Nothing prepared me for my first sight of the Great Wall of China. It is included on almost every list of must-see sights around the world and although the claim that the Great Wall is visible from the moon is a myth, it is clearly visible in radar images from the Jet Propulsion Lab, offering indisputable proof of its immensity. Yet when the Great Wall first came into view through the windshield of our van the monolithic barrier defied comprehension. Up, down, around it snaked, following exposed rocky peaks, pierced every so often by crenelated watchtowers. I had not expected it to zig-zag along the razor-edge ridges of mountaintops, dominating the skyline for as far as the eye could see. The view of this wonder banished my frustrations with traveling in China over the past week; whatever I had had to endure, it was worth it to see this wonder of the world.
Our guide explained that at the height of its construction in the Qin (pronounced Chin) Dynasty in 221 B.C., one fifth of the entire population had worked on its ramparts and towers, and that many thousands died in its construction. Craning up, I could not imagine how it was built at all, regardless of the amount of human power thrown at it. The Great Wall was meant to provide protection from invasion by the northern Huns, but how did the ancient Chinese know where to build it? They had no accurate maps and couldn’t see the geography from the air; how did they know they weren’t building in circles? For that matter, how did they determine that these barren mountaintops could even support the wall’s massive weight? That it has not crumbled or slid down the barren rock is nothing short of amazing. Read More
The “Sleeping Dragon” is wide awake and on the alert. After settling in to my hostel in Shanghai, I tried to connect to my blog. The connection was abysmally slow, but it was infinitely better than the connections to Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, which were nonexistent. To my chagrin, I soon discovered that social media in China has been totally blocked by the government.
I knew communications might be difficult from China, so I had taken some steps in preparation. One of my cousins, Len, with whom I will be traveling for a couple of weeks in China, set up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on his home server, and sent me instructions how to set it up it on my Macbook Pro. A very simplified explanation of this setup is that China blocks access to sites based on ip addresses, the numerical equivalent of website names (urls). So if I try to access Facebook.com, China sees that as an ip address like 126.96.36.199, and they don’t allow Internet traffic to get to that site. However, by setting up the VPN, when I type Facebook.com into my browser address field, I actually go to my cousin’s server back in Los Angeles first, and it redirects to Facebook, so China can’t see that I am trying to access a social network.
Len set up what is known as a PPTP VPN, which worked fine when we tested it from the U.S. Unfortunately, neither of us were aware that China has figured out a way to block select traffic being rerouted through PPTP VPN’s; the only kind of VPN that works in China is an SSL. Frantic emails back and forth between Len and I ensued; thank God China hasn’t (yet) blocked access to Google and my gmail account. He found a company, WiTopia, that offers subscriptions to a VPN SSL service that provides Read More
I should have gone right to bed when I arrived at the hostel in Shanghai, China late yesterday afternoon. During the week prior to my departure I’d had a total of perhaps 20 hours of sleep; in the final three days, only four hours. So much remained to be done and I was running out of time. As I counted sown the final 48 hours I learned that RBC Bank had arbitrarily canceled one of my two debit cards on my checking account and an insurance company informed me that a refund they’d promised me would not be forthcoming. I fought those battles successfully, but that left other crucial things undone, forcing me to stay up around the clock on my final night, trying to check everything off my to do list. Just as I thought I might make it, the Internet went out for two hours. In the end, I finished what I could and just got on the plane. Everything else would have to wait.
Despite being dead tired, I couldn’t sleep on the plane to Chicago, and during my three hour layover I was afraid to sleep for fear I would snooze right through the call for my connecting flight. No worries. There would be ample time to catch up on my sleep during the 14-hour flight to Shanghai. Wrong. Perhaps I was too excited by the prospect of my first visit to China, but sleep simply would not come. Two bad movies and three worse meals later, insufficiently wrapped in a postage stamp-sized blanket to ward off the frigid cabin temperature, I was wriggling in my not-designed-for-comfort airline seat, trying to find a comfortable position for the final three torturous hours.
My intention to hit the sack immediately after checking in evaporated instantly during the taxi ride from the airport, which carried me past Shanghai’s stunning skyline along the Huangpu River; as darkness fell and the lights of the city winked on, I simply could not control my urge to explore. In my sleep-deprived state I hunched into my backpack, grousing about the unaccustomed weight of a tripod I had decided to haul along on this trip. Four blocks later I climbed the steps of The Bund, a wide elevated promenade that runs for a mile along the western shore of the Huangpu River, and gazed across dappled waters that reflected myriad gold, red and purple neon-lights that outlined the skyscrapers of the city’s famous skyline. My decision to carry a tripod suddenly seemed inspired.
After taking my fill of photos I walked south along The Bund to Nanjing Road East, Shanghai’s premier pedestrian shopping street, intending to walk only four blocks of its 3.4-mile length on my way back to the hostel. I turned the corner at the eastern terminus of Read More
I went to see the new movie Eat, Pray, Love a couple of weeks ago. The movie wasn’t fabulous, it wasn’t even as good as the book, but it threw me into reminiscing. Nearly four years ago, like the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, I too made the decision to abandon my existing life and job to travel around the world for six months in pursuit of my true passions of travel, photography, and writing. The book had just been released at that time and I read it from cover to cover during the 36 hours and three layovers required to get to Vietnam. I remember being intrigued by the fact that I had previously visited India and would be going to Italy and Bali on that trip, meaning I would be retracing the steps of the author.
My situation wasn’t exactly the same as Gilbert’s. I wasn’t coming out of a divorce or a bad relationship. But I was spiritually bereft. I had built numerous successful careers in corporate environments, only to abandon them to search for something that would make me happy. I knew deep down that corporate life, with its appurtenant stress and soul-sucking politics was not for me, but I kept returning to it because it paid the bills. By the time I’d turned 50 I was a lost soul. I didn’t know who I was, but I knew I had to find a way to make myself happy, to escape from the endlessness of it all.
At the conclusion of my six months on the road I decided to recreate myself as a travel writer and photographer which, frankly, were the only things I’d ever really wanted to do. Now, four years later, I’ve accomplished that goal. I travel 9-10 months per year and have no permanent home. Although I do not suggest that this life is for everyone, one part of my process – the six month career break – was a valuable tool that can benefit anyone. It is not uncommon for Europeans and Australians to take mid-career breaks; employers in these countries seem to understand that employees return to the workplace renewed and brimming with new ideas following such a hiatus. Unfortunately, in the U.S. the mid-career break is not an accepted part of our culture, but there is now a movement afoot to change all that.
Two weeks from today, on September 14th, the developers of the website Briefcase to Backpack will hold a FREE series of events in major cities across the U.S.and in Canada, titled “Meet, Plan, Go!” With the goal of Read More
As the crow flies, I was only a mile or two from the beach, but it might as well have been a thousand miles away. Despite ominous skies and the threat of rain, I climbed into my lemon yellow kayak, pushed off the ramp and slipped into Graham Creek. Silently gliding through slate waters, I navigated narrow twisting channels bordered by tall wire grasses that reflected subtle green mirror images on the unstirring water. Giant pines loomed over the dense vegetation like overarching staves of an ancient church and I paddled in silent reverence, awed by the overwhelming stillness of the place. My guide, Captain Chris Nelson, interrupted the hush to point out a cormorant at the edge of a marsh and a great blue heron standing stately in a high tree branch. As if on cue, the heron took flight, its beating wings echoing across the waterway.
Half an hour into the paddle, the stream untwisted itself and emerged into Wolf Bay. According to Chris, dolphins are often spotted in the bay but they were hiding on that particular day, Read More
Like most Americans, I was mortified by the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer. My stomach turned when I viewed the underwater photos of oil gushing from the breached well and I felt helpless, wishing I could help in some way but knowing there probably wasn’t anything I could do. Then, a few weeks ago, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism invited me to visit the area as part of their first ever press tour. Since I had long wanted to check out this part of the country I jumped at the chance, but I was anxious about what I would find, given the devastating images of destroyed marshes and glops of oil floating atop beds of sea grass that had been continuously flashed across the TV screen. To my great delight, I found stunning white sand beaches and crystal clear water. I also found a community that, from the very first day oil showed up on the beaches, made a commitment to tell the truth, believing it would be far better for visitors to be aware of the situation before arriving.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are dependent upon tourism and fishing, thus their economies have taken a double whammy during this disaster, since large portions of the Gulf were closed until recently and local fishermen missed the first part of the shrimping season this year. Fortunately, the fishing grounds have Read More