Sunday, February 18, 2018

Japan, VR, and Henn Na Hotel

After spending time in the relative warmth of SE Asia, we went to Japan to visit Aya's parents and spend some time in Aizu. It is always nice going back, like going home for many reasons. This time around the house was quite noisy as brother in-law plus family were staying there as well. Most of the day revolved around two energetic kids.
We did also have a new year's day meal with uncle and aunt. Mostly we just enjoyed chilling, eating, and for me, running in snowy Aizu. I spent a good deal of time with Sheri sleeping and getting in some good scratches. I also played a game where I had no idea what I was doing and I think that the rules where changing as Sota made them up. The last day we were there it snowed really hard as Aya's parents drove us to  Fukushima to catch the Shinkansen.

Arriving in Tokyo we had an unusual hotel experience. I had heard about these hotels that were run by robots and, knowing my excitement, Aya booked us at one that had just opened. The rooms themselves were pretty normal business hotel types except that they had a closet sort of thing that was supposed to clean clothing if you hung it inside. It was odd, but we tried it and our clothes did in fact seem to be a bit cleaner. The attraction at the hotel were the animated robots that checked us in and out. It was cool, but not exactly what I was expecting. I don't know quite what I thought would happen, but I guess I thought the robots would be more interactive. What happened was that we approached two dinosaur robots, yes dinosaurs, and then we interacted with a touch screen while the robots moved and spoke to us responding to what we chose on the touch screen. Other than the check in and out interaction the hotel was pretty normal, but still it was kind of fun to go.

We had an afternoon flight back to Beijing, so we decided to try a VR gaming place that Aya had read about. It was really cool. Basically it was two floors of games, all VR, ranging from normal nintendo games like Mario Kart and fishing games to haunted house type games. We tried two games, Mario Kart and Horror Hospital. Mario Kart was pretty neat and since the seat/kart we sat in also moved it added to the overall feeling. After playing the game and taking off the gear we felt kind of weird. Since the games were a bit expensive we decided on just one more and went for the horror one since there were warnings not to do it if you were especially sensitive. Standing in line waiting to play there were many screams coming from the people playing, so I was expecting some really scary stuff. It was scary. Basically you both sit (in the VR world in a wheelchair) and then use a joystick to guide yourself around a hospital trying to find the other player and get out. As you do so people come out at you, but the scariest bit was when blades or things got close or cut you. Based on the VR head gear it really did seem like the blades were plunging into you, an uneasy feeling. I'm sure if we get a chance to we will try more games again some day. 

After enjoying Japan, we chilled at the airport lounge at Haneda, watching the planes come and go and waiting for our turn to return to Beijing.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


We only stayed in Yangon for two nights and a day, so we didn't get to see as much of it as maybe we would have liked. However, we did make it to what is probably the main attraction, Shwedagon Pagoda. From our hotel, the first night, we went to the rooftop restaurant to eat dinner and enjoy the view (the power was off, until the generator kicked in). In the far distance you can see the tops of the pagoda, which we would visit the next day. The sunset, which we would come back for the follow night, was really pretty. Below us, birds and people were gathering for their nightly meal, so it got quite noisy, but still was worth a second visit. 

The next day we got up late and made our way to the pagoda by foot. As we got closer to the temple area it as unclear how to navigate the warrens of alleyways to get to the gates, but we saw 5-6 young monks moving in the direction of the temple, so we followed them and shortly arrived at the temple. There, we had to remove our shoes and cover our legs and shoulders. We then climbed a number of steps to get to the top, which was very busy with pilgrims. 
There were a few odd things about the temple grounds, first, there were stations for the days of the week that you were born on and you were supposed to pray to that day. I picked Sunday, which I am not sure if it was right, but I feel like a 'born on Sunday' type of guy.  Also, the pagoda is supposed to contain some of the Buddha's hair, but I couldn't find out where and Aya wasn't that interested, so we were split on it (huzah!)

The other unusual thing was that there was an inscription that was found on the temple grounds that verified how long the temple had been around. There is speculation as to how old the temple is, but not definitive proof earlier than this insciruption, so we went to check it out. For future reference, go to MONDAY, hang a left, go past the large bodhi tree and you'll find it under an open air canopy with a sleeping guard. There is the Dhamazedi inscription, made in 1485! Whenever I come across things like this, which are very old in human years, I try to think of what else was happening in the world at that time. In that year, the new world of the America's was just about to be cracked by europeans. A lot has changed in the world. 

After spending some time at the pagoda, we headed downtown to visit the old post office and walk around a bit. You can clearly see a lot of the old buildings from the British days still intact, though that is now changing as Myanmar opens and develops. After walking around the streets for a bit, staring upward, we visited a large modern shopping mall, looking for socks for Aya. 

That night, we again sat and watched the sunset on a beautiful day on Yangon. The next day we were off for a couple of days in Thailand and then on to Japan for the new year. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018


Bagan was something else. We've been to a lot of places that are a bit similar in what they feel like or represent, like Cairo or maybe Siam Reap, with ancient architecture  that makes you say 'wow'. We've never experienced something quite like this though. Bagan's temples stretched out before us in every direction. Since the area was not too big, but would take time to travel by on foot, we decided to rent an e-scooter each day to get around, it was quite fun and not too dangerous. I could name temples, but there are just so many of them and let's say that we went to all the main  ones, plus a few more. 

On the first day we arrived in the afternoon so we just chilled and walked to the end of the road near our hotel. This is where the pineapple looking temple was located. We scoped it out as it was supposed to be a nice point to watch the sunset, but what we should have anticipated was that everyone else thought that too. We ended up going nearby to a river boat for dinner, an odd little place where we were the only customers and the owner, a foreigner, was kicking about on the shore trying to do landscaping or something. On the way there we walked through a small cluster of homes and a few kids ran out to try to sell us postcards. Some of them were just crayon drawing, I suppose the smallest kids saw the older kids making money off selling cards and wanted a  piece of the action. However, one girl was selling a set of 10 cards for about 1 dollar. I hadn't seen anywhere near that price at any of the tourist stands, so I went for it. I felt great that I got a great deal, about 75% of what the stands were selling, but I also felt kind of bad because I think the kid maybe just got excited and said the wrong price. Hot off my major deal, stomach full of fish and eyes full of river and mountain sunset, we turned in for the first night. 

Day two we rented the e-scooter and rode to our first temple then on to the local market. The first temple was beautiful, but we had a funny run in before we entered. As we were coming up to the temple on the side we couldn't exactly see where to park the scooter. While we were moving up a side lane some women came out of a doorway and said, "enter, enter" and sure enough, above the door was painted the word "Entrance". So we parked and went in. As soon as we did the women tried to sell us some things and one of them even managed to pin a little butterfly broach on me. I didn't really realize until we had managed to shake them off that the butterfly was a tag so that when I came back for my shoes the lady would have something to pin (like that one mom?) on me and of course she did, but I held my will and didn't buy anything. I've gotten stronger over the years of running into touts and I don't feel so bad anymore, but maybe a little. Maybe I was just hyped from my previous days good buy on the postcards. The temple grounds themselves were beautiful and since we were there somewhat early in the morning there weren't too many people and the air was cool. Right after we rode to the market in town, a crazy complex of a really big covered area. There were vendors of every kind and tourist stalls and local stalls were mixed. We then had lunch and headed back to the hotel for an afternoon rest.

Later that day we headed to the Nann Myint tower going the long way around to cruise a little bit. The tower was about 5 dollars a person, kind of expensive (relative to the service) we thought and for a few minutes we considered sending up just one of us. In the end we both went up because, what is 5 dollars each to spend on something we will do once? Once up to the top floor, I think it was the 13th floor, we had quite a good view of the landscape. However, I think the tower is actually too high. As you look out on the temples in the area they appear more like tiny dots without much detail. We spent a bit of time taking a rest on top and then headed our way down. On the map we were carrying there seemed to be a shortcut to the next place we were going and as we were bouncing down the sandy lanes we started signing 'born to be wild' (me, actually). Less than 5 minutes later our scooter was stuck in deep sand and it was obvious that we had taken a wrong turn. We pushed and cajoled our scooter out of the sand and up a ridge eventually, but by that point the headiness of riding around had faded. We took the long, and safe, way home. As we wound our way along the dusty tracks the sun was starting to set, so we saw a lot of people gathering at the temples for the sunset viewing. Today, we were going to skip that exercise because we had other plans, but the next day we would. 

Early (ish) the next day we hired a car to head to the nearby temple at Mt. Popa. The prior day at Nann Myint tower we had seen it far, far in the distance and from pictures it looked pretty neat, so we decided to get a driver to make the half day journey there and back. Our driver was pretty chill and the ride was fairly uneventful  except when we neared the mountain. Along the road were people in small groups and as we passed they would wave. At first I thought, surely, they are waving for a ride, but as we went on there were more and more people and they weren't gathered in one spot but spread about 50 meters apart. It was really odd. I would find out on the way back that they were waving to tourists and that sometimes people threw money out the windows at them. What a job, if you can call it that. 
Mt. Popa was pretty cool. Our driver dropped us about 1km from the start of the mountain as the road was jammed with buses and people. There were motor bike taxis, but we walked assuming it wouldn't be that far and it luckily turned out that it wasn't. The base of the hill was jam packed with pilgrims, cars, motorcycles, etc. It was a bizarre bazaar of people, animals, and machines. As we approached the staircase we were directed to take off our shoes. This was not unusual as every temple ground asked you to do this. From there forward we started climbing the stairs with the other pilgrims. The 770 stairs to the top were packed with people and the occasional monkey and we often had to stop to wait for people to clear out. Getting to the top was a beautiful view and we spent some time there enjoying the breeze before making the descent. At the bottom of the stairs, after retrieving our shoes, we tried to decide what to do next. Standing at the edge of the churning mass of people trying to figure out how to get to a look out point opposite Mt. Popa, we eventually decided that it would be too far/hard to walk it so we would need to get a taxi. We asked two motorbike driver who were chilling by the road, showed them the map, described the place, and then we each hoped on their bikes. It was a fun ride, but it ended too quickly and Aya and I both thought, what the hell? The bikes stopped on the main road to the town, not near where we were going. As it turns out they stopped right by our driver's car, but how did they know he was our driver? We never told them? It was odd, but we didn't ask what happened. We just kind of looked at each other and said, whatever, lets go back to town, because at that point we were getting pretty tired. Originally we did not have a plan for later in the day, but since we arrived back and had lunch around 2pm we thought we would rent an e-scooter again and just tool around to some temples aiming to watch the sunset. As we did we ran into our friends from Beijing and decided to go together to the sunset. Many of the temples in the area were off limits to people climbing them for pretty obvious reasons like instability of the temple and potential destruction from tourists. We did see some people breaking into areas they should not have been, but we avoided that and eventually we found a temple where people were clearly gathering  and watched from there, a very nice end to the day.

On the third day I got up early and had a run around the temples. It was nice and cool in the morning and the temples were beautiful in the morning light, but there was a lot of smoke from burning garbage and small cooking fires. Overall the air quality in Myanmar was pretty poor. We didn't know this for sure, as there are no official readings, but it was pretty clear by the thickness and smell of the air in Bagan, Inle, and Yangon. After my run we rented the scooter again and took the long route around to see some of the further temples that we hadn't before. It was a pretty leisurely day and we didn't get up to much. In the evening, Christmas Eve, we met up with our Beijing friends for dinner. It was quite a nice way to spend the holiday and our last night in Bagan. The next day, we were off to Yangon. 

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Aung Traditional Puppetry

We had read about this place on trip advisor, or something, and figured that there wasn't much to do in the town of Nyaungshwe at night, so we should come early to guy tickets and secure our seats. Cost was about 5 dollars each, which I felt like it was a bit much as I looked around the small simple theater room, but probably worth it.

When we arrived back at 6:50 pm, ten minutes before the show start, we peeked inside and saw an empty room of about twenty chairs. At first we thought that maybe we got the time wrong, but we were asked inside and sat down with some tea and candies. We were given a book where people had written comments and then the madam disappeared behind a curtain. We thought for sure that more people would be coming, but as we paged through the visitor's book we saw that many of the entries were spaced far apart in date and some of them even said, "I was the only one here". So it was for us too, we got a private show!
The puppet master came at 6:55 and he and madam prepared the stage. They used a recording to introduce each of 20 different puppets and dances. I thought the recording was very cozy as it sounded like it was on a vinyl record and the accent of the woman speaking was kind of like an old English accent. Imagine the old recordings of the Jungle Book maybe and you can get an idea.

After we had watched the show we talked a bit with the puppet master and he told us he was from a family of puppeteers. He also tried to sell us some of the puppets they had on display. It worked! I bought one of the medium sized puppets for about 10 dollars. What a deal really! I would have gotten a larger one for about 35 dollars, but I was thinking about room in my bag so I didn't.
After the show we walked down the dark lanes of Inle, smiling a bit at the whimsical show we just witnessed. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

From Yangon to Nyaungshwe and Inle Lake

We arrived in Yangon in the afternoon and did not get up to much, so that part of this story is pretty bland, but the next morning we made our way to the airport and took a flight to Heho airport near the town of Nyaungshwe and Inle Lake. The flight itself was pretty good and the view from the plane was beautiful as we flew fairly low (ish) over the hills of Myanmar. After we touched down at Heho we had a bit of a problem as there were two drivers waiting there for us. Seems that Aya contacted our hotel about getting a driver and gave them our details, but they hotel never confirmed a driver and had in fact told her to just get a cab. So Aya booked another private driver instead. So there we were with two people standing there looking at us trying to figure out what was going on. In the end, we took the private driver and spent about 45 minutes getting from the airport to our hotel.

The road between the airport and the town of Nyaungshwe was fairly underdeveloped and at many places along the way it was clear they were trying to expand and improve the road with diggers and human laborers carrying cans of tar or baskets of gravel. It looked like extremely hard work, I thought to myself as I whisked by in my air conditioned car. Often we forget how lucky we are to have things we think are normal, like a flushing toilet or 24 hour access to electricity, but this was not one of those lapsing moments.
Our hotel, called Manle, was a pretty nice place. Very simple in it's layout, but nice. We spent a few nights here and the staff were very polite and always attentive. Of course, staff will be nice to customers, but there was something extra here and we were pretty impressed with the manners of people generally on our trip. I guess that is a saying about Myanmar, not much to see, but tourists come back for the people. I'm not totally sure I agree with the not much to see part, but I can fully agree about the people. Everyone we met was very nice and treated us fairly.
The two full days that we had at the lake we used to rent a boat and to see as much of the lake as we could and then the other day we just bummed about on the hotel bicycles, had some wine at a local winery in the hills, looking at some old temples, and eventually going to a puppet show at night. I have to say one of my favorite moments was the puppet show, but a close second was taking the bikes on a back road and just coming across some old stupas that no one else was looking at, or seeming caring to upkeep. Right after, we hit a kink in the road and weren't sure where to go, but a friendly monk stuck her head out the window of a building and waved us in the right direction. A moment later we passed a place called Hair Cats (a small place in the middle of nowhere, mind you) and a man called out, "Want a hair cat?"Aya will never forget it, I fear.

The lake is the main draw to the area, of course. We rented a boat for what would be about 25 dollars for the day. As with most things like this, it was partly understood that the driver would be taking us to shops and getting a commission if we bought anything. Before taking off we had lunch and then walked with the driver down to the canal to board the boat. It was a long wooden boat, which we were to find out later was made with local teak wood and lacquered with local tars. The engine was a long diesel engine that made quite a noisy put-put sound and it quickly got us through the canal and out into the open lake. It was a very nice day with some clouds, but mostly sunny and fairly warm. Cranes and other birds were doing their fishing along the shores and men were doing their fishing in the shallow lake.
We wouldn't really need long sleeves until later in the day as the sun was out and it was nearly noon. The smell of the fresh water, some decay of plants, and the expanse of the lake made me a little home sick as it reminded me of lake Michigan. Along the water's edge were many houses built on stilts as well as the occasional passing of another put putting boat. One of the things the lake is well known for is the fishermen who balance on the end of the wooden boats, keeping hold of the tilling oar with one leg and dipping their large wooden baskets into the water to fish. There were plenty enough of them, so much I wondered how the lake sustained itself.

We took about 45 minutes to make it all the way to the southern end of the lake where we then slowly made our way between smaller villages out on the water and from shop to shop seeing crafted silver, silks, wood, and other wares. Probably the most interesting place was a shop that had many looms for making fabric. The shop had various combinations of silk and lotus root textile, something I had never thought of before or seen, but it seemed to be quite rare and expensive. If nothing else it took the ladies working there an awfully long time to get all the root from the lotus in quantities large enough to weave them into textile. Of course, we had a walk about their shop too, but settled to have a tea and wait for our driver to get back rather than making a big purchase. I think overall our driver was disappointed as we only got one teak box with rolled cigarettes and didn't buy anything else our whole trip, not much commission for him. We also made our way through the "floating garden", what was essentially a floating boggy area, quite large, where tomatoes and other veggies were grown. I was quite impressed really. I bet the veggies were tasty.

At the end of the day we ended up at the "Jumping Cat" monastery where it was legend that the monks had trained cats to jump through hoops, but no longer did as it was seen as cruel. I don't know what is cruel about that, I really wanted to see some jumping cats, but all the cats there were not very jumpy. More the usual loungy type. We chilled for a bit and waited for the sunset, what was touted as a must see. Nearing dusk, we entered back to our boat and made our way the rest of the way across the lake as the sun set over the mountains. With the put putting in our ears, the lake smell in our nose and the golden rays slicing through mountains and clouds, it was a beautiful end to a very nice day. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A New Year

Welcome to 2018! It is, almost,  my birthday and so a perfect time to reflect on the coming year  as well as the past year and to relax with my new Nicolas Cage pillow, a birthday gift. Things are looking pretty good in both directions, so let me share a bit about why.

Since last January I've done a lot of traveling, first to Japan in the spring to catch some cherry blossoms, and then again to Japan in June as part of a school trip to Hiroshima. I then again went to Japan this past December to see my family for the holidays. Three times in a year I went to Japan! That is a win. I also made it back to the US this summer to see family and spent a month in California for a summer program, so that was a good bit of traveling too. I added two new countries to my travelled to list of 40 countries now, Myanmar and Mongolia. As always, it was very exciting to go somewhere new and see a different way of life.
I don't always travel though, sometimes I have to work too and that has been going well. I've continued teaching at my brick and mortar school here in Beijing and online both semesters with GOA. In addition, I've been doing test administration and examining both for IB and SAT. Extra bucks for extra work! In addition, I spent 4 weeks this summer at an NEH seminar that, besides paying nicely, was super interesting and connected me to a lot of great educators in the US. I did have a stab at finding a new post in the fall as the hiring season heated up, but the market didn't look too good and the only great lead I had fizzled out, so we are here in Beijing for another year, shackled by golden handcuffs.
Health wise, we are doing pretty good. I ran two half marathons last year and Aya has been exercising more as well. We are both getting older and feeling some of that in stiffness and longer healing times, but nothing too major. We even got out to do some hiking in the Beijing mountains and I think there will be more of that in the next year as the air here has been getting better.

For the coming year there are a few things in the works. It looks like we will spend some time this coming summer in Wisconsin and I will also be going to Seattle again for GOA training in July. Last time I had a calf strain so I couldn't run around the beautiful trails on Bainbridge Island, but, fingers crossed, that will not be the case this year. I'm also eyeing some smaller races over the summer, like the Hairpin in Fish Creek. I also think there will be some additional trips as Aya and I are 100% sure that this is our last year in Beijing. The time has come so, good job or not, we are going to make the jump to somewhere else. Most of that will again gear up in November and December, quite far away at the moment. Who knows where we will end up, but some of the trips we are looking at would be to southern parts of India and Sri Lanka (new country!), maybe to Scotland/London/Iceland(new country!), or to some further parts of China like Tibet (new... country?). I will also stay on with GOA and teach with them next year, but I think my commitments with them will change and so I might be teaching a different subject, that will be exciting.

Certainly not least, I am looking forward to seeing some close friends and family. Happy 2018!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Hustai National Park

On our last full day of the journey we headed east, back to Ulan Bator and along the way made a stop at Hustai national park. The park is a huge reserve and there are numerous wild animals there like big cats, mountain goats, elk, and wild horses. The star of the assortment is the wild horse, known as Przewalkskis horses. These horses are genetically distinct from domesticate horses and are truly wild. In the world they are one of only two groups of truly wild horses still in existence, the other being somewhere in Africa.

So we entered the park keeping a keen eye for the horses, but mostly we saw prairie dogs until we spotted another van pulled over on the side of the road. The returning people told us that just over the ridge there was a group of the horses. So we hiked up the hill and as we crested we could see 4-5 horses staring back at us. As we stood there, them looking at us, us looking at them, we could also hear the elk in the hills around us calling to each other. We could barely see the elk, but the horses were close enough. Our guide told us he could see the difference between these and other horses. He was Mongolian, so I believe him, but to me it just looked like another horse.

After standing around for a bit we packed it back into the van and decided to go directly back to Ulan Bator.

Just a side note to all the great things on our trip. I was truly surprised at how polluted Ulan Bator would get. There are many power plants very close to the expanding city and they are burning coal all the time. On top of that, many people around and in the valley where the capital is are still living in gers and burning wood and coal in stoves of their own, quite inefficiently, adding to the smoke. It was bizarre in some ways that in this really beautiful and out of the way place there was so much smog, but that is the way of developing countries today.

Lake Ogii

On day three we woke early and jumped back in the van. Today we were going to the old Buddhist temple of Tuvkhun which had been destroyed by the communists in the early days of the Mongolian republic. There were still a good number of temples that had been restored and there were about 30 active monks on the site, but also lots of empty space where buildings had been knocked down. It was quite a beautiful and quiet place.

After we had walked around for a bit we went nearby to where the old city of Karakorum has existed. A joint Mongolian/Japanese team had built a museum there outlining the dig and artifacts that were found. It was all pretty interesting, but the best bit was that there was a tomb of a nomad found nearby. The tomb was quite large and the paintings on stucco walls were mostly still intact, as were golden ornaments and the containers for the cremated bodies. The most interesting thing for me was that the people in the tomb were Turkic. They did not look like Mongolians, but more like central Asians in the “stans” over time they had drifted from the Mongolian Steppe to central asia and into Turkey itself.

After the museum we headed for lunch and then on to lake Ugii A note about lunch, being vegetarian in Mongolia is not easy. Every place we went to our guide had to explain to the wait staff what to make and pretty much every time it was egg noodles with vegetable. It was not a bad tasting dish, but having it day after day became boring. Mongolia does not naturally had a lot of fruit and vegetables because of the climate. People mostly rely on dairy products and meat from the herds that they keep and every time we arrived at a new family’s home we would share in these products, milk tea and, for Suz, perhaps a bit of goat or cow meat.

Lake Ugii was quite large, but our guide told us it expanded to about twice that size in the spring when the rains came. Kind of a neat thing to think about, and expanding lake. He also told me there were fish in the lake, but I was skeptical as it wasn’t river fed and when looking at the water later it was very clear, but free of vegetation. From the top of a hill overlooking the lake we took a few moments to get the view in. It was here that I asked about a pile of stones I saw. I had seen many of these along the way and wasn’t sure what they were, but my guide told me they were Ovo and when someone died the family would add stones to the pile along with some personal possessions.

That night we stayed in gers again, but an interesting thing happened. There were 4-5 gers at this location along with what looked like a wood built cabin. The family only had one ger when we arrived, but rather than have all of us stay together again the family volunteered to leave their ger for the night and stay in the cabin. This left the family ger to Stu and Suz, so there were lots of personal possessions around the ger. That night the family got up to some drinking and brawling, which we could clearly hear. We gathered in Stu and Suz’s ger to have dinner and, from time to time someone would open the door (there was not lock really), peek in, realize the family wasn’t there, and then walk away. Everyone was getting progressively more drunk (but us) so we thought we ought to remind the family that we would need some wood for our stove to light a fire. They promised to send someone around to do it later. Luckily they did, but funnily it was only to Aya and my ger. On the way to the bathroom I opened the door to our ger and found a fella in there poking the fire. He then pointed to a big plastic bag of coal and dropped the whole thing into the stove, plastic and all. I thought for sure we were going to die in the night. The next day I asked Stu about it and he said no one ever came to their ger and they were cold all night. The fella in my ger must have been shit faced and either forgot there was another ger and just thought the hell with it and chucked it all in our stove. We did stay toasty for most of the night.