Monday, December 03, 2007

Portland Trip

I went to Portland for a three days this last weekend to visit Lindsey. She picked me up from the airport in the early afternoon and we went to lunch in a nice pub at Edgefield Manor outside of the city. It was pretty cold in the 30s with a drizzling rain.

View of the Columbia River Gorge
After lunch, we drove along the Old Highway to get to the Waterfalls in the Colombia River Gorge. It was very scenic as we drove past farms and through the temperate rain forest here in Oregon. As we gained a little altitude, it started to snow lightly. Before descending into the gorge, we pulled over at an impressive scenic overlook with a great view of the Columbia River in both directions despite the fog. We didn't stay long because the freezing wind was blowing hard at the top.

A cool little bridge on the Old Highway
The first waterfall we arrived at down in the gorge was the Latourell Falls. It was cool with the water plunging 249 feet past the intricate formations on the black rock of the cliff. A large patch of yellow lichen high up on the steep inverted face was a nice visual touch.

Noah looking up at Latourell Falls - 249 Feet
We then drove down to the less dramatic, but more beautiful Wahkeena Falls. The waters drops 242 feet across several tiers and then flows over moss-covered cobbles. We had a nice little hike up to the small stone bridge and tried to avoid the spray from the waterfall as the snow started to lightly fall again.

Wahkeena Falls - 242 Feet
Our last stop was at the second tallest waterfall in the United States at 620 feet, the Multnomah Falls. I am glad I saw this one last because it was the most impressive with the water taking a long plunge into a pool and then over a second drop right underneath the arched bridge.

Multnomah Falls - 620 Feet
After a short little hike past the bridge, we went inside the Lodge near the base of the falls for a cup of tea. It was quite nice sitting in front of a warm fire with views of the Columbia River.

Friday night, we went to see a movie at the Bagdad Theater. I have always wanted to go to one of those theaters that serves food and drinks to you at your seat, so it was pretty cool. I had the Captain Neon Burger with blue cheese and bacon and Lindsey had the Fish and Chips. We also had a pitcher of the Ruby Beer which had a nice raspberry flavor. Drinking alcohol while watching "Superbad" is a perfect combination.

Rainy Portland Street
Large snowflakes were falling from the sky on Saturday morning, but they had turned to rain by the time we went to breakfast and caught a train downtown. We walked over to Powell's Books, a huge bookstore the size of a city block, that is at least 5 stories tall. I was able to buy a few out-of-print books that I was missing from my bookcase at home.

Noah and Lindsey in Pioneer Square
Afterwards, we went over to the Beer Festival at Pioneer Courthouse Square to meet up with Kristen. It was very crowded inside with long lines to get to the kegs so we end up getting full mugs of beer instead of going for multiple tasting samples. Lindsey and Kristen chose "Bye-Bye Frost" which was extremely bitter and I got the "Organic Kentucky Christmas" which wasn't too bad. To escape from the crowd, we walked over to the Oliver Twist Pub down the street to have another drink and chat.

Long Lines to get Beer
We finished up our Saturday night by going to the Portland City Grill on the 30th floor of one of the city's towers. The fancy restaurant had great views of the river and the city. We found a nice table in the bar where we started off with some Pomegranate Martinis. Very tasty, but also very sticky. For dinner we had the Tomato-Pesto Ravioli & Butterfish. I was full, but I couldn't resist their specialty desert, Fresh Baked Cookies served with Ice Cream. Very Good!!!!

The weather turned stormy on Sunday with heavy winds. The rain was blowing sideways. My flight home was very turbulent.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Las Vegas Trip

I went to Las Vegas this week to meet up with my friends, Craig and Chris, who I met while traveling in Australia two years ago. Craig is South African but lives in New Zealand and Chris is from England. They had just flew down from Canada after spending time going across it by train to Vancouver. Our first night in Vegas we went to the new Cirque du Soleil show about the The Beatles called "Love" at The Mirage. It was the best live performance I have ever seen. It was a great mix of acrobatics and dancing. The countless ways the stage could transform was amazing.

Finale of the LOVE Cirque du Soleil show
We stayed at the Bellagio with a nice room facing the fountains. We could watch the water spraying to the music on a special fountain channel on our room TV. I had the best accommodations of the three of us, a sleeping bag on the floor. I wanted to go with Craig to Monument Valley with a flight over the Grand Canyon but the tour was sold out so Chris and I cruised through the hotels on the Strip. I am always the most impressed with Caesar's Palace. I won a big jackpot on the slots at Luxor! Too bad it was just the Penny Slots!! We hung out around the pools at Bellagio on Wednesday relaxing.

Luxurious accommodation at the Bellagio
I have always wanted to go to the Fremont Street Experience while in Vegas, but I have never had the chance in the past. Wednesday night, we took the monorail and a public bus to reach downtown and we got there right before the first show of the lighted ceiling. It was very impressive and the sound system was powerful. The street was full of street artists, musicians and performers. Watching a guy make colorful portraits with spray paint was pretty interesting but the coolest was a gymnast who would balance on a pole held between two strong-looking guys. She would be thrown up into the air, doing twists and turns before landing back on the pole with her feet and she never lost her balance. I liked the vibe here. Very relaxed.

The colorful ceiling of the Fremont Street Experience
The last time in Vegas when I went to the Stratosphere, we weren't able to go up to the top of the tower due to high winds. So it was nice to go up this time and see the whole city landscape at night. The Strip was brightly lit and colorful to look at from this height. We went on two of the rides at the top of the tower. The Big Shot which catapulted us straight up into the air and free-falls back down. I have been on this type of ride before but never up at 1,000 feet which makes it intense. We then went on the scariest ride I have ever been on in my life, the X-Scream. It sits on a pivoting track that tilts out over the side of the tower as you slide quickly down the rail about 30 feet before coming to a sudden stop. I don't know why I sat in the front row with Craig, hanging out over the city streets with just a lap restraint. My palms were sweating and my knees shaking as I got off of this one. It was worse than skydiving.

The scariest ride of my life - rocketing off the side of the Stratosphere Tower
Chris flew back to San Diego with me to stay at my house until he flew home to England on Sunday. Craig was on his way to Orlando before flying home. I showed Chris around town, Point Loma, La Jolla, Pacific Beach and down to the Gaslamp Quarter in Downtown where we had dinner and went inside the Haunted Hotel.

Running down the catapult line of the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier
On Saturday, Chris and I went down to the USS Midway in the San Diego Harbor and then over to Sea World. The audio tour of the USS Midway is very informative and the aircraft carrier is huge. I have been wanting to come visit it for a couple of years now. I always enjoy the shows at Sea World.

High leaping dolphin at Sea World

Monday, October 01, 2007

Camping in Erendira, Mexico

Suzie & Noah at taco stand outside of Ensenada
I went camping down in Mexico this weekend with Kurt, Dave, Joe & Suzie. We drove down Friday night to the town of Erendira in Baja California. It is a 4 hour drive from San Diego and about 60 miles south of Ensenada winding through the small mountains. We didn't get to Coyote Cal's until midnight but we stayed up til 3am drinking beers after we set up our tents.

Kurt, Dave, Joe & Suzie drinking Budweiser Select
Saturday morning, we drove south down the coastal dirt road to an ancient volcano vent where the lava had flowed into the ocean. There were nice tide pools and little waterfalls caused by the high tide pouring over the reef. In one narrow channel of the reef, waves were powering through and funneling up the beach. It was fun to watch the bigger set waves crash through. Further down the beach in the distance, we could see a large spout of water repeatedly shooting high in the air so we decided to go check it out.

Watching the waves crash through the volcanic reef
Goodbye Noah
In the middle of nowhere?
It was blowhole formed in the reef about 50 feet from the ocean. A warning spray of mist from the hole would be followed by an explosion of water of varying sizes between a waist-high gout of water to a pillar of spray high over our heads. It sprayed water at regular intervals and we could stand right next to it or jump over it. A group of dirt bikers came up to check out the blowhole and one got soaked as he was posing for a picture. The picture was pretty cool as it looked like a still from a Jerry Bruckheimer film of the hero trying to out jump an explosion right behind him.

The Blowhole Spraying
Kurt unafraid as Dave & Noah run from the Spray
Down the Blowhole
How long can we make Noah sit there?
We then drove north to Long Beach to go surfing. It is a nice sandy beach with lots of dunes but it was pretty windy. Kurt and Suzie took naps on the warm sand while Dave, Joe & I went out in the water. It was small but I caught a few long waves. The water is much colder down here because the warmer currents bypass this area and the colder water rises up from the ocean depths. Afterwards, we drove down to a secluded cove that blocked the wind to hang out for the rest of the day, eating sandwiches, tossing a Frisbee, and relaxing.

Dave, Joe & Noah going out surfing at Long Beach
Saturday night, Suzie made an amazing dinner at our campfire on the beach. She took pieces of chicken and vegetables and sealed them with a little white wine in aluminum foil packets. She set the packs directly on the hot coals for 30 minutes and they came out perfect and steaming. The chicken was very tender and the vegetables were delicious.

Dave on an empty Mexican beach
On Sunday, I stayed at the camp while the rest went out fishing on a boat. I would have liked to go, but I get seasick like crazy on those little boats bobbing out on the ocean. They caught a lot of fish while I hiked out to the rocky point full of pelicans and sea lions and then walked down the beach to check out the "Vortex". It is a natural formation of swirling concentric circles set in the stone face of the beach cliff.

The Vortex Overhang
The drive home in the afternoon was the only bummer of the trip. It started out with hearing the sports score updates for the Padres & Chargers while we drove north. The Padres had lost the last two games to force a one game playoff in order to clinch the Wild Card and the Chargers blew a 16-6 half time lead to lose the game against Kansas City. The border crossing wait is always a nuisance but our two cars got separated due to the heavy traffic. Dave and I were waved through to the main border crossing but Joe, Suzie & Kurt who were behind us got diverted by the Mexican Police to the Otay crossing. They ended up getting home 2 1/2 hours after we did.

Friday, August 31, 2007

China Trip - Final Part (Shanghai)

I arrived home from China today. I am really tired from being awake for over 30 hours but I am still on a high from the trip.

Boarding the MagLev Train
I woke up early on Friday morning to take the MagLev Train to Shanghai's Pudong Airport. The ride was very smooth and I loved how the whole train would sharply bank as it made it's turns. The trip took only 7 minutes 20 seconds to travel the 20 miles, reaching a top speed of 268 mph which makes it the fastest train in the world. The cool part is that every car has the time and the current speed of the train displayed, so I could tell how fast we were traveling. I nearly jumped out of my skin when the MagLev Train going the opposite direction blurred past my window with a loud roar. My camera finally died on me after taking a couple pictures of the train standing in the station. Bummer! I would have loved to get some shots of the landscape flying by.

The very commercial Nanjing Road in Shanghai
I had a good final two days in Shanghai. On Wednesday, we experienced a heavy thunderstorm in the morning but we took advantage of the bad weather to visit the Shanghai Museum. My favorite exhibit was the chronological history of porcelain "China" which this country invented and is so famous for. It was interesting to see the advances as the porcelain ceramics got thinner, more colorful and more intricately designed over the past 2000 years. The exhibit of ancient Chinese paintings was also fascinating. I really enjoyed the fine detail in the landscapes and paintings of trees, flowers and birds. They kept the painting exhibit hall very dimly lit, but motion sensors would light up each individual painting as you approached them. It was pretty cool.

Dragon in the Yu Yuan Gardens
When the rain died, we went to the Yu Yuan Gardens, the former private garden estate of a provincial governor in the 16th century. The landscaped vegetation was in a maze of walls, rock formations, fish ponds and old buildings. The early rain kept away the normally large crowds and gave the intricately designed cobbled paths a clean sheen. After going for a walk through a Hutong area of Shanghai after lunch, we decided to relax and go to the movies. We ended up seeing the new Harry Potter movie in 3D at an IMAX theater. (It was in English with Chinese subtitles.) It was my first time seeing a 3D movie. It was very impressive during the magical showdown with Lord Voldemort.

Surfing the Canal
Our last day, we went to the village of Zhujiajiao, the Venice of Shanghai. The white buildings with their black roofs and all the distinctive stone bridges spanning the canals were built during the last two Chinese dynasties. We went to a nice restaurant called "1121" in the French Concession section of the city for our final dinner together in China. I liked the way they served the tea. The waiter sent a foot long stream of hot water swirling into our cups from a tea pot with a long narrow spout. He had very good aim. The Lemon Chicken was delicious.

I love Broccoli
p.s. It is really hard to window shop in China, they are the masters of the high pressure sales technique. You have to keep up a fast pace and not let your gaze linger too long on any item if you don't want to get cornered.

A Map of China on the River Boat that displays Ads
p.s.s. On my way home to Leucadia from LAX Airport, I saw an V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft hovering low over the I-5 freeway in Camp Pendleton. It is one of the Marines' new planes that can turn it's propellers up to fly like a helicopter. It looked pretty cool.

Monday, August 27, 2007

China Trip - Part 3 (Li River & Shanghai)

I flew into Shanghai this afternoon after spending two days in beautiful Guilin. Yesterday, we took a four hour boat ride down the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo. The area is famous for it's thousands of limestone karsts. They are the steep, tree-covered pinnacles that are seen so often in paintings and films of the Chinese countryside.

Bamboo raft on the Li River
The Li River was very beautiful. It was surrounded on both sides by the karsts that jut up to 1,000 feet high and the river was filled with water buffalo and fisherman on their narrow bamboo rafts. I could see the cormorants (the water birds they train to catch fish) perched on the boats waiting to be taken out by the fishermen at sundown. The birds wear metal rings on their throats so they don't swallow the fish.

Kids shouting Ni Hao as they ride past me
The highlight of my trip so far is the bike ride once we reached Yangshuo. Within ten minutes of riding, we were out peddling through small villages and rice paddies as the sun set over the limestone peaks. (I took some great pictures.) We got caught in a hard pouring thunderstorm near the end of the ride back. We watched the lightening under an awning until the rain died down enough to venture back outside.

Standing on a bridge amid rice paddies watching a man gut a chicken in the canal below me
After dinner, we went to a light, dance and music show called "Impressions" that uses the natural environment as it's stage. The show had a cast of at least 500 with singers and boatman going back and forth across the river with the karsts brilliantly lit up in the background by intense spotlights. As we watched it, we commented on how much it look liked the type of cultural performance seen at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of an Olympic Games. It turns out, the show was created by the Chinese director of "Hero" and "Raise The Red Lantern" who is also doing the Opening Ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Soaked from being caught in a downpour in Yang Shuo
My first day in Guilin, I went to one of the caves that are inside the karsts. The Reed Flute Cave was big and all lit up inside to show off all the the strange formations. It was fascinating but I prefer my caves a little dark and spooky. It was nice and cool inside though compared to the blazing heat outside. We ended the day by going to a cooking school in Yangshuo. We started off at the local farmer's market where they had all the fresh vegetables, spices and live animals and fish available. (We bought the fish we were going to cook for dinner out of a little pool.) There was a couple of skinned DOGS hanging from hooks but I didn't see any live dogs in cages. I don't think I could of handled that. We cooked our meals out on a farm and they turned out great. We had a local teacher from the area.

Showing us how to cook with a Wok
Today, we walked around Shanghai for a bit along the Huangpu River and then went to a fancy dinner at the top of the Jin Mao Tower. It is the 4th highest building in the world. It had great views of the city and is right next to the almost completed skyscraper that is in a race with the one in Dubai to be the next tallest. The bar at the center of the 55th floor was amazing. The ceiling goes all the way up the interior of the final 30+ floors to the top of the tower. It is dizzying to look at for too long.

The amazing ceiling in the Jin Mao Tower
I have two more days here in Shanghai. The traffic seems to be much worse here, but the sky is much cleaner than Beijing. I can really feel the European touch in the city's architecture compared to the other Chinese cities I have visited. I am going to take the recently built MagLev Train from the city out to the airport on Friday. It uses magnetic levitation to hover over the train track and it supposed to be super fast.

A traffic jam of barges against the skyline of Shanghai
p.s. There was a festival to celebrate the ancestors while we were in Yahgshuo. All the families were buying live chickens at the market that they cook to celebrate and we could hear the loud firecrackers they were setting off all night.

Choatic Intersection in Shanghai
p.s.s. Our bus driver on the way back to Guilin on our first night seemed especially suicidal. There wasn't a corner too blind for him to attempt to pass slower vehicles.

Biking over a wooden bridge into a small village
p.s.s.s We had a good laugh when we drove by a bank in the morning. All the tellers were exercising in the lobby before they opened. They were shaking their butts at the glass as we went past on the street in Guilin. I think they would have a hard time convincing us lazy-assed Americans to exercise at work in the morning.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

China Trip - Part 2 (Beijing & Xian)

Well, I ate a scorpion. With the stinger still attached!!

Noah eating a Scorpion in Beijing
I bought a skewer with three scorpions on it at an outdoor market in Beijing. There were about 100 stalls lined down the street with every kind of exotic food or animal part displayed. 99% of the customers were Chinese people and the rest were foreigners looking but not really buying. A few of the stalls had insects like scorpions, silkworms, grasshoppers and what looked like cockroaches.

Food Stall with Insects
I thought I was only going to buy the scorpions so I could pretend to eat it for a photo, but I was dared by the group and encouraged by the Chinese people around me who were taking pictures and watching to see if I would like it. After a few moments of staring at it, I finally bit down on it. It actually tasted just like popcorn cooked in oil. It was crunchy, but surprisingly good and it went down easy.

A busy alley off of Wang Fu Jing Street
I am traveling with a small group of four people, Kristin and Kathleen from Chicago, Suzanne from Toronto and myself. Our tour guide, Augusto, is from Peru. He has only been in China a little while and doesn't speak the language, but he is very good. He knows all the best places to eat and fun things to do. After my scorpion episode, we met up with another guide who is friend of Augusto's, Sam from Belgium. He is in Beijing running tours up into Tibet and then over to the Base Camp at Everest. He took us to an ex-pat bar in the city called "The Poachers" that is hidden away down several alleys. The beer was cheap and we had a good time.

Waiting at a busy Beijing intersection
My bicycle ride through Beijing and into the Hutongs where a quarter of the city's population lives the next morning was great. It was a fun way to see the city. The sky was a little clearer and riding kept us cool. I am glad that I tried riding after waiting for a few days and observing how the local bike riders handled riding in this chaotic but fluid traffic. The trick is to ignore the cars and they will avoid you. (Except the buses!) The hardest part was avoiding the pedestrians who ignore the bicyclists.

Ancient Brothel in Beijing Hutongs
The interesting part of the bike tour was the transition from biking down modern busy avenues and turning into narrow alleys and feeling like I was stepping back 100 years. The alleys in the Hutongs are very narrow and the homes are handed down from generation to generation. The people who live there have to deal with very primitive conditions (including having to use the public toilets because they have no bathrooms) but they don't want to move to cheaper apartment buildings with more amenities because their homes in the Hutongs are more valuable. Around every corner there was a little old lady wearing a red arm band. They are the lowest rung of government officials, acting as a sort of neighborhood watch against thieves and the person who neighbors can report their problems too.

Noah in courtyard of Beijing Hutong
We decided to go visit the athletic facilities being built for the Summer Olympics next year. The main Olympic Park was a dirty construction site but it contains the nearly complete Olympic Stadium which looks like a giant steel bird's nest. It was pretty impressive. We could see workers walking all over the top. The swimming facility next to it looks like a collection of blue plastic bubbles in the shape of a square. A giant seven-star hotel complex rising up along side the park will give great views but I doubt anyone but VIPs and millionaires will be staying there during the Games. It is a great contrast with the flimsy-looking barracks filled with bunk beds for the workers built all over the construction site.

2008 Olympic Stadium under Construction
Thursday night we took a night train to Xian. The train station was very busy, but we had a nice sleeper car. We arrived in the morning and visited the Bell and Drum Towers. Xian is the former capital of ancient China and was the starting point for the Silk Road. We wandered down the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter and had a great lunch of lamb and beef skewers with some kind of fried flat bread. The spices they used were excellent. We visited the Great Mosque in the Quarter which was busy because of the faithful coming for pray on Friday. We also went for a bike ride around Xian on top of the old city walls that encircle it.

Friday Prayers at the Great Mosque
Last night after a delicious dumpling dinner, we went to the Giant Goose Pagoda where they have a light & water show every summer night in the square. The fountains are bigger than three football fields and the place was packed. Augusto and I took our swimsuits and we ran around in the fountains with everybody else during the show getting soaked. There is a group of officers marching around the fountains that Augusto calls the "Water Police" who make sure everyone is following the rules. It is something to get reprimanded for standing on top of a bench by a stern female officer who looks like a supermodel in a hot pink uniform with a skirt and high heeled boots. The male officers wore what looked like white sailor uniforms.

Crowds around the fountains of the Giant Goose Pagoda
Today we went to see the Terracotta Warriors on the outskirts of town. We learned that the Terracotta Warriors were buried outside the tomb of the first Chinese Emperor who united the seven kingdoms into the country of China. He was also the Emperor who started building the Great Wall. His actual tomb is still buried and untouched because of the poisonous levels of mercury in the ground around it. The Warriors were impressive and the farmer who discovered them in the 70's was there signing books. On the drive back to town we ate some white pomegranates that the driver picked fresh for us from the surrounding groves. Very Sweet. Our guide opened them up with a gigantic "Crocodile Dundee" knife she pulled out of the glove compartment.

Inside the giant hanger sheltering the excavation pit
Before coming to the Internet cafe tonight, I went to get a massage at a place called "Big Feet Ancestor" that Augusto recommended. It was a really nice place. After all the walking around, the foot massage was great. The Internet cafes here are harder to find than in Europe but they are very cheap. Only 3 yuan (40 cents) an hour and I didn't notice much effect from the "Great Firewall of China" except that I couldn't access Google News and international sites loaded slower. I can now recognize a Chinese character, a box with two X's in it means the Internet.

Cook in the Muslim Quarter
Tomorrow we fly to Guilin in the south of the country. It is considered to be the most beautiful area of China.

View down main boulevard of Xian towards the North Gate of the City Wall
p.s. I sometimes forget that this is a communist country because it is so capitalistic here. There is the occasional reminder when we are told not to photograph on certain government streets or the police in the green uniforms.

Noah biking on Xian City Wall
p.s.s. I am digging Chinese TV commercials & music videos on the "V" channel. Love songs seem to be the popular choice right now. I have a music video by a Jacky Cheung stuck in my head now. There are allot of commercials telling the residents of the Beijing not to spit on the ground and espousing the virtues of being friendly.

Dumpling Dinner
p.s.s.s. I had the best pork dumpling at a little shop on our bike tour. A new favorite dish is the candied potato wedges. Tastes better than it sounds.