We’re On A Boat

When in Amsterdam, Gabe and I find cheap accommodations on a boat called the Amicitia located on Oosterdok 3. Our room with two bunked beds is small but comfortable as long as we both aren’t standing at the same time. On one end of the narrow room is a round window about one foot in diameter, and when we look out, we realize that we are sleeping below sea level as the window is just above the water. Although the window is small, the view especially around sunset is beautiful and the sea breeze welcome. Luckily, the boat always remains docked and there is only little rocking. The location is central and the atmosphere unique. Our only regret is that we forgot nautical themed, pashmina afghans.

Boat window

A view of our boat

We are staying on the boat perpendicular to the others as seen in the center of the above photo.

Flooding in Southern Thailand

It’s decision time here in Thailand.  The monastery with the best dates and a meditation program that best fit to my level of practice has now been affected by the flooding.  The rain is supposed to start letting up tomorrow, but the question remains if I try to get down there and take my chances.  Flights are cancelled, trains are cancelled, and now all that remain are buses.

I tried taking a sleeper train last night, but it was cancelled at the last moment.  Apparently, other trains took off this morning, so I am not sure if my train was cancelled for purely weather-related reasons.  Trains, now, however have all been cancelled today that originate in Bangkok and head southwards.  Upon learning my train was cancelled last night at 11pm, I found some other people wearing over-sized backpacks looking as lost as I was, and we rallied to find a good hostel and spend the night in Bangkok.  The Hostel we stayed at is called WE Bangkok and the people were very friendly and the accommodations very clean.

I have considered my other options, which if I am unable to attend this meditation retreat, will probably consist of going to northern Thailand and into Laos for a couple days.  I have to make sure there are no travel visa issues.  Both areas are supposed to be spectacular as I’ve heard from all the people I’ve run into during my trip.

My current plan is to try to get on an overnight bus tonight to the monastery.  I already have my ticket, and I feel I am so close that it is worth a try because I do not know when else I might have the opportunity to take a 10-day mediation retreat.  If the bus is cancelled, can’t make it to the monastery, or the retreat itself is cancelled, which is now also an option as indicated on their website, I will turn around, and do my plan B, which really doesn’t sound too bad.  In the meantime, I would only burn about 24 hours on this adventure to see if I can get down to the Suan Mokkh Monastery before having to restart in Bangkok.

Today I spent playing in Bangkok.  After meeting Joel from British Columbia on Khaosan Road, we shared stories, took a Long Tail Boat Ride through the canals of Bangkok, and later grabbed some delicious Thai food washed down by fresh Coconut water.

Bangkok Long Tail Boat
Bangkok Long Tail Boat

Chinese Tea

After three very full days in Beijing, I was ready for a slight change of pace. I tried to sleep late, although this was not an easy task given the 16 hour time difference. Beijing is eight hours behind and a day ahead of California. I woke up, called home, showered, and reorganized my things in preparation for my upcoming overnight train ride to Shanghai. Then, situated comfortably in the common room of the hostel, I wrote a little and talked with the staff. Soon after, they asked if I’d like to join them tea and lunch, and I immediately agreed.

I’ve always made tea using a tea bag in a mug of hot water. This is so far from what I experienced here that it seems like a completely different drink, and because I want to remember how to make the tea that I had this morning, this will serve as instructions for how to make said tea.

chinese tea

The supplies for this operation include small tea cups that hold less than an ounce of tea, one tea pot to steep the tea, one tea pot to serve the tea, hot water, and obviously, the tea leaves. One person will act as server and all other participants will only drink and enjoy the finished product. The rules to be observed by the non-serving participants are as follows:

  • Hold the tea cup with your thumb and index finger, and place your other three fingers underneath. Note: Men should have their ring and pinkie fingers tucked below their middle finger, while women can have their ring and pinkie fingers more free form.
  • Smell the tea, note its color, and then taste.
  • If you want more tea, place the tea cup back on the serving tray.
  • If you are no longer thirsty, place the tea cup on the table in front of you.
  • If you re-find your thirst, you can move the tea cup from the table in front of you to the serving tray.
  • Gestures indicating “cheers” or “l’chaim” are encouraged but not required.

The instructions for the server are necessarily more sequential and more involved than those for the drinking participants, and I unfortunately I will probably be unable to recap this process perfectly as much was lost in translation while I was being taught.

  1. Warm the water. Note: If working with tap water in a foreign environment, bring to boil for at least one minute.
  2. Pour hot water in the empty steeping pot to both cleanse and warm the pot.
  3. Place strainer on top of serving pot in preparation to catch tea leaves, and transfer hot water to serving pot for same reasons as above.
  4. Transfer hot water once again to tea cups and pour out all remaining water. Note: If working on a tray that drains water, pour out water directly on tray. If not, dispose of water into a separate designated receptacle.
  5. Place tea leaves in steeping pot and pour in hot water. Note: Temperature of water will depend on type of tea leaves used.
  6. Let steep in pot for amount of time determined by type of tea leaves used.
  7. Pour from steeping pot through the strainer to the serving pot while attempting to prevent tea leaves from escaping the steeping pot.
  8. Remove strainer and serve tea into tea cups.
  9. The same tea leaves can be re-used many times, which again is determined by the type of tea leaves used.
  10. Subsequent of steeping will require a different amount of time than the first.
  11. Adhere to the rules governing the drinking participants and serve until all participants are satisfied.

Later this same day after walking through Baihai park, I ventured to a shopping district where I found a great tea shop. I walk in, get approached by several employees, and after showing the faintest bit of interest, get escorted throughout the store as I learn more about tea. After making it clear that I might not purchase anything, they still sit me down at a private table, and I begin tasting a variety of teas including Oolang, Green, and Jasmine. The Jasmine tea is tightly wrapped in handmade small balls, which eventually unravel as they encounter hot water. After tasting these teas and trying new snacks in-between tastings, I realize two things. First that tea could make a very good gift, and second that gift giving is an elegant Chinese tradition for saying thank you and showing respect. In the end, I purchase tea to give to William and the other hostel staff, who have all treated me so warmly.

Beijing Qingfeng-Xisi Hutong Guest House

Located at No. 58 Xisi bei wu tiao Hutong (no.58 Xisi North 5th Alley) Xicheng District, this hostel has been an additive experience to my stay in Beijing. Although I arrived the first morning before 7am in the morning and clearly woke up the people who manage the hostel, they were still so nice and accommodating. Not only was their spoken English so welcome, but their demeanor and helpfulness made me feel so much better after having just arrived in this new place. I should probably place such a review on yelp or tripadvisor, but for now, it will remain as a memory to me of how wonderful the staff was.

The front door of the hostel:

Front door

Although the inexpensiveness of a hostel is appealing enough to make me want to stay at one, the atmosphere and the camaraderie shared at most hostels was also a strong pull being a solo traveler. In the morning before I even settled in, I met Mike from Montreal who was consulting in the Chinese space program. As a gift from them, he received a model Chinese space rocket, which was very impressive. He told me where a couple good food spots were and how to get around. After meeting Mike, I had the confidence to go check out some of the sites that Beijing had to offer.

Later that day in the evening, the guest house taught us how to make dumplings. Not only was this a valuable cooking lesson, it was also the perfect opportunity to meet the other residents.

Making dumplings

Me and dumplings

While having my hands messy forming dumplings, I met the residents and staff members. There was a mixture of English and Chinese spoken by all, except for a few of the residents like myself who only could contribute in English. One of the residents has been staying here for about 6 months and is in an intensive Mandarin language course. He was our default translator in both directions whenever communication blocks arose. I met one pair, Laura and Alex, who traveled here from the UK by train. It sounded like quite the experience when they recapped a couple of their highlights from destinations like Berlin, St. Petersburg and Mongolia.

Hostel Scene

By the end of the evening, after playing a couple games of chess with Mike, I was able to convince Laura and Alex to join me the following day on my adventure to the Great Wall.

My First Traveling Companions

The Passport Ice-breaker Game:

Fast forward about 10 hours and I’m sitting on the plane with 3 hours left of this marathon flight to Beijing from LAX. I’ve been able to sleep a descent amount partly because I was so sleep deprived that I was passed out before the plane even left the gate. With lighter eyelids, I now receive the immigration form from the flight attendant. I think she could tell that I wasn’t from China. I’m not sure what the biggest give-away was, but my appearance and my language barrier are both high on the list.

Now that I was relatively rested and feeling more sociable, I thought it was a good time to meet my non-English speaking row mates, and what better ice breaker than comparing passports and visas. I receive the yellow immigration form and pull out my passport, and immediately, I notice how interested the couple sitting next to me was. The wife spoke a small bit of English, which was helpful while we tried to make friends. It was also helpful when I was filling out my immigration form. When I was trying to find a couple details that I was supposed to transfer from the visa in my passport to the immigration form, a few of them were only written in Chinese. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to start busting out some Chinese characters, but luckily, my new friend was able to translate it into English and I was spared the embarrassment of what my Chinese characters would’ve looked like.

As the couple sitting next to me stares more and more intently at my passport, I hand it to them with a gesture that says, “go on, take a closer look”. I would’ve said it too, but most verbal cues were lost in our conversation. The first thing they do is settle a disagreement they had when they immediately looked at the year I was born. They show twenty-five by holding up their fingers, first 2 and then 5. I tried to ask them how old they thought I was, but that conversation path ended up being rather unsuccessful, so I moved back to passport examination. At this point, they take out their passports and we compare some of the differences. The most obvious difference was that they had Chinese passports with US visas, and I had a US passport with a Chinese visa. Another very noticeable difference was the amount of artwork that is placed throughout the US Passport. I recently renewed my passport, so I am not sure if the artwork was there to this extent before, but when comparing it to the plain pages of the Chinese Passport, the graphics and images became quite noticeable. All in all, the pictures received praise from my neighbors, and then they proceeded to show me that there were hidden images that you can see when holding up a page to the light. This hidden-image feature was also present on their passports, which showed a graphic of the Great Wall.

Now that the ice was broken, we championed the small talk that is available to people who have trouble understanding each other. I find out they went to New York and LA, they learn that I am going to Beijing and Shanghai, and they give me a recommendation of where to stay and what to eat while in Beijing.

Finding the Hostel:

In one word, the Beijing Airport is impressive!  They remodeled the airport for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and that was very obvious.  High ceilings, elaborate displays, clean and shiny, and streamlined.  Going through customs was quick and easy, the bags were already coming out when we got to baggage claim, and I was done within about 30 minutes of landing, and that includes having to take a tram from the terminal I landed in to the baggage claim.

After going through baggage claim, I bumped into Eric from Cleveland who looked similarly lost.  He was in Beijing on business, but also didn’t know a lick of Chinese and was trying to figure out how to get into the heart of the city.  Since I had an address from my hostel and knew that I was heading in a similar direction, I asked if he’d be willing to share a cab.  The first buses into the city wouldn’t be leaving for at least another hour or two.  Eric said yes and we shared a cab to his hotel, which was about 2/3 of the way to my hostel, and then I continued on.  Overall, I’m where I wanted to get to, I’m here in one piece, and I’m starting to think about how I want to start the day since it is not even 8am yet.

Although I might not get to all of them, some spots I’d love to see while here include the Forbidden City, Tianenmen Square, the Great Wall, and the Temple of Heaven to name a few.  I’ll wait for some others in the hostel to stir and then I’ll see if I can meet some buddies to adventure with for the day.