Thursday, September 20, 2012

cave feet

my feet.
my feet had become like the feet of a cave dweller. someone who lives in a damp cave. in darkness,and walks on rough stones all day.
they were disgusting.
if i was to take off my shoes, i would have to plan ahead. socks. i carried socks around. just as essential to my purse as toilet paper.
*no bathrooms here have toilet paper. it's a b.y.o. type thing. and if you forget...well, just don't forget.
so back to my hobbit-like hideous feet. for weeks i've wanted to treat myself to a pedicure. so yesterday the fates aligned and the day was upon me.
i spent the day with two new friends. boris and liling. both spoke mandarin. it was liling's birthday, and we spent the morning at some fancy pagoda thing (clearly i was really into it...). liling wanted to pamper herself for her birthday. and she was torn between massage or haircut.
after meandering streets and popping into different salons and massage places that ranged from super dodgy, to super sketchy we settled on something in between.
we found a nice hair saloon on a dodgy street, that had a dodgy foot 'cleaning' and massage place beside it. liling went into the saloon and boris and i popped into the foot place. i explained to boris the state of my feet. and that i wasnt so much leaning towards pedicure, as i was intense filing/exfoliating.
my mom probably is cursing me now. she is an advocate for nightly foot washing and scrubbing. but when showers are few and far between, my feet are pretty low on my priority list.
boris stuck his head in and asked what the deal was. they said they would were full now, but to pop a squat out front and they'd have room in ten minutes.
the front of the store was full glass windows. the store itself was just big enough to fit five lazy boy recliners wall to wall. each chair had a wooden bucket in front of it, and a foot stool on the other side of that bucket. and then there were four men and one woman who ran the show.
they motioned us in. boris sweet talked them into rearranging it so we could sit beside each other. which looking back on it, i'm not sure was a good idea.
literally...cave dweller feet.
boris translated.
first they brought over the wooden bucket which was full of hot tea. i plunked in my trolls and sat back smiling.then boris followed suit. after a couple minutes of soaking i was told to swivel around so i was sitting on the foot stool behind the bucket. feet still soaking, a back "massage" commenced.i didnt want to show pain. i was very aware to keep my face relaxed and not grip my hands wildy on the arms of the chair. i looked over at boris, and was happy to see he was feeling it too. they twisted me about cracking and prodding my whole back.then i felt his knee on my back. he pushed on me like he was trying to close a really old collapsible table that sometimes gets stuck midway through, and it needs a little extra push. but i liked it. i however made the mistake of telling boris, who translated my enthusiasm. i was then treated to two more 'knee-ings'
after the back was done, we flipped back onto the seats and the foot connoisseurs dipped their hands into the water and felt our feet. boris' guy said that his foot skin was thin and healthy, no filing for him. then my guy dipped his hands in. felt my feet, his eyes widened, face blank, lip curled, looked at me and then got up. he walked over to a table and came back with three files. metal,dark and looking slightly like torture devices. i was mortified. the poor man. and boris. boris and his perfect feet.
my foot dude held up my foot and got to work. like liling at the hair saloon beside us, pieces of me were falling to the floor. except instead of hair...i had hunks and chunks of foot grossness falling on the floor. meanwhile, boris' foot massage had started.
i remember watching an episode of the amazing race with mom and dad, and the challenge was to endure a traditional chinese foot massage. and after seeing boris' expression, i had a feeling that is what we signed up for. after my feet were thoroughly hacked to perfection, my torture began. it was the most unusual feeling. it was an excruciating combination of intense tickle and brutal pain. it felt like he was trying to rip apart the muscles in my foot. and sometimes he would alternate between foot torture and would prop my foot up on the stool and start prodding my calf. i had to restrain myself from kicking him in the chest.
after the first couple minutes i got somewhat adjusted. i didnt wince as much.
our feet guys started talking to boris.
i asked him what they were saying.
boris said that they can tell us about what is going on in our bodies based on our feet. boris was told he wasn't getting restful sleep, and  that he was having stomach issues.
i asked him what my guy had to say about me. well he had a lot to say.
bad skin, bad skin caused by too much chi in my body. i can cure this by drinking more herbal tea, specifically chrysanthemum tea if i can. i also am at risk for developing low blood pressure and gall stones. i need more restful sleep, i have gastric digestive problems, and my liver is too 'heaty'. boris did his best to describe what heaty was. but i still dont get it. but the foot guy said that getting cupping done would help with the liver and the too much chi in my body thing. i told boris to tell him that i got it done in beijing and i liked it.
boris did, and then told me that they could do it here if i wanted. i looked around. we were in the tiniest 'spa' ever, and there was only one room.
boris noted my confusion.
'there is a curtain on your chair. they will pull it across. it is 20 yuan if you are interested'
twenty yuan is three dollars and twenty cents. heck yes i was interested. so a thin pink sheet was pulled across my lazy boy, and it was fully reclined into 'bed' mode. i walked behind the curtain and boris translated for me.
okay lay down.
no, face at the other end.
okay you can take your shirt off.
now bra.
this is weird.
then i saw my foot dude pull a piece of paper with a bunch of tiny glass jars over to me.he lathered up my back with oil. i saw the flaming tongs get lit, and then i felt it. the first cup was sucked on my back. but instead of just leaving it in one place, he started to drag it all over my back. it was like when i was little and dad would suck the vacuum to my pant leg. except this was a super human vacuum, and it was on my bare skin. this hurt. but it was over soon, and he began to place all of the cups on my back. i could feel my skin behind sucked up into them. i waited like that for about ten or fifteen minutes. then they were twisted off. i got dressed and paid the ridiculously low sum of eight dollars for the whole thing! over an hour, new feet, foot and back massage and cupping!
my mind was blown!
when i got out from behind the pink curtain i looked in the mirror.
i looked like a teenage mutant ninja turtle. the spots where the cups had swollen - a lot. i look like i had the most intense back muscles EVER! it was gross, and kind of awesome.
so needless to say, i no longer have cave feet.
and i have a fond appreciation for sketchy looking foot massage places :)

back in beijing

me and christoffer
instead of taking the train back to beijing i flew. it was about the same price, and twenty eight hours shorter.
the night before my flight i met up with my friends who had just finished the mongol derby. one of them had the same flight as me. so christoffer (who came in 4th in the derby!) and i set off for beijing the next night. when we arrived in beijing christoffer asked if i wanted to share a taxi into the city.
i explained that i was couchsurfing and told my hosts i would be taking a bus to where they live.
christoffer wasnt having any of this ridiculous 'bus' business, and insisted on a taxi.
we consulted a map and figured out that we were both headed in the same general direction.
christoffer was headed into the heart of the city to go pick up suits from a tailor. then he had to find a place to stay for the night.
he asked where i was going.
"couchsurfing" i said with a smile.
he didnt know what it was. i explained all about it. which i now do with pleasure. but every time i talk about it, it always sounds like im trying to get someone to join a cult.
"youve got to try it"
"everyone is amazing"
"ive told my friends about it and they joined - you should too..."
christoffer was intrigued.
when we got to the tailors i gave him my cs'ers phone number in case he needed help with something. i wished him luck with the suits, finding a place to stay, and his flight home to sweden in the morning. i also reminded him that if he got stuck, he could always call my host and they most likely would welcome him for the night if he was in a pinch. we hugged, said our goodbyes and then i was off in search of yue (the mom) and tong (the dad).
yue and tong sent me an offer to host me on couchsurfing after seeing an open couch request i had posted for beijing.
yue and tong are around my mom and dads age. they live in an apt in central beijing. they have one daughter who is a couple years older than me.
when the cab driver and i left the tailors i gave him tong's cell number to call so she could navigate us to her location. it worked like a charm. i could hear her on the other end of the cabbies phone rambling off directions in mandarin. and it worked. soon enough it was about 10pm and the cab had pulled over. i thanked him profusely and handed him the fare. when i turned to open my door i saw a short chinese women with a huge smile, nodding and opening my door for me. it was tong.
"hi!!! i made it!" i said while wrapping her up in a big canadian hug. which, by the way is by far the best greeting. screw europe and their stupid one, two and three cheek kisses, or the ever popular handshake. a hug is where it's at. and im a good hugger. i like to showcase my skills early on.
i released tong. she thanked the cab driver, helped me swing on my pack and we were off.
on the walk to her apartment i explained how my flight was. that i had taken the cab with my friend christoffer from sweden.
"from sweden?" tong asked.
"yes, gothenburg" i replied. and then replayed my answer over in my head to make sure i didn't say gotham city, a common slip - surprising for a non batman fan such as myself. although i could go for christian bale in a tight black suit any day.
"is he visiting beijing for a while?"
"nope, just picking up some suits and then finding a place to stay for the night before his flight in the morning"
"he doesnt know where he is staying?"
me and yue in front of their apt
"nope, he was considering a hostel, hotel, and was even going to try using charades to ask the tailor shop if he could sleep in the shop until they open in the morning"
 "what a shame, you could have told him he could stay here"
"well i did give him your number in case he got stuck, or needed help translating with the tailor, so he might call"
"it would be nice to practice my swedish" tong said as we entered the apartment.
"practice your what? speak swedish?"
"didnt you see in our profile? we used to live in sweden, i even have studied swedish, and our daughter had lived in sweden since she was ten"
i couldn't believe my ears. christoffer would loose his mind.
tong opened the apartment door.
"we are home!"
and from around the corner popped yue with a plate full of sliced peaches. he helped me off with my pack. and we all sat in the living room. well, yue and i sat at first. tong raced about the kitchen preparing plates and plates of food to offer me. i felt like royalty.
i was still excited and intrigued about the swedish factor. i was asking so many questions they could hardly keep up. i explained christoffer and the tailor, and i asked about their daughter, and why sweden, and for how long. and then the phone rang.
tong whipped her head in my direction and smiled.
she answered her phone in english.
and then the phone was handed to me.
"think i can come stay with you tonight? would they mind?" asked christoffer.
i looked up into the eager and awaiting faces of tong and yue.
"when can you get here?" i asked with a smile.
then i handed the phone back to tong who then gave more directions to a cab driver christoffer had hailed. and within twenty minutes, christoffer too was sitting in their kitchen being stuffed with tea and freshly sliced peaches.
that night was a whirlwind of excitement. we stayed up talking late into the night. no one could really believe the chances of this group of people finding each other. especially christoffer, who now has a strong appreciation for my cult like love of couchsurfing. and the wonders it produces.
the morning came too soon. we all had more of a nap, instead of a nights sleep before we all woke for christoffers send off.
tong made us a big breakfast and we all left the apartment and walked christoffer to his cab for the airport. cameras in hand for a round or eight, of goodbye photos. 
 i spent the next four days becoming tong and yues 'white' daughter. i loved the position. family meals three times a day. family swims each night before dinner. even all three of us would cuddle up on the couch after dinner to watch tong's favorite chinese soap opera. beijing youth. even without subtitles i was able to follow the story line and become an addict.
pre-dinner swim at a lake near their home
tong and yue treated me like family. they helped me buy tickets online for my upcoming train rides. making sure i got good sleeper cars. tong even had a friend at the post office who got me a sweet deal on sending a package home. my stay with them was perfect. it satisfied a homesickness need i didnt realize was there. 

tong helping me send a pkg home
i dont think the world is a small place. that common saying is a little off. actually, it is a lot off.
the world is a huge place.
a huge place full of people that will surprise you.
surprise you with kindness. with hospitality. with generosity. with knowledge. with time. with stories.
and i really do love a good surprise.
when i have experiences like this one with christoffer, tong and yue, it really makes me think.
it doesnt matter where i am.
it is the people that make my trip.
goodbye dinner
sure being on the wide open plains in mongolia was unbelivable. but without the silly belgium, my friend sarah, or my horse henry, it would have just been me with a gorgeous backdrop.
i really do like traveling alone. i like me. i like spending time with me.
but i like those chunks of time to be sprinkled with surprise.
and couchsurfing and travel sure helps with the sprinkles. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

the adventurists

after my stint in the gobi i was thrilled to be in a hostel again. when checking in i met a girl from belgium, sarah.we checked in together. i was in a ten bed mixed dorm, and sarah was in a private double with an ensuite. well ooo-la-la sarah. she headed upstairs to her kingdom, and i dumped my bag amoungst a stinky heap in the ten bed dorm. now there really was a stinky heap. it was right beside my bunk.the heap consisted of duffle bags, dirty clothes, car cables, foot spray,well used sleeping bags and vegemite...aussies! the owners of this heap were ted, simon and bill. they had just completed the mongol rally. i told them of my love for the adventurists expeditions, and how i had friends doing the derby as well.
out we go
and it was this connection to the derby...and some suggesting from a friend, that persuaded me to try horse riding. cause apparently it is THE thing to do in mongolia. and luckily i had bumped into a guy from the states the day before who recommended one outfit that was great at catering to first timers horse riding needs. so we called up the number he gave us, and within an hour a man named mindee came and picked us up at our hostel and started to drive us out into the steppe. halfway to the camp mindee pulled over and told us someone else would pick us up soon and take us the rest of the way. right as he was finishing explaining the change of plan, a large blue van pulled up. sarah and i hopped in. there were six guys in the van already. four brits, and two belgians. all of them had just finished the mongol rally!
ger camp
the camp is just an hour outside of the city. but it is over a cluster of mountainy hill things so you feel like you are in the middle of nothing. or as a friend described it..."it looks like we are riding through the PC background"
just rolling green hills in every direction.
we pulled up to the camp and there were about twelve white gers clumped together. we got out, were outfitted with chaps and helmets, and then lead up to the horses. mongolian horses are all short and thick. not built for speed so much as endurance. they are the horses that helped chingis khan conquer nations.
our 'lesson' consisted of them explaining the 'choo' meant go, and to always approach the horse, get on and off from the left.
'what means stop?'
'there is no word for stop'
the horses were dealt out. i was given one of the tame ones. i named him henry.
henry was grey and not too short. he started off slow, but when he heard our guide yell CHOO, well jesus did henry ever choo. i talked to him constantly.
slow down henry!!!
watch out for the marmut holes henry, you could break an ankle!
s-s-s-llll-o-o-W-W D-D-D-OWN HENRY!!!!
henry kept up with the guide the whole time. our guide would have to turn around and round up some of the horses that weren't being the most coopertive.
when we returned back to the camp about an hour later, we found one of the belgians who had turned back after just getting down the trail head.
'didnt like your horse jean?'
'well i say to him - lets go, and he say no, he turn round, i say okay - he da one walking'
this same belgian introduced sarah and i to some of the others.
'emily, dis is mattieu from england'
'hi mattieu im emily'
i learned three days later when talking to mattieu that his name is matthew. i had been calling him mattieu because a french belgian intoduced us. i felt like an idiot.the boys left that afternoon. but sarah and i were staying overnight in one of the gers, so we went on another ride that night with the same guide. only this time instead of an innocent hour long jaunt, we went on a five hour trek. over mountains, through rivers. well maybe over hills and through a brook...but still. it was the most beautiful thing i've done. i kept thinking while i was bopping along on henry that i couldnt believe i was actually there, on a horse, in mongolia. i couldnt stop smiling to myself.
after that crash course in riding mongolian horses, i felt like i had a better appreciation for my friends in the rally. my butt was sore, my thighs were rashy and red, and my back hurt. and every meal we ate at the horse camp revolved around flour, dairy and mutton.i never want to eat mutton again. mutton in soup, mutton on bread, mutton in bread, mutton boiled in the one pot the family had, so the water that is boiling for drinking water the next morning tastes like...MUTTON! but my hatred for it is nothing compared to that of my derby friends. who now cringe at the word. mutton and mountain are both curse words for the derby folk. who despise both equally.
oh! and during the five hour ride, our guide got our horses to stop outside of a nomadic families ger. he tied them up and we went inside. the man of the house sat at a raised bed at the back of the ger, and we all sat to his right. his wife came in soon after and went to a tall and large blue plastic drum beside the entrance to the ger. she stirred the wooden pole that was inside of it. then dipped in a laddle and poured a huge portion of white liquid into decorative blue and white bowls. it was arag. my time had finally come to drink what i had been reading about in blogs and guidebooks. arag is fermneted horse milk. it is roughly 3% alcohol, depending on how long its been sitting about in the drum. it tastes like thin plain yogurt that is kind of sour, room temperature, and carbonated...and alcoholic.i knew if i drank the whole thing i would explode or vomit. so i politely raised the bowl to my lips. brought it back down and then licked my lips. not too bad. so i raised the bowl again, as the wife looked at me intently. ready to read my expressions. this time i took a gulp. smiled and set my bowl on the table in front of me. sarah finished her whole bowl...and lets just say it was a rough ride home for her.
we headed back to our hostel in UB the next day. sarah was leaving the next morning and i was waiting to hear back from a potential cs host.but when i called her she told me she was hosting a french couple, so it couldn't work out. but then she asked what id be doing for my last couple days in UB. i told her that i didnt really have any plans. but that night i was meeting friends at the mongol rally party.she told me she was going there with her boyfriend. he is australian and would be wearing a green shirt.i told her i would be with three aussies and i would wear a white that was that.
the rally party started at the finish line, where the cars are brought when they arrive to the finish line there was a bar. so we stayed for a while before it moved to a club that the organizers had booked for the party. we made our way over there with a guy who had just completed the rally in a wheelchair! i was imediately impressed when we were leaving the finish line bar, which is on the fourth floor, and he (several beers deep) made his way flawlessly down so many flights of stairs in a wheelchair!
me and henry
the club was really really nice. and it made for a hilarious contrast when it became filled with hords of people who had just finished driving from england to mongolian in beat up cars. there were people in complete outdoor include northface pants and tilly hats, a bunch of british boys in matching leopard print tights and neon muscle shirts, and just a general stink of traveler grunge. the evening opened with a tradition mongolian band playing. it was so awesome to see these girls and guys dressed in elaborate traditional dress playing insane looking instruments. oh! and there was throat singing too.
at around eleven i spotted an asian girl kissing a white guy who was wearing a green shirt. i walked over, inturupted the moment.
emily anne!
lots of hugging and laughing followed.
"emily, meet me at the finish line tomorrow at noon and ill come get you and you can stay with me"
and that is exactly what i did.
it was great to cs again. meg and ben were amazing hosts and
on my first night at megs place i had gotten a msg from the aussie boys inviting us to dinner. so i told them i would meet them at 5 at the town square. meg was going to grab a quick shower and meet us there at 530.
at around 520 i see meg walking towards me and the aussie boys. she was holding a black puppy. meg had walked by someone who was selling puppies out of a cardboard box and bought one.
'what did you do?!'
'i bought a puppy, but i told them i would walk around with it for a bit before i made a decision. so i still can return it'
soon later ben, her boyfriend arrived. not at all shocked when i explained.
'what did i do?!' meg asked, now fully realizing the stupidity of the situation.
'well i impulse bought a chocolate bar today, you impulse bought a dog.'
by bedtime, the puppy (who i named jack) had been returned.
and i was tucked into my sleeping bag, wondering what took me so long to return to couchsurfing.
the next day i said goodbye to my aussie boys as they all headed off in different directions.
but luckily one of the three (ted), was heading south like me. we exchanged emails and made a plan. we would meet again in china.