Archive for the ‘USA’ Category

Flying East to the West

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

The arrival at Beijing International airport was my third time in a Chinese airport (I had transited through Hong Kong International on my way to and from Lao 4 and 5 years earlier), and I went through the standard arrival procedures of checking my connecting ticket to LAX. This time things were a bit different, however, because Swine Flu was apparently on the mind of the Chinese government. Upon arrival all passengers were asked to fill out and sign a form saying that they were not suffering from any of the symptoms of the flu. Unfortunately, I have always suffered from allergies to airborne allergens and had been congested that day because of this. So, being the honest Mennonite that I am I dutifully checked the “Nasal Congestion” box and handed the form to the customs official along with my passport. This earned me a trip to a specially cordoned-off waiting area from which I watched all my fellow passengers pass by on their way into the international departures area. About 10 minutes later a man and woman in scrubs and white lab coats arrived with my form and the man started asking me some questions. “Where have you been traveling?” had a difficult and lengthy answer, but eventually we got around to the reason I had checked the “Nasal Congestion” box. The man spoke English fairly well so it was easy enough to explain about my allergies. “Ah, yes.” He said, “That’s alright.” Five minutes, several stamps, and a few signatures later I was on my way.

I had over 5 hours to kill before my plane to LAX left and I had decided that I would try to get out of the airport if at all possible. When we had been planning the trip we had decided against going to China because of a visa cost of over $400 per person. However, Matt had told me that he had met someone in Beijing who had been allowed to leave the airport for a few hours during his layover without a visa. This gave me an idea and as I talked to the customs official at arrivals I asked if it was possible to leave the airport for a little while before my flight left. He said yes and told me where I needed to go get out of the international terminal. So, when I finally saw the terminal entrance I walked toward it exuding as much confidence as I could muster. I was walked upstream through the flow of arriving Chinese travelers arriving at the arrival customs counters from the wrong side. I watched two stewardesses and a few captains walk out through a small gate along the right side of the room and headed that way. When I arrived, however, I was firmly but kindly stopped by a security guard who told me in Chinese and pantomime that I was going the wrong way and pointed me toward the departure lounge. I didn’t take no for an answer, however, and, apologizing to the guard, went to the nearest customs box. I politely got the attention of the young woman stamping passports and tried to explain my hopes and dreams of being able to walk around outside. All I succeeded in doing, unfortunately, was confusing her and so she made me understand that I was to wait there and she would call someone to help. A few minutes later a man who must have been a supervisor approached and in clear English asked me what the problem was. There was some hemming and hawing and a few more questions about reasons (”There are very nice restaurants in the departure lounge.”). But my polite persistence eventually won the day! The supervisor gave my passport to the young customs official to stamp and told me which monorail line to take and off I went.

For about 2 hours I walked the streets of Beijing in the area near the airport. It took about 20 minutes to get from the airport to a nearby market where I went to a bank and found that the ATM only offered currency in RMB (renminbi). I had literally never heard of the RMB and was expecting to withdraw Yuan. It was a good reminder that there is still a lot out there to learn. I did eventually learn that the RMB was the official name for the currency with the yuan being the name for the unit of currency. Anyway, I withdrew about 100 yuan and used it to buy some delicious Dragon Fruit, a pomello and a few other things for a nice picnic lunch in a small park from which I could watch Chinese life go by. The sounds of bicycles, pedal taxies, a few cars and busses and many voices in a language I didn’t understand made for an appropriate backdrop for my last day in Asia and my last “Cultural Experience” of the trip. With just an hour and a half to go I headed back to the airport and got through security and customs with few problems and prepared for a long plane flight to LAX.

The trip was remarkable only for the length of time it took and the packed 747 on which it took place. I chatted a bit with a Chinese family returning to their home in LA and an American business man who had been working in Beijing for a few weeks and then everyone settled down to some fitful, airplane sleep. As we approached LA many hours later, I spend the last 20 minutes of the flight looking out of the window, watching the coastline of my home country approach after 4 months away. The city bustled with cars, and few bicycles or pedestrians could been seen from the air. Roads were clean and it seemed like ads plastered every visible inch. Just before our gentle landing I caught a glimpse of a flaming hillside and billows of smoke just outside the city. The huge forest fires I had read about while waiting for departure.

A uniformed, American customs official kindly welcomed me home and, after picking up my bag I walked outside into the warm, California air. Waiting me were my girlfriend Rachel, my sister Elizabeth, and my Great-uncle Ned. Elizabeth, Rachel, my brother Levi and roommate Chris had all taken a trip through the American Southwest to pick me up. They had stopped at Ned and Marge’s house and then come to pick me up. It was nice to see some familiar faces after almost two weeks on my own and Ned and Marge prepared a wonderful supper for us during which all of us talked about our adventures.

My time overseas had ended but I still had a few days of adventure driving back across the US before the trip would be at an end.

Something Completely Different: An End.

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

We woke the next morning (August 18th) and I made my getaway. Dan and I caught a taxi eighteen kilometers to Chinggis Khaan International Airport. I had my bag shrink-wrapped and I departed Daniel and Mongolian excitement at 11 AM. In that excitement, I had left my journal at the Mongolian BBQ restaurant and my toiletry bag at the hostel. It felt appropriate; I had left my meal in the hostel toilet. My journey home lasted 25 hours. That included a four-hour layover in Bejing, where I randomly enjoyed the comfort of the business class lounge. That meant I enjoyed as much free food and drinks as I wanted. I avoided the Mongolian barbeque. I also washed my face in the swank bathroom.

Apparently, my ticket from Bejing to Washington D.C. was business class. That meant the most comfortable seat in which I had ever flown, more delicious free food, and serious personal entertainment. Full from an extra serving of cheesecake, I watched Star Trek and The Soloist in the dark cabin, taking a break to peer into the blinding sunlight on the Alaskan coast as we crossed the International Date Line. It was a Tuesday lasting 36 hours. I caught up on stateside news in Dulles International, and minutes before the day ended, I landed in Columbia, SC. And now for something completely different. My family welcomed me at the security gate and I enjoyed hugs all around.

Wednesday I slept-in, unpacked, got my teeth cleaned, and received a speeding ticket (an expensive one at that, since my wallet and license were in Ohio with David). Welcome back to America. The next day I started another semester of college classes. That weekend I moved into my apartment I share with three other guys on campus. The month following has been a blur of classes, friendships, work, and countless other readjustments. I think this was the best approach, since I had no opportunity to feel down, suddenly stationary after three and a half months of the greatest adventure of my life. In a way, the adventure has only continued but in a new way. It’s true for all of us. God traveled with us in Europe and Asia; God continues to accompany us back in the States. The adventures change but God, Who was so faithful to protect and reveal His glory over such an incredibly full summer, remains the same.

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. [You see us when we drive 20,000 miles and when we train across Russia. You see me when I study for a sociology exam and when I enjoy college football games.] You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand! I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! (Psalm 139:1-7)

I hope you have enjoyed following along with this extraordinary journey and have been as encouraged as I have by God’s constant provision and guidance for just four college kids trying to see the world. It certainly is a wonderful place. I’m out. Peace.


The End is Nigh

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Hey everyone who still reads this! You’ll hopefully be pleased to hear that both Matt and I will be posting the final installments in this saga this coming week, so stay tuned! Also, we’re looking at making some t-shirts to commemorate this auspicious occasion (the trip around the world, not the finishing of the blog, although I feel like the latter may be the more significant feat)… Would you be interested in one? They would cost about $10-$15 depending on how many we make and they would have the following design (or something very similar) on the back. If you’re interested click on the comment link below this post and let us know!


Hunting for the US

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

When we left off we had just arrived in Astana and were making our way South exploring the city. We were also looking for a place to register our visas, and keeping our eyes open for a hotel (which I had learned in Russian, thanks to my phrasebook, was gostinitsa).

Just north of the river we ran into a student who spoke some English, the first Anglophone we had met so far in Kazakhstan, and asked her if she knew where the US Embassy was, we had a few questions including where we could register our passports (we figured the Embassy could help us with that) and where to find an English-speaking church service (we had no idea if they could help us, but figured we’d ask anyway). She told us where she thought it was, pointing to an area on the map and telling us it was near “The Pyramid” (which turned out to have been designed by Sir Norman Foster himself). We went to where she said, found no pyramid, found no embassy, and made our way to the tower of Astana.

While under the tower, we spotted a few policemen in their giant, round hats lounging on a nearby street corner. I was a bit reticent to approach them, as I always am with policemen, for some reason (perhaps related to my experiences with extortion in other countries I’ve visited). But, Matt’s cool-headedness prevailed and we walked up to them. In broken, horribly pronounced Russian learned directly from the phrasebook I had been studying as we walked, we asked where the embassy was and, after quite a bit of map flipping and some squabbles among the three officers, were given a route to get to the embassy which was apparently right near the Pyramid, although the Pyramid was on the other side of the city from what we had been told.

Before we left we asked the kind policemen where we could register our visas and were met with a bit of shock when we handed them our unregistered passports and informed them of our predicament. They told us they had no idea how to help us, drew a location on our map telling us someone there might be able to help us and bid us goodbye in Russian (dosvedanya), English (goodbye), and, for some reason, Italian (ciao). Matt and I headed off encouraged. We could communicate a bit in Russian and had a pretty good idea of where the Embassy was!

It took a bit of walking and the directions turned out to be a bit off. We were standing slightly forlornly on the street corner when all of the sudden I spotted a giant US flag waving proudly over a huge building (remember, Kazakhstan has oil). We had found it and were a bit proud of our nation for providing such a beacon of hope to us. That hope was crushed, however, when we approached the well-defended embassy and talked to the entrance guard, Dmitry. He spoke English slowly, with a stutter, and had a limited vocabulary. That was ok with us, however. What was not so ok was that the Embassy was closed for the day and wouldn’t be open until 8 or 9 the next morning. No help there.

We made our way back toward the city, it was along walk. We stopped at one “supermarket” (the sign for which I could now read after studying the Cyrillic alphabet for a bit), found the prices to be out of our range and kept trudging. That evening, however, we had our first break. We found a cafe by Matt’s intuition and my Russian reading and discovered that delicious tea was only 100KT and a plate of delicious crepes with sour-cream was only 200KT! For about €1 each we had a wonderful break from our walking, two cups of delicious green chai (another word I could read, hooray!) and some heartwarming crepes. We also listened to MTV Dance Russia… which was not so heartwarming and was rather loud over the cafe speakers.

We made our way back North, it was getting late and we didn’t find the train station until after 11 that evening. Upon arriving back at the hotel we found one fellow already asleep in our room and another just coming in for the night. I had a nice conversation with him in what English he understood. It turned out he was an Electrical Engineer just in town for a short stay and was leaving rather early the next morning. Matt and I bid him goodnight and made our way outside to surreptitiously, and quickly cooked up a pot of stew in the parking lot behind an ancient Soviet dump-truck and crawled quietly into our beds so as not to wake our two roommates. We slept in the next morning, although not particularly well as our roommates had to catch their trains early, one left loudly at around 0400 and the Electrical Engineer left a bit less loudly at around 06:30.

We had learned a lot in our first day in Astana and were still learning the ropes.

The Journey Home and Back

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

My journey home began on Tuesday, May 26 at 6:27 AM in Gothenburg, Sweden. While we were in Bad Pyrmont, Simon Kolle gave a lot of his time to helping me get a train ticket from Copenhagen to Frankfurt. The plan was that we would explore south Sweden after which the guys would drop me off in Copenhagen, and then head back into Sweden to see Stockholm and catch their ferry to Estonia. Unfortunately, the only bridge from Denmark to Sweden costs € 30 to cross each time, meaning they would pay € 60 to drive from Sweden to Copenhagen and back to Sweden. We found a train that made the crossing for less than half that price.

From Gothenburg to Copenhagen took 3 1/2 hours. The trip from Copenhagen to Frankfurt was a little over 9 hours, leaving me at Frankfurt-Am-Maine a little after 9:00 PM. My flight went out at 12:05 PM the next day. During the next 15 hours I read, ate lots of McDonald’s, slept fitfully for 2 1/2 hours, read some more and had a pleasant conversation with 2 other Americans returning to the U.S.. My Canadian passport gave me no problems abroad until I tried to re-enter my home country. I had several moments where I was genuinely worried that I wouldn’t be allowed back in, at least not in time for the wedding. Happily everything was resolved and my flight touched down in Pittsburgh at 9:16 PM. By the time I arrived home it was past midnight, making the entire journey around 48 hours long, once Europe’s 6 hour time difference is taken into account.

It was amazing to be back in the good ol’ U.S.A.. Though reconnecting with loved ones was the best part of coming home, I spent a great deal of time pursuing less noble pleasures that are in-feasable or impossible on a trip bound by a limited budget. I slept on a comfortable couch (My bed being taken by guests visiting for the wedding), took showers as often as I wished, ate piles of food when ever I wanted, and drank gallons of Mt. Dew (Which is not sold in Europe). Yet the time with friends and family was the highlight of my brief stay. I spent most of my time with my wonderful fiance, Emily, though other highlights include watching and playing basketball with my friends. My sister Marina’s wedding, the entire reason for my return, was worth the effort and expense involved in attending. It was also good to see one of my best friends, Andrew, and a close cousin, Darren, just before they left on long journeys of their own.

The week passed in the blink of an eye and before I knew it I was on my way back to Pittsburgh, flying to catch the plane before it left at 3:15 PM. The flight to Frankfurt was almost disappointingly non-eventful, landing an hour early at 8:35 AM. A bit after 10:00 I started catching local trains (Instead of the far more expensive ICE) from Frankfurt to Berlin where I would rendezvous with Dan, Matt and David. As I sat alone on the trains I found myself missing home quite severely. My train came into Berlin Hbf at 7:46 PM. The return trip lasted a merciful 33 hours. My home sickness faded somewhat when I was reunited with the guys and we explored the streets of Berlin, passing the Reichstag, Brandonburg Gate, and walking along the path where the Berlin Wall once stood guard over Communist east Berlin. I had so much to see and home would be waiting for me at the end.

My brief interlude in the U.S. taught me several important things; even McDonalds is delicious if its the first American food you have had in a month; contrary to what I have staunchly believed my entire life, I actually enjoy Coke; I need more than my driver’s license to re-enter the U.S. with a Canadian passport; no matter how amazing your journey is and how memorable your experiences are abroad, returning, in the end, to the comfort, love and security of home trumps all. But that will come in due time! For the moment, keep us all in your prayers as we continue to see the world!

Daniel Shenk

First days

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

At 10:30 Monday, April 27 Anno Domini 2009 we departed Rosedale for Chicago in the Ziegler’s van. We stopped at a CVS to get some all purpose soap, but as exciting as that sounds, those who didn’t come in the store had even more excitement. Pippi, the Ziegler’s miniature dachshund escaped from the confines of the van and ran across the parking lot and several lanes of traffic before Elizabeth could grab her. Next, we stopped at a Dick’s Sporting Goods where we tried to locate some small camp towels. Then did not have what we were looking for, but Jerry, the store’s manager, helped us immensely by calling to other Dick’s in Indianapolis and having them hold several towels for us. So Jerry if for some reason you stumbled upon this blog, thank you and don’t read the next sentence. We ended up finding the towels at the other Dick’s and didn’t buy the ones set aside for us. We also stopped at KFC and all 11 of us (excluding Pippi) got a free grilled chicken leg. If Colonel Sanders is reading this and worried that we won’t thank him while heaping praise on Jerry, Colonel Sanders…Thank you. If you would have started out grilling instead of frying your chicken you could be several billion dollars richer.

We arrived at O’Hare with Rebekah, the Ziegler’s two year old, excitedly reporting every time she saw an airplane and one time exclaimed, “That one is even bigger than me!” We got our send off with some cheese fries, our last bit of truly American food in several months. We made it through customs without incident which surprised me considering I have a metal plate and 5 screws in my leg which did not set off the metal detector. We traveled via Aer Lingus in an Airbus 330. It was a nice airplane complete with personal touch screen screens on which you could watch TV shows, movies, play games, or check out our flight status (We traveled at 40,000 feet where the air temperature was -75 degrees with 100 mile-per-hour winds.

We landed at 7:30 a.m. local time Tuesday and got through customs no problems. After we got our luggage we discovered that the bus drivers of Dublin were on a limited service strike. The ladies at the tourist information center were able to look at a chart and see which routes were not available, which operated infrequently, and which ran as normal. It is nice that the bus drivers at least schedule their strikes carefully and let others know their plans. We took a bus into Dublin and discovered that the Dublin port was about 2 kilometers from the bus station. We decided that it was not worth the money for us to take a taxi or wait a long time for a bus, so we walked to the port with all of our luggage. We had two big bags (Dan Shenk’s and a communal miscelaneous bag), two camping packs, two small backpacks, and an additional very small bag. (We packed in accordance with having a car to carry our things, not having to carry them ourselves. We started out and I quickly determined that it was much more comfortable to carry my small backpack on my chest and my large camping pack on my back. Dan Ziegler did the same, so we both looked rediculous but at least we were more comfortable. It became increasingly important to be comfortable because we kept walking and walking. We decided that it must have been 2 km’s to the entrance to the port and several more after that point. All in all, we walked loaded down for an hour and a half before arriving at the Irish Ferries port. Throughout the walk we noticed that there are quite a few Guinness trucks driving around. The only surprising thing about this is that they looked exactly like the trucks that in the US that transport oil. So do these trucks drive around and pump huge amounts of Guinness into tanks that are buried below pubs. If anyone knows the answer to this question, please let us know. Also, at the end of our trek, one of the wheels blew out on one of our pull-behind bags. Therefore, Dan Shenk drug the bag along the ground creating a wonderful scraping noise. We laughed at ourselves: Dan Ziegler and I had two backpacks each, one on front and one on back while Dan Shenk drug his bag along the ground. We decided we looked like a group of vagabonds.

At the ferry station they had a special room for early arrivals, so since we arrived at 12:30 for a 2:30 ferry, we made use of it. We were ravenously hungry but didn’t know what to do. Suddenly we remembered that we were carrying a hotpot, some ramen, and a power converter. We got some water out of the restroom sink and boiled up some ramen noodles. While eating, I looked around the room and burst out laughing. There were nine chairs in the room and every one of them had something on them, either ourselves or one of our possessions. Also, our bags were open and stuff was strewn about the floor. We no longer look like a group of vagabonds; instead, we were nothing short of a group of hobos.

Our ferry ride was fairly uneventful, except that we had to block out the Dumbo: The Elephant movie blaring behind us. We landed in Holyhead, Wales (Cymru in Welsh) and were greeted by the wonderful Welsh script. As I read once: “Welsh writing looks like the alphabet threw up.” One example phrase: “Ewchimewn I’w borth a chalan lan.” We had several hours in Holyhead and explored the town which had a new age bridge connecting rustic buildings on both sides of the river. It seemed to be completely out of place but looked impressive. We noticed that all the young teenage boys wore sweat pants and prefered to use one vulgar word as much as is humanly possible while still getting ones point across. They seemed to think they were pretty cool and who could think that they might have failed?

We went back to the train station and made supper (more ramen noodles) and waited for our train at station 2. Right when the train was suppost to leave we decided to go up to the platform and check it out. It turns out that platform 2 was approximately a third of a mile long and the train had arrived at the far end and departed before we knew it. Since I had previously never ridden a train before, I missed my first train before I had ever ridden a train. How many other people can say that? We were able to catch another train an hour later and only got to Cannock an hour later than normal. Big bushes of yellow flowers, stately stone fences, some odd rock formations, a lot of sheep with their young lambs, and fog covered mountains created wonderful vistas and made for a beautiful train ride.

Since we were arriving at midnight, we decided to sleep in the Cannock train station. We stepped off our train at our stop, felt the cold air, and looked for the building that would house us for the night…and we looked some more. There was no building at this train station. We carried our luggage off of the platform and contimplated our options. We determined that if Cannock’s train station doen’t have a building, it is probably a tiny town without a hostel or anything of that sort. We thought our best option was to pitch our tents… then we decided that our best option was to pitch our tent because it was COLD. Dan Ziegler started setting up our tent while Dan Shenk and I went in opposite directions to search for the town and to see if any place had internet access. We needed to get in contact with Jim, the man who sold us our VW Passat to know when we could meeet him to get the car. We failed in our scouting mission, but Dan Shenk did discover where the actual town of Cannock actually was. We all climbed into the tent which is approximately 4 feet wide and tried to get to sleep. We all had a hard time positioning our arms so that we were not either hurting those next to us or making them uncomfortable with where they were placed. We were able to fall asleep though, in no small part due to the fact that we had just a couple hours of sleep on the plane the night before and spent the whole day traveling from Ireland to England.

We got up this morning and found a library where we could access the internet and contacted Jim and arranged a rendezvous and vehicle transfer. We also were able to walk through the town and eperience how the English live in an area that isn’t a tourist area. Men were at the pub by 10:00, women wheeled their babies around town, and all sorts of people stood outside of their bank waiting for it to open like pre-teens the night before a new Jonas Brothers CD comes out. There was also an odd statue outside of the library. The man is wearing only a loin cloth but has to transport a mass of some unidentified substance without it touching his hands. Therefore, he has to hold it in his loincloth which means he has to hold his loincloth vertically…. Don’t you love art.

Jim picked us up and took us back to his “compound” where we laid our eyes upon our “Stunning Jet Black 1998 VW Passat Estate SE Tdi.” The paperwork isn’t very complicated and within half an hour we left Jim behind and were experiencing life in the left lane, driving on the right side, and clockwise roundabouts. We are currently driving in Wales (most of our blogs will be written in the car) and haven’t had any really close calls. It is a nice, tight car to drive and gets over 40 miles per gallon. There are a few problems such as the back right door currently doesn’t open and the back left window won’t open, but other than that it is a very comfortable and has quite a few nice creature comforts.

This afternoon we also went grocery shopping. We found an Aldi’s (yes, in England you have to put a Pound in the mechanism to get the cart unlocked) and were able to buy a lot of cheap food that should also be nutritious. We were most humored when we came to the World Foods section and saw hot dogs sitting in buns and packaged in sets of two. The other prepackaged American foods in the World Foods section were chicken patty sandwiches and cheeseburgers. Aren’t we proud of what foods we have given the world. What does Italy have on us?

We are planning on spending the night near Conwy, Wales and will catch a ferry back to Ireland tomorrow.

We have a couple of pictures at our Flickr site that correspond with my post and will have more for you before long.
Thanks to those of you who read all the way through this ridiculously long post.

david (with help from the Dans)

On Our Way

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Well.. we’re finally on our way… Daniel, Dan and David are leaving Chicago O’Hare Airport (ORD) at 6:50 PM CST Monday, 27 April, 2009. Matt will be joining us in just four days.
From the inception of the idea 3 years ago to the past few months of intense planning, I never doubted that this amazing journey would actually happen, but I really was wondering what form it was going to take. The final form is:
4 Guys – Daniel Shenk, Daniel Ziegler, David Miller and Matt Wolfer
4 Months – approximately May through August
A Car – A right-hand drive 1998 VW Passat Estate TDi Diesel
Now we’re on our way and couldn’t be more excited, but maybe a tad apprehensive. We have a pile of luggage with everything we could imagine we would need, but more important, we’re all ready to be flexible and take what may come. After all, this can hardly be anything but an adventure!

Daniel Z