Berlin with Photography Friends

IMG_7534 We stay with Cindy and Eric and Anna in a tiny apartment in Berlin for a week, doing nothing in particular but living. The three are here working on photography books and projects and workshops, and for them this stop is just one more in a life of itinerancy. They move to new places every few months to work or think or for Eric to run a photography workshop, but everywhere they work on new projects, connect with friends, and live. Travel is merely another axis on the grid in which they live their life.

I am lucky to know the people I do, and to while away days in quiet contemplation with them. To be not going anywhere in particular, to not be thinking about the next step. Instead, we live our lives and, inspired by Cindy and Eric and Anna, make photography into art. Are we successful?

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Who cares? We are having fun.

Sunrise over Grenoble

IMG_6246 I’m not much of an alcohol drinker and I’ve never mixed a drink in my life (unless you count a rare shot of Bailey’s into hot cocoa), but if there was ever a name for a drink, it would be Sunrise over Grenoble. And you would make it with layered peach juice and grenadine and whatever alcohol goes well with those two things, maybe a dark spiced rum. It’s true I don’t know what I’m doing behind the bar here in my mind but it’s my hypothetical drink. Get your own.

Anyway, the point of all of this is if you ever find yourself in Grenoble, wake up predawn and hike up to the Bastille for sunrise. It’s picture (and mixed drink) worthy: IMG_6193

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After sunrise, head back down to the city just in time for breakfast at a local café. Maybe even get a shot of Bailey’s in your coffee.

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Bulgaria’s Rila Lakes

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It’s midday when we stop for lunch at the edge of a glassy lake, resting our packs against a rocky outcrop speckled with green, black, and orange lichens and tufts of moss. We quickly don jackets to minimize loss of body heat, then dig sandwiches and water of out of packs and share a meal in silence, gazing across the lake. It’s water mirrors the mountains rising on the opposite shore, the slopes a patchwork of slate, mustard, and dark green brush. A soundless wind carries low-hanging clouds over us, obscuring the peaks as fading shadows that are soon lost in the gray haze. It’s been a wet, chilly hike, but nothing could dampen the grandeur of this scenery. And while otherworldly, it’s located here on earth in the unlikeliest of places: the Rila Lakes of Bulgaria.

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The Balkan country of Bulgaria is most commonly recognized for one of two things: its dairy (in the form of yogurt and feta cheese) or its poverty. The country is the poorest member of the European Union, where a combination of Soviet legacy and lagging economy have driven nearly two million of its citizens abroad and cut the country’s population from  9 million in 1989 to around 7 million today, and this tends to be the only Bulgaria the world outside knows.

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And if you speak to a Bulgarian expatriate about their country, they’re more likely to miss the food or to complain about government corruption. Few mention the country’s two sprawling mountain ranges, its karst caverns, golden plains, or alpine lakes. Ask about the country’s panoply of Thracean, Roman, and Ottoman ruins and you’ll often get an “Oh yes, we do have that.” Tourism is an afterthought in most of Bulgaria, and the country’s natural beauty remains a secret to outside world.

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Back at Rila Lakes, we continue our hike through alpine grassland, past a dozen more still and glassy lakes, heading for the trail summit. The people we encounter are mostly native Bulgarians, taking a last break at the end of the summer season before school and work starts again. A handful are backpackers from other countries that when asked, “why Bulgaria?” reply with “It was cheap.” And we pass one group of park employees, dressed in waders and working to move rocks and brush along one of the lakes. “We’re preventing blockage that happens when vegetation dies for the season,” they explain to us, “visitors have brought some extra nutrient contamination to the lakes, but we can remedy it by ensuring the water continues to flow.”

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As we climb the last mile to the summit, the temperature drops even further and wind chill forces us to add hats and gloves. Though the stream beside is flows freely, ice coats the rocks at its edge. Frost flowers, long shards of ice, grow from blades of goldenrod grass beside the trail. The summer growing season has long since ended here.

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The peak is a disappointment for a standard hiker. The clouds that have drifted in starting around lunch have thickened, and where there should be a view of the entire valley there is only a thick gray fog. We climb back down and complete the trail loop, heading up along the western ridge of the valley. The clouds descend further and envelope us in obscurity. When we stop to rest in the dead grass beside the trail, we watch other hikers pass us, materializing from the mist with the scrape of shoes on dirt and sounds of breathing and fading into faint outlines and then, nothingness.

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Skakavitza Waterfall Hike

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With visiting the relatives complete, Stoytcho and I took  a couple of days’ retreat in the Rila Mountain Range for some outdoorsing. It has been a singular sorrow to be cooped up in the car, passing so many beautiful slopes and potential trails to the unknown here in Bulgaria. As a remedy, we booked a lovely room at the Hotel Borovets for the off-season nightly price of 58 lev (~$35 USD, including breakfast!), and for a stunning 10 lev (~$6 USD) they packed us daily lunch as well. Their lutenitsa was delicious.

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Totally NOT Skakavitsa Falls, but another waterfall along the trail.

Our first hike was at Skakavitsa Falls. Despite gorgeous weather the last two weeks, summer decided to flee on the days of our hike! We hiked in light mist and clouds, but the trails were still beautiful. Photos and map below of the rainy wonderland.

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A wild rose along the trail.

If you’re looking to hike Skakavitsa, be warned that in 2018 the signs were still all in Cyrillic. From the trailhead follow the red trail up to the hut/inn, then continue in the same direction. Do not go left, despite the open fields and better-marked trail — this goes to Rila Lakes and is a day-long affair. Stoytcho and I started on this trail before realizing we had passed the falls and had to double-back.

Map:

A photographic taste of the trail:

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Trail information at the trailhead.
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Follow the red trail markers.
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Other hikers along the trail.
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A wild allium flower.
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A waterfall along the trail.
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Dewspun spider web along the trail.
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The forest along the trail.
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An abandoned electrical building along the trail.
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The hut/house at the trail fork. When you get to the picnic trail after this, keep going in the same direction; don’t go left.
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Don’t take this trail; it doesn’t go to Skakavitsa Falls.
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An odd flower or bud.
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If you get here, you’re definitely on the wrong track. This trail leads to the Rila Lakes and it’s pretty far.
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The cost of taking a wrong turn. Everything is so wet!
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Special effects without editing: fog inside your camera lens.
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Back on the right trail, heading toward Skakavitsa.
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Skakavitsa Falls! Currently hardly a trickle and obscured by mist.
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Wild violet.

 

Hiking Lake Baikal, day 1

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In the morning we set off north-east along the lakeshore. There’s a path connecting large sections of the lake in a walkable trail. The section we were hiking along is not really part of this trail system, but since it’s between a few large dacha villages and people love to vacation here, there’s a long running road all the way up.

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The road is more often than not a two-wheel dirt track. During peak season it might be quite busy but when we went in early July there we found only a handful of cars.

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Between the trees were periodic gaps leading to views or down to the beach. People picnic there, either for day trips or occasionally in camper vans.

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All sorts of windswept trees grew along the shore.

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And we had a great time skipping stones on the endless water.

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The landscape changed frequently from soft sandy beach to pebbles to large rocky outcroppings.

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Some of the nooks between the trees had tables and stools set up from previous visitors.

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More often the spots that were visibly picnic grounds had these upside down bottles nailed to a nearby tree. We never figured out what they were for, if anyone knows let us know!

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The dusty road continues.

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Some of the campsites we found were better equipped than others. Despite how many visitors this area gets, the shore is remarkably clean and free of pollution or litter. Only immediately around centers of population did we see lots of trash.

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The path was always pretty clear but rarely continuous.

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If the beach became too rocky to walk on, we headed away from the shore and back into the forest.

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And if in the forest we met a gate to some presumably private community, back to the shore we went. There were a few of these along the way actually. Strange for what amounts to public land in the wilderness.

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We finally ran into larger groups of people on a long stretch of beach somewhat near a town. There were some tents pitched nearby and one of the groups had a boat. If would have been amazing to row on the lake, but maybe next time.

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Near the end of the day we stopped for fuller meal. We were not as prepared for this trip as we had been with some of the others. Peanuts and bread and a nutella-like paste we found at the grocery store was dinner.

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It turns out the spot we stopped at for our meal was entirely isolated. It was far from the last group of campers we’d seen, and far enough from the next town to not attract too many visitors.

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Soon the sun began to set.

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This sunset was one of the most beautiful sights on our trip. The lake stretched out, dark blue bathed in orange. The cliffs behind and around us turned orange as well, even well after the last light of the sun fell below the horizon on the opposite side of the lake.

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On the way to Lake Baikal

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Our journey starts out of Ulan Ude, and like much of the rest of our trip, in involves a local bus. First of course, we annoyed the ticket seller lady by changing tickets not just once but twice, due to mistakes of language and Natalie’s illness.

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Loaded up and off we go!

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We got to see a bit more of Ulan Ude, the parts where most of the people lived. The public transit system is fairly extensive in the city.

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One of the grannies sitting next to us had taken a liking to us and started pointing things out along the path. This is a fairly famous women’s only monastery in the forests between Ulan Ude and our target, Goryachinsk.

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The bus stops at this rest stop on every trip. There’s a small restaurant, a bathroom (both free and paid, with differing qualities of smell). Otherwise there’s a little river that runs by there. Not really much to see but boy is it great to uncramp.

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The bus dropped us off pretty unceremoniously on the edge of Goryachinsk. There’s a grocery store there that supplies the holidayers and not much else.

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Old vehicles and older houses populate the town – there’s a lakeside section that has some nicer, newer houses, but the main of the village is old ‘dachas’ – village or summer homes that almost all Russian families have.

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‘For sale’ says the angry barrel.

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A row of lakeside houses we passed one the way to the lake. These are much nicer than the rest of the town.

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We made it!! Natalie holds a victorious bottle of kvas on the shore of Lake Baikal. This has been a lifelong dream for her, and she’s finally there!

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There are waves on the lake surface. They’re not super strong or large, but they do tear up the otherwise placid surface.

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So there we are, walking along the shore when suddenly..

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What’s that in the distance?

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It’s people! People swimming in the lake! For us as visitors this is insanity. The lake is freezing cold and the sun is setting. But for the locals this is not entirely normal, but somewhat usual. Young men in particular seem prone to jumping and swimming in the lake on a dare, especially when alcohol is involved.

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Somewhere around this time we met a family from Ulan Ude on vacation at their dacha. With my broken russian and their daughter’s perfectly fine english we traded stories. When they asked us where we were going to sleep, we told them of our tents and pointed somewhat vaguely to the lake shore. Their response was, of course you’re not, you’re going to sleep in our house, we have a spare bed. We gratefully accepted and spent an evening eating, drinking, and playing games with the family.

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Saying goodbye the next morning. These ladies were badass. Their grandma had lived through the worst of the various revolutions, economic crises, and societal upheavals of the last half century, and here she was calmly chopping up wood for their sauna.

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Next time : the hiking begins!

Tokyo’s Seaside

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A small Japanese ferry boat.

If you look at Tokyo on a map, especially from a bit further out, you might notice that Tokyo seems to have a bit of oceanside real estate to the south and east. You wouldn’t be wrong, but most of the water found near the center of Tokyo is taken up by the harbor and is, like most harbors, not great for swimming. To get to a usable, quiet beach, you would have to go quite a ways out, which is what we did. About an hour and a half of rail got us to the village of Kurihama, and a bit more of bus and walk got us to the beach of Tomyozaki.

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What a small town looks like on the shore of Japan.

As far as contrasts go, there are few bigger than that of city and countryside. Japan follows the pattern mostly in terms of building height, density, and noise. Outside of Tokyo and other large cities, it is quiet. Very quiet. The cleanliness, safety, and convenience of the city continue while the rest fades away, leaving only a calm, clean, and modern town.

One of the more interesting things we saw along the walk was this ferry.
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It had heard this lady and went back to get her so she wouldn’t have to wait for the next trip!

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The view out onto the water was as serene as could be. Though there had been a small harbor earlier along the walk, it was around the bend and back quiet a ways, fairly out of sight and sound.
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We saw a few jellyfish swimming but most of our sightings were on land, quiet dead. The beach was incredibly clean, contrasted for us even further by having just come from Indonesia.
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Tile and beach glass were to be found all over the beach. I felt there must have been a tile factory somewhere nearby, or maybe a ship had spilled a pile of it sometime ago. Either way, we gathered a good sized pile.
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As we walked we collected more beach glass.
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On the way back we saw a very cool insect, one of Natalie’s favorites. I thought it was an ant.
IMG_4177 But it was not an ant! It was our old friend the jumping spider, disguised as an ant. If you look closely you can see the differently colored legs and the tapered body. At even a pretty close distance it fooled me, and apparently it does well enough to fool ants. An amazing creature! IMG_4193
Our walk back down the side-road from the beach to the main road where we would wait for a bus.
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As we waited to go home a raven started hopping between some nearby buildings.

It’s definitely a day’s excursion from Tokyo to go to the seaside, and to get to swim you have to go even further. One of the major downsides of living in a sprawling megacity is that all the land nearby must be specially preserved or else it will be put to use serving that city and its residents. Japan solves the problem of getting people out of the city through its amazingly ontime and superfast rail system, which we explore next!

Taipei (台北), Taiwan (台湾), Tai Shuyuan (太疏远)

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A sculpture at a park in Beitou

It’s rainy and overcast when we touch down at Taipei’s international airport and make our way through the immigration and customs lines into the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan’s official name  since the Kuomintang established their power here in 1949. After losing a four-year civil war to the Communist Party of China (PRC), the remaining Kuomintang forces and their supporters fled here and re-established their government, maintaining to this day that they are the sole legitimate government of China despite having no control over the mainland. It’s a claim that’s logically absurd, possible only through the backing of my home country, the absurdly powerful United States of America. And I know I should feel some support for Taiwan’s claims, for another reason: this is where my grandparents fled after the war, and where my father was born.

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A motorbike encounters pedestrian traffic at a night market in Taipei.

The story surrounding that exodus is murky to me, complicated by two things: all members of the generation that fled have died, and I speak almost no Mandarin, so any attempts to clarify what happened must be done with the next generation, those that speak English. None of parents’ attempts to get me to learn Mandarin as a kid succeeded. I languished through Chinese classes on Saturdays, rejected any attempts of my dad to carry on conversations in Mandarin, and sought out only English speaking relatives at family gatherings. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter; everyone else outside my family spoke English, and my family only used Mandarin for grown up talk, so why learn anything else?

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THIS is why.

Now I’m squinting up at the characters in the subway cars, trying to make the jumble of lines and angles into meaning and cursing my short-sightedness. It does me no favors that what little Chinese I do know is Simplified, a less-complicated character set created by the PRC in mainland China to enable more people to gain literacy. With no love for the PRC here in Taiwan, they’ve stuck with the Traditional Chinese characters, which seem to have two to ten more strokes than I’m used to. There are rules for how characters were simplified, but I only know a few.

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A bilingual sign at a park in Beitou. The translation is appreciated, but not necessary here.

Thankfully, for this first night in the city we have hosts. A friend of mine from Yale, Leslie, is visiting with her friends, and they take us out to a night market. We wander behind them, looking over the endless stalls of snacks to decipher what they are. Someone hands us a stick of fried quail eggs, then some other kind of fried food. We eat and walk, and I let Leslie do the talking. But tomorrow we’re on our own.

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A fried quail egg vendor at the night market.

We pass a week in Taipei and my Mandarin gradually improves. I remember words that I’ve forgotten, and pick up new words that I didn’t know. The city seems to have two distinct times: day and night. In the day, business is conducted as usual and I can find people who speak English if we truly need it. We visit shops and restaurants, and using Google Translate I can sketch characters and get their pronunciations. I order us food, terribly, many times, though the food is always wonderful.

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The city in daytime.
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Niu Rou Juan Bing (牛 肉 捲 餅), braised beef and scallions in pan-fried bread.

But at night, when the businesses and citizens of most other countries close and leave, Taipei comes to life. People flock to single, chosen streets in each neighborhood to do two things everyone loves: eat, and socialize. Lit by street lights, neon signs, and the glow of lightbulbs built into vendor carts, crowds squeeze between vendors selling everything from fried yam balls to grilled steak cubes and stinky tofu. People shout to each other and hands reach out to receive snacks piled into a paper container, all in exchange for a few Taiwanese dollars. And while a few vendor signs are in English, almost no one speaks it. Getting food is a fast-paced game of guess and point and grin.

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The entrance of a night market.
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A woman buys snacks at a stall in the night market.

Despite the unfamiliarity of the language, the people and culture of Taiwan feel incredibly familiar. I can see my dad’s mannerisms reflected in the people here, the facial expressions and gestures while speaking. Then there’s the standard Chinese/Taiwanese utter lack of respect for formal lines, which offends Stoytcho but I’ve long since grown used to. “How can people BEHAVE like this? The inefficiency is just…” He’s at a loss for words and I can only offer a shrug. “Lines are a Western thing,” I reply, “and things just work differently in this culture.”

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No line necessary: people crowd into the entrance at the first Din Tai Fung.
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A boy squats in front of his father while he watches him juggle.

On May 30th, we head to river’s edge to see Taipei’s annual Dragon Boat Races, a celebration that in its current form celebrates the death of a beloved minister or poet (it depends on who you ask). After drowning (by accident or suicide, also depending on who you ask), the people of the nearby village were so moved by his death that they raced out onto the water to try and save him. When they failed, they threw packets of sticky rice into the water to ensure the fish would not devour his body. Today, people still commemorate this person’s death through boat races and eating sticky rice, known as zongzi. But I’ve only ever heard this story through Google; it was never mentioned by anyone in my family. And my grandmother made zongzi whenever she wanted, which was thankfully often.

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A Dragon Boat, mid-race.
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Family and friends waiting for a race round to start.

We watch the boats race from and the bridge above, staring down at the rowers moving their paddles in unison, to the beat of a drummer up front. Then we descend from the bridge and stand with the crowds, watching as the flag-bearing boats and their teams race by, bound breathlessly for the finish line or gliding back in the return victory lap. In a moment, cheers erupt from the crowd around us for some unknown thing of team. I get the feeling that there’s something I missed, maybe lost in translation. I’ll just have to get better at translating.

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Unused dragon boats moored in the river.

Hong Kong, city of prosperity and re-construction

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A butcher sells his wares at a market in downtown Hong Kong.

It’s cloudy when we arrive in Hong Kong, only an hour’s flight but worlds away from Hanoi. We board a modern double-decker bus to carry us from airport to the city, marveling at the skyscrapers that line the highway and the slew of construction equipment building ever-more. We’re only here for a week (in an ill-fated attempt to get Chinese visas), but even in that short time it feels like the city will be different—an old, crumbling building lost there and a new, shining one erected there. And between our arrival and departure, the city will have grown even further, adding to itself as land is reclaimed from the sea.

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Endless rows of high-rise buildlings on the way into the city.
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A barge, laden with sand, likely for land reclamation work.

It’s a city of lonefulness, a feeling I get when I visit New York. The streets are full of people, all rushing to get somewhere in quick strides, staring down at their phones or straight ahead to their destinations. You could pass hundreds of people in an hour here and not know you had passed a single one. Interactions only come when necessary, and otherwise people huddle in their groups of friends and acquaintances, sharing inside jokes and giggling. Or they sit without anyone, full in their alone-ness.

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A man walks alone by the space museum and planetarium.
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A man sits alone and drinks on the waterfront.
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A face, lit only by screen-light.

The people that will interact with you on the street want to sell you something, often “copy” or “replica” products. These street-sellers are immigrants from South Asia, India and Pakistan, who came here for the same reason most people come to a city: the prospect of jobs and better money. They crowd the main streets, asking if you want to buy a ‘replica’ watch, a SIM card, or need a room for the night. Their epicenter is Chungking Mansion, where we happen to be staying. Several decades old and brimming with stalls selling Indian curries, electronics, and everything and nothing you might need, Chunking Mansion is a city unto itself. It lives and breathes, exhaling and inhaling human bodies that make their way up the few squeaky elevators to tiny guesthouses and homes and restaurants run illegally from apartments.

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Immigrants from South Asia socialize at one of the entrances to Chungking Mansion
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Our hotel room, from end to end, is the width of one Stoytcho.
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The internals of Chunking Mansion. We’re on the fourteenth floor. Thirteen floors below us is the center cesspool, a mix of rainwater and whatever people throw down here.

Despite Chungking Mansion’s relative poverty, the rest of the Hong Kong downtown appears wealthy. Hong Kong was and continues to be a huge financial hub, although there have been some grumblings that the city is declining in prominence as China attempts to elevate Shanghai’s status as a financial center. Steps from the entrance to Chunking Mansion are storefronts boasting glittering figurines and jewelry made of pure gold. Parks are full of sculptures and art installations, while galleries line the streets of wealthy neighborhoods and an “Affordable Art Fair” we visited boasted works starting at only a few thousand dollars. Old buildings, like the PMQ, have been entirely renovated to house artisanal bakeries and design shops. There are people here in Hong Kong who want to live well and have the money to pay for it.

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A sculpture stands in the pond behind the Hong Kong Space Museum.
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A woman explains her work in an exhibit.
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Spot the banana: visitors giggle over a real banana hidden among ceramic replicas, a joke by the employees running the exhibit.

But undercurrent in the city is a mild anxiety, of what it is and will be in relation to China. Much news has been made abroad about the Hong Kong democracy movement, but it’s hard to say Western news outlets are unbiased, given that Britain only gave up Hong Kong in 1999 and would like to maintain influence there. Nor can it be said that China is unbiased, since it’s likely looking to bring Hong Kong’s government closer to one approved by the nation’s Communist Party and to avoid the spread of any ideals that would weaken the Party’s power. In the absence of unbiased sources, the best course of action is to ask the people of Hong Kong directly what they worry about and want, on streets and in coffee shops and clothing stores. Their response isn’t surprising: they worry that their future is dim, with investors nervous about China’s increasing influence in the city and China working to develop Shanghai as a major financial hub. What they want most is an assurance that they, too, have a future where they can prosper.

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A cat peers out from under stacks of goods at the market.

Ha Long Bay and the Tourism High Life

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A lone karst formation and a boat in Ha Long Bay.

The appeal of Vietnam for many tourists is the luxury-level vacations at middle-class prices. You can get an all-inclusive trip here for only a few hundred dollars here thanks to economic disparity, and one tourist’s bargain price is a Vietnamese citizen’s income boon. The result is a vast network of tour agencies, guides and drivers and middlemen, all pushing to cash in on the tourism boom. And nowhere is that more apparent than Ha Long Bay, a bay of thousands of karst islands off the northern coast of Vietnam that now serves as one of the country’s main tourist attractions.

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The Vietnamese flag waves from a sunken beam on the way to Ha Long Bay.
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Visitors arrive at an island resort in Ha Long Bay.

Though there are backpacker guides to the area, we booked two nights at an island resort through our hotel to save time. This included transport to and from the islands, so we were picked up from our hotel, driven in a bus to the port, and took a boat to another boat that finally landed us on a small beach nestled in one of the karsts off the coasts of Cat Ba. With raised bungalows, soft sand, and palm frond parasols, it looked like quintessential island getaway.

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Beachside bungalows at our resort.
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A praying mantis explores my computer.
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Moonlight over the bay

The primary draw of Ha Long Bay is its jagged beauty, with knife-sharp, rain-weathered limestone karsts jutting from the ocean, crowned with lush greenery that clings to life among the rocky crags and flourishes in places where weathering has formed dirt. Scattered everywhere, the karsts form a maze navigated by the locals in junks, motorboats, and rowboats, all moving people or goods or livelihoods. While many people seem to have switched to servicing domestic and foreign tourists looking to get around the islands, others get by fishing squid and farming shellfish as they have for hundreds of years. From wooden houses built on moored docks, they catch fish, tend to baskets full of shellfish submerged underwater, or wade through the shallows collecting snails and augers for market. They sometimes stare at tourists as the float by in boats or kayaks, but they don’t like the stares they receive in return.

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Coming home: two men disembark from a boat at a floating home. The wires above it are strung between the karsts and carry electricity.
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A man gathers snails during low tide.
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A man paddles a boat with his feet.

The most stunning thing to me at our island resort is the tide. The afternoon we arrived, we swam to another nearby karst with sandy beach and back. The next morning we woke early to find the channel we swam the previous day had become a mud flat, the tide out so far that we could walk to the same beach. We picked our way across the mix of mud and sharp limestone rocks, curious of what we’d find: buried plastic bottles here, bike tires once tied to boats to act as padding against the docks there. But there was surprisingly few signs of life. Besides some scattered anemones that turned inward to stay moist at the low tide and small scattered augers burying themselves in the mud, there was nothing. No coral, no sponges, no algae. If there was anything that once lived here, it might have died out with the coming of the resorts. Their construction brings silt, and silt blocks out the light and chokes out life. It’s the price paid for tourism, for the beautiful waterfront bungalows and (artificial) soft sandy beaches.

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Low tide from the beach in front of our resort. We swam to the middle karst yesterday afternoon. Now, we can walk.
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Augers scattered in sediment at low tide.
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Bike tires, lost from a boat and colonized by shellfish and sponges, now exposed at low tide.

In the afternoon of our last day, we borrow a kayak from the resort and head out onto the water, camera precariously wrapped in a plastic bag. We paddle around the karst islands, looking for something interesting, and stumble onto sites where local tour agencies run rock climbing excursions. Then we make a wrong turn and we find ourselves at the edge of a deep, wide channel. This is the shipping lane in these parts, and we’re not allowed further. We return to our island and circle it to discover an inlet between two limestone towers on the other side. Our island is actually a crescent shape, with a secluded lagoon in the middle, where the more stagnant water forms pond-scum like bubbles we paddle through to reach a rocky, pebbly shore. It’s silent here except for the occasional cry of a raptor circling overhead. This is the draw of Ha Long Bay for us: to feel like you’ve found a secret that even if it’s been discovered before, you alone have for the moment.

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Setting out in the kayak.
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Looking up at the erosion on the karst walls.
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A hidden lagoon on the other side of our island.
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A small, pebbly beach in the lagoon where we made landing.

We board a large junk the next morning, bound ultimately back for Hanoi. Surrounded by chattering tourists, we occupy ourselves in watching the karsts and other boats slip by, a tapestry of blue dotted with white clouds, beneath which the green and gray angles of karsts jut upward and slip downward into the jade-colored water.

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Our junk’s mast.
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Karsts make many areas of the bay impassable for large ships.

As time passes, the islands become less frequent and the clouds thicken overhead to a uniform gray sheet. We hear the crew muttering, and the boat picks up speed to try and beat the storm. We arrive early, but they keep us on the boat for an extra hour—there aren’t any boats available to transfer us from the junk to the mainland. Meanwhile, the sky portends trouble, with whisps of cloud drifting over the mainland and peals of thunder. Just as we’re given the clear to disembark to the mainland, thick droplets begin to fall onto us and the waters of the bay. We scramble into the transfer boat, huddling under its awning to stay dry. Once on the mainland, we hear from a waiting attendant that we’re lucky; with the approaching storm, the government has temporarily halted all water travel to and from Ha Long Bay. Bound for a bus back home, it’s easy to worry about the details of what Ha Long Bay will look like after another decade of tourism. But given Nature’s power, it’s hard to imagine its beauty will disappear entirely.

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A crewmember stares out at the water as the weather turns dark.
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Lightning strikes in the mountains as the storm rolls in.