For the last three years, our trips from China back to Australia have been blissful forays to "The West," complete with watching mindless TV, overindulgence in cheese and all things dairy and plenty of excursions to check out the continent's abundant wildlife.

Unfortunately, this year has been different.

On September 21, minutes after we bought a used Indonesian guidebook to read on our fight to Bali the next morning, Dan got the news every traveler dreads.

His father, Karl, had passed away suddenly of a heart attack.

In shock, we boarded a plane to Perth instead of Denpasar and spent the next 20 days with Dan's brother and mother, dealing with the things you don't take with you when you die.

It has been a tough time for Dan and his family, and we extend a heartfelt 'thank you' to all the people around the world who have sent Dan condolences. Thank you also to Leah Andrews, whose German translation skills were a big help in communicating with Dan's European relatives.

In the sadness of the last weeks, there was also something to look forward to--Dan's brother's upcoming wedding in Bali.


"Are you relaxed yet?" Dan keeps asking me.

"Are you?" I ask back.

"I think so," he says, scratching at yet another mosquito bite. "Things keep biting me."

Here we are in Malaysia, in a secluded village on a tropical island. This is the beach reward we promised ourselves for three years in China, when all of our other foreign-teacher friends went on vacations to Thailand or the Philippines and we chose more remote, colder places to visit like minority villages or Gansu province.

And for a relaxation site, we have chosen well...we are at Salang Village on Tioman Island, more a cluster of resort bungalows than a village.

Eddy, the manager of the Puteri Salang Inn, where we are staying, mentioned relaxation three or four times when giving a tour of the property: "Here's the hammocks, for relaxing. The TV room, relaxing. Here is free tea and coffee relaxing. You can take a mat to the beach for more relaxing..All relaxing here."

Eddy himself doesn't seem to do much relaxing other than watching European soccer highlights on satellite TV at night. The first day here he plucked green coconuts from one of the trees on the property and showed the guests how to chop them open, drink the milk and then spoon out the insides. The rest of the time he's busy cleaning, gardening and answering questions.

He rented us some masks and fins and we went for a long snorkel from the beach to the point and back.

Monkeys were teasing tourists on the shoreline, seagulls screamed us away from their nests on the rocks, and underneath were shoe-sized parrot fish, tiny schools of stripy fish whose names I forget, and, the highlight, a two-foot long sea turtle who swam along underneath us for a few minutes. Tired out and stung by little jellyfish, we retired back to the beach for lunch.

Are we relaxed yet?

We came to Tioman Island from the nation's capital, Kuala Lumpur (which we are still trying to figure out how to pronounce correctly—until then, we'll use the initials, K.L.)

K.L. was a pleasant stop. We stayed in a very basic and reasonably cheap hostel (Backpacker's Traveler's Inn) in Chinatown, and spent our time doing a little shopping and a lot of eating. Malaysian food is a fusion of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine—a different taste for every meal.

We go back to K.L. for another two days at the end of the week before heading to Indonesia for four weeks. More relaxing!

** Click here to see our pictures from Salang!**

Tomorrow we leave China for Malaysia.

We have had so many adventures these last four weeks--from slipping through the Three Gorges on a ferry to shooting harsh liquor with unintelligible Mongolians to making new friends on our marathon train rides and engaging in an international waterfight from bamboo rafts.  Unfortunately, we have been unable to update or post photos on Facebook. We're planning to start doing that on our arrival in Malaysia.

We're looking forward to updating the blog and getting photos out for everyone to see. Let's hope that Malaysia doesn't have a penchant for blocking social sites too!

I feel a little strange--I think that this trip to Malaysia may be the least prepared in advance knowledge that I have ever been. We've been so preoccupied with getting our China trip nailed down that we haven't really researched much into what we will do next. As I type this Dan is poring over maps his brother emailed him trying to figure out where our hostel for tomorrow night is.

Good travels! We're looking forward to them!
Tourists bathe their feet in scenic Yangshuo
We are under siege.

Cold water attacks us, in long, crystal snakes from left and right.

“Get the foreigners!” one of our enemies cries.

“Get the Chinese!” Dan yells, dipping his gray and red water-gun in the river again and again, trying to defend our bamboo raft if not our diplomacy.

One of our attackers from the right flank, a tee-shirted, balding, soaking wet man gives up on his flimsy water pump and starts flinging water at us with a baseball cap, and finally his hands. His girlfriend opens her umbrella against us in a feeble attempt to protect herself from the deluge, only to get shot with water in the derriere by my father, whose bamboo raft has sneaked up from behind. She squeals so much her boyfriend calls a truce; the left flank attackers are by now laughing so hard they can't lift their water-guns.

They surrender, for now.

* * *

My father sidled up to the shifty-looking man on the street in Yangshuo, a sneaky expression on his face.

“You wanna buy a watch?” he asked, mustache twitching.

“Hey friend!” The man remembered Dad. “You want another watch?”

“No, no,” Dad said. “Do YOU want another watch?”

With a flourish Dad presented his arm, no less than three watches on it. “Wanna buy a watch?” he repeated. And started laughing. The man, a pushy watch salesman, joined in.

* * *

Yangshuo was our last destination in China before my parents flew back to Alaska and Dan and I began the second leg of our Big Trip, jetting off to Malaysia.

A tourist town tucked in the knobbly karst hills of southeastern China, Yangshuo seems to be on every tourist's itinerary. Dan and I visited once before on a three-day escape from Foshan, and liked it enough to go back for four days—and, with it's touristy bars and restaurants, it was a good way to transition between the East and the West.

The main event for us in Yangshuo was the river trip—floating down a placid stream on bamboo rafts and drinking beer while we drifted by the karst formations. Well, it was supposed to be placid and relaxing, but the waterfights livened things up. Dan tried to make it even more entertaining by always aiming his watergun at girls in white tee-shirts.

On land, my parents also caught up on their souvenir shopping, and Dan and I made a last-ditch effort to lighten our bags before our international trip.

A good end to our three-year adventure in中国.

**Click here to see our photos from Yangshuo**
For our last train ride in China—and it was a doozy--soft sleeper was the way to go.

The equivalent of first class in China lands you a four-berth compartment, often with a lace doily on the little table, wider if not noticeably softer beds, less fellow passengers to share the toilet with, and if you're lucky, a plush VIP room to wait for the train at the station.

We were attempting to get from Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, all the way south to Guilin, Guangxi province, a thousand miles to the south. A mammoth journey using any kind of transport. We briefly considered flying, but since that would take two flights and about the same amount of money anyway, I decided to take us across country so at least we could see something along the way. The problem was, as I have written before, that it's difficult (read: usually impossible) to prebook tickets for the train, especially if it is for a train originating at another station. So, the ticket office in Hohhot could only sell us tickets to Zhengzhou, a major rail hub in central China, but not tickets from Zhengzhou to our final destination. The other option was to go east for several hours to Beijing and change trains there.

Not wanting to waste time going east when we really wanted to go south west, I decided to take our chances on being able to buy tickets to Guilin when we arrived in Zhengzhou.

We set off from Hohhot on a beautiful sunny day, a great contrast to the murky skies on our aborted riding-Mongolian-ponies-on-the-grasslands trip. Mom and I followed the train line on the guidebook map with our fingers, trying to discover where we would again cross the Great Wall. Meanwhile, we munched on dried beef (Genghis Khan's Army brand) and drank rum and coke with unsuspecting passersby.

We were enjoying the beef and the drinks and the fleeting glimpse of the Wall on both sides of a sunlit valley, when it occurred to Mom and I that we were heading pretty much due east and not south, as the map seemed to show the train tracks going.

Sure enough, just after nightfall we pulled into Beijing station,

Beijing! After all my planning to avoid it! We could have stayed over, seen the Forbidden City, eaten roast duck...Oh well. After three years of fighting to make sense of the train times and schedules, I should have known better.

The train carried on into the night, past dozens of power stations (nuclear?), countless villages and ancient ruins.

Thankfully though, when we arrived in Zhengzhou the next morning, I managed to make the easiest of all the train transactions we had experienced in China. We were able to get a soft sleeper cabin on the next train out to Guilin, and I didn't even have to wait in line to get the tickets. We fortified ourselves with a McDonald's breakfast and hit the tracks.

It's a hard life out on the grasslands of the Inner Mongolian steppe.

Summer flowers flourish amid the hardy roots of grass carpeting the undulating hills, but a vegetable patch might not. Horses and sheep have plenty to graze on, and the lack of timber means horse droppings are used for fire fuel.

Traditionally, people lived in collapsible yurts and moved location with the seasons. Now, to hold jobs and send kids to school, they weather life out in brick and concrete structures. Satellite TV has made it here to the Xilamuren district, as everywhere else in the world, and between tending for the sheep and carrying water from the well, our hostess' children watched Chinese game shows and Korean soap operas.

We took a guided tour from our hostel to an area of the grasslands near Hohhot. The idea was that we'd spend some time wandering in the plains, ride Mongolian ponies across the hard packed earth and have a barbecue over a horse-manure-fueled fire. A taste of local culture for modern-day nomads.

The weather had other ideas, and we spent most of our time huddled in blankets and coats. There weren't enough to make it warm. The grasslands were beautiful, but the late summer weather shrouded them in a gray mist and needling rain that made us loath to spend too much time appreciating them. The rain made it too slippery to ride horses, the guide said to our skeptical faces. He wasn't very helpful. The sun went down and it was too cold for the barbecue, he said. We pushed for it, and by midnight had a few chicken skewers painfully grilled over a reluctant fire. I lent him my umbrella for the task, and it came back full of singed holes.

We left early the next day, chilled and understanding perhaps why the early Khans pushed the borders of their empire to more clement climes.

**Click here to see photos of Inner Mongolia**
Our yurts.
It's not very clear to me now, but, there's a special way to make a toast in Mongolia.

Something about dipping your finger in the lightning-colored liquor in the tiny shot glass in front of you, flicking a few drops at the table, to the sides and finishing by rubbing it on your forehead. Ancestors and spirits can drink with you this way, I think.

It all got pretty blurry that evening in Hohhot.

It started just with an innocent beer at our hostel. Then Dad started meeting people. Other guests at the hostel. One of them, a French-Canadian, was fluent in Mongolian and had some local friends. Soon, we were going out to dinner to meet them at a nearby restaurant.

The restaurant was busy, but they found a table for us upstairs by the private rooms and we settled down to drink more beer and eat the glorious, gigantic dumplings and meat cooked with stones (to increase the heat) and talk about our impressions of Inner Mongolia. The Canadian took off for most of the meal, but came back with a local friend very excited to talk to foreigners.

In his late forties or fifties, balding in that W-shaped pattern of many Chinese men, he looked like any drunk guy you'd see in a restaurant. He was dressed well, but couldn't stand up by himself. He said he was related to Genghis Khan, and drank like it.

Beer flowed, into our glasses, and, regrettably, all over our floor. Our new royal friend spilled it all over his cell phone, our shoes, our coats. He hugged my mother. He hugged me. He hugged Dan. He hugged my father. He kissed my father's cheek. We were his new best friends.

My parents got called away suddenly to entertain in one of the private rooms next to our table—a girl was having a birthday party and apparently desperately wanted to meet them. Everyone was singing, and my parents and another American sang the Star-Spangled Banner for them.

Mom was developing a case of China Belly, and got out while the going was still good, back to the hostel to relax and mop the beer off her jacket.

Dad, Dan and I weren't so smart, and stayed on to the morning hours. Eventually the birthday party, the other foreigners and the great-great-great-grandnephew of Genghis all staggered off and we stayed drinking Mongolian vodka (chased with yet more beer) with the owner of the restaurant.

The party wasn't over yet, though. Just around the corner was another great bar, our new friends assured us. A real Mongolian bar, not the Chinese kind. A Chinese bar usually has a DJ, some girls dancing on black boxes by a fog machine, and sticky dice cups ready for people to play endless rounds of drinking games. This bar had a live singer, people dancing, and no dice.

We danced into the morning, alongside fierce couples and until our throats were hoarse from shouting over the rocking Mongolian pop. Plenty of toasts were offered, to each other and to the ancestors, but the ritual of it was lost in the fun.

**Click here to see photos of Inner Mongolia**

Wu Dang Lamasery
Yellow-brown earth peeked through sparse vegetation. A dot on a hill overlooking the snaking two-lane road turned out to be a statue of a rearing horse—Genghis Khan rode here.

The khans of Mongolia were a warring lot, but a pious lot as well. Their nomadic wanderings brought them into contact with Tibetan Buddhism centuries ago, and the khans adopted it as their state religion in the 1500s.

We were on our way to the Wu Dang Lamasery, a white, high-walled structure that stair-stepped in picturesque confusion from a valley floor to the top of a modest hill northeast of Baotou.

Wine-robed monks punched our tickets to the various halls ('palaces') of the holy buildings and gently reminded us not to snap pictures of the colorful paintings on the wooden interiors. The Buddha's life played out on the walls in gold, yellow, red and blue, along with designs of demons, spirits and other mythological figures.

English plaques that actually made sense (rare enough in our wanderings) and high-speed tours clipping through it at scramble-your-brains speed turned the buildings into more of a museum than a holy site, but we did get to watch a tourist paying for sutras to be chanted for her, and caught glimpses of the monks in prayer or meditation.

It seemed that this place offered a kind of Tibetan Buddhism sanctioned by Beijing and an alternative figurehead of such to the Dalai Lama (who despite his eminence in the West is regarded here as a public enemy).

Originally, we had planned to go to Tibet at some point during our stay in China. Visa procedures, money, and crackdowns on riots stopped us though, so it was interesting to take a look at this temple, even if it seemed a little watered-down.

The bus driver was nice enough to drop us off at our hotel on the way back and we grabbed our luggage and headed off for Hohhot that evening.

**Click here to see pictures of Wudang Lamasery**