Our Paper Airplane

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Rub’al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, is the largest sand desert in the world. Under the unrelenting Arabian sun, we climbed atop this ridge to take in the beauty and eerie stillness of this barren landscape. The shadows and textures created by both the rising light and wind, breathed new life into the dunes. #emptyquarter #saudiarabia #uae #nofilter #ourpaperairplane

Rub’al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, is the largest sand desert in the world. Under the unrelenting Arabian sun, we climbed atop this ridge to take in the beauty and eerie stillness of this barren landscape. The shadows and textures created by both the rising light and wind, breathed new life into the dunes. #emptyquarter #saudiarabia #uae #nofilter #ourpaperairplane

It’s been about a year since we packed our lives into a storage unit and embarked on a 13 month journey to see the far corners of the world. We are reviving the blog and will be re-posting some of our favorite pictures from our travels, so stay tuned!
Pictured: An overnight train ride from Urumqi to Kashgar in the far west of China.

It’s been about a year since we packed our lives into a storage unit and embarked on a 13 month journey to see the far corners of the world. We are reviving the blog and will be re-posting some of our favorite pictures from our travels, so stay tuned!

Pictured: An overnight train ride from Urumqi to Kashgar in the far west of China.

Don’t forget about us!

If you’ve been following us this last year, we wanted to let you know our blog isn’t going to become an internet dinosaur.  We’re still planning to use this as a place to give updates on some of our post-trip projects we’ll be working on.  We do have 15,000+ photos, 40 hours of video and a years worth of writing and something must come of it…right? So don’t forget about us if you’d like to see more.

In the mean time, things may slow down, change format etc. And of course if we can be of any help to anybody who’s planning to travel - we’d be more than happy to share any details of our trip, insight or recommendations with you - we probably know more than your average travel agent at this point. Just send us an email.


Some graffiti in Valparaiso, Chile Xinjiang, China Hanoi, Vietnam Newara Eliya, Sri Lanka Goa, India Sucre, Bolivia Ho, Ghana Zahamena, Madagascar Kibuye, Rwanda Muscat, Oman

I was wandering around a rack of super expensive three-season rain jackets when a fully armed police officer in a bullet proof vest burst into the room.  More nervous than I’ve ever seen a police officer before, he quietly told everyone to get out as quickly as we could while he anxiously held his gun - poised for action.  We ran into the street where we were surrounded by a barricade of police cars blocking every intersection - but then promptly ushered into a neighboring salon while another armored official locked the door and held guard with a machine gun.  After a tense ten minutes of crouching behind the hair washing station, we learned that a crazed bank robber with a fake gun had ran into the back of the building we were in, which had caused the mayhem – we were fine, but it was enough to shake us up.

We traveled the whole world with no real problems, and now here, in the Patagonia store, in the nicest section of one of the mellowest cities in America - Portland, Oregon, we found ourselves fearing for our lives.  The irony!

Just as the shock of being confronted so unexpectedly in that store shook us up, it mirrored another shock we weren’t anticipating – returning back home to America. Certainly things like free potable water, owning cars, cell phones and abundant clean clothes were a welcomed and expected change.  But what we didn’t expect was to see the way our perspective had changed in light of a life we knew so well.  It felt like each experience and thought we had over the past year, had been like a small secret that we were told, ones that nobody else was privy to.

The contrast between the rest of the world and this place called America was evident everywhere I looked.  I read an email from a friend in Rwanda the other night telling me how he cried at night because he was trying to feed 30+ orphans and failed – all the while profusely apologizing for telling me such sad stories.  But the following emails were about going to an all-u-can eat buffet with a friend at home, spam telling me I needed to buy a new laptop, and a royal gala fundraiser for anyone wanting to support a certain political agenda.  They were irreconcilable.

On the news, I kept hearing we were planning to bomb Syria, but judging by the people on the streets, it wasn’t a big deal – lattes and fantasy football were more important than the fate of the Syrians.  I felt haunted by this knowledge of the rest of the world floating in my head. Our secret was this: that the rest of the world exists, and is full of real people, who live lives just like us, who are terrified of war, who want to be with their families or husbands or wives, to provide for their children, to educate themselves, to get a good job etc… the whole world is in fact made up of human beings just like us.  (Except, most of these people were a lot less fortunate, a lot more repressed and have gone through much greater hardships than we could ever know or have).  But I kept feeling like nobody else knew this or cared – maybe they thought anyone outside our borders certainly couldn’t be like us or matter to us in any significant way - they were just foreign somehow, as if their differences somehow could justify our indifference towards them.

It made me deeply sad to think this.  Americans are not inherently bad people, we just don’t know any better most of the time.  But why don’t we? And then I realized there is a war, but ultimately, it’s not us against them.  It’s not our military against somebody else’s, Democrat vs. Republican, Christian vs. Jew, black vs. white, but rather, it’s our current pop-culture at odds with the poor and underprivileged around the world.  It lulls us to sleep.  It tells us everything is ok and nothing is wrong and if it is – the politicians will fix it. It blinds us from seeing the world with our own eyes.  We are caught up in a culture that only serves itself at best and serves the people at the top at worst.  It convinces us that there are no problems, and if there are, then there’s nothing we can or should do about them.

America is the most powerful country in the world. Americans can change the world if we want to – we have and continue to do so everyday (not always in good ways).  But we squander this power in nonsense.  We use our resources in vain to achieve a political agenda, to fulfill our darkest desires, to either build ourselves up, or make ourselves complacent and entertained.  There are countless nations of everyday people who put their hope in us creating a better world and a brighter future, but instead, we’re completely preoccupied with ourselves.  What we don’t realize is that as citizens, we can do incredible things if we want – and that the world needs incredible things.  The divide between the potential we see in America and the way we are misguided and blinded by our own culture is what causes this heartache - a problem whose remedy seems so simple, yet so far away.

If we don’t exercise our freedoms – to vote (with our ballots and our actions), to speak truth, to gather together and to brainstorm and create, to be better stewards not only of our own nation, but of the world, then what kind of wasteland are we building for our children and our children’s children?  So we beg you to look around.  Read the news.  Educate yourselves about the world and then tell your neighbor about what you’ve learned.  Find something you’re passionate about, and then do something – most people in the rest of the world don’t have this freedom.

We’re planning to end this part of our blog on that note.  That is why we’ve tried so hard to write about the things we saw and felt and thought were important rather than our day to day gallivants.  We both feel like we’ve been given a treasure to see the world as it is; a perspective only afforded to a lucky few – and it’s this treasure that we hope we have been able to share a little bit of over the last year.  Without a doubt we will be trying to find ways to share it in the coming months and years, and for the rest of our lives.

To all our family and friends and those we have never met and have followed us this year, we sincerely and with deepest gratitude thank you for taking an interest in our journey and following along with us – we hope it helped to open your eyes a little bit wider, like it did ours.

Emily & Tim

Inside a Buddhist temple Outside the mens room in a train station - this real time LED sign shows you which stalls are available, occupied, or require service before even entering the bathroom. Offerings to burn - for sale outside a temple The rain before a typhoon hit the southern coast. The south east coast Kenting, the southernmost part of Taiwan A night market in Taichung Giant octopus skewers for sale. Making taro filled pancakes Inside a temple.

We had just boarded an overnight train to Shanghai, China and were introducing ourselves to our neighbor in the next compartment.  But when we asked him where he was from, his demeanor changed, his eyes skirted back and forth like he had done something wrong and he slowly mouthed the word “T-a-i-w-a-n”.  When we asked his name, the same expression came to his face and he quickly slipped me his business card without a word – as if he was a criminal.  With the amount of anti-Taiwan banter we heard on the streets of China, I was anxious to discover for ourselves whether Taiwan was indeed as bad of a place as the people had made it out to be.

The next day we left the mainland behind and headed for Taipei.  We had been half convinced that we were traveling into the heart of the evil monster, rife with the same government corruption and suppression we had seen in China.  But only an hour’s flight away, we found something that had over time, become completely foreign to us: peace, solitude and civility. Culturally, Taiwan could not have been more different than China. Though still Chinese by heritage and according to China still a part of the country (it technically is not), it almost seemed that Taiwan developed as an outcry to the woes and suppression it faced from the motherland – it was the complete antithesis. The influence from the 50 years of Japanese occupation on this island could clearly be seen in the perfect lines that formed in subway stations, the silence that echoed through the train cars and the small head bows people gave one another to show gratitude.

As we explored the western coastline of this beautifully rugged country, we stopped in many of the biggest cities along the way. From the lively streets of Taipei to the beachy, laidback coves of Kenting, the country held strong to its cultural identity and religious beliefs.  Smoke welled up from apartment balconies and office complexes as men and women, old and young, burned paper money and clothing in small fires to honor their past ancestors - hoping to keep unsettled ghosts away. For passing believers on their way to and fro, Buddhist temples in every neighborhood provided sanctuary to those who came to offer food to their ancestors, or to seek wisdom and guidance from the gods.  Compared to China, the city skylines may have been filled with half dilapidated buildings built in the 70s, but they felt lived in and functional. It was as if Taiwan’s own architecture was declaring their indifference to China’s attempt at rapid industrialization, saying they were just as happy developing at their own pace, wearing out the buildings first, instead of choosing a façade of modernity.

The relationship between Taiwan and China is complicated to say the least.  Though Taiwan has its own independently elected president and democratic constitution, China considers Taiwan’s government illegitimate, claiming it as a rogue child gone awry.  Yet ironically, China acts as the petty child, refusing to have any diplomatic relations with nations that recognize Taiwan as sovereign.  So while Taiwan may have been one of the founding members of the United Nations, it was expelled from the UN over 40 years ago and denied re-entry since, due to China’s far reaching impact and political power on the international scale. The Taiwanese are impassioned people, proud of who they are and how far they have come, but yet in many ways, would rather remain humble and under the radar in order to protect their freedom and democracy.  And who could blame them? As experience has taught us, those who go against the Chinese government pay for their rebellion, and more often than not, lose.  For us as travelers, we appreciated the refuge that Taiwan provided us. It was a treasure we didn’t mind keeping for ourselves, though for the future of Taiwan we hope it can escape the tight grip and overbearing hands of its motherland.

the rice terraces we walked through The end of the road where we began to wander into the valley below. A small alley in the village we visited The men we ate dinner with. A woman collecting algae to eat...I think. looking back over the village as we walked home after a pig making himself confortable in the street rice stalks two farmers returning to the village for the celebration looking over the valley with the village in the distance

After nearly two months of a frustrating search to evade modern China and find the old one, we traveled to the southern stretches of Yunnan province during monsoon season.  Known for their unpredictable weather, mudslides and impassable roads, surely, this place would not be high on anyone’s list to visit or build skyscrapers on-top of villages.  We had travelled as far as their transportation system would allow and were perplexed when we found ourselves still surrounded by phony tourism infrastructure and jaded peasants.  The government had recently rebuilt almost all the rice farming villages to resemble 1800’s establishments and then turned the farmers into a tourist attraction – complete with an entrance fee. 

On a desperate search for this “real” China that I had heard so much about from Emily over the last 8 years, and feeling nearly defeated, we ignored the maps, roads and tourist signs and instead, started walking into the valley below, through the rice terraces.  We could see a giant cliff in the distance shadowing over a small village with smoke billowing out of a few huts and no roads in sight. It was an alluring and magical sight to our eyes and so off we went, determined to see what we could find there.

We tip toed along balance beam like ledges of grass between ponds filled with rice, following the slow and steady flow of water, trickling from one terrace to the next as we made our way into the valley.  For a few hours we continued on like this, only pausing to find a new route, or allowing the occasional farmer with bushels of food on her back to pass.

As we began to descend towards the village, there was a fantastic series of explosions, echoing across the valley behind us.  Smoke began to rise from the clustered homes, and chickens and goats went scurrying to the fringes.  Was there a battle going on inside?  Were they warning us to stay away?  We kept walking onwards until we came towards the small homes on the edge…doors left opened, curtains blowing in the breeze and completely deserted.  Maybe we had gotten more than we had bargained for when deciding to leave the roads behind.

As we approached the village square, we began to hear the banging of pots and pans, children giggling and dogs barking, as our noses took in the smell of roasting meat. Suddenly we were in the middle of it all.  Every home, with doors wide open, had tables full of people inside, buckets of steaming food, and children running gleefully back and forth.  Men carried vats of food bigger than I’ve ever seen before.  It looked like they should have been catering some massive event – not a celebration in this tiny village.  Speaking Chinese in a nearly unintelligible accent, we were summoned from literally every home that we passed, to come inside to eat.  We politely refused until we could refuse no more.  We couldn’t leave without eating we were told, so we gave in and sat at a table with five old men.  Once we sat, we were each given chopsticks, a bowl of rice and a bowl of rice wine – then treating us as if we had always been at their table, they went back to socializing with one another, and we were no more of a novelty than the chickens walking into and out of the homes.  We sat and shared boiled pig belly fat, roasted soybeans, hard-boiled tea eggs, chicken and spicy rice noodles. It was all we could do to refuse their second, third and fourth refill of our plates, and their invitations to sleep the night in the spare room before we left.

In those few short hours, even though we could barely communicate or understand what was happening, we had been welcomed as family, given food and shelter – even with our strong determination to refuse.  It’s hard to explain the feeling that you get when you experience full acceptance like the way these villagers had welcomed us.  Although this may have been the norm in this village, it was the polar opposite of the modern china we had spent the last two months in and for us, it was the diamond in the rough we were desperately hoping we’d find.  This was clearly not for show, not a favor asking to be returned or even entertainment for them, this was just a natural part of their culture, just like tipping would be at a restaurant in America.  What if this is what all of China was like 30 years ago I wondered?  What if we were born a generation earlier and visited before China became the China of today?  I think it would be one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever been.

A man wearing a traditional hat A group of men in Kashgar breaking their Ramadan fast. A man driving his donkey cart Anxiously waiting for the sun to set to they could begin eating. a very blue lake picking out apricots from the market - tashkurgan taking the train from Urumqi to Kashgar The sunday market A valley leading into pakistan. the cold desert

In westernmost part of China, the locals look more like my long lost relatives with blue eyes, brown hair and scruffy beards, than Emily (who is Chinese), and most people prefer not to speak Chinese at all if possible.  It’s very odd being in China, while feeling like we were somewhere in the Middle East instead.

Thanks to the government’s efforts to assimilate everyone to one culture within the legal boundaries of China, and their deftness at covering up any news about defiance, we had inadvertently arrived in the middle of a quiet war - a war between the Han Chinese government and the native Xinjiang population.  The bulk of Xinjiang (pronounced “shin-jong”) province is filled with ethnic Uiger, Tajik, Kyrgz, Kazik and Uzbek minorities, along with some Han Chinese who have moved westward over the last century.  Everywhere we travelled, we encountered the Chinese military patrolling with tanks, riot gear and machine guns.  They marched in big showy processions and made routine displays of intimidating the locals over small offenses like traffic violations (while in the rest of China, nobody seems to be bothered by any kind of traffic offense, no matter how ridiculous).  

In the small town of Yarkand while walking through the old city, we met a man who wanted to practice his English.  After a lengthy conversation, it was apparent he wanted to do more than just practice English… he wanted to tell us something.  He told us how the government was literally murdering the Uigers in order to intimidate them, and then covering all traces of these “incidents” in the news.  He had learned that just two days before, a Uiger man was lynched and hung from a tree before being assassinated by an army brigade in front of his family. And apparently, this type of thing happens all of the time.  Because of the risk to anyone who publicly spoke out, news like this could only be transmitted by word of mouth.  The government also regularly shut down internet and phone services in towns like his for up to a month after major incidents to prevent news from spreading.  If the police ever found out what he was telling us, he would mysteriously disappear forever, he told us.  Even being seen speaking to foreigners could send him to jail.

Little news seems to leave the Xinjiang region, but if you look hard (we’ve since left China), you can find evidence that there are scores killed every month in “conflicts” with the government. Although we came to Xinjiang to discover what seemed like an undiscovered culture, we left feeling like we had looked in upon a dark secret we weren’t supposed to see.

Shortly after leaving China, we read an article about the town of Kashgar.  There, on the last day of Eid (a Muslim holiday with significance akin to Christmas), the military shot 3 people as they came to worship at the Grand Mosque because they were creating a “disturbance”.  Only ten days prior, we had slept in a hostel facing the entrance to that very same mosque for a week.  Every night when the locals visited the mosque en mass for prayers, we walked down to watch.  People waited in patience, silence and peacefulness for the sun to set before they would break their fast and celebrate together.  In fact, as we waited to take pictures, they came to us and asked us joyfully if we would share melon and dates with them to break their fast (even though we weren’t Muslim).  With smiles and joy they embraced us, regardless of our faith or our reason for being there.  To imagine that it was necessary to shoot and kill families at that same place less than a week later, is a stretch of the imagination and something I wish I didn’t have to imagine.

The Chinese government scares me.  They are powerful, smart, determined and wealthy beyond any doubt, but at the same time, they have no wisdom.  They can do anything they want, but they don’t want to run a just country.  Any threat to their power, economic system or their citizens starting to speak and learn freely is swiftly and efficiently destroyed.  Especially in the west, there are CCTV cameras perched at every intersection, street light, public park and bus stop.  When reading the US government’s travel advisories, they mention that unless you’re ok with the Chinese government having the ability to read all your emails, listen to your phone calls, tap your hotel room and follow you around, you shouldn’t visit (we even had emails mysteriously disappear from our account and our internet access shut off multiple times while there). 

Since traveling the entire way across Xinjiang, China to the border of Pakistan, we found a life that is just not a part of the media in the rest of the world – it barely exists.  If I had not travelled there, I would be skeptical of anything I heard regarding human rights issues, persecution, or government corruption in this area.  After visiting, I wouldn’t doubt any of it. 

Unfortunately, we felt it was only right to talk about the injustice and persecution that occurred here, but at the same time, there was a wonderful and hidden culture that was just as shocking to see and discover.  It wasn’t Chinese, it wasn’t Middle Eastern, it wasn’t Russian, it wasn’t Pakistani or Indian, it was somewhere in between all of those places, and hopefully the pictures can give a small glimpse into that

the old city and the new.  one is being demolished while the other is being built - xinjiang province not an unusual sight for china, brand new empty buildings are everywhere the bullet train we rode, which topped out at 306 kilometers per hour. sky scrapers the biggest TV screen I've ever seen, placed on the ceiling of the entrance to a shopping center. shanghai skyline a hutong in beijing, these are being bulldozed everyday to make way for buildings. this is a shanghai museum dedicated to showcasing the future of shanghai.  this was part of a model of the future city in 10 years that took an entire floor of the museum to display rice terraces in yunnan province mist covering the mountain peaks near Dali, Yunnan

Eight years ago while trekking through the jungles of southwestern China, near the border of Myanmar, I remember being overwhelmed by the generosity of the people I met from the local villages.  I was always warmly taken in, housed and fed by complete strangers from the compassion of their hearts. But revisiting this time, I found government built mock villages in their place. Gimmicky tourist shops were built to resemble traditional homes, and “authentic ethnic minority cultures” were on display in various forms for other Chinese tourists coming to snap a quick picture of this so-called real China.  Some villagers now exploit themselves and their heritage by performing “traditional” ethnic dances for busloads of Chinese tourists - all in order to sustain their livelihood and receive a portion of the government profits made on selling them as an attraction.

Eight years ago, I watched the China that I loved slowly pass by the train windows as I left Yunnan. The lush mountain scenery, speckled with farmers’ huts slowly gave way to small towns with humble concrete homes and produce markets, and progressed towards office buildings, high rises and skyscrapers as I arrived back in Shanghai.  If the passing scenery of that train ride was a metaphor for the progress China was experiencing, then it all made sense.  There was still authenticity in the ancient towns and warmth in the smiles and waves by villagers we were passing by.  Back then, I could see how the farmers supported the markets and the towns supported the cities and so on.

But today, following almost the same route on a high speed bullet train at over 300 kilometers per hour, nothing made sense.  The China of today is hardly recognizable to that of what I once knew. Travelling 4 times faster than before, my eyes were in shock and fear of what I saw.  Cranes and bulldozers stood in the place where farming villages once were, building entire cities in their place. There were high-rises everywhere. Even in the midst of the remote deserts in western China, giant ghost cities have been built in anticipation of the future, with hundreds of thousands of brand new apartments clustered in cities that have no occupants. Outside of Beijing, one such ghost city covers over 13,000 acres, with a five-star hotel, hot springs, golf course, museum, temple, two universities, mall, entertainment facilities and luxury villas - all standing completely empty and unoccupied. Over a dozen provinces within China have also erected one such ghost city and the government’s desires are becoming clear: prepare now for future economic development…all at the expense of their own culture and people.

It’s the people and culture that is becoming the commodity of China.  Five hundred year old hutongs (ancient Ming dynasty style neighborhoods) are being demolished to build the skyscrapers of tomorrow while family after family are being displaced.  With no real individual property rights in China, these families must decide to either join the forces of modernization or be leftto a bleak and dismal future.

This is the reality of modern day China and it seems like the government is placing all bets on a future at the expense of their past.  With state run television showing endless propagandist commercials (encouraging its citizens to travel and spend money in their own country), has their economic freedom of today just morphed into a different type of Maoist following from yesterday?  I can’t help but wonder what the people of China would voice about their own changing society, if they could do so openly, without fear of persecution.  With anyone opposing the government quickly silenced, jailed or worse -  what are your options as a citizen of this country but to either silently abide, embrace the same values and agenda of the government (money, progress, power), or risk what little freedom you already have left?  And what will the future of this 6,000 year old culture be – when its government has all but abandoned its core values to put its hope on being the next world economic power?

everyone watching the chess match a man playing his guitar and trying to get people to sing along this man was chasing 2 tops around and using his giant whip to keep them spinning indefinitely an opera dual, the man with the tiny microphone had apparently just delivered a good line a home-made improvised karaoke system brought to the park even the rain couldn't stop them from coming to the parks modern china a city park with the mega city guangzhou looming behind

As a child, when I imagined China, images of colorful dragon costumes, tea ceremonies and ancient temples always seemed to come to mind.  I envisioned a culture that valued wisdom, respect for others and traditions from long ago, while in my head I heard Chinese flutes and harps playing foreign melodies.  But it wasn’t until I first arrived in China that I realized I had been imagining a country that didn’t really exist in this way anymore. 

As we moved up the East coast from Guangzhou to Shanghai to Beijing, I was made aware of my miscalculation by nearly every experience.  Everywhere we travelled was louder, more modern and more crass than I ever imagined.  What culture I was looking for seemed to have morphed into a super competitive rat-race to be the first, the fastest, the loudest, the richest – nobody it seemed was interested in the past - that is, except for the elderly.

The one (and almost only) part of China that was as I had imagined, was held almost solely by the 60+ crowd.  Every morning and evening, they congregated en mass in the parks, engaging in what seemed like the equivalent of recess for old people.  They gathered around cement benches to play cards and drink tea.  The women brought portable radios and spent hours line dancing with determined expressions.  Impromptu Karaoke sessions happened at all hours of the day, and even Chinese Opera slam battles (which I assure you do exist) seemed to happen regularly.  Old frail men brought their guzhengs and erhus(Chinese instruments) to play together.  You could watch the ancient art of calligraphy writing, hear trained birds reciting Hanyu poems, or see Tai Chi in slow motion.  The amount of socializing, creating, dancing and singing was mesmerizing. 

Parks in China aren’t like those in America - there are no soccer games, jungle gyms, or park rangers.  Instead they are filled with elaborate gardens, koi ponds, zigzag bridges, paved foot paths, lotus flowers and temples.  It was in the parks that we could sit and make conversation with the elderly, where they were curious to ask questions about America, to try and help Emily trace her family’s origin using her Chinese name, and even asked us to try and sing with them.

After a few weeks, the parks too became our refuge.  Tired by the impersonal and fast paced city life, we’d inevitably migrate to the nearest park at some point during the day for a few minutes to rejuvenate.  They were one of the few places in urban China, where we were never hassled, where any conversation was only made in earnest, and where the heart of China I had imagined seemed to be lingering on.

Although China may be turning into a new country, one that values progress over tradition, money over culture and power over wisdom, there is still a stronghold of people hiding out in the parks and holding onto what they have left.  As much as I hated seeing what it seems China is becoming, I loved the glimpses into its past that I saw.  At least for the time being, it feels like the last remains of a beautiful culture are caged into the city parks and nearing extinction.  Outside, it’s a different world, a different country and will certainly hold a different future.