Wednesday, March 30, 2011

And the wait goes on

Realizing the other day that in 6 months, I will be home from China, I at the same time noted that I still have 5+ months to wait. And with most of the "work" done for now to get ready, I need to find a better way to bide my time. What I have done to amuse myself is start creating a reading list like I did for Russia. At first I thought there wasn't much in the way of literature translated from Chinese (there isn't) but there are quite a few memoirs and historical narratives that interest me.

So far the reading list looks a bit like this:
The Man Who Loved China - Winchester
A Comrade Lost and Found - Wong
Postcards from Tomorrow Square - Fallows
China Witness Voices from a Silent Generation - Xinran
Factory Girls From Village to City in a Changing China - Chang
Last Days of Old Beijing - Meyer
China: It's History and Culture - Morton
China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power - Gifford

Inadvertently, my reading list trends a bit heavier on more recent Chinese history. That happened with my Russian reading as well. I suspect that that's because it is what I can remember, but I will of course make a point to learn more about the thousands of years of dynastic history as well.

Over the last weekend, I watched two excellent films set in China. The first was The Road Home which was just such a beautiful, simple film about love, loss and devotion. I really enjoyed it more than I thought I would. The other was a documentary, Last Train Home, which chronicled the yearly plight of nearly 130 million migrant workers in their attempts to return home for the Chinese New Year, but more specifically also documented the troubles and angst of one family in particular. The parents, also migrant workers, are separated from their children all year, but for the two weeks they return home for the New Year. The children grow up with only their grandmother and expectations are high that they will do better than their parents so that they have a better life. It is hard to believe that this is actually present day China we are peeking into. It was a troubling but very well-presented story.

In other news, I continue to celebrate the ever climbing airfare prices now that I've purchased mind and locked it in. My same fare is running about $200 higher now. I also noted that there's been a schedule change since I booked, and I arrive into Beijing a half hour later than I planned. Oh well, not much I can do about that now.

I've also put two orders into Athleta, finding things like capris and light-weight wicking tops that would be suitable for touring a warm late summer China without overheating. Any excuse to shop....

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Places I've Been: Venice

A few years back, I coupled Paris and Venice together in a 9 day vacation. As dreamy as that sounds, it was almost like eating all your Easter candy in one day. Sensory overload. There was just too much beauty and awe in that trip to even make sense of it, even when I'd already been to Paris a few times before. That said, I do feel that Venice is truly beautiful. It is a heady concept to wrap your brain around: that there are no streets and no cars and no buses. You either walk or get around by boat. Seems sort of crazy but you adapt pretty quickly. There is also the inevitable "getting lost" which everyone must do at least three or four times as maps don't always nail down that little side alley, or fully accept exactly where a street transitions from one name to the next. Venice is a place to be seen, sooner rather than later, before it is entirely destroyed by one or several of its many floods. Get there. Soon. Here are some of my favorite shots from that trip.

Here we have a view of Piazza San Marco from the balcony of Basilica di San Marco. The square is pretty good sized, and known for its cafes and the dueling bands that play at each every evening.

My favorite shot is this one, taken from beside the Doge's Palace across the canal toward San Giorgio Maggiore. I think the contrast of the gondolas and the colors of the water and the sky striking.

If this shot isn't stereotypical Italy, I don't know what is. I love the contrast of the decrepit buildings, the neatly hung every day laundry and the gorgeous flowers.

The Basilica of San Marco is actually a white stone building. However, if you visit it at different times of the day, it will actually pick up the color of the sunlight. Here, it was sunset and the white stone was rendered a soft orangey pink.

The Bridge of Sighs connects the Doge's Palace and prison. Prisoners would cross the bridge to their imprisonment, glancing out at beautiful Venice for perhaps the last time, and sigh.

This Bocca di Leone was a mailbox used to collect complaints from residents anonymously. There are several others throughout the city.

San Giorgio Maggiore lies on an island across the Grand Canal from San Marco. The church houses Tintoretto's Last Supper.

Traghetti are smaller gondolas used to ferry passengers across the Grand Canal. That's about the only place you'll see them, and you'll note they are predominantly used by locals, who are brave enough to stand for the crossing!

The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute is in the Dorsoduro district of Venice, across the Grand Canal. It houses a Tintoretto and several gorgeous Titians.

Burano is one of three islands that visitors can day trip to from Venice (Murano and Torcello being two others). On Burano, the residents paint their houses vibrant colors so that the fishermen in their families can easily see their homes as they leave and return home from long journeys.

Why I travel

It's sort of funny, lately a whole bunch of things have been conspiring to make me hungrier and more passionate for travel. Life has dealt certain members of my family a tough hand so far this year, and that tends to trickle down the more you care about them. I've spent more time in hospitals and with doctors this year than I care to remember, but now that that hurdle seems to be passed (fingers crossed) it makes me even more determined to squeeze every last minute, every last experience, every last memory out of my trips.

At the same time, I keep seeing friends and family making posts on Facebook that go on and on about how concert tickets, flashy cars and expensive trips abroad all have a price tag, but that kiss from a sloppy toddler is priceless. Or how thrilled they are that they get to spend school vacation week at home with their elementary aged children. After a while, I see enough of these public declarations from the same folks (and sometimes almost immediately after I've posted photos from my trips) to wonder just who they're trying to convince, themselves or their Facebook connections?

I haven't yet found the viral status update for the 40-year old single chick who saves pennies and works solely to buy kibble for her cat and pay for the next trans-oceanic adventure. I'm not sure I need to make that statement though. I don't need to convince myself of that, I know that to be true. I'm pretty certain I don't need to convince my Facebook friends either; if they know me at all they know this to be true.

So why is this travel thing like a crack addiction to me? Good question. And it just may be that I can't explain it. It may be so individual to me that no one else will ever understand. But there is just something about a trip, those singular experiences strung together into a week or two weeks or even a weekend, that still take my breath away. Seeing St. Basil's Cathedral through the grid of the gate to Red Square, looking out over a lush, green valley full of grapevines in Tuscany, smelling the competing scents of lemon and olive groves in Sorrento, admiring the crown jewels in London, peeking at Westminster Abbey from the top of the London Eye, coming face to face with a Vermeer, a Rembrandt, a Picasso, a Michelangelo that I've only ever seen in books. All of this gives me a rush. When things I have admired remotely are there in my foreground, all of a sudden I'm charged up. I'm on fire. I'm visually, mentally, aromatically, tactilely eating it up. And I lock these flashes of magic away for later. For the morning when it's just too discouraging to face another day with miserable people on the train or at work, for the next time I'm passing time waiting for a relative at a hospital, driving from here to there, or even just on the odd occasion that something else I've seen or heard brings me back to that moment. I haven't done drugs, but I imagine that a good trip on your drug of choice likely rivals my own "trip".

Friday, March 25, 2011

My Travel Map

TripAdvisor has a great function called My Travel Map. I just updated it with my upcoming destinations. This is pretty cool!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Places I've Been: Tuscany

Back in 2005, I went on a cycling tour around Tuscany with Vermont Bicycle Tours. This ended up being one of the best experiences I've ever had, not just on a bike and not just in Italy; I mean best EVER. Now that I've done it, I can highly recommend seeing the area this way if only because it feels like you're in a movie, with the hills and valleys of Tuscany wrapping around you like an IMAX shot. We started in Florence, rode to San Gimignano, Siena, Montelpuciano, Montalcino and Pienza. It was, in a very insufficient word, gorgeous. The mileage wasn't horrible. Now I look back and laugh though. My longest day was 35 miles. On average they were 20-25 mile days for a week.

The Duomo in Siena, which to me, remains the most amazing church I've ever seen, hands down. The striped marble carries through on the inside and is just stunning.

This is me outside the Duomo (cathedral) in Siena.

Even then, I managed to find cat friends wherever I went. This little guy is in Colle Val d'Elsa.

This is the view of San Gimignano from the belltower there. The hills and patchwork fields are amazing. The tower you see is one of the 7 "skyscrapers" that San Gimignano had.

This is the view of San Gimignano from the patio of our villa. You can better see the "skyline" of the town from a distance.

This is near Villa Ducci, near San Gimignano. These were vineyards, which were everywhere we rode, it seemed.

This was the view from my window in the villa in Pienza

This is me near a poppy field somewhere on the way to Pienza.

This is the stereotypical cypress shot that everyone seems to get when they go to Tuscany, but they really are pretty. This was somewhere on the way to Pienza.

This was a house where locals served us lunch on the front porch. I had the best house wine, picci (hand rolled thick pasta, like spaghetti), tomatoes with basil and olive oil and homemade lemon sorbet. It was the lunch of champions! Unfortunately we lost one of our group here, who ended up too drunk to continue riding!

This is me at the town gates of Montepulciano.

This is Montepulciano as seen from a distance. They don't call these "hill towns" for nothing!

This was our picnic stop during one of our day rides. We had a fully stocked SAG wagon as well as guides who really knew how to feed us well!

This is on the way to Montelpulciano, more cypresses.

This was our group out at our last dinner. We survived!

Our group got ready every morning much as you would at home, except the guides would inflate tires and fill water bottles for us. We just had to show up and ride!

Here I am (second in line, in white) finishing off a hill.

Finally, I spent a couple days on my own back in Florence, taking a day trip to Pisa. This is actually much more awe inspiring than I ever imagined!

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Well, small miracle...I sat down this morning to complete the passport application, and when I got my current passport out, I realized it doesn't expire until January 2013! So that means I don't have to renew it now for China. All I need is one blank visa page, which I have. Granted the pages are pretty full, but one blank page will do it. I'm certainly not paying the $82 to add pages now when I'll be paying $140 next year sometime to renew the whole thing!

So now I don't feel so bad about spending the $366 to upgrade my seats. Somehow it balances out!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thinking back to Ireland

I suppose maybe it's the day that has me waxing nostalgic for Ireland. If memory serves me correctly, it's been 8 years since I have been on the auld sod. Ireland was my first trip out of the US that wasn't Canada. Everything about it was new: plane travel, jetlag, the country, the accent, the food. Little did I know then that what would happen that week would change me for life. For the better, I tend to think.

Matters of the heart had me going back and forth from Boston to Dublin more than a few times a year for the next 10 years or so. Sometimes I would hop a plane on a Thursday night and come back Monday afternoon. After the first couple times, it wasn't so much about what we did as who we saw and how we spent time together. Eventually the "we" I was traveling with became just "me". After so many visits, it wasn't worth my friends' while to go with me. It was more fun for me on my own once I'd established myself there anyway.

I saw Dublin change from a sleepy town where, to me, "everyone was Irish". It didn't seem that immigration to Ireland was terribly popular; why would it when unemployment was over 20%? As the Celtic Tiger was born and flourished, I saw Ireland, and Dublin in particular, lose it's home town charm. It seemed to have more foreigners than Irish. There were more faces that seemed better suited to London than there. The locals I knew and ran into were still the same joyful spirits I remembered, but it was notable nonetheless that the warmth and charm that I felt from the beginning was lost as the country started to climb out of its doldrums. The Dublin I knew went from a city with a single "skyscraper" barely 16 stories high to, over time, more like a proper metropolis with its share of towers, the most notable of which built by U2 themselves.

But once I'd experienced Dublin, I all of a sudden started to take baby-steps further afield. Edinburgh first. Then London. From London to Paris. Then beautiful Italy. The progression continues through eastern Europe, the lowlands and of course, further south to Spain and east to Russia. Making that leap out of the comfort zone of home clearly ignited a wanderlust in me. It made me want to see more. It made me have to see more.

It is funny though, when I think back to what most impressed me on that first and how far and wide I've gone and with that, how wide my mind has opened up. The places these eyes have seen in the 18 years since that first trip may have relegated Dublin somewhat into something not quite as grand as I first saw it, but it has not at all squelched my passion for the town I loved so well.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

And the planning continues

This week I was able to take advantage of a lull at work to actually get things done for the trip. Well a rare lull at work and a not so conveniently scheduled sinus infection that landed me at the doctor on Monday.

At that appointment, I'd hoped to get my vaccinations for China also (hey, while I'm there, might as well!), but the physician's assistant said they don't even stock some of the ones I need. Instead she referred me to an infectious disease specialist at a travel clinic. Immediately, I called to book an appointment, if only to get it all over with. The receptionist was well-versed in how this will work and what I would need. Unfortunately, they are booking into June now. Fortunately, I have some time to play with. She did recommend that I call my health insurance provider and find out that they are all covered, because some are over $200 a piece. Thankfully, a quick call to Blue Cross today confirmed that all of them, even the rabies series, is considered "preventive care" and is available to me at no charge!

Which is good, because the other thing I did today was book airfare. I'd been waiting for a dip on the BOS --> D.C. --> PEK route, but when I went to book today that leg had been canceled entirely. So now I'm going through Chicago on the way over and through San Francisco on the way home. I splurged and bought the extra legroom in Economy Plus, which added $366 to the fare. Gulp. But I have to believe that five more inches of legroom is really going to matter on a 14 hour flight. All in it was $1900. My thought is to lock that in now before anything else in Asia or the Middle East effects fares or fuel costs!

Next up was trip insurance, which had to be purchased by today, three weeks after my deposit on the trip, in order to be eligible for "pre-existing condition" cancellations. I know to some trip insurance seems like money out the window, but with various health concerns among my immediate family, it seems like the smart thing to do on a trip this expensive. If it was just $500 to Paris, that'd be one thing. This is considerably different.

And finally, I picked up passport forms and went to AAA across the street from work today to get passport and visa photos done. This weekend I'll complete the passport application and get that out. I can't apply for the visa until June but will need the passport renewed by then.

There is something sad about changing passports. I've done it once before and always feel like I've earned all those stamps and dog-eared corners and rippled edges. It shows that I'm a cagey veteran, I know what I'm doing and take me seriously. Now I'll have a passport that probably creaks when I open it, rather than bend back on its own to the photo page. I'll get the old one back just like I did last time, but it feels like I'll be leaving behind an old friend who's been through a lot with me. The bigger issue is getting a photo taken that you can live with for the next ten years. Yikes!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Trip planning update and devastation in Asia

Early this morning I awoke, having fallen asleep watching tv. I was met by the news that Japan had just suffered a massive earthquake and at the time only 30 people had been killed. By the time I woke for work, that number had increased tenfold, and would probably continue to do so during the days and aftershocks and tsunamis that are to follow. I then read in the Globe this morning that Southeast China suffered a smaller, but still significant, earthquake the day before that.

After I got confirmation that the two people I know in Japan are safe and sound, I reminded myself that exposing myself to risks like this is one of the side-effects of global travel. I won't deny it: I did pause a moment and wonder about going to China in September. I reminded myself again that BiFengXia, the panda center I'll be volunteering at, is the replacement panda center for the much better known Wolong center which was decimated in an earthquake 3 years go. They lost several pandas in fact, before they managed to relocate the population to BiFengXia.

But like the bombings and unrest in Russia that occurred in the months leading up to my trip there, I have the same feeling of helplessness about natural disasters that might take place in China. Yes, it may happen. But fear of it happening when I'm there for 12 days cannot suppress my wanderlust. Go (unless forbidden to do so by the authorities) and go I will.

I received my confirmation and receipt for the tour yesterday, along with a welcome packet, insurance form, visa form, some demographic data and suggested reading list for the trip. The visa form is not nearly as involved as the one for Russia. Since I do not have a Chinese consulate near me, I'll be calling on the agency that got my Russian visa for me to do so again. I trust them now that I've sent them my passport and gotten it back successfully once before.

I'm still checking airfare daily, hoping for a little drop, right now it is running around $1500 before upgrading the seats to Economy Plus. I was contemplating adding a day at the front end of this trip so I can spend a bit more time in Beijing. I'm still undecided on that. Next up I have to purchase travel insurance by the 17th in order to get the "cancel for any reason" coverage.

My pre-trip reading will begin shortly. I was quoted in another Fodors guide, which entitles me to a free travel guide, so I chose China, of course. That saves me $25 and is arriving shortly. I also ordered a condensed history of China that reviews say is "readable". So wheels are in motion. It's hard to believe that 6 months from right now I'll be in Xi'An!

Here's the map of the trip: