I went skiing on Mount Baldy today. The snow was soft, the sun was out, and there was hardly anybody out there enjoying it all. I know most people were at work but the few of us that thought skiing was a better option for today had the place to ourselves. No waiting at the lifts is always a welcome experience, and at times being the only one on a run can actually feel strange and freeing at the same time.
The recent Southern California storm system brought in a couple of feet of fresh snow to the local mountains. The Mt. Baldy ski area now has a 3-5 foot base and it has been staying cool up there to preserve it.
The Mt. Baldy ski area has only 4 chair lifts but the terrain is varied and about half the runs are single and double black diamonds, so advanced skiers can have a lot of fun and get a good workout. I enjoy the runs around Chair 3 which is for advanced skiers so the terrain is varied and challenging. Another advanced area is around Chair 1 which is the first lift out of the parking lot. Sometimes the runs around Chair 1 can be icy and you have to stay alert watching for obstacles.
I prefer these smaller ski areas because it’s easier to avoid the crowds that would be at the larger ski resorts. Mt. Waterman is another great ski area in Southern California that is not too crowded with some excellent skiing.
Another storm is on its way this weekend, so skiing in Southern California is going out with a bang this year. We are finally going to have a ski season in our local mountains.
Cuzco is a beautiful, old city with many stone paved streets in the city center. We stayed at the Amaru Hostal, which is on a narrow, single lane stone road named Cuesta San Blas. It was only 2 blocks NE of the Plaza de Armas. We found the Amaru convenient to everything around the city, yet far away from the Plaza to avoid the noise. The hostal was well maintained and the people their were friendly and very helpful. We paid $25 US for a double (two beds and private shower). The hostal was quick to give us our Mate (coca tea) to help us adapt to the 11,000ft elevation of the city. The tea tasted much like Ginseng or Green tea to me, and we drank it most of the time we were in the Sacred Valley area. The tea is very relaxing which is surprising since it is derived from coca leaves.
I know that some of the locals enjoy chewing the coca leaves, but I tried this and found the leaves to be bitter tasting and not very pleasant. My friend and I drank the tea very often and I bought a few packages of the tea to take back home to enjoy, unfortunately my supply did not last long enough. However, I have found a supplier online that I use and continue to stay stocked up on the tea.
One negative I must mention about Cuzco is the number of vendors hawking their souvenirs; some were just too persistent. If it wasn’t a vendor pushing their wares on us, it was someone trying to sell us a “great” tour package as we passed their shop. I’m one of those that pride myself on making my own travel arrangements, so they had no chance with me. The vendors mainly congregated around the city center and the typical tourist spots, so it is possible to avoid them if you wanted.
There are plenty of good places to eat, whether you want something Westernized or Peruvian, and all budgets can be accommodated. A couple of my favorite dishes were the Ceviche and Aji de Gallina. Peruvian ceviche is fish and seafood marinated in limejuice piled atop a cooked potato and lettuce. As a finishing touch, onions are piled on top of the seafood. The fish and seafood is raw and is “cooked” by the limejuice, very delicious. Aji de Gallina is boiled chicken pieces, potatoes, olives, and other seasonings all smothered in walnut gravy. The dish did vary slightly between restaurants but differences were mainly in the garnishes. There were quite a few roasted chicken restaurants around the city that were a very good value and tasty, too. Getting something good to eat in Cuzco is not difficult at all.
Cuzco was perfect to take day trips around the Sacred Valley. It was quite easy to catch a bus to Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Sacsayhuaman, Urubamba, and other cities and ruin sites. If your Spanish is not too bad, you can probably work out a deal with a taxi driver to take you to any of these places for not much more than the bus would have cost. We found a taxi driver to take us to Ollantaytambo, which is nearly 2 hours from Cuzco, for only 5 Soles each. The local bus would have been 1 Sole each and the trip would have taken much more time. Our taxi ride proved to be an even better situation when the driver picked up a local businessman that was going our way. This additional passenger turned out to be a history buff and became a wonderful, energetic tour guide. During the drive he was pointing out all the interesting sites along the way and giving us background information about the local fauna, some history, even the names of the peaks of the nearby Andes mountain range.
If you plan on going to Machu Picchu, you should visit some of the other sites in the Sacred Valley first, such as Pisac or Ollantaytambo. Machu Picchu is the crown jewel, so if you see these other sites after, they will not seem as impressive. Cuzco is the best place to take the train to Aguas Caliente, which is right next to Machu Picchu. The train ride is 4 hours, so I recommend you get up early and catch the morning train.
After entering main land China by way of Shenzen, we took the train into Guangzhou, which is the capital of the Guangdong Province. As the train brought us into the city, we could see how large and populated this city is. Guangzhou is a very congested city, and has many of the problems that come along with the urban sprawl. Pollution is prevalent throughout the city. Smog is heavy and thick, creating a layer of haze, and perhaps it was my imagination, but I would swear you could feel the “thick” air entering your lungs. A large part of the smog is generated by the still popular use of coal. Putting trash in a receptacle seems to be an inconvenience for most people here, so the ground and gutters have become the public waste can.
One day I saw a woman allowing her young child to poop (defecate) in the gutter at a major intersection in the city. Now I would not say behavior like that was commonly seen, but I think it says something about the general conscience of the people, especially since nobody said a word to the mother. I can only hope that scene was just an aberration and not a common practice. I did see efforts of sanitation by city workers in the evenings and early mornings, but they definitely need the public to help.
Despite the negatives mentioned above, I found Guangzhou to have very friendly people. Being an American seemed to be an advantage for me. Many people were excited to try and communicate once they discovered my country of origin. Fortunately, I had a friend with me that spoke Mandarin and Cantonese, but other times it was body gestures, pointing and nodding, or desperate flipping through my translation book. It was quite humorous to hear the bits of English some Chinese knew, though it was usually in reference to famous American athletes, celebrities, or musicians. Even so, trying to communicate was part of the fun while in China.
My stay in Guangzhou was made a great deal easier since one of my travel mates had relatives in the city and we stayed with them. Many of our days were spent visiting relatives and friends, so they felt obligated to take us out to some of the finer restaurants. And in no way were we allowed to help pay for our meals. We were told that we would be insulting our host if we tried to pay. I did feel a bit guilty about this, since I was not a blood relative, but our Chinese hosts were insistent, so I did abide by their guest etiquette. The underlying premise to all of this was, “We take care of you now, and when we visit you in your country, you will take care of us”. Though I knew the odds of them visiting the U.S. was very slim.
There is no shortage of places to eat in Guangzhou. There are many small, inexpensive restaurants everywhere, serving various noodle, rice, and/or meat of your choice combinations. If you are a beer drinker there many regional types to try, and some are very good. Since I did not speak Chinese, I relied on pictures or just pointed to the food I wanted to try. A calculator was always handy to interpret price, and most vendors had one nearby; numbers are a universal language. One of my favorite dishes was barbecue pork in a large flat rice noodle like a large thin pancake, unfortunately I can’t recall the Chinese name for it, but you will know it when you see it being cooked. It became our most popular breakfast dish. Also, Dim Sum was simply excellent here and restaurants serving it were plentiful. Prices can very depending on how fancy you want to go, though a good rule of thumb was to go by the look of the restaurant. If there are well-dressed waiters, cloth napkins, and elaborate chandeliers, most likely it will be an expensive place.
While in Guangzhou you must visit the Qingping Market. Beware vegetarians, or if you have a weak stomach, you might want to stay away. This market will have everything under the sun on sale for human consumption. When you first arrive you will see the usual items such as herbs, vegetables and dry goods. As you walk deeper into the market you will see just about any creature that can be caught in cages, or already expired, ready for pick-up by the local Chinese cook. For example, I saw monkeys, kittens, dogs, numerous winged animals, various beetles, frogs and other amphibians, snakes, and fish readily being sold. Most of the creatures I saw I never tried to eat during my trip, at least not that I know of, but this market experience was one I’ll never forget.
Walking along the Pearl River is another good way to see Guangzhou. The river is used for transportation and it is easy to catch a ride on a river taxi. Also, you will see the occasional fisherman along the banks. The river is murky and I understand that a lot of refuse is dumped directly into the water. Even so, the scenery around the Pearl is enjoyable, and there are many restaurants along the banks, so you can people watch as you eat.
Guangzhou is a fast growing city where you will see numerous buildings being constructed and industrious entrepreneurs pushing their wares. We visited one of the shopping malls in the area, and were amazed at how crowded it was on a weeknight. I would equate the experience to Christmas Eve shoppers in the U.S. At the time of our visit the Chinese government had recently freed up their restrictions on the economy and it was quite evident the way business was booming and the people seemed to be excited about it.
Being so close to Hong Kong allowed Guangzhou to be connected to current trends in western culture. Much of the youth seem to be embracing the latest trends readily. I found this southern city to be very different from other cities I visited. In other cities we noticed a more obvious influence of the government on the way people live and behave. From what is on television to how a business is operated.
I enjoyed my visit to Guangzhou, but I would not suggest to anyone to make an extended stay, a couple of days should be enough. The congestion and smog can become overwhelming in this city. Traveling away from this huge city will allow you to experience more of what China is about.