Our final final trip, just last weekend, was a short jaunt to Xi’an—formerly known as Chang’an, capital of the ancient Chinese kingdom, and eastern terminus of the Silk Road—to see the terra cotta warriors (“and horses,” our guide would always add, as if we were giving the whole site short shrift by not mentioning the warriors’ equine colleagues).
We started the day on the Xi’an city wall, which is really quite lovely.
Lovely decorations, slightly less lovely haze of pollution.
We were not alone.
The Year of the Snake, you see.
Guard towers were built 120m apart because the range of the crossbow at the time the wall was built was about 60m.
The highlight, of course, was the warriors (and horses!) themselves.
One thing that made this trip a bit more challenging, though, was the that the temperature was over 100 degrees, and the buildings that house the warriors (and horses!) are not air-conditioned. And since—you’ll be surprised to hear—there are more than a few people visiting, this made for some steamy touristing. Nonetheless, we persevered.
There are three pits. Pit 1 is the most famous, and the largest: it’s over 250 yards long and almost 70 yards wide. There are approximately 6,000 warriors (and horses!) in it, of which about 1,000 have been fully excavated. When you see photos of the warriors (and horses!), they’re almost certainly of Pit 1.
Our competition for the prime photo-taking spots.
I want to work at that desk, even if it is not terribly private.
Pit 3, where they’ve left the roof on (for now).
There are a few warriors in glass cases that you can see up close. Note the detail on the bottom of the shoe.
Our final big trip (but not our final final trip) was to Vietnam. I was attending the annual conference of SEAMEO (the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization) at the Vietnamese regional training center (RETRAC). Hence, in a flurry of acronyms, I spent a few days at SEMEO RETRAC. It sounds like some kind of ridiculous military shorthand from a Tom Clancy novel, but no: it’s for real.
But after the conference, we spent a few more days in Saigon—Ho Chi Minh City, if you insist—and then headed north to the beach.
The legacy of French occupation was very clear in some of the sights close to our hotel.
The cathedral. Classic French style.
It’s hard to beat the neon-blue statue of the BVM just inside the door.
Plaques of thanksgiving date from the 19th century to the present.
The central post office.
Clear indications of the French roots.
Uncle Ho watches over all postal transactions.
What used to be the phone booths have now, quite cleverly, been turned into private ATM compartments.
Another piece of French Indochinese history.
A less happy piece of history is Reunification Palace. It’s built on the site of the 19th-century residence of the French governor of Vietnam (then known as Cochinchina), which then became the head of government of the State of Vietnam after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In 1962, two Vietnamese pilots bombed the palace in an attempt to assassinate Ngô Đình Diệm, who in 1955 had set himself up as an autocratic president of the Republic of Vietnam through a fraudulent election. The attempt failed, but it did destroy the palace.
Construction on a new palace began soon thereafter. The new palace was inaugurated in 1966 and looks totally mod. Nine years later, it appeared in photos as North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates and occupied the site during the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
As this effectively ended the division between north and south Vietnam, the building is now known as Reunification Palace.
It has the feeling of a place that was abandoned all at once, and quickly—since it was. Walking around is actually kind of spooky, even with lots of other visitors there.
A replica of the tank that crashed through the palace gates on April 30, 1975.
One of the many formal rooms for receiving guests and diplomats.
The red circles (part of the second is visible at right) mark the spots where Nguyễn Thanh Trung, a Vietnamese pilot and Communist spy, bombed the palace (largely ineffectually) on April 8, 1975.
The basement houses the command center, which still has the tactical maps on the walls.
Check out the “speed dial” buttons on the bottom. One of them is marked ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam—i.e., the South Vietnamese army).
Oh, just your usual shooting range.
Slightly surreal was the realization that half a block from our hotel room was the building—22 Gia Long Street , now known as Lý Tự Trọng Street—that housed USAID workers and (on its top floor) some CIA offices, immortalized in this photo from the Fall of Saigon. (There’s a fascinating article in the New York Times about the fact that this photo is usually described as the “final flight” from Saigon, evacuating Americans from the US Embassy; in fact, it’s none of those things.)
This is not, as is commonly reported, the US Embassy.
We had a pretty good view of it from our hotel room.
Even more off-putting and strange is the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes. While some of the top floor is dedicated to the deeds of French colonialists, the majority of it is devoted to the United States.
On the grounds outside, there’s a whole suite of captured American military vehicles.
Inside, the rhetoric is heated. Unlike, say, the Peace Museum in Hiroshima—which offered a very balanced view—this one is unrelenting in its indictment of America. Unremarked upon is the South Vietnamese resistance to the North—a single, unified Vietnam is assumed (unsurprisingly).
It’s tough stuff to see. There are copious photos of the effects of Agent Orange, war atrocities, and so on.
On a lighter, more festive, note we also had a nice day trip in the Mekong Delta.
Shortly after getting into one of these boats for a quiet paddle down the river, the skies opened up on us.
Don’t worry, they’re friendly.
Neon Mary, meet Neon Buddha.
After several days in Saigon, we needed a break, so we took a quick flight to Da Nang (where they are still cleaning up Agent Orange, by the way) and a short ride to Hoi An. There we enjoyed these views:
Now you know why they call it an “infinity pool.”
The view from the lunch table.
A short drive away was Hoi An Ancient Town, the entirety of which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Japanese Covered Bridge, the icon of Hoi An.
I don’t know what to say about this, except that it reminds me of Henry.
Now that’s iconic.
Cate is shopping for Ali Baba pants.
Hoi An is famous for these beautiful bamboo lanterns. Here they are as works-in-progress.
It took us a while, but we finally made it to Beijing a few weeks ago. We hired a tour guide for the three days we were there, knowing that the traffic is absolutely nuts and public transportation gets you only so far. We saw all the highlights.
Tiananmen Square was kind of overwhelming because it’s so iconic, and because there is a strong, strong sense of being surveilled. There were police and other security everywhere, though perhaps that was more heightened than normal because we were there in the days leading up to 6/4. Standing in Tiananmen Square was also the first time we realized that Western tourists are a small minority of those in Beijing. That makes a lot of sense when you think about it; most everyone in the US at some point makes a trip to Washington, D.C., and so of course many Chinese at some point visit their capital city.
Tiananmen Square. Obviously.
Inside the Forbidden City, which is now forbidden only to those who haven’t paid the admission fee.
We quickly found that what we had been told was true: many Chinese have never seen a Westerner in person before, so they took great interest in us. And, like you do whenever you find something interesting, you get your picture taken.
Cate had all kinds of people coming up to have their picture taken with her.
This group at the Temple of Heaven was particularly finicky. It took about five minutes for them to get all the photos they wanted, in part because the woman in the brightly colored top kept berating her boyfriend/husband for his photographic abilities and kept insisting that he do re-shoots. Meanwhile it’s raining and we’d like to continue our visit, but we (principally Cate) endured nonetheless, in the spirit of intercultural exchange and world peace. We do what we can.
OK, so a photo with her first.
Now one with her friend.
Okay, now could we get one with both, please?
Here’s an alley in the hutongs, the narrow streets characteristic of old Beijing.
A crowded Beijing street lined with food vendors selling all kinds of unexpected things. See below.
These guys were still twitching a little, which seemed cruel.
The store directory in the mall near the hotel where we stayed. Surprisingly, I was not very tempted to shop for clothes in a store called Hot Wind (though I’m David had a certain charm to it).
And now a few photos from the Temple of Heaven.
I wanted to get my picture taken with this pretty Western lady.
The Echo Wall: seriously cool. I could say something at a normal speaking volume and Cate (that tiny white dot in the distance) could hear me with no problem. The sound seems to be coming out of the stone wall next to your ear.
After a day of sight-seeing, nothing hits the spot like Beijing roast duck, which we enjoyed in this awesomely wacky restaurant. The tables are arranged in a ring, inside of which is a pond, inside of which (at the center) is the duck-cooking kitchen, which is staffed by a small army of busy chefs.
How ’bout that bright blue LED mood lighting?
Walking back from dinner to our hotel, we found a shop that sells luxury soy sauces. We thought Hey, that might make a nice gift for someone. Sorry, everyone. When they say luxury soy sauce, they mean it. This bottle is 19,800 RMB (about US$3200).
And we saw some more recent iconic stuff too, such as the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” stadium. Our guide said that they had to relocate entire neighborhoods to make space for this. We asked how the residents felt about that. She said that they were very happy to be moved, and appreciated the government looking after them. Hmmmm.
The 798 Art Zone was unexpectedly fascinating. It’s mostly decommissioned military factories that have been turned into beautiful loft spaces and galleries, and there are also many nice cafés and restaurants too.
But the highlight of the trip—at least for me—was (duh) the Great Wall. It helped that the weather was stunning, maybe the most beautiful day we’ve seen all year.
The characters on the side of the hill say “Long live Chairman Mao.”
Perhaps you are vaguely familiar with it from its commitment to “Gross National Happiness,” which its previous king declared would be the nation’s pursuit instead of Gross Domestic Product. Hence its tourism policy is one of high-value, low-impact. It’s strictly regulated—unless you’re a citizen of India, you can’t get into Bhutan without working directly with an in-country tour company, which arranges for all lodging, transport, food, etc., all for a government-set rate—in order to ensure that it doesn’t get over-run with tourists.
It’s the only place we’ve been this year that had not a single trace of Western business, or even non-Western chains. No Starbucks, no KFC, no Burger King, no Zara. It’s clear too that the gap between the country’s richest and its poorest is much, much narrower than in other countries. There just aren’t any obviously opulent residences (or even commercial buildings) to contrast with obviously sub-standard ones. Everything’s pretty modest. (Though this NYT op-ed does make a convincing case for not over-idealizing the country.)
It was totally unlike any other place we’ve been. First of all, it’s remote. It’s nestled at the eastern end of the Himalayas, next to Nepal, China, and India, and the only way to get there is on the national airline, Druk Air (‘druk’ means ‘dragon’). They operate a grand total of six planes between Paro, Bhutan and a number of nearby international cities, most in India: Delhi, Bangkok, Singapore, Kathmandu, and so on.
So we went from Hong Kong to Bangkok one afternoon and checked into the airport hotel. Our flight to Bhutan left Bangkok at 4:45am, necessitating that we check in at 2:45am. That’s early. Really early.
The flight to Paro was only a couple of hours, and features some fantastic views of the Himalayas from the plane.
Landing in Paro is also interesting. It’s one of the world’s more “extreme” airports. According to this article, only eight pilots in the world are qualified to land there. (By now, it’s probably up to a dozen.) Landings are allowed only during daylight hours, and only during the best of weather. Pilots have to make a purely visual approach, without instrument guidance. Why? Because they basically have to thread a needle between mountains in order to line up with the runway.
Those interested in a shaky and terrifying and perfectly normal landing in Paro will enjoy this video. At the 1:30 mark, note how close the plane is to landing and how not at all aligned with the runway it is.
Here’s a photo of the airport after we arrived.
You will note that there are no taxi-ways. After a flight has landed, it uses the extra concrete (at the right side of the near end) to do a U-turn, then taxis back down the runway to the terminal. There aren’t many flights arriving—this ain’t JFK—so that’s evidently no problem.
Would you like another video? I have one. Here’s a quick vid I took of a plane landing, taken from a high spot behind the airport. See how the plane kind of appears out of the mountains? I also included, near the end, some footage of the plane doing its 180.
Here’s what it looks like when you step out on the tarmac.
After driving a couple of hours from Paro to Thimpu, we stopped at a school that teaches traditional Bhutanese art techniques: weaving, carving, painting, etc.
Then we went to see the takin. Here’s a map of where they live.
Wait, what’s a takin?
The national animal of Bhutan, friend.
And these guys! Or maybe they’re girls! Who knows!
Temples are one of the main cultural attractions in Bhutan. Bhutan is largely Mahayana Buddhist (as opposed to Theravada Buddhist, which one finds throughout Southeast Asia), influenced by but distinct from Tibetan Buddhism.
Cate getting a primer on prayer wheels from our guide, Passang. In short: spin with only the right hand, and only clockwise.
A prayer wheel in need of repair. On the outside is typically written Om mani padme hum, the mantra of compassion. It’s also written on the paper inside. Spinning the wheel is thought to be as spiritually efficacious as reciting the prayer aloud.
On one of our first days, we went to the northern end of the Thimpu valley to visit the Cheri Dorji Dhen monastery. It was built in 1620 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the first ruler of Bhutan. Just getting there, via a covered bridge in the middle of the valley, was stunning.
Mini stupas arranged on a larger stupa.
On the way back, we stopped at this sacred spring.
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. We saw competitions underway with both traditional bows and compound bows. Here’s a photo of the former.
You need to see how far away the target is. Check out this photo. The target is identical to the one in the front center here (the white thing that looks like a narrow tombstone, with the colored fabric flanking it). Of course, these guys are shooting at one way, way downfield from them. It’s amazing that anyone ever hits it, especially given the wind.
Here are some street scenes in and around Paro and Thimpu.
A typical city building.
A giant Buddha under construction in Thimpu.
A Thimpu cobbler.
Allegedly Thimpu is the only capital city in the world that doesn’t have stoplights. This guy stands at the one intersection that needs direction, and he takes his job very seriously.
Funny story: on our final day in Bhutan, we were shopping at a store that sells traditional Bhutanese fabrics (which are amazing). There was a very friendly and very beautiful woman helping us, all the more striking because her English was nearly flawless. She was super helpful and pleasant in attending to our various requests. (Something nice! Not too expensive! Not that one!) After we made our purchase and left, our guide told us that her name is Tandin Bidha, and she’s the most famous movie star in Bhutan. (It’s a small industry, if you can believe that.) Evidently her mother owns the shop, and she helps out when she’s not filming. So yeah, things are a little different in Bhutan.
We were on the road a lot in Bhutan. (We weren’t driving ourselves, thank god.) The roads are really windy and are constantly going up and down through valleys and peaks (it is the Himalayas, after all), and many of them are either narrow, in pretty poor condition, or both. On a particularly long day of driving, it took us almost six hours to go something like 35 miles.
But there’s lots to look at while puttering along.
There are monkeys.
And the trucks are colorful.
But the most “are you kidding?” aspect of Bhutanese roads are that they are lined with pot.
No joke—there’s weed everywhere. (There’s a reason they call it ‘weed,’ after all.) Interestingly, marijuana is illegal in Bhutan, but our guide told us that it’s not really a problem. No one uses it, apart from some teenagers.
One of the most memorable things we did was a hike through the rhododendron forest to Lungchutsekha monastery. We hiked for about 4.5 hours round-trip and saw not a single other person the whole time, apart from the monk at the top who made us tea, fed us butter cookies, and invited us to pet the monastery’s resident cat and three dogs.
Our guide kept telling us that there were rhododendrons, which didn’t really excite us because we were thinking of the staid American variety. But these were amazing: white, pink, and red, scattered throughout the trees, and creating a carpet of petals on the forest floor.
3500 meters, people! That’s high!
108 Chortens, established by the Queen Mother.
Prayer flags at the start of the hike.
More prayer flags.
A warm meadow halfway up the mountain.
The view from Lungchutsekha monastery. The really tall mountain is Gangkar Punsum, the highest in Bhutan (24,770ft/7,550m).
Prayer flags and Himalayas.
On the left is our guide, Pasang. On the right, the Buddhist monk who made us tea and gave us butter cookies.
We then spent the night in the Punakha valley. Here’s the view from our hotel. (Click to enlarge.)
The next day we went to the Punakha dzong, a famous, and famously beautiful, 17th-century building that was also the capital of Bhutan until it was moved to Thimpu in the mid-1950s. Dzongs are found all over Bhutan (and Tibet too, for that matter). They’re a kind of combination fortress, temple, administrative center, and also provide accommodations for monks. The Punakha Dzong, for example, is the winter quarters for the head of Bhutan’s clergy and his entourage.
The Punakha Dzong lies at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Pho Chu, the Mother and Father rivers.
A bodhi tree in the Punakha Dzong.
The entrance to the main temple.
Jacaranda trees along the river.
Now, moving on to a different kind of decoration.
The phallus is an important symbol in Bhutan, and it appears all over the place.
Just your standard house decorations.
What a bargain!
Top right: the lock on a restaurant bathroom door.
The above come from a particularly high concentration of phallus images, as they’re near the fertility temple Chimi Lhakhang, built in 1499 by the “Divine Madman” lama Drukpa Kunley. According to legend he “subdued” a demoness with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom.”
Our guide told us that many people who conceive a child after visiting the temple will name him or her “Chimi” in gratitude. While we were in the temple, a family showed up—parents, grandparents, and baby—to pay their respects and offer thanks, and sure enough the baby’s name was Chimi. When we left Bhutan, our pilot, doing the usual pre-departure announcements, mentioned that his name was Chimi too. So there you go.
One of the most relaxing places we stayed was the glacial valley Phobjikha.
Our accommodations there were very comfortable and delightfully rustic. The only heat (and we needed it—it was cold) was from a wood stove (which they start by igniting a good-sized handful of sawdust that has been soaked in kerosene and then dried—potent stuff, and a bit scary).
The next day we took a hike through the valley up to (surprise!) another dzong/temple complex.
We made a friend right from the start.
That pooch was really glad to hang out with us. Listen to his cute sounds.
Here are some photos from the dzong we arrived at. Bhutanese architecture uses color like nothing else. (Southeast Asia uses color too, just differently.)
Bhutanese MOOC under construction.
The final day was spent hiking to the famous Taktsang Monastery, the Tiger’s Nest. As you can see, it is perched precariously on the side of a cliff.
It’s a bit of a hike, but we had gotten pretty used to the altitude by then. Fortunately, there’s a restaurant about half-way up which offers a nice place to have tea and take a rest.
You can see the Tiger’s Nest if you look very closely in the center.
Friends, if you are looking for a bit of an adventure, you should consider Bhutan. As the number of tourists rises, the set daily tariff gets raised, so go now while it’s still inexpensive!