This week’s post is about one of the more remarkable roads I’ve ever strolled. The street is in Xi’an, home of one of the world’s best preserved, still-intact, walled cities. We’re big fans of places listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Xi’an is on Chinese and international lists as a cultural treasure.
It’s an old capital city located at the end of the Silk Road. The rampart walls were built in the 14th century by Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang as part of his military defenses and enclose 8.7 square miles, or roughly 14 square kilometers. 
The walls were made first with tamped earth (and, according to Travel China Guide, ‘with the base layer including also lime and glutinous rice extract’).  A century later they were reinforced with blue bricks. The original walls used to include a moat and drawbridges. These walls are so thick that in WWII, Xi’an’s residents built a thousand bunkers inside the base to protect them from the bombs of Japanese air raids!
They are a breathtaking 12 meters or 39 feet high. It takes four hours to walk them. Actually, it takes longer than that if you’re Uwe and Jadi, because you never know what’s down the road. On our visit (foolishly booked during China’s Golden Week when all 1.3 billion Chinese citizens were also on vacation) we discovered a festival performance taking place inside one of the courtyards.
We heard it before we saw it. Drums, lots of drums…
And men in costume. Enter, Stage Left.
Or was that Enter, Stage Right?
What tickles me most about the walls is that once you’re on them, you could be on a wide boulevard anywhere in the world. Except that this is China, and this isn’t a boulevard…. It’s a wide street located on top of Xi’an’s city walls. Travel doesn’t get any better than this.
Every time Uwe and I went on a long trip, my mother-in-law’s last words were always, “The main thing is, you come back healthy!” She also said those words any time Uwe and I went on a short trip. Actually, she said this anytime either of us went anywhere.
“Cripes Uwe,” I would complain, “why the hell can’t she just tell us to have a good time?”
And then I got older and we did an extended trip and I did not come back healthy. I developed a herniated disk when we returned home.
Take it from me… Mothers are always, always right.
I should be on the other side of the world right now, meeting up with my sisters and their husbands to help celebrate a birthday. But I had a sinus infection since New Year’s Eve, and the space between my ears felt like it was stuffed with wet cotton. For weeks, I weighed the three plane flights needed for a trip of twenty hours against the likely reality of popped eardrums.
And suddenly, through the dampers in my eustachian tubes, I heard Mama Hartmann’s voice speaking that cautionary phrase with a new twist: “The main thing is, you leave healthy.”
I listened to my mother-in-law. I cancelled the flights at the last minute, and made a third appointment with a second ENT doc, an ear nose throat specialist. (Otolaryngologist. My new word for the day. Yippee for me.)
We’re enchanted with bodies of water. Yes, the Amazon River is definitely on our wish list…. We love them all, from the impossibly old cultures and antiquities found along the banks of the Nile River in Egypt to the remote beauty and haunting calls of loons on the back trails of lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks, to the ever changing scenery along the Mekong.
The Mekong River defines Laos in many ways. Laos is a landlocked country, but visitors forget this fact because the river runs the length of the land. When it reaches the southernmost border to Cambodia, the Mekong River divides up into a landscape of fast-running parallel streams.
It’s a quiet region, frequented mostly by nature lovers and stoners (see the first half of this post for some details on thataspect of travel).
Locals still go fishing in what looked like awkward and probably highly dangerous but effective fashion.
The Mekong River is wide and sleepy in places up north. Here, though, the river definitely rolls and tumbles. This method of fishing is surely the smartest way to work with the force of the waters and guarantee a good catch.
Here are some reasons why you should visit Southern Laos: the sweetness of a part of the world that isn’t in a hurry and has spectacular scenery.
The chance to get into areas that are still relatively untouched by mass tourism.
The natural world: biologists and botanists continue to discover new species. And the flora and fauna that Laos contains are beautiful.
Plus you never know when you’ll sail into the middle of a local festival. We literally did just that as we headed down river from Pakse to reach 4,000 Islands. A long boat race was going on, and Uwe and I didn’t need to be asked twice if we wanted to stay for a while and watch.
We booked our trip with a gentle young guide and a variety of boats. The infrastructure is simple compared to Germany or Hong Kong, but with cell phones and patience it all went smoothly. When you’re in a place as lovely as Laos is, it’s all good.
On our last trip to Laos we headed south to the quiet little city of Pakse in the Chapasak province. We wanted to see old ruins – and really spectacular waterfalls!
For the latter we booked a guide to reach the Bolaven Plateau. Hiking in to some of the waterfalls was a gloriously steep, wet walk.
Later, with the same guide (and boats) we were carried to 4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don). I was beyond amused to notice the signs on some of the guesthouses in 4,000 Islands, announcing that special, magical pancakes were available for breakfast…. My German husband missed the inference and asked why I was laughing. “Guests can get their pancakes laced with the noble herb,” I informed him.  Sure enough, plenty of tourists in the 4,000 Islands region spent all their time literally hanging out in hammocks. They were all way too relaxed – or something – to be ambitious. They were in no hurry to explore.
The Mekong River splits into branches at this end of Laos and tumbles over boulders and channels cut through rock.
When the French colonized Laos they came up with a bold (and ultimately quixotic) plan to build a railway through the region. They wanted to go around the waterfalls and create a faster, easier way to travel and ship goods either to the north, or to the southern Vietnam port of Saigon. The result is what a CNN article wryly refered to as “Laos’ first railway: 14 km of rust” .
The Mekong defeated the engineers, and 4,000 Islands is a beautiful sleepy area.
But the waterfalls on the Bolaven Plateau. We hiked in to as many as our young guide was willing to take us to.
NOTE: I first published this post 5 years ago. I reprint it as a prayer for our world. —Jadi
The anniversary of 9/11 is just a few days away.
I was back in the States when the attack occurred. When I returned to Germany a few weeks later, I was in turmoil. I felt all the contradictions of my life. I’m a resident alien on another continent. I’ve been the target of instant hate when someone found out I’m American. This only has to happen once to convince you that prejudice is awful. What the hell was I doing so far away from my own country? What was going on in the world, and could anywhere feel safe? It seemed like everything was getting sucked into a swirling vortex. My identity as a US citizen, as a foreigner, as a human being, came crashing down.
A few months later my epidemiologist friend Elena came to Europe for a conference. I took an unplanned trip to Amsterdam with her. Maybe 2 days away would give me a break from how heavy life felt. Below is the account from those 2 days and how they affected me:
“I people-watch as we travel to Holland. On a German train near the border, the train car is full of local residents heading home. An African couple talk over their baby. Another young couple sit by me with their own child. The wife’s exquisite black scarf frames her face. Her husband reads from a small leather bound Koran. Both of them keep an eye on the baby carriage. The rest of the car is full with the usual students, professionals, commuters.
An old man goes into the WC. Later the door slides open without his realizing it. He stands helpless, then fumbles at the door. We all see the prosthetic leg strapped to his upper thigh. Everyone looks away. The door slides open again and he looks up, stricken. I rise and go to the door and close it. When the door inevitably opens again a few minutes later, the man with the Koran closes it for him.
A cell phone rings. The African man pulls out his phone and answers, then switches to English. I realize they’ve understood every word of the conversations Elena and I have been having about global health issues, world politics, and travel.
The woman in the headscarf looks at me steadily. When she finally catches my eye she holds me in a gaze of tenderness and our connectedness as human beings. We see one another for a few minutes, and then the train stops and they detrain.
The train reaches Amsterdam. I’ve been here before and always feel as if I’m coming home to an old friend. We walk along the canal streets, and brick building facades reflect in the Amstel as it flows under the bridges. The Egyptian bellhop at the hotel asks where we’re from. “I love this city! You meet people from all over the world,” he declares.
In 2 days Elena flies back to the US. Later that morning I stand waiting to catch the tram from our hotel. A dark-haired woman at the street bus stop carries a backpack. I offer her my tram pass; I won’t need it beyond the central train station. She thanks me, but says she’s heading home. She’s an Israeli airline stewardess, in Amsterdam for a few days’ holiday.
“I live in Tel Aviv, and I’m afraid to go out of my house,” she tells me. “Everyone is scared of more terrorist attacks there. The situation is out of control.” I listen to her and say, “The rest of the world says, ‘just make peace!’ If only it were so easy.”
Once I’m on board my train I read a Newsweek, then dive back into a novel. The quiet man next to me asks in English if this train stops at the Frankfurt airport. I offer him the magazine. We begin to talk: he is Iranian, in Germany for an international banking and finance conference. He lectures at the University of Cardiff. His wife is a dentist, he tells me. They live in Britain and go back to Iran, to their home in the northeast by the mountains at the Afghani border, each summer for vacation.
He lifts the suitcase at his feet and sets it on his lap. Opening it, he pulls out framed photographs of 2 smiling boys. “These are my children.” We discuss their names, their ages, their personalities. At the airport station he leaves for his flight, and I wish him a safe trip home.
The woman sitting across from us changes trains with me in Mannheim. We stand shivering in the evening air on the platform. She is a Dutch physical therapist, doing an apprenticeship in Munich. She asks what I think of Holland. We talk about the coffee shops. I mention the small scale that guides decision-making in her country. I give her my leftover Dutch coins and she buys the tram pass from me.
Late that night I finally arrive home. In the space of 48 hours I touched on what seemed to be the entire planet. And I didn’t learn the names of any of the people who talked to me.
Travel isn’t just seeing and exploring other countries and cultures or the threads that weave those peoples’ histories with the present. Travel is the journey we make every day into other people, other lives, other ways of being and thinking and feeling.
Travel is about the interconnectedness of us all. Each person with whom we interact leaves behind traces that can change the world. Travel is about holding onto hope.
A part of me remains in every place I’ve ever stood. My image was impressed in a snow angel I made up in the Arctic Circle, which vanished years ago. But who can say if some part of my spirit still wavers there like the Northern Lights? Or in my interactions with all those people on the trains between Stuttgart and Amsterdam? I don’t know…. but we should live as if every act matters, as if choosing to love and be open to the rest of the world and each other can transform us.”
While I’m posting about China and Xi’an, I want to mention the yummy traditional foods. I’ll keep this post brief, and allow Uwe’s photos from our visit to do the talking. Besides, my mouth keeps watering just looking at them.
In Xi’an’s historic Muslim quarter, vendors were baking, frying, steaming and cooking all sorts of delicious treats. These ranged from food that was deep fried in woks to marinated meats on skewers.
I couldn’t resist the piles of beautifully plaited and stamped breads,
as well as the stacks of sesame and bean paste desserts…
I injured my back through overwork, recklessness, and sheer, stupid, stubbornness. I was incapacitated for over two months. If only I hadn’t climbed the Great Wall of China after I first hurt myself. If only I’d slowed down, even just for a day or two, while we were traveling. If only….
But no. What are you suggesting, that I should have slowed down and maybe let myself miss something???
So now we were home, and I was down for the count. Have you ever experienced a herniated disk? Those of you who have know what kind of pain I’m talking about. Either give me the good drugs, or just shoot me now. At the doctor’s office I actually begged for pain killers.
The Frau Doktor’s brow furrowed. “You mean you want me to give you a prescription for something you can take as soon as you get home?” she asked slowly.
“No. I mean I want you to give me a shot of something, before I leave your office. Like, right now,” I whined. “And yes, I want you to give me a prescription for something I can take as soon as I get home, too!”
She obliged me. I was able to hobble the few blocks back to our apartment.
When I got there, I bargained with every god in every place in the world we’d ever visited. “Just let me not be crippled,” I prayed. “If I heal and can walk again, I promise I’ll do yoga – and tai chi – and stretching exercises – and aerobic workouts – and never ever ever overschedule myself, from now until the day I die.” Because if the pain didn’t stop, that day was going to be a whole lot sooner than I’d anticipated. This HURT.
It took two months before I got back to healthy. Thanks to the German mix of physical therapy, acupuncture, anti-inflammatory meds, x-rays, and yes, those really good drugs, I didn’t need to be killed and put out of my misery.
P.S.: I kept that bargain with the gods. Almost a decade later, I religously start every morning with a routine of yoga – tai chi – stretching – and aerobic exercise. Superwoman is retired, and she’s not returning. I cut back on the amount I’m willing (and able) to work doing massage therapy.
As the memory of the pain receded, I got my health back. And, dude, — I climbed the Great Wall of China!
I blame everything to do with my health on the Great Wall of China.
It’s a long story. In other words, it’s perfect for a blog post. It begins with a trip that started in Beijing and ended in Tokyo…
Uwe and I were going to be gone for more than a month, and that means all the people who come for massage therapy wanted to get in for a last appointment before I left. No problem, I worked longer hours with more sessions, I was Superwoman in those days, I never got sick and was pretty vain about how healthy and strong I was.
Was. The weekend before our trip I got a wild hair up my a** and voluntarily defrosted the freezer. Why, I have no idea.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. So I chipped away, contorted over the ice with a sharp tool and a bucket of steaming water all afternoon. I woke the next morning with a low back that was screaming, and no time to take off to rest it. Not with Asia waiting for us! We climbed on a series of planes and 20 hours later arrived in Beijing, my back sending out those periodic, pinging, you-are-going-to-be-sorry signals. Uwe and I like to see, um, absolutely everything when we visit a new place, so I figured I would rest my back in between sight-seeing at some point.
And then the next day we went to climb the Great Wall of China. Gentle readers, I tell you, I stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked UP.
I calculated the Wall’s height and the angle of the steps and knew I was going to regret this. In typical Campbell fashion my next thought was roughly, “You may never get another chance to climb the Great Wall. Suck up, shriner. Start climbing.” And I did.
We didn’t allow for much down time. Our entire trip was terrific, but somewhere in Japan I began to hear an alarming clicking sound when I moved: bony eminences rubbing against one another. Or something. I’d figure that problem out once we got home again.
Of course, once we got home, every single one of those massage patients who’d been counting down the days before I returned all wanted new appointments, and instead of resting I dived back into work with a vengeance. I was Superwoman, right?
I’ll travel pretty much anywhere at the drop of a hat. Go around the world for 7 weeks? Cool! When do we leave? Overnight trip to Munich? Sounds grand, which beer hall do we want to have dinner at?
But. There are times when travel is not – quite – optimal. The rainy season offers big bargains and great deals for a reason. Like, you’re going to be wet most of the time. Another time period to carefully debate traveling in is when other countries have their special holidays. Sure, Christmas Market season anywhere in Germany or areas that have a tradition of a Weihnachtsmarkt is a good time to go. However, any National Day will probably mean shops and sights are closed up tight.
And, trust me on this one, you really don’t want to go to China when it’s National Day Golden Week, and 1.3 BILLION people are on holiday. 
They will all be taking their vacations. Spots that are usually crowded anyway are going to be jam-packed. This is not an experience for visitors with weak hearts or fear of crowds.
We learned this the hard way: first-hand. We did this at one of China’s most popular tourist sites: The Terracotta Army in Xi’an.
We got tickets and seats on a tour bus to get to the site. Our charming tour guide pointed to the buildings that house the terracotta army, pointed to the number of our bus, and finally pointed to her watch. No way she was going to push through the crowds in the massive hangars – she’d meet us at the designated time, back on our bus.
And in we went…. To this day I’m not sure what astounded me more. Was it the sheer size and scale of the clay army from 210-209 BC that was discovered in 1974?
Or was it the mass of tourists both foreign and native who completely filled the viewing areas?
One thing I do know for sure. That trip to China during October’s Golden Week cured whatever claustrophobia I may have once had. If you could survive the crowds we experienced in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai, you can survive them anywhere.
We were heading to China, and the World Expo was taking place in Shanghai that year. Oh man, did I ever want to go. When I was a kid, my family made the trip to the World’s Fair in New York City. I still remember the excitement of the Space Park, the talking, moving Lincoln robot statue in the Illinois Pavilion, and the Bel-Gem Brussels waffles we all ate for the very first time, smothered in strawberries and whipped cream. 
Expo in Shanghai! Surely, we had to see it. But there was just one teeny problem: all the on-line sources for tickets had been sold out for months. I wrote my friend Weiyu in Beijing and asked her, could she get us tickets? She checked in the capitol… all the ticket options there were sold out, too! But, ever resourceful, she called in a favor from a friend who lived in Shanghai, and he managed to secure two tickets for the time period we’d be visiting.
With our passports in hand (because your passport allowed you to skip the unbelievably long lines in front of most of the pavilions and enter your country’s VIP door), we headed out early in the morning.
That Expo was terrific. Some countries had put incredible thought and creativity into their presentations (more on some of them in future posts). And visiting Expo was a way to glimpse certain countries in places that I feel pretty sure I’ll never visit in real life.
Like North Korea. For a country that’s usually in the news these days, North Korea sure is shrouded in permanent mystery. I don’t know if their pavilion at the Shanghai Expo cleared up many of the mists, but it was an eye-opener in other ways.
I had no idea that Jeff Koons had designed their central fountain, for instance.  Frolicking naked cherubs (minus the wings) showed off their muscular buttocks. They held hands in a circle as they released a bird. Cherubs and bird all gazed up into the heavens…. I have a funny bone that gets amused by kitsch, and from the second I saw that fountain my funny bone began to tickle. I started laughing, and couldn’t stop.
The selection of literature for sale was slim on choice but heavy on message. Who can forget that classic of North Korean literature, “The Immortal Woman Revolutionary”?
The sales woman was dour and didn’t crack a smile. Maybe humor doesn’t translate as easily as I’d hoped.