Sunday, August 28, 2011

Beijing to Ulan Bator, Mongolia (July 27-28, 2011)

Taking the train provides plenty of time to think.  This can be a good or bad thing, depending on one’s perspective and how one utilizes such time.  As we rode out of Beijing toward Mongolia, Anastasia thought about all the bad things that might happen at the border when she presented her laundered passport.  As a project manager, she designed all kind of contingency plans.  The rest of us (or maybe it was just me) spent our idle hours thinking of ways we could encourage Ana to torment herself.  Her concern peaked when she read in the Rough Guide to the Trans-Siberian Railroad about a Nigerian citizen who’d spent 18 months in a Mongolia jail for having a bogus passport.  Ana’s passport wasn’t bogus, just faded, but that didn’t stop us from promising to write to her “in care of the Mongolia Penal System” and offering other bits of advice such as having some cigarettes to barter.  As one who doesn’t like to go into a new country without a little change in the local currency, I provide Ana with a pack of cigarettes (prison currency).  Of course, I wasn’t exactly a big spender as I purchased the pack of Chinese cigarettes for only five yuan (roughly 80 cent).  At the border, seeing Chinese policemen marching two-by-two, prompted Judy to point out Ana’s “new friends.” We all had good fun at Ana’s expense, which was a little cruel since she was nervous about the border crossing and even though communism may be dead, remnants of hard-line totalitarianism survives, especially at the borders.   

The train leaves Beijing station right on time.  Although we’d be on the “Trans-Mongolian” and later the Trans-Siberian route until Moscow, this was the only true Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Siberian train we’d take.  The rest just ran on the same lines.  The Trans-Mongolian leaves Beijing once a week, on Wednesday, heading through Mongolia.  It arrives in Moscow six days later.  Not long after leaving the Chinese capital, the terrain becomes mountainous and the tracks run through long tunnels and curve through steep valleys, the wheels often squeaking as they rub against rails.  There are half dozen tracks through this region, laid on both sides of the valley, each with their own tunnels and trestles.  We pass by the Great Wall, but the views are not great as the skies are hazy with smog.  After about two hours, the landscape flattens out.  There’s farmland as well as factories.  We stop in the industrial city of Zhangjiakou, where several of us get out and stretch our legs by walking along the platform.  Lunch is served not long afterwards and we are pleasantly surprised that it (along with dinner) is free.  In the afternoon, I take a long nap that’s filled with dreams.  At Datong, there is a longer stop in this city where until the late 1980s steam locomotives were still being built.  

A little after Datong, we pass under the Great Wall and the landscape opens up.  We’re now in Inner Mongolia.  Like Montana, this is Big Sky country.  The air is cleaner.  We pass giant wind farms and towns where the homes are all built of red brick and tiles.  I love this open country; it stirs my soul.  We could be in South Dakota or even around Beaver, Utah.  The wind blows the grass, which is golden in the late afternoon night.  As we proceed further west, the sun drops from the sky as the air becomes gritty.  We’re on the edge of the Gobi desert and the attendants run through the cars, closing windows. 
It’s after dark when we pull into the border town of Erlyan where we’re ushered off the train.  The train is taken away to have its bogies (wheels) changed as Mongolia and Russia gauge is different from China’s.  Chinese officials take our passports for processing.  We’re left standing on the platform listening to classical music (which is a little surreal).  Later, we learn we can shop in the station where there is a duty-free shop and another store that sells groceries.  It’s here that I purchase a pack of cigarettes and present them to Ana.  Then we venture out of the station and walk around town.  It takes a couple of hours for them to process our passport and to change the wheels.  

It’s nearly midnight when we’re ushered back onto the train.  They present us with our passports and the train is moved a bit down the tracks and into Mongolia, stopping at the town of Zamiim Ude.  Here, rather serious Mongolian officials border the train and take our passports.  They immediately ask Ana what happened to her passport and she points to a bottle of water and said it got wet.  Presenting them with a color copy of her passport along with a copy of her driver’s licenses seems to satisfy them.  They take our passports with them off the train for processing, leaving us locked on the train (and there are soldiers standing at attention along the platform in case anyone thinks they might want to leave the car).  Further complicating the situation is that the toilets are locked (we’re in a station and these cars do not have holding tanks for toilet waste).  My fellow Americans (Ben and Daniel) each had several beers in Erlyan and the locked bathrooms create a serious situation.  Daniel pleads with the Mongolian custom official in charge, saying he needs to go to the toilet.  “It isn’t possible,” she snaps.  I laugh, thinking that it is possible, just not desirable.  The woman is serious, but Daniel is desperate.  The border crossing into Mongolia takes a couple of hours.  After much complaining Daniel and Ben finally fashion a urinal out of a water bottle and the rest of us are provided with way too much information.   I spend most of the time with my head out of the window, looking at the guards on the platform.  The sight of them is funny and I find myself making a crack about Mongolia being a military powerhouse, as they have never been attacked from a train.  Then I realize the folly of my words, as Mongolia was once a military powerhouse, although not in recent centuries.  After receiving our stamped passport, the train finally begins to move.  Immediately the guards snap attention and salute.  With my head out of the window, probably looking like a gargoyle, I return the salute, bringing a smile to at least one of the guard’s faces.   The train picks up speed, rushing off into the darkness.  We turn out the lights and soon I’m asleep.  It’s two in the morning.

It’s a short night and I am up early the next morning and out into the corridor to catch the sun’s return.  Mongolia is stark and beautiful.  I’m reminded of Central Nevada, rugged mountains in the distance and a landscape of grass and small shrubs.  We stop in Choyr, the birthplace of the first Mongolian in space (he caught a ride with the Russians).  I get off and along the platform am quickly attacked by kids selling food, toys and even colorful rocks.  The train rushes through the Mongolian countryside, passing herds of sheep and goats who mingle together grazing, as if they’re waiting for judgment day.  Herders on horses stand nearby.  Occasionally there is a ger (yurt) or a small town with a platform.  We pass a local train on a siding, a solo diesel pulling a lone coach.  Unlike China, where much of the line has been electrified, in Mongolia diesels reign.  Trains hauling lumber and timber head south into China, to feed its building boom.  Late morning, we begin the long descent into Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital.  Running through grasslands, the train snakes back and for, it’s wheels squealing against the steel ribbons, treating us passengers with great views of the engine and the back of the train.  We pack our bags and when the train finally stops, we haul our packs off and onto the platform.   In the past thirty hours we’ve covered the first 1500 kilometers of our journey. There is more to come, so stay tuned! 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Beijing (July 25-26, 2011)

The temple overlooking the Forbidden City
On the top of a hill just to the north of the Forbidden City, in Jungham Park, is a temple.  There, the massive golden Buddha sits looking down on the Emperor’s massive residence.  It’s not a large temple, but high enough that perhaps it might have reminded the leaders of China of their mortality and that while they might not have been anyone on earth they had to answer to (except for the British during the Opium Wars), there were those to whom even all-powerful kings had to give an accounting.   After spending hours exploring the Forbidden City, a place that’s so massive and magnificent that it’s hard to comprehend, I climb up to the temple and looked out over Beijing.  The recent rains had partly cleared the skies, but it was still hazy.  Pollution is real here.   I’d entered from the Meridian or Southern Gate and worked my way through gate after gate and hall after hall.  There is no way to capture the grandeur of the place with a camera or to take it all in during a day of wandering.  To draw from an old cliché, the place is fit for a king.
View of the "city" from the temple to the north

In front of the "City"
 I wait as long as I dare at the temple overlooking the palace, then I leave, quickly walking back around the Forbidden City’s walls and to the subway station to the South.  Beijing has a fantastic subway and for about 40 cents, one can travel anywhere in the city.  It was with mix feelings that I rushed back to the Harmony Hotel after spending the day in and around the Forbidden City, in order to meet up with the group that I would travel with for the next three weeks.  On the one hand, I was a little melancholy.  After two months of freedom, I was now going to be tied to other people and their schedules and agendas.  However, I was also looking forward to not having to worry about finding a place to sleep or making connections, a burden I was more than willing to pass on to our trip leader.

 It was five minutes after six when I entered the room where the group had gathered.  Being five minutes late meant that I missed  the introductions of everyone but Ana.  And she had a story to tell.  Her real name is Anastasia, which she shares with the lost Romanov princess who was rumored to having survived the murder of the rest of her family and lived out a long life in America, a myth DNA evidence debunked a few years ago.   In a sense, this journey was to be pilgrimage for Ana.  We would be traveling through Yekaterinburg where the original Anastasia and the rest of her family were shot in a basement in the summer of 1918.  And then our journey would end in St. Petersburg, where the princess had a happy childhood, cut a little short when the Bolsheviks seized power.  In the late 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the remains of Anastasia and family made their way back to St. Petersburg and are now buried in the chapel at St. Peters and Paul’s Fortress, where the remains of the rest of the clan of czars are buried.
Anastasia is a lovely name; it rolls off the tongue with such a pleasing sound.  Throughout the trip, Ana would go by both names.  When it came my turn to introduce myself (being late, I was last), I decided to forgo the tale that I was named for a British poet, but my parents didn’t know how to spell and so my named begins with a ”J” and not a “G” as does Chaucer’s.    Ana’s drama didn’t stop with her name.  Some people are into laundering money; Ana was into laundered passports.  In that fateful thunderstorm that I’d been caught in coming back from Changde, and a high speed rail crash had occurred, Ana got drenched.  The Australian government provides their citizens a “waterproof” pouch for their passport.  As an American, when I first learned this, I felt slighted as our government doesn’t provide us with such an item and (to the glee of the Tea Party), I had to buy my own Ziplock bag to protect my passport.  However, after hearing Ana’s story and seeing her passport (her photo had faded to the point she looked like the ghost of the original Anastasia), I no longer felt slighted by Uncle Sam.   The topic of Ana’s passport provided us with much entertainment over the next few weeks.
After our opening pow-wow, we went out to a local restaurant where we feasted on a Peking Duck (why they don’t change the name of the duck to Beijing as they did the city, I don’t know).  Afterwards, a group of us walked back down to Tiananmen Square and then back to the hotel via a market where you could buy all kind of food.  There seemed to be an abundance of roasted snake on this particular night.
 The next morning, our group met early for a trip to the Great Wall.  Although the section of the Great Wall was only 70 kilometers from the city, it took a couple of hours to get there, with our travels giving us a taste of Beijing traffic woes.  The Mutianya section of the wall has approximately three kilometer’s open for walking, but it stretches as far as the eye can see in three different directions (the wall does actually split here, with one end running north and the other two ends running east and west).  The recent rains had cleared the air, providing us with an incredible view of the mountains and the wall that caps the ridges.   We split into a couple of groups with an agreement that we’d be back at the bus by 1 PM.

Yulia, our group leader

Because we had only a couple of hours, I joined with most of the group in riding a “ski lift” to the top.  Several of us hiked to the far end of the wall, at the high point where you could see the wall stretching out in several directions.  There were signs saying that the wall was closed, but curiosity got the best of me and I decided to explore a little further.  It didn’t take long before I was back on the straight and narrow, gasping for air.  Going on beyond the “maintained section” obviously required a gas mask as it appeared half of Beijing had used it as an open air toilet.  So I set off in the other direction, walking mostly with Yulia and Judy.  Feeling weensy, I checked my blood sugar and I was dropping fast, which meant that I could enjoy a cold Coca-Cola, hauled up to the top by one of the man vendors that one has to deal with while hiking the wall.
 We’d been promised a lunch stop on the way back to the hotel.  It was a late lunch, as the traffic was terrible, held at a place where the local tour guides obviously get a kickback or at least a free meal.  There was an extensive food court where we pigged out, but to get to the food court one had to go through four floors of stores selling a little bit of everything.  On my way up, I’d spotted some silk shirts and decided to check them out on the way back down.  I couldn’t believe they were marked $110 (American).  I started to walk away and the saleswoman insisted I make her an offer.  I wasn’t that interested in picking up a new shirt, but she kept after me, holding my arm so I told her I’d pay 110 yuan (at 6.6 yuan to the dollar, I figured I was safe, but I knew if she accepted my price, I’d be buying a shirt or have one very angry salesperson on my hand).   She countered with 190 yuan and I shook my head and started to walk on when she grabbed my arm again and said okay.  That’s how I ended with up with the blue silk Hawaiian shirt you will see in many of my photos. 
After getting back to the hotel, some of the crew went out to see a Kung Fu show.  Having recently seen the animated movie with my daughter and having grown up watching the TV show during its original run, I decided not to go but to use the time to pack for our first train journey.  Leo and I agreed we’d eat later with some of the Kungfuers group, so we met at 9 PM and headed into the subway in this city of 18 million people (18 billion of whom were out for the evening).  As Mark Twain once said, if  you don’t like the weather in Beijing, just wait thirty minutes and it will change (maybe it was Peking or was it San Francisco, either way the proverb applies here too).  We left on a beautiful evening without rain coats and umbrellas.  When we got to the station where we came up from the bowels of the earth, we noticed distant flashes of lightning.  Five minutes later, right before Yulia and Judy met us outside the subway entrance, the skies opened.  It poured and we decided rather than trying to find the club that Yulia had been told of, we’d head back to the hotel through the dry subway.
Going back, hungry Leo and I stopped to eat at a small restaurant near the hotel.  It was now pretty late and I didn’t want too much and tried to explain this to the waitress, ordering some Kung Po tofu with a bowl of rice.  Obviously, my attempt to ask for a small bowl was misunderstood and I ended up with only a bowl of rice!  It was only 3 yuan or about 40 cent.  They put our bill together and Leo readily offered to pick up the check and, if I’m not mistaken, said something about letting me pick up the check the next time.   
Early the next morning, we gathered in the lobby at 6:30 AM and walked over to the train station where we boarded the Trans-Mongolian Express for Ulaan Baatar (or Ulan Bator or Ulanbaatar, depending on which map you use, or as it is also affectionly known, UB), the capital of Mongolia.  But before that adventure, we’d have to get through the border which, with a member of the group holding a laundered passport and others with bloated bladders, was going to present some challenges.  Stay tuned…
When it comes to tacky eye-sores, Hollywood has nothing over China

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Chengde (July 22-24, 2011)

By the time I got to my hotel in Beijing on July 21, I was trying to figure out an exit strategy. It was going to be four more days till I was to meet up with a group from Intrepid Travel for the Trans-Siberian trip and I’d really only set my heart on seeing two things while in Beijing: the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. As a group, we’d all go to the Great Wall, and since I was meeting up with the group at 6 PM on the 25th, I figured that would give me a good day to see the Forbidden City along with Tiananmen Square and the accompanying oversized pictures of Mao. So I set my sights on Chengde, a city about 250 km northeast of the capital. Back during the times of the Qing Dynasty, the emperors would escape the heat and humid of the capital city by heading to a mountain summer resort there and, assuming if it was good enough for a Qing, it’d be good enough for me. I dropped my luggage at the hotel and went back to the Beijing station to see about tickets.
There are 50 or 60 windows where one might buy tickets, but only one reserved for foreigners.  Having looked at the schedule, I knew there would be a morning air conditioned train to Chendge the next day and a hard class train that evening.  And on Sunday, the hard class train came back early and the soft-class came back in the evening.  My desire was to book the soft class trains, so I got into line and began my hour wait.  Luckily, I had my ipod and was listening to Carl Haissen’s book, Nature Girl, as I waited.  When I chuckled at a particularly funny part of the book, people looked at me strange.  Obviously, I was having too much fun waiting in line.
It turned out that I wasn’t able to get my first choice for tickets to Chengde.  On Friday, they only had space on the hard class train, but it was only 17 yuan (less than $3).  On Sunday, she would sell me a return ticket for the soft-class but it was without an assigned seat, meaning that I would have to stand, and cost 43 yuan or a little over 7 bucks.   I thought about my options for about 10 seconds and plopped down a 100 yuan note.  With the tickets in hand, I went back to my hotel room and got on the internet and booked a private room at the Ming Dynasty hostel (which had newly opened in Chengde).  The hostel was a little more than I’d been paying for hotels in Vietnam, around $20 a night.  When I added everything up, travel and accommodations to Chendge was going to save me about $100 over the price of staying in Beijing.  Even more valuable was the experience!
I boarded the train the next afternoon and found my seat.  The train was only about half full, but as we stop at the stations on the edge of Beijing, the cars quickly filled and before long its standing room only.   There is padding on hard class seats, but not much.  It’s a straight-back bench with a maybe a ½ inch of padding.  I pull out a novel that I’d just started reading, Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief. Through the eyes of a 20th Century Orthodontist, MacLeod tells the story of a family of MacDonalds who leave the Scottish Highlands in the late 18th Century for the Canadian Maritimes.  But in the heat, I only read for a few minutes before nodding off on the hard seats.  I’m awakened a short while later by the conductor who asks for my ticket.
A light drizzle accelerates the cool down.  Although my seat faced forward, half of the seats faced back and they were all positioned around small tables.  Sitting with me in the other three seats was a husband and wife and their son.  They too were going to Chengde, but spoke no English.  He, like most of the men on the train, had taken his shirt off.  Others, who still had their shirts on, pulled them up to expose and cool their bellies.  This is definitely a working class train, although I later meet a few students coming home for their summer break.  Most of the rest of the passengers work in Beijing and were going home for the weekend.
There is no dining car on this train, but a railroad employee pushes a cart through the aisles selling all kinds of snacks as well as bowls of dried noodles, beer and soft drinks.  I buy a bowl of noodles for dinner and go in search of the water boiler, which is located between the cars.  I’m surprised to discover its burning chunks of coal.  And the water was boiling!  I add the hot water to my noodle bowl and fill my insulated cup into which I dropped in a tea bag.  Returning to my seat for dinner, I surprise my seatmates by pulling out chopsticks.  The man points to them smiling and gives me a “thumbs up.”
The line between Beijing and Chengde is mountainous.  Lots of coal is mined along this track and many of the towns nestled in these hollows could just as easily be in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Eastern Kentucky.  The train makes frequent stops and those who now worked in Beijing get off the train, taking with them their suitcases or backpacks.  In contrast, many of the passengers who board at these coal towns carried their belongings in large homemade bags of canvas or denim, with tops secured with rope.  Riding in this hard-seat class train provides me a different view of China than my trip up from Vietnam.  Not everywhere is prosperous in this vast country.    
As darkness falls, I go from looking out the window to reading my book about a Highlander clan struggling to make a life in Canada.  It couldn’t be a more dissimilar world, or maybe not for the narrator and his brothers find themselves working for a time in the mines of Northern Ontario.   The train is running late.  Our arrival is scheduled for 10:40 PM, but about 10 PM, we pull onto a siding and sit for over an hour.  Then, after going down the line for two stops, we pull over again to let several trains pass us.  It’s well after midnight when we arrive in Chengde.  The Ming Dynasty Hostel is advertised to be only a ten minute walk from the train station.  At 11 PM, I’d called to say the train is late and I debate taking a cab, but decide it might be easier just to walk.  There directions are simple and the proprietor along with several of the guests are still up when I knock on the door. 
The next morning, I take the local bus to the Summer Resort built in the Yanshan Mountains.  Much of this resort was built in the early 18th Century and is a reminder of how well the Emperor and his family lived, as well as museums that now fill official halls, which are dedicated to various Chinese crafts.  The resort is surrounded by large walls and filled with pagodas and temples and places designed to stir the soul with nature’s beauty.  One could spend days walking all the trails inside the walled resort (a trail that runs along the inside of the wall is over 10 km) and still need a few days to see the temples that are in the mountains to the east of the resort. 
"Friends" outside a pagoda
I first tour the halls at the main gate, where guests met with the Emperor and business was conducted.  Today, many of these halls which are surrounded by large courtyards and shaded by pines, are museums and shops.   Interestingly, in one of the shops there are unique playing cards that include pictures of the Summer Resort and various Emperors as well as Chairman Mao, Playboy Bunnies, Marylyn Monroe and Michael Jackson!  There is also an exhibit of the shame the late-Qing Dynasty brought on China when they sold out the country to European powers.  At the site of the Zhuyuan Temple, which was the largest within the resort, we’re told that the temple made of bronze was stolen by the Japanese during the Second World War and turned into weapons.   We’re reminded in a plaque that also includes an English translation, that “weakness means becoming a victim.”  Although the late Qing Dynasty signed one-sided treaties, the early years of this dynasty are celebrated.  In one hall, there are many poems written by several generations of emperors who found much happiness at this site.  Although no connection was made (that I saw) between their happiness and the hall in which they penned their poems, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to make the link between the emperor’s happiness and the hall in which he wrote poem sand also selected concubines.   Reading about the multi-functional use of this hall had me wondering if the Empress ever figured out what the Emperor was really doing when he said he was going to write some poetry.  I was also reminded of a line in a Garrison Keillor novel, that men only write poetry in order to seduce women.  After an hour or so in the halls, with my mind going in all the wrong directions, I leave the buildings and slowly walk around the east side of the resort, stopping to pause at the many pavilions, temples, pagodas and gardens.  Their names entice the senses and I stop frequently to enjoy the beauty: Moonlight and Gargling Water, Waterside Hall for Enjoying Lotus, Lakeside Hall for Enjoying Fragrance, Garden of Spring Scenery, Temple of Everlasting Blessings (my favorite pagoda), Myriad Tress Garden, A House for Enjoying Clouds and Water, The Sound of Two Springs, Watching Fishes on Rock, Misty-Rain Tower, Clear Water with Green Mountains, A Chamber for Enjoying Coolness, Lotus in Sunshine…   With the afternoon slipping away,  I leave the resort and walk back to the hostel (it’s only a couple of kilometers, stopping at a grocery store where I am finally able to find more tea in bags (I was beginning to think the phrase, “all the tea in China” was a joke) and coffee packs for my upcoming days on the train.  I pass several barber/beauty shops and decide it is time to get my beard trimmed. The first place has a long line and the second place doesn’t seem interested, shaking their heads no.  The third place I enter, a guy agrees but then approaches me with a straight edge razor and I jump up out of the chair saying no, no, no.  I then point to a set of clippers and indicate the length.  He laughs, understands, and does a nice job of trimming my beard.  He only charges 10 yuan and I offer a tip, but he refuses and asks me if instead he could have a dollar bill (showing me a photo on his computer).  I give him a dollar bill and he takes it and shows it others in the shop, and displays it in the corner of the mirror behind his chair.  All together, my beard trim cost $2.50. 
As I approached the hostel, I stopped in a nice looking restaurant where no one spoke any English, but I managed to get myself a spicy dinner of rice, mystery meat (some things are best not known) and a beer.  Back at the hostel, I talk to the proprietors for a bit.  I had hoped to find a church, but they did not know of any in Chengde.  They know there are house churches, where only Chinese is spoken, but don’t know of any of their actually meeting places.  The hostel had only been open for a few months and they say I’m the second guest who tried to find a church, the first being a couple of guys from Nigeria.  I then used their computers to get onto Facebook and to post onto Blogger (sites that are blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall).   
The next morning, the Lord’s Day, I read the Scriptures and worked some on my blog.  At noon, I walked up to the train station and stopped at a noodle place where I had a very “Vietnamese style” noodle lunch.  After which I found the waiting area for my train and a few minutes later was ushered out onto the platform where I learned the truth about not having an assigned seat.  There was a least twenty others in my car without a seat.  Standing only meant just that!  After a couple of stops, there are many more of us standing as sitting.  Luckily, this train only takes 4 hours to make the run.  Even after we arrive at Beijing Main, there are still twenty or so of us standing.
Chengde seems like a small town in comparison to Beijing, but as I take the train out of town, I realize that even here, there is a building boom.  There must be 20 or 30 large cranes working on high rises on the west side of town.  The air is still quite hazy, a combination of humidity and smog that it seems will never go away.  Outside of town, the tracks run through a series of long tunnels and when we break out of the tunnels, we’re back in coal country.    
A thunderstorm is threatening as we come into the Beijing station.  I hoist my pack on and walked fast, out of the station and across the walkway over the highway and down the block to the Harmony Hotel.  Lightning is popping as I walked through the front doors of the hotel.  Moments later, the skies open.  From the safety of my room, I watch the rain.  I wait a couple of hours before I venture out for dinner.
On Monday, I learn this was one of the worst storms in Beijing in years.  The storm had also caused a terrible train wreck, shutting down the Beijing to Shanghai high speed line.  Lightning had knocked out a section of the power lines, stopping a train.  Another train, not realizing there was a stranded train and speeding through the blinded rain, rammed into the back of the stuck train, killing many people.   

A pavilion overlooking the lake

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hanoi to Beijing (July 19-21, 2011)

Our train from Hanoi to the Chinese border
I am now in Moscow and way behind on publishing here!
I arrived in Beijing with excitement and apprehension.  I’d enjoyed my time in Vietnam and wasn’t really keen on having to learn a new country, with its language and customs, electrical plugs and monetary system.  Furthermore, having heard complaints about China’s dominance of Asia ever since I’d arrived in Malaysia, I felt as if I was entering the beast.  We pulled into the Beijing West station on time, a little after noon.  Everyone was in a rush to get off the train, so I took my time and was unable to tell the folks in the cabin behind mine goodbye.  Nor did I get to tell the Mongolian guy goodbye, as he was rushing to catch a bus to Uaanbaatar.  I was by myself.  Leaving the train, I made my way into the platform, looking for signs to the subway.  My hotel was across the street from Beijing’s main station (from where the Trans-Mongolian Train departs).   At the Beijing West station, there were almost no signs in English or with a familiar alphabet.   Furthermore, nobody at the information or police booths spoke English and everyone seemed to be such in a hurry that I was unable to find someone to speak English.  There were many people in front of the station trying to sell maps, but they were all in Chinese.  I was getting frustrated.  I realized how a Chinese might feel in America (but I also think that in many American transportation hubs, there are more signs in Chinese than there were English signs in this Beijing train station.  This, I should point out, wasn’t my experience in the subways or at Beijing’s main station. 
I wandered around the station and then out in front of the massive station, lost.  Finally, I saw a Westerner (an American from Seattle) and asked him if he knew how I should get to the main station.  He told me that there was no subway at the West station, and pointed to a distant hotel and said the subway was around behind that building, maybe 500 meters away.  He said that once I found the subway entrance, it was easy (take Line 1 to Line 2 and get off at the Beijing Main station).   The station I was looking for was named “Military Museum.”  I never found it!  Instead, I ended up at the subway entrance beyond the Military Museum one and learned that because of a highway project, there was sheet metal hiding the subway entrances (a helpful guy at a cell phone store helped me and some Chinese find the secret passage into the subway).  Luckily, once inside the subway, it was fairly easy to navigate. For only two yuan (30 cent),I could go anywhere in Beijing.  A few minutes later, I popped up from the subway in front of the massive Beijing Main station and found myself at the Harmony Hotel.  The longest train journey of the trip (so far) had come to a successful ending.
My departure from Hanoi had been interesting.   About an hour before the train to Beijing was to leave, the “International Waiting Room” opened.  I hauled my pack into the room and sat down.  The room was furnished with large over-sized carved wooden chairs.  Anyone of the fifty or so chairs could have served as a throne.  But as nice as they looked, they were terribly uncomfortable.  Knowing I’d have plenty of time to sit over the next two days, I dropped my stuff and walked around the room.  A few women came in and a large Asian man, but they all kept to themselves.  About thirty minutes before the train was to depart, an Australian came in wearing an cap for the rock group AC/DC.  He asked if this was the train for China.  I told him I hoped so and he asked if I could watch his bags while he runs out and gets some noodles for dinner.   He got back right as an attendant was calling for us to board.  There were only three passengers (an Asian, an Australian and an American).  One of the women was one of five railroad workers on the train.  I don’t know what happened to the other women in the room.  The attendant led the three of us out of the waiting room and by a longer train that was next to the platform.  Down the tracks, long after the platform ended and the weeds began, was single coach attached to a beat up locomotive that looked to have experienced the worst of the Vietnam War.  It was the train to Dong Dang, the Vietnamese town on the Chinese border.   Graham, the Aussie, and I were sharing a compartment (designed for four people) and the Mongolian had his own compartment next to ours.   A few minutes later, right on time, the train pulled out of the station.
Trying to get a lay of the land, I walked around the car and discovered that the back door was open.  I went back and got my camera and informed Graham, but the light was fading fast and I didn’t get any good shots before one of our attendants discovered the open door and shut it.   Graham and I went back to our compartment and talked.   Thirty minutes or so later, while the train was waiting on a siding, the power unit on the car started to make an awful racket.   It was almost unbearable, but when it finally stopped, the lights went out as well as the air conditioning.  The attendants were running around, but obviously none of them were electricians or mechanics.  Unable to get the unit back running, they gave us a battery powered lamp to sit on the table.  We’d be leaving Vietnam in the dark!  Graham and I talked for a while.  A veterinarian who’d spent his career with the Australian government, he’d recently retired and was on a month long train trip that had begun in Saigon and was to take him across the old silk route to Europe where he planned to attend a heavy metal concert in Hamburg and then continue on by train to Portugal, which he figured was the longest possible train ride he could do without backtracking. 
At some point, I dozed off, only to be awaken by the train attendant who said to get ready to get off the train.  At Dong Dang, we got off with our baggage and were led into a building where our passports were examined by Vietnamese officials.  Graham and I didn’t have a problem and was soon on a waiting Chinese train (with two cars).  They took a little more time with the Mongolian man, who I later learned was in the import business, buying food from Vietnam for Mongolia, which he shipped in containers over the railroad.  The Chinese train was nice.  Not only did its lights and air conditioning unit work, there was a pot of hot water under the table between the bunks and the table is covered with cloth and upon which are cups.  The bunks were comfortable as seats (Vietnam’s sleeper cards didn’t have back rests).   After waiting for a while in our new comfortable cabin, the train moved a bit down the line and we stopped again as Chinese officials boarded and asked for our passports.   Then the custom guys came on and asked to see our baggage.  They point randomly at our bags, having us open them as they dig through the contents.  I’m a little worried when the first thing he had me to open was the compartment on my pack that contained a bag of syringes.  “I’m diabetic,” I said and the custom official asked, “Insulin?”  Yes, and I showed him the cooling pack where my insulin was stored.  He looked at the packaging on the vial of insulin I’d just purchased in Hanoi, nodded and turned his attention to Graham’s bags.  
Then the most interesting thing happened.   One of the custom officials, a young man who was in the military, came into our compartment and asked if he could sit down.  In near flawless English, he asked who we were and where we came from and what kind of work we did and where we’d traveled.   We answered him, both of us being a little vague as we were unsure if it was an official part of the entry and he was fishing for information or if he just wanted to chat.  He then started complaining that because he was in the Chinese army, he can’t freely travel and said that he hoped when he was our age and done with the military, he would still be in good shape like we were and able to travel.  I am sure he was trying to be complimentary, but I felt as if he’d just called the two of us a “couple old farts.”
The whole bordering crossing took a couple of hours and it was nearly two in the morning when we finally got back underway.  Our new Chinese attendant informed us through sign language that we had to be ready to get off the train at 6 AM when we got into Nanning.  It was going to be a short night and sure enough, a little after 6:30 AM (we got an extra half hour sleep), he woke us up and told us we’d have to leave the train for a couple hours, but we could leave our luggage.  I took my day pack and the three of us were herded into a station. 

I had been unable to exchange money at the Hanoi station before leaving, so I asked the attendant who’d taken us to the “Soft Seat Waiting Room” if there was an ATM.  She pointed across the street (one with five or six lanes of traffic in each direction) and gave me a pass and told me that I had to be back in an hour.  I found way across the street and finally found an ATM.  It wasn’t working…  I felt a little naked walking around the streets without any Chinese money.   I continued my search and was told of another ATM a little further down and sure enough, it was working and I was able to withdraw money in Chinese yuan.  On the way back to the train, I picked up some fruit and bread and another large bottle of drinking water, enough to carry me through the next thirty hours on the train.
When they led us back to the train, it had grown.  Instead of the two cars that had come up from the border, there were about twenty cars including a diner.  As soon as we boarded, a hoard of others came out running onto the platform to join the train.  China, at least in their main stations, holds everyone in waiting areas until the train is on the platform and then checks their tickets as they allow them access to the platform where the train is waiting.  During the morning, we travel through southern China, passing by farms of rice and corn that’s dotted with sugarloaf limestone hills.  Construction is ongoing.  Throughout the countryside, there is work on a high speed line that runs to the south, its tracks mostly elevated, as well as new highway projects.  In the cities, cranes dot the skyline as new apartment and office buildings reach up into the heavens.    One wonders where the country gets all it concrete and Graham informs me that China’s building boom has been a blessing to the Australian mining and steel industries.  Everything is hazy.  I’m not sure if it is the humidity (which is high) or smog, but I have a feeling it is a combination of both.
At lunch, Graham and I head down to the dining car.  The waiter brings over a special menu in which someone had written in pencil the English words over the Chinese characters.  I order pork with garlic sauce for 40 yuan ($1.30).  Graham had brought in his own beer that he’d purchased when the train stopped in Liazhou.  Another waiter, obviously the bar tender, asked if I wanted a beer.  It turns out that there is only one kind being served today, Pabst Blue Ribbon!  I didn’t know they still made the stuff (it seems that on Chinese trains, there is only one kind of beer sold and it is often a foreign brand, for on the train from Beijing to Mongolia, it was Heineken).   When we come back after lunch, we discover that our attendant had locked our compartment.  Thereafter, whenever we leave for any significant time, we tell him and he locks the door.  The attendant also keeps the bathrooms cleaner than any I’ve seen on a train.  A couple times a day, he steps into our compartment to sweep up any mess and to empty our trash.
After lunch, I watched the train move through more of the limestone hills.  Graham and I talk about trains we’ve taken as well as other topics such as music (blues and rock) as well as religion.  We stopped for a few minutes in Gullin and get off onto the platform.  When they released the hoard to board the train, everyone runs out onto the platform and toward their cars.  Graham and I back away to make room and we watch an attractive and well-dressed Chinese woman in four inch heels trip.  It must have hurt and her husband has to help hold her up as they make their way down the tracks to their waiting car, her hobbling and holding onto his shoulder. 
By Longshiter, the limestone hills that have been a part of the scenery on and off since Thailand, have disappeared and the landscape flattens.  We pass a military train, loaded with half-tracks and trucks on flat-cars as well as a large number of coaches where I assume soldiers are riding.  I take a nap and read some in The Way of the Pilgrim, a book on prayer by an anonymous Russian Orthodox author who travels around Siberia in the 19th Century.  Cyclops had given me the book when I was in Penang.  Our reservation for dinner is at 6:30 and from the dining car, we watch a fiery red sun drop behind the Jiannng River.  I have a chicken and rice dish with a plate of greens.
After dinner, I spend some time with a family in the compartment behind me.  They’d boarded in Nanning and their son and I had joked and played several times throughout the day.  The mother, who teaches Chinese to Middle School Students, speaks a little English and is excited that I can understand some of what she is saying.  She and her husband are taking their son (who is 7) along with her niece (who is 13) to Beijing to see the Great Wall.  They are living on the southeastern coast, in Fangchenggang, but she grew up in a town on the river that borders Vietnam.  She’d never been in Vietnam and this is their first trip to Beijing.  I show them a photograph of my family and they take a photo of me with them. 
The next morning, there is a knock on the door at 5 AM.  It’s the attendant saying that Graham’s stop is coming up.  He’d thought he was getting off at 7 AM, but instead gets off before dawn.  I help him get his stuff out to the platform.  He has most of the morning to kill and in the afternoon is taking a high speed line to Xian, where he’ll stay overnight and have his first shower since leaving Australian four days earlier!  It’s just been the two of us in our four person berth the whole way and I’ll have the berth by myself the rest of the way to Beijing.   Instead of going back to sleep, I read and catch up on my journal as I watch the sun rise through the haze and smog.  At 7, I head to the dining car for breakfast.  I have bowl of porridge along with some rolls, pickled peppers and a boiled egg and coffee.  Later, I finish reading The Way of a Pilgrim, and reread the package of information from Intrepid about my trans-Siberian trip.  It is that at this point I realize I had been thinking I needed to be in Beijing a day earlier than I actually needed to be there and am a little upset with myself.  I could have taken the train three days later from Hanoi and spent time in Sapa.  But I vow to make the best of it.  We pull into our station, Beijing West, right on time.
“Everything seems desirable to us from a distance.  But we all find out by experience that everyplace, though it may have its advantages, has drawbacks too.”  Anonymous, The Way of the Pilgrim, page 194.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hanoi (July 14, 17-19, 2011)

My first impression of Hanoi wasn’t very good. But then, it was 4 AM and raining when I got off the train from Hue. It would be another four hours before I could see about purchasing a ticket on the bi-weekly train for Beijing, so I found a seat in the lobby and spent time writing (at first with the computer and then longhand when my battery began to die. At 6 AM, the woman who rented out the storage lockers came in and for 10,000 dong (50 cent) I was able to lock up my backpack and head out into the streets for breakfast. It was a nasty looking morning, a light drizzle and very gray. I found a coffee shop and had a cup along with some noodles. Then I returned to the station to wait some more. My hopes rose when I then ticket counter clerks started appearing a little after 7 AM, but they all first ate breakfast at their desk before they opened for business and beside, I could only buy the “international” ticket at window 11 (or was it 14?). As school is out and this is a busy time in both China and Vietnam for trains, and I needing to get to Beijing to hook up with a group on the Trans-Siberian train on July 25, I had no choice but to wait.

Not watching, a tour operator was standing behind me and as soon as the woman opened her window, he jumped in front and proceeded to buy some 40 tickets… I thought he’d never be done, but I was wise and as he finished, what appeared to be a cabbie came up to buy tickets (they often do this service for people), but I was now wiser and quicker and just about tripped him as I pushed him aside. He wasn’t going to have any of that and I was debating giving him an elbow when the woman behind the counter spoke to him n Vietnamese. I’m not sure what she was saying, but I think it had something to do with minding his manners as he hung his head and went to the back of the line (that was now growing). As it turned out, getting a ticket wasn’t a problem. But I didn’t have enough money. I thought I did, but since you can only take 2 million dong per transaction out of most ATMs and this ticket cost a little over 7 million (It sounds like I’m a big-time spender, but that’s only $350), I found myself about a million short (the tickets had gone up about 1.5 million dong from what I’d expected). I had to go to the ATM and get another wad of 100,000 dong notes. The woman saved my stuff and called me up as soon as I came back and after showing my passport (to prove I had a valid Chinese visa), she sold me the ticket.

I had thought about heading down to the coast on the 9 AM train, but by the time I was done with the ticket, it was almost 9 AM and that train left from a different station, so I decided to forgo going to the bay and find a place to stay in Hanoi. I had a map that identified a number of mini-hotels and (putting on my raingear including pack covers, I ventured out and found a xe om to take me to the “old quarter” where I hoped to find lodging. I was assuming I’d have to stash my bags till the afternoon, but the first place I walked into (Thu Giang Guesthouse) had a room with a private bath and air conditioning for $10 a night. And I could move in right away and not have to wait to 2 or 3 PM. So I jumped on it. It wasn’t as nice as my room at been at Hoi An or Saigon, but it was comfortable and clean and the service made it an incredible deal. Giang (which means Autumn River) managed the property for her father. She spoke perfect English and was very helpful.
I had one important piece of business to accomplish in Hanoi: replenish my insulin supply. I’d brought enough insulin from the States (and had been able to keep it in refrigeration through Singapore), but the “advertised” shelf life once it is at room temperature is only 30 days (it’ll last longer, but I wasn’t sure how much longer, and I didn’t want to gamble with not having a fresh supply when what I brought stopped controlling my sugar levels.) I asked Giang about finding insulin. She made it a special project. She gave me directions to a hospital where she was sure I could find some insulin, but they said they didn’t have it and gave me an address and phone number of another place. Giang called them and found that it wasn’t a pharmacy (as I’d thought), but a medical supply place. She then suggested she go with me to the hospital to translate. On our way, we passed a large pharmacy and we both agreed that we should try them. They didn’t have the insulin that I used in the United States, but had different products. I wrote the information down (and took photos) and emailed them to my physician who did some research and emailed me back, telling me that it should work and how much of the product I should take and when. On my last day in Hanoi, I purchased a vial of insulin (a mixture of slow and rapid acting) along with a wad of needles. The insulin (Mixtard 30) cost 230,000 dong for a vial (a month’s supply) or $21, about a quarter of my insurance co-pay cost in the United States. When I got back to the hotel, I opened and looked at the needles. They were really thick and longer than what I normally use. I tested one and figured I could use them, but when I found another pharmacy with regular insulin syringes, I replaced the oversized ones. After all, they’re cheap, 1,000 dong each (that’s 21 for a dollar)!

I stayed at the Thu Giang Guesthouse for only one night before departing for Ha Long Bay (see previous entry).  After I came back from the Bay, I rebooked myself into the house that sits in an alley just a few blocks from the main business area of Hanoi.  Upon arriving back from Ha Long Bay, I dropped my stuff off and hired an xe om to take me to West Lake (a place Marie suggested had beautiful sunsets).  Looking at a map, I decided to head to Tran Quoc Pagoda, which is located on a small island off the causeway that crosses the southeast end of the lake.  The Pagoda was beautiful, a brick structure with 11 levels, each level featuring six Buddhas.  The sunset wasn’t as nice as a cloudbank in the west destroyed the view.  Afterwards, I took a xe om back to the area near the guesthouse, where I went out for a bowl of pho bo (beef noodles) for dinner.  There was a place just two blocks away that Giang had showed me that this was the only dish they served and it was 50,000 dong ($2.50) but it was a large filling bowl with mint and cabbage and peanuts added to the roasted beef and rice noodles.  There, I met Helen, an Australian who had moved to Vietnam with her husband’s job and now runs a NGO (the Blue Dragon) for street children.  I was shocked when she (to my surprise as I didn’t understand what she was saying in Vietnamese to the waitress) paid my bill. 
On the day after arriving back from Ha Long Bay, I signed up for another tour to the Perfume Pagoda, one of Vietnam’s holiest places, located about 75 km south of Hanoi.  Again, it was easier to pay a tour company than to try to get there myself.  Giang suggested a $19 tour, less than most of the others I’d seen priced at $25.  Now is a good time to describe the operations of these tours.  I was to be ready at 8 AM.  I came down for breakfast at 7:30 AM, enjoying an omelet, French bread, watermelon and coffee.  A few minutes after 8, the tour guide into the lobby of the guesthouse and introduced himself.  I followed him back down through the ally, as he collected a couple other tourists from another guesthouse down the alley.  All this while, the driver was circling the block in the mini-bus.  There were already a half a dozen on the bus when we piled in.  We then drove to another part of the Old Quarter where the guide ran around collecting tourist while the driver circled around the block. 
As we drove around, I noticed something I’d seen in other cities in Vietnam and Cambodia.  Each blocked seemed to be dedicated to a particular type of enterprise.   In one block, you can find plumbing supplies, on another there is lumber, another has hardware, or electrical or kitchen equipment.  There appears to be sections of the Old Quarter and French Quarter designed for the manufacture of stainless steel products such as facets, railings and even hat racks.  Most all the shops look alike and appear to have the same products.  It would seem that they would be too much competition or that it might be better to locate a store nearer to the costumer, but that isn’t the case.  
Like most visitors to the Perfume Pagoda, we stopped a ways north of the site and were loaded onto metal boats, six tourists to a craft, and ferried down river.  As the odd man out, I was loaded onto a boat of Koreans, a couple of who spoke a little English.  It was beautiful trip going down river, with the sun bright and hot and burning through the morning haze; however, we could hear distant thunder.  One of the Korean women loaned me a fan and then gave me instructions on how to hold it properly so that it wouldn’t collapse in my hand.  A couple of them produced umbrellas for shade, while a Vietnamese woman in a bamboo hat sat at the back of the boat and rowed.  The youngest of the Koreans, whom I assumed was the daughter of one of the two couples, spent the whole time talking to the Vietnamese woman.  I was impressed with her grasp of the language and on the way back asked the couple (the man spoke a little English) where their daughter had learned Vietnamese.  It turned out that she was his husband and was Vietnamese and the woman was his mother! 
Along the river were rice paddies and other fields of aquatic plants such as morning glory, with an occasional limestone hill rising sharply above the plains.  Insects hummed and birds chirped and searched the water and banks for food.  At the pagoda, we disembarked and, after a lunch that was included in the trip price, began the climb to the top.  There were only a dozen or so boats bringing in tourist, but during the festivals (from February through April), there are hoards of pilgrims and along the river bank were probably a thousand boats waiting for better days.  As we hiked up the 330 meter climb, we were welcomed by the few vendors out, all who were anxious for business, offering to sell everything from water and drinks (water, beer, juice, soda) to t-shirts and souvenirs.  Luckily, most of the vendor stalls were empty.  We had three hours to explore the various grottos and pagodas.  I was expecting a regular pagoda, a multi-storied tower, and was surprised to discover a natural “pagoda” of limestone in a huge cave.  Inside, it was cool and damp inside and the smoke of incense gave a haze to everything. 
Walking down from the top, I talked with a young French girl who’d come to Vietnam as a volunteer in an orphanage.  There were 17 of them in total and eight of them on the trip to the pagoda.  They were feeling they had been taken advantage of as there were only 25 children in the orphanage and nothing really for them to do.  So they were alternating days spent in the orphanage with trips.  She seemed upset (and for good reason) for it appeared the group who’d organized the volunteer trip was only interested in their money and not in helping the children.
After exploring the mountain and the various pagodas (including some more traditional ones that are at the base of the mountain), we prepared to leave.  As we were walking toward the launch, the skies opened.  The rain was so hard that water came down the path in waves.  We took shelter in an empty vendor stall as the few vendors still around came around to sell us ponchos (about a dollar each).   They were quickly purchased by those without raincoats.  In the confusion, several other vendors came over with drinks for sale and I asked one how much for a beer.  “20,000 dong,” she said.  I looked through my wad of bills for the correct bill.   I only had small bills or larger bills, so I produced a 50,000 dong bill ($2.50).  She acted like it was the correct change and quickly stuck it between other bills.  I asked for change and she shook her head, saying 20,000 dong.  “You cheat and I’ll leave it to karma,” I said, not wanting to make a big scene over $1.50.  Interestingly, with monetary conversions and a general unfamiliarity with the language and customs, it was amazing more people didn’t try to take advantage of me.  Instead, I found that most people were more than honest, even giving me back change when I wasn’t expecting it or pointing to the correct note of a lesser value when I would get confused and hand them a note of a larger denomination. 
When the rain slowed, our boat women (all but one of those on the oars were women) bailed out the water and we began to load the boats, riding back in the rain.  Even with rain jackets and ponchos, we got wet and chilled.
Early on my last day in Hanoi, I visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  I was shocked at the crowds and the security.  The soldiers around the mausoleum were sharply dressed and serious, like our military personnel who stand guard at the Tomb for the Unknown Soldier at the cemetery in Arlington, across the Potomac from Washington, DC.   We had to check bags, all then be scanned, all to see a guy that’s been dead for forty years.   The line snaked around the mausoleum and they kept it moving.  When we finally went inside, the air conditioning felt good.  We were able to walk around 3 sides of Uncle Ho who was sitting in bed, looking very much dead.  The preservation of Ho’s body was a gift from the Russians (who’d done the same thing to Lenin’s) and is ironic since Ho himself had asked to be cremated and have is ashes split into three parts, with some buried in the north, some in the central section and the rest in the southern part of Vietnam.  After seeing his body, I walked around the compound and museums; seeing where Ho lived and worked (he lived in a three room house next to the large colonial governor’s mansion.  Ho is seen everywhere in Vietnam.   I even saw him in parody, when in Saigon, on a t-shirt that was made up as a KFC advertisement, with Uncle Ho replacing Colonel Sanders.  The two do share a certain resemblance. 
After visiting Ho’s place, I headed over toward Hoan Kien Lake, the main business district in Hanoi, to mail some post cards and find lunch.  Along the way, I stopped by the Hanoi Cathedral.  Although  Catholicism is stronger in the South, there are many churches in the north (and from the looks of their buildings, they appear to have been left-over from the French era).  I’d also found in Hanoi a Protestant Church that was only a few blocks from my hotel, and had spoken briefly to the pastor (but his English was only slightly better than my Vietnamese).  As I was at Ha Long Bay on Sunday, I was unable to attend services.  Hoan Kien Lake is smaller than West Lake, but more historic with legends that links it to the finding of Hanoi.  I had lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant on the south side of the lake, and spent time in the park like setting writing post cards. 
My final thing to see in Hanoi was the Blue Dragon, a street children’s rescue mission in one of the poorer areas of Hanoi (the poorer area is kind of like New Orleans’s 9th Ward, and is located in a flood plain along the Red River).   This NGO that was started by Australians and receives support from schools and churches as well as other relief agencies around the world, provides a safe haven for both street children as well as does rescue work of trafficked children who work in sweat shops (mainly in the South).  I’d met Helen, the manager of the organization, at a noodle shop my first evening in Hanoi.  We’d talked for a few minutes and she’d surprised me by paying for my bowl of noodles.  When I expressed interest in seeing her organization, she arranged for me to visit.  James, an Englishman who is in charge of Public Relations, met me and showed me around (they don’t allow photos to be taken of the children for obvious reasons).  He explained their work.  The site included offices (as they do work throughout Vietnam) as well as a drop in center where there were two dozen or so children were actively engaged.  Some were playing together; others were being tutored in their reading center.  One of the Blue Dragon’s main goals is to get children back into school and they provide remedial help to get children back to grade level so they can resume their schooling.  Each child involved in the center has an individual plan.  Those without parents (or runaways, which is becoming more of a problem) are housed in a shelter, while others they attempt to reunite with their parents or extended family members.  Although the trafficking of children for the sex trade is not as serious of a problem in Vietnam as in neighboring countries, children are trafficked for work and the Blue Dragon also works to secure the release of such child laborers. 
After visiting the Blue Dragon, I headed back to the guesthouse to pick up my backpack.   After saying goodbye, I hired a xe om to give me a lift to the Hanoi train station.  There, I had the first hot dog since leaving the United States, done only as it can be done in Vietnam (a grilled dog served in a French loaf and garnished with fresh cilantro, basil and mint leaves and a slathering of mustard.  Then I went into the “International Waiting Room,” where three of us waited in beautiful over-sized carved wood chairs (and terribly uncomfortable) for the train to Beijing.  That’s another story.