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The Noble House restaurant looks out onto Cat Ba harbor. A tacky new arch, currently a hulk of steel and scaffolding that suggests an cross between a sunset and bird of paradise, is going up over the pier and obstructing the view from the bar on the Noble House’ third floor. Business seems unaffected.

There’s a “wee lady” named Weng running the place. She has a bright disposition and speaks reasonable English. She consistently looks good, even when tending bar in her pajamas and despite the fact that she has no eyebrows; they’ve been replaced by exceptionally real looking tattoos. It’s almost impossible to tell how old she is. We’ve guessed that she must be in her late thirties because she has a daughter.

Weng is, incidentally, a single mother. I imagine that this must be a difficult thing in Vietnam but she and her daughter seem to be doing well, probably because Weng is so damn good at running the Noble House. Her well-intentioned but hapless staff are an odd group of women, young and old, most of whom come from the surrounding villages. Weng describes them as “crazy” because they, like her, are all single. A few of them have or are expecting children, too, which maybe explains why they’ve been treating me like an delinquent child.

Men with motorbikes wait outside the Noble House and hassle the tourists, all of whom are Westerners except for a few odd Chinese. It took these men the better part of two weeks to realize that I was not interested in renting a motorbike. They still ask me if I’d like “massage, boom boom?” Most of the men on Cat Ba spend their entire day wearing motorbike helmets. It’s not entirely clear why. Suffice it to say that Cat Ba is a little odd.

Social vagaries aside, the place is gorgeous. The same limestone karsts that dotted the landscape in Yangshuo rise from the waters around Cat Ba. The harbors are hemmed in on all sides by towering rock, with tiny white-sand beaches having filled in the gaps. Thick jungle clings to everything but the sheerest cliffs. Out on the bay, floating villages have been pieced together from trawlers, house boats, and fish corrals. Villagers paddle to the mainland in huge baskets whose bottoms are coated in tar. They farm pearls here, and the air smells of mangroves.

It’s for this sort of scenery that Western tourists, especially the package-tour set, flock to Cat Ba. Most only stay a few days, long enough to bake on the beach and take a boat trip into Ha Long Bay. It’s just a tad cool for that sort of thing at the moment, so quite a few have opted to try rock climbing. Owen and I have been out at The Valley with them all month enjoying the lines and perfect climbing weather. But the time has come to move on. Our visas run out in three weeks and there’s still an entire country to see. Owen has decided that he’ll do so from a motorbike and left the day before yesterday to buy some crazy Russian two-stroke in Hanoi. My fifty kilos of mountaineering gear and I, on the other hand, will be taking the train.

I haven’t really gotten around to “revaluing” my travel experience as I said I intended to. My time on Cat Ba certainly hasn’t given rise to any sort of emotional denouement. I was too busy climbing for that sort of thing, really. Still, I feel significantly more relaxed than I did a month ago, which is probably a good thing given that I’m going to be making my way to Bangkok all on my lonesome. There will be plenty of time for thinking on those night trains. I’ll let you know what I come up with.

~br

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It feels like rain here but the sky is dry. I spent the day wandering around looking for a bank. There are banks everywhere, but I wanted a certain bank. In the end, I didn’t find it. Instead I found street food and a little second-story cafe.

I’ve accidentally started drinking coffee. Last week we were on a boat amongst the karsts of Ha Long Bay. The boatmen gave us coffee for breakfast and I felt like I should try it. Today in Hanoi I had two cups in the Vietnamese style, the second giving me the wild jitters.

I think the jitters got to me because this afternoon I had a conversation with an angel. We talked by tapping our fingers, and she said a number of things about my future. I wasn’t sure that I believed her at first, and I argued with her. Then she proved to me that she was an angel. Her grace humbled me. I didn’t have much to say after that.

Tomorrow I go back to Cat Ba Island. I intend to spend a good deal of time in Hanoi, though. Owen and I have agreed that we should visit on the weekends and for Tet. It’s a wonderful city, packed with color and life. Motorbikes weave between each other in a restless dance. People by the tens of thousands eat seated on the street curbs. A light mist lifts in the late morning, allowing the evening sun to gaze unfettered at the pastel buildings. In the sound of traffic, in the touching of chopsticks, in the tapping of her fingers the city whispers:

“Relax.”

~br

It’s funny that as soon as you cross a border a thousand little differences jump out to confront your senses. The heavy concrete detailing of China’s avenues is gone, replaced by lighter colors and a sprinkling of French colonialism. The people are darker, and they wear different hats. And it has got to be five degrees hotter.

Our departure from China was heavy. Heavy because we were (still are) hand-carrying all of our belongings when we left the hostel in Kunming. HotRock’s truck was denied entry into Vietnam, forcing us to haul all of our personal stuff and quite a bit of camp gear. But our goodbyes piled up much higher than our baggage. Yesterday we took our leave from John, our Chinese liaison, champion, legend, and favorite beer-monster.

The bus ride to Hekou was long, and we arrived late. We were all sleeping like babies this morning until the noise of hundreds of people queuing up to cross the border rose to a clamor. Most were pushing bicycles loaded to the breaking-point with cheap Chinese goods. The exit and entry processes were painless, though, and now we’re sitting down to tea, killing time before the evening train to Hanoi.

~br

My time in China is running short. Having decided to spend a few extra days climbing in Yangshuo, I’ve just caught up with HotRock in Kunming. We’ll be working routes in a canyon to the north of the city for a few days, and then heading for the Vietnam border. The brevity of this timeline gives me pause.

Sadly, I don’t really feel like I’ve paid enough attention to China, which is odd given the way over-land travel confronted me in India and Pakistan. It was hard not to have a restive experience with India; it’s in your face, day in and day out, whether you like it or not. Pakistan was a rush of nerves and relief, beautiful, serene. But other than really liking the place, I haven’t had a strong reaction to China. The travel has been pleasant – good roads, comfortable accommodation – and the people mostly indifferent to Westerners. Maybe the fact that a reaction is missing is more about China’s character than mine, but I nonetheless feel like I’m leaving empty handed. There is much more to discover here and the culture is evolving so rapidly that I cannot help but want to come back, and soon.

When I was having my first thoughts about this trip, Vietnam was in the front of my mind. I’m not sure what to expect, but I’ve been looking forward to visiting for a long time. Crossing the border will be a little bittersweet, though, in that Vietnam will likely be my last stop with HotRock. There is a very good chance that I’ll be taking a climbing job on HaLong Bay for a few months while the HotRockers carry on to Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. I’d been searching for a reason to slow my pace through Vietnam when this opportunity came my way. Serendipity, yes, but also an emotional break from my friends on the truck. Still, if things – the job, the climbing, the people – on HaLong are as good I expect them to be then there should be plenty of wonderful experience to replace what I’d otherwise be missing on HotRock.

Christmas and New Years are just around the corner. Exciting things are happening. Hope you’ll be spending them with people you love. I will.

~br

Watching the oxen.
Watching the oxen graze.
The old men watch the oxen graze.

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By the time I remembered the Thanksgiving Story two turkeys and most of the apple crumble had already been picked clean. You know the one: The Pilgrims are facing their first winter in the New World but they’re quickly running out of supplies. Things are looking grim when the Indians turn up with loads of local fare and save their white asses from starvation. They throw a dinner party. Or something like that. Skip the genocide that took place shortly thereafter.

Anyway, it occurred to me that we were having a particularly storybook Thanksgiving when I saw our motley crew of multinational, rock-obsessed honkeys sitting down to a proper seven course holiday feast in a shady hotel lobby at close to midnight. As the only one in the group who’d ever attended a real Thanksgiving before (ignore the Canadians), I decided that I should say a few words. My mom would be upset if I didn’t.

I recalled the long journey we’d taken in our big red Mayflower, now strangers in a strange land. We’d come a long way and so had our turkeys. The tasty birds had been hauled all the way from Shanghai. They had cost $100 and probably came from Russia via the French grocer Carrefour. (Honey ham was unable to attend, much to my chagrin.) I recalled all the hard work that everyone had put in, folks cooking on camp stoves out the back of the hotel all afternoon, some trying their hand at things they’d never heard of. (Deviled eggs?) And I recalled the essential contribution of the people of Wuyishan, China. We’d found all the produce we’d needed in the open-air markets of their fair town. And around the corner from our hotel we’d even found the one thing that could have stopped Thanksgiving in its tracks: an oven.

You see, China don’t bake. Folks don’t have ovens at home, and neither do the restaurants. But in a particularly Pilgrims-n-Indians turn of events we’d found, just in the nick of time, a young baker who was willing to let us use her oven for the afternoon. The oven is the heart of this woman’s business, and the business is food for her husband and baby. This was a hardship for the young baker, but she smiled all afternoon and took notes while some of our girls made Thanksgiving pies. Spirit of the holiday, indeed.

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We’d traveled thousands of kilometers on Asia’s best roads, coming clear from Xi’an in only a few days of driving. The expressways at this end of China – China proper, China of mists and rice paddies – are flat, wide, perfectly paved, and eerily empty despite the millions-upon-millions of people living within sight of them. Apparently, China has been busy doing with modern infrastructure what it does with most of the products of Western society: faithfully copying it, keen to its value but immune to its purpose. All of this untapped mobility and unused infrastructure makes me uneasy. It’s as if, sometime soon, the masses are going to look up from their tea and cards, collectively realize that their aces and spades are economic superiority and nuclear power, their teacups the Pacific basin, and ponder exerting the dominion they’ve obviously been ignoring. If we’re lucky, they’ll go back to playing cards.

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The desert turned dark and cold as night closed in. On the train, though, there was an air of warm jubilance. Shoes were off and folks were snacking, mingling, playing cards, and checking out the odd white guys that were drinking beers over near bunks ten and eleven. We managed not to do anything outlandish or entertaining, but folks were still keen to scrutinize Dave and I for several hours. As it got late, their interest wound down along with the card games and chit-chat. We slept easily on the Chinese train, having thoroughly imbibed the friendly atmosphere and benevolent stares.

The next morning we woke to a green, fertile countryside of rice paddies and row crops. The desert had passed away during the night, desert that had been with us since our arrival in China. Now the air was humid, a light mist hung about, and it smelled of rain. In the coming days we’d be wearing our slickers on the streets of Xi’an. Within a few hours the train was speeding through the suburbs of the ancient gateway to the Silk Route. The other passengers flashed us kind smiles as we ate breakfast and gathered our belongings.

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The wackiness started as soon as Dave and I got off the truck in front of the Great Wall. Within half an hour we were in a swish hotel room not far from the the train station being offered “beautiful girls for making love.” We’d just shelled out about $50 in Chinese yuan for train tickets to Xi’an and were looking for a place to crash, a place that wasn’t going to break the bank. We stopped in at the fancy hotel on the corner of the main drag to check prices, you know, just in case. The rooms seemed unreasonably cheap for the quality of the hotel. Something had to give, and we figured it would be us, from our wallets, but the place was worth the risk.

Enacting a little caution, we chose to have a look at one of the rooms before signing any papers. They were quite nice, a bargain at the price being asked. When we started waving our hands at the conspicuous lack of a shower, the concierge started pointed down, down, as if to indicate a lower floor. We figured there’d be some manky shared bathroom down a flight of stairs, a setup we’d seen elsewhere. Still, the room was immaculate, and we were sold. When we got off the elevator in the lobby, the concierge led us toward a set of stairs rather than back toward the reception desk. Shortly, we knew what all the pointing was about.

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[ Please note that the events described here took place in Goa, India, in early September 2008. This post will be moved into the appropriate chronological position shortly. ~br ]

[PS – Sorry about the spelling errors. They’ve been corrected.]

Adam is a 21 year old Californian who tans nicely and gets absolutely wired on caffeine. He’s well-traveled and confident, tends towards the hyperactive, and likes to assert himself (often awkwardly) at pretty much every chance he gets. In the present context, we find him standing shirtless on the side of a dark road at 2:00am, asserting to a police officer with a sub-machine gun that he had no idea that a license was required to drive a scooter in Goa. Next to him is a very used Honda Activa, a model of scooter that is beloved in southern India. And on this rather cool evening, standing opposite Adam and the officer, with the scooter interceding, is me.

Whether or not a license is actually required to operate the local scooters is not relevant. What is relevant is that we’ve been stopped at a police checkpoint in the middle of nowhere, several miles – a 30 minute scooter ride – from our hotel. What seems especially relevant to the armed officer is that we’re white tourists bumbling around the countryside in the middle of the night. He fakes a phone call to his “chief” and insists that we’ll have to pay a fine, on the spot, or the scooter will be impounded. The amount is exhorbanent. The crux of the matter, of course, is that this “fine” is a bribe; this is totally obvious from the farcical melodrama that Adam has been participating in for the last 10 minutes.Uncle

“Oh, no good. No license. And scooter is not a rental scooter. Scooter has black plates. Rental scooter has yellow plates.” And then when Adam tries playing stupid with him, “You see, papers are not certified properly. Scooter will stay here, but there are no buses you see? No way for you to get back to hotel.”

“What can we do? Is there anything we can do to fix the situation,” Adam asks? Then comes the ridiculous call to the “chief” and the announcement of the fine. “I don’t have that kind of money. Brian, do you have that kind of money?” I do, and have been brooding silently during this whole episode about the inevitability of being separated from it. But in the end there is no hesitation in handing over the cash. The thought of refusing to pay, or at least making the officer work for it, had occurred to me, but in the back of my mind I suspect that I can recover the money. The cop takes the folded bills coolly, places them immediately into his pocket, and gives me a look that tells me that my discreteness during the episode is appreciated. I flash my international driver’s license and get on the scooter, clumsily starting the engine. Adam and I zip out into the cool night, anxious to get away from the cops before they decide to fleece us some more.

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