Thursday, September 30, 2010

My irreverence prevails

I go through life laughing, and cracking jokes, even in Eastern Europe where a smile is like a slap in the face that says, "Stranger, you are so typical and predictable that I feel like I already know you."  In the end, though stoic and somber when necessary, my irreverence prevails.

Let me recap my day.  I woke up this morning, happy that I was in a bed that was not moving and jolting.  I got dressed and got ready to tackle a new day. 

First stop, former NKVD (precursor to the KGB) prison turned museum.

Please don't take me to Siberian Gulag, my friend

I didn't see a sign that said, "No Photography" but I figured that the nature of my pictures would probably get me kicked out, so ever snap shot gave me a jolt of adrenaline.  For example, I really wanted to give Lenin a kiss, but I am sure that must go against some national law of defacing and defiling Soviet monuments and statues.

OK Lenin, I go 90 per cent, you go 10 per cent

After we left, I kept thinking that my irreverence at the NKVD museum was a little uncalled for.  I mean, I did ask if they sold souvenirs.  

Erica:  "Do you think they sell Soviet pins here?"
James:  "Erica, would you ask for a souvenir from Auschwitz?"
Erica:  "Ummm...maybe?"
James:  "Remind me to never take you to a concentration camp."

We continued our day, making our way through the туристические достопримечательности.  Yes, that is how you say "tourist attractions."  My theory is that Russians really don't take kindly to strangers - so they really make it as difficult as possible to ask, "Where are your most famous tourist attractions?"

I'm the Richest Woman in Russia!
I took this picture next to a huge wooden 1 ruble coin (you need 30 of those to make a dollar these days).  

I have some more somber and equally awesome pictures, but the internet at this hostel is so slow!  I will have to update more upon arrival at Yekaterinburg.  See you soon!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Read this book before your next flight: "The Survivors Club" by Ben Sherwood

I recently finished reading one of my train books that I brought to entertain me during my journey along the longest railway in the world.  The Survivors Club, New York Times best seller by Ben Sherwood, was enlightening, enthralling and extremely exciting.  How is that for alliteration?  The chapters attempt to answer the question “When disasters strike, who survives and who doesn’t?  Who is truly bound to be a member of the illustrious Survivors Club?”  Having a bit of what my mom called “wander lust” I figured this book would be a stellar piece of reading material to bring along just in case I get into any trouble along the way.  

Train Ride from Beijing
Since ringing in the New Year 2010, I have been on seven different flights (not including transfers and connecting flights) and still plan on taking five more before the next New Year’s kiss I receive. 

As I said earlier, I have been flying since before I can physically remember.  How is it then, than according to this book, I would be one of the first to perish if my airplane crashed?  After all, I have been on so many flights, I practically have the steward speech memorized.  Apparently, my over confidence is just my problem. 

You’re chances of dying in an airplane accident is one in sixty million.  “On average that means you could fly every day for the next 164,000 years before you would perish in a crash,” according to The Survivors Club.  In the unlikely event that you do get into an accident, there are specific precautions that can actually save your life.  For example, frequent flier status may actually work to my disadvantage – I would be one of those people who would be up all night with the thought, “I will just sleep on the plane tomorrow morning.”  I would be spacing out, as I recited in my head the safety speech.  I wouldn’t take into account where they emergency exits are, nor would I be awake during takeoff and landing, the two most critical times during a flight.  I might even go into shock if something did go wrong; after all, how many flights have I been on where nothing happened?

There are tips that this book taught me to always remember the next time I find my seat on the plane.  Never think that your life is out of your hands when flying; I know it can be easier to be a fatalist than accept the notion that not everyone perishes instantly if your plane crashes.  Always listen to the safety speech, sit within five seats of the emergency exit (during a plane crash, people only move on average five seats from where they were sitting), memorize an alternate route in case the exit is blocked, check for that silly looking life vest under your seat, never fall asleep during takeoff or landing, get moving even if the flight attendants are not capable of telling you what to do and, finally, do not panic.  My last bit of advice is to remember the chapter “Ninety Seconds to Save Your Life.”  If the plane is on fire, you have 90 seconds, rarely more, to get the heck off.
I will admit that I have a morbid personality, and I often describe myself as slightly obsessive, but this book was more hopefully than depressing.  There are so many amazing people in this world, who have suffered and thrived when confronted with challenges that are unfathomable to me.  As soon as I have more reliable Internet, I plan on taking the Survivors Profile test.  I will find out which of the five survivor archetypes I fit in and what my top survivor skills are. 

We are all survivors, but there are basic skills that we can learn and hone that may come into play on that fateful day when all hell breaks loose.  I highly recommend this book that has changed my outlook on life, and may just save yours. 


According to my online exam:

My main skills: PURPOSE, HOPE and RESILIENCE

Your Survivor Type: FIGHTER
Your Survivor IQ tells you precisely which kind you are. After analyzing your answers, it’s clear that you’re a Fighter. To deserve this description, you don’t have to punch like Muhammad Ali or refuse to surrender like John McCain. While fighters come in every size and shape, they share one critical trait: They attack adversity head on with purpose and determination. Against any odds, they’re driven to succeed and won’t stop till they achieve their goals. When you’re a Fighter, you never stop attacking. Even at your lowest, you still find a way to bounce back and counterpunch. You have a passion for life and seize every day with zest and zeal. You’ve got the willpower and determination to struggle, resist and overcome even in the face of formidable opposition. Maybe you’re courageous and brave. Maybe you’re aggressive and competitive. Maybe you’re stubborn and unyielding. No matter, you get pumped up by the heat of battle. You push yourself to be the best. You’re motivated by a sense of purpose or a calling greater than yourself. You’re here on earth for a reason that’s worth real sacrifice. You’re resilient, tenacious and often feel stronger because you’ve endured hardship in the past. When you get knocked down, you bounce back again. You’re indomitable, psychologically tough and you can endure more physical pain and suffering than most. You keep going when others have given up and you battle to the very end. Above all, you’re a Fighter. "
My initial reaction was to place myself into this category.  I am proud to be a fighter, and will continue to prepare myself for the day when I need to put my survivor skills to use.  Until then, I will continue to walk the streets at night, with vigilance in mind and switch blade in hand.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Nicer than a gulag, much nicer in fact

Irkutsk is a beautiful city that I am starting to wish I had a vacation home in.  Maybe the TV show International House Hunters can help me out with that one.  The Russians here are just like I imagined after reading an article about Siberian pride.  The article argued that since to Soviet Government exiled its intellectuals and most threatening citizens, Siberians by nature are the best that Russia had to offer.  I found this to be a very interesting concept that really makes sense.  The Russians here seem fitter, even the old, nicer, and friendlier.  I thought I would have to put my “Don’t mess with me” face on as soon as I crossed the border, but I found that the people here generally walk with each other, telling stories and laughing.  I haven’t been yelled at once, definitely a departure from my time in St. Petersburg.  I walked into the fur store, and even though my Russian is obviously not native, they treated me with respect and attention like I was a store regular.  I found it satisfying to give them my business after I found the perfect шапка (hat). 

They just have these lying around in Siberia

James and I wandered the streets taking silly pictures and admiring the sites.  We both agreed it was the type of place I wouldn’t mind moving to for a few years.  It is small, yet modern; classic, yet extremely diverse; and historic, yet youthful.  It almost has the mix of suburbia and city that I appreciate in Austin, Texas.

Irkutsk's "Bus Station"
You really can’t visit Siberian without making a journey to Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, near the city of Listviyanka.  One-fifth of the world’s fresh water is found in this enormous lake that is 20-40 miles across and 400 miles long.  80% of its animal life is native only to the area – including the world’s only fresh water seals.  Eager to see this natural beauty, we took a cab to the bus station.  The driver, who’s cab boasted an “anti-tobacco” car freshener, insisted that the buses are no good, and that we should just pay him.  We insisted that we are not rich, and preferred to save money on the bus.  Well, he was right.  He dropped us off at a dirt parking lot filled with mini buses and made our way to the one that would take us to the lake.  We finally found an old Soviet bus that would not leave until it was packed like a sardine can.  We were proudly the only Westerners on the bus. 
Me and my favorite Russian beer, Baltika

Kissing an Omol, the fish I ate for lunch

We arrived at the lake one hour later, ate some lunch and started exploring.  We drank beers and took pictures along the water, and I even found a new rock for my rock collection (I know it’s silly to collect rocks along a backpacking trip, but my first rock was from the Finish Gulf near Peterhof outside of St. Petersburg).  That night we stayed in a traditional Siberian home and even got to enjoy a баня (Russian style sauna).  The banya was my favorite.  This is an old tradition still commonly found in Russia.  First, you sit in the sauna for as long as you can take it, I suppose.  Then someone comes in and lightly taps you with birch branches, which sounds painful but is actually very nice.  The smell of the branches reminds me of Eucalyptus leaves.  After you are through, you stand under a bucket of freezing water, brace yourself, and pull the cord.  The bucket releases its supply of frigid water onto you in a bust of exhilaration.  Russians just really like to torture themselves it seems. 

Birch Braches

Bucket of Cold Water

Isn't Siberia Beautiful?

This was the scenery near the hostel we were crashing at for the night.  It's been a long time since I have seen the leaves change colors.

Today, back in Irkutsk, I met Lenin and the heroes of the Soviet Union.  Tomorrow, I sit on a train again and relish what is left of my supply of instant noodles from China.  
Victory Pose!

What happened Lenin?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Siberian Frost

I woke up this morning feeling quite warm and cozy.  This is slightly surprising since I slept in my swim suit, a sheet and a small blanket I stole from Aircanada.  I managed to find all my belongings, my electronics were charging and I even woke up 10 minutes before our alarm went off.  Off to a good start.  As I casually brushed my teeth, I noticed some white fluttering outside the window.  Frost!  How exciting.  With my new mink hat purchase, I am ready to brave the cold. 

James: “Erica, remember when we thought we would take the Trans-Siberian Railway and make it to Moscow before it got cold?”
Erica: “Ah yes, what were we thinking.”

I love this weather; I enjoy long coats, fur hats and gloves.  There is something incredibly classy about the attire.  Besides, I would feel like I cheated if we came to Siberia when it was warm. 

The club we were at was fun, though slightly different than I imagined.  Maybe it was the girls in the tennis shoes that threw me off.  After an hour or so of dancing and drinking a couple beers, we resolved we would walk back to our homestay.  James went to the restroom, and I pulled out my cell phone to finish a game of Solitaire.  Before I knew it, I was surrounded by Russian boys, or men?  I am not sure.  They looked young, but I am very bad at the “Guess my age” game.  James came back and we all chatted in Russian until the bottle of vodka arrived. I am lucky that my Russian tutor, Olga, taught me the ancient Russian shot taking method; the Russians thought I was a pro!  We each took a couple of shots, had some laughs, and before we knew it, as quickly as the materialized, they were gone.  Fearful that they would come back with another bottle, we made our escape.
Irkutsk is a beautiful, calm, and clean city.  

Today we go to Lake Baikal – one of the oldest known lakes on earth. 

As I was going to St. Ives

I was actually on my way to Irkutsk, Russia when I got to experience smuggling at its best.  This train ride was much different from the one to Ulaan Baatar as this one was full and brimming with commotion.  Most everyone on this train had sacks, sausages, socks, sweaters – how many were going to St. Ives?
The Russian regulations state that one person can only carry a specific number of each good over the border, so everyone basically trades goods to have a reasonable amount and not spark any Russian attention.  They pay innocent Westerners small change to stuff socks and jeans into their suitcases until they cross the border.  The train was like the Silk Road in Beijing, only that instead of everyone trying to sell you their goods, they were asking you to carry these goods and they would pay you! 

Imagine this: One of my neighbors arrived at the train station penniless, as she figured she would be switching currencies anyways, so the temptation of a few easy dollars was high.  She agreed to take one bag of shirts, but quickly they urged her to help just a little bit more.  Before she knew it she was smuggling a bedding case, one furry jacket, two sweaters, sixteen socks, a Mongolian vest and two sacks of zip up pull overs.  She ran through scenarios in her mind, how would she explain the large amount of goods to the Russian authorities?  “I have a large family!  Everything was just so cheap in Mongolia!” she would cry.  These Mongolian traders would not have entrusted her with so many valuable if they had any fear that it would be confiscated, she reasoned in her mind; they must do this all the time.

The stern faced Russian border control entered with their narcotic smelling dogs.  “What if they gave me narcotics?  No, that would be a foolish thing to entrust to a stranger.”  Her heart raced, but remembered they would be able to smell fear.  After five hours of questioning, declaration forms, and dogs running up and down the corridors, she was free.  Passport back in hand, she was able to let out one long exhale and sleep putting her dirty past behind her. 

In the end I asked her if the 600 roubles ($20) were worth the possibility of ending up in a Siberian gulag.  She responded, “I don’t know, but it will make for one hell of a story.”

Have you ever been kicked by a horse?

We were driven to the Mongolian National Park for our day of traditional Mongolian food, horseback riding and exploration.  We first had to stop at a local market for provisions of water, toilet paper, and of course, vodka.  We went in on a bottle with two other people who we would be sharing our Ger with.  We went a little crazy and managed to spend way more money than we actually had however.  I insisted that James put the Kit Kat bar back, along with my Coca-Cola and crackers.  They were after all, just junk food!  The couple we were with spotted us, even after my original rejection of their charity.  It was one of the more embarrassing moments one could have.  “Hey there strangers, do you mind paying for my American indulgence of unnecessary food?”  In the end, it was fine, but I couldn’t help asking James, “Как тебя не стыдно?”  Or “How have you no shame?”

We arrived at the Ger and were told lunch at 2, horses at 4.  That was about all the interaction we originally got from our host family.  After taking some amazing pictures of our scenery, we decided to rest up after the long drive to the wilderness then embark on a hike after lunch.  Our lunch was delicious, although we were served on a little table next to the dogs; it was a dangerous task, eating lunch while simultaneously pushing hungry dogs away from your plate.

 After an afternoon hike, I was pumped and ready to horseback ride!  I have only done it a few times, but I figure it is in my blood, so I was going to make the best of it.  There was one wild black horse in the pack – James got him.  I was a little worried, but I didn’t think much of it until later when we started our journey.  James’ horse liked to stop and just stand still, and after the second time doing so, the horse decided to simple go down and lie down, effectively getting James off of him.  We all thought it was funny until James started chasing after his horse and got a good bucking to the thigh!  That is something you don’t see every day!  Luckily, he was just fine but his horse had gotten loose.  Our Mongolian guy who came with us tried multiple times to lasso the horse but he was unable.  Feeling pretty confident on my horse, I decided to help and managed to stop James’ horse and grab onto his reign.  I was feeling very proud of myself to have been able to catch a wild horse.  Our tour guide switched horses with James so he no longer had to fear the wrath of black beauty.

The rest of the afternoon was unreal. I got my horse to rapidly gallop all around the Mongolian country side.  I pretended I was in the movie Avatar and made Navi war cries as I flew through the air.  My mother would be proud of my riding skills if she had seen me.  All was going well until James’ saddle came loose and he started shifting up and down the horse’s neck!  He had to eject, catching his foot in the stirrup.  Again, luckily, he was just fine.  James is a resilient guy.  I don’t know too many people who would take getting bucked and kicked that calmly. 

All in all, the Mongolian countryside is a beautiful place to visit.  It was unfortunate however that there was so much trash and debris everywhere.  It was shocking to find a National Park with a landfill right in the middle of it.  Hopefully, as Mongolia continues on its way to becoming a more prosperous nation, I imagine it will begin to value and take more pride in its national landmarks.  This prehistoric countryside is definitely worth preserving.

Mongolia just keeps getting better and better

James and I literally had just a few hours to explore Ulaan Baatar before having to go back to the hostel to get ready for an evening out.  We briskly power walked to the main square, took pictures with Mongolian historical figures and kept our valuables extremely close.  Although supposedly violent crime is low here, pick-pocketing is on the rise. 

James and I wandered down a street, taking an occasional picture, when I noticed a huge red flag.  A man started to stare at James and proceeded to point at him with this menacing look of disgust that yelled to me “I’m gonna get you.”  The man was approximately 5’1’’ and if necessary, I probably could have wrestled him to the ground.  Never the less, my fight of flight came into play when he started following us. 
E: “James, that little guy is following us…”
J: “Should we stop and let him pass?”
E: “No… let’s… Take a look in this store!”

We jumped into a local store just as the man managed to approach James.  The man knew he couldn’t follow us into the store, so he just yelled something in Mongolian at James, clapped his hands in a “damn it, so close” sort of fashion and walked away.  I am not sure what he wanted, but I was proud of myself to have noticed a potential threat and thwarted it.  Maybe I am part of the Survivor’s Club.  More a little later on that amazing book that I just finished reading.

After successfully posting previous blog posts that I was unable to upload in communist Beijing, we got ready and went out of a night on the very small town.  I got enough fashion tips by looking around during the day; turns out Mongolian women have a very awesome sense of style!  A delightful departure from Beijing’s frump meets knock off designer clothes.
First we went to a brewery restaurant and ordered a beer.  The place was called MB, the beer was amazing and the people were friendly.  We proceeded to look for a dance club.  We were more weary this time about traveling at night, fearing we would have a run in with xenophobic drunk, so I walked with a switch blade in my hand at all times.  I would ocassionallly flash it in a typical East Lost Angeles fashion – figured it is in my blood, might as well utilize the fear factor. 

The club was bumping Shakira’s “My hips don’t lie” and Will Smith’s “Getting Jiggy with it.”  I broke it down, and might have scared some of the Mongolians there who have only ever seen good dancing on television.  I can’t really tell you if I made friends or enemies that night.  The men seemed to love it, because they all managed to leave their beers and join the circle that promptly emerged.  I danced with one of the girls there and she seemed very happy.  Another girl actually started a dance fight with me!  We were circling and fist throwing and all that jazz you would see in movies like Step Up. Although at some point she decided she couldn’t beat me so she tried to carry me out of the circle.  It was very strange – but in the end, I think we were friends because she was sad to see me run off when James and I had to make our midnight curfew.  Unfortunately, the curfew was a lie and we could have stayed out later.  We had to regain our strength for the journey to the Mongolian National Forest so I was happy I got to bed at a reasonable hour.  

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Where have all the Russians gone?

Strangely, there were more Chinese Railway Conductors on this train than actual passengers.  Our entire car has a grand total of 4 people (James and me included).  So far, we met a German couple, some Danish guys, two Frenchmen, a couple Mongolians, and one Russian.  The one Russian we met actually now lives in Beijing and is only traveling to Ulan Bator to visit his sick mother-in-law.  We ask him if he visits his family in Russia often.  He laughs and says most likely not ever.  “The next time I visit my homeland, I will be in a tin can.”  I love dark Russian humor. 

There are a few explanations why our train seems so deserted.  I suppose we are technically taking this train the “wrong” way – East to West; also this is an off season as most people don’t generally want to travel through Siberia during the start of winter.  Or maybe, everyone realized that flying is just as cheap and much faster…  Either way, I am happy to be on this outdated form of travel.  I feel transported back in time, to a time before electronics and iPods crowded out conversations.  We relax in the dining car over coffee, feeling the tracks underneath us, chatting with travelers from other distant lands about what adventures they have embarked on.  Taking a train is more than just getting from point A to point B – it represents a different way of life. 

Next stop – Mongolia. 

Потому здесь так холодно? Why is it so cold in here?

Друзья, мне уже холодно!  Это не Сибирь!  Я ножу два шарфы, четыре одеяла и два куртки.  Моя книга сказала, что будете тепло на поезде.  Что случилось?  У меня тоже болит горло и у меня насморк.  Я пью чай, но я надеюсь, что  лучше чувствую.  Я принесла много лекарство, потому что, я ипохондрик (это шутка, конечно).  Надо надеяться, когда я прибываю в Монголию, моя энергия вернутся.  Сейчас надо спать.

Friends, I am already cold! This isn’t Siberia!  I am wearing two scarves, four blankets and two jackets.  My book informed me that it would be warm on the actual train.  What happened?  My head also hurts, and I have a running nose.  I am drinking tea so I hope I will start to feel better.  I brought a lot of medicine, because I am a hypochondriac (just kidding).  Hopefully, when I arrive in Mongolia my energy will have returned.  For now, I must sleep.

A breath of fresh air

I climbed the Great Wall of China today, and although wonderful and stupendous, what I was looking forward to the most was the crisp mountain air.  I will admit that in general I am a bit jaded to most places I encounter in life, but the wall is a feat of medieval engineering that is unfathomable.  I can’t believe that they were able to build something so larger in 1404 BC; heck, I couldn’t even believe those street vendors on the wall hike up with their goods and carts every day to make a living.  They must be friends with the ski lift operators.  The weather was what I imagined it would be – misty, mysterious, and gray.  It made the hike enjoyable.  It was truly beautiful, and I highly recommend a visit through China, if nothing else, just to see this wall.

My advice to you: 
1. I recommend drinking a beer when you finally make it to the top.  It just might be my new favorite thing to tell people I've done.  "I drank a beer on the Great Wall of China."

2. Don't be like the Russian woman I saw at the bottom of the mountain - Do NOT wear leopard print heels to the Great Wall of China!  Especially when its raining, it can be very treacherous even in tennis shoes.  

3. If it isn't raining, you should take the toboggans down.  They looked incredibly fun.  Due to the weather, we had to resort to another death trap form of descending the wall, a ski lift. 

The Chinese men who ran the lift were laughing because James was so tall he almost didn't even make it into the lift.  I was afraid he would be decapitated.  Hope he got the "dismemberment" clause on his travel insurance! 

4.  Also, don't forget to get a group shot from the top of the wall.  This picture may very well back it's way onto my mantle someday.  

Mind if I take a cigarette break?

Yes, I know that there is a lot of traffic, but do you really need to grumble and complain under your breath, cabista?  China’s fine taxi cab system – “I will take a break when I damn-well want to take a break.”   On Friday evening, the metro was so incredibly crowded that we decided to go above ground to catch a taxi.  The metro made me feel like I was attempting to flee the Soviet Union.  Finding a cab was almost as futile.  After finally coercing a taxi driver into taking us to our destination, we found ourselves in an equally horrific mire – one that resembled the scene from Independence Day when everyone was driving out of the city, only to realize that they should just grab their suitcases and start walking lest they parish in the Armageddon.  We were stuck in jam so bad that our cab driver literally turned off the engine, got out of the cab, and light up a cigarette.  Most cabs won’t even pick you up on a Friday night.  Like I said, if the government is paying you one way or another, why should you pick up a fare and brave Beijing during rush hour?  Haven’t you read any Ayn Rand?  

Pizza Hut and Haagen Daaz- What else would we want to eat in China?

Pizza Hut and Haagen Daaz are fancy restaurants in China.  They have waitresses, beautiful lamps, and a wide assortment of foods.  My family ordered some of the most deceivingly delicious meal at Pizza Hut.  One of our entrees was called “Ocean Treasures.”  It came in a little ceramic dish with six cups.  Each cup was filled with tentacles, shrimp and other seafood items.  It was doused in pumpkin soup, and covered with cheese. Our pizza had little cheese and shrimp balls cooked into the crust. This is China’s idea of American food.

Shrimp Ball and Cheese Pizza

Ocean Treasures "Soup"

 James managed to find his way through the rain and we eventually headed to Haagen Daaz.  The selection was stupendous, and I am saddened by the fact that my only experience with the brand in the US is little ice cream bars that come in boxes from Costco.  Delicious, but just not as good as “Melting with Baileys.”

Taxis and Antiques

Being a family of five is rough.  Rollercoasters typical seat pairs, tables have four chairs, and only four people fit in a taxi.  This morning, my family tried to get to Dazhalan Street to get some breakfast and decided we would take the easier route and take a taxi.   My sister asks the front desk to kindly call us an extra-large taxi so we can all sit together, concierge suggests two cabs instead.  Ok…sure.  Two cabs it is.  We wait on the curb and promptly the first taxi arrives.  My sister explains where to take my parents since the second cab had not arrived and the driver was too impatient to wait.  After much chatter back and forth in Chinese, the cab zooms off, leaving the three sisters waiting for taxi #2.  It never came so we all are escorted to the street by the bell hop where to try to hail another.  Why the second one never came, we will never know.  We finally find an empty cab, but the driver refuses to take us to the Dazhalan Street – we have no idea why, it’s not like this street is clear across town.  The bell hop tells us we should walk down the street to another intersection to have better luck.  Thank you, Fei Tian Hotel.  We walk and continue to eye taxis going by but are unable to spot an empty one.  After minutes, an angel appears from the streets!  We are about to jump in as Diana negotiates the price.  He states that he simply does not want to go that far.  We spit on his car as he drives away.  Don’t worry - this is Beijing, everyone spits everywhere.    We run after another cab and he also puts up a hissy fit so we try jumping in the cab behind him.  He argues, but we have learned from our prior hesitancies and all just jump in before he has a chance to accelerate.  Safe- we found a ride.  I am now convinced that the cab companies are all regulated by the Communist Chinese Party – why else would a cab driver turn down an easy fare?  I hate Chinese cab drivers- New York now seems like a walk in the park.

Everything is forgotten because our delicious four course breakfast was only 30 Yuan.  That’s 5 dollars, people!  Feeding a family of five was never so easy!  Following our steal of a deal, we march past pet crickets and other touristy Chinese gift ware.

Later, we stumbled upon the antique district at Liulichang Market and go exploring.  There was one little hole in the wall store that looked like it could be on Hoarder’s TV show.  We dug through dusty piles and boxes of antique coins, little hand painted vases and other trinkets that force us to ask “what-the-heck-is-this?”  I found this interesting and sharp looking blade-disk that looked like it served no functional purpose what so ever.  I thought it was the most amazing little thing and wondered what I could possibly do with it.  It looked like it had a cool hole at the top so it could hang for a chain - I thought maybe this would be a good Burning Man necklace so I casually asked the price.  1200 Yuan.  That’s almost $200!!  What the hell??  I would have paid maybe $5, maybe $10 max.  She insisted it was from some Dynasty some 200 years ago - but it looked like something that someone would find at a swap meet.  I told her I wished it was a fake so I could afford it and she laughed.  Luckily, I didn’t have to spend $200, because I later stumbled upon this other amazing replica.  My new purchase is a wine vessel from the Qin Dynasty which engraved phoenixes.  It is going to look so amazing in my new apartment, you don’t even know!  It is heavier than my rock collection, good think I have my parents to smuggle it back to the US for me at the end of the trip!

Bu Yao! : Don’t want any!

This is my new favorite Chinese phrase that my sister taught me.  Basically this is what you want to be telling people all day because someone is always trying to sell you something!
It all started this morning when a Chinese woman approached my family and was insistent that we need a guided tour by her because the “Forbidden City is so big.”  After a couple minutes of unsuccessfully trying to resist her advances, my older sister, Diana, finally steps in:
Diana: “I am sure we do not need a tour, lady.  We will just read the signs”
Tour Guide: “…but what about all the antiques?”
Diana: “All the antiques were rescued by the Nationalists and are now in Taiwan.”
Tour Guide: “…But the Forbidden City is so big…”

Vendors continued to offer us goods as we wandered  Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and various shopping areas.  I most definitely did not want to try this afternoon dessert.  This Chinese delicacy is alive until ordered, then in a truly Texas fashion, they are deep fried.  Yum.
We wandered this giant department store with multiple stories that resembled a Mexican flea market, only that most of the knock off goods actually looked real!  The best part was all the young men and women so fascinated with my sisters’ hair.  In an effort to find out if their hair is fake they would ask “copy” or ”original.”  You will never believe how amazed they were that their hair was “original” not a wig.  “Lady, your hairstyle is so fashion!”

I love China. Someone offers you something for 100 Yuan ($14.79) and you retort by offering 10 Yuan ($1.47).  You usually settle at about 15 Yuan.  Unless you are my mom or sister, they will usually get anything for about 10% of original asking price.   If they don’t accept your offer, you simply walk away until they yell for you to come back so they can bring their prices down.  I bought some of the most amazing little things today for so cheap!  

So far so good.  I am saddened that China has black listed Facebook and blogger so I won’t be uploading anything until Mongolia.  (Hello from the future!  I made it to Mongolia, thanks for reading my back dated posts!)

Introducing the Batres Family

I apologize for my rudeness; I should have introduced you sooner.  Please, avid readers, meet my mom, dad, and two sisters, Diana and Elizabeth.

I call my dad “Papa,” and my mom “Mama.”  My parents run the clinic that I was working at over the summer.  My classy mother is an ex-attorney turned office manager and a hard bargainer who will stop at nothing to get the price she wants.   I look up to my father, because he embodies the American Dream – he is a self-made man who immigrated to the US when he was 10 and became a doctor.  He finds no shame in shaving his face in public using his iPad as a mirror.  My older sister is the one in the lovely purple – she is our Chinese tour guide extraordinaire.  She has been taking Chinese for 6 years now and is just completing her masters from National Taiwan University.  Diana dyed her hair for Burning Man, but plans on letting it grow out.  Let me introduce you to my younger fashionable sister in the blue, Elizabeth.  She has had blue hair for a year and three months.  One of the first times I saw her with the new do was when she came to San Francisco to visit me for Love Evolution (Love Fest), a crazy 12 hour rave style dance party in front of City Hall.  People were so excited about her sense of fashion; they came from all over and ask if they could take pictures with her.   

I am proud to come from a strange family, where pet chickens in suburbia and tying your children on roller blades to the back of the minivan to teach them how to water ski is perfectly acceptable.  We are on the loud side, but wouldn’t you if you had an amazing story to tell?  I am not sure how many complete strangers and family friends have jokingly asked me, “What’s wrong with you?”  At first I was completely confused and wondered if my shirt was on inside out.  Turns out they were wondering why my hair is not some flamboyant color.  I just tell them that I wanted to look different! 

Upon arrival to Beijing I notice the stares we get from the sea of black-haired people.  We walk down the mega shopping center and the sales-girls claw at the colored strands of my sisters’ hair in sheer amazement; a traffic officer makes small talk, laughs and asks me to take pictures of him with Elizabeth.  In general people just love seeing something completely different.  I really thought there was a larger subculture here; after all, I thought colorful hair and trendy clothes were just…Asian.  Turns out, I spent too much time in my home town of Rowland Heights; I was thinking Taiwanese, not Chinese.  I guess now I will have a better shot at

I love my family for having the courage to stand up and just be different.  

Sunday, September 12, 2010

ООО Канада! : Ohhh Canada!

Смотрите моя фотка!  Я уже не спала!  Я только спала два часа утром субботы и вечера вечером была свадьба все день.  После свадьбе мы с семьей поехали в ресторан, чтобы пожаловать мой день рождения.  Мои друзья, Ашли и Абрей, приходили.  Я была так рада!  

У меня были фотки, но я потеряли они к сожалению.  Не хочу расковыриваться об этом.  Мы с семьей ездили в аэропорт очень рано а, поэтому нам нужны надо были ложиться на полу.  Это фотки из ейФона
Я так устала!!  Надо спать.  Следующий самолёт отдаётВ Пекин!  

Look at this picture!  I still haven’t had a real night’s sleep.  I only slept 2 hours on Friday night before I went to the airport and yesterday was the wedding.  After the wedding I went with my family to a restaurant in Los Angeles to celebrate my birthday before going to the airport.  My two best friends, Ashley and Aubrey, came as well.  I was so excited to actually get to have company because I was under the impression that they only birthday celebrating I would do would be scoring free drinks on the flight to China.  I had a lot of awesome sleep deprived pictures from this early morning rendezvous at Canter’s Restaurant but I lot them all, unfortunately.  I don’t really want to talk about it. 

Anyways, my family and I all arrived at the airport super early because my mom was worried about it being an international flight.  She insisted 3 hours prior to take off was the minimum (though you all know how I feel about showing up 5 minutes before my flight leaves).  We ended up sleeping on the floor waiting for the counter to open so we could check in our bags.  This picture was spared because it was taken on the iPhone.

I am so tired!!  I need to sleep.  Next flight waits!  Next stop, Beijing!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Самолет на Лос Анжелес: Flight to Los Angeles

Сегодня я поеду домой из Техаса, чтобы походить на свадьбу Шона (моя двоюродная братья).  Ребята, мне очень нравится аэропорты!  Я знаю, что это странно, но всегда я познакомилась интересный люди.  Аэропорты – портал мира.

Я много летала c тех пор я маленькая девушка.  Моя семья живет в Мексике, и я часто посещала их.  Мы с родителями путешествовали там, но когда мне восемь лет я самая поехала на самолете.  Опасно, вы думаете?  Нет, это было до терроризма!

Когда я должна быть в аэропорту?  Как поздно как можно! Утром, я проходила в терминал и просто вошла самолет.  ПрекрасноДо Лос Анжелеса

Today I am going home from Texas in order to attend Sean’s (my cousin) wedding.  Guys, I really love airports!  I know it’s a little strange but I always meet such interesting people.  Airports are portals to the world.   

I have been flying a lot since I was a little girl.  My family lives in Mexico so we would often go visit them.  My parents and I would go together, but when I was about eight years old I flew all alone to Mexico for the first time.  Dangerous, right?  No, this was pre-terrorism!

When should I be at the airport?  As late as possible!  I just wanted up to the terminal this morning and simply walked onto the plane.  Prefect!  Onward to Los Angeles! 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Austin Russian Language Meetup! : Остин Русский Язык Мейтуп

After months of anticipation, I finally got to meet my newest friends at the Austin Russian Language Meetup. is an amazing Internet based site that allows you to search for like-minded individuals with whom you can "meet up" with regularly to engage in activities you are interested in.  As soon as I decided to move to Austin, I logged into my account and searched "Russian" in "Austin, TX."   I was jumping off the walls with excitement when I found this group and was eager to finally attend a meeting.

Yesterday did not disappoint.  I met Marc, the administrator, who was very knowledgeable about the language and has been studying for some 15 + years.  He was really cool and we had a decent conversation in Russian upon my arrival.  I have high hopes for myself as this conversation went incredibly well.  Then there was Andromeda - a cool girl with an even cooler name!  I know we will have plenty in common as she is a Burner, actress, loves Shakespeare, and also speaks Spanish and Russian.  Tom was an equally cool man who has been studying Russian for a few years post his trip to Yugoslavia with his wife.  He came prepared with all kinds of material for us to share and look at during our lesson.

We chatted about Russian mail/Internet order brides - I told them about my friend, "Crazy Dave" from the Ukraine, who started one of the first Internet order bride services in the early 90's.  He did have high success rates with the couples he set up; most of them are still together with happy families to this day.

I was happy to hear they were interested in following my blog so I sent them the link.  One thing Marc did point out was that I don't have nearly as much Russian on my blog as I had been boasting! Well... let's see...

Я улетаю во воскресение!  Я уже не знаю где я буду жить на моей поездке.  У меня билеты на самелоте, но никакие гостиницы.  Моя книга заявляет, что я могу просто ходить в Мак Дональдсе в город, искать бабушку, и спросить ей где можно лежить спать. Я решила лучше сделать это потому что, я ленивая!  Книга, я рассчитываю на тебя!

Это мой план, чуваки.  Я уже не купила былеты на поезд потому что, чтобы купить былеты на интернет очень дорого!  Я знаю, что они дешевые купить в лицо.  Конечно, я больнуюсь.

I flight out on Sunday!  I still don't know where I will be living along my journey.  I have plane tickets, but no hotel reservations.  My travel book says I can just walk to the nearest McDonald's in the city, look for a grandmother, and ask her where I can sleep for the night.  I have decided to take this route because I am super lazy!  Travel book, I am totally relying on you, so please deliver.

This is my plan, guys.  I haven't even bought any train tickets because buying them online is so incredibly expensive!  I know that buying them in person is much cheaper... it has to be!  Of course I am kinda scared though, not going to lie.

I will let you guys know how it works out for me when the time comes.  For now, I will just focus on what fun things I can buy when in Beijing... !  This will be the shopping extravaganza of a lifetime!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"This is a Poly-what Camp?"

Burning Man Story #1:  

After 2 days of searching, Mark and I finally found the holy grail of night time munchies: a full restaurant that served grilled cheese sandwiches to hungry Burners between 12AM and 4AM.  After waiting in line, we were seated by our hostess at a table for three next to this nice-looking young woman.  We befriended this San Franciscan and asked her how she was enjoying her burn when she relayed this story to us:  She was invited to BM by an ex-boyfriend of 10 years ago with whom she gets along with reasonably well.  She had never been but had always wanted to go to Burning Man and accepted his invitation with trusting enthusiasm.  She said all was going well, until she discovered that the theme camp she was lodged with was the "Polyamorous Camp!"  She stated convincingly that she was not judgmental and really didn't mind, as she was perfectly fine wandering around the Playa on her own when things got a little tangled back at the camp site.   

That's kind of a big thing to neglect to tell someone right?!  That's worse than showing up to a Toga Party, only to find out your friends lied to's not a Toga Party.  Right, Mark?   

She had such a great attitude; I was floored by her ability to roll with the punches, and that was a pretty low blow.  She just shrugged her shoulders and didn't let that awkward love decagon get in her way of having a good Burn.