Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Week in Beijing

Kids in the Forbidden City

After the chaos of leaving Bangkok, we caught an easy flight to Kuala Lumpur. Two hours later, we arrived in a very new airport, and rented a hotel room in the terminal for 7 hours. The next morning we visited the airport Starbucks -- don't judge us, we were in a Muslim country, and we really wanted coffee. Addiction is rarely pretty.

Wendy and kids in the Forbidden City

The flight from Malaysia to Beijing was uneventful, and, after haggling with two taxi drivers, we managed to get a ride to our hostel at only twice the price we had anticipated. One thing struck us immediately -- Beijing in mid-April is cold! But, what is cold but an excuse to hit Silk Street? (A hagglers' paradise, full of knock-off brand name jackets, watches and clothes.) The sellers have perfected the art of haggling, reducing Charlie to tears at one point, and dragging Aidan to the floor as he attempted to resist their efforts to spread Capitalism. Well armed with 6 new intellectual property-infringing jackets, we hit the Streets to see the great sites of China.

Brooks kids on the Great Wall

The high point of our week in Beijing was walking a 10 kilometer section of the Great Wall. We caught a bus at 6:00 am and took a 3-hour ride to Jinshanling. The kids were real troopers -- parts of the wall were very rough, and extremely hilly. 4.5 hours later, we reached Simatai, where we dismounted the wall the way the Chinese did 1,000 years -- by zipline. Okay, in reality the zipline is not actually on the wall, but close.

Chinese Soldier kidnaps small child

The next day, we went to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden City was the imperial palace for the Ming and Qing dynasties for about 500 years, and it was amazing. Apparently some members of the royal families lived their entire lives without leaving the palace grounds. The funniest part of the day was that probably 30 different Chinese tourists wanted to have their pictures taken with our children. They would literally stand in line, and have their pictures taken one after another. The kids were quite patient with it, at least in the beginning.

Another cultural experience was a visit to the Chinese Acrobats in Beijing. Actually, we tried to go our first night, and kept having travel difficulties. It wasn't until our 4th attempt that we made it successfully. The acrobats did all the tricks that any self-respecting gravity-defying pretzel might do. Except that they did them in groups, stacked on top of each other, occasionally using spears and motorcycles. Needless to say, the kids were impressed, and my neck was sore.

Brooks kids invade Tiananmen Square

In a nutshell, we really liked Beijing. It was a very comfortable city, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that few people spoke English. Nobody approached us on the street and tried to sell us anything. In fact, people would come up to us and start talking full-speed in Chinese, assuming that -- of course -- we understood them. I can't tell you how many people counted the number of children that we have on their fingers and then gave us a big thumbs-up.

Alternative Transportation

Charlie eating Snake

Charlie eating snake

Tea Ceremony at our Guesthouse

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Missing images

Careful readers (as of course, all of you are) will have noticed a couple of cryptic messages in that last post where you might have expected images. Here are the two missing images:

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Friday, April 09, 2010

Wrapping up our first month in Northern Thailand

So, we're back in Bangkok at our favorite guesthouse, all of us camped out in our room which has wifi and air conditioning. We arrived here at about 1:30 am this morning, after a day of travel, and tomorrow night we head to Beijing. So, it seems like a good time to talk about the last two weeks.

When I last wrote, we were a few days into our time in Chiang Mai, and getting ready to head to the Elephant Nature Park. Monday morning, we packed up our gear, scrambled to find some bug spray and a couple of towels, and hopped into a minivan to spend a week volunteering to help elephants. Wow, is all I can say. It was a really interesting experience.

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The elephants all had crazy stories. The one that Mae was touching in this picture was blinded in both eyes by it's handler (its "mahout"). As a result, it was a little bit dangerous to be around. Not because it was aggressive, but because it used its trunk to "feel" its way through life, and you could get whacked accidentally.

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After getting introduced and feeding a few elephants, we gave them a bath. Luckily for us, elephants really like the water. Unluckily for me, my kids enjoyed splashing me as much as the critters.

Wendy then decided to make out with an elephant named "Hope". Hope's mother had died when he was a few months old, and local villagers found him wedged between two trees.

Speaking of baby elephants, they're really cute, given that they weigh almost as much as our minivan. There were "only" two babies at the elephant park. Here they're wrestling together.

The kids did a wonderful job -- the other volunteers repeatedly complimented them on their behavior and how hard they worked. On the last day during the wrap-up, one of the volunteers stood up and said to the whole group that she had volunteered for years all around the world and that she had never seen... (at this point I was expecting her to say that she had never seen such a well-organized animal refuge or volunteer program...) such well-behaved and hard-working children.

While at the camp we saw several videos about how elephants are trained. It's a very abusive process, that starts with something called "Phajaan". Young elephants of 3 to 4 years old are strapped into a small pen for days, and beaten, stabbed, and kept off balance to break their spirit. Later, as they learn more specialized skills, they are hit with hooks in their ears and skin to train them.

This made programs like the Elephant Nature Park more amazing -- they also work to train elephants, but only through rewards. (Unfortunately, this also meant that we probably aren't going to ride elephants -- something we had been excited to do.) On the other hand, we spent hours bathing the elephants in the river -- not to mention swimming and tubing.

Further North into Thailand

After returning from the Elephant Camp, we went three hours North to the town of Pai. (It was supposed to be three hours North. However, we rented a car without a map, and accepted directions from an extremely helpful -- and even more clueless -- person, who sent us on a seven hour drive along the scenic dirt road (pictured to the right) in the golden triangle. Wendy was convinced that we were going to be "disappeared" by gun-toting opium farmers. It took a mango smoothy in Pai to get life back to normal.)

We stayed in a treehouse (cleverly named the Pai Treehouse) situated about 30 feet up an amazingly healthy tree. We rented a couple of motorbikes, and scooted to a natural hot springs about 8km outside of Pai (taking care to drive around the clumsy farang (foreigners) that had crashed their motorbikes, leaving them with odd limps, and larger bandages.)

Saying a temporary Goodbye to Thailand

Things got ugly in Bangkok around April 10th (ironically the day we were scheduled to fly to China). 21 people were killed that day in clashes between soldiers and red shirts. It was crazy: the area we were in was in complete gridlock, there were helicopters circling around, and you could here gunshots. Everyone was glued to their televisions.

We had a 7:40 pm flight out of the city last night and had hired a driver who was supposed to arrive at 5:00 to drive us to the airport. At 4:00, he called and said that he couldn't get through the traffic. So we loaded up our backpacks and hiked to the river. From there we took a boat about 2 miles south, where we flagged down a taxi, and made it to our flight with about 20 minutes to spare. In the end it worked out fine, but we weren't sure we were going to make the flight for a while!

But, then the flight was easy. We stayed overnight in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- we rented a room for 7 hours, so we got some sleep. And the next morning we flew to Beijing.

Had a hilarious time trying to eat in China for the first time. No one here seems to speak English (at least in the restaurants, unlike in Thailand.) And we had no idea how to eat! They gave us chopsticks on these tiny 3-inch round plates, then brought out central platters of rice, veggies, meat, etc. We sort of scooped it onto the little plates, but we felt completely over our heads. Other people were stopping at our table and laughing (nicely) at us. Eventually we figured out that we should just eat directly from the communal bowls.

And that's it for now! Our computer battery is almost dead, and it's pushing 11:00 pm, so bedtime!