Monday, November 30, 2009

So long old friend

As mentioned in my last post I lost Gumby on the Great Wall. Through this entire voyage my plan was to make my final blog post a collection of Gumby photos from around the world. As he didn't make it all the way I'll do it now. I hope it brings a smile to your face and some joy to your day.

Sailing around the world with his monkey friends.

Enjoying the breakfast of champions - coke and some fresh bread in Cadiz, Spain

Feeling like he lives in Ikea at the hotel in Seville, Spain

Loving the view of the ship in Cadiz, Spain

At the 3rd largest mosque in the world - Casablanca, Morocco

Traveling through the Atlas Mountains, Morocco

In the sands of the Sahara, Morocco

On the camel trek in Morocco

Enjoying a parade in Ghana

Having a hard time finding his size in Ghana

Being transported like the local goods in Ghana.

Sunrise as we approach Cape Town, South Africa

Sending post cards from Cape Town to the friends back in the states

Staying in from the rain and having some good soup in Cape Town

Getting to know the natives in Cape Town

Shaking in his boots on Safari at Kruger National Park, South Africa

At the Mauritius Postal Museum

At the best named shop in all of Mauritius

Shopping for some spices and seeds in Mauritius

In a cab in India

On the train in India

Hello from the Taj Mahal

Making new friends in at the Emperor's palace in Cambodia

Sunrise at Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Having a nice conversation with the soldiers at the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam.

Ready to fly to Beijing!

At the Great Wall

Wish you were here

I like it so much I think I'll stay!

Its been fun little guy. Good luck out there.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Happy Birthday!

Its my brother's birthday today!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hiking the Great Wall: part 2

I failed to write about the locals in in part 1. I would say that there were about 15 locals who made the entire walk with us. They knew the wall and would help us up and down the steps along the way. The down side as we learned was that as soon as we stopped for a break they would pull off their backpacks and try to sell us stuff. T-shirts, sweatshirts, chopsticks, postcard books, Great Wall fact books ect. It got old fast. I blame my Irish guilt for my purchace of the “I climbed the Great Wall” t-shirt. Ok, now on to day two…

Not everyone made it to the wall the second day and some didn’t make it back. About half of the group decided to go to Beijing and the tour company was great enough not only to allow one of the buses to go to the city but also to arrange a one day city tour. I was among the troopers who managed to hike day two, after all that is what I planned to do and I’m not much one for spontaneity.

As we finished day one our guide told that day two was easier and less stairs. The itinerary even said, “We will enjoy a smooth, easy hike” so we had high hopes. My hopes were shattered pretty quickly. We had a 5-6 hour, 7 mile hike in front of us and from the start I was thinking to myself ‘it’s a good thing half the group passed on day two’. We began where we finished the day before; Jinshanling and hiked to Gubeikou Great Wall.

The famous Gubrikou Great Wall occupies a strategically important location which is difficult to access, and its constructuion rates highly as an architectural achievement. There are 14 beacon towers, 143 watchtowers, 16 strategic pass, three citadels and many other military constructions. Many of them are famous cultural relics, such as the Big Flower Beacon Tower of the Northern Qi Dynasty, Fairy Tower, General Tower, and the dominant Wangjing Tower.

I’ll be honest, I was too cold to stop and read the information located at the occasional towers and I was hiking too fast for the guide so if he shared any info along the way I didn’t hear him. But it was still a cool experience. The day was more difficult for different reasons at different times.

It was a cloudy day so it was a good bit colder all day. It was also windy so that make things worse both as far as of walking safely and being cold. We had two young kids on our trip, Chase who is 11 and Gabe who is 7, maybe 8. There dad works on the ship in the filed office and in the real world their parents have their own outdoor adventure travel company. These kids are troopers and Chase led the group the entire way. He was running up and down these steps that the rest of us held onto for dear life.

There were times that we were almost scaling the Great Wall as we walked along the side with less than a foot of pathway to walk on. For a good portion of the day we were actually hiking next to the Great Wall through cornfields and over frozen streams. Day two for many of us was about conquering the wall, not the fun hike that it was the day before. After lunch I put on my ipod, turned up the music and just kept moving forward. As I write this I feel like I am making sound horrible but it really wasn’t – it was a challenging day but I am grateful for the experience. I look forward to telling stories when I am an old man that start: “when I was 28 and hiking through the snow on the Great Wall…”

Our tour guide had initially told us that he wanted to keep the group somewhat close together which makes sense. However on day two with Chase leading the way the group was pretty spread out. For the first portion of the day our second guide was in the front and the main guide was in the back. As we hit the trail after lunch I assumed the assistant guide was once again in front. Well I was mistaken.

I was in the middle of the pack and was by myself for a fair amount of the hike. As the front group began to move away from the wall I got a bit nervous but guessed the guide knew where to take us. I was concerned about the spread of people behind me because as I lost view of them I didn’t think they would know where to leave the Wall and take the path down into the valley. I made my way down the poorly market path and through the old military area where I found the front portion of the group being heckled by a number of the locals with whom I lost my patience with when I realized our real guide was not at the front of the group. Being the only staff member there I quickly pulled out my itinerary, encouraged the students to stretch a bit and keep walking around to stay warm as the paper work said we pass through a small town before rejoining the wall and finishing the hike. I had no idea how much longer we had to go and frankly I got a bit nervous. I turned on my cell phone only to see that I had no service.

I stayed with the group for about 10 minutes and tried not to show my concern too much. After a bit I told the group not to go anywhere as I hiked about 5 minutes back towards the military base and into the valley a bit further where I after about 15 minutes I saw the group come over the ridge and to hike down into the valley. Finally reconnected I was happy to learn that the remainder of our hike was all of 5 minutes to the bus.

Now, if you read carefully you will remember that I said not everyone made it back. It is with a heavy heart that I share this news. My dear friend and travel companion Gumby was lost on the Great Wall. (I’ll wait for you to wipe the tears) My only guess is that he fell out of my pocket at some point. While it was my plan to make my final post a collection of Gumby around the world he didn’t quite make it all the way. Close but no cigar as my dad might say.

For what its worth it was a far better situation to have lost Gumby than my camera, phone or wallet but I was still disappointed when I realized I lost him. I had hoped that someone behind me would find him and know he was mine but no such luck. So unfortunately and prematurely my next blog post will be the best of Gumby around the world photos. Until then, cheers and thanks for reading and following me along on my journey.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Hiking the Great Wall: part 1

Our visit to the Great Wall was a cold one but could have been much worse. In the days leading up to it people were talking that our hotel had no heat and that it was going to be a high of 30 degrees. I am happy to say that the night before we arrived in Hong Kong at our logistical pre-port we were told that the tour company was able to change our accommodations to a 5 star hotel with heat. We were over-joyed. We still talked about how to dress for the cold - its all about layers and good shoes. We encouraged everyone who was not prepared for the cold to spend our first day in Hong Kong at the port terminal mall buying some good clothes. Most took the advice – some did not.

We took a three-hour flight from Hong Kong to Beijing and then a few more hours on bus to our hotel. Our tour guide told us that the hotel was nice but tends to cater to conferences and locals. The service and accommodations were nice, but very few of the staff speak any English. Fine by me. The hotel was pretty big, pretty big and totally empty. I kept calling it creepy and other SAS staff agreed. Don’t get me wrong; it was nice as I’m sure the hotel in THE SHINGING was nice. The lobby was huge and all marble with a small sitting area just inside the doors, a gift shop on one side and the lobby bar on the other. As we got our keys the staff made plans to meet in the bar at 9pm. Well we didn’t confirm which bar so in my walking around I ran into Nurse C and we ventured together. We went to the basement were we found an empty nightclub and then we heard some voices hear by. It was the trip and bus leader team, husband and wife A&T trying their best to communicate with the hotel staff working at the bowling ally. We gave up and decided to go up to the lobby bar.
Look at Bangs with her cute red vest.

We named the bartender Bangs, because she had bangs. (I learned this smart naming style from my college roommate Becky). Bangs was new and struggled her way through the ordering process as did we. We eventually got a bottle of wine and 1 warm beer because they didn’t have anything else. We tried to make the best of the situation and enjoyed our company. After one decent bottle of wine and one bad bottle of wine we called it a night.

Bright and early with A&T our fearless leaders!

We began our hike of the wall with some stretching which while understanding it to be a good idea was still funny to me.

The following bit is from the itinerary we got

The Great Wall’s first section was built as early as the fifth century BC when a number of Chinese states in the north were fighting against each other and occasionally against the northern ‘barbarian’. It was not until the unification of the empire under Qin Shi Huang Di in 221 B.C. that the various sections of the wall were linked, It is said that more than 300,000 men worked for ten years to complete it. The wall has a pounded earth interior with stone facing walls and stone roadway along the top. It was built wide enough to allow a brace of five horsed to gallop between the battlements and was used to convey soldiers, arms, and food with great speed to various parts of the northern frontier.

The first day we had hiked about five and half miles from Simatai Great Wall and Jinshanling Section passing 35 towers. The Simatai- Jinshanling is a four-hour hike along the unreconstructed part of the wall. The views of the Wall snaking over the precipitous mountain ridges into the far distance are memorable. The Simatai Great Wall is celebrated for its steepness and intactness.

Seriously – Steepness! It was a substantial hike. I would dare consider myself an avid hiker having hiked the Grand Canyon and Half Dome (Shout out to Drew, Nicki, JMac, Jeff and Tim) and hiking the Santa Monica Mountains as often as I can, but this Great Wall hike was pretty hard-core. At times we laughed (if only to keep from complaining) saying that we were in fact climbing, not hiking the Great Wall.
To make things worse, it snowed the night before so we were walking along snow-covered steps. With that bit of complaining out of the way, once we got moving and the sun came out it was pretty nice. It wasn’t windy, we rarely saw anyone else, which after months of being in cow heard tour mentality being ‘on our own’ was a wonderful feeling. The views really were pretty amazing and as I have said a number of times on the journey it was nice to have an active day and work up a good sweat.

That night we had a great dinner at a local restaurant where I ate everything on the table and with chopsticks! There were fish tanks against the wall and at one point a large fish about a foot and a half long jumped out of the tank and hit one of the students in the back. As our group erupted into a fit of laughter and screams the waitress just picked it up off the floor with a giggle and tossed it back in the tank and went about her business. After dinner the grown ups then took a walk around the block and we got a fair share of ‘what the hell are you doing here’ looks. Back at the hotel we paid another visit to the lobby bar and I will admit that Bangs learned a few things from the night before and our service was better. They didn’t however learn to chill the beer.