”Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” It’s a basic precept taught to almost every American child, but how many know that the renowned “Golden Rule” originated with Confucius more than 2500 years ago?

And perhaps equally surprising to many Americans? What did not originate with him are the many proverbs and prognostications attributed to him through fortune cookies distributed in Chinese restaurants nationwide. Just as an aside, not a single fortune cookie exists in China. And needless to say, those who follow Confucius worldwide celebrate a philosophy that extends well beyond the Golden Rule. A recent visit to Qufu, Confucius’s hometown in Shandong Province, China, immersed me in his life, his teachings and his legacy in a very personal way.

First, a little background. Born Qiu Kong in 551 B.C. and raised by his poor, unwed single mother, Confucius early on immersed himself in studies and sought to distinguish himself by mastering the arts usually reserved to those of noble birth: riding chariots, archery, music, mathematics, calligraphy and the rituals of living well. These will become important later on in our story. Among the principles espoused by Confucius was an emphasis on loyalty, benevolence, wisdom, bravery, simplicity and a basic respect for others that stretched from family relationships to interpersonal ones to those between subjects and rulers. Though they seem like very basic ideas today, during feudal times they were revolutionary.

And throughout his life, he sought to convince local warlords and later emperors (mostly posthumously) that ruling in a just and fair way would reap greater loyalty among their subjects than the totalitarian methods most adopted at the time. He found very few takers. It is one of the many ironies of Confucius’s life that the very emperors whose practices he would have disavowed later came to pay great homage to him. Near the end of his life, he returned to Qufu disillusioned and depressed, where he continued to teach until he died poor and unrecognized at the age of 73. Although his students numbered around 3000, 72 of them became actual disciples, gathered his teachings into a book called the “Analects,” and continued to spread his word until be eventually became renowned as the “Sage of China.”
Traveling through the city of Qufu traces his life from birth to death and well beyond. Enroute to the Temple of Confucius, the second largest ancient building complex in China, we walked the streets where he played as child. A simple man who emphasized balance and harmony in all things, he probably would be appalled by all the souvenir stands lining both sides.

First built in 479 B.C., two years after his death, the temple started out as a small abode for his clothes, books, instruments, etc. and was expanded by every dynasty that followed until it reached 466 rooms by the mid-16th century. Every gate, sculpture and stile in some way celebrates his teachings or praises his thinking, whether a commemoration of harmony in relationships or benevolence or respect. Not to be outdone, every emperor in China’s history came to the temple and built a pavilion in his honor -– whether that of Confucius or the emperor himself is unclear.
Confucius was an only child but being the over-achiever that he was, there are now 120,000 descendants with the last name of Kong currently living in Qufu, population 600,000. Not much happens there that doesn’t involve a living relative. And historically, his relatives -– or more specifically, the oldest male descendant of each generation –- lived a life of ease that far surpassed that enjoyed by Confucius.

The Kong Family Mansion was originally built during the Song Dynasty over 1000 years ago and was first occupied by the oldest direct male descendant of the 46th generation. Displays throughout the mansion, which served as home for the Kong family for over 800 years, are reminiscent of his teachings: one illustrates his views on dispensing justice emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment; others display symbols of peace and happiness or warn against greed or disobeying laws.
One of my favorite rooms is the reception hall in which the 77th descendant, the last to live there, got married in 1937. Chiang Kai-Shek was supposed to host the festivities but unfortunately was arrested enroute by one of his opposing generals. One of the visible wedding presents is a sofa given the couple by American diplomat George Marshall, whose name later became synonymous with the post-WWll recovery plan. How fitting that men of political influence continued to honor Confucius throughout the centuries.

As renowned as the Kong family was and continues to be in life, so too are they honored in death. The family cemetery, which is more than 2500 years old, houses Confucius as well as 100,000 of his relatives. Since it’s the largest family graveyard in the world, presumably there will be room for the other 120,000 still wandering around Qufu.
In addition to the historically accurate representations of Confucius’s life –- and death — Six Arts City, an educational theme park, has been created to replicate the experience of Confucius teachings. Each art that Confucius mastered in his early years has its own exhibit area: archery, music, charioteering, calligraphy, ritual and mathematics. And although I felt it strange to have the high-minded philosophy of Confucius reduced to a theme park ride, still it is well-done for what it is. INSERT SIX ARTS EXHIBIT

In response to a query I made to Kong Xiang Sheng, a 75th-generation descendant and Director of Confucius’s Archive Museum, as to the pressure descendants feel based on the importance of their ancestry, he replied: “We all feel a sense of strict responsibility to follow a path of righteousness as much in our daily lives as possible, to set a good example for our families. A Kong family member would never disobey any laws because they would be banned from burial in the family cemetery.”
And as for those ubiquitous fortune cookies in America? Would Confucius be insulted by them? “Well,” surmised Kong, “although they may not be an accurate reflection of Confucianism, they are still a way to let people know about him as a dispenser of wisdom –- even if not originally in the form of fortune cookie quotes.” For more information about Qufu and other parts of Shandong Province, visit travelshandong.com.

I entered the Mandarin Oriental spa in Macau. There was a sharp pain in my shoulder as I arrived. Perhaps it was from carrying my heavy baggage all the way from San Francisco. The Cathay Pacific flight from SFO to Hong Kong and then the ferry from Hong Kong to Macau went quickly, and I slept for an amazing 7 hours. And now it was time to reward myself for the long trip.
The aroma as I entered the spa area was enough to tell me to put all stresses and concerns aside. The peaceful, inviting area beckoned to me to come further inside. So I did. And I was not disappointed. From the moment my shoes were exchanged for spa slippers at the Mandarin Oriental spa. I knew it was time to unwind

As I handed over those shoes, I felt I handed over a part of myself and was ready for the unloading of any burdens I might be carrying. The spa was warm and quiet, with just a hint of melody in the background and a soothing fragrance. It seemed as if I was the only one there.

I later found out that this is all deliberate. According to Sean O’Connor, Group Spa Manager – Design & Development, this is actually all part of the plan to make you THINK you’re the only one there. They call it “Guest Traffic Management” and it’s designed to make sure you don’t meet any other guests either before, or after, your treatment. The Mandarin Oriental realizes you may not want to feel embarrassed meeting a stranger when you’re somewhat vulnerable in nothing more than a spa robe, particularly with your hair down and tousled, no makeup on and your contact lenses stashed safely in your locker.

“I am very proud that we manage visitors to our spas,” says O’Connor. “You’ll very rarely meet another person, so you don’t have to feel naked behind a robe. We make you feel special–as if you’re the only person there–because, to us, you ARE the only person there–the only person there who matters at that time. That’s part of our management. We want to delight our customers always, and that level of detail is something nobody else has. The ambiance and the experiential aspect are second to none.”

And he’s right. After changing into a swimsuit, I checked out the Vitality Pool. There were three different places or seats here–one was a sit-up spot and the others were in the shape of 2 lounge chairs. Each had jets sending refreshing bubbles onto my body. Hmmm, I could have stayed there for a long time.

The Experience Shower had an energizing mist that descended over my body, and it would have provided cold water had I been brave enough to experience it. I wasn’t, though. I stuck with the Tropical Rain Shower option, it was all-too-soothing.

Then it was onto the massage experience. First the therapists led me into a warm, darkened room and washed my feet and my legs.The foot washing felt like something out of the Bible, and it was both unexpected and strangely welcome – I’d never had anyone wash my feet and legs before. The Foot Ritual is an honorific experience that forms part of the “Spa Journey” and harks back to Oriental heritage – of which Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group is so proud.

The treatment itself was nothing short of intoxicating. With its long, soothing strokes, the massage pressed into every one of my tired, aching muscles with firm, but gentle, determination. Every knot dissolved as the tension melted away under the expert kneading of my massage therapist.
The whole, indulgent, experience lasted longer than any treatment I’d ever had — an amazing 1 hr and 50 mins, yet it seemed to glide by as I fell effortlessly in and out of sleep.

If you need to feel relaxed then THIS is the place to go. The hardest part of my treatment in Macau’s Mandarin Oriental was getting off the table. I felt like the massage table and I had become one. Ah, bliss. The treatment table is custom made in America to MOHG specifications and is called the MO Experience Bed.
Be sure to choose whatever scent works best for you at the beginning of the massage treatment. I chose the citrus one for its refreshing aroma. And as for that pain in the shoulder? What pain? I woke up from what felt like the most relaxing spa treatment of a lifetime and the pain was, bewilderingly, gone.

The whole experience at the Mandarin Oriental in Macau quite simply puts the ahhhh back in spaaaaah.

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out what others have to say.

Vincent Rossemeier, a freelance journalist from the US, says: “For me, it was the most personalized spa treatment I have ever received. I thought the therapist really listened and customized treatment to points on my body that really needed attention.”

And Teresa Bergen, author of the book The Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide
(www.teresabergen.com) couldn’t agree more: “I had the Macanese Dragon
experience, which included a body scrub, foot bath, long massage, and time in the hot tub.

“All I can say is–beautiful facilities, great aromatic products, and Lisa–my therapist–had marvelous hands. My skin felt so soft afterwards!”

A massage like this is just what you need before, or after, a visit to some of Macau’s best sites–whether that be a visit to the old town with its UNESCO World Heritage Sites or to Macau’s newest attractions.
In the old town you’ll marvel at the ruins of St. Paul, the Na Cha Temple, the Macau Museum and the Senado Square, while the newest attractions in Macau include the Science Museum, the Macau Tower (where you can do the world’s highest bungee jump) and the Michael Jackson’s Gallery, where you can spot the famous Jackson glove.

And after you leave? That will no doubt leave you with a feeling you can’t quite describe. It’s something beyond longing, beyond nostalgia and can only be described as a niggling feeling that you can’t quite place.

In fact, what you’ll be experiencing is actually known as “saudade.” Macau tourism representative, Joao Rodrigues explains it thus: “Saudade has no direct English translation; no other language in the world has a word with such a meaning, making saudade a distinct mark of Portuguese culture.”

Simply put, Saudade is a feeling of wanting to go back. Macau and the Mandarin Oriental spa will both have that effect on you.

And the answer? That would be to book your return trip to Macau as soon as you can.

There really no other answer for it!

Photography by Yuri Krasov

For a spoiled Californian, softened by the temperate climate of San Francisco, Hong Kong can be too hot and humid, but it’s also cool, just like the City by the Bay. Behold a slow yellow boat cruising Victoria Harbour between Wan Chai and Kowloon, as bright as a flower against a hazy backdrop of Hong Kong hills and man-made structures.
The mirror-walled skyscrapers and high-rises create the most gorgeous cement jungle in the world, interspersed with public parks, ancient temples, and urban playgrounds. In the city of banks, international brands, and grand hotels, the governing system is conducive to economic prosperity, market competition, and bustling trade.
“I am cool,” states a subway ad for bottled water, and you can’t help but feel how cool the most visited city of Asia is, with its enormous crowds, mighty traffic, and busy streets. Rules of the road are reinforced in the form of gentle reminders, also in English, written right under your foot ready to step into the traffic: Look Left or Look Right, so you won’t get killed by a speeding bicyclist or a double-decker bus.
Tourists are encouraged to follow the rules everywhere. A wall of Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road bears several well-executed signs in red and gold, prohibiting smoking and photography, and warning about slippery floors, steps, and naked flame. One of the oldest historic buildings in Hong Kong is the Old Wan Chai Post Office on Queen’s Road. Opened in 1915, it stayed in operation until 1992 and currently serves as a resource center for the Environmental Protection Department.
This small white building, modestly decorated with architectural detailing, wraps around the street corner, and climbs up along the steep street, losing its first floor on the incline. On the back of the L-shaped structure, there is a staircase, a serene garden with a bench, and more architectural details. As a declared monument, the building is supplemented with a graphic sign, featuring an unshaven mug behind bars and bold and underlined words, “No pissing, no spitting is allowed.” The coolest and the longest in the world at 2624 feet and 8 inches, the Midlevel Escalator runs through the city like through a giant shopping mall in the north-south direction, passing a cool hangout district of SoHo with European restaurants, bars, and art galleries.
Across Victoria Harbour, in Kowloon, one of the coolest places is the Walled City Park, with trees and ponds, fountains and pagodas, a sculpture garden, an aviary, and a banyan grove. Big hotels, overlooking the water, are always welcoming for a short stop at one or another bar or lounge for a needed cool down and refreshment. An elegant tea service is appreciated by the tourists and locals alike.
After a day of exploring, a not-to-be-missed adventure is taking a vertically moving tram to the Peak Tower Sky Terrace. It offers the most amazing views of Victoria Harbour just in time for the nightly Symphony of Lights, the world’s largest permanent light and music show that plays out on the walls of more than 40 tallest buildings on both sides of the harbor. From the sea level, the show is best observed from Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade in Kowloon, on the southernmost tip of the peninsula.
While leaving Hong Kong, expect some more surprises at the Chek Lap Kok international airport built in 1998 on Lantau Island. This cool metallic sculpture looking like a giant drop of mercury is found in the departure area.
Plan your visit to Hong Kong at: www.discoverhongkong.com.

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I am but a simple country band director. Well, sort of…. Oxford, Mississippi is a small town in North Mississippi which just happens to be the home of the University of Mississippi. I direct the marching band at Ole Miss. One day last June, I received a call from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Houston, TX asking if I would agree to fly to Taiwan as part of an International Press Delegation to cover the opening ceremonies of the Chiayi City International Band Festival. Having never been to this exotic and beautiful country, I agreed.

After the thirteen-hour flight, we landed in Taipei and after a brief nap at the hotel, we were spirited off to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, an impressive, sprawling complex not only including memorial, but also the National Theatre and Concert Hall. From there we were treated to a visit to the Longshan Temple, perhaps the most classic example of a Buddhist Temple one can see. We then walked a block to the Huashi Night Market, a bustling sector of the city with vendor tents set up all along the streets and sidewalks, selling just about anything and everything one can imagine. The foods that were sold there were extremely exotic by US standards, and some not for the faint of heart!

The next day we were treated to a visit to one of the tallest structures on Earth- Taipei 101. When I looked at the itinerary, I thought this was going to be an instructional course, but of course I was mistaken. When we reached the viewing level (thanks to the world’s fastest elevator) we were greeted with a bird’s eye view of the sprawling city of Taipei, truly a breathtaking sight!

We then departed the hotel and boarded the so-called “bullet train” to travel to the city of Chiayi where the festival was held. Having heard about these high-speed trains but never seen one, I was impressed at the smooth ride at such high speeds and admired the countryside as we zipped through.
The next day was the opening ceremonies of the festival, which was held in conjunction with the WASBE (World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles) International Band Festival. The city of Chiayi went all out to promote this event. They completely shut down the larger downtown area and had erected a huge stage. There were television cameras everywhere and the streets were standing-room only. I was impressed with the number and variety of bands from all over Asia and even one from Russia! Chiayi City knows how to throw a party!

The next day, after visiting a pottery and musical instrument museum, we departed up a narrow mountain road to the Alishan National Park, a stunningly beautiful, heavily wooded mountainous area. The trip itself was somewhat frightening, as whole sections of the mountain road had been washed away by a Tsunami which hit the island a year earlier and were under repair. But when we arrived at our destination it was well worth it. The Alishan area is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

The itinerary for the next day stated we were to watch the sun rise in nearby Jushan. I asked our guide, Yu-Shun, if this was optional. I was disappointed when he informed me it was not. I had wanted to sleep in at our beautiful mountain hotel resort, the Alishan House. However the next morning I realized why this was mandatory. We were treated to a breathtaking spectacle of the sun peeking over a majestic mountain range with the foggy valley below illuminated from above, a truly amazing sight. Our Taiwanese guide, who had never seen this himself; could not contain his enthusiasm. “I cannot believe how beautiful my country is!” he exclaimed repeatedly.
After our sunrise religious experience, we traveled down the mountain to an aboriginal Taiwanese village and tea farm run by a tribe of people known as the Tsou. This was most remarkable to me since their dress, artwork, pottery and dance were almost identical to that of Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. Our guide at the village informed me that several years ago they were visited by a researcher who took blood samples and compared the DNA strands of the Tsou to that of Native Americans and found them to be almost identical! He then told me the only thing they couldn’t figure out is which group was where first. I made sure I didn’t leave without buying some of that tea!

The next day we visited the National Museum and got a fascinating glimpse into the history, art and culture of this rich nation.
My visit to Taiwan was a truly amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I regret that the trip did not include a visit to coastal areas on the Eastern side of the island, which include beautiful beach areas that are very popular. I look forward to the day I can return to this stunningly beautiful and culturally rich nation.

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Photography by Yuri Krasov

Properly inspired by the millennia-old tales, and already immersed in the local culture, I easily made up a dragon playing with his “fortune pearl” out of the map of Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island. Of course, first I learned that the Cantonese two-word Kowloon translates as “nine dragons.” According to an ancient legend, a young emperor admired the eight hills of his land and associated them with mighty dragons. As an emperor, he was comparable to/descendant from a dragon, and therefore there were nine dragons in his kingdom. Kowloon is a small yet beautiful and densely populated territory, facing Hong Kong’s iconic skyline from across Victoria Harbour.
Due to constant land reclamation and new construction on the Hong Kong side, the harbor becomes narrower, and the mirrored skyscrapers of international brands move closer to Kowloon’s Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, Public Pier, and Avenue of Stars, the newest addition to the southernmost tip of the peninsula.
Dedicated to the movie stars and filmmakers of Asia, and graced with bronze statues, red granite star outlines, and tropical plants, the Avenue that runs along the waterfront, is the best place to watch A Symphony of Lights, the world’s largest permanent light and music show that plays out on the walls and rooftops of more than 40 of its tallest buildings on both sides of the harbor. It starts on the roof of Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, moves to the Bank of China Tower and Cheung Kong Center. Then Central Plaza and Two IFC buildings start glowing with changing LED colors, from top to bottom. Then HSBC building, Far East Finance Centre, World Trade Centre, Police Headquarters and all the rest of the identifiable landmarks get their share of laser beams that cut through the thickening darkness.

One evening, I was lucky to observe the show from a cozy banquette by the window of my room at InterContinental Hong Kong (www.intercontinental.com) located on the most prestigious piece of land right behind the Avenue of Stars. The hotel, built in 1980, reflects a strong belief in feng shui tradition. …Every morning, nine dragons descend from the mountains to drink water from Victoria Harbour. It’s considered bad luck to block their way, so the InterContinental that sits right by the sea, has floor-to-ceiling glass walls on both sides to let the dragons (and the sunlight) through. Since dragons usually carry pearls of fortune in their mouths, the hotel reception area is built in a form of a receptacle, allowing the magical beasts to drop their “money” here before they proceed to take a sip from the harbor. This beautiful legend doesn’t specify if the dragons ever stop in the Lobby Lounge for a popular Sunday champagne brunch or a sophisticated afternoon tea. I wouldn’t be surprised if they would.
During my short stay at InterContinental on the way back from Singapore (so happy I decided to extend my Hong Kong stopover!) I had to force myself to leave the exceedingly accommodating premises whenever I ventured outside to explore the city. Between five designer restaurants; spa with an open-air three-temperature infinity pool, almost overflowing into the harbor; spacious room with a stunning view; and Club InterContinental membership that included daily Moet & Chandon, it would be the easiest thing in the world to toss my maps and guidebooks with planned and circled city sights and just stay in until it would be time to board my flight home.

Consider lunch at Michelin-starred Yan Toh Heen, which translates as “the place to enjoy the beautiful view.” The never-tiresome harbor view was not the only thing to enjoy in the antiques-decorated restaurant. Place settings and table utensils at Yan Toh Heen are made of hand-carved green jade and cost thousands of HK dollars, so feeling like an empress just by being served here comes naturally. Chef Lau Yiu Fai’s special take on traditional dim sum – Hong Kong’s precious contribution to the world culture, if you ask me – shined in bright-orange carrot dumplings with chives, puff pastry with chicken filling, and spinach dumplings with crabmeat, topped with black truffles. The restaurant’s signature dish is deep-fried pear and scallop, presented an unusual and enticing combination of tastes and textures. Then steamed grouper arrived in a clay pot with lily root, green apple, and chives – yet another winning combination of delicate Cantonese flavors.
Other outstanding dining establishments within the glass walls of the InterContinental include upscale Spoon by celebrity chef/restaurateur Alain Ducasse, and casual NOBU, serving revolutionized Japanese cuisine. While myriad of spoons cover the ceiling of the former, 1700 naturally polished river rocks were used in the design of the latter, along with cherry blossoms photo images covered with Murano glass beads; circular cross-cuts of bamboo, imbedded in the dark walls like air bubbles in water; and sea urchin “pencils” forming structured overhead décor intertwined with blue Venetian plaster.

In healthily-seductive I-Spa, I couldn’t get enough of detox tea, made with fresh ginger, lemon, and honey. Swimming in a pond-like round blue pool, I discovered that the music was playing somewhere at the bottom of it. The spa culture extends here to the unique ihealth initiative, featuring preventative-medicine menus, compiled in collaboration with Adventist Hospital’s nutritionist team. A special a la carte ihealth menu served by Harbourside Restaurant on a teak deck under beach umbrellas, addresses the four prevalent health concerns – diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and lack of anti-oxidants in the most delicious and easily-digestible way, so to speak. What I enjoyed the most, though, was the Club membership with all the business-meets-pleasure perks, like free internet, daily fresh fruit, and L’Occitane bath amenities. In the InterContinental Hong Kong it is available to any paying guest, not just to those who occupy high-flyer floors, like in other hotels. The Club lounge overlooked the glass lobby, Avenue of Stars, and Victoria Harbour, and served East-West breakfasts, afternoon tea with dainty hors d’oeuvres, and evening cocktails. Overcome by the siren song of comfort and luxury, I had to make a conscious decision to step outside into the hot and humid air…
Looking through my guidebook, I realized that there was not enough time to see everything I would like to see, so I decided to explore at least the nearby area. I observed the Clock Tower on the waterfront, the only remaining part of the original Kowloon Canton Railway Terminus; the former Marine Police Headquarters building, now called 1881 Heritage, and the former Time Ball Tower. I admired the majestic contemporary trio of Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong Space Museum, and Hong Kong Museum of Art, with uniformed school groups lining up by the entrance. I walked to Kowloon Walled City Park, and wondered through its sculpture garden, aviary, and banyan grove.

Lastly, I visited the famed Jade Market in Yau Ma Tei, and its 400 stalls overflowing with true and false treasures of the Nine Dragons land. From it, I brought home a little dragon statuette. The mythical animal is supposed to ward off evil and bring good fortune. True or false, it is also supposed to remind me that I can always return to Hong Kong/Kowloon not just for a brief stopover, but for my next vacation. More information at: www.discoverhongkong.com and www.FestiveHongKong2010.com.

Whether you wish to see Europe, Russia, Asia, or Egypt, the most relaxing way to travel is on Viking River Cruises . You unpack once and then enjoy daily shore excursions to visit both modern and historic places. Viking River Cruises will give you the trip of your dreams with luxurious accommodations, delicious food, exciting entertainment, and fascinating scenery.

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Photography by Yuri Krasov

Most flights to South-East Asia change planes in Hong Kong. So there I was, just a 14-hour flight from San Francisco, jumping a day to reach the very future of Asia. I surely wouldn’t miss an opportunity to stop over and look into the city of mirrored skyscrapers up close. Watching its hurried crowds and incessant traffic, its never stopping construction sites, and its bustling trade, I remembered a picture from an exhibition.
Among the young Chinese artists’ works presented at a SFMOMA show, there was one by the Luo brothers, “Welcome to the World’s Famous Brands No. 15.”
The painting depicted a rosy-cheeked happy Chinese baby holding a kind of a world-famous American cookie, and riding a tiger surrounded by golden chrysanthemums.
As one of the critics pointed out, the artwork combined ancient and modern symbols of optimism, associated with the current rise of the money culture in China. A baby embodied high hopes for the future; a tiger – strength and courage, but also the West, the power of Western civilization. Chrysanthemums sprung up as “a traditional symbol for the longevity of a person with excellent character and a metaphor for the sense that everything occurs in its proper time.”

Straddling the tiger of the West, Hong Kong seems to charge full speed ahead of the entire continent, prospering and oversaturated with world’s famous brands. Everything here is big, shiny, and expensive. Visitors from the Mainland with full coffers line up at Chanel and Louis Vuitton, and are easily recognizable by their black suits and white shirts while ordering 200-US dollar bottles of wine in posh bars of grand hotels.

Once a rocky island with a few fishing villages, Hong Kong was seized by the Brits after the First Opium War with China in 1842. Along with the nearby mainland territories it was leased out in 1898 for 99 years, and returned to China in 1997 as Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, governed under the principle of “one country two systems.”
Now, East and West equally influence its culture and everyday habits, and the bustling international trade penetrates the very lifestyle of its almost seven-million population 95% of which consists of the Chinese hailing from the Southern provinces.
A westernized governing system allows Hong Kong to maintain its economic prosperity, omnipresent healthy competitiveness, and excellent service, all of which promotes tourism to the most visited city of Asia. By the water edge in a historic district Wan Chai overlooking Victoria Harbour, there is a sculpture of Golden Bauhinia, a gold-covered flower blossom symbolizing the unification of Hong Kong and Mainland China. An everyday flag-raising ceremony takes place here.

The city boasts a number of ancient temples squeezed between the towering high-rises. One of them, Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road is dedicated to two gods – a god of literature (!) Man and god of war, Mo. Giant conical incense burners hang from the ceiling, dropping fragrant ash on the heads of multiple tourists and random worshipers. A “cat street” nearby is overflowing with souvenir stalls, where bronze Buddhas, faux jade necklaces and teak netsuke are sold a dime a dozen.

Among the many shops of Western Market, located in a dramatic Edwardian building in Sheung Wan, there is a fabric store with an amazing selection of warm shiny silks, deep velvets, rich brocade, vintage chintz, and everything in-between.
A famous Mid-Levels Escalator, the longest in the world (800 m) crosses the city north to south, and glides past SoHo, where the hippest European restaurants, bars, and art galleries can be found.

Local cuisine is abundant practically everywhere, with plenty of modestly-priced restaurants and take-out shops on every corner, dishing out appetizing BBQ meats, silky rice noodles, and of course dim sum, the special delicacy of Hong Kong. (I never tire of har gao and siu mai, and if you are not yet familiar with those precious steamed dumplings I almost envy the ecstasy of your discovery).

At dusk, crowds of tourists flock to the Peak Tram to ascend to the Peak Tower Sky Terrace from which unfolds a treasure-box like view of the both banks of Victoria Harbour glittering with myriads of lights.
Staying at Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, located steps from the waterfront at 1 Harbour Road, is a physically and aesthetically pleasing experience. Every room has a spectacular view and a great workstation; all doors are made of Karelian birch, and mirrored marble bathrooms with polished brass handles just scream of luxury.

In a lavishly decorated hotel restaurant, “One Harbour Road,” an exquisitely prepared traditional Chinese lunch is served on vintage fine china, and there are many more eateries on premises to choose from: Italian “Grissini,” Japanese “Kaetsu,” Thai “Thai,” open air “Grill” by the pool, “Tiffin Lounge,” “Grand Café”, and wine bar with live entertainment, “Champagne.”

The influence of Chinese philosophy and value system can be traced to the fact that one can luxuriate here for a moderate amount of money, comparable to an average American hotel stay, while an intentionally simpler accommodation comes at a higher price.
Grand Hyatt’s Spa Residence, called Plateau, is popular mostly with the guests from Japan, Europe, and Russia. It offers lean bedding on the floor, herbal teas, low-calorie menu and daily massages.
A 50-meter heated pool is open to all guests, as well as gym, tennis courts, and a golf range. The enormous hotel lobby reflects the laws of feng shui, however subtly. Oval ceiling symbolizes a hard-shell back of a crab, while two stairways framing the foyer form its claws, and two enormous bronze lanterns its bulging eyes. Crab is considered a stable and quick-witted creature, and is supposed to share these qualities with the business that hosts its image. There are also two symmetrical fountains in the lobby with in-flowing water to keep the cash flow coming in, and two fierce lions to guard the business.

Visitors are urged not to look for the lions, since they are being hidden somewhere in the enormous greeting area, but being a naturally born inquisitive reporter, I managed to found them. Miniature lion figures stand by two humongous flower pots, on both sides of the entrance to the hotel, covered with hanging plants. I encourage all my readers to stay at Grand Hyatt Hong Kong and see for themselves.

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An early morning, a long wait on the runway, again rain, rain, smog, clouds and finally I see sun when we are above the clouds… then we land… and there are my wonderful, adorable driver and guide waiting for me with a scarf, water and smiles! I burst into tears!!! the sun, the mountains, the perfect temperature, the fluffy white clouds, the green river, the buddhas, the flags, the peace and quiet…. I am still pinching myself! Granted there is a tremendous amount of growth going on here: row after row of chinese stalls, but still…. I can’t believe I am here.

My little hostel is smack in the middle of the Tibetan town, near everything. On my roof I can see 360 degrees of mountains and sky and touch the clouds and there, right there is the Potala Palace!!! wow. wow. wow. So far I am handling the altitude (over 11,000 feet), a little giddy and am taking this Chinese herb to help with this… but the belches are horrendous. The beer is helping so far, we shall see if it ends up just knocking me out. My guide says we have no problem meeting and distributing gifts to those contacts I have… tonight I hope… and the hostel is beautiful! brand new Tibetan style with incense and decor right up my alley.. It really happened! I did not get here gracefully I’m afraid, but here I am, puffy eyed and grateful.

Man-o-man-o-man, this place is incredible, mystical, magical! It is also swarming with military: decked out in riot gear and guns with bayonets, marching around everywhere, even in the kora’s (pilgrim paths) around monasteries; a bizarre juxtaposition with the little old ladies twirling their prayer wheels. I have seen sooooo many monasteries, but really they are fantastic. Dark, old, covered with ancient paintings and statues of every friggin’ kinda buddha and teacher and whatever else they are, and people doing a gazillion prostrations everywhere and always the smoke and smell of yak butter and incense burning, and I mean by the ton! I am blessed that my lovely hotel is smack in the center of the old Tibetan town, and I can walk everywhere and still come back for a decent toilet break. I, of course, went to the Potala, and ,yes ,it is historically heavy.

I just got interrupted by another family member recipient of the presents I have delivered, and they all want to feed me! I am about to explode on yak “mom’s”! (little dumplings). I had met all the families of my Tibetan friends in the United States, and tonight we go to see “typical” Tibetan dance. Today I saw a big group of monks arguing about the scriptures, famous here. The place is packed with tourists, so I have a nice mix of touristy stuff and typical local stuff. My sweet guide is a young Tibetan girl, Tselhamo, 20 years old, and we bum around like sisters doing whatever we want (well, almost, given the heavy military presence). Today I got to ride a bus with her, and the police stopped it to check everyone. It was a little creepy.
It seems I have reached the age where singing sounds like screaming, and I have to put toilet paper in my ears! There was a lot less dancing than I had hoped for. It was a large, strange place, but I was the only “fer-ner” . During the singing the audience gets on stage and puts a white scarf around the performer’s neck, has their picture taken,and all the while the screaming, I mean singing, goes on. There was some dancing, which was ok I guess. Today I go to the Tibetan hospital and see about the herbal treatments. Tomorrow off to Nam Tso lake, hot springs, caves, a nunnery. Should be nice and the altitude goes up to 15,000 or so feet. We are taking oxygen, just in case. I also just heard that they have shut off giving permits to come here, so I guess the trouble was worth it. I made it, just barely. I like to try pizza wherever I go, just out of curiosity, so I had a “Hawaiian” pizza yesterday. There was no ham, it was Yak meat! and not so tasty. I also tried their Barley beer, which was really good, kinda tart. I have enjoyed it here and now it’s time to go. You know how you start to notice the little things, like these toilet paper rolls are small, the toilet doesn’t flush well, the bed is really hard, and didn’t they serve this same food yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that? And, my, the people are a bit overly ingratiating, etc, etc…

I was on my way to Nam Tso lake, which is north about a 4-hour drive. On the way we stopped at Yambaje, a huge hot spring! you can see the billows of steam from far away. Of course they had changed the natural way of it into about 5 huge pools, but it was fabulous. You could move from tub to tub to get different herb additions like rose petals and saffron. There were only a couple of Chinese guys there, and, of course, one wanted to compete with me in an underwater swim. I opted out and just applauded his amazing skill. They also served hard boiled eggs cooked over the steam. Then onto the lake, which is supposedly the largest high altitude salt water lake in the world. It reminds you a bit of Lake Tahoe with the turquoise blue water surrounded by snowcapped mountains. But it is not so built up as Tahoe. Instead there are these quonset hut type buildings lined up, and this is where you sleep and eat. There are generators at night so you get a wee bit of electricity until 10pm. No running water, and the one and only group toilet is , yes, the hole in the ground, pwewy. The food is cooked over a fire at the home of the family we stayed with, and guess what it is …. ahhh, you got it! Yak meat which we bought from the back of a truck hacked off the dead body. The family had a new baby. She was so cute and quiet and wore pajamas with the butt split open… guess it is better to have it fly around then to add to the garbage with diapers.
Now the lake, of course, is spectacular, and we walked all the way around the peninsula jutting into it, called Tashi Do. There is a monastery and billions and billions of bright flags flapping in the wind off of every peak, rock and tree. We met one monk who has been living in a cave here for 15 years! There are also many of the prayer wheels you walk by and spin saying your “om mani padme hum” … and of course the many pilgrims walking with their hand-held prayer wheels or beads. Honestly, there is so much praying going on I can see how this culture has gotten very little else done. On the other hand, if one is so busy praying, it leaves little time for bombing, robbing, raping the land, etc.

I did not sleep well and don’t know if that was because of the incessant barking of dogs, generators, altitude, freezing cold, bed bugs, or the bad gas the dinner gave me. But the morning finally came and we left to drive to another monastery I read in Lonely Planet was worth the stop, called Reting. Over incredibly bad roads, all rocks and gravel and holes, not the worst I’ve been on, but pretty bad, we finally made it. Gross. That is all I can say. I don’t know what LP was thinking! This monastery, granted, is famous for having about 3 of the 14 Dalai Lamas chosen from this area and because it was nearly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but seriously disgusting! dirty, worn down… not Holy ground if you ask me! and when I just HAD to go to the toilet, again a simple wooden hole, three of the hundreds of wild dogs that infest this country jumped down in the hole to eat my fresh deposit! I thought I was going to peuk! Well that horrible stop caused us to add five more hours of nearly impassable roads to get to my next LP recommendation, Tildrum nunnery with the hot springs.
Over bumping, sliding, curvy, pot-holed, dirt paths we struggled, but the scenery was lovely, with mountains and the river and the yaks, goats, sheep, horses, the old stone houses with bright doors and stupas with flags and scarves, and even the nomadic brown tents (not like yurts at all!, way simpler)…. so on and on we go, and I am thinking how is it I always seem to end up on these routes with no other travelers? Out in the middle of nowhere? when, lo and behold, as we are trying to get through yet another rocky river where the “road” has washed away, we get stuck! Ah yes, again, this also seems to happen to me a lot. And of course it chooses to not just rain, but hail at this moment! Now, not only do I have my little 20 year-old translator/guide, but also two drivers so they can take turns, and here they are without their shoes trying to dig us out! Then they try to tie a prayer scarf to another truck so it can pull us out! A prayer scarf for God or Buddha’s sake!!!! I tell Tselamo (my guide) that this will never work, and we must find a real rope or chain, so we go off searching while the boys mess around with scarves… and we find one, and it worked, and we got out… brains over braun any day! And I told Tselamo “note to self, never go on a road trip without a rope and jumper cables, extra tire, water, flashlight.” The list went on and she smiles and nods…. these are a sweet people, always smiling.
Finally we get to Tildrum, exhausted. This nunnery is shoved between two mountains and again, covered in flags and scarves. We load up my stuff and start down and up the stairs to get to the accommodation and on the way I am getting more and more disgusted… I mean mounds of garbage, everywhere, and feces everywhere! And then the rooms are so filthy and stinky! And the supposed hot springs are full of trash and brave local people bathing… I was ready to scream and cry by now…. and I said “no way”… and explained that for me with my gut history, to stay here or get in that water was suicide. And again… this is no way to treat “holy ground”!!!! I have seen a lot of poverty in my time and stayed in some very basic places, but nothing, nowhere, has been like this…

So we left. And drove back to Lhasa. Even the drive was pushing it… windy roads, the drivers smoking non- stop, being stopped at police check stations every few miles for nothing… seriously. They say: “OK, you have to be at the next check point at such and such a time or you are speeding,” and so everybody speeds, then stops on the side of the road to smoke and pee and wait for their time, then drive through the next check point! Maybe a nice idea to control speeding, but obviously it does not work. And it hailed again, and the lightening, and the traffic… on and on it went testing the miniscule patience and tolerance I thought I used to have. And perhaps I just don’t have any anymore… perhaps I am done with this sort of travel… perhaps it is time for me to go on cruises and organized tours… so be it. I am ready… at least, I must say, in this moment
Most tourists don’t go the route I did. Most go to Mt. Everest base camp and then back or on to Kathmandu. I hear the road is good but takes three days, and of course is packed with tourists. I didn’t have time to do that route, and I usually like to avoid tourists… well I did… and really I thought it would be OK since the Lonely Planet said it would be! There goes that love/hate relationship I have with that book again… but I can say, as always, there is a story to tell… how dull would it be to say “gee, rode in a nice car, perfect road, clean hotel, lovely mountain, lots of folks in gortex taking photos”?

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Part 1

So, here I am, again, at a hotel internet…. ahhh, I do love this feeling. That it is in English and the keyboard works is gravy. The major obstacle so far was the plane flight and sitting next to a stinky garlic guy… you know that smell, right? we have a lot of it in Santa Cruz, that pungent hippie odor. Well, it was seriously overwhelming; I felt nauseated. And honestly it took me a couple of hours to figure out what it was and where it was coming from. I tried giving the guy some gum, but that didn’t help; it was oozing out of his body! So nearly in tears, I talked to the stewardess and she knew this guy from her own experience of the smell of him! She compassionately moved me to a wonderful aisle exit row. I shall have to remember this technique in the future for a better seat!
Upon landing in Beijing, I finally made it to my friends Michelle and Thomas’ house, again with the challenge that most of the people do not read our letters and I of course can’t read theirs. I had met Michelle and Thomas in Malawi many years ago, so it was wonderful catching up. They have lived in China for 2 years, Thomas works for Nokia. Before China, they lived in India for 2 years. They are English and great folks and travelers. We went out for dinner one night… Chinese food you ask? and “NO WAY” I say… we went for Ethiopian! Yummy. The only restaurant of its kind here, evidently. I love Ethiopian food and this was good, but really it was the restaurant which was so beautiful and the dancing! I thought I had seen most of African dance, but no sir-ee, this was weird stuff… popping and snapping of the shoulders and neck, like chickens on meth or something. Very cool. I spent a couple of nights there and today moved to a hotel to meet up with my friend Jun. She and her fiance are here and we fly tomorrow to her home town down south. That is where I will be going into the mental hospital to film and interview… I hope… She seems to think it is a go. She filed an application for it and everything. I have to say, it is sooooo nice being here with her! Obviously she speaks both the languages needed (English and Chinese), but also she is such a joy with her struggles, questions, curiosity and humor. She has a unique perspective on cultural issues, the overlap and differences, the good and the bad. I am grateful. I also am feeling good; minimal jet lag, body, mind and spirit on a an even keel. The weather however, is atrocious!!! horribly overcast, rainy. The smog is gross, heavy, depressing…. ugh. I do hope it is better when we get to a “small” town… whatever that is here.
I finally met up with Jun and her fiance at a reasonable hotel and we went out for the usual, totally bizarre food like sea cucumber, goose intestines and chicken feet. The next day we caught an ex-military plane to Changsa in the south, and Jun’s parents (who both work for the government) picked us up in a huge black SUV with our very own mafia-looking driver. A 3-hour drive brings us to her home town, just a tiny village of 7 million, or something crazy like that… a green, humid, hazy, rather hilly place. Immediately we are taken to a very fancy private party room and meet all the family. We eat gobs of food, drink and toast a gazillion times. The deal is to honor, then say bottoms up! and chug the wine or beer… Yes, chugging wine… After a few, the men and I smoke our cigs and I show everyone how to roll the American Spirit… much fun had by all. I am then dropped off at an incredible hotel where nobody speaks English, but wow, nice! Since Jun’s father works for the government, everything is covered. It does feel strange to be totally spoiled by the Communist Regime. In the morning I have my breakfast of rice soup, dumplings, noodles, hard boiled egg and of course, since I am American, they bring me a glass of milk. There is no point in trying to explain that I am lactose intolerant.
I have also been watching the one and only English speaking TV station and it is really interesting. A lot about Tea, Chinese history, Arts and Science, etc. One story was about the “angry youth”, which are conservative, nationalistic young folks who are sick of hearing all the criticism about China… truly, a fascinating place. The hotel staff gave up their office just to let me use their computer. Being a guest of a government official has its perks. We are waiting to file our application again, to get into the hospital. I have to promise to not use the video on the internet and perhaps other restrictions. Jun and I went to get a massage. The chairs are lined up so folks can visit while being worked on. They begin with soaking your feet in herbs and while you soak they massage and pressure point your head. 2 cute young boys by the way, and the massage is done fully clothed and they use a cloth, not oil. Then back to the feet, ouch… serious pressure points and then they use these heated jars to suck out all the toxins. After the massage we went to refill our toxins with beer and pizza and practicing English with Jun’s niece. Her uncle runs a tea house, so we got to do a ceremony which is not complicated like the Japanese one, pretty down to earth and pleasant.

The next day is the news I had been waiting for…. I GOT IN! So they take all my information; the head of propaganda photographs me constantly, reviews my nursing license and I have an entourage following us around. But I got two interviews: one with the head of finance and the nuts and bolts of the hospital ,then another on the women’s unit with the head psychiatrist. They would not allow me to see the patients or their rooms, or even activity rooms, or the pharmacy, which is unfortunate. But hey, I am amazed we got as far as we did. We got a call after we left that said they regretted the interview, and they thought the hospital looked shabby. I tried to pass on how impressed and grateful I was to all of them. I will not spend time now letting you know all they said. I will admit though, that I laid awake worrying that my hotel door would crash in with people wanting my footage back. I have been extra paranoid because I realized the computer I was using at the hotel not only saved my name but also my password! Which meant that for over 24 hours anyone had access to all my mail, etc…. not good…. shall await the repercussions if any. Currently I am on Jun’s computer at her house.

After the hospital interview we went to meet another millionaire friend of Jun’s family. We search and search for the place and finally end up at this half-built, ridiculously modern building still reeking of glue, and dust flying about, current construction underway and it is a blaring techno disco! “Boom Boom” it was appropriately called. I was nearly hysterical laughing! So here we are with Jun’s cute little mom, the lights flashing, the music pounding, smoke machines blowing, the young boys and girls show dancing on the counters to some strange story in English about aliens! Jun’s mom was trying to dance along. And as always … there is food. I do not know how these people stay so small! I swear we eat non-stop all day long! I was excited about the lobster Jun wanted to get us, I thought yay! something I really like… but no, after we met the poor fella alive, he was chopped up raw and served sashimi style. Earlier that day the soup was turtle and scorpion, oh yes, the black spiny guy, full view in your soup. Tomorrow we leave for the airport town, stay the night, and I fly out on Friday to Chengdu…. which is where I arrange all the Lhasa tour part…. again, we shall see how that goes. But so far, so good.
And again, I cannot say enough about the hospitality of Jun’s family. Her father is like a mayor or assistant mayor here and considered a big wig. Last evening on the way home there was a sobriety check point and the driver of our car says “are you crazy!? do you know who this car belongs to?!” and we were waved on. They have completely supported my stay here, yet they are humble in their home, adore their daughter and bend over backwards to please. Perhaps it is unfair or unjust… but doesn’t that happen everywhere? While in Jun’s hometown of Changzou, we desperately tried to find some Nature. We went on a day trip to a nearby cave with her uncle and his friend, a car salesman. The cave was huge and had a river running through it. It was beautiful but unfortunately ruined by the large Chinese tour group in front of us with their bullhorn! And the men who can’t read the signs that say “No Smoking!” Jun and I got into an argument about saving Nature versus succeeding in business or having lots of children. She has changed, she used to want to help the world. Now she openly admits she just wants to be “a parasite”.

I left Jun and her family and flew to Chengdu to try and get a permit to go to Tibet. I have been in Chengdu for 3 days now, currently on my 4th and have spent every day dealing with crap to try to get to Tibet. Honestly, if I didn’t have presents to deliver I would probably skip it and just go to nearby areas that are reportedly more Tibetan anyway and much less hassle. The issue is that with the upcoming Chinese holiday, celebrating 60 years of Communist rule, everything has become even more strict because of the risk of protests by the Tibetans. Finally I was able to fax off my request today. Everyone must have an approved guide with them every day, nearly every moment, that they are in Tibet, which makes things quite expensive and complicated. It also means that approval is slow, to say the least. Plus, there was confusion because they thought I wanted to trek the entire time and hire a “Yak and Yak man”! Which I do not because I am way too out of shape to trek at all! Give me the drive by tour if you please! For now the plan is to leave the 19th to Lhasa and then return to Beijing on the 26th (then home on the 30th). This is about half the time I wanted to spend in Tibet. If all is approved, a big “IF”, I will be in Lhasa 4 days then go north to see a lake, mountains, monasteries, nunneries, hot springs, caves, etc. for 3 days. And forget going by the infamous train! This adds even more time to the process! so I will fly and hope I don’t get altitude sickness on top of everything else. I am traveling alone because it is too much trouble for me to try to find companions and this adds to the cost. I have also requested that my guide and accommodation are Tibetan and wonder if this too has slowed the process.

While here in Chengdu I have seen the Pandas, the “Woo-Hoo” temple (that is my spelling) and visited the Tibetan street they have here and ate Yak stew. The problem with this waiting period is that I don’t feel comfortable leaving to go somewhere else in case there is some problem that needs to be dealt with. So here I sit… with the rain, rain , rain…. I have not seen the sun in 2 weeks and can’t remember what a shadow looks like. What am I doing here? I might ask… but don’t want to because that might end me up permanently inside the mental hospital rather than just for a brief interview. So there you have it… for all those who dream of coming here…. don’t bother… unless you organize it all from home (which I couldn’t, since I didn’t know my schedule) or just go to India, Nepal or western China… which as I’ve mentioned is more “Tibetan” anyway. I apologize for sounding so negative and do so hope I get to say “it was worth it”.
After my yucky email yesterday I went for a massage. Took me a bit to find it; seriously it seems not only does no one speak English, but they also don’t read it… “pinyen” it’s called… anyway, I did find this tiny little place with about 8 tables all lined up in a row and folks being massaged, fully clothed again. So I stand there and finally this guy waves me in and I am wondering why he is looking above my head but don’t think much of it… then I kinda wonder why this other guy has sunglasses on… when I get called over to my table my girl has her eyes shut tight and that is when it dawns on me that they are all blind! It was not such a great massage but my little lady was so sweet! They do a lot of pressure points and overall I felt better. Then I went to see a Sichuan Opera at a huge “tea house”…. really fascinating! They had dancing, music and singing, which was OK, but it was the hand shadow dancing that I really liked… and then this amazing “face changing” where like magic they shift the colors of their masks! Also the puppetry was good, and they even had a skit, which was still funny even if I couldn’t understand what they were saying. All in all, a good day. And still I wait…I don’t want to leave town for somewhere else until I know I have been approved and can purchase my plane tickets. So, today, what to do? the weather is slightly better so I may go to an outdoor market…My days are running into each other… I shuffle around here in the morning in my jammies drinking crappy coffee and listening to the fountain in the garden… really it is a nice hostel and relaxing … thank god…. or whoever might be paying attention.
Today is Thursday the 17th of September in the year of our Lord 2009. I have been here 7 days… a lucky number? Yesterday I went with Kevin an English/German young fella to Peng Le, and old town on a river, a very stinky river… and saw a bunch of stalls, architecture, farm land, yawn! but OK, a day out. So then I thought I would do my laundry and watch movies on my DVD (yes, my room has a DVD player), but of course it didn’t work… so I wait for it to be fixed and ponder the haze and start to plan an alternative to Tibet. Then a knock on the door and BAM! I have my permit!!!!! okay, so now what? Ah yes, flights…. try to do it on the internet… but no, they won’t allow it to Lhasa (of course not), so now I have to be able to pull out enough cash to pay for everything at once! …. no go at the bank…. blah, blah, blah…. chuckle, tears of irony and frustration and we shall see what tomorrow brings. Hopefully the bank will let me pull out cash and hopefully Cameron can contact my bank in the U.S. to OK it… and hopefully hopefully, hopefully it all unfolds as it needs to…. dear Universe…. help me let it happen as it is supposed to because what I have tried to learn AGAIN is that if I do not stir the pot and just let it flow. It will unfold, and I can choose to be grateful for what it is…. and not what I think I want. As it is, I fly out Saturday for Lhasa……I think…. Now I know we are damn lucky for our bureacracies at home because they are amazingly simpler than what happens here… I have stories to tell of travelers, but I don’t want to do it now because there are indeed eyes and ears in all the walls and screens…. let it suffice to say that blood still flows for freedom.

To hell with the Big Dipper roller coaster at the Boardwalk! you know how I screamed? Well, today has that beat hands down. The morning started with my 1/2 pot of French press coffee to get things moving, although that really isn’t necessary these days. Then the shower and I wander down to the reception/travel desk, which is always packed, to start my day’s adventure. I walk to the Bank of China and “No,” they can’t change travelers checks, or provide cash, or credit card withdrawal, and my debit card is already maxed out for the day’s withdrawal…. sooooo, I start to freak…. and catch a little mo-ped guy to the bigger bank downtown… He takes me on all back roads to avoid the police. He says, in broken English, that if they stop us I am to get off and walk and pretend I don’t know him… We make it, and the sweetheart says he will wait for me. Here, at this bank they at least change my travelers checks and cash, the wee bit that I had… still not enough, though, because everything has to be paid for by cash.

During all of this the love of my life, man of my dreams, amazing support dude… Cameron… is trying to contact my bank in the U.S. to see if they will up my withdrawal limit. He puts up with my tears and hysteria in stellar form and somehow finds a PIN number for my other credit card which I had never used nor had to use…. Then, I wait… because the office says the travel office for my plane tickets will come by and let me use a credit card for my plane tickets, which would then leave me just barely enough cash for the rest of the tour…. I wait, and wait, and wait, and they are over an hour late. Finally, they get here and realize they can’t run a U.S. card, so I cry again. My savior ,”Jodie”, (the English name for my Chinese helper) decides to walk to the bank again with me and see what is up with doing a cash withdrawal on my credit card, which was denied before. With the new PIN number and her good energy, cash just keeps coming out, over and over and over because by this time I am a little crazy about it all and end up with a good 3 inches worth of 100 Yuan notes! So, I am able to pay for my flights and my tour in Lhasa, all about 10,000 Yuan (approx. $1500)

Even though I paid for a rush delivery of my permit to Tibet, it has not arrived yet and we hope for 8PM…. another hurdle. IF it comes, I get to leave tomorrow at 6AM for the airport and confront the next of the never-ending stream of challenges. The police have been here twice today to check everything out, and I suspect that will be an ongoing issue, if not more so on the other end. And again I ask if it will be worth it all and can only answer that, yes, if I like stories like these to relay to you. But at this point I just want to come home and yell at my bank and wonder in awe at that golden orb in the sky and laugh and play with that shadow as it dances a jig of gratitude to be on familiar soil. Yes, we have issues in our country, but at least they are ones I know.

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Dim sum is uniquely Chinese. Dim sum consists of a variety of dumplings, steamed dishes, and other items often served in individual bamboo streamers. They are similar to hors d’oeuvres but when several are ordered they make a wonderful meal. The words literally mean, “touch your heart.”

I was introduced to dim sum during a visit to Hong Kong several years ago. A friend took us to a dim sum restaurant where a wheeled cart, like an English teacart, went from table to table and, after viewing the picture menu, we chose what we wanted to try. On the back of the picture menu it explained that a demanding empress ordered her royal chef to prepare a special meal for her. Afraid to make a mistake, he made many individual items sure to “touch her heart.” Dim sum was a success and became linked to drinking tea and with travelers journeying along the famous Silk Road.
They needed a place to rest, so teahouses opened up along the roadside, and after a while teahouse proprietors began adding a variety of snacks in the form of dim sum. My favorite is char siu bao, barbecued pork in a steamed dumpling; and har kau, shrimp wrapped in a light dough fashioned to look like a purse and steamed. I like the whole concept of dim sum. We can order a variety of eats and share. A great way to sample foods without ordering an entire plate of one item.
I also like the whole concept of the Peninsula hotels where they have The Academy whereby guests can learn about a variety of things from feng shei to how to make dim sum.

On our trip to Hong Kong in April 2009, Chef Wah taught John and me how to make Shrimp Dim Sum and Chive Dim Sum. Basically the pastry is the same, but chive water is used for the Chive Dim Sum. Interestingly, Chef Wah explained, “No matter where you go in the world, the Shrimp Dumpling has a pure style. It always has the same ingredients and shape. You can be creative when shaping the Chive Dumpling.” I found shaping the little purse like dumplings is more difficult than it looks but as Chef Wah explained, “It takes practice. I make 400 to 500 every day.”
Chive Dumplings

1 pound finely minced shrimp meat
1 cup diced chives
1/2 cup diced Chinese mushrooms
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/ 4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chicken powder
1 tablespoon sugar

Mix ingredients and chill for four hours.

Dim Sum Wrappers

(It is possible to buy wrappers.)
2 cups wheat flour
3 tablespoon cornstarch
1 3/ 4 cups boiling water for shrimp dumplings
1 3/ 4 cups boiling chive water for chive dumplings. To make chive water one must boil three ounces of diced chives in two cups of water until green and then strain and use instead of plain water. Food color can be added if needed.

Mix ingredients, adjusting if necessary to for dough. Form a small ball; roll out until thin; place stuffing on top; press closed to make a purse shape for Shrimp Dumplings or any desired shape for chive dumplings, and steam for 4 minutes.