Day 17: The Beginning of the End (Lacanau –> Arcachon, 45 km)

Kilometers covered: 981
Départements traveled: 7
Wines sampled: 22
Fromage consumed: 12

So I made a decision last night, as I was coasting into the little surfing town of Lacanau. The decision was that I would give up the goal of biking to Biarritz, on the Spanish border, and instead turn east from Arcachon to finish in Bordeaux.

My decision was influenced by a couple thoughts. The first was that I was really going to have to hustle to get to Biarritz by Friday morning. On another day that might sound fun, but since I’d been carrying myself and my stuff 930-something kilometers already and had done a 122km stretch, I didn’t see the point. The second thought, related to the first thought, is that maybe I was in danger of becoming too American about the itinerary. After all, the destination is only an excuse; it’s a skeleton, a framework that allows you to travel and experience all the stuff along the way. You don’t get overly focused on the destination, or you lose the best part– the experience along the way.

A third reason– a good one– is that as soon as I arrived in Biarritz I was going to have to book it back to Bordeaux, to meet up with a friend. I wasn’t going to see the city, I was probably going to be exhausted, and I certainly wasn’t going to have any clean clothes or nice-smelling socks. Also– and this shouldn’t bother me so much, but it did– the train ticket from Biarritz back to Bordeaux was more expensive than what it would cost to go Bordeaux back to Paris. Could I afford it? Yeah. But it annoyed me, especially because I was going right back to where I was a few days earlier. To add insult to injury, as soon as I arrive in Bordeaux I rent a car and drive back to… Biarritz.

I did have one compelling goal, though, which was to bike 1000 kilometers. (Doesn’t 1000 kilometers sound impressive? Much better than “six-hundred-something miles”.) I would still do that. So, I put in an easy day biking 45 kilometers down the tip of a peninsula, then caught the 4:30 ferry across the bay to Aranchon. For once, I wasn’t exhausted, and I could have other agenda items other than simply bathe/eat/sleep in that order. Arachon proved to be a marvelous little city with plenty of eating options, and I broke with the French theme to indulge in a little Italian. With tomorrow now promising to be the last day of riding– 70 kilometers to Bordeaux centre– I began looking forward to the next phase… as well as clean clothes, rest, and a much-needed massage.

THE MEAL: Italian-style pizza with salami, peppers, mozzarella and oregano, and paper-thin crust.

THE WINE: None tonight. I overdid it last night. Just a beer.

THE ROOM: Nice little double with a balcony, Hotel Aquamarina, $72.




Day 14: La Rochelle

Kilometers covered: 765
Départements traveled: 7
Wines sampled: 20
Fromage consumed: 11

Yes, so: Day 14 actually starts very early the morning of Sunday, but properly Saturday night, when I was informed that we would all be going out to a bar and then a club, followed by a jacuzzi party, and then there would be more drinking and probably lots of sex and no sleeping. Hmm. Staying out till 6AM at the club is not usually my choice, but this somehow seemed like a “When in Rome” moment. So I got my game face on– with the caveat that I had just biked 122km, and I might fall asleep at the bar.

Amazingly, I stayed awake and even felt pretty functional. The bar was fun, but it closed at 2AM, so we went to the club and I paid the €10 to get in. As clubs go, it was pretty tolerable– nice people, not too crowded, not insanely loud. After a couple hours I got a bit bored, though– but so did everyone else, so we left around 4:30 or 5. I can’t strictly remember.

At that point there was apparently more drinking and a jacuzzi and who knows what else, but I was out. I woke up around 11 with a little fuzziness but no hangover, though there was that morning-after feeling of why-did-I-do-that-again? With some good coffee and bread I gained courage and went out to see the town of La Rochelle, which I had sorta seen the night before but only darkly and wearily. A nice little port town, old towers, pedestrians walking along the promenade for a Sunday afternoon. I grabbed a French style burger and frites at a local cafe, which seemed to help the why-did-I-do-that-again feeling, and then walked back to prep for dinner.

Dinner was to be the highlight of the day– and for some, its only scheduled activity. Beef Bourgignon, a true French classic, courtesy of the resident in-house chef, Jean Claude. It was somehow charming and comical that this all-male group house– a bohemian gay Frenchman, his Hungarian lover, a bewildered African student from Benin, and a wild-eyed traveler from the Netherlands was completed by a very sweet and talented chef in his 60s from New Caledonia. Jean Claude had lived in San Francisco, Southeast Asia, and Nepal before ending up in La Rochelle. One expects he had a wealth of stories.

The meal was delicious, and I was able to contribute a small galette with a sauce made from the figs taken off the tree in the back of their house. But this time, I was out of the game by 10pm– hoping to be fully recovered and on my way early the next day.

THE MEAL: Bouef Bourgignon; boiled potatoes; garden salad with vinaigrette; galette with figs and syrup

THE WINE: A local bottle of rouge (“Perles Noires d’Orleron”) from the island of Oreleron just off the coast of La Rochelle.

THE ROOM: Spare bed in Thomas’ room: saved from the couch of iniquity. (Thanks Thomas!)






Beijing, Day 24 & 25

Tuesday I had only two priorities: to buy take-home gifts and to meet with an American professor for dinner. Since everyone in my family can already pretty much buy themselves anything they want, it becomes more of a challenge to find Christmas gifts every year that are both original and somewhat desired. Occasionally, I err more on the side of “personally amusing” than “useful,” so to take care of my impending holiday obligations I walked to a nearby grocery store and simply purchased every strange and delightful thing I could put my hands on. Milk flavored face masks, check. Red jujube flavored drink mix, check. Meat candy, pickled squid (inexplicably packaged in bright white with a smiling guy model), check. Untranslatable metal tins with mystery candy inside (they turned out to be cough drops), check. They even had snake oil. Who doesn’t love snake oil?

I tried to pick things that were sort-of lightweight, but eight of anything is still pretty heavy. By the time I walked out I was not sure I could get it all in my bag… but I figured I could probably find a way to make it work. Shopping accomplished, I did some reading and then headed out to meet with the professor at a Hunan restaurant near the university. He had what to me seemed like a dream job: he was the lone foreigner in the International Studies department of is considered China’s first or second-best university for political science. Well, he was indeed successful, but not everything was as it appeared from the outside. He felt unimpressed with China’s anemic intellectual environment and the poor preparation many students received from an education system focused on rote memorization and repetition. “Innovation” had recently become a popular theme in the CCP’s domestic propaganda, but there seemed to be no apparent irony felt in the Party trying to mandate a process of creativity and independent thought. To become a Ph.D in China, he said, was to basically admit you had no better prospects– that you were incapable of making money. People still went to university– mostly for the contacts– but increasingly, even the best high schoolers were dropping out to pursue careers.

We had an interesting conversation on career planning and I left feeling that maybe things had worked out all right for me. True, I wasn’t in China, and that was still my goal– but I had a good job, a lot of intellectual freedom, and an chance to teach good students without any of the funding worries or administrative struggles that many professors dread. Year by year I was becoming more of an “expert,” and if I could do a trip like this regularly I would gain more of the personal experience and ground truth that I felt I lacked. Hawaii, despite its shortcomings, is a really nice place to live– you’re never cold, and except for the volcanic ash there is no real pollution. It was not perfect; but beneath the surface, few things are.

Wednesday I got up early to watch the U.S. election returns, alternating between meaningless updates on CNN (Kentucky goes to Romney; what a surprise) and blog postings. When it was over and done I was happy to see Obama get re-elected, though disturbed as always that it had once again been close. By some counts Romney would win the popular vote; even if not, roughly half the country felt in league against the current President. For me it’s not really about being Republican or Democrat; its about feeling part of an American subculture that triumphs education, international engagement and social inclusiveness. Republicans could be that party as easily as the Democrats– but to do so, they would have to abandon core ideological positions on things like immigration, homosexuality, abortion, creationism, global warming and shallow patriotism. It’s a Catch-22: if they abandon those positions, they put themselves on the right side of history but lose many of the features that distinguish them from their opposition. They keep their base of conservative Christians and rural voters, but increasingly lose the support of more educated, sophisticated, and multiracial urban dwellers– and it is the urban and multiracial population that is growing, not the rural.

Fox News was a delight to watch. They actually called the election for Obama before CNN, but then of course “senior strategist” Karl Rove had to come on and dispute the awarding of Ohio to Obama. As the minutes ticked by and Romney refused to concede, polling showed more and more of a tilt against him– taking what could have been a gracious and proud concession and turning it into a late-night footnote. Most of the people I was in touch with over Facebook went to bed before Obama was even able to give his victory speech.

Election in hand, I turned to the matter of Beijing’s art district, Dashanzi or “798.” Formerly an East German warren of ugly industrial stock, innovative Beijingers had turned it into an industrial studio area and turned the Stalinist architecture into a kind of ironic canvas for commentary on China’s trajectory. Many of the artists featured there were now famous, and the threadbare unheated workspaces had long since been abandoned in favor of clean, temperature-controlled galleries. To be honest, I was unimpressed. I failed to meet a single artist, and at least half of the galleries had “no photos” signs which seemed designed to– what?– encourage me to buy a painting? A lot of the exhibits seemed to be “art for art’s sake”; or to put it another way, devoid of any real meaning. Still, it was enjoyable enough to walk around the area, and the Banksy-like graffiti was encouraging.

I walked back at sunset and Rob and I planned to meet up for some dinner. To my great surprise, I ran into a friend from D.C. just outside my hotel, and given the opening Rob and I attached ourselves to the outgoing dinner party. My friend and his wife had just been posted to Beijing, so had been there only a couple weeks– it was great to see them, and we traded stories of cultural ennui and crappy Embassy furniture. Later we made our way to a bar where seven of us traded stories of our travels or glorious past. One of the other attendees knew another friend of mine from D.C., so we took a picture to send back. It felt good to be part of an identified community– one that triumphed education, international engagement and social inclusiveness, and that could authentically be called “American.”

Chongqing, Day 12

“Four days, three nights” sounded like a lot when I booked my trip, but as the last morning dawned it felt like I was just getting started. Despite everything– the mealtime negotiations, the Kramer visits, the raspy loudspeakers– floating up the Yangtze gave me a feeling of depth and contemplation. I seriously considered bargaining to see if I could just keep my cabin and join the return trip back to Yichang; if I had nowhere to be, I might have. But I did, so it was mixed feelings that I prepared to disembark the Princess Sheena in the misty industrial city of Chongqing.

But first there was the small matter of the gratuity. Like all cruises worldwide, they began talking tips the night before and hit it again hard the morning of departure. I’m pretty lukewarm on tipping generally– it might have made sense back when lots of people worked for nothing, but today it seems wholly anachronistic. I know from being a waiter that it doesn’t really improve service; you do what you do and they pay what they pay. It’s just a cultural standard. Luckily, in Asia it’s quite rare. You don’t tip restaurants; you don’t tip taxis; you don’t tip massage therapists; you just don’t tip. There are some fancy bars and nightclubs that try to institute the practice, but that’s just because it’s supposed to be trendy and Western.

On the other hand: most of the people in China who actually make your life better are also the ones least likely to receive your money. Cleaning ladies, boat captains, schoolteachers, cooks– they get paid by someone, but not by you. You pay the middleman; the middleman middles things, a large amount of money gets lost and the workers get whatever is left. It’s probably only barely an exaggeration to say that all of China’s wealthy are middlemen, from English school owners (who speak not a word) to the children of powerful politicians (whose main business qualification is the ability to call daddy). Talk about exploitation of the working class! From that perspective, it was somewhat appealing to give something directly.

My early-morning mind came upon what I thought was a perfect solution. When I checked in, I gave Y100 (about $16) as a key deposit– they made a big deal about the keys being originals that came with the boat from Germany. I was due back my deposit, so I would just put that in the envelope and be on my merry way. It was less than what was clumsily suggested on the English paperwork ($10– no, $20!– per day), but almost assuredly more than what any of my Chinese compatriots would leave. These were penny-pinching, bone-chewing retirees who would haggle over the last piece of tripe; from a purely anthropological perspective, I was interested whether they would leave anything at all.

But alas, China is where good ideas come to die. I went to check out and collect my key deposit, which produced a flurry of excited discussion before they finally announced that they didn’t have it. Ah, I see, I said– and waited. “Maybe you gave it to the Kramer guy? Yes, that must be it. You gave it to the Kramer guy, so you have to get it back from him!” Nope, I said, I gave it to you. “Ah, but we have no record of it!” Really. That’s interesting… wait. Scurry scurry scurry. Phone Kramer guy. Scream at Kramer guy. Find English-speaking minder to explain to dense foreigner. “I’m very sorry, but there isn’t any money left from the deposit fund, so we can’t give you the money back, have a nice stay in China!” But this is not my first day at the rodeo. My face the prefect expression of samadhi, I sit down in the lobby and tell them to let me know when they work it out.

Magically, the Y100 reappears, or at least they realized that I was going to sit in that lobby and pester them until it did. At this point I somewhat awkwardly remember that this was supposed to be their tip. Suan le, I think: this will be a lesson in capitalism. Next time, side with your customer.

8AM is not typically when I make important decisions about life, so I walked a short distance to a nice looking hostel and settled in with some coffee and wifi until the world started to make sense. Basically I had two options: I could hang around Chongqing a bit, or I could taxi over to the train station and make my way for Chengdu, which was my next major destination. I had no particular reason to stay in Chongqing… but then again, I’d never been there either. I looked through the guidebook and identified some Buddhist carvings that seemed promising, so I decided to stay a night and see how I felt.

I walked a short way to another hostel I had read about, located deep within the warren of steep pedestrian streets that define the city. Chongqing could never quite be called “charming,” but it was pulsing and interesting and alive, which was more than a lot of Chinese cities. The city was built up on steep hillsides that make road traffic problematic, so life exists in between the major roads in narrow alleyways connected by steep stairways. For a country where you’re always in danger of being run over, it was a refreshing change. Chongqing is also known for its fabulously spicy hot pot: you dip things in a giant metal pot of bubbling red broth until they’re ready to eat. You must also part the sea of red chilies floating on top of the broth, which can be a wee bit intimidating.

I checked into my hostel, though “hostel” doesn’t quite capture the feel of this place. Set back from a narrow side street, the Chinese double doors open into a small courtyard with a quiet sky-lit reflection pool. There are a few shared rooms, but mostly it is small singles and doubles set around a traditional courtyard, a converted old-style house that creates another world inside the steaming, thriving, noisy city. Once again, I kinda wished I could stay here a week.

It was so peaceful and quiet that I had a hard time relaunching myself out into the city to catch a bus to the Dazu Buddhist sculptures, which were about a 2 1/2 hour bus ride away. I’m glad I did, though. Someone 700 years ago had discovered a natural grotto surrounded by steep sandstone cliffs, and into those cliffs they had decided to carve some of the most amazing depictions of Buddhist deities and teachings I’ve seen anywhere. What is most remarkable is the color: in some cases, the artists used the natural red color of the sandstone to create carved flames encircling the giant stone Buddhas. The quality and detail is equally amazing. I found myself wondering, once again, what China might have been like during that earlier era when all civilization called the Middle Kingdom home.

Shanghai, Day 1

Usually arriving in Asia is a rush. You stay up too late the night before packing, you get almost no sleep in the economy boxcar, and you arrive at your destination some 22 hours after you got up that morning. But then the energy hits you– the people, the smells, the dynamism– and you want to get out there a bit anyway, sleep be dammed.

Well, not this trip! I got myself on the maglev train from Pudong Airport (9 minutes at 300 km/hr!) and was so dog-tired I couldn’t imagine even finding my way to the cheap business hotel I booked. Which I did, of course, passing by numerous opportunities to put down my bag and enjoy a round of la-mian (spicy noodles) at a streetside cafe. I must be getting old.

The next morning I was up bright and early to take on the city– by which I mean, I had horrible jetlag and couldn’t sleep a wink past 5. So be it: out into the city, with only a slight pause to secure my VPN connection needed to access such subversive sites as Facebook from behind the Great Firewall of China. I walked along the Bund in the morning drizzle, deciding first to stop by my old haunt in Hongkou: the Astor Hotel.



Astor is where I stayed when I first came to Shanghai, in 1995, a poor student in Japan traveling to renew his visa. China at the time seemed scary. It was Communist, after all– but that hardly mattered, since the Cold War was over. More scary was that it was Third World. Having only been to Mexico at that point, my impression of Third World was dirty, dangerous, and unstable. By only my second day in the city, I decided I liked China– it was definitely NOT Japan, but after you got over the yelling and the spitting it was sort of refreshing.

Astor House is one of the oldest Western hotels in the city, founded by a wealthy investor during Shanghai’s birth as a colonial trading port. It became the grande dame of the Shanghai social scene, the “it” place to stay and the site of many dances and social events. Predictably, when Shanghai fell to the Communist rebels, Astor was repurposed. By 1995, however, it had regained its former status as a high-class hotel– but in a twinge of proletariat guilt, it also hosted on one floor one of China’s first International Youth Hostel (IYH) dorms. 20 to a room, it was, but for five or six bucks you could sleep under majestic neoclassical awnings and walk the worn wooden stairs that Albert Einstein, Buckminster Fuller, and Ulysses Grant used.

After my quick review of Astor I tucked down in a newish cafe serving imported Columbian coffee, which was every bit as good as I hoped it would be. Now, Starbucks can be found in any major city, but in that first trip you would have been challenged to find good coffee… or even a Chinese person who had tasted coffee at all. How things change.

After a welcome caffeinated recharge, I set off to snap some photos on the Bund and swing by Nanjing Lu, which is Shanghai’s premiere shopping destination. It’s become somewhat of a pest, actually, with overpriced Western chain stores and scammers milling about. But I accomplished one critical task: getting my iPhone on the network. Or so I thought…

An hour later I was rendezvousing with a friend to see Shanghai’s M50 Art Gallery section, which was indeed impressive. Many artists host small gallery spaces displaying a range of mostly modern art, but really good modern art. My favorite was by an artist named Pienzi. He’s known for his “abacus” works, many of which feature some version of his face, but the one we ended up talking about was a black-on-black painting with the speech Mao Zedong gave to launch the Cultural Revolution. It was slightly exhilarating to carry on a semi-sophisticated conversation in Chinese.

Afterwards we went looking for one of my mini-goals, which is to find a good glass of Chinese wine. FAIL. We did indeed go to a wine bar and they did indeed have Chinese wine, but at 500RMB ($80) it seemed like quite a gamble on something that could easily be undrinkable. Instead, we enjoyed two (yes, two) bottles of red, a Tempranillo from Spain (Borsao) and a Bordeaux from (where else?) France. Wine and conversation proceeded to flow like the Yellow River. Undeterred, however, I ran out to a Chinese “Family Mart” and got a 80 kuai ($12) bottle of “Changyu” red.

Which, after two bottles of red, I promptly forgot at the bar. I have not enough face to go there and recover it.

Snooth Articles on Italian Wine

Gregory Dal Paz of has been posting briefs from his recent wine tour through Umbria and nearby Tuscany– worth reading for the wine insight and the experience of local culture (not that we didn’t have our share!).  We’ve been to many of the same places and enjoyed comparing our experiences.

Travel to Tuscany and Umbria

I recently set off on a tour of adjacent regions in Italy, one as famous as any, the other living in its neighbor’s shadow.  Tuscany captures the imagination of many, and with good reason. The riches of Siena, Florence, the hill towns and famous vineyards spanning Montalcino, Montepulciano, and Chianti have had a tremendous impact on history.  Moving just a few kilometers to the east one finds oneself in the province of Umbria. Long passed over as a tourist destination, and with a much smaller wine industry, Umbria is only now appearing on the radar of the average tourist…

Travel to Tuscany: Greve in Chianti

Day one in Italy ended with me in the quaint town of Greve in Chianti. Located in the northern reaches of the Chianti region, and only some 30 kilometers south of Florence, it’s an ideal home base for visits in the region.  The village is well known as a source of fine wine, and is also home to several renowned restaurants…

Tasting Wines in Chianti

Volpaia is a fantastically preserved and renovated Italian village of medieval origins. The Stianti family, owners of Castello di Volpaia, have painstakingly restored much of the village and converted it to their winery while preserving all the architectural details and appearances that takes one back to a simpler way of life.

The Hilltop Village of Montepulciano

When we think of Tuscan wine it’s so easy to get distracted by thoughts of Brunello and Chianti, then move on to the Super Tuscans, totally glossing over many great wines. The greatest mistake many people make is to ignore Montepulciano, or rather the wines of Montepulciano: Vino Nobile and Rosso di Montepulciano.  Let me rephrase that just a little, missing the village of Montepulciano is almost as big a mistake as is missing the region’s wines.  Montepulciano, besides being the star of some recent vampire movie, is a wonderful little hilltop town that feels untouched by the passage of time.

Firenze: A Mini Photo Contest

Cecy and I had a mini contest while we were trapsing through Firenze (Florence) this past weekend– tell us which photo set you like better!  (We’ll reveal whose photos are whose in a week.)