Dec 31

the birthday arms race comes to a close

Two years ago, Todd surprised me with a birthday kidnap vacation to Hawaii. Sandy drove me to the airport under the guise that we were doing an interview in the airport area. I saw Todd standing on the airport curb and said, “Oh, it’s Todd! It’s so good to see him.” Even when Sandy parked the car in front of Todd, I rolled down the window and started a mid-day conversation by asking him how his day was going. Sandy finally said, “Elaine, get out! You’re going away.” And Todd handed me my suitcase and ushered me into the SF Airport departure area.

The 3-4 day birthday vacation was amazing and a much-needed break from a busy start-up routine. The only problem was that despite being very nice, Todd and I are fiercely competitive. And the Hawaii trip instigated a three-year birthday arms race. For Todd’s 29th birthday, I kidnapped Todd for a trip Peru where we hiked the old Incan trail. For my 30th birthday, Todd surprised me with a cooking lesson at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

On my last birthday, I made Todd promise that we wouldn’t leave the country and I’d celebrate a low-key birthday to end our competition. On a workday evening, we watched old submarine flicks (my favorite film genre) from our apartment, ordered take-out, and sliced my favorite birthday treat – a turtle pie from Baskin Robbins. It was perfect. However, Todd’s 30th birthday was just around the corner and it was no secret that he was expecting something.

On November 18th, Todd stopped by Meebo. While in a meeting, I asked Todd if I could borrow his car keys to break the tape on a sealed package. While he wasn’t looking, I handed the keys to Cam who excused himself and ran to the parking lot to transfer our birthday luggage from my car into Todd’s car. After the meeting, Todd was intending to go to a night film class in San Francisco and we had planned to perhaps get dinner in San Francisco afterwards. A few hours later we were heading to China to mountain bike through rural southern Chinese villages.

Getting Todd to the airport without him knowing was difficult, but the most challenging logistical detail was getting his Visa issued without arousing suspicion. I managed to sneak a passable passport photo of Todd a few weeks earlier from my iPhone. I woke up early one morning to complete and mail the forms before Todd woke up.

A lot of people were involved in keeping Todd’s birthday secret and these photos are long overdue. Once we arrived in Pingan, the tour agency, Bike Asia, took most of our luggage and we were left with two sets of clothes that we packed on our bikes – one set for biking and the other for walking around villages in the evening. We biked between 40-80 kilometers a day depending upon how much elevation we were expecting. We usually started biking by 8 or 9am and finished the day just before sunset.

This is my first blog post. In subsequent blog posts, I hope you’ll see that I’m not always tired, dirty, or wearing spandex!


  • getting the suitcases and gear into the trunk of the car
  • “todd, i need you to take this exit”
  • todd was undoubtedly surprised. i didn’t tell him our destination but he started asking prying questions like, “do i need my sunglasses for where we are going?”

  • in the airport garage, i gave todd a box full of puzzle pieces. when the puzzle pieces were put together, it would unveil the details of our trip. however, todd didn’t find out where we were going for a few more hours.
  • todd did two things from the arrival lobby: 1) he warned cam that he wasn’t going to fix as many bugs as he’d hoped over the next weekend, 2) checked-in on foursquare from the san francisco airport. after that, he was ready to go.
  • we first flew to LA and todd still didn’t know our final destination. we walked to the international terminal and when i turned into the air china check-in area, todd said, “china? we’re going to china? why are we going to china?” if i hadn’t planned this trip, i don’t think we would have gone to china for a while.

  • todd’s piecing together his puzzle
  • after examining our biking itinerary that lists how many miles we’re biking each day. he’s a little intimidated. no problem!

  • we arrive at our first destination at the longji rice terraces in southern china. these miao women in this area never cut their hair and their hair could easily extend to the ground.
  • you can see the dragon’s backbone rice terraces behind us. these terraces were just outside our hotel.

  • it was really cold in our hotel. we huddled around a small coal pit in the lobby area. our guide, farmer tang, sits to todd’s right.
  • we spent the first day hiking 10-12 miles. you can see pingan in the distance. for irrigation, the rice farmers suspend bamboo from the branches in the foreground to pipe water to their rice paddy.

  • i like the image of the pig standing on this rice terrace.
  • i believe these houses were constructed by the dong people who are known for their carpentry skills
  • carpentry workshop area for constructing houses

  • farmer tang collected enough grass to construct a small offering at the top of the mountain
  • todd and i look out from the terraces

  • little hut on a hill
  • these local women were dressed so well considering the work they were doing. the women typically wore silver earrings and brightly colored embroidered garments. each time we passed someone on the path, they would stop to ask farmer tang who we were and also how many other women we had passed that day.
  • this is why our guide, farmer tang, was so essential. this is a map of the local trails.

  • farmer tang just set up his first yahoo email account after his sixteen year old son had been urging him to get the family a computer. todd’s helping him check his email here.
  • todd unconvincingly pretends like he’s making the tofu on this table
  • when we finished our hike, we took a local shuttle back to our original hotel. our van was one of the few local non-tourist vehicles and we happened to take it when the school children and merchants were heading home. it was packed.

  • even more people wiggle inside the packed van after we exit
  • a small caravan ascending the trail leading to our hotel. this is the end to our first hiking day.

  • our first morning before biking. todd helps himself to a fried-rice breakfast.
  • i like this photo because it almost appears as though todd’s deciding between biking or horse riding. our first hour of biking was straight down the winding mountain road. it was exhilerating and cold.
  • when we reached the bottom of the hill, we took local roads that served more cows than vehicles.

  • our first of many bowls of noodles
  • three happy pigs live next to the bathroom where we had lunch

  • we stopped at a local factory that manufactures bamboo jugs for wine. just behind the factory you could see the bare patches in the bamboo forest where workers had recently chopped down the trees.
  • these are the bamboo jugs for the wine. we saw these later at airports and grocery stores.
  • many hours later, we finish our first day and rest in butterfly valley

  • chilies and rice dry on bamboo mats
  • we see locals drying rice throughout the village
  • todd poses in front of a local temple. you’d never guess this was a few feet from our hotel.

  • todd in biking spandex and chinese household sandals
  • a toddler helps his mother bag rice while his younger sibling looks on from the mother’s back

  • cute chickens. the farmer was about to scoop up all of the chickens into this cardboard box but they kept jumping out. there are a lot of animals (including humans) whose appearance struggles through adolescence. however, i think chickens are the worst adolescent animals i’ve ever seen. they just aren’t cute during this phase. the chick in the foreground is just beginning his adolescent days.
  • posing post-shower in a small corridor
  • some local cattle take an interest in us. they are much cuter than adolescent chickens 🙂

  • todd tries to decipher some local postings
  • a really, really long stalk of bamboo carried on a farmer’s shoulder. just ahead is a winding staircase with lots of switchbacks. we watched her skillfully navigate the corners with the bamboo.

  • todd’s pointing out that the builders used upside down plastic coke bottles for fencepost decoration
  • just pretty woodwork
  • this is our outside water heater. why it’s decorated with a martini glass, i don’t know. i actually washed myself from the cold sink and it wasn’t until we exited the room for dinner that we realized that the regulator for the shower was on the outside of our hotel room. for todd’s shower, i stood outside while todd shouted, “too hot, too cold” from inside. i’m not sure what donald norman would say about this situation. this seemed like something too strange to ever see again but all but one of the places we stayed while were were biking had this contraption.

  • a bee hut for collecting honey on the side of a hill
  • we’re biking again and enjoying a mid-day noodle break. i hadn’t sat in chairs this small since early elementary school.
  • farmer tang purchases fruit from a street merchant. they are weighing the fruit using a stick and a solid brass weight here

  • apparently palmellos are in season in november
  • we stopped at a weekly market. the colors in the shoes were just pretty.
  • this man was marketing an electronic wand that would instantly heat up water. he had a large sound system and could be heard from blocks away. it reminded me of the chinese version of a soapbox salesman.

  • we got caught in a long traffic jam biking to guilin. todd and i got stuck behind this duck truck. todd really wanted a close-up photo of the cute ducks and i risked life and limb to get within photo distance of this truck. the photo turned out well though.
  • the ducks were the only ones smiling in the traffic jam. i’m sure the traffic jam was better than where they were heading.
  • we stopped at a dam for lunch. farmer tang goes to the bottom to wash his hands.

  • farmer tang divvies up the palmello
  • biking through a local town. in many of the villages we biked through, the buildings were hollow and vacant.

  • another shot that todd really wanted. this woman had two pigs underneath each arm while walking down the road. i took this photo while biking so it’s a little bit blurry.
  • a great shot of the rice being grouped together and prepped for harvesting.
  • my favorite energy snack

  • todd’s favorite energy snack (fresh sugarcane)
  • water calligraphy on the sidewalks in guilin. we see sidewalk for the first time in a few days.
  • glass bridge in guiin with the karst mountain terrain in the background

  • after trekking through local villages, the lights in guilin were refreshing. plus, we had a real hot shower!
  • the morning traffic leaving guilin was nuts. i tried to capture it here but it’s really not the same as being immersed in a crowd of varied-speed vehicles who are all fending for themselves
  • noodle break! we’re pro’s at noodling by now.

  • slurp, slurp, slurp
  • farmer tang admires todd’s growing beard. todd explains that he didn’t know he was coming otherwise he would have shaved (and scheduled a hair cut) beforehand
  • one of the few areas where you can see the old architectural style. it was very quiet here.

  • these workers repairing phone lines seemed so out of place
  • we had a few tough uphill patches to get to this peak. this was the highest we biked throughout the trip. after this, biking became easier.
  • a happy couple looking out and thinking, “it’s all downhill from here!”

  • just a pretty view. we’ll be biking down to this area next. but we still have many, many miles to go afterwards.
  • fueling up with some chocolate goo
  • after our longest biking day, we arrive at a local family-run lodging house in xingping.

  • most towns we visited had these fluorescent banners to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the communist revolution
  • cautions! falling stone
  • sunset over the li river

  • the karst mountains in this area are also illustrated on the back of the 20 yuan bill. all of the mountains have a name like sitting frog, five fingers, smiling monk, and even pen holder.
  • the eggplant chili dish from this area is amazing. i brought back the pickled chili paste to try to reproduce this in california.

  • surprise! farmer tang pulled out all the stops to make sure that todd’s 30th birthday didn’t go without singing and candles. it wasn’t chocolate but it was really quite good.
  • the children in our farmhouse were so happy to help todd share his birthday cake

  • the next morning, we hiked to a lookout point before hitting the biking trails
  • early in the morning, we could see a synchronized aerobics class in the schoolyard

  • that’s me. todd’s felt like i should have a photo from the lookout point too.
  • we started the day by loading up a raft boat with our biking gear and rafting 2-3 hours to our biking trail

  • enjoying some morning fruit that farmer tang plucked from a tree for me
  • we passed lots of chicken farms. i could tell when were approaching a larger town because there were always chicken farms just outside the populated areas. and i could tell when we were approaching chicken farms because chickens really, really stink.

  • these college kids joined us for part of our biking journey. they said that they had never spoken to english-speaking people before. however, in the course of trying to practice their english with us while biking, one overlooked a bollard in the road and crashed. he was fine but i wasn’t eager to be very chatty afterwards.
  • this was my view most of the trip. todd’s really good at checking that i’m following him.
  • water buffaloes

  • we passed 2-3 really, really old bridges outside yangshuo. i think this one was from around 1200 AD
  • we carried our bikes over the stairs so we could cross the river and reach a small restaurant

  • view from on top of the bridge. you can’t see it from here but the tiny raft far, far away was occupied by a bride and grom-to-be who were getting their wedding photos taken on this river
  • we’re getting better at ordering food. no more surprise chicken feet or mysterious pork bits.
  • biking through the rice paddy fields outside yangshuo was the best part of the biking vacation. at times, the path narrowed to just a few inches and if you veered in either direction, you’d land in wet paddy fields.

  • this was a typical view of most of our biking on the final day. any time farmer tang took us on a shortcut, we would be guaranteed adventurous offroading with really narrow, bumpy trails (far narrower and bumpier than here). fun, fun, fun. sometimes we’d hear schoolchildren shouting, “hello” from the fields to practice their english though we couldn’t see them over the tall grasses. we’d shout “hello” back in their general direction.
  • it’s thanksgiving and somehow we stumbled upon a real, honest-to-goodness turkey. farmer tang was stunned to see a turkey which is apparently unusual for where we were. we tried to explain to farmer tang that this day was our national turkey-eating day. explaining the pilgrim story seemed pretty long-winded and when i was thinking about it, i wasn’t entirely sure when turkeys became part of the thanksgiving tradition.
  • the corner of a roof juts out into the sky

  • some original historical architecture still remains. farmer tang thought that it had been purchased by a family who hoped to rennovate and create a resort here.
  • end of the day at moon hill
  • we stopped by farmer tang’s house. farmer tang lives just outside yangshuo and has a few pigs and chickens. he explained that anyone who doesn’t own a pig in this area is just lazy.

  • saying goodbye to farmer tang in our hotel lobby. he said that we were the youngest and the slowest bikers he had traveled with. he joked that it was okay because we were on our honeymoon but he knew that we were just slow and that we’ve been married for a while now. next time we’ll condition a bit more. we were painfully saddle sore the first few days.
  • todd cheers when he sees a real hot shower! by the fifth day of biking, we really needed scrubbing.
  • we enjoyed a sit-down non-noodle dinner in yangshuo. this kitten climbed up into my lap mid-meal.

  • yangshuo is ridiculous. most of the stores here are geared towards drinking or rock climbing. while we were here, the world rock-climbing competition was just coming to a close. imagine a more hyped-up boulder, colorado.
  • tiramisu! we have to stop!
  • the next day, todd challenges a chinese man in a suit to a game of badminton. todd actually beat him.

  • inside the water cave
  • i think many would think these guys have the best job in the world. we hiked a mile or two inside a cave and were startled to find this high-tech setup inside the cave. nearby, there are some natural mud baths, hot springs, and two changing rooms. however, many people venture into the waters sans clothing (after all, who remembers to bring their bathing suit?). these men take, print, and sell personal souvenir photos of tourists playing in the mud baths. the pictures can be pretty provocative.

  • walking down the cave. you can see todd’s blurry silhouette in the lower righthand corner.
  • here are the boats that will take you inside the cave
  • a local man takes a nap outside his store just adjacent to the water cave

  • the entrance to the water cave. the blue pipe on the left supplies the electricity necessary to power the computerized photo souvenir shop miles inside.
  • a woman crafts and sells sandals outside the cave
  • corn story! we passed several corn bars and finally were curious enough to sample it. we had corn juice and waffle balls.

  • three working men taking a nap in their wheelbarrows
  • we took a cooking class in yangshuo and made cashew chicken, beer fish, eggplant, and some little dim sum balls. todd gave me most of his vegetables.
  • the cooking school is equipped to teach nearly a dozen people. however, there were only four of us tonight. this was my first time cooking with a wok.

  • bon appetit!
  • after yangshuo, we took a 2-3 hour plane flight to beijing. i splurged for a really nice hotel at “the opposite house.” after not having dependable hot showers, this felt like an especially nice treat. currently, this is my all-time favorite hotel.
  • the restaurant at the hotel. quite a different experience than our rice noodle stops.

  • we spent the morning before our return flight in beijing’s forbidden city.
  • admiring the architecture and history. we used todd’s iphone to download the wikipedia articles for the forbidden city. in most places, facebook and wikipedia are blocked. however, for some reason todd could still pull up those sites with our international iphone data plan.
  • at the airport. getting ready for the long flight back home.

  • boarding the plane
  • our last minutes in china

  • and many hours later, we’re back where we started – in todd’s car in san francisco.