Far East Touring – China, Hong Kong, and Cambodia

Hooking up with our daughter and her husband in China
From left to right: Me (Cindy), hubby Mike, our daughter and son-in-law.

When a friend or relative is in the U.S. foreign service and stationed abroad, they only get U.S. home leave once a year. If you want to see them more often than that, you must either travel to their post and vacation together from there, or rendezvous at another vacation destination.

So in late September 2014 we flew to Guangzhou, China (formerly known as Canton), where our daughter and son-in-law are stationed in the largest U.S. visa processing center in the Far East.  It is also one of the oldest diplomatic posts in Chin

The center of Guangzhou

Guangzhou's bustling city center reflects the economic vitality of today's China.

Guangzhou is the capital city of Guangdong province in South China, about 75 miles northwest of Hong Kong and 90 miles north of Macau. The city is a major trade, commercial and manufacturing center. With a population of 12.7 million it is the third largest city in China. It is not really a tourist destination per se, but it is representative of China’s great economic success.  Culturally, they produce exquisite sculpture of jade, ivory, wood, and other materials. They also make pottery and embroidery folk art. The most unusual museum we toured was dedicated to leading practitioners of Kung Fu martial arts, Ip Man Tong and his disciple, Bruce Lee.  It is always interesting to see what a culture wants to showcase to the world.

The Consular work that my daughter does is very demanding, with tough visa processing quotas translating to long hours on the job.  Foreign Service workers are in turn given Chinese and American holidays off as well as other rest and recreation time, and they typically use it to travel beyond their post.

Hong Kong's limited land has resulted in a high density, vertical city of modern architecture.

Hong Kong is only a two hour train ride from Guangzhou, and my daughter and her husband spend many weekends in this slower-paced, civilized city. A former British colony, Hong Kong is a place where “East meets West”, reflecting a cultural mix its Chinese roots with influences from its time as a British colony. It is truly cosmopolitan in terms of cuisine, cultural amenities, educational attainment and entertainment.

Hong Kong is well known for its expansive skyline, deep natural harbor and extreme population density of 16,000+ people per square mile, fourth behind Macau, Monaco, and Singapore.  The city has developed into a major global trade hub and financial center.  Its limited flat land necessitates a high density infrastructure, earning Hong Kong the title of the world’s most vertical city and a center of modern architecture,

On July 1, 1997 the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, marking the end of Hong Kong’s 156 years as a British colony. Nevertheless, Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy, as its political and judicial systems operate independently from mainland China, with the exception of defense and foreign affairs.

Cambodia was our last stop before returning to the Guangzhou Consulate.  The country gained independence from France in 1953, and has had a long history of warfare. The Vietnam War extended into Cambodia, and in 1975 the Khmer Rouge captured the capital Phnom Penh. This marked the beginning of the Cambodian genocide lasting until 1979. The Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, but the Khmer rouge continued to resist the change in the Cambodian-Vietnamese War from 1979-1991. Tens of thousands of people died or were displaced as portrayed in the movie ‘The Killing Fields.”

Destroyed Russiand Tanks in Cambodia's War Museum

Destroyed Russian tanks in Cambodia's War Museum, chronicling its decades long wars.

We visited the modest War Museum situated in a jungle setting. It was rife with rusted, discarded weaponry, a depressing site indeed.  Our guide had been captured by the Khmer Rouge when he was 13 and forced to fight his countrymen. When he became a casualty, he was an outcast from Cambodian society for siding with the rebels.

Today, Cambodia has a combination communist and free-market economy with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy. Our guide said that Hanoi keeps the country under its thumb. Cambodia faces numerous challenges and sociopolitical issues, including widespread poverty, pervasive corruption, lack of political freedoms, low human development, and a high rate of hunger.

These economic conditions are somewhat offset by bringing in tourist dollars. Their Cambodia’s ancient temples attract tourist dollars, but are in disrepair. Angkor Wat pictured above is by far the largest and most impressive.

Buddhist temples are popular attractions, principally Angkor Watt, a World Heritage Site. The temple complex is breath-taking but nearly overrun by the masses, with few ecological or preservation measures in place. Other aspects of Cambodian culture carefully cultivated for Western tourist appeal are dance and theater, which are colorful and imaginative, and traditional crafts.

All in all on this trip I experienced the formidable Chinese economic tiger in Guangzhou, the genteel atmosphere in Hong Kong, and the fragile, struggling economy in Cambodia, a country rich in ancient ruins.

Solo Backpacking

Solo Backpacking

Fully geared up for the ascent to Lawn Lake

Backpacking off into the wilderness or up a mountain by yourself is always fraught with challenges and difficulties, but you can ensure an exhilarating experience with proper anticipation and planning.

But first a little history. Back in the early 1970s I returned from a vagabond tour in Europe and the Near East teaching English, only to realize that this was not what I wanted to do anymore.

I eventually landed in Colorado and went to work for a company that manufactured and retailed backpacking and mountaineering gear in Boulder. It was called Holubar Mountaineering and was later bought out by North Face.

As employees we were to be experts on gear, and therefore we got to test all of the new tents, jackets, mountaineering technical gear, fly fishing rods, backpacks and cross country skis.  People who love backpacking are invariably equipment junkles. It was fabulous!!  I started solo backpacking in my early 20’s, going out for 3 days at a time, even doing a little bushwhacking.

Life, professional career and family intervened until 1990, when I took advantage of my close friend’s house as a “base camp,” which bordered on Rocky Mountain National Park.  So every few years I would strap on the old frame pack and head up a trail for a couple of days.

I was happy to discover I had this all to myself

This year much of the area had been flooded out by global warming, but I was able to get a back country permit for the 12.4 mile Lawn Lake trail in the Mummy mountain range, contingent on taking a screw top ‘bear canister’ which was a new regulation to me.  They are big and bulky but you can cram your cooking stove, cook kit, food, iodine pills, gorp and food waste in there.  I rented one from a local backpacking store in Estes Park before heading out. You stow the canister 80 ft. away from your tent to be safe. I also had to rent a stove and propane fuel container in Estes Park because I couldn’t bring propane fuel in my luggage on the flight into Denver.

Now to review a few key aspects you need to remember for successful backpacking or trekking at high altitudes:

1)     Be in good physical condition.  I work out two hours/day, six days/week at the gym. Of course you will be on the trail six to eight hours a day, so your beginning conditioning is only a starting point. You get into spectacular condition on the trek itself.

2)     Pack light!  But be prepared for summer and winter weather as early as September in the mountains.  I experienced both rain and snow. You need shorts or strip off pants, a short sleeve shirt, a turtleneck and fleece jacket, wool hat, sun hat, sunglasses, a lightweight rain jacket, a topographical map of the area, compass, whistle, trekking poles, top and bottom long underwear, a headlamp, a small paperback, and an extra pair of socks and underwear.  I pack a 5lb tent and needed it in the fall, but during the summer I probably could have gone with just a tarp.  I also have a down mummy bag and a 4 ft. long self-inflatable air mattress which is good for this 65 year old body.  Of course a small cook kit, waterproof matches, two quart size water bottles, iodine tablets, dehydrated food, trail mix, energy bars and a cook stove.  I rented the cook stove, fuel and bear canister from a local backpacking store in Estes Park before I flew to my destination.

The trail was rocky in spots, proving hazardous when I fell face first.

3)     Have enough high energy food. You expend a lot of calories on the trail.  One night I couldn’t get to sleep after trying for a few hours.  So I did my check off list—Warm enough? Tired enough? Hydrated enough? I finally decided the dehydrated dinner I consumed didn’t have enough calories, so I ate about 6 oz. of trail mix. I fell asleep immediately. Toward the end, I discovered I had cut it too close on food, as I finished off the last of it about 2 miles from the trailhead.

4)     Pack high altitude sickness pills (acetazolamide tabs 125 mg from any travel clinic).  When I do all of the above, I find I don’t need the pills until I stay at 11,000-14,000 ft. for more than a day.  Also make sure your tetanus shots are up to date.

5)     Get acclimated for a few days prior to making the climb.  As a flatlander, I hiked with a backpack eight miles a day for two days at 7,000 ft. before attempting the 9-11,000 ft. elevation.

6)     Stay hydrated.  This is essential to ward off high altitude sickness.

7)     Schedule yourself to reach the end of your trip well before it gets dark. It’s a good safety measure. I usually plan to be done by 2:00pm with my friend waiting to pick me up.

My little encampment with no one esle around. Ah serenity!

On my recent trip I saw several day hikers as I ascended 2, 647 feet, but no one was in the campsite at the lake.  Ah, the peace and quiet!!

The only hitch the whole trip was the first day about 7 miles in I tripped and fell face first on the rock trail, splitting my lip and scraping my chin badly, which bled profusely.  I rummaged around in my cook kit and wadded up some paper towels to use as a compress.  It was tough to eat that night what with the swelling.  Months later at a dental check-up they discovered that all four of my front teeth had been knocked loose!  Subsequently, I had to have two root canals and a band put on those teeth so they won’t fall out.

I still have a few years left of solo backpacking in me nonetheless.  Next time I just won’t lead with my face.