Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mighty China and 48 hours in Tokyo

From Beijing With Nan
Sweet hair style, right?

Pictures for this post:

Beijing with Nan

China had been a bit of a wildcard on my itinerary.  I had no idea what to expect.  After spending about four weeks there, I still don't know how I feel about the place.  I wish I had ventured out of the big cities further, because I didn't get a chance to explore the rural face of it.  All in all, it was a tiring but great four weeks.

My first impression of every place I've been is, of course, the airport.  And wow - Beijing's international airport is immense.  As you leave the gate you are immediately miniaturized in response to the football stadium-dwarfing terminal.  In some ways this was a common theme throughout my stay in China - the sheer number of people in some areas of the city completely overwhelms you.  This fluctuated quite a bit though - as we explored the Hutongs (small alleyways of the city) it was easy to say to yourself 'this is the capital city in a country of a billion people?' when, in the evenings, the crowds had cleared out.

Beijing is the first place I went, and where I spent the overwhelming majority of my time, so I will start with some of the highlights there.

My aunt Nan (whom I met at the airport) and I did lots of sightseeing together.  One of the most beautiful places we went was the Summer Palace.

An enormous former resort for the royalty, the Summer Palace is a town-sized establishment on the coast of an enormous lake.  The number of guided tours (it was a holiday, and many families from the country had come in) was almost absurd; all of them color coded and huddling together.  At one point Nan and I were a bit disoriented, and an elderly woman approached us, speaking in Mandarin.  We didn't quite know what to think, because we made it very obvious that we didn't understand a word she was saying.  She pointed to our map, and directed us which way we should go, still speaking non-stop.  I wondered why she kept on speaking to us in Mandarin, but realized I would probably do the same in English - there's something about intonation and inflection that you hope still gets across to the person, even if they don't understand the words.

The Forbidden City was another highlight.  In the center of downtown, and near our hotel, it was impossible to miss.

From Beijing With Nan
Outside the Forbidden Palace

Nan, her former student Katherine, and I had some amazing meals while we were there (the food, as has been a common theme on this trip, was one of the highlights of China).  Some things about the food I loved - there was a no-nonsense approach to dining out.  You got the restaurant, you were seated, the waiter stands there while you awkwardly fumble through the menu and point to a few dishes, and they are brought out within five minutes.  Sure, this probably means they are not cooked-to-order, but that's fine with me.  Typical meals would include an eggplant or tofu dish, a chicken dish, and a stir-fry, and they'd all be good.  The one thing about the food that wasn't so pleasant was whenever you got chicken, it would be served with the bone in and skin on.  I usually wouldn't mind this, but the skin was always a disconcerting yellow color (not crispy) with a thick layer of fat under it, and the bone would somehow comprise 75% of the stuff on your plate.

One of my favorite restaurants was a one called the 'Red Capital Club' was especially appealing.  It was in an old Hutong, with no signs or conspicuous lighting.  Inside it was a small courtyard and dining room, covered in Mao-era artifacts.

Nan and I saw a handful of other amazing places - including the olympic venus (Bird's nest and Aquatic cube), and the great wall.  The bird's nest was very cool - the architecture was hard not to admire even from a naive standpoint, and the great wall was incredible.  The pictures don't do it much justice as to the immensity of the thing, and my descriptions wouldn't do any better.  Check out the pictures to get a taste.

Leon and Chris Arrive

As Nan left, Leon arrived, and the next day, Chris joined from NYC.  I left them to their own devices for a bit to sightsee some of the things I had already seen, but we had some other great adventures.

From China with Leon and Chris
Chris, Leon, and some other friends pose on the Great Wall

Katherine invited us out with a dozen of her friends to a dark restaurant called The Elephant Inside.  If you haven't heard of this recent fad of dark restaurants, they are what they sound like.  You place your order at the front counter before being led into a completely pitch-black dining room by your waiters who, of course, wear night-vision.  Let me say right off the bat that the whole dark-restaurant thing is a ridiculous gimmick.  They probably charge five times what the food should cost, and cut costs elsewhere (like food quality, presentation, service).  However, I must say, it was a fun experience.  The food was awful, and they didn't really take advantage of their gimmick (why not use cool tables with slots or indentations to guide where your plate or glass is, instead of fumbling around for it with no idea where it is, or why not make food that is actually conducive to eating with your hands, instead of digging your hands into a sloppy stir fry, or why not...the list goes on).  But, it really did bring other things to your attention.  As I said, unfortunately, one of those things is actually the taste of the food, but it also makes you hyper-aware of who is around you, and what they are (or are not) saying.  It forces you to speak up, lest you be forgotten in the darkness, only to start talking later and be replied to with '...have you been there this whole time?'.

Anyways, other highlights were another trip to the great wall, meeting Leon's friend's friends, getting shirts and suits tailored for ridiculously cheap, and the insane Pearl Market.

From China with Leon and Chris
Us with Feifei, the great tailor

From China with Leon and Chris
Outside the Pearl Market (obviously)

I had been to the pearl market with Nan and Katherine to accompany them to buy some pearls, but when I went back with Chris and Leon, we decided to brose their other 'of-questionable-quality immitation' goods.  What ensued was particularly hilarious.  The bargaining there is out of another world, completely outrageous and laden with guilt-tripping, deceiving, and pressuring.  On multiple occasions we were grabbed and had to literally struggle free from vendors trying to sell us shoes and ties.  At one point Chris saw a pair of 'Adidas' he liked, and asked how much they were.  The dialogue went something like this:
Chris: 'How much for the shoes?'
Lady: 'For you I give special price!  Very special price.  You see sticker say $120?  I give to you for $105' as she punched that number into a calculator and showed it to us, as if that made it official.
Chris: 'That's more than the real pair cost!'  I'll pay $10.  As he punches in the 1-0, aware of how absurd the role of the calculator is.
Lady: '$10? You crazy!  Tell you what, I give you special discount' she cleared the calculator and typed in 95.  This went back and forth, her lowering her price incrementally down to about $70, until we said that was crazy and started to walk away. 'OK OK!! Here special price' as she cleared it again and typed in $20.  We told her $15 and she had a deal, to which she put on a really tortured sad face, tried once more to settle on 20, but gave in and sold it for $15.  The best part was as we were leaving, I complimented Chris's new shoes, which she overheard, and she came running over to me (right in front of chris) and said 'You want shoes??? I give to you for $10!!' to which we all burst into laughter realizing Chris overpaid.

From China with Leon and Chris
The insane Pearl Market

In general I am not in favor of bargaining extremely hard while traveling.  If you're buying something originally made by the street vendor/performer/artist, then obviously don't pay more than what you think it's worth, but too many travelers I've seen just by default go for the 'offer 1/4 of the price and don't settle for less than 1/2', which I think is blind.  The pearl market though, is a beast totally different than ordinary shopping though.  A churned-out factory scarf they first offered it to me for a 'very special price, just for you' for US$80, was brought down to US$2, and they probably still returned 400%.

We had arranged to take an overnight train to Shanghai, and by the time we got to the Beijing Central Railway station, it was clear we were no longer in the English zone.  Everything was in characters, and despite some difficulty finding which track was ours, we made it an enjoyed a very comfortable ride down the coast.

From China with Leon and Chris
The quirky/cool Shanghai Skyline

I had been told Shanghai had a different feel than Beijing, but I wasn't anticipating the degree of difference.  It's also an enormous city (17 million, the biggest in China), but the number of cars is a fraction of what the counterpart is in Beijing.  The bike traffic was incredibly dense, and my comment of 'I can't believe they don't get into accidents all the time' was withdrawn when indeed, on each of the three days we were there, we saw the immediate aftermath of bike-car collisions.

The city itself though was great.  We met up with a fellow poker player who was kind enough to show us around and introduce us to a big ex-pat community.  We were only in Shanghai for the weekend, but managed to fit in a fair amount of sightseeing and nightlife.  The highlight of the sightseeing was probably the French Concession District which is a cafe and art gallery packed few square blocks.

Before we knew it we were on a plane back to Beijing, and soon after, Chris hopped on a plane for JFK, I hopped on a plane for Tokyo, and Leon stayed behind to spend some more time around Beijing.

Tokyo (Round 1 of 5)

This would be my first entrance to Tokyo, of what will be five eventually (I am currently in my second).  I had just two days and two nights before I left for LA, so I tried to fit in some worthwhile sightseeing.

Tokyo is really a city where you can just hop on the subway, go anywhere, and wander around for a full day.  It truly immense (13 million), and is more of a conglomeration of dozens of mini-cities (each designated by a subway stop) than one big one.  Because I only had a couple days at this point, I decided to prioritize.  First, I would indulge my inner geek, and check out Akihabara (the electronic district), then I would embrace my social side, and meet up with some meetup.com activities.

From Tokyo
The buzzing Akihabara

Akihabara is like a different world.  I spent most of the four hours I had there inside of one, six-story arcade.  The arcades have a completely different feel than what we have in the states, though.  The first couple floors are completely dominated by silly claw-drop games (you know, the annoying ones that you try to drop a claw on a gift and bring it back to your box), which have all sorts of themes.  Above that, you reach the soccer floor (where people sit in rows at high-tech soccer games, playing together), the fantasy floor, the mech-battle floor (filled with person-sized pods with Omnimax-style screens that you enter to control your character), and an old-school game floor.  The demographic is diverse, ranging from 12 to 60, and it's fairly evenly spread.  Smoking is also allowed, and it was clear many of the mid-40's crowd there had just finished work, and was sitting down to a cigarette (or 10) and a game (or 10) of 'Wheel of Eternity'.
Found this clip on youtube, it's not my own:

From Tokyo
A group of guys play soccer, Akihabara-style

The next day I met up with about a dozen people (half american ex-pats, half other ex-pats) who rented out a small Mongolian restaurant.  The highlight of the night was a surprise performance by a Mongolian Morin Khuur player and throat-singer.  Throat singing is the skill where you are able to create overtones with your vocal cords to produce two notes, one base tone and one shifting overtone.  It is mindboggling.  

From Tokyo
The Mongolian performance

The next day I joined a few of the other ex-pats in a Hanami celebration which is where, to celebrate the bloom of the cherry blossoms, people gather in parks and have a picnic (usually drinking to excess).  This was pretty tame though, and was a nice "See you later Japan" Before I left for LA that afternoon for the month of April.

From Tokyo
Our group at Hanami in Yoyogi Park

Forgot to mention in the previous post, but I'm in Tokyo now.  I'm headed to Okinawa tomorrow morning to begin my south to north, tip-to-tip, 4-week bullet train journey of Japan which I am really looking forward to.

I'm not sure how my internet access will be when I get to Okinawa, and I won't be updating my blog tonight (cinco de mayo!), but I'll post soon describing my month in LA, and what I've been up to since I got back to Tokyo.

I hope everyone is doing well!  Comments/Questions encouraged!


Friday, May 1, 2009

Let's catch up 1/3

The mighty skyline of Hong Kong and Kowloon behind (Panorama, click for full effect)

OK! So - it's been a little while. I hope everyone has been doing well. I have a chunk of time to myself now and have no excuse not to update this blog. A quick note: the previous post had some HTML technical difficulties, but it should be fixed now (that was the post that started with Leon and my road trip on the south island of NZ, and ended with the rooftop cinema in Melbourne, Australia).

Last we left off I was headed to Hong Kong. This post will describe my time there (and Macau), then part 2/3 will describe Beijing and Shanghai (will be posted tomorrow). Finally, part 3/3 will describe my little time in Tokyo, and my month in LA (will be posted in 2 days)!  Right now I'm back in Tokyo - I'll be here for about a week, then I'm headed on a south tip to north tip 3 week trip of Japan.

Pics for this post:

Note for this post - not sure why - but Blogspot isn't letting me resize my images in the post.  Sorry for the obnoxiously large pics.

My expectations weren't very high for Hong Kong. I had heard from a bunch of people that it was cramped, noisy, smelled bad, and overdeveloped, and they were right. But despite all that, it has a charm to it, and I wound up really loving my week there.

Things got off to a great start in the city. Just the train from the airport to downtown was immaculate and fast, albeit a bit pricey. I won't go through play-by-play of what I did in Hong Kong, but I'll try to convey a general feel of the place.

One thing I can admit is that I got pretty lucky. Right away I connected with a few couchsurfers who made my stay infinitely more enjoyable. Olivia, a nonprofit film maker, Lane, a hedge fund programmer and traveler, Sapriti, a professional classical musician, and I met up for dinner and all hit it off quite well. Later that night I also met Carlos, a Guatemalan student studying in Taipei, and Jeff, a pilot living in HK. They all had amazing stories, and wound up guiding my stay quite a bit. Plus, they all spoke more Cantonese than I did (I didn't speak a word), so it was very helpful having them around. The food took some getting used to - everything is either really spicy or really fishy or both - but it was a learning experience.

I explored several of the city's neighborhoods on my own, and was really fascinated by their unique feel. The way small shrines have been preserved for hundreds of years, and are now tucked away in between massive skyscrapers and highways is sad and admirable at the same time. Each of the shrines I visited all had handfuls of people visiting them with a very tangible sense of respect and humility.

Huge incense swirls hanging from the roof in one of Hong Kong's many shrines

While the apartment complexes (absolutely enormous sprawling cement monstrosities) are ugly, much of the island's skyline is incredibly beautiful. They are so obviously proud of their architecture, and they have a right to be - some of the buildings are jaw-dropping. At one point I took the tram up to 'The Peak', looking over HK island's skyline, as well as Kowloon's (across the bay), and it is a really impressive view (if only it were less foggy).

I think part of what gives HK its attitude is just how cramped everything is. Hong Kong island is not big. In fact, most of it is hardly developed at all. It's just one small area of it that is built up to an outrageous degree that makes it seem almost absurd, like it is out of a sci-fi movie. The old fishermen boats on the harbor supplement this feeling, with their loud dirty 'putt-putt' engines rumbling next to high speed jet ferries to Macau and the other islands.

One of Hong Kong's shrines tucked away between skyscrapers

I did an all-day trip to Macau, which left me with mixed feelings. It had a cool historic district, but it was a bit too much turned into a shopping mall. The casinos were absurdly huge, and the residential areas seemed pretty miserable. However, the history was pretty fascinating, and it will be interesting to see how the area fares in the next decade.

Me in front of the facade of a destroyed church in Macau

Carlos and I took a ferry ride to a small island about an hour away from Hong Kong and rented bikes which was a lot of fun. It was a small enough island that we rode the circumference in a few hours. It was interesting to talk with him about Guatemala, Taipei, and photography. Apparently Guatemala was one of the first countries to recognize Taipei's independence, so an exchange program was set up for their students, which is how he happened to be there. He took a few pictures (I forgot my camera) that you can see here http://gallery.me.com/carlos.a.pascual#100636 Pictures 5149-5232 were from the island.

Besides those things, I managed to fit in a hike (45 minutes out on the subway and you're in the mostly undeveloped hills of Kowloon) with a number of other expat locals, and explored the night markets of Kowloon on my own. Overall I was really happy with my time in Hong Kong - it would be a place I'd consider living for a few months, maybe even a year - but I'm sure I would grow tired of the city and the culture past that.

Before I knew it, I had my concierge-prepared China visa ready, and I was headed to Beijing, where I would meet Nan at the airport.

I'll have part 2/3 up tomorrow!


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

One month later...

Frodo, Sam, and Gollum hike to Mount Doom

Disclaimer: this post is long. Too long.

First up, pics:

3 new albums! Some of the pictures are awesome, if you have time I recommend checking them out!




http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n (all albums)

Sorry for the delay! From now on expect weekly updates so my posts don't have to be so absurdly long. We've had a few busy weeks. Let me jump right in.

Road Trip!

Our roadtrip. If you're observant you can get a sneak peak into what else I browse on the web in my spare time...

Because our road trip was to be so short with a large proportion of the trip as driving, we opted for the car that would give us the most enjoyable driving experience:

The trunk didn't fit much, but it was a short trip, so with laptops, a couple changes of clothes, and plenty of snacks for the road, Leon and I set off for Fox Glacier

The glacier itself was much smaller than El Calafate in Argentina, but it was just as much fun to walk on it, and equally impressive in other ways. A bit frightening was that two young backpackers were quickly and mercilessly crushed by a chunk of falling ice the size of a garage off the terminal face, where they wanted to get a photo of themselves in front of the glacier. I was surprised there weren't more signs warning of the danger – the guides frequently took it upon themselves to yell at people touching the face of the glacier, telling them to get away.

Yes, my pants are tucked into my socks

That afternoon we had our longest drive, so we had just a quick lunch and set off for the other side of the island – to Christchurch!

Christchurch, being the biggest city on the south island, was, well, actually not very big. We checked into our hostel (an old converted prison) and the neighborhood reminded us of the neighborhoods around Boston – Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Framingham – it was a lot different from Queenstown and Fiordland. We happened to arrive during the Busking festival – so the city was very much alive with amazing street performers and curious locals. We spent a full day watching the best of the acts, and were woken up early the next morning by a phone call from Kaikoura dolphin encounters. There was availability for the 12:30 tour – it was 9:30 when they called, and it was a two and a half hour drive. We were very tired, but knew it was not frequent that you could swim with dolphins in the wild, so we decided to make the drive (in the opposite direction of where we were going later) to try to make it on time. We did, just barely, and it was worth it!

After a quick briefing video on how to get the dolphins to interact with you (tips included spinning around, making eye contact, surface diving, and making ridiculous sounds), we set off to find some dolphins. I was nervous about getting seasick – I have in the past – but the ride out was perfectly fine. Perhaps this was the beginning of me getting over my seasickness? WRONG! The combination of thick wetsuit gear, spinning around underwater, and increasing sea swells proved to be too much for me to handle. Lets just say...the ride back wasn't pretty. Leon was a champ though, and got some great pictures and videos of the pod of ~200 dolphins while I was paralyzed in the corner.

The dolphins following us as we leave

We were pretty drained from the excursion and got carried away eating lunch and going online at the local internet cafe – before we knew it it was 5:30 and we had a 6 hour drive ahead of us to get to the base of Mt. Cook. In a way it worked out well though, because when it got to be close to midnight, we pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and had a terrific view of the stars – among the best I've ever seen.

Me in front of the base of Mt.Cook. The picture doesn't do the immensity of the mountain justice. Those glaciers spoke to me 'If you try to climb me, I will try to kill you'

By the end of the next day we had to be back in Queenstown, but we were determined to fit in a day hike at the base of Mt. Cook, so we made the short drive over to it through its beautiful valley and stopped in at the department of conservation to get tips on where to go. We did a short two hour hike which was beautiful, and were back in good time to make it back to Henrick's place to relax before heading up to Auckland the next day! Our road trip lasted about 96 hours and we covered just over 1800km.

Up to the north island!

Leon and I spent our first day in Auckland walking around and taking it easy. Auckland is a nice city but it gets a bad rep because it is the only real city in New Zealand. Everyone told us that it wasn't even worth going there – I agree it does not 'feel' like New Zealand, because the rest of the country is so amazing in its landscape and feel. Nonetheless, Auckland is nice, and I wish we had had more time to see its suburbs and beaches.

We picked up Ian in our new rental car at the airport the next day. It was great to see him – unexpected, but welcome! Alicia's apartment in Mt. Maunganui was our next destination – she had been living there for a few months and invited us to meet up with her, so of course we took her up on the offer. Driving through the rolling hills of the north island was such a contrast to the south island trip. The south island sits on the meeting point of two continental shelves colliding with one another, while the north island sits on two that are separating. Nowhere else would I say that geology is cool – but I might make an exception for New Zealand!

During the few days at Alicia's we were able to fit a lot in – renting a couple hobie cats (accidentally sailed one into a race going on, that was embarrassing), driving to see the Rotarua mud pits/hot baths, and going to secluded waterfalls with some of her local friends.

We picked up a brochure in her apartment about the 'Tongariro Crossing' which is where some of Mordor was filmed in LoTR, so we reached a consensus in about five seconds that we had to do it. We drove to Taupo (smack in the middle of the north island), booked the hike (we decided to do the longer version – 'the northern circuit'), spent a couple hours trying to find LotR costumes but couldn't find any (I'll leave it to you to decide if that was a joke...), got food to make for the trip, and watched most of 'The Two Towers' to pump us up for our hike the next morning. And so it was, at 5:30AM the next morning, Gollum (Leon), Sam (Ian), and Frodo (I) departed for their journey.

The trek was short in terms of time, but long in terms of distance. We were disappointed at first by the crowds. The more popular day hike, the Tongariro Crossing, advertised as 'The best day hike in the world', attracted crowds of people. We had more time to play with, though, so we added the side trips up to the summit cone of Mt. Doom (Mt. Ngaurahoe, and no I don't know how to pronounce that), and to the summit of Mt. Tongariro.

Deep red rocks all around - great scenery

Mt. Doom was brutal – it was steep, extremely foggy, and there was no path. The ground was made up entirely of loose rock so for every two feet you stepped forward you slid back one and a half. The most unsettling part was hearing 'ROCKS!!!!' up ahead of you in the fog and having to wait, ready to jump to either side to dodge the sometimes basketball-sized rocks potentially plummeting towards you. Thankfully we had no close calls, but saw someone on the way down who did.

Panorama of the cone - click for full effect!

The cone at the summit was very impressive. At first we couldn't see the opposite side of it, but after a few minutes the fog cleared and we were rewarded with an amazing view. We wished we had brought a ring to throw into the cone.

We rest at the beautiful 'Emerald Lakes'

We arrived at Oturere hut at around half past five, and after claiming the last three bunks I headed straight for the nearby stream to get clean. The other guys were too hungry, so they offered to start cooking dinner (pasta, canned tuna, pre-chopped garlic+mushrooms, and red pepper sauce) while I went to the stream which I immediately took them up on! We spent the rest of the evening eating, relaxing, and talking with the hut warden, a girl from Oregon.

We had to be on the trail by 7AM the next morning to meet our pickup at 3PM, so we called it an early night. Ian was sound asleep by 8:30, Leon at ten, and I soon after him (I was too engaged in my new Crichton novel). I had my alarm set at 2AM to get up to stargaze with Gollum and Sam, but I woke up at 12:30 and looked out the window and saw it was completely overcast. Again I woke up at 1:30 and it was still, so I just turned my alarm off. But then I woke up at 4 and looked out the window and almost had to squint the stars were so bright! We got up (and managed to wake pretty much everyone else up when I slammed my head into one of the beams above my bunk) and headed outside for about fifteen minutes to take it all in.

The twenty kilometers of hiking on the second day were not too spectacular. It was nice, and the view of Mt. Doom and Mt. Ruapehu (the active volcano nearby) was great, but it was unchanging for the whole day, so there wasn't much variety – just the desert. We got a quick celebration lunch of Lamb wraps, and were back in Taupo 36 hours after we had first departed. We covered about 40k over the two days though, so it was a good and challenging circuit.

Panorama of the valley at the end of the hike - click for full effect!

We spent a day back at Alicia's recovering, doing laundry, and planning out or next adventure – more scuba! We took another one-way rental from her town to up past Auckland to our first dive destination – the Poor Knights.

We were very excited to dive the Poor Knights because Jacques Cousteau had rated them one of the top ten dive sites in the world. Leon and I did two dives there (Ian did one as his introductory dive which he enjoyed) that were really spectacular. Our first was along a wall with a max depth of about 18 meters. Leon and I split off from the guided group so we could stay down longer (in a group you have to surface all together when the most air-hungry person reaches the turn-around point). We saw a few stingrays, plenty of triplefins, a few small morays, and my favorite, a nudibranch (sea slug). Our second dive was through 'Blue maomao arch' which was a really fun dive through an arch (the top of the arch was out of water, so it wasn't a cave) that was packed with, you guessed it, blue maomao – schools of hundreds. Leon and I made it a fun dive rather than a serious dive and spent most of it playing around in the arch, swimming upside-down into the schools of fish.

Leon and I get ready to hop in to the Poor Knights

After the dives, we made our way up the coast almost to the northern-most point of the north island, at the Bay of Islands. We spent the night at a very chill hostel in Paihia. In the morning, Leon and I got picked up for scuba while Ian went in search of renting a hobie cat and finding a dolphin-swimming tour.

Our first dive was probably the best of the six we did on the north island. It was on the sunken Rainbow Warrior in 27 meters of water. I really like diving wrecks because as you descend you just see blue until the boat appears as a huge dark figure – very cool feeling. We swam the full length of the boat with a few small swims into it. It was still very intact but ocean life thrived on it. It was covered in coral and whenever you poked your head into a window or door of the boat you could see enormous schools of fish just hanging out inside. You can read up on the boat's history here.

The second dive wasn't quite as spectacular but was still fun. It was a shallower dive that we spent most of pulling ourselves through a meter-high kelp forest. It was fun to see the little fish and critters run away when you pushed their kelp roof off to the side.

Part of the reason these dives were so fun was the group – a group of three young guys that clearly were having just as much fun as we were. In the poor knights it was a group of about 15, but here there was only one other diver – an older creepy/awkward woman that didn't wind up diving for reasons unknown to us. So then it was just the guides, Leon, and me. After the trip we met up with Ian and headed to our third and last destination of this mini-road trip – Goat Island.

We spent the night at a very cool converted sawmill (now a brewery/hostel) – their fresh red snapper was probably the most delicious fish I've ever had. The next morning we headed to the dive shop next door and found out our dive site had been rescheduled from the Goat Island Marine Preserve to a different site. We took their word for it that it was just as good (it wasn't). It was a small group – Leon, Ian, a Spanish guy I forget the name of, our one guide, and me. It was a well run excursion, but the dive site was not very exciting. It was still fun though, and it was good practice for navigating underwater (I got our group a bit lost on the first dive). On the second dive towards the end, Leon pointed excitedly toward some coral on the ground – I was confused at first, but quickly realized that it was not coral, but an old weight belt that had been overgrown with sea plants! The two of us tried to lift it – but that required filling our BCD's (the things that control your buoyancy) with air, which meant if either of us dropped the heavy weight belt, he would shoot up to the surface which is very dangerous – so we decided it wasn't that important. After those two dives we were done with our activities for the trip, and returned to Auckland to prepare for Melbourne.

For my birthday, Ian and Leon generously took me out on one of the America's Cup racing yachts with a group which was really amazing. The weather wasn't great, but it didn't really matter because higher winds meant the boat could really get going. I was very surprised to hear that no customer had ever fallen overboard, because the boat was leaning a HUGE amount and there was little preventing you from falling. We had three amazing dinners for our last three nights together there, and then Ian was off on his long trip from Auckland to Sydney to London to Boston to Toronto! Leon and I spent our last day seeing a David Byrne concert which was awesome – he played his old classics as well as his excellent latest album – before heading off to Melbourne.


Melbourne has been amazing – up until this point, I wouldn't have considered living in any of the places I had visited, but Melbourne is really different. It's a combination of things, but it all comes together nicely and just feels like a great relaxed but fun place to live. The public transit is excellent (dedicated tram lines that don't compete with traffic), the downtown is great (small at about five by ten blocks, but clean, and is filled with hole-in-the-wall restaurants), and the people are relaxed and friendly.

A downtown Melbourne intersection

I would give long descriptions to the things we've done here, but this blog update has been delayed so long that it has gotten obnoxiously long. So, I will just glaze over what we've done, which is a shame because some of the activities here have been by far the most influential of the trip, but necessary I think.

Our first few days were laid back in South Yarra (neighborhood) – very cool cafes and trendy fashion shops. It reminded me a lot of a clean, happy, updated Palermo in Buenos Aires. After that we moved to a couple hostels in the CBD and spent most of our time at the sustainable living festival (which was amazing), as well as going to the largest short film festival in the world (hosted in the botanical gardens of Melbourne), going to two outdoor cinemas (one on the roof of a 6 story building with the Melbourne skyline behind it), and getting to know some locals through meetup.com and couchsurfing.com, the two most useful sites for any traveler. Today we volunteered for an environmental conservation group, picking weeds and mulching in part of the botanical gardens, and now I am getting ready to go to Hong Kong!

Panorama of Tropfest in Melbourne - click for full effect!

Panorama of the rooftop cinema - click for full effect!

Leon is hanging back a week or so to see more of Melbourne and will catch up with me in a few weeks in Beijing.

Sorry this took so absurdly long to update! I will try to update as a weekly thing now, so a)you don't have to wait so long and b)so the post doesn't have to cover so much ground!

I hope everyone is well, comments questions and criticisms encouraged!


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Routeburn, Kepler, Milford

Not a bad view!

First things first...
http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/Queenstown# (A few new shots in Queenstown)
http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/RouteburnTrek# (Pics from our first walk)
http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/TeAnauKeplerWalkAndMilfordSoundNewZealand# (Pics of our second walk as well as in Milford Sound)

http://www.youtube.com/llamallama781 (finally a couple new additions)

I am going to try to keep this one short because if I start recounting too many details this post could be a full-blown novel. Things have been going well - we've been up to some cool stuff, as well as laying low in Queenstown in Henrik's awesome apartment. Highlights of the past few weeks have included hiking the Routeburn track, hiking the Kepler track, going hang gliding in Queenstown, and kayaking and diving in Milford Sound.

Before I start telling you about those fun adventures, first a brief amusing dialogue I had while I was trying to buy some new gloves.

Me: "Excuse me, what does MS mean on the size tag?"
Employee: "Means small"
Me: "It means small? Then what's the M for?"
Employee: "No it's means small"
Me: "What? It's the average size of all smalls or something?"
The employee started laughing at me, and said:
Employee: "No no no. A little boy grows up into a...?"
Me: "Man?"
Employee: "Yes, now plural..."

Clearly I am not used to the kiwi accent yet. All the 'eh' sounds like in men, ten, lend, etc are all pronounced as "ee".

I'm going to be brief with the Routeburn and Kepler descriptions - for a better walkthrough, I recommend going to my picasa album and check out the pictures and captions!

Routeburn Track

Our first 'Great Walk' was the Routeburn. It was an awesome track, and with better gear and prep than Ian and my Torres Del Paine trip, Leon and I were able to have a great time despite the huge amounts of rain.

We chose the Routeburn because it is one of the shorter walks at about 35km over 3 days. This was Leon's first major expedition since his knee surgery, so we wanted to take it easy to make sure it would hold up alright before we did the Kepler track.

Leon takes the lead as we start the Routeburn Track

The Routeburn track was unique in its contrasting habitats. We started in a thick, humid, foggy forest completely drenched in moss. The limbs of trees stuck out at bizzare angles, looking like hands with badly broken fingers. Of course it immediately reminded Leon and I of the Lord of the Rings - it's no wonder why they chose to film it in this country!

Day two we awoke to powerful rain on our tent, and as tempted as we were to try to wait it out, we knew that could take hours, so we got up and had breakfast in the comfort of a shelter next to the campsite (the campsites here are beautiful and well organized). We got out into the alpine zone which was beautiful with the rain because across the valley was an enormous stone mountain face with waterfalls pouring all over it.

At the highest point there was a shelter, and just as we got there the rain cleared up. We stopped for lunch and were lucky to see a helicopter bring in a few propane tanks to resupply the shelter which was quite cool. I took advantage of our brief break to take off my shoes as they had been thoroughly soaked due to the path being completely flooded. The rain returned on our descent, though, and the sharp sedimentary rocks took their toll on me when I slipped and landed with the full weight of my backpack and I on my hand. A quick rain water rinse and a couple bandaids later, however, and I was as good as knew. At the end of day two we descended back into the tree line and set up camp in one of the most gorgeous campsites I have ever seen.

Leon sets up the clothesline to dry out gear

Day three took us back through some similar forests as day one, and by two o'clock that afternoon we were headed back to Queenstown!

After a brief intermission there lasting a few nights, we were off to Te Anau.

Te Anau and the Kepler Track

Te Anau is a tiny little town southwest of Queenstown, in Fiordland. Leon and I got there at 7:15pm, and had 45 minutes before we had to be at the lake for our tour of the Glowworm Caves. In that 45 minutes we had to check in at our hotel, rent gear, and buy food for the trek - it was extremely hectic and involved sprinting around with shopping carts and looking like fools. We made it though, enjoyed the glow worms, and had just enough time to make half a dozen sandwiches and get a little sleep before catching the bus to our launching point.

For the Kepler Track we had huts booked for our two nights, because the campsites were sold out. It's amazing what a different feel the trek had doing it this way. There are positives and negatives to doing it this way, and while I'd say in general I prefer camping, huts are a good alternative - especially if the weather looks dubious. Since Leon's knee had no problems on the Routeburn, we were confident the 60km Kepler wouldn't be much worse.

Leon turns on his headlamp as we enter the caves

We had a nice long first day getting up and out of the tree line. After dropping our stuff off at the Luxmore hut we went to explore a nearby cave system. When we got there, though, we hit what we thought was a dead end pretty quickly, so we turned around. I heard from the hut warden that the forecast was bad for the next day, so I decided to do a quick hike to Luxmore peak to take in the view while it was still there. Afterwards, Leon and I devoured some Back-country Cuisine (dehydrated meals, not bad!) and relaxed for a bit.

I enjoy the view on day 1, because I knew the next day it wouldn't be so nice

As I was heading outside in the evening to hang out, a girl asked me if I was heading to the caves. I told her no, but that I wanted to go again - so Karna and I went back and explored much further into the caves. I had never been caving before, but it was a really cool experience. The pitch black combined with the rush of running water (the 2km of caves were carved by water through limestone) and cool damp air, along with having to squeeze through tight rocky openings made it an exhilerating physical adventure. After an hour and a half we still hadn't reached the end of the system, but decided it would be best if we turned around, as it was already 11PM and we had a long day ahead of us.

Day two was a lot of fun. Leon and I made it up Luxmore peak in the 90kph winds, and then on through a long alpine path along ridges between peaks. At the end of the alpine region we got to the switch-backs that the hut warden had told us about. I thought she had said there were 19 of them, Leon thought she said 91. Unfortunately, he was right, and by the time we finally arrived at the bottom at our next hut, our knees were ready for a break. We checked out a nearby waterfall, devoured more Back-country Cuisine, and went to sleep.

Click on this one for full effect

Day three was our longest day, but also the easiest, as there wasn't an elevation change. Not much to remark on - before we knew it we were back in Te Anau kicking our feet up, prepping for Milford Sound.

Milford Sound

New Zealand tourism clearly puts a big effort into publisizing Milford Sound as 'one of the most beautiful places in the world' and they're right! It's an amazing place - tall peaks 2km tall shooting vertically down and plunging right into the water, surrounded by waterfalls.

We dropped our stuff off at the Milford Lodge (the only place to stay in Milford), and went out for our kayak expedition which was great. Unfortunately, in our zeal to 'defeat' one of the waterfalls by charging as far as we could into it, we capsized (big surprise) in the 48' water. No big deal though, because the guide had spare fleeces into which we changed when we took a break at a rocky beach, and warmed up with a cup of hot cider.

Unfortunately the style and size of the spare fleece weren't exactly mine

The next day we went diving with a very small group (one British girl and two guides) which was awesome. The aquatic environment is totally unique there. It's one of the rainiest places in the world at 8 meters per year! That combined with snowmelt provides a layer 1-4 meters deep of cold fresh water on top of the denser salt water. The fresh water, which is stained with the tannin of the plants it flowed through to get there, absorbs light and leaves the salt water in the dark. This allows for life that normal can only be seen at 50+ meters of depth, at 10-20 meters. That doesn't mean it's not a deep place though - the average depth was over 200 meters! We did two dives which were cold (brutal to jump into the cold fresh water, but once you descend into the salt it was much warmer), but we saw cool things like lots of black coral, bizzare sea-stars, and a big octopus which interacted with us quite a bit before we left it alone.

Besides their extremely lame, extremely un-funny joke of telling us to jump into a 'thermal pool' which was actually just freezing cold water, our Egytpian guide and Kiwi driver were a lot of fun and had a wealth of knowledge to give us about the area.

We made it back to Henrik's apartment just in time to catch the Obama inauguration that night (we stayed up all night to see it) which was fun.

Obama emerges from the darkness

Ok! I think that about covers it. Except for hang gliding (which was totally awesome), the three of us have just been hanging out in Queenstown. I saw my second movie of the trip (in theatres) yesterday - 'Seven Pounds' with will Smith - which I liked. I'd say 8.2/10.

Tomorrow we are going to do some sort of activity on the Shotover river here in Queenstown, and then get a rental car to do a quick tour of the Southern island. Our brief itinerary is:
Day 1 (tomorrow, after the river excursion): Drive to Fox Glacier
Day 2:Do quick tour on Fox Glacier, then drive to Kaikoura
Day 3:Wake up early to do a dolphin tour + swim, then drive down to Christchurch and spend the day there
Day 4:Morning in Christchurch, drive to Mt.Cook Village, do a short day hike there
Day 5:Do another day hike maybe? Then back to Queenstown.

By the 1st of February we'll be off to Auckland. We're taking things one step at a time and haven't planned much past that.

I hope everyone has been well! Comments, questions, criticisms, you know what to do.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Is there an 'Old Zealand'?

Yes, I was screaming at the top of my lungs at this moment

Pics 'n Vids:
http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/Sydney# (bunch of new pictures)

http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/Queenstown# (17 new pics from NZ)

http://www.youtube.com/llamallama781 (2 vids, one from way back, and one recent one of me trying to play the didgeridoo)

Sydney revisited, and the start to my kiwi adventure!

Leon and I kicked off our return to Sydney successfully by attending a couchsurfing picnic on Balmoral beach. For those who aren't familiar with couchsurfing, it's an online community (almost a million strong worldwide) of worldly, friendly people. As a member, while traveling, you can find local members that have a couch free that you can crash on for a night or two, free of charge. In return, when you are home and want to be nice or meet some new people, you can list your own couch as empty, and people can message you to request your couch. That's only the beginning of couchsurfing though. Members understand that hotels and hostels don't give you a local's perspective of the city, so hosts frequently invite surfers out to hang out with them and their friends, or see the city.

Couchsurfing picnic on Balmoral Beach

The first thing that concerns everyone when they hear about couchsurfing is safety, and that's understandable. Besides a rather thorough verification process to confirm your identity and a vouching process by other members, there are also couchsurfing events (hosted by any member) where surfers can meet other surfers and hosts to get to know them better before one requests a couch to crash on. At the picnic we met a number of travelers and locals that we wound up spending a lot of time with for the rest of our stay in Sydney. A number of them had completed three-month+ trips all around the world exclusively using couchsurfing as accommodation.

Waiting in line for the botanical gardens

Before we knew it new year's eve had arrived! We met up with Paula, a friend from the CS picnic, and two of her friends to go wait in line to get into the botanical gardens next to the opera house. Without a doubt, this was the longest line I have ever waited in – it took 5 hours to get into the gardens, where we had the pleasure of...waiting for another 9 hours (for the fireworks)! It was a fun afternoon though – twenty thousand people all happy and socializing the time away until the new year. All together there were 1.5 million people around the harbor – Sydney is very proud of its fireworks, and I must admit it was a very impressive show.

Swarms of people looking forward to a new year


We had a few days before we were off to New Zealand, so we did two things that were left on the list: Renting & sailing a hobiecat, and walking the 10k 'Manly beach scenic walk'.

It had been too long since I last went out on a hobiecat

Sailing the hobiecat was tons of fun. I have sailed them a bunch and it was certainly the choppiest water and strongest winds I have endured. I also showed Leon how to sail and he is now obsessed with it – we are hoping to do it again many times in NZ.

Looking back and out during the Manly Beach Scenic Walk

The Manly beach scenic walk was also a great way to spend a day. Along the way we stopped for a quick swim in one of Sydney's salt-water pools which was one of my things-to-do while in Sydney. It left me with a great impression of Sydney – downtown and the surrounding suburbs all seemed so beautiful. I wish I had had more time to visit the Blue Mountains and other countryside, but I guess that's something to leave for next time!

Off to the land of the kiwi

We were up early to catch out flight but we just barely made it in time (we underestimated the amount of air traffic that goes out of sydney after new year's). I wanted to stay awake for the flight to see the New Zealand coast approaching, but I was asleep about 15 seconds after takeoff. I think I'm getting better at sleeping on planes now that I'm getting lots of practice – but my neck is paying the price (a chronic neck pain finally came back that I had over the summer). It was very cool waking up and opening the window to see huge jagged white-tipped peaks on the horizon, though (see my photo album for more).

I was greeted at customs with a mandatory shoe cleaning! Leon's boots passed inspection but mine were housing some dirt in the nooks of my treads, so they insisted on cleaning them. On our way out, I was happy to discover an icebreaker store right in the airport so I could replace some of the clothing I have lost (the list is rather long). I picked up a new T shirt, long sleeve shirt, and sweater which are all awesome (you can judge for yourself in the pictures).

Queenstown is great. We were warned that it is touristy – and it is – but that's ok as long as I'm not living there. It's a ski town in the winter, but still gets lots of tourism during the summer because it's fairly cool there, and there are many adventure/adrenaline oriented things to do. It's not big – 15,000 people in the low season, 60,000 in the high – but is surrounded by a beautiful glacial lake and a mountain chain appropriately named 'The Remarkables'.

We've only been here a couple days but have managed to have a great time. The first evening, after exploring the area on our own, we met up with Henrik – a 26 year old poker player/traveler that ditches Sweden during their long winters and travels to warmer, brighter destinations. He's been here a couple months now and told us many valuable tips about where to go and what to see. The three of us grabbed dinner, and have since spent a lot of time hanging out with him (any excuse to go to his awesome apartment overlooking Queenstown and the lake).

I'm the black thing plummeting towards the ground...

If Queenstown is most famous for one summer activity, it's for the bungy jumping (where it all started). I had been skydiving once and loved it, but had been sketched out about bungy jumping. Well, I was bored and in need of a rush, so I went ahead and booked the biggest jump they have here and it was completely mind-blowing. It was a 134 meter fall, and the first few seconds of it (before the cord tenses) felt like they lasted milliseconds and hours at the same time. As long as the company is reputable, I highly recommend it for anyone seeking a rush!

Today we met up with Henrik in the morning and hiked the Ben Lomond trail behind Queenstown. We had been told to allow 7-8 hours for it so we were a bit intimidated, especially when we saw the peak. However, it turned out to be a demanding but short hike. With a couple water breaks and a lunch break at the top, we were back to the gondola that returned to Queenstown after three and a half hours. The hike was a great way to warm up for Leon and my first trek ('Routeburn' trek, one of NZ's 'Great Walks') that we start on the eighth.

Panorama looking down to Queenstown from the summit of Ben Lomond

Leon, me, and Henrik, at the peak

We have a lot of things planned in the near future besides the treks. Before we leave the area we plan on spending a couple days at Milford Sound. It's supposed to be amazing there and we are hoping to fit in some kayaking and diving. After that, we'll explore the rest of the south island by car (or campervan!) before heading north and doing the same.

I hope all has been well with you guys – drop me a message letting me know what's new and how your new year's went!

Super quick update – it's 2:30 AM and we are getting up at 6 to catch the bus to start our trek so I have to get to sleep – today we spent nearly all of the day getting our rental gear, buying some new gear, arranging transport, and packing for the trek. Things are going well – I'll be back on the afternoon of the 10th (evening of the 9th for most of you) – talk to you guys then!