorated with paintings and statues. When the area converted to Islam, the Buddhist treasures were destroyed or given to the thieving European archeologists who arrived just in time to cart the history of the region away to the museums of the West. We were the only people at the caves. There were signs for no smoking, no touching, no photography, and no spitting (which was an important one since the Chinese love to spit anytime and anywhere). Since we were the only ones around, Alimjan smoked the whole time and kept telling me that I should take pictures.

On the way back to Turpan, we passed the Flaming Mountains. They supposedly look like they are on fire in the midday summer sun, but they didn’t when we saw them in the morning spring sun. The Flaming Mountains are one of the hottest places on the planet, with temperatures recorded at over 80 degrees C.

We also toured the underground canals, a mosque, some tombs with real natural mummies, and the ruins of Jiaohe, the ancient city of Turpan that was destroyed by Genghis Khan. Jiaohe is one of the few ancient cities that was built in large part by digging buildings out of the rock, not by traditional building methods.

For our lunch in Turpan, Alimjan picked the place. Oddly enough, it was not the greatest choice of restaurants, kind of like when the tour guide picked the restaurant in Beijing. We were the only people in the place. Since he was hung-over, Alimjan spent like 45 minutes in the bathroom and then ordered some soup. He recommended the pilau for me, which I got. It was very bland – just rice and carrots and grease. In Pakistan, they make it with raisins and spices in it, which is much better. He also recommended I add mutton, which I did. That was some nasty stuff. There were several pieces, and they were basically just chucks of fat. Obviously, the fat was supposed to be eaten, since trimming it off would have resulted in like a gram of edible meat. I had to swallow the mutton pieces whole, like a snake, so as not to gag on the fat. Alimjan was enjoying his soup, freely spitting anything he didn’t want to swallow in the floor. Classy...

From there, we drove a few hours to Urumqi, the last stop of my vacation. I slept most of the way, while something I had eaten at lunch incubated in my stomach and started to make me sick.

Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang, and it was like a small, dirty, cold Beijing. It was snowing when we arrived.

The driver dropped me off at the hotel, and I went out exploring.

It was cold, so I didn’t waste too much time outdoors. I went in several stores and then went to find some chow. There were all kinds of street vendors selling kabobs and things. They looked good, but I wanted to try the restaurant experience again. I went to a place where there were several restaurants in a row. The names were written in Chinese, but I could see people inside eating with chopsticks. Bingo – a restaurant.

I went into the first one and opened up my Lonely Planet. I kept pointing to dishes in my book, and the servers kept shaking their heads no. They didn’t have any of the dishes, which meant I wasn’t in a Chinese restaurant. It got to be such a hassle trying to figure out something to order that I decided to do the old slink-out-the-door maneuver. That’s embarrassing, but what are ya gonna do?

I went next door, and the same thing started to happen. Unlike at the first place, though, these people didn’t want to see a sale walk out the door. One of the servers pointed to the other dinners to show me that everyone was eating some soup. I figured that this soup must be their specialty, and the price was right. It cost less than a dollar for a huge bowl of soup, 2 dumplings, some gross salad, and unlimited tea. So I ordered, and in a moment, I was served.

THAT WAS THE NASTIEST SOUP EVER. It grosses me out just thinking about it as I write this. It was tripe soup and it had a cornucopia of organs in it. There were the numerous squares of tripe, some white tough sliced things (spinal cord?), sliced meat (tongue?), firm meatballs (who knows, testicle?), and some gelatin pieces sitting on the bottom (made from hoof, no doubt). It was like a soup made from all the gross parts of a sheep or cow or whatever beast it was.

When it came out, I could see immediately that it was trouble. Plus, I was already in the early stages of getting sick from lunch.

As in all the other restaurants I visited, several of the wait staff came over to watch me eat. I looked around the restaurant and gave myself a pep talk: “It’s all in your head. Look at all these other civilized people enjoying their tripe soups. Dig in, slugger. It’ll be delicious.”

It was a cheesy pep talk to be sure.

I started eating. It was slow going. I found that I was chewing everything extra long because it was such a challenge convincing myself to swallow. I was counting everything. One tripe down, 67 to go. Shudder. One jello hoof down, 8 to go. Shudder.

I was guzzling the tea, which helped wash down the nasties.

Towards the end, I got in a groove. I could pop a tripe in my mouth, chew once or twice, and gulp it down with some tea. Then pop another.

As I was working on the meal, some of the staff were busy spraying the dining area, hopefully for bugs and not rodents.

In the end, I finished the soup. I felt like I was entitled to a gold medal or something. That damn bowl was empty. It was my finest hour.

I left the restaurant without fanfare, in search of some booze. I intended to get a bottle of the “famous” local wine and drink the whole thing to get the taste of soup out of my mouth. I found a liquor store easily enough, but I couldn’t get any help in choosing a wine. No one could tell me what was good, let alone what was dry or sweet or spicy. I picked a bottle blindly.

Back in the hotel, I cracked it open, and it was undrinkable. It was so sweet I had one drink and left the rest for the maid.

The rest of the night, I could taste the tripe soup. Plus, my illness from lunch incorporated the soup into its devious plot. I spent the whole night on the toilet.

The next day, I met Alimjan for the Urumqi touring. When we drove by the tripe soup restaurant, I asked him what the place was. Turns out it was a Muslim restaurant. I told him I was sick and that I wouldn’t be eating all day long. He was concerned and kept offering to take me to the chemist. I got diarrhea enough in Pakistan, though, to know that if I just didn’t eat for 24 to 48 hours, the problem would probably fix itself.

I told Alimjan that I would pass on the chemist. I must admit, though, that I was a little curious to see what treatment would have suggested. It may have been something normal like an antibiotic, but then again, it could have been something like ground rattlesnake.

The main outing of the day was a trip to Tiantan Mountain to see the Lake of Heaven. It is supposed to look like a piece of Switzerland plopped into China. It took a few hours to drive there, and the higher we got, the more snow there was on the ground. When we were on the mountain, the roads were a little slick, but drivable. As we came around one corner, our driver had the van in like 3rd gear, and we were barely moving. Just as I was thinking to myself that he was going to get us stuck, we started sliding backwards. He was a sucky driver. He was on the horn constantly when we were in town, and now he couldn’t drive up the mountain.

Anyway, he started to panic and was jerking the wheel around. Eventually, the van stopped sliding and we were just sitting on the icy sloped road. By this time, there was a tour bus full of Chinese tourists behind the van. They saw the trouble that the van was having. In response, the bus driver stopped the bus in the middle of the road. Fearing the road was too slick to continue, he started backing the bus back down the mountain. And the stooge drove the bus into the ditch right behind our van.

All the Chinese tourists jumped out into the big pile of snow outside the door. Alimjan got out of the van, and then my driver followed. Next, I got out, and as soon as I did, the van rolled down the street, hit the bus, and was also stuck in the ditch. The Chinese people were screaming. Our driver gave me the evil eye, like this was my fault.

Meanwhile, other cars and buses were driving by us with no problem.

While the drivers waited for help and started trying to dislodge the vehicles from the ditch, Alimjan and I and the group of Chinese tourists started walking the rest of the way up the mountain. Alimjan was like, “It’s 8 more kilometers to the top. Do you still want to go?”

I could sense that he wanted me to say no, but I said yes.

We trudged up to the parking lot and from there, it was an hour to the Lake of Heaven. The path to the lake was a bunch of snow-covered steps. Alimjan and I started up, but he was not in good shape. He was only 32, but I think all the cigarettes had taken a toll. He was gasping and panting every few minutes and finally he told me to go on without him and he would catch up later.

I went ahead alone, and that was probably the stupidest thing I did my whole vacation. I was rushing along the snowy trail and I could tell that I was the first one to pass through in a while since there were no other footprints in the thick powder. It was cold and slick and dangerous. If I had fallen or gotten hypothermia or something, it would have been a long time before Alimjan came to my rescue. I wasn’t really dressed for the weather, and I had on some shoes that didn’t have good traction. Anyway, I was going further and further up the mountain. The bright snow was threatening to give me snow blindness. The brown stairs started looking like they were neon green. I told myself that I should probably turn back. Instead, I put on my shades and continued. The higher I got, the cloudier it got. There was a storm coming and the visibility was dropping. Eventually, the stairs gave way to more and more bridges and ramps. These were virtually inaccessible because they were too slippery. Plus, there came a fork in the trail and I could not tell which direction the lake was. I stopped for a moment to take in the scenery. It was freezing cold, my sweater was soaked with sweat, I was alone, visibility was bad, and it was about to snow again. It made me think of the movies we had to watch in Boy Scouts where some guy who had lost his nose to frostbite would relate his harrowing tale of getting lost on a snowy mountain.

Anyway, my hands were getting numb so I started back down the mountain.

On the way back, I had to go slower since it was more dangerous going down the stairs and ramps than going up.

After a long while, I heard voices coming up the path. It was the group of Chinese tourists. When they saw me, they all greeted me. “Hallo! Hallo! Hallo!” They sounded like a bunch of parrots. Like me, they were also not dressed properly for the climb. Some were wearing dress shoes. One, probably the guide, knew some English, and he asked me how far it was to the lake. I told him that I didn’t make it to the lake because the trail was impassable. Then he wanted to know how far I went. I told him about 30 minutes more. Then I told him that there wasn’t any reason to go further. It was dangerous, the lake wasn’t reachable, and there was no scenic value since the fog was so thick.

I walked on down past more of the group to more “Hallo, Hallo, Hallo!” When I rounded the corner, I could hear the guide rallying the troops. “Only 30 minutes more!”

Alimjan was waiting for me at the parking lot, cigarette in hand. We walked back down to the van, and it had been pulled out of the ditch. Several people and a few vehicles were working on the bus. After a bit, the bus was free. We loaded up and went down the mountain.

The last thing on the tour was the Urumqi market. Alimjan and the driver were starving since it was like 3:00 PM, but I still wasn’t eating. So, they went to lunch, and I went to the market.

The market had a section with regular merchandise in it like clothing and groceries. Then there was a part with handicrafts and souvenirs. I went to the handicraft part. Most of the crafts for sale were stuff that I could buy in Pakistan for equally good prices, so I wasn’t interested. What I was interested in were some Xinjiang carpets. There were several carpet stores in a row, so I started going into shop after shop. In all of the shops, it was the same story – no one could speak English. They would just keep bringing me piece after piece of ugly carpet. Once I tried to convey that I liked a carpet but I wanted a smaller size. The geniuses folded the carpet up and, voila, a smaller carpet. No sale. In order for me to lug the carpet back on the plane, it either had to be something I couldn’t get in Pakistan or else a steal of a deal.

Eventually, I found some Xinjiang carpets that I liked at one shop. These carpets were thick hand-woven wool, with large animals on them. I was interested, but the shop people were totally useless. I was about to walk out when a guy rushed in and started speaking a little English. He didn’t have good English, but it was good enough. For example, whenever I’d ask him, “How much?” he’d give me the dimensions (“One meter by two meter, sir.”). In China, vendors like to show merchandise is real by setting it on fire. Leather vendors do this, and this carpet guy did also. He lit one of the rugs to show it was real wool and not synthetic. It was a good demo, I guess, but I didn’t appreciate the black spot it left on my carpet. Before long, we agreed on a price and I bought a rug with two cranes on it and a rug with some running horses on it.

When I showed Alimjan the carpets in the car, he was impressed with the price I paid.

That night was my last night in China and the last of my vacation. I wandered some more and watched some more Chinese movies.

The next day, I had recovered from my illness, so I went to breakfast. It was gruesome.

Alimjan picked me up and dropped me off at the airport.

At the check-in counter, I had a little scare. The itinerary that American Express Travel had developed for me showed me leaving Urumqi on a Sunday. However, they had issued me a ticket for the following Wednesday. I hadn’t thought to double-check the tickets since the itinerary printout had been correct.

Anyhow, as I was checking in, the woman at the counter was like, “This ticket isn’t for today.”

Luckily, the flight was only half full, so it was no problem to change my ticket.

Most of the passengers were Pakistani, and even though the plane was only half full, the carry-on situation was out of control again. This time, not only were people still carrying their jugs of water, sewing machines, and bales of cotton, but also plenty of Chinese products like vacuum cleaners and 4-foot tall Barbie dolls.

The flight back to Islamabad crossed the Himalayas and other mountain chains, so the scenery was spectacular.

And Islamabad itself never looked so good. Spring was in full swing. It was hot (a nice contrast to the snow in Urumqi), and everything was blooming.

My house, my bed, my garden, my gardener, my car, my guards, my 8-foot security wall with anti-climb barriers. Everything was just as I remembered it, and, man, it was great to be home.

(Going into the office on Monday to a large pile of work was another story...)