Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Around-the-World Wrap-Up

This trip was a blast, but I also learned a lot taking it. The things I learned, however, were not the types of things that you learn in a classroom, but rather were the type of things that you can only learn by being somewhere and experiencing a place, supplementing formal education rather than being a substitute.

While some of the places I visited seemed quite different from home and naturally quite foreign nothing that I saw was really that different than I or any rational person would do if they lived in the same place and operated under the same laws and economic conditions as the people in the countries I visited. Its amazing nonetheless how many different sets of laws and economic conditions people live under.

If you’ve read all or some of what I’ve written and are now thinking about how you take a similar trip, please don’t hesitate to ask me for advice. The truth is that its not really that hard to do. You just need to be courageous enough to decide that you want to do it and there are ways in almost every American’s life to find the time and financial resources necessary to do it. One suggestion that I think is important to make, however, is to travel alone since while I was a little hesitant of doing so to start out with, it made my experience a lot better in many places as I was able to interact with local people in ways that I was not able to during the portions of the trip when I was traveling with other people.

Still to come (in the next few days of when/if I have time):
1) Pictures
2) The trip by the numbers
3) “Best of” list from the trip

China Wrap-up

Traveling in China it is hard not to come away without seeing mostly good things especially when you are traveling with a tour guide as we were. This brings me back to the India-China comparison, which still seems silly if you’ve been to both countries, but still worth mentioning again in this context. I the big difference between China and India is that its hard to see the good things that are happening with India’s technology services revolution since a few people are becoming rich and then building walls around themselves to insulate themselves from the rest of India; whereas in China it seems that a larger number of people are benefiting from their technology manufacturing revolution.

Other observations:
1) China is a very dynamic place. Changes in China are very evident even in a short period of time as I can tell that things have changes a lot since being there three years earlier.
2) Many people in China are clearly now living a first world life. There are still a lot of people that aren’t but they seem to be getting some of the benefits of development nonetheless.
3) Tourism in China is on the rise. Both domestic tourism and international tourism seem to be increasing and this should have some serious implications going forward as people from different parts of China and the rest of the world become more familiar with and comfortable with the country as a whole.

Day 93 (7 September): Flying Home

I took an early taxi to the Beijing airport and made my way through immigration/customs where I received the last stamp of the trip on my passport putting it two stamps shy of being full. I then waited for my flight which departed and arrived on-time putting me back in San Francisco several hours on the same day before I left Beijing (thanks to the cool little trick of crossing the international date line.)

1) Longest lines to leave a country yet. I spend two full hours in immigration lines to leave Beijing.
2) Renminbi conversion. I didn’t have receipts from converting dollars into RMB at the airport so to convert the Chinese currency back to USD I had to go through the black market which isn’t hard to find since the black-market money-changers wait by the official counters and charge almost the identical rate. In fact, some other people I saw avoiding the real currency counter line since the black market one was faster.
3) Fat people. This is always the first thing I notice when I come back to the US and the same was true this time.

Day 92 (6 September): The Great Wall

Today we toured the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs and the sacred road to the Ming Tombs.

1) Imposter goods. We went to a government-factory shop today where the guy told us to beware of buying imposter goods. I found this amusing since China is know for being a source of imposter goods and some people travel to China explicitly to buy them.
2) Traffic jams are common now in Beijing. They are working on expanding the subway, but things are only going to get worse given that a very small percentage of the population actually owns cars and that the number is going to start growing rapidly sometime soon.
3) Bikes set up improperly. Despite the large number of people riding bikes in Beijing and elsewhere in China, it seems that no one knows how to properly adjust the seat heights so that people’s legs are nearly straight at the bottom of the pedal stroke. You would think that if people were riding bikes everyday they’d want to set them up in the most comfortable and efficient way possible.

Day 91 (5 September): Forbidden City

We arrived in Beijing early in the morning after taking the overnight train. We spent the day seeing Tianamen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. Along the way our guide took us into various government-sponsored factory shops for silk, perals, and tea. In the evening we saw a Peking Opera production.

1) The manager of the tea shop was trading stocks behind the counter. When I asked him about it he said its how he spends most of his day.
2) Tourist overload. Compared to when I was in Beijing three years ago and at the same sights there is a complete overload now. China has definitely seen a tourist explosion. In fact, there are so many tourists now that seeing these major sights in Bejing is almost unpleasant now. Three years ago in parts of the Forbidden City you could be alone; now you are elbow-to-elbow with people fighting to make there way through it.
3) Corner bike repair shops. Instead of car repair shops bike repair shops for quick flat fixes abound in Bejing. This makes getting a minor problem fix easy and keeps the bike traffic flowing.
4) The relative ‘richness’ of Bejing to the rest of China seems to have decreased in the last couple of years at least based upon the places I went this time (which were different than last time) except for Bejing.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Day 90 (4 September): Buddhist Caves

In Datong today we saw the Yunang Grottos which are essentially caves with thousands of sandstone Buddhas carved into the walls ranging in size from 17 m to 2 cm. After seeing that we saw sights in Datong city (the Huayan Buddhist Monastery and the Nine Dragons Wall) before catching another overnight train to Bejing which is my last stop before returning to the US on 7 September.

1) Motorized bicycles. A large number of the bicycles in China now have small motors on them that allow them to function as part bicycle, part moped. This is yet another sign that people here even outside the costal cities are moving up the economic ladder.
2) Pollution. Its pretty bad in Datong as this is also one of the largest coal mining cities in China. Our guide said there are 13 coal-based power plants located here including the ones that power Bejing. Nonetheless, the government had the forsight to reroute one of the major coal roads so the pollution wouldn't damage the Buddhas in the Yungang Grottos too much more.
3) The infrastructure in Datong is behind that everywhere else we've been so far and the city looks much more like what I would have expected in communist Russia than today's China. Nonetheless, there are function markets everywhere.

Day 89 (3 September): Shopping Shanxi

This morning we drove back to Taiyuan from Pingyao where we would spend the day exploring the city before heading on an overnight train to Datong which is further north in Shanxi province near the Mongolian border.

The highlight of the day for my grandmother was finally finding a Chinese woman older than her as thus far on the trip she's flagged down about every old looking Chinese woman and tried to extract their age from them.

1) Bricks. On the way back to Taiyuan we drove by a large brick making factory. This certainly comes in useful for all of the building being done in China and the sheer number of bricks being used.
2) Hardware and tool shops downtown. In Taiyuan's Main Square located halfway between its largest (central) park and its railway station most of the retailers sold construction, building, and trades realted products. It hard to imagine a state capital in the US where in its main shopping district these are the products being sold.
3) Brand infringement. This seems to be on the decline. I haven't seen very many knock-offs of international brands on the streets when that is what I saw mostly when I was in China three years ago. Instead it seems that China has gotten more creative and started creating its own domestic brands to look like foreign ones by giving them Italian sounding names or the like.
4) Quality and prices. The same clothing items (a pair of jeans for example) of roughly the same looking quality seem to be priced at very different levels for reasons that I can't understand. You would see a pair of jeans in one place for 2 USD and then an almost identical pair (still without a brand-name recognizable to me) for over 120 USD. Its pretty incedible that such price differences can exist within one city block of each other.
5) The cost of bicycles. There are some decent, but low-quality bicycles sold here for 22 USD when even in Walmart, Target or the like in the US, I don't think you could find a bike for less than 70 USD. That shows how much it must be marked up in the US because even at 22 USD someone must be making a profit.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Day 88 (2 September): Old City

We spent the entire day today within the city walls of Pingyao which is a well-preserved city where most buildings date back about 300 years and the city walls about 700 years. With the number of exhibits on its history and museums around, it is clearly set up as a tourist attraction for Chinese and international visitor alike, but nonetheless well done.

We toured the city walls, the Rishengchang Bank (which was China's first bank), the Mingqing business street and its shops, the former governor's mansion, an old court, and a warrior/kung fu museum.

1) Colonial Williamsburg. With the way Pingyao is set up with in the city walls, it seems in many ways like Colonial Williamsburg. Cars are not allowed in and some people are dressed in costumes from 300 years ago pulling around rickshaws, which no longer happens.
2) The environment again. A manufacturing plant of some sort within the city walls was shut down to help preserve the city and reduce pollution. Again, someone is paying attention to these issues as China develops.
3) Eating fat. This still seems to be a common practice in Shanxi as we were offered plates of fat chunks in gravy at lunch for a second time today. It seems that it must be remnant of a poorer time as people at least look like they should be able to eat something else.

Day 87 (1 September): Road to Pingyao

Today we drove from Taiyuan--China's center for coal mining--to the preserved historic town of Pingyao. Along the way we stopped at a number of sites including 1) the Jin Family Ancestral Temple which featured 3000 year old trees growing on its grounds in addition to some impressive lion and warrior sculptures, 2) the Qiao Family Courtyard which was the home 200 years ago of a family that made it rich initally selling Tofu to Mongolians then moving into banking, and 3) the Shuanglin Buddhist Temple, which is one of few Buddhist Temples in China to have survived the Cultural Revolution completely intact, primarily because it isn't near a big city.

1) Coal is still big business in China. Around Taiyun its impossible to avoid seeing coal trucks. Maybe this environmental conciousness that the guide in Sichuan was telling us about isn't so accurate.
2) Chinese Wine. That's right made from grapes. We passed a number of vineyards on the way to Pingyao, so watch out, pretty soon everyone might be drinking 'Great Wall' Wine if the quality pans out and people begin importing it elsewhere. Not sure it'll be good, but with farm labor as cheap as it is here, it'll be cheap.
3) Shanxi seems noticably poorer than anywhere else we've been on this trip. Around major tourist sites there are people who are somewhat desperately peddaling cheap goods. Its still nothing like in Inida, however, as they aren't simply begging for money.
4) Government Housing. The nicest buildings going up in Taiyuan were new government apartments according to our guide. They looked nice from what we could see when other apartments around didn't look so great. Doesn't seem like a recipe for making people happy.
5) Most of the road in Shanxi aren't great either and are being patched up here and there rather than being systematically repaved. The major highways even have farm traffic on them.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Day 86 (31 August): Pandas

This morning we went to the Chengdu Panda Reserve which is the largest in the world and watched a number of Pandas wander about.

In the afternoon, we went to th Junjiangyan Irrigation System site. The Irrigation System is a 2200 year old project designed to divert water from one of the rivers to allow crops to grow better on the Sichuan plains.

In the evening we flew to Taiyuan in Shanxi Province which is further North and several hundred kilometers west of Beijing.

1) Plastic Surgery Ads. This is another sign of disposable income and people being willing to spend it.
2) Cars again. So the cars look nice, but on closer inspection a number of them have smaller engines than the US versions of the same. For example the badges on the Audi A6 often say it has a 1.8 Liter Turbo Engine in it which goes in an A4 in the US. The same is true for the A8, it has badges with the A6 engines instead of the larger A8 engines. Also none of them seem to have Quattro; e.g. they're not all-wheel-drive which is what most people in the US buy. Nonetheless, without easy access to car loans (I'm assuming they're harder to get in China) buying cars that cost around USD 60,000 and up is a really, really big purchase in a country where per-capita GDP is still around USD2000 annually.
3) Engineering skill. This goes back at least 2200 years in China as the Junjiangyan Irrigation System was the first of its kind in the world as I don't beleive the Romans or Greeks had anything of the level of complexity found here.
4) Infrastructure needs. Despite the nice roads, many are lacking stoplights. We went through an intersection today in Leshan where an eight lane road met a six-lane road with out a stoplight. Somehow traffic seemed to make it through safely as I have yet to see any real accidents.
5) Domestic tourism definitely seems like its on the rise as the Junjiangyan Irrigation System seemed to be on the domestic tourist circut as did some of the other places we've been on this trip. This also may be a function of people in China having more disposable income and finding an outlet for it. Its hard to doubt this is a good thing for development in China.

Day 85 (30 August): Disposable Income in the City

This morning we stayed in the Mt. Emei area and saw the Myriad Years Monastary after taking a bus ride up the mountain followed by an ariel cable car ride. After taking the bus down we head to Leshan where we saw the Giant Leshan Buddha--the world's largest Buddha carved into a sandstone cliff by a river.

Following that we returned to Chengdu where we walked through an old street that had been revitalized into an 'Old Town Chengdu' type neighborhood. While in that neighborhood we went to a 'tea house' performance of Sichuan Opera which included puppet shows, fire breathing dancers, and the like.

1) Farm subsidies. According to our guide (reliability somewhat questionable) starting next year there will be subsides for all farmers in China which she says make up 90% of the population. If this is true, this is big news. Perhaps the government in Beijing is trying to keep down protests about how people in cities are making more money. This also seems to have implications for WTO and other types of trade agreements as if China begins subsidizing farmers directly then they can't complain as much about other countries doing the same. Of course this could also be done in some more round-about type of way, such as not taxing farmers rather than actively subsidizing them.
2) Cars! There seem to be a lot of nice cars around now, much nicer ones than I remember seeing when I was in China 3 years ago. The VW Passat always labeled here as the Shanghai Volkswagon Passat seems to be the most common car on the road and these are new models now, not the 15-year old models labeled as 'Red Lion Santana's that were on the streets several years ago. There are also a number of Audi A6 and Audi A8s on the road along with the Porsche Cheyene SUV and larger BMWs. There even seemed to be some pretty nice cars out near Mt. Emei which was a several hour drive from Chengdu.
3) Road quality. This has also improved a lot versus several years ago and there seems to be a movement towards well-paved six-or-more lane tollways.
4) New buildings. In Chengdu, from our hotel room, it was obvious that several older buildings had been raized and that plans for new ones going in there place were in the works.
5) Protecting the environment. This topic was brought up several times by our guide and now seems to be on the minds of common people in China when it probably wasn't several years back.
6) Disposable income. In Chengdu at least there actually seems to be a decent amount of it. There were big shopping malls and brand name stores around with the likes of Gucci, Bally, Prada, etc. People actually seemed to be buying things in the stores and they didn't look like knock-offs as they seemed to be properly branded.
7) Preserving history. There also seems to be some sort of movement to preserve history by restoring older 'Chinese' style buildings rather than tearing them down as was done in the 'Old Town' area of China. Several years ago, I would imagine that many of the old buildings were just being torn down.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Day 84 (29 August): Sichuan

This morning we flew from Guangzhou to Chengdu. We ate lunch in Chengdu and then headed out to Mt. Emei which is about about 160 km away. Along the way we stopped at a 'Tea Museum' and drove by numerous rice farms and villages.

Arriving in the town at the base of Mt. Emei we saw the Baoguo Temple and then walked around the grounds of the hotel we are staying in which is quite a resort in and of itself and has been the mountain retreat/stomping ground of China's rulers in the past.

1) Infrasturce. The airport in Guangzhou was very impressive, besting most US airports. It was only one year old though. The city is clearly awaiting a strong future, although the number of flights in and out is quite high even today.
2) Gas in China is cheap. It cost under $2 a gallon which is less than it was in California when I left nearly three months ago, although I'd imagine its much closer to $3 there these days. Besides which that's 90 octane gas, not the 87 octane stuff that'd be priced lower (but is unavailable in China.)
3) Infrasturcture. The highway to Mt. Emei was quite impressive; it was a very high quality road and the traffic moved quickly. A copuple of the places that people lived along the way, at least from their exteriors looked moderately luxurious which wasn't something I would expect a farming area in many places of the world, especially not in China.
4) Chiang Kai Shek. Walking around the hotel's grounds, one of the reasons that Chiang Kai Shek became unpopular is apparent. He built a palace type retreat for himself here at the same time that the Japanese were invading China. If anyone knew about that, I would imagine they wouldn't be too happy with it. That's probably part of why he ended up with the ROC limited to Taiwan.

Wierd events of the day:
1) 11:30 pm phone call where the person on the other end was speaking in Japanese and looking for a Japanese guy staying in the room. I had to use my Japanese to tell him he made a mistake.
2) 12:30 am knock on the door that we didn't answer followed by a phone call from 'the manager' of the hotel demanding we open the door. Upon opening the door, told that we should have a massage from the lady outside.

Day 83 (28 August): Any junk you could want

In the morning and early afternoon, we toured through some of Guangzhou's more historic sites: the Chen Family Temple (which now serves as the Guangdong Arts Center), the Six Banyan Tree Buddhist Temple (featuring a 9 story pagoda), and the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall.

In the afternoon, I had a chance to walk around the modern city as Guangzhou really is a modern, 'business' city representing a wide-range of manufacturing in the surrounding areas. The streets have more small shops than anywhere I've ever been and seem to be stacked up inside of malls as well and sell about any kind of junk you could imagine buying--particularly things made of plastic--but also kids toys, lanterns, food products, home design products, etc. I think if you see a product you like in one of the shops, you can order as many as you want wholesale.

1) At the older tourist sites there were a number of Western couples pushing around strollers with little Chinese kids in them. Visually giving a sense of the 'one child' policy in China and the foreigners coming in and adopting babies.
2) Chinese view of Japan. This came up with our guide at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall as Sun Yat Sen had good relations with the Japanese. Of course being the aniversary of the end of the Japanese defeat in WWII the topic is in the media a lot recently about how they killed innumberable Chinese peasants in the 1930s and 1940s when they occupied NE China and have since refused to acknowledge the incidents. Apparently, according to our guide there is some movement towards boycotting Japanese products afoot, although actually doing so is tough given their wide-sporead use.
3) Smoking. There are a lot fewer people smoking in China and in Hong Kong than I remember from the last time I was in either place (about 3 years ago and about 1 year ago, respectively.) There also seem to be anti-smoking ads around which is new. This would be a big change if smoking becomes uncommon here and a big loss for tabacco companies, although I guess they'll still have India and Eastern Europe to buy ciggarettes.
4) Infrastructure expansion. The Guangzhou subway currently has only 2 lines. By the end of 2006 it is supposed to have 3 and by the end of 2010 it is supposed to have 10. That's an amazing expansion, but probably one that's necessary for the city of 10 Million to becoming a more livable, modern place which from looking around, it is well on its way to becoming and quickly.
5) New Buildings? There seem to be a number of very large buildings around where the construction stopped halfway though and they now sit empty. Despite this there are cranes everywhere and countless buildings with current constuction work happening on them. I don't know what to make of the unfinished buildings. Anyone with some insight, it'd be appreciated.

Day 81 (27 August): Dim Sum in HK, Dinner in Guangzhou

This morning we met my friend Will from UCSD who has spent a lot of time living in Hong Kong for Dim Sum and enjoying seeing his new four-month-old baby Julian as well.

After that we boarded a ferry for Guangzhou in mainland China which took us up the Peral River Delta for several hours.

1) Much of Hong Kong is built on reclaimed land including its tallest building. (My friend Will is going to be working in that building soon.)
2) Currency markets show in six-months parity between the Chinese Yuan and the Hong Kong Dollar at a level that means the Yuan would either have to appreciate further or the HK$ would depreciate. Given that both currencies are currently pegged to the US Dollar the markets seem to be predicting some big changes. The only way I could see this happening is if the Chinese government exercised some power over Hong Kong and forced it to devalue its currency, but that wouldn't happen so easily. Otherwise, China would have to revalue again in the next six months which also seems unlikely. Anyone else, have any thoughts on what's going on?
3) I knew that Guangzhou was one of the main places that China is shipping exports from and manufacturing them in but the number of containers you see along the edges of the Peral River Delta and on ships going down it is nonetheless very impressive when you get a chance to actually see it.

Day 81 (26 August): Travel Day

I woke up very early to fly from Christchurch via Sydney to Hong Kong where I met my eighty-seven year old grandmother and father to finish out our trip in China. The total flight time was twelve hours with about four hours of layover.

1) New Zealand is really far away from anything. Its 2000 km from Australia, which takes over three hours flying. And the big Australian cities are about a nine hour flight from any other major cities as it is.
2) Australia is really, really big and really, really empty. Most of the flight traversed Australia where I spent seveal hours (since it was daylight this time) looking out at nothing but red ground and a few trees. I couldn't see these on my flight to AUstralia as that was a red-eye.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

New Zealand Wrap-up

New Zealand or at least its South Island has some excellent scenery, but not much else. The landscape is certainly unique given NZ's geological, geographic, and weather patterns, but I'm not sure that its that different from things you can find elsewhere in the world. It seems like it would be a great place to come to if all you wanted to do for several weeks was camp, hike, and do other outdoor activites, but probably isn't the greatest place to blow through as quickly as I did.

Culturally, its probably even less exotic to an American than Austarlia. If anything, New Zealanders are more like Canadians or British than anything else I can think of. Its British heritage is very apparent; it almost seems in many ways like NZ is still a British colony. (The food is relatively bland and they eat lots of fish'n'chips in addition to meat pies.) There was less Maori culture evident than I expected, but I guess that's always true with such things.

Another thing that seemed odd about NZ is its economic future: it is clearly a first-world country, but doesn't seem to have much of an economy beyond tourism and farming. I can't understand how it will be able to sustain itself economically because the more tourists come here the less desireable of a place it becomes for tourism. People in NZ also seem resistant to the idea that they should probably strengthen their economic and political ties to Australia and to Asia as Britian is no longer looking out for it.

Day 80 (25 August): More Driving

I spent most of the day today driving back to Christchurch, so I can make my 5:50 am flight to Hong Kong via Sydney tomorrow. The drive included a stop in Hokitaka where I saw some stores selling 'Maori' Jade Art and went to a wildlife shelter that housed NZ's National Symbol: The Kiwi, which is a bird not a fruit. Further along the drive, I travelled through Arthur's Pass, which is NZ's highest town. Reaching Christchurch, I walked around the town a bit, but there isn't much to see other than the big cathedral in the central square and a bunch of tourist oriented shops selling things made from 100% NZ Merino wool or 'NZ All Blacks' Rugby 'Kits.'

1) The Kiwi is a weird national symbol/animal. It is a funny looking, nocturnal bird, that digs a really long beak into the ground hunting for food. It is nearly extinct, New Zealanders claim because the Australians introduced the oppossum to NZ which hunts down the Kiwi and kills it. (It should be noted that an Australian Oppossum is more like and American Raccoon than any other animal and in no way resembles an American Oppossum.)
2) A lot of Asians (particularly Koreans) have come to NZ for education at its high schools and its universites as a means of learning English in an English speaking country.

Day 79 (24 August): Walking on a Big Ice Cube

I went on a guided hike of the Franz Joseph Glacier today. The Franz Joseph Glacier is unique for two reasons: 1) it is the world's steepest commercially guided glacier and 2) it is the only glacier in the world to be surrounded by rainforest. (NZ's rainforests are temperate ones meaning they have lots of moss, unlike tropical ones.) After strapping some crampons to my feet and picking up and ice axe, the hike included climbing up some big ice falls across ladder bridges that spanned 150 deep crevices, and putting myself in some other rather precarious but exciting situations while seeing some amazing scenery up close.

1) The town of Franz Joseph exists only so people can hike the glacier. Its kindof weird, but restaurants are only open when glacier hikes return and shut down after that crowd has left. Otherwise, its pretty much a ghost town with nothing else for about 100 km in either direction along the only road that goes up-and-down the Island's West Coast.
2) The glacier guide was complaining the whole day about how everything in NZ is being bought up by foreign companies, particularly Canadian ones which said owned the whole timber industry and were going after farming as well.

Day 78 (23 August): Extreme

I spent the morning wandering around Queenstown before driving onward to Franz Joesph (which is on the South Island's 'Rugged' West Coast.) This meant driving across several mountain passes for about 6 hours and only passing 2 'towns' the whole way. There were a number of cool waterfalls that I stopped at along the way.

1) Queenstown is the world headquarters for any sort of exterme activity. Bunging jumping was invented there. Also on offer is sky diving at the world's cheapest rates, driving ATVs over boulders, mountain biking on the same boulders, jet boating, paragliding, and anything else you can imagine as long as it means being outdoors and putting your life on the line (or at least feeling like you are.) I didn't really have time to get to risk my life with any of these activities unfortunately.
2) Towns seem to be definied by having a small church in NZ wheras cities are definied by having cathedrals (most of which are Anglican.) (As a side note, in the only rural part of Australia I was in near Melbourne town seemed to be defined by having a hotel/pub in them.)
3) NZ Lamb is not special. Obviously given the large number of sheep around it shouldn't be expensive and it isn't at restaurants. Its also one of the cheapest meats in supermarkets. I wish someone could explain to me why buying a 'rack of NZ lamb' in the United States is one of the most expensive meat purchase you can make when the country has over 40 Million of the animals that produce the stuff.
4) Land mammals. NZ had no land mammals until the 1800s when the Europeans arrived. The only mammals it had were bats and whales. It was a country entirely filled with reptiles and birds, meaning there are a lot of interesting looking birds around, including the Kea which is the world's only tempeate zone, alpine parrot.

Day 77 (22 August): Skiing in August!

I went skiing today at a mountain called Treble Cone (about 1.5 hours from Queenstown by bus since my rental car agreement said I couldn't drive the road to the mountain as it was too dangerous). Treble Cone is supposed to offer NZ's best, most advanced skiing terrain on a mountain with commercial ski lifts. The skiing in the morning wasn't great as there were white-out snow conditions. In the afternoon, however, it was great as the sky cleared and much of the mountain had about 6 inches of fresh, untouched snow--making it one of my best ski days ever as the mountain had some nice shoots between boulders on its backside.

On the bus ride back, the bus took a long stop at Cadrona Hotel which has one of NZ's most famous pubs known for its Apres Ski specials that include outdoor fires, hot black currant juice, etc.

1) Finding what you need. Apparently the Austrian Ski Team comes to NZ during every European summer to find the snow that it needs.
2) Size doesn't matter. Treble Cone only had two chair lifts operating (and only three chair lifts total) but still had a lot of terrain that was accessible from those lifts.
3) NZ is one of the cheapest places in the world to go Heli-Skiing (e.g. jumping out of Helicopters to go skiing on fresh snow) at around only USD 425 a day. Too bad I don't have that kind of money to spend at this point because some of the mountains around here look amazing.
4) British in New Zealand. There are lots of British people in New Zealand many of whom become New Zealand citizens, but it seems like most of the other travellers here are either from the UK or Australia. (Although the locals make fun of Australians a lot.)

Day 76 (21 August): Sound?

This morning I drove up from Te Anu into Fjordland National Park where I took a boat out on Milford Sound. From there I drove back through Te Anu to Queenstown. (Again, like most of my days in NZ, you'll have to wait for the pictures.)

1) Milford is not really a Sound, but a Fjord. A Fjord is a large body of water carved out by a glacier whereas a Sound is carved out by flowing water, not flowing ice.
2) Obvious names for roads. The road from Te Anu to Milford is called 'The Long and Windy Road,' no joke. This is even more obvious than the 'Great Ocean Road' in Australia.
3) Maps and tourist information in NZ. There is an overabundance of tourist information in NZ. When I booked my boat ride on Milford in Te Anu at the Tourist Info Centre I was handed a map from there to Milford. While the drive may have been a 2.5 hour one, I certainly didn't need a map as there was only one road, but the lady behind the counter insisted I needed one nonetheless, so I wouldn't miss the 'well marked' lakes and other 'sites' along the way.
4) Over touristed? NZ gets 2 Million tourists a year for a population of only 4 Million (only 1 Million of which are on the South Island which is where most tourists go.) Since it is Winter here now, there are very few toursits as it is not 'high season' but it feels like there are certainly more visitors around than locals.
5) Racism. This topic came up as I was talking to a lady at a petrol station after she correctly identified that I had an accent. She then proceeded to talk about how she wanted to go to New Orleans with her family for Mardi Gras next year but was worried about racisim in the American South as she was part of a mixed race family since her husband was Maori. (She also told me that some of her kids are completely white while others are dark; kindof a strange phenomenon.)

Day 75 (20 August): Lots of Driving

I spent most of the day today driving as I expect to for a large portion of my time on New Zealand's South Island as its know for its scenery and scenic drives. Today I spent most of my time on the way to my first jumping off point which is in the South-West of the Island, Te Anu, the gateway to NZ's Fjordland National Park. On the way from Christchurch (the Island's biggest city with around 300,000 people) I drove down along the West Coast and turned Westward at Dunedin (the Island's secon larest city. Along the way I stopped at various lookouts (including one where there were supposed to be pengiuns that I couldn't find) and took short walks as well.

1) There are 10 times more sheep in New Zealand than people. (There are only 4 Million people.)
2) Rugby is huge here. The only times I saw people other than inside gas stations and small places that I stopped for food they were outside playing rugby. Otherwise I heard about Rugby on the radio (when I got reception.)
3) Farming in NZ. It is not machine farming like in the US, but is locally done and the farms are small. Mostly, farmers tend sheep, but deer for venision meat is also popular. Next most popular but pretty far back was cattle, closely followed by Alpaca and Emu.
4) College traditions. They exist everywhere. I was driving in the opposite direction of 'Grand Prix' day for Otago University in Dunedin. The kids there paint things over beat up vans and race them up to Chirstchurch.
5) Maori (or Pacific Islanders that were first to settle New Zealand) have blended into the paheka (or white population.) I met a guy today who looked completely white (almost albino) who told me two of his grandparents were Maori. Maori genes must not be that strong.
6) Buying and renting cars in NZ is very cheap. I am paying less than USD 25 per day. Prices for used cars that don't look that old or in that bad of shape are as low as USD 3000.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Australia Wrap-up

Australia has certainly been the least exotic place that I've visited on my trip thus far, but has also been one of the most pleasant. As I have a tendancy to compare things and places, its hard for me not to think of Austalia as being a mix of what I consider the better elements of California and New England rolled into one. Even the cities I visited seemed similar with Sydney being like San Francisco and Melbourne being like LA, both with a bit of Boston mixed in. The biggest difference between those parts of the US and Australia are that the wildlife is different, the scenery is different (although it is a lot like California scenery,) and people have a funny accent. People are also more friendly in Australia than either of those parts of the US: culturally, its almost like what I would have imagined the US would have been like 50 years ago (or at least as it comes across on old TV shows,) where everyone supposedly had friendly neighbors, left their doors unlocked, kids didn't argue with parents, and no one worried about much of anything. Its distance from the rest of the world probably has a lot to do with why people can afford to have such an outlook. Its the type of place that would be nice to live (although I'm not sure that I would move there) as the lifestyle is very appealing: 1) sports that I like (Rowing, Triathlon, and Surfing) are all taken very seriously in Australia and its a great place to do them; 2) food in Australia is also taken very seriously as most restaurant have a much higher quality standard than in the US; 3) businesses in Australia have a more natural Asia orientation (or are at least developing one as ties to Europe fade) and it realizes that Asia is the only thing geographically closeby.

Day 74 (19 August): Urban Markets

I explored a bunch of Melbourne's neighborhoods before heading to the airport for a flight to Christchurch, New Zealand. I started out by checking out the Victoria Market which is a large covered famer's market with other merchants too. I then saw a number of Melbournes sights in and around its flat, grid-like CBD (or Central Business District) including the Shopping Arcade, the Flinders Street Station (Austalia's busiest train station, although by world standards not very busy), Federation Square (a modern arts complex with some interesting architecture), Rowing Boathouses along the Yarra River, Chinatown, and the state of Victoria's parliment house.

1) Preservation of Old Buildings. Melbourne has done a very good job of this while also having some of the nicest modern architecure I've seen. Doing so makes cities a lot more pleasant even if they don't have a lot of history (which Melbourne doesn't.)
2) Rich countries other than the US also have markets as I saw at the Victoria Market. In many ways it was like a very upscale, cleaner, and more organized version of the type of thing you expect to find more in third-world countries.
3) Don't lock your keys in your rental car! I did this today which meant a round-trip (read as expensive as two days of renting the car) taxi ride out to the airport to get a master key so I could get them out. It also almost made me miss my flight.
4) Immigrants to Australia. The upside of the taxi ride to the aiport was that I had an interesting conversation with the taxi driver who immigrated from China under some sort of assylum type arrangement after having been a student who participated in the Tianmen Square incident in 1989. He said that immigrant life in Australia's pretty good but noted a bit of racism (which he actualy though might have been brought about by the Chinese Community in Melbourne as many of them refused to learn English as they could get by in his neighborhood speaking Mandrin.)

Day 73 (18 August): Lots of Scenery

Today, I did a lot more scenic driving. I headed further down the Great Ocean Road through some rainforests and then along some Sandstone cliffs and to the '12 Apostles National Park' where there are some cool sandstone pillars sitting out in the middle of the ocean. I then headed inland and back towards Melbourne, taking a Ferry across the bottom portion of the Bay that Melbourne is on the Northern edge of and driving up through the Mornington Peninsula (which is sort of like a Cape Cod type area for Melbourne.) There were also a number of wineries and vineyards along the route. I stopped at St. Kilda (a Santa Monica like suburb) before heading into Melbourne itself where I stayed in the urban-hip Fitzroy District which is full of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, etc.

1) Australia is a really big place. The towns in the country are really spread out.
2) Hungry Jack's. I passed a lot of these along the drive today. They are almost exactly the same as Burger King with an quivalent logo only it says Hungry Jack's on the inside of the Burger on the sign. Apparently, Burger King messed up its licensing contract and the local chain gets a lot of leeway and keeps a larger portion of the profits than anywhere else in the world.
3) Racisim in Australia. I had a conversation with an older lady on the ferry to the Mornington Peninsula about it. She seemed to think that Australia needs to get over its problems and be more accepting of outsiders and particularly Asian immigrants if it is going to compete going forward. She thought that Austarlians on average tended to be a little racist because historical the Whites there had dominated the Aborigines and then had very little interaction with non-white people otherwise.

Day 72 (17 August): Southern Surf Coast

I took an early flight from Sydney to Melbourne where I rented a car and avoided the city altogether, as I headed Southwest from the airport to the 'Great Ocean Road' which is akin to California's Pacific Coast Highway although the coast line is very different. Incidently the flight had some decent scenery out the windows as we flew over Canberra (Australia's capital) and the Snowy Mountains (no joke that is their name and yes they were snowy.)

The part of the 'Great Ocean Road' that I drove down today was along the part of Australia's Southern Coast (which seems like a strange concept, but yes they actually have coasts for each cardinal direction) know for surfing. As such, I found a place to rent a surfboard and wetsuit, making Australia the fourth country I've surfed in. Unfortunately, however, the break was probably the worst along the coast, but happened to be the only place where I could walk from a rental shop to the water that was open. Further along the coast, I drove by a golf course that had Kangaroos in the wild hoping around it while people played golf.

I eventually made it to a town called Lorne where I spent the night and went on a short hike to a waterfall there.

1) A bunch of people told me that Sydney-Melbourne is the world's most travelled air route, even above NY-DC, NY-Boston, San Francisco-LA which I find hard to believe, but given that their is only one airport for each city along the Australia route, I could see how there could be more flights between the two airports than any other two airports given that there are several airports for each of the US Metro areas.
2) Winter slow down. I was surprised how much was shut down along the Great Ocean Road, but apparently no one visits it during the winter (which is quite mild as day time highs were around 70 degrees.)
3) Employment schemes. The Great Ocean Road was built after WWII to employ all of the Australia serivcemen returning home in a massive employment scheme. It doesn't really connect anything and just sort of trails off at the end unlike the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
4) Driving on the left hand side of the road. Its a weird thing to do for the first time and as a result I kept turning on the windsheild wippers instead of my turn signal since the two levers are reversed.
5) I ate Kangaroo for dinner today. It was actually quite good, along the lines of venison. Its quite strange, however, that Australian's would eat and even farm their National Animals. (They do the same with the Emu which is their second, lesser-known National Animal.)

Day 71 (16 August): Rougher Neighborhoods

This morning, my cousin James and I headed to Manly (in the Northeast) to seek out waves to surf at a location where we could rent wetsuits and boards. Finding none, James decided it would be a good idea to take me on a short tour of the neighborhood his parents considered too 'dodgy' to see, but what he considered the real Sydney (and I suspect he was right even if the guidebooks say nothing about them.) These were neighborhoods in the so-called 'Inner West' which were further inland. While we barely got out of the car to wander around, they were clearly where the younger crowd that's more my age would live and include Glebe (near the University of Sydney), Surrey Hill (which has become the gay area), Paddington (which his parent's also showed me a bit of), and 'The Cross' or King's Cross (which has been Sydney's Red Light district.)

After all of that he dropped me of at his oldest brother Robert's office. (Robert moved out of his parents house at age 25 but his parents don't really understand why he would want to leave especially to live in the 'Inner East'.) I got lunch with Robert who I don't think I'd seen for at least five years and then we headed further West, stopping at a Wildlife park where we took in some Kangaroos (in 26 years of living in Australia Robert claims never to have seen one before), Wallabies, Dingos (which are essential dogs that can't bark but are known to be quite vicious nonetheless,) Koalas, Wombats, Tasmanian Devils, and all sorts of other strange Australian wildlife that you can't find anywhere else. We then headed even further West into the Blue Moutains to a town called Katoomba which had a great lookout point on some uniquely Australian scenery.

1) Smoothies. These have become really popular in Australia, but apparently are an American/California invention.
2) Australia has some really interesting animals, but for some reason much of it despite looking relatively tame is actually quite aggressive towards people. Maybe its because they didn't have much interaction with people until around 200 years ago.
3) Gay neighborhoods and real estate. My investment idea of buying real estate in gay neighborhoods because it will almost certainly increase in value as neighborhoods gentrify apparently also holds in the Southern Hemisphere.
4) Australian cars. A lot of the cars in Australia looked familiar to me, but I couldn't tell why. That's because Australia's big manufactuer, Holden, is actually owned by GM and basically sells GM cars with different names. Ford Australia, however, puts out an entirely different set of cars, none of which you can find in the US. In fact, the Fords in Australia seem like better cars than the ones you would find in the US. Maybe they should move their Australian engineers to Detroit or at least start putting out the same cars in the US?
5) Australia has a labor shortage. The government recently decided that it needs 20,000 new workers from overseas and is aggressively trying to convince people to immigrate to Australia.
6) Toilet issue. James and I could not seem to resolve whether or not toilet water actually swirls the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere than it does in the Northern Hemisphere, since most of the toilets in Australia seem to suck straight down rather than swirling. It would be great if anyone has any insight on this trival point.