In August 2007, I went back to China for the first time in almost 14 years to see family and travel through the vast country. In just under three weeks, we made a circuit that took us from Beijing to my hometown of Changchun, then to Shenyang, Kunming in the west, through Yunan and back over from Tianjin. The following are highlights.
I’m not totally sure what is in store for us at the hamam, although Deniz’s warnings that we should tell them that we want to go separate unless we want to be washed in front of men. I had looked nervously at An-an. I’m not totally pleased to be completely naked..
We decide at the last minute to bring swimsuits… a decision that proves fruitful because when we arrive, they tell us that we must be bathed unisex.
Separate?? An-an asks.
No, the woman’s side is being restored, he says.
Go to sauna—prices are 2 TYL for a minute (not the best price), but we are still shivering from day’s ordeal, and we are eager to sit in this warm, steamy place and have our faces painted with mud.
As soon as we are somewhat settled in the center of the hamam’s center room, a group of Spanish people come through, and I start to feel claustrophobic. We all sit and wait patiently to get bathed, around in a circle, not paying attention to one another, yet unable to not pay attention to one-another.
An attendant comes to scrub me, and it’s a weird sensation to have someone else wash me. I lay down the warm marble to get bubbled.
Go shower, she commands when she is done. Then for a swim.
The pool is small and slightly warm. I want to be in it before the Spanish crew come to ruin the silence. We dip our heads back to drown any sounds.
After 20 minutes, the Spanish crew starts to trickle in. The change in sound is apparent as the pool soon becomes an echo chamber. We quickly leave the area to lie in some lawn chairs with apple tea.
Still in pain from skiing mishap, I tell An that I will get a massage. She hesitates at first then gets one with me.
15 minutes, I say to the man with the large belly who asks me if it’s ok that a man massages me
Yes, I say, but I like a lot of pressure.
He sends another man who takes massage oil from a glass pitcher before going to work, awakening muscles I wasn’t quite sure I knew I had. It’s worth the 2 liras per minute.
We lie for a bit afterwards, and I feel a little strange that there are mirrors on top of the tables.
Because we’ve waited for so long, the Spanish girls are all in the locker room getting dressed when we get in. It is already 7 p.m., although I’m secretly happy because we’ll miss the transport to the special “Turkish night” the pansion had tried so hard to sell us. They’d told us to come back at 7:30 and I’m just tired of people trying to sell me things left and right.
No such luck, though, because halfway through getting ready, our hostel friend shows up and sends an attendant into the locker room to get us. Uhh, your friend. Your friend, she tells us.
I step outside seeing him shyly waiting. I’m not sure why An-an didn’t kiss him; he is tall and cute. I find out later he is only 18.
We are out of the hamam in a flash and getting back into the van with a half dozen other tourists. We can’t quite figure out if they are heading out to the lights festival or going right back to the hostel.
Hostel? Hostel? We ask.
They kind of nod but we’re unclear.
Turning, we ask the others if they’re going to the hostel.
No, I think we’re going directly to the place.
What the *(#$, I whisper to An-an. I feel like they’re tricking us into going to the place.
No, no, we’ll walk, we declare.
But it’s cold, our drivers protest, pointing to our feet, noting the flip flops.
No, no we’re fine. We’re going to walk, we insist. We’ve already made this journey several times today and know from our position, it’s a mere five blocks back to the hostel. We don’t want to get tricked into paying for the touristy whirring festival that we had no desire to go see. We’ve already decided that it’s much more worthwhile to grab a proper dinner with wine.
An-an and I hop out of the van—much to their dismay—feeling only slightly bad that the others in the van have likely been waiting for us as we took our sweet time at the hamam.
I stop by a corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes. The guy charges me 7 TYL and I don’t know if he’s ripping me off a bit, or if that’s the cost. I can clearly see that other packs cost significantly less, but what can you do about a gringo tax.
There is an army man that walks in to look at some goods while we are around. I don’t take much notice—army guys usually make me feel very safe—but when we leave the store, he follows us.
I whisper to An-an in Chinese and we collectively decide to duck inside the little patisserie before moving on, just to wait him out. We feel significantly more nervous when another store clerk, adjacent to the patisserie looks inside the window at us.
We order something flaky and Turkish, filled with nuts and covered in honey for one lira. The store clerk here recommends a few places for us to have dinner, and I whisper to An-an in Chinese that we should check out their recommendations but be cognizant that they may not be the best places. In fact, the guy may get a commission for bringing us. I am even more apprehensive when he offers to walk us there.
No use, however, because the restaurant he recommends is closed for renovations, but he does suggest instead a pizza place down the street.
We know what we’re looking for—some place cozy with a nice ambiance. Yet, as we wander up the street, there is closed storefront after closed storefront and brightly lit restaurants with cheap furniture. We stop at a pizza place to check out the menu. It’s ok, we decide, but we’re stuck on going to somewhere nice.
We head back to the hostel to prepare, when our kind hostel owner tells us we should check out Nostalji, a truly authentic experience that is out of someone’s home. I will walk you, he says. It looks like it’s far, but it’s not really.
We get ready for dinner, putting on clothes that in retrospect was really not necessary, because after a long and roundabout walk up to the restaurant—past a view that must be breathtaking when it is sunny outside—we arrive at a grand house with a restaurant attached. Inside, there are only 4 tables and we are the only ones there.
A young Turkish boy walks through the door to offer us a small menu. He looks about 15, with the bright blue eyes and dark hair that we keep seeing.
He’s sooo cute An-an coos.
We order a prix-fixe menu, a couple of other traditional food items and a bottle of wine, since the region is apparently “famous” for them. I wonder if it’s like how Fes is “famous” for its leather.
We want a spicy wine, full-bodied, we try to say. He smiles politely but has no idea what we’re saying.
Ok, wait, wait, there are descriptions, so we settle for the local wine that is described as blackberries and spicy. That sounds about up our alley. We also try to order the home-made wine but are told it’s not quite ready.
Halfway through dinner, the father, who had greeted us when we first walked in, sits with two friends at the adjacent table. We feel cozy
The son drives us home. How old are you? 19.
Back at the hostel, we ask about bus schedules.
We can look tomorrow, the staff brushes me off. I had wanted to look tonight so we could plan for tomorrow, but it seems the staff is enjoying wine with one another, so I don’t want to intrude.
When I go upstairs to the room, I’m disappointed that for An-an’s first hostel experience, our roommates are already sleeping. I don’t want to hang out with the Turkish guys downstairs. After the day, I’m a little apprehensive about their aggressiveness.
But just when I think all is over, the guy in the next bed rolls out of bed and whispers to the girl “GOOD NIGHT.” Then, she is suddenly up, and we are laughing for the next two hours about Brazil’s sex motels, cultural differences, getting mugged in different countries and “the look”.
The Brazilian guy whose name is Jean tries to go downstairs for a wine bottle opener and runs smack into the guy who bought me the wine earlier in the day. He is angry and makes gestures at me in the doorway. I refuse to look at him directly and pretend that I have no idea what he’s talking about. Mostly, I don’t know what he’s talking about anyway.
An-an tells me she spent half an hour waking me up. I have no recollection. We hastily pack our things and jump into the cab t go to the airport. It’s a slightly hazy day, and we’re still woozy from the night before.
I am concerned about timing but when we arrive at the airport, we realize the flight is at 9:50, not 9. We chill, feeling mostly miserable until it’s time to board and sleep.
Cappadocia is warm, a balmy 60 degrees and sunny when we land. The terrain is certainly different, not quite mountainous but rocky and hilly. A warm breeze blows past us.
I’m still not feeling altogether stellar, but we find our way to the tiny Nevsehir airport, and sure enough, on the other side of a short conveyer belt spitting out suitcases, there is a Turkish man holding a sign that reads “Lisa Xia”. It’s so smooth I can hardly believe it.
Expecting a full load, I am surprised to board the shuttle and find that it is only An-an and I and one other Japanese man. If you asked me again in 24 hours, I would tell you that I thought the only people who visited Cappadocia were Asian tourists.
The drive is a short 25 minutes, and we are captivated by the door and window openings on the stones outside that signify that these rocks are indeed homes. Whizzing by small towns along the way, we try to snap pictures of caves flashing by, convincing the driver to stop only once so we can snap up some more. We knew what we would be expecting to see, but it’s still rather unreal when you see it. It’s unlike any terrain I’ve witnessed.
The town of Goreme is quaint and cute, a long cobblestone main road that leaves us right at the door of Rock Valley. I knew it wasn’t exactly a cave—it isn’t at all—but the “Pansion” [did they all just spell it wrong collectively?] looks cozy. An-an has never stayed in a hostel before and I had warned her ahead of time we would be roughing it. I am secretly nervous that she’ll be grossed out by the dorm room. If you feel uncomfortable, we can switch and upgrade, I say.
The reception is manned by multiple Turkisk men, with others relaxing in the den sipping on apple tea. It’s hard to tell who works here, who’s just hanging out and who’s a tourist. There is a tall Turkish boy sitting behind the desk, clacking away on his Facebook. “Ummm.. checking in?”
An older man greets us, with a charming smile that’s just slightly toothy. The interspersed grey hairs give away his age. I think he’s about 50 perhaps.
Welcome girls, he says, and gives us the key to room 5.
Can we do ATVs, I ask rather quickly. We had seen a line of them rolling in, and conjuring up images of Costa Rica, I instantly want in.
Yes, he says. I will make a call. There is a tour that leaves maybe at 2:45; it is 45 liras. You go for about two hours.
I glance at the clock quickly. Ok perfect. We’ll settle in, maybe walk around a little bit and we’ll come back.
Ok, he says. 2:45.
Yea, yea, it’ll be fine.
We lug our suitcases up a rickety flight of stairs that almost reminds me of a ladder more so than stairs.
I’m afraid to think about you and these stairs when you’re drunk, An-an tells me.
There is no one in our room when we go in. It’s cozy, stacked with six single beds. I’m secretly happy that for her first hostel experience, these aren’t bunk beds.
It’s 2:25 by the time we set ourselves ready to check out the town. We’ll be back, we yell to the reception. We’re just going to walk around.
Are you sure?
I think they’re surprised that we don’t want to sit and relax. Americans are always in such a hurry; it doesn’t make sense sometimes in Arabic countries—or otherwise—when people really appreciate the time to breathe.
It’s a little cold when we step foot outside, but certainly not the 32 degrees we had expected it to be (that weather.com had suggested). The streets are rather quiet, some of the storefronts closed or dark. An occasional old man walks slowly, white hair tucked under a biker’s cap, hands curled behind a hunched back. It’s an image out of a photo book.
The road slants down slightly, and we balance on the chunky square stones, snapping photos of the houses. There is small playground in the middle of the street, paint chipping in a hideous shade of pink. Yet the draw of the swing set is such that we both stop to strike a pose.
Walking past the store fronts, there are displays of jewelry and headdresses. I try one on for fun, wrapping the sides around my head.
How much? I ask the store owner.
10 liras, he replies.
No, no, too expensive, I say. Not that 10 liras is all that much, but I do feel like he’s ripping me off and I really have no interest in buying this hat.
An-an is looking for an evil eye piece of jewelry, so we walk into another store front further down the line where the owner brings out his array of silver rings. He offers us apple tea—like Morocco and their mint tea.
An-an tries on six or seven rings while the owner inquires into where we are from and if we are students.
No, I work in consulting, An-an says.
I know that she wants to dispel the notion that we are young students by affirming her prestigious role in corporate America—she wants this store owner to be impressed—but I want to kick her. Surely now knowing that we had jobs, our faces as young students would instantly turn into dollar signs in the eye of the shop owner. We had money, and he knew it.
How much is this one, she asks.
Placing the ring onto an electronic scale and taking out the calculator—as if it were some sort of science–he announces grandiosely: 180 liras. Special price for Chicago girls.
Fortunately we have Chinese on our side.
It’s very expensive, An-an whispers to me. I didn’t think it would be that much.
He thinks you have money, it’s over, I say.
That’s expensive, she says to him. Can it be lower?
It’s not just the silver and materials you pay for, he says. You know. It is the design that is very special. Each one is made by hand, and the money is for the designer.
I roll my eyes. $100 for sterling silver ring with CZ and glass stuck to it with cheap glue.
Ok, well we’re going to go to an ATM and look around some more. We may be back, I say.
Ok girls, he says, smiling warmly with hospitality. I can’t figure out if he’s being genuine or how much one of those things should be.
Looking down at my phone, I’m instantly aware that it’s 2:41. Shit, we gotta go back, I say to An-an. We hastily leave the store and start again uphill back to the pansion. Halfway up we get moderately disoriented only to find the pink playground again.
The guy is there waiting for us with a car to drive us to the ATV place. Great, we say, hopping in, only to find that the car drives us right back to where we started walking from—four blocks away.
There is a string of ATVs waiting for us and after paying a short Turkish man with piercing blue eyes and a scraggly beard, we join the 4 other Asian tourists (and 2 Turkish girls) onto the ATVs. Two guys from our hostel are coming as well and I’m reminded of the stories of Moroccan men who try to charm their way into foreign women’s lives in efforts to get married and be rescued from the country. What has become of me and my suspicion?
The ride is cool at first. Fortunately, unlike the ATVs in CR, these do not have manual gears to kick. Hit this to accelerate, and use the left hand for back brake, right hand for front brake, the guy on the motorcycle tells us. Easy.
Then we’re on our own, across the gravel roads, onto the dirt roads. We make three pit stops to take photos of the landscape along the way. Our guides point out the Red Valley, Love’s Valley, and small towns that dot the road.
Climbing atop a land rock structure, we make note that some of the cave formations resemble circumcised male genitalia.
They look like wieners, I say.
Following our third stop on the ATVs, at a small, lone picnic table sitting at the edge of a valley looking down, we begin to feel the droplets of rain.
The light pitter of water soon grows stronger and the wind begins to pick up.
Shit, I really think it’s raining. It’s really cold.
We all feel a bit battered and one of our guides moves to turn our ATVs around to head for home. I pop my helmet on and hop onto to the machine. I am wearing the sweatshirt of one of our guides, and I can feel the water start to seep through the cloth.
Oh shit shit shit.
My engine goes with a start, and as we start our way down the hill, the freezing rain begins to pelt down. Rain spitting down onto my ungloved hands, wind whipping at my knuckles, I am in hell.
As we pick up speed, I notice looking back that part of our party is missing. It’s no use now turning back because our train of four ATVs are speeding on forward, and there is no possibility that I’ll actually have anything to benefit by turning back.
By now, my hands are so cold that I have jammed them as little balled fists into the sleeves of my sweatshirt. I am pushing the accelerator with my fist with no immediate access t to the brakes. I just hope there won’t be an occasion to need to brake.
The rain feels like knives now, penetrating into my thin sweatpants. I can feel every droplet ripping at my skin, and I wonder how long it would be before I could potentially damage my skin permanently. I hunch over, folding my body, trying to use my torso to protect my legs from further onslaught. It kind of works.
Looking out at the road, my helmet is so fogged up that I can’t quite tell where I’m going. But, if the alternative is having freezing rain whipping at my face, I’d rather have partial vision.
We only stop once on the road back to wait for the other crew. I’m almost angry that we’re waiting and freezing. The Turkish guide jumps off his ATV and runs to me, rubbing my hands in his and giving me a slight hand and back massage. I’m a little skeeved—his rubbing on my hands actually is more painful than it is warming—and the back massage reminds me of Nour.
It’s a straight shot afterwards back to the ATV rental place. As we turn the corner, I can see Goreme down the valley at a distance almost too far for comfort. Knowing that we still have such a distance to go and feeling as cold as I do, there is a fleeting moment when I think that I won’t be able to make it.
When we’re finally back at the ATV rental shop, I hop inside to warm myself by the stove. Shivering, my dude hands me a cigarette. I really don’t want to smoke it but I don’t want to be rude, so I take it.
The Turk with the bright blue eyes chats to me about Erciyes.
We’re trying to go tomorrow, I say, but we’re not sure yet how we’re going to get there.
He re-confirms my notion that we’ll need to take a bus to Kayseri, and then from Kayseri take a dolmus to Mt. Erciyes.
It’s different for me, he says, because you know, when I go, I take my private transport. In fact, I was just there three days ago.
Oh yea, and it’s good?
He smiles. It’s good.
I’m itching to have a glass of wine and perhaps get out of my wet clothes. I’m comfortable, albeit a bit tired.
My dude tells me he’s going to take me back to Rock Valley.
No I’d rather just wait here for An-an to come back, I say.
No, blue eyes tells me, I just got a SMS. They had to stop to seek shelter. They found a cave or something. When they come back, they’ll go straight to Rock Valley. I wonder if they are trying to separate us on purpose.
When’s the storm going to stop? I ask.
I don’t know, do you want me to ask God?
Yes, I say, can you please send him an SMS?
Haha yes, he says, picking up his phone. It rings.
Is it God calling?
My dude gestures for me to go back to Rock Valley and so I hesitantly get up to go. Outside, it is still raining, and I don’t know why he feels compelled to take me. He’s not doing me any favors; I’d rather stay in the warm tour office until the rain stops.
He’s got his mind made, although he stops to pick me up a bottle of wine, gesturing something about 7:30 and making drinking gestures. I’m very confused, although receiving gifts feels like an invest to me—something he feels he can put in first to swindle more out of me later. I’m not sure what the situation is, and I certainly can’t understand him. He makes “sh!” gestures at me and again with the bottle of wine.
Once back, I try to relax. I don’t even have the strength in me to peel off my wet pants.
Deniz, the woman who I had been emailing with, introduces herself. She is a jovial woman, in her forties or fifties perhaps, who exudes a very motherly and warm disposition.
It’s always so nice to put a face the name, she says. How are you enjoying Goreme?
It’s lovely, I saym although a bit cold. She helps explain the lay of the land.
An-an comes into the room 20 minutes later, make-up dripping, looking cold. Can we hamam?now?
Deniz lets out a hearty laugh.
Can we hamam now? I love it.
She leaves to get us vouchers. I can’t tell if she’s friendly to be friendly or if she’s getting a cut. Maybe something in between both.
Things got off a little slower than expected; I guess that’s to be expected.Because Ilan (a guy I’ve conversed with over asmallworld) texts me and warns me about Istanbul taffiic, we decide to take the Metro into town. It’s convenient, and gauging by the map, we need to get off somewhere by the end of the T1 line to get to the W Hotel.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the booth is only in Turkish, but we fondle around a minute with the machine to figure out how to buy three tokens at 1.75 lira per token, as the Turkey Travel Planner suggests.
The light rail gets busy then empties—a woman actually tells us we need to get off at Kabasi because it’s the end of the line. We pass the Hagia Sofia and landmarks in the old town, as well as so many kebab places lining the streets that my mouth waters. I cannot wait to come back to Istanbul and stay in the Old Town. Street food has my name on it.
When we get off, we quickly flag down a cab who wastes no time ripping us off. We pay 50 lira to go essentially to go a distance that should have been five blocks. I kick myself for not being more diligent. I’m sure in an effort to swindle us again, the driver leaves us his phone number. The hotel advises us to call him and bring him back and they’ll deal with it when he actually arrives. An-an tries, but we ultimately give up. Unworthy effort.
An-an’s Starwood points get us upgraded at the W, into a 2-bed suite that we never actually sleep in. The room is trendy, with a small outdor courtyard and rosy lighting. I warn her that this is much, much nicer than anywhere else we’ll stay during the trip.
Can you rough it, I ask. I’m actually concerned.
Yea, she says. I’m laid back and down. I’ve just never done it before.
Idris, an asw contact advises us to go to Bebek Balikcisi for dinner instead of Poseiden, and since Gohkan (another asw contact) had advised Poseiden would likely cost us 100 euros a person, we decide Bebek Balikcisi is the good call.
I am slightly disappointed by the emptiness when we walk in but quickly realize that most of the patrons are sitting in the back at the tables along the Bosphorus, shielded by glass. We are ecstatic when they show us a table right alongiside the river. It’s so beautiful and mesmerizing, I can’t help but to smile. I even forget that the taxi only cost us 17 lira—and we were in the taxi for much longer going to Bebek than it should have taken. For what it’s worth, at least we’re comfortable with the metro now.
The guys at the table next to us are smoking sweet smelling cigars, and not missing a beat, An-an asks what they are puffing on. They don’t hesitate to offer us two of our own, saistsfying my urge to smoke.
A bottle of wine for 75 lira, an order of sea bass and grilled calamari with butter sauce leaves us happily satiated. Efem meets us at the restaurant—albeit briefly—and we head to Lucca, where an older dude based in D.C. buys us drinks.
Itching to club, we take a cab to Reina—much more our scene. We hang out with a group of guys wh turn out to be 20, At least they’re to hang out with for a drink, and we’re invited to hang out at the owner’s table for another.
Around 2:30, we feel like it’s time to head back to the W. The scene is dying, but someone gets us another round. Or maybe I’m already too drunk…
Although a group invites us to go to another diner, we decide to stay put, hanging ut with a guy who is also staying at the W. We order breakfast: a burger, pizza and salad, and watch Sex in the City 2 on-demand: a perfect end to the night.
I almost miss my connection in Frankfurt.
As the belligerent Indian guy from last night makes rounds of apologies for his actions during our descent to Frankfurt, I nervously change my computer to reflect the local time in Berlin. I secretly hope that when the minutes read 44, it is 10:44 locally, not 11:44. My connection is tight as is; if we’re up in the air at 11:44, it’s not a good sign.
Sorry man, the he says. I never drink and my buddy was making drinks last night. I heard I was bad. Was I really bad?
He asks the stewardess for an Advil, and I quickly hand over one of my Edelman-provided packs of two.
Yeah, you were belligerent, I tell him, but no worries.
When the voice comes over the intercom announcing that the local time is 12:20, I glance down at my blackberry, which I have again set to the global setting. It reaches the 3G network without much delay, and I’m pleased to see that my emails are coming through.
Wrong, I think. It’s 12:30. That makes a big difference when your connection is at 12:50.
I hastily grab my things, remembering to grab my coat at the last minute—I have a habit of leaving coats places.
I pray that I don’t have t go through customs. If I do, there’s no way I’m going to make it.
I dash along in my 3-inch wedges, stopping briefly only to see that my flight departs out B24.
Following the clearly marked arrows (leave it to the Germans), I am relieved to I see I only have to clear security.
Come on, come on. I don’t even bother to remove my laptop or fluids. They TSA equivalent doesn’t seem to care.
In the Lufthansa hall, I run past the little deli I had asked An-an to meet me at. Three months ago, I had sat there with a glass of wine, thanking God that I had made it out of Morocco unscathed, en route to Berlin.
I head down the escalators toward the area marked B20-28.
24! 24! Where the fuck is it? Of course, I see B22 and B24 must be down another corridor. Of COURSE my terminal is at the furthest area possible.
I am clearly the last person to get on the flight.
No boarding pass, the gate attendant asked. She looks shocked.
No, I gasp. My flight…just landed… late… from Toronto. Can I get on?
With every bit of efficiency, she quickly prints the ticket. Please present it to my colleague, she points primly.
And then I am bumping my suitcase down the aisle. I try to look for An-an along the way; I haven’t heard from her since last night.
I don’t seem to see her but then again, I am rather in a rush. I dump myself down, relieved, only to find that I am sitting next to the loudest woman and child on the plane. I know I must be somewhat tired because the sound of her voice is like nails on a chalkboard—and equally as loud.
Shut up, I want to scream.
After a pitstop in Toronto that runs long, we are finally on our way to Frankfurt, where I am meeting An-an in route. I’m seriously hoping that the 55-minute connection point won’t be problem. I have a glass of wine in the airport—a snakebite from an Indian dude who is jovial with his Indian friend (“We just met tonight,” his friend tells me. “We’re both Indian, so we’re friends.”)
I roll onto the flight. The Air Canada agent was right—row 12. The bulkhead, is a better place to be. Stretching out after 2 mini-bottles of wine, I am out like a light.
Dar es Salaam
Tanga (with clients)
- Lake Manyara National Park
- Serengeti National Park
- Ngorongoro Crater
Gypsy Safari (Arusha National Park)
Dar es Salaam
In May 2010, we returned to China for one week to shoot scenes for Mulberry Child –a mortifying experience for someone who had just started a new job and had to ask her boss for a week of vacation after two weeks of employment.
The highlight of it all…. the menus!