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Archive for June, 2008


Dreaming of snow and ice and everything nice

With the heat index in Hanoi camped out at 107°F (42°C) this afternoon, I find myself daydreaming about becoming a Bennett-cicle in some distant snowscape. Hence, a two-parter about Lapland adventure travel. For the first part, let’s take a look one of northern Scandinavia’s main attractions, the Northern Lights…

For a detailed explanation of the phenomenon of the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, check out this page. [Basically particles shot out by the sun are captured by the earth's magnetic field and urged toward the poles, where they collide and react with gas molecules in the atmosphere; these reactions give off energy in the form of light of varying colors. So around both poles, the sky periodically plays the stage to dazzling aerial light displays. In other words, sometimes the atmosphere seems to be filling with beautiful, glowing goo.]

The Northern Lights are better known than their southern counterparts simply because it’s easier to access a vantage point near the north pole (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Canada, Alaska, etc.) than to get to Antarctica. And getting you within view of them is the focus of today’s post.

You can fly round-trip from London (Stansted Airport) to Tampere, Finland for only £40 ($80) on Ryanair. Daily trains head into Lapland from Tampere.

Your chances of seeing the Northern Lights are highest during the winter months, especially between November and February, when daylight occupies just 4 to 6 hours of the day in northern Scandinavia. And the farther you remove yourself from the fluorescence of civilization, the easier it will be to see them. There is a lot of debate about the ‘best’ place to see the Lights, but truly the best place to see the lights is where the skies are the clearest. Here are a couple of options:

1. Kautokeino, Norway — The driest and coldest place in Norway, Kautokeino an ideal place from which to gaze. It is also the cultural center of the indigenous Sami people (whose descendents include Joni Mitchell and Renée Zellweger, incidentally). The tiny town — whose population numbers a meager 3,000 — is hardly a tourist mecca, but you can arrange to spend the night in a lavvu, a traditional Sami dwelling similar to a Native-American tepee. Maybe that only sounds appealing in a sweltering Hanoi summer.

2. Kakslauttanen, Finland — The Hotel & Igloo Village Kakslauttanen offers a bit more in the way of creature comforts. Accommodation options include log cabins, glass igloos, and proper snow igloos. For the view alone, I think I’d have to go with a glass igloo. Besides taking in the Northern Lights on a clear night, you can check out the ice art gallery, go ice swimming, or give ice carving a shot. I’m sensing a theme, and it is numbness. I couldn’t find rates on the hotel website, but according to this company’s site, it looks like you can book two persons’ transportation from London and accommodation for three nights (one each in glass igloo, snow igloo, and cabin) for £2,354 (or $3,711). Hey, they’ve got to pay for those imported zebra comforters somehow…

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Would a hole by any other name…

(photo above taken from National Geographic‘s Best Photos-of-the-Day, 2007)

Two hundred feet wider than the world’s-largest-known crop circle and equally as fascinating, the listlessly-named Blue Hole (or the slightly more enthusiastic Great Blue Hole) is a natural wonder carved into the Lighthouse Reef sixty miles off the coast of Belize. Almost perfectly circular, the sinkhole measures more than 1,000-feet across and 400-feet deep, and it’s one of the Western Hemisphere’s prime destinations for scuba diving and snorkeling. Undersea explorer-extraordinaire Jacques-Yves Cousteau called it one of the four best dives on the planet.

Diving Blue Hole isn’t recommended for novices, but even the snorkeling around its shallow rim is said to be fantastic, with vibrant coral reef and a large variety of sea life at home in the crystal-clear water. For those with scuba experience to match their curiosity, the actual dive into Blue Hole is unlike any other. Surging down into dimmer and dimmer waters to a depth of 130-ish feet, you are surrounded by huge reef and hammerhead sharks navigating an array of immense, submerged stalactites. For all kinds of information about Blue Hole, including the story of its formation, click here.

The Lighthouse Reef is the second largest in the world behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and accordingly there are a number of worthwhile nearby dives besides Blue Hole. Organized trips will generally visit multiple dive-sites, including Aquarium and Half Moon Caye Wall.

There are a number of ways to reach Blue Hole. Day-tripping boat charters can be arranged from Belize City, leaving very early in the morning and returning that same evening. Or you can take a ferry from Belize City to one of two islands just off the coast, Caye Caulker (round-trip $17.50) and Ambergris Caye (round-trip $27.50), from which you’ll have a number of options for reaching Blue Hole and nearby dives.

A Caye Caulker-based outfit called Raggamuffin runs a 3-day sail/camp/snorkel adventure (scroll down to ‘trip two’) to Blue Hole, with two nights spent camping on the paradisiacal Half Moon Caye, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a worthy destination for bird lovers. There’s an Audubon Society sanctuary on the tiny island, which hosts almost one hundred different avian species. The trip, including camping gear and food, costs just $250 per person, plus tax. All you have to do is find seven friends to go with you. You have my email address…

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Yangshuo, China

Planing, training, and busing my way south from Shanghai a couple weeks ago, I stopped for a rainy day in Yangshuo, a quaint backpackers’ town in Guangxi province. Looking back I easily could have spent two or three days exploring the area around Yangshuo, which abounds in stunning karst topography, caves, and two picturesque rivers that cradle the town.

Arriving on an express bus from Guilin shortly after 10 a.m. on Monday, I walked out of the station, bought the world’s most poorly crafted, lavender-colored poncho from a street vendor, and headed directly to a bicycle rental tent. Most of Yangshuo’s attractions, the karst peaks and caves that dot the tourist maps, lie a few kilometers in every direction from the town center, and riding a bike or a scooter is the best way to get to them. So I handed over 20 Yuan (US$3), checked to make sure my bike wasn’t going to fall apart half a kilometer down the road, and set to pedaling southward.

I opted to spend my day apart from the tourist throngs and aggressive touts that surround Moon Hill (picture at left from guilinchina.net) and nearby caves, so I broke off from the main road and took a soggy path along the northern bank of the Yulong River. The rain held constant at a light drizzle, and I stopped periodically to admire the landscape and watch as tourists on bamboo rafts were paddled lazily down the river. Sadly, despite draping myself ridiculously in tattered, lavender plastic to take pictures in the rain, most of my photos from the afternoon suffer from water droplets on the lens.

I hadn’t bought a map of the area, thinking that if I stayed within sight of the river, there was no way I could get lost. But many of the trails along the river were only a foot wide, and in the rain they became bogs too slippery to navigate. So I improvised a bit. In doing so, of course, I did get lost, but I’m awfully glad I did. With the rain getting heavier, my meanderings led me through a floating village, where canals crossed rectangular rice paddies and connected a handful of tiny shacks on stilts. A lady in an army-green jacket and conical hat led a water buffalo torso-deep through a canal to drink. At the moment, though, most of the villagers were huddled on a covered porch looking out at me, no doubt wondering why this rain-doused and mud-besmirched Caucasian was pushing his bike across their rock path, smiling dumbly toward them.

I eventually found my way back to the river and pushed on toward my goal, the 600-year old Dragon Bridge that spans the Yulong River. As I neared the bridge the sky unzipped. I took refuge under a concrete overhang, but the rain showed no signs of slowing down. Some tourists who had just shoved off on their bamboo raft passed me by; I could see the misery on their faces. I myself was about 15 km from Yangshuo now, facing a couple hours to ride back the way I had come, which would now be almost impassable in spots. I didn’t have a choice. Off I went.

Back in town and utterly soaked, I returned my bike and made my way down Xi Jie (West St.), the main commercial artery of the town, to find some dry shorts for the evening. In no mood to haggle, I plopped down the RMB-equivalent of US$15 for the sartorial equivalent of rice paper and went to my hotel to dry off, warm up, and rest. I stepped out in my wispy-but-dry shorts at sunset for a quick dinner at a vegetarian restaurant, took a quick stroll around town, and retreated to my room for the night. When I awoke the next morning, the rain was again torrential.

I packed up, checked out, and sprinted from my hotel, a blurry lavender streak on an otherwise empty street, to the Yuan Ming café for a cup of Yunnan coffee and a breakfast sandwich (both were delicious!). By the time I finished my meal the rain had eased up enough for a walk around town. I stopped into the market, where farmers and fisherman filled rows of stalls with gorgeous fruits and vegetables, live chickens pacing in cages, hanging slabs of newly butchered beef, pork, and goat meat, and buckets of swimming river fish, eels, snails, frogs, and turtles three-to-a-sack.

The rain finally departed Yangshuo late Tuesday morning. Boarding a bus back to Guilin, I wished I didn’t have to leave Yangshuo with it.

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On sports bras and other survival devices

Inspired by the story of the American hiker stranded in the Bavarian Alps who got the attention of her rescuers by attaching her sports bra to a moving timber cable, I searched all corners of the internet for survival gear. Here are a few interesting and potentially hide-saving devices for your consideration:

I. Etón FR1000 Voicelink Radio — It might be a tad bulky to stash in your pack (11″x6″x4″, including handles and knobs), but this is one gadget you’d want to have in your arsenal in an emergency. Like an electronic Leatherman, the FR1000 is a two-way and AM/FM radio, clock, flashlight, siren, beacon light, and cell phone charger. If the batteries die you can recharge them with the manual crank on the side. I, for one, like the old-fashioned/modern compromise of being able to charge my cell phone by hand. It retails for $150.

II. The LIFESAVER® Bottle — I wrote a post a while back on a wonderful hand-held water filtration system called the Lifestraw® Personal; this is a similar idea executed differently. While the Lifestraw® uses a hydrogenated resin to kill bacteria and viruses in source water, the LIFESAVER® does the same (and is a bit more effective) without using chemicals. A LIFESAVER® filter cartridge can filter up to 4,000 liters (1,056 gallons, more than five times the amount of the Lifestraw®) before needing to be replaced. However, the biggest difference between the LIFESAVER® and the Lifestraw® lies in how quickly they clean out your wallet; a Lifestraw®, which is designed primarily for use in the developing world, costs about $3, while the LIFESAVER® sets you back about $385.

III. The BCK Solar Cooker — Resembling a prop from a sci-fi film, the BCK Solar Cooker is an award-winning, innovative take on outdoor cooking that’s both eco-friendly and good in a pinch. First things first, you open the cooker from the thermos-like position at left. It transforms into a reflective cone, which you then fill with water. The conical shape focuses sunlight into its center, heating the water and whatever you’ve chosen to cook in it up to 90°C (194°F). It requires no fuel other than sunlight, so there is virtually no environmental impact. However, you do need direct sunlight for it to work optimally; at night and on cloudy days, may I suggest canned Vienna sausages?

IV. Spot Satellite Messenger with GPS Tracking — Unless you’re already sporting a state-supplied ankle monitor, you might want to look into buying this gadget before your next outdoor adventure. Little bigger than a computer mouse, Spot is a GPS-enabled device (not a GPS navigation system) that can trigger text messages to be sent to your friends and family with your exact location coordinates, so that they may track your progress as you travel. In case of emergency, Spot also has a 9-1-1 mode that will send a distress signal to an international monitoring station every five minutes until the emergency is resolved. The downside: Spot doesn’t yet work in parts of South America, most of Africa, and southern Asia. While it will knock your balance down a bit with a retail price of $169.99, think of all the money you’ll be saving on postcards.

V. Swedish FireSteel Fire Starter — These have become standard issue for military personnel around the world, and campers swear by them. Slowly sliding the flat, magnesium striker down the FireSteel key creates a 3,000°C spark that will ignite dry kindling (like companion-product Mayadust, $4.50 a tin) in a flash! The bright spark can also be used as an emergency signal. The lifetime of the Army model ($16) is 12,000 strikes, with which you can start more fires than your average dragon.

VI. Mylar Sleeping Bag — This one’s such a cheapie (anywhere from $1.50 to $13, depending where you look) that I couldn’t resist throwing it in the list. Mylar is said to reflect up to 90% of your body heat back to you and it’s waterproof, so in case of emergency you can slide into one of these bags and pass the night without freezing. Or you can line your sleeping bag with one to effectively lower its temperature rating. Their weight is negligible and they fold up small enough to fit in your pocket, so tossing one in your pack is a no-brainer.

VII. I’d like to add a low-tech but highly useful item I brought with me on my current trip: surgical tape. An extremely durable yet easy-to-tear tape, it’s come in handy on several occasions in the past week alone. I’ve used it to secure lids and store food, to patch tears in ziplock bags (which are infinitely useful themselves — here are some serious-business ones), to bind items and attach them to my pack, and most recently for its intended purpose, to affix makeshift bandages to my arm after a motorcycle taxi spill.

VIII. Finally, it’s not a survival gadget but a mental-floss-recommended book, and I’m going to pick it up myself. It’s called Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, by Steven Callahan. Think Alive, but on a life raft and without the cannibalism. According to the mental floss reviewer, after the author’s sailboat sank, stranding him alone in the raft, he devised ways “to collect fresh water, spear and otherwise trap fish, gather barnacles, plot his position using a sextant made from pencils, and much more…” in order to survive. I figure if I read this book and watch all seven seasons of MacGyver, I’ll be ready for anything.

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Huang Shan (part three)

(…continued from previous posts)

My tiny alarm clock set to beeping at 4:15 a.m. the following morning. In a semi-lucid state I managed to silence it, sluggishly pondering why on earth I’d wanted to wake up so early. Oh, that’s right, the famous Huang Shan sunrise. Now I’m not ordinarily a wake-at-an-unholy-hour-to-watch-another-day-begin kind of guy, but the sunrise over Huang Shan’s North Sea was said to be breathtaking. Of course, at a mile high and with an intimidating number of stairs separating you and each next glorious vista, ‘breathtaking’ is an adjective you can use pretty liberally in describing this place.

On the right day the sun emerges brilliant from behind peaks a distance to the east, and a rolling “sea of clouds” nestles in the valley between. Today there were no clouds, but my awe was not diminished for it. I lingered around the North Sea area, climbing from lookout to lookout long after most of my fellow sun-gazers went back in for breakfast. I was certainly intoxicated by the view, but with an aching back and tender legs, I was probably subconsciously trying to delay what lay ahead. The previous day’s trek had been straight up the 7.5-km eastern steps; today I would take the winding and strenuous 15-km western steps around the various peaks and back down to the mountain gate.

The western steps afford visitors the very best of Huang Shan’s scenery. At times they cling to the rock face, hiding a sheer drop of hundreds of feet to boulders below, and offer panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valley. They trace their way through caves and narrows, in places so tight I had to remove my pack and slide through sideways. They perilously twist up to windy peaks and down the other side, the way made a bit easier (and less dizzying) by hand-holds notched into the rock and taut ropes to grip.

One particular highlight is Yingkesong (Guest Greeting Pine), an 800-year old tree leaning out from the rocks, its crown resembling a man whose arms are outstretched, welcoming. It is such an esteemed symbol in China that it has 24-hour ‘bodyguards’ that tend to its every need, monitoring soil and atmospheric conditions and making sure that none of the 3,000-4,000 people who make the pilgrimage each day damage the tree by disturbing it or even smoking around it.

On a side note, atop each of Huang Shan’s peaks you’ll find dozens of padlocks hung from the chains that surround the lookout (pictured at left). They’re called “lovers’ locks”; smitten couples ascend the peaks and leave a lock behind, representing the permanence of their love. I thought it a rather unique and charming tradition.

Because I wanted to make it down the mountain and back to Tangkou in time to catch a bus to Tunxi that afternoon, I went a little faster than I would have liked. The landscape all the way down the western steps is, well, breathtaking, and certainly worth taking the time to appreciate. Next time I’ll pace myself.

Here’s some video I took while walking one of Huang Shan’s paths.

Costs: Shanghai to Tunxi bus – RMB 132 (approx. US$19)

Tunxi to Tangkuo minibus – RMB 14 ($2)

Tangkuo to Huang Shan gate – RMB 14 ($2) by bus, RMB 30 ($4) by taxi

Huang Shan entrance fee – RMB 200 ($29)

Huang Shan summit hotel rates range from RMB 100 ($15) for a 6-bed dorm to expensive luxury suites.

And by the way, don’t make the same mistake I did and wear hiking boots. The steps were only about half the length of my boots in some places, so I would have been safer and more comfortable in athletic shoes with decent grip.

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Huang Shan (part two)

Two things immmediately struck me as I undertook the climb to Huang Shan’s summit. One, the Chinese are a fit people (or perhaps I’m not such a fit people). Picture a white guy clopping his way up a neverending staircase in the woods, loudly laboring to breathe, his face permanently aglisten with perspiration and ever-more pink, his body sporting fewer and fewer articles of clothing in a futile effort to cool off. He stops every few minutes for some desperate gasps and swigs from his water bottle, only to be passed by sanguine-looking elderly Chinese ladies mastering the steps in platform shoes.

The second thing that struck me was the vastness of the effort required ro lay miles and miles of stone path up, down, and all over these mountains. In spite of having a few cable car systems in place to ferry lazy tourists to and from the summit, almost all of the food, supplies, and building materials required to accommodate the thousands of daily visitors to Huang Shan are lugged up the stairs by porters shouldering massive panniered baskets. And just as all that stuff goes up with porters, so does all the waste come back down. According to Polly Evans in her travel book, Fried Eggs with Chopsticks, each load these tiny heroes carry up and down the mountain (and they can usually only take one per day) earns them RMB 40, about US $6.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t last an afternoon as a porter. I did, however, manage to make carrying my backpack look like a heroic effort. I reached the top of the eastern steps in about two hours (and only took a couple years off my life expectancy!), immensely relieved and completely oblivious to the fact that my hotel was another hour’s walk around the summit.

I’ve decided not to share the evidence with you, but let’s just say that in the photos taken of me after completing the eastern steps, I’m the pale thing in between the mountains that looks like a stewed goose.

I kept trudging along until, wracked with fatique and redolent of barn animal, I reached my hotel. Finding my room, a 6-bed dorm, I downed a canister of Pringles and a liter of water, took a cold shower and climbed into my bunk soaking wet. I must have hit REM sleep before I was dry. (to be continued…)

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Huang Shan (part one)

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel into China’s Anhui province to ascend Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain), a place so abundant in natural beauty that it has for centuries enchanted and inspired artists and poets, earning a prominent place in Chinese lore.

The mountain looms over the town of Tangkou, where I finally arrived in the middle of a Thursday afternoon, seven hours (spread over two bus rides) after leaving Shanghai. I was instructed by the bus driver’s emphatic index finger to get off the bus in the middle of the town, where we had conveniently stopped in front of a local hotel. Inside I was told that it was too late to catch the shuttle to Huangshan’s entrance, that I should get a room for the night. By my clock I still had an hour to get to the gate before it closed for the day at 4:00 pm, so I declined a room and found a taxi outside to take me to the gate. Or so I thought.

After producing a map and assuring me we were headed to the right place, the driver deposited me at the entrance to nearby waterfalls and took off, so I had to take another taxi back to town, where I had to find yet another one to take me to the correct entrance. The whole ordeal set me back nearly an hour and RMB 80 (about US$12), so that I paid the entrance fee (RMB 200) and walked into the mountain preserve at 3:59 pm, the guard locking the gate behind me. I sprightly set off up the hill, a bit frazzled from the taxi confusion but deeply satisfied that I didn’t have to return to the Tangkou hotel and meekly ask for a room after all.

The Lonely Planet guide indicated that the climb up the mountain’s eastern steps would take two-and-a-half hours, which would put me at the top just before sundown. Saddled with a thirty-pound backpack and facing approximately seven billion stairsteps between here and there, though, I knew I’d have to hurry. (to be continued…)

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Vinacarta: like a map but smarta

The night before I boarded a bus to Hanoi last week, I scoured the internet for a quality map of the city. None of the usual suspects (Google, Mapquest, et al) offered detailed enough information. That’s when I stumbled across Vinacarta.

Vinacarta offers a fantastic set of info-maps for major cities in SE Asia, and it’s extremely easy and intuitive to use. Whether you’re looking for shops, restaurants, parks, etc., or simply trying to get oriented, Vinacarta is the best site I’ve yet come across to help you. It’s basically a mashup of Google Maps and Citysearch.

Just zoom in on a part of a particular city, then select what interests you from the menu at left. Instantly every relevant business in the database is highlighted on the map, with the accompanying address, a description, pictures (if available), and links to reviews of the place. Instant gratification.

Of course Vinacarta has its limitations. Its information isn’t comprehensive; only fifteen of the largest cities in SE Asia are covered, and among those, it’s nearly impossible to account for every tiny side street and mom-and-pop shop. So Vinacarta doesn’t. Also, it’s missing the one function that makes Mapquest and Google Maps so handy: ‘Driving Directions’.

But these are minor quibbles, and ones that might be addressed in time. Given how useful (and unique at the moment) Vinacarta is, it’s a bit ridiculous to complain.

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Flashpacking to the Utmost, the Outmost, the Cosmos

The story about Google-co-founder Sergey Brin’s upcoming space voyage dropped yesterday, and it got me thinking about the possibility for future flashpackers to venture where few men and women have gone before.

Here’s where the space-travel trade stands today: an outfit called Space Adventures in Virginia, USA, is the only company offering pay-your-own-way private seats on a Soyuz shuttle to the International Space Station. There you can stay for a week to 16 days, orbiting the earth every 90 minutes or so. Are there any ill effects on a person’s health from being in zero gravity, you ask? Well, according to wikipedia, nearly half of space-goers experience “space adaptation syndrome” (SAS), which sounds kind of like seasickness, except that when you disgorge on a boat, you don’t give chase in slow-mo with a plastic bag. SAS never lasts more than three days.

As with any travel package, you can customize the particulars of your space mission; a penny-penching cosmo-tourist can skate by on as little as $30 million. This, of course, only covers your share of the Tang, a robe with your name ironed on it (and wear something under it!), and several tons of rocket fuel. I made all that up. If you want the deluxe experience, complete with a spacewalk (suit provided), the price can rocket up to $55 million.

Undoubtedly one of the most interesting parts of training in the run-up to launch is a course on survival skills in the Russian wilderness. I imagine it as a cross between the boar-spearing realism of Rambo: First Blood and the “Eye of the Tiger” workout scenes in Rocky IV. To check out some videos documenting the training and voyage of one of the first private shuttle passengers, Charles Simonyi, head over here.

OK, so leaving the realm of earth’s gravity might be a bit pricey for you and me, but you can trick yourself into believing you’re hurtling through space, albeit for only 30 seconds at a time, for a more down-to-earth $3,950. Zero G, which was actually bought out by Space Adventures three months ago, offers zero-gravity flights on G-FORCE ONE®, a moderately souped-up Boeing 727-200 — the standard version of which you have probably flown commercially at some point — capable of flying in (and pulling out of) “parabolic arcs”. Over the course of a 90-minute flight, the plane will make 15 such arcs, giving passengers the sensation of zero gravity for periods of about half a minute each time.

If it’s not the weightlessness of orbit but rather the organ-reshaping hypergravity of shuttle takeoff you’re craving, you can also book a slot in the world’s largest centrifuge in Star City, Russia. For a mere (pun anyone?) $10 grand, you can endure a truly excruciating simulation of a rocket launch.

I can only imagine that as technology progresses, the availability of space travel to ordinary people will expand and the price will come down. Given that the starting price is $30 million, however, it’ll probably never be as cheap as public transit. Even so, it’s pretty cool that a tiny fraction of us can now leave the pull of the earth behind as we please. For now I’ll just have to settle for being seasick.

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Bless you, Ctrip.com

I am clumsily feeling my way through this website thing. Sure, I thought, I’m pretty good at navigating the internet and can hunt and peck at a reasonable speed (astonishing speed after 32 ounces of coffee), so why not raise the bar a bit and manage a website? Ha ha.

A few weeks ago I was trying to update theflashpacker.com to the latest version. It’s a simple task, really. My 17-month old niece could probably do it between naps; give her twenty minutes to paint the screen with blueberry pulp and bash the keys with a stuffed monkey, and voilà! (more like wawa!), the website’s up and running. If only she’d been there for advice….

Known for a magic finger that manages to unintentionally and irretrievably discard enormous amounts of valuable information, I decided first to back up the site. Having done so successfully (I guess), I robotically followed the steps for the update. With unusual focus I deleted every last file I was supposed to delete and I uploaded what they told me to upload. And when I had followed the final instruction and was ready to check out the new, deliciously retooled theflashpacker.com, I keyed in the domain name: Fatal Error. Blah blah domain blah server blah blah.

Fatal error. Fatal! I’m no techno-maven, but in real life fatal’s pretty serious. And I panicked.

Here’s where I went wrong. Rather than calmly assessing the situation or getting up from the computer to exercise or simply whacking myself in the temple with a hammer, I furiously went back over every single step, time and time again, and never came across my mistake. So I started over from scratch. Same result. Again and again. My insanity was proved. After nearly six hours of backing up, transferring files, emailing tech support, zipping and unzipping, naming and renaming, I still could not get past the fatal error. Having killed our website, I began to grieve.

Then Whit came home and within a couple of minutes diagnosed the problem, fixed it, and voilà!, reduced me to tears.

All this to say that my computer dexterity far excels my Mandarin.

I arrived in Shanghai six days ago, and armed with a Lonely Planet guide/phrasebook, I set out to see and do as much as possible in a week-long stay. I spent the first full day in Shanghai plotting an itinerary, walking the Huangpu River (pictured above) and Renmin Square, and figuring out the combination of buses, trains, planes, and taxis that would get me where I wanted to go. The next morning I boarded a bus for Huangshan (the Yellow Mountain — more on that later) five-and-a-half-hours west of Shanghai, and thought things were going along splendidly.

Despite two days of miscommunications, superfluous cab rides, and anxiety over a highly questionable map, I had ascended and descended Huangshan and was relieved to be back on a bus from Tunxi to Shanghai more or less on schedule. The bus driver indicated that the destination was the South Shanghai Bus Station, the same one I’d left from. Perfect. I had worked it out so that I could arrive at the bus station in the early afternoon, take the metro back to the hotel to pick up my luggage, then cab it over to the airport in time for a flight to Guilin, my next stop.

Well, five-and-a-half hours turned into six, then seven. At the eight hour mark we stopped to refuel the bus at the world’s slowest gas pump. After fifteen minutes (and only fifteen litres dispensed) I was ready to siphon gas out of the pump with a straw. We finally pulled out of the petrol station in a light drizzle and proceeded through a neighborhood I didn’t recognize from the previous bus trip. The rain grew heavier. When we finally reached the station (definitely not the South Station!), eight hours and forty-five minutes after we left Tunxi, I disembarked in the now-monsoon and wandered to the ticket window to ask where in Shanghai we were. She didn’t speak any English and said something inscrutable in Mandarin. I flashed my map and pointed, blurting out a few words from the phrasebook. She giggled. Uh oh.

Other people came over to offer assistance. I tried again to ask where exactly we were. More giggles. Finally, with a chorus of people shouting directions at me and pointing this way and that, I just said ‘xie xie’ (thank you) and walked out to hail a cab in the downpour. Several minutes and dozens of cabs passed while I stood next to the road, with all the helpers from the bus station still staring after me. A fareless cab eventually stopped and I told the driver the address of the hotel in a variety of accents, speeds, and pitches before he caught on. Fishing (literally) my clock out of my left pocket, I realized the flight to Guilin was now officially out of the question. I was drenched, exasperated, and exhausted.

Back at the hotel, I asked for a room, fell into it, and shivered myself dry while suffering through the Scorpion King (for the second and final time in my life) on the English-language movie channel. I then hooked up my laptop and began to drudge through revising my plans. That’s when I came across Ctrip.com.

It’s just like expedia or travelocity, where you can find flights, hotels, and car rentals, but it’s specific to China. And unlike most things specific to China, Ctrip.com features a completely coherent English version. In half an hour I booked a next-day flight to Guilin (and cheap!) and hotels in each of the next three cities I’d visit.

If you’re ever in China and you just cannot bear the thought of trying to make another phone reservation where neither you nor the person with whom your speaking has the faintest idea what the other is on about, Ctrip is your salvation. Or if China’s in your future but conversational Chinese probably isn’t, go to Ctrip before you let the Mandarin get you down. Xie xie, Ctrip, xie xie…

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