Now, a week after tropical Thai decadence, a group of us decided that the tales of breathtaking giant ice sculptures and nighttime dazzling colored lights were too good to put off. We were going to Harbin to brave Siberian temperatures and ring in the new year at the hometown of our 老板 Betty Wu. We checked into the Ibis and I had my first taste of the difficulty of hotel concierges in China when one’s Chinese is in its infancy. I shared a room with Carlos, and after checking in we went in search of a place we had seen on an Anthony Bourdain special. We had difficulty locating it, or locating anywhere to have a midnight toast, and just as we feared we might have a dry New Year’s, we found a place to sit down and order a beer tower. We made a plan to meet in the lobby in the morning for a tour of the Saint Sofia cathedral, and a walking tour of the old town. I had purchased heat-tech undergarments from Uniqlo and military surplus boots on the Taiping Lu, but somehow it just wasn’t enough. The previous winter’s hiking in Lake George seemed tame by comparison. We also had a fireplace there, and to this day I have not seen a fireplace in China. The Harbin streets were pretty interesting, with street signs in Cyrillic and Chinese, and there were some quaint cafes with inviting Christmas displays still up. The main pedestrian drag had some public ice sculpture displays and to our amazement, the Chinese, who drink hot water in the summer time, were eating ice cream cones out in subzero temperatures. If Chinese medicine had some explanation for this, I wasn’t listening. I wanted a hot cup of coffee, a nip of vodka, or a nice warm spa (where I eventually wound up on day two for a massage and refuge from what seemed like absolute zero). That night, we shared cabs across the river to the main ice sculpture park, and it was most impressive. The impending new year was the year of the lamb, and sheep sculptures were in abundance. We could make occasional pit stops inside a pavilion that sold hot dogs and warm ginger-flavored coca cola. The next night we met up in Ray and Kathy’s hotel room, had some pre-dinner drinks, and then headed out to a Russian restaurant that I quite enjoyed.
It was quite cold in Beijing since mid-November, so Carlos and I decided to spend our 5-day Christmas break in Thailand. We had heard great things, from Nick Nightingale and others. This was my first time out of China since arriving four months before, and I was shocked at how cheap and easy the air travel was. We checked into a cheap place not far from the KhaoSan Rd. in Bangkok, and visited the main temples in the city center, stopping for street food along the way. The midday sun was hot but comfortable. Wat Phra Kaew was probably the most impressive, golden Nagas and murals showing scenes from the Ramayana. I tried to imagine the city of the 18th century, with just elephant-traffic and rickshaws, creaky barges floating lazily down the Chao Phraya River. Carlos and I freshened up back at the hotel and decided to seek out a ping pong show on the Khao San Rd. In fact we had no idea what we were doing, and that worked out for the best. We bought buckets of MaiThai and wore Santa hats with blinking lights, and as the clock struck midnight we were sitting at a table at a two-tier bar/restaurant throwing back some beers. I pointed out a couple of good-looking ladies at a table a few meters away, and Carlos went over and began chatting – turned out one was from Colombia. I sat with a couple of local girls at another table. Carlos went for a walk with his companions, and I went for a walk with mine, and although we did not see each other again until the next day, occasional text messages confirmed that both of us were having a vigorous pre-dawn Christmas.
I bought myself a ukulele before we boarded the minibus for Hua Hin. This was a great little beach town. Carlos found a tattoo parlor to get some work done, and we saw Thai kickboxing in a little sporting arena with a portrait of the king looking down on the events, as he did virtually everywhere in this country. After dark the streets were an odd mix of Australian and European families with kids, and lady-boys and prostitutes. We ate at a table on the beach with the water reaching up to our feet underneath. The next day, we had brunch and an engaging conversation about Ray Kurzweil’s theory of living forever. Later we had a lazy afternoon on the beach, and I had just enough liquid courage to chat up a pretty young blonde sitting under a palm tree not far away. To my amazement she agreed to come over to our space, rubbed some lotion on my back, and relaxed as I played the ukulele.