Great American Western Road Trip: Summer 2018

4 weeks, 3 kids, 1 van, 16 different lodgings, 5400+ miles, 12+ National or State Parks and Monuments adds up to 1 Epic Adventure.

American Southwest Family Vacation 2017

We followed historic Route 66 on our way to see the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, the Painted Desert, plus much more in New Mexico and Arizona.

End of Tour Summary: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Here are our stories from two and a half years of living in Saudi Arabia while exploring the region.

Excursions to Oman

On two different trips, we strolled Muscat, hiked Wadi Shab, and sailed a dhow through the fjords of Musandam.

Our Expedition to Jordan

Highlights included tracing the steps of Indiana Jones into Petra, following Lawrence of Arabia into Wadi Rum, and floating in the Dead Sea.

Saturday, July 31, 1999

The Great Wall at Simatai

Beijing, China
My alarm went off at 7:00 am, right as rain. I woke up about 8 am, which left me 30 minutes to get ready to be picked up. I did it. I was ready and waiting, but the guy driving me was a little late. But he totally made up for it by driving me the two hours it takes to get to the Great Wall at Simatai. It's considered one of the Wonders of the World. We got there around 10:45 am, and the driver would just hang out and wait for me there until 3 pm. Sweet.

For the first 45 minutes or so, I had 4 little women trying to sell me stuff. They followed along pretty well, but I think that they resented having to go so fast to stay even with me. I eventually caved and bought some photo books, mostly so they'd leave me alone. Around that time, I overtook a group of Army guys taking a day trip. I guess I should be more specific. They were soldiers in the People's Liberation Army, and they were hiking in uniform. So there I am, a lone American outdistancing the warriors of China's military. I thought that was kinda cool.

It was raining off and on, so we ducked into one of the towers. I heard one of them break out singing Ricky Martin..."Go go go, onay onay onay". Kinda funny. I kept pace or moved through them as long as I had time for. While following their leader (distinguished by a red armband), I walked for a short time on the invader side of the wall. At one point, I thought a branch sticking out of the wall was going to hit my face, until I realized that it was actually a snake coming out from a hole 5 inches from my head and hand! Let's see something cool like that happen on the touristy parts.

By the time I had to turn around, at Beacon Tower No. 14, only about 7 PLA soldiers were still moving toward me. And even then, they were 10 minutes back.
Try to keep up, fellas!
Taking a break from climbing

A rampart named "Heavenly Ladder" was built on the nearly vertical slopes between the No. 13 and the No. 14 towers. Every step is 1.2 to 1.7 meters high. How (and a little bit of 'why') they built the wall here, 450 years ago, and built a stairway of bricks and stones across such uncooperative terrain was definitely something to ponder as I looked at the next tower.
"Dangerous Ahead, No Walking"
The Heavenly Ladder, with the Fairy Tower in the background
Known as "Fairy Tower," it is the most dangerous part, with overhanging cliffs on both sides. I knew my limited time, lack of climbing equipment, non-favorable weather, and no one to help me out were all reasons to stop.

I think some of the soldiers recognized me on the way back and said hello. By turning back where I did, I had to climb down a 70 degree slope and the Heavenly Ladder, every so often jumping down over 4 feet to the next step. The rain from the morning stopped about halfway through the trip up.
Going back down...
The wind made it very pleasant. I bought some postcards and water on the way down, and then ran the gamut of store clerks to meet up with my driver who was chillin' out with the tour bus drivers. Talking with a girl from New York on the way down, they only got 2 hours at the Wall (I had used a little over 3), so I guess I got to see some of the stuff that not many of the tourists see.
Left to right and back in under 3 hours.
We got back around 4 pm, I showered and changed and had lunch at Subway. It was my first BMT in two months. Mmmmmm. They don't have them in Hong Kong and I had been craving one for about 5 weeks. It was delicious. I watched Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey while waiting for Vanessa to call back. The plan was to meet her at a Club called HotSpot around 11:45 pm. I went clubbing in shorts and a short-sleeve, button-down shirt just like the locals. I actually met up with them at 12:20, because I had walked behind the twenty-foot high, neon sign that said "DISCO". Just my luck. I hung out with 5-6 of Vanessa's Tsinghua Mandarin language program classmates. There were police standing at attention in the club, right next to the speakers. Every so often, they would scurry around to tell people that they couldn't sit somewhere. It seemed kind of oppressive, but hey, it was free. After we grew tired of that scene, we went for food at "Be There or Be Square Cafe", for HK style food and talked until 3:15 am. I got back around 3:45 am.
My favorite picture from Simatai
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Friday, July 30, 1999


Hong Kong
I woke up at about 5 am, after having set my alarm there earlier in the week so as to not miss the bus today. I was at the bus stop at 5:20, and the bus finally came at 5:40. There were lots of people around this early in the morning, but I think it's because they commute down to Central. I arrived at the airport around 6:40, not bad. Checking in was easy, and I had McDonald's for breakfast (for fast food, the line was tediously slow). I changed some money into yuan and went to stand in line for Customs. While I was waiting, a new counter opened up. Thanks to my experiences crossing into Shenzhen for work, I was able to be the first in line! By 7:30, I was waiting to board. I ended up watching these two really cute kids, a little boy and his older sister, play some sort of game. Basically, she would say something to him and then go away while he stood absolutely still, not even looking around. She'd come back and say something else and his head would whip around to look at her and his whole face would light up from his smile.
We landed in Beijing around 10:40 am, no time change as we basically flew north. It appears to be 'rush hour' for the airport. The airport is foggy, or maybe that's pollution, but either way when I look down the taxiway, I see the silhouette of 747 tailfins disappearing into the grey. 
I was out of customs at noon. Right when I was next in line, they closed the counter and I had to merge behind a Chinese family and two Germans. I met up with the family friend of the Rens (the family with whom I was staying), and he drove me back to their flat. After lunch and planning the rest of my stay, I was taken to the Lama Temple around 1:45 in the afternoon.
The Yonghe Lamasery is the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple within China, outside of Tibet. The monks study the Tibetan language and the secrets of the Yellow Sect.
 One of the buildings housed the Maitreya Buddha-it's carved from a single trunk of white sandlewood and is 18 meters above ground, 8 meters below-which holds some sort of Guinness World Record. The emperor Yong Zheng lived here while he was still known as Count Yin Zhen. In 1744 it was converted into a lamasery.

From the temple, I decided to walk more into town. Using the shadows cast by the afternoon sun, I was able to head south to the China Art Gallery. Before I arrived at my destination, I headed down a nearby market alley. I haggled for a shirt I liked that in the end turned out to be too small for me. The shirt was marked size 54, and the size 48 shirt I had bought in HK was a little tight, but my arms couldn't even have circulation in this one. No more clothing purchases for me! I walked around that block and before I got to the steps of the Gallery, I decided to get my hair cut.

Big deal you say. I had seen people on the street getting their hair shorn, and decided to give it a go. Not speaking enough of the language to do more than agree on a price, I put my hair in the care of a street vendor. It cost me 20 yuan, about $2.50. I'd actually paid twice the agreed upon price because I'd feel cheap walking around with a dollar haircut. I needed one anyways, and it was cooler. And it looks good.

The Gallery (remember, that's where I was going in the first place?) had photos, paintings, and lots of text scrolls. It was worth the 60 cents I paid for admission.

 From there it was down Wangfujing, a shopping street with lots of construction. I think I got a rash on my leg where some waste water hit it. I hung a left on the road that would have taken me to Qianmen (Front Gate) and Tiananmen Square had I turned right instead. I walked down to Ritan Park, which was built in 1530, making it one of Beijing's older parks.
 The 'Temple of the the Sun" had a park, with about 40 people practicing Tai Chi with swords.
I took a cab back to the Ren's, and got stuck in a four-way traffic jam in a back alley (I had caught the cab after I got lost) as 1 car tried to go the wrong way down the alley. People were really helpful, pushing each other out of the way, but no one got mad. Kinda cool. Mr. Ren cooked up some dumplings, a traditional dish from his native Shanxi region. They were quite good, and I think I had about three dozen of them (they were small). I called Vanessa, my friend I met through Austin down in Hong Kong, to set up plans for tomorrow. I fell into bed around 10pm, so as to be rested for my next adventure.

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Monday, July 05, 1999

The Fourth of July in Macau

Hong Kong
Woke up and caught the 969 at 9 am. We were in Central around 9:40, where we picked up tickets for the 10:00am jet-foil to Macau. The boats have Boeing painted on the side. Nice.
We saw a few other jet-foils pass us on our way to Macau (60 minutes, 65 km). After getting through customs, we kind of got lost trying to find the heart of the city. It was due mostly to the fact that our map only had a few roads listed.

When we finally found it, it was quite nice. Senado Square is surrounded by European style buildings (considering that Macau is a Portuguese territory, it makes sense) including St. Dominic's, which is said to be the prettiest church in Macau.

We caught lunch at the Safari Cafe, also advertised as Safari Restaurant and Restaurant Safari. I had spicy African chicken. Tasty. On our random wanderings, we were passed by a group of men in trucks who were banging on drums. Happy Fourth of July? Chris and I realized that the map scale was such that we could cover an inch in a few minutes, but we still had to back-track a lot because the streets have no real order, and aren't always visibly labelled. On our way to the northern side of town, I spied the drummers setting up in an alley. So I went down the street to see more. Guys with dragon heads and tails carved from wood would spew forth a mist from their mouths as they danced.

A pair of the dragon costumes also dances to the drums. We followed them from what looked like a small temple to the Senado Square, where more dancing occurred. It turns out that they were spewing out beer as they participated in the "Drunken Dragon" competition, with medals and awards given out to the winners. What Fourth of July would be complete without drunken revelry?

We then made our way up to the Sao Paulo facade...the rest of the church is in ruins. From there, it was a quick hop over to the Monte Fort, which we strolled around in the light rain. The view from the top of the fort allowed us a panoramic view of run-down Macau. Not that there are other parts, mind you, except for the casinos.
The Sao Paulo Facade
We left the fort, and got lost again. I asked this really old man where we were, using the map. He put down the shoes he was shining, grabbed my map, and walked to a tourist information sign with 4 destinations, all of which we had just seen. Picture this: This little shirtless drunk marionette of a guy is pointing up at these signs written in Portuguese as I am watching him shout out "1,2,3,4" and pointing in the same direction as the arrow on the signs. Chris is standing behind us wondering why I asked this guy for directions when there are other better people around who look more helpful.

Rather than get more lost, we walked back the way we came. Then stumbled across the road we wanted  figures, we were right where we thought we were, but couldn't see the sign and they are always changing names anyways. But they were always in Portuguese or Chinese). We made our way up to the Camões Grotto & Gardens and the Old Protestant Cemetery--the first in Asia, filled with many American sailors. Took some back roads up to see the Buddhist Kun Iam Temple, which wasn't really worth a photograph. I guess the inside was okay, but the place was shabby on the outside.

We then ambled down to the Jardin Municipal de Lou Lim Lok. The place was very peaceful, with Asian and European architecture, garden paths through caves and over the pond (which was teeming with fish and turtles). We began our walk back after this, passing a soccer game and some basketball action in the public athletic area.
Jardin Municipal de Lou Lim Lok

Jardin Municipal de Lou Lim Lok
We walked along this road we thought would take us to the ferry, on the other side of the largest hill in Macau, but we ran into some people coming from the other direction who we had seen at the garden. So the road is circular. Hmmm. As we were looking at the map with the ferry building not more than 400 meters away and 50 meters below us, the other people from the garden walked on in the direction we had just come from. Kind of reminded me of a scene from the Poseiden Adventure, the one were everyone is trying to find their way out of the doomed, sinking ship. It was drizzling off and on, so neither of us wanted to go back because we knew how long that would take. The road had a barrier wall about a meter high separating it from the steep hillside. But we would have been in bad shape if we fell down the 20 feet to the dense
foliage-covered slope (we know this because we had to walk along the top of the wall for a ways so that we wouldn't be run over by the passing traffic). Just then, two heads pop up, followed by bodies, which is good
because we weren't really in the mood to fight the undead. Locals. Hmmm. I went over to check it out, and sure enough, there is a little path down the hillside. Rock on!
Chris follows me down the crooked path
We got our Fourth of July American Celebratory meal at McDonald's--a double cheeseburger. Caught the 8:00 Turbo Cat(amaran) back to Hong Kong. We left the terminal and found the bus stop moments before it came, we were home around 11 o'clock that night, after snagging some refreshments. All in all, just another day of living the 'international lifestyle'. Heh.

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Saturday, July 03, 1999

The International Dragon Boat Festival

Hong Kong
We were a bit miffed at having missed the Dragon Boat races, but it turned
out that those were only the local races (they happened throughout Hong Kong).
The International Races included teams from the Phillipines, Japan, Canada, and
the USA. I found all the needed information on the web, and the times were
verified. So this time we left the apartment around 7:30 am hopped on a bus and
then the KCR. Chris missed the train I caught because he was eating "Digestive"
(a brand name) crackers, so I waited for him at the Sha Tin Station. We found
the course after a good deal of walking, passing the other race course we had
seen weeks earlier. We also found a banner from the festival laying on the ground.
The red and yellow one says "Brilliant Future"
Ground score! We stopped by the Sha Tin boathouse, were we erged and rowed in their tank for a while.
We crossed to the other side of the river in the rain. I got separated from Chris again, but we had agreed that he would have to go back early to get some held mail from the Post Office (Saturdays are the only days we're around when the post office is open).

The races start with a gunshot, but it sounds more like a big firework exploding. The drummers start wailing on their instruments and the boat surges forward. The bow of each boat has a dragon head, and the rowers are dressed in festive colors.
The paddles tear through the water, and the white spray flies everywhere. Towards the end of the 600+ meter course, the rhythm gets faster. The drums beat louder. The lead boats move back and forth. The crowd roars.
Fighting each other on every stroke, the dragon boats cross the finish line and the winners raise their hands and oars in celebration, making the whole boat
looks like one living creature.
It's been drizzling all day, so I bought a commemorative shirt to change into. A live band somewhere is covering the Eagles "Take it easy". Looking at the scoreboard, the fast times are right around 3 minutes flat. I had lunch in the Bier Garten, with a shrimp noodle dish while listening to the band play on. Around 1pm, I began heading home. I saw a "Report Triad Trouble" advertisement on a bus.

A little more on how we acquired the banner: We walked by it the first time on the uncrowded side of the shore. It was neatly wrapped around a pole, but there was an old man standing right next to it. "We'll get it on the way back." On our way back to the bridge to cross over to the populated side of the course, we saw that it had been moved by the street-sweeper to the other side of the path, right next to the river embankment. Chris and I stopped on both sides of it, checking it out as we watched the races. One end was tied to the pole, the other is sewn shut. So Chris put his bag over his end--the tied end--and pretended to be rummaging through his pockets with one hand while he went to work untying the banner with the other hand. Once he finished, he stood up and we watched the race go by. As the boats were passing, I stood on the sewn end to keep it from moving away as Chris slid the pole out with his foot. I then walked closer to Chris, subtly kicking the banner into a little ball between us. As the next race was about to start, I put my bag over the wadded up banner. As the race began, I dropped down and quickly stuffed it into my bag while attention was diverted elsewhere. The banner is a pendant about 14 feet long, with red trim and a yellow field. It has four, 18 inch, red characters written on it.

With my luck they would mean "I was stolen" even if it was really abandoned. Sitting back at home, under the canopy of the trophy banner, I contemplated going to the store for food. I flipped on 'Channel [V]' and saw the DJs who were at the rave we had gone to a while back. They were wearing the same clothes, so I was curious. Then I saw Austin, then a few of the other people we were with, then Chris was right behind the Djs! He was making a goofy face, but hey, why not? I saw the back of my blue, sweat-soaked shirt but I can't blame them for not airing footage of a profusely sweating, rhythmless, be-khakied gui-lo.

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