Sunday, September 28, 2008

the wall

the great wall has eluded me! i will be leaving china without seeing it.

it turns out that the right ankle sprain is actually a minor fracture. so I am hopping off to India a month earlier than I was supposed to.

for a couple days, i plan to enjoy the peking duck, lounge on the "closest" couches in Beijing and write about my time in mongolia before i leave China to witness the biggest Indian festival Diwali in India after 12 years.

some low-key, quality time with the two little munchkins and 2 months of paranthas for breakfast and I will be as good as new to enjoy egypt before I land in san francisco in December!

family, here i come and i might be grumpy ;)

Friday, September 26, 2008

get on the good foot

in the last few days, I have paid a visit to Chairman Mao, been to the Forbidden City, some famous temples around town and checked out 798, the art district. I have also fulfilled my appetite for scorpions, sea urchins, and starfish. and now its time to relax and relax some more..

six hours ago, en route to the Great Wall of China, I step into the slight depression of a manhole and sprain my ankle.
good thing I did not sign up for the Nike run this year ;)

in frantic need of a pep talk, I send an SOS to my go-to girl, oodles, and all she had to say was "dude, i walked around Costa Rica with a broken foot" (misdiagnosed as a very bad sprain for two months!).
it isn't funny but i laughed(sorry!)- a lot.

my now-elevated, iced, inflamed right ankle doesn't change my itinerary much (because I don't have one?) except I might still be in Beijing when half the population of China descends into this city for the flag-raising ceremony at Tian'anmen Square on National Day (October 1) and then there's kung-fu/kickboxing at shaolin, which is being postponed indefinitely..

on the brighter side, however, it means I will be able to spend more time in some traditional villages of china, when I do manage to hobble out of Beijing :)

but today, on this balmy Beijing afternoon, I will lounge in the backpacker's cafe and do a "sing-along" of my power song, the one you play on uphills, "my feet can't fail me now"..

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

bohemian rhapsody- part 1

I am not sure anymore when Mongolia crept into my itinerary.

my reasons for visiting Mongolia, besides pure fascination with a country with the lowest per capita population density, almost seem too logical now- I don’t need a visa, I don’t need a guide (Tibet does), Its close to China and so, very approachable. Nepal and India can be visited anytime (ironically the very reason why I haven’t traveled in India yet)

so, amidst the Olympics thrills and chills, I make an impulse decision and go looking for the ticket counter for the trans-Siberian in Beijing. Its not one of the trains you just show up for ;)

the morning after the closing ceremony, I wake up with a very upset tummy. I spend the entire day in bed, while contemplating if I can make it through a 30 hour train journey to Mongolia. There’s nothing some good old khichdi (rice and lentils) won’t fix. So I hail a taxi to the closest Indian restaurant and on special request, and enjoy two servings of some fine khichdi.

sure enough I am off to Mongolia early next morning. I even grab an egg McMuffin on my way there!

It’s my first brush with Americans- I share my cabin with Keith, an American journalist who will be cycling in Mongolia for 2.5 months and with David and Josh, father and son, Americans but living in China for the last 10 years. David runs an orphanage close to Beijing.

after about 12 hours of customary introductions and an engaging, interesting accompanying dialogue, we reach the Chinese border town- Erlian. We are all told to disembark from the train while it is taken off the platform to change the gauge for Mongolian tracks.

meanwhile, at the only store in the immigration building at Erlian, fellow travelers are busy loading up on pounds and pounds of groceries. later I would understand why. Everything in Mongolia is exported from China, almost no vegetables are grown there. In our 19 day countryside tour, we saw one vegetable patch (and DC drove over it!!).

we reach Ulan Bataar, the capital, in the afternoon. A poor country landlocked by two massive empires is nothing like what I imagined it to be. There are Land Rovers, Mercedes, Toyotas on the roads with an abundance of jay-walkers. In the center of it all, there is five stories of the State Department Store, a monument in its league, with cosmetic and sports counters, just like at Macys, only with more cashmere.

a stop at the English bookstore gives me a better picture of the city, an LP Mongolia and the Mongolian phrasebook. At another stop at a popular guesthouse scouting for travel partners, I see a vague notice by a dreamer who wants to go on a long trip to the countryside- north, south, west.. Exactly what I wanted—so I mail Alex and wait for a reply.

that evening, I watch a traditional Mongolian folk song and dance performance after a very commercial Mongolian barbecue. I try the horse meat, cow intestines, salty tea, sheep fat tail and have a grand finale of my experimenting with a healthy (and super-sized) serving of tofu and veggies. Mongolian barbecue, after all, isn’t really all that Mongolian.

things begin to look up the following morning as we decide to meet in a cafĂ© along with two other interested people. Unfortunately, four isn’t enough to make the trip economical (Contrary to my expectations, Mongolia is an expensive country) Just when we almost give up, two girls, who had been pestered by Alex earlier, walk in and ask sheepishly if we still have space in our group—and just like that, the trip is on.

its 3 PM. We leave at 9 AM tomorrow.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

insomniac olympics

for anyone who hasn’t noticed, the titles of all my posts and the blog itself are all based on songs/numbers. So when I searched for Olympics- Insomniac Olympics came up. “Blockhead” surely has been to the Olympics.

it’s been a long-time coming- on this sunny, crisp autumn afternoon- my last in Mongolia (this visit)- with all day to spare till I board a train to China tonight, I have decided it’s a day of thank yous.

the first four months of my travels, I didn’t have any plans but one- to avoid Beijing during the Olympics- too expensive, too many people, not the true city it is without the grand event.

well I have to say I enjoyed Beijing for just those things- except the expensive part, of course!

after all, what do you do when big sis suggests I meet a good friend of their family’s in Beijing and soon after, sends a picture of him running with the Olympic torch  You send him an email!
so far, my only brush with the Olympics had been in Bangkok, where my daypack was randomly searched as we waited for the torch to pass.

Deepak (Advani, the CMO of Lenovo), in his reply to my email, was really kind to offer me tickets if I came to Beijing. so, I rushed to the train station in Guilin, changed from a sleeper to Shanghai to a hard seat to Beijing.

the 27 hours are endured with me practicing Mandarin with the college student sitting next to me and then discovering, to my dismay, that we don’t have access to the dining car AND that I won’t be able to find my favorite snack- taro chips- in the north.

my time in Beijing passed in a kind of a daze. it was a wonderful show, the Olympics complex was magnificent, the atmosphere electric, the crowds frantic and still, there was always, always order among the chaos. every train i got on, i played the "guess the country" game. there were people from all over- friends on a reunion, families on vacations, and some, like me, showing up in hope of being a spectator at the majestic Bird’s Nest or Aquatic Center.

I get up early next morning, and in my “finest” traveling attire, go to the Grand Hyatt Lenovo reception desk to pick up my tickets. I meet Deep and his wife, Puja and soon am handed a stack (yes, a stack) of tickets ranging from basketball to rhythmic gymnastics! Not to seem too greedy (and being the pragmatic (or lethargic) person I am ;), I pick a few events. My tickets in hand for events beginning tomorrow, Puja asked me if I wanted to visit the Summer Palace with her in a CAR as part of a private tour for Lenovo guests!

Now, I haven’t been in any kind of "car" in almost six months (the limited cab, tuk-tuk rides don’t count) So I jump on the offer (instead of going to an Olympics Rowing event- I just heard Mayo and Astrid scream at me for that ;) and tag along and have a wonderful afternoon checking out this once playground for the royals- the only sightseeing I did in my week there.

the rest of the week I spent in trains (free with the tickets), enjoying basketball, gymnastics, taekwondo, volleyball, athletics, shouting ‘chaaaayo’ while waving the flag of China, making new friends, arranging my journey forward to Mongolia and making more friends.

one warm Beijing afternoon, however, I spent trying to spot tall guys in the Silk Market, so my new buddy, Kenzo could approach them and see if they have any connections with the US basketball team(??). We did manage to run into LeBron James’ managers and Dwight Howard’s manager. Little did we know then how important these acquaintances would turn up to be (for him)?

we also met the Michael Jordan of Australia in the train the same day (and numerous other sports stars from all over the world). Of course, as much as I know about basketball- US or Australian, I have already forgotten his name except the fact that he has a shoe line in Australia named after him.

Kenzo came with similar intentions as me but without Deepak’s email :) so, he spent a lot of time outside venues giving the scalpers some business.
All his effort was worth it when he got into the basketball final game for free, when an angel walking by just handed him a ticket just as he was about to buy them from someone else (they were going for $1000/piece!)

And, it didn’t end there- he even made it to the after-party with the basketball gods (thanks to Howard’s manager!)! I missed because I was too busy doing the salsa with my friend, Lei and her friends.

Basketball Gods party or not, it sure was overwhelming to be a part of the Olympics, one that I won’t forget and one that wouldn’t have happened without Deep and Puja’s thoughtfulness and my sister’s insistence that I meet them!

So thank you all! I owe you for letting me witness and experience this age-old tradition that is the Olympics!

the second time

my leave of absence was extended by another four months and I am so thankful to be able to continue this adventure without any worries.

this goes out to say thank you to Meg, Vivian and Ariel at Oracle for making it happen and for their confidence and support! I truly appreciate this opportunity!

I will be back to Oracle on Dec 15th, just after my 10 year anniversary (20th Nov), to reclaim my unused Linux box and a brand new 22" monitor!

TM, Chaaayo..("Let's go" in Mandarin)