Archive for April, 2006

file under: bizarre

Sunday, April 30th, 2006

the street sweeper vehicles in kunming play “happy birthday” as they go along. lord only knows why.

division of labour

Saturday, April 29th, 2006

we seem to have established a rather specialised division of labour in this little travelling tag team of ours. i’m not quite sure how it happened, but it’s kind of like the assignments you get in the army – they’re jobs which play to our strengths and are essential to the continued running and success of the group effort.

for instance, jonno has become the de facto communications specialist. in spite of my general aptitude for many other languages, mandarin just stymies me. i suck at chinese – it just *will not* stick in my head. I can practice a phrase over and over, but the minute i close the book it just flies out of my brain. j, on the other hand, has easily picked up several key phrases and can conduct most basic exchanges without resorting to (my method of) pointing. we may both get there in the end, but there’s no doubt that j’s method is a lot more sophisticated.

j is also the “smoother” – whenever winning smile or a friendly personality is needed to ease the way, (or calm my ruffled feathers) j is the man. and, as he is the “communicator” and “smoother”, he is also largely the payor (payee??).

(j has another secret specialty – rapmaster and lyricist extraordinaire. anyone who rhymes “datong” with “bong”… well, i’ll let him tell you about that later.)

me – my speciality is primary navigator. i’m the one who makes sense of the maps, remembers how to get back to the hostel after we’ve wandered off course, and just generally keeps us pointed in the right direction. j is pretty hopeless at orientation, even on his home turf. so i get us from point a to point b, (usually) safely. I am also the budget manager and general accountant. every day, i tot up the sums of income (none) and expenditure (lots) and track the finances down to the last wu jiao. it’s more in my nature to be anal about money (read: i am a stingy cheapskate) so i do the fiscal dirty work.

i am also, it turns out, the “hardass in charge of not getting ripped off”. My radar for fraud and extortion are so finely tuned from my nyc days that it takes only the hint of some dodgy dealing for me to go on the attack. and i am not. nice. i got all up in tha face and cursed out the cab driver who tried to take us for a ride. i walked out of the restaurant that overcharged us without a single iota of guilt. i was downright nasty to the “tour guides” that tried to tail us all along the great wall. i confronted the ticket agent who sold us the most expensive entrance fare. and i straight-armed the child beggar who was clinging to my pants. (okay, i’m not proud of that one, but they grab on to you and cling to your leg for three blocks!) when people try to fleece me, out of my hard earned money, i feel no compunctions about being assertive (if somewhat less than polite). anyway, more on that later, as it’s a topic worthy of a whole post unto itself.

we’re currently in flight to kunming – a large expenditure which i approved because it will save us 3 days travel time in getting to tiger leaping gorge. and when we get there, the way our division of labour breaks down, i’ll invariably be the one who directs us from the airport to the hostel, and j will invariably be checking us in and finding out the pertinent info about the bus schedule, menu, etc.

and just *let* the taxi driver try to rip us off…

i want to ride my bicycle

Saturday, April 29th, 2006

they’re everywhere – the cheapest, most basic form of transportation, just one step up from walking. 1 in 4 chinese own a bike, so that makes about 250 million bikes. from the oldest to the youngest, everyone grows up riding them, and rides them until well into their senior years. i’ve seen some fit 70+ year olds peddling heavily laden bikes. it’s incredible what they can be used for. add a seat and it’s a pedicab for income. add a small trailer and it’s a truck. add a basket and a child seat, and it’s a family vehicle.

they slip in and out of traffic, very often the only people getting anywhere. they never need petrol, and rarely need repair. these are not any fancy titanium mountain bikes, mind you. these are sturdy, lumbering, one-gear behomoths straight out of the 1940s. they’re never locked up, because who would want to steal them? the “flying pigeon” is the most common model. and it looks as plain and… well, common, as it sounds. but they’re the warhorse of the bike world. i’ve seen people toting 4ft piles of cardboard, a table and six chairs, fishtanks, sacks of rice, reams of paper, sewing machines, and stacks of watermelon – all on the backs of bicycles. in fact, china would grind to a halt without bicycles.

The “flying pigeon” – the unsung national hero.

cult of personality

Friday, April 28th, 2006

i find it terribly interesting that in a country of one billion people, almost no one tries to stand out. walk down the street and all you see are variations on a theme – everyone wearing the same clothes, the same hair. no one is trying to distinguish themselves from the pack. no one is making a statement. individualism is not valued.

i’m sure many who live here would see things differently, but xi’an is a city of 2 million, which we’ve basically spent the last two days walking around. and the only person who stuck out to me, was the guy who had half his head shaved that i saw this morning. i guess they’d probably say that americans and brits put too much emphasis on individuality, to the detriment of things like comportment, respect, work ethic, etc. they’re probably right. still – who wants to be exactly the same as everyone else? if you only get one life, who wants to be forgettable?

just an observation. i think it’s kind of sad.

we went to see the terracotta warriors today – i’d be lying if i said I wasn’t a little disappointed. i was under the impression that more of the estimated 6000 had been excavated, when really, the task ahead is still unbelievably daunting. you can just picture them all still preserved, underground, needing to be exposed slowly, gently, with the utmost care in their crumbling clay state. still, it’s easy to see how incredible they must’ve been in their original form. the bodies are all them same, but each of the faces and expressions are unique. like a real person. i found that fascinating. out of 6000 lifesize figures, they felt it important to make each a one-of-a-kind. the workmanship and time and effort going into making each figurine as different as they would’ve been in real life.

so perhaps individuality *was* valued once. it’s the politics of personality that has changed.

what you need to cross the street in china

Friday, April 28th, 2006

balls of steel and eyes in the back of your head. every time i arrive safely at the opposite corner, i kiss the ground shouting, “i’m alive! i’m alive!”


Thursday, April 27th, 2006

China is chaos. I’ve been pondering that sentence for a while now, thinking abou this crazy country’s potential to become a world superpower. The longer i am here, the more I am convinced that this scenario is further off than i would have guessed. the plain fact is that it’s too disorganised. they wouldn’t know what to dp with that kind of immense power and responsibility if it were handed to them tomorrow. there is often little rhyme or reason to the way things are done here – at first I thought it was just that i didn’t see the logic, but now i think this is a direct outgrowth of an environment which favours survivalism in a country of one billion people. evidence of this is everywhere. new construction of massive hotels goes up across the street from half built buildings abandoned just 5 or 6 years ago. people obsessively sweep cigarette butts or dust, when around the corner, a giant pile of refuse on the street serves as the local public dump. everyone drives without any regard for law or order through jumbled intersections without traffic lights, yet a half mile away you could take a nap in the middle of the smooth, wide, immaculate, well- lit and completely empty interchange.

it’s all veyr baffling and the only explanation which makes sense is that it makes no sense. which is, in fact, a perfect system for a country where people get by only through incredible resourcefulness and assertiveness. everything is scarce, and if you wait around too long, it’ll be gone. if you rely on someone else to tell you how/when/where/why you’ll be waiting forever. so you just do/take/create as needed. when you think about it, it’s perfectly suited. but it also menas there is no consistency, or unifying cohesiveness. perhaps i am misinterpreting – i’m still a novice here. but i shudder to think about the state of their nuclear arsenal. and you would too if you’d ever tried to cross a street in beijing.

(i know there are some who will point out the u.s. also has wild variations in law and custom from state to state. i would still say there is a pretty strong glue at the federal level which makes it quite different from the wild free-for-all that can exist here at times.)

more photos and info

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

a few more photos up from wutai shan. not all of them, but a good handful. check them out at the photo gallery.

also we’re currently in xi’an, looking to go see the terracotta soldiers today. you can get a little more interactive info through the “where we are now” page. check out pics and info about xi’an, beijing, kunming, lijiang, and guilin (our next probable destinations).

food, glorious food

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

so we’ve been on the road for exactly eleven days. i can’t believe that – we’ve seen and done so much already that it feels like longer. I finally think i’m “settled in” to traveller mode. neither of us has been ill (touch wood) though with all the dust, pollution, and cigarette smoke, my sinuses are in a constant state of rebellion. but we’ve eaten and drunk a whole range of things and not had any ill effects.

food is just everywhere, man. wherever you go, wherever you look, you’re never more than a few meters from food. they’re very fond of meat-on-a-stick, from hot dogs to kebabs. the sidewalks smell like a perpetual barbeque. noodles and pastries are deep fried in woks on the side of the road. and dumplings. i must’ve had every type of dumpling known to mankind – steamed, fried, souped…mmmm. you can never go wrong with dumplings. i am really craving some fresh veg right about now, but a ceasar salad in not in the near future, so i’ll live. the pastries are so lovely – crispy, flakey things, filled with sweet bean paste or lotus seed paste or ground almonds. the other day for dinner, i had a local specialty, pingyao beef. i swear to god, it was the exact same thing as the corned beef my mother makes on st. patricks day. i can’t find it for love nor money in london, but it’s right under my nose in pingyao. and the beer – i have half a notion that the amount of alcohol we’ve been drinking is killing off any incipient bacteria or viruses. but beer is the usual beverage accompaniment for most meals here, so when in china… besides, it’s cheap (at 3 yuan for a 750ml bottle of 9 percent stuff, you can get pretty wasted for about 50p), it’s tasty, it’s filling and it’s sociable. I may soon develop a beer belly. maybe that was buddha’s problem.

it’s a good motto

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

my motto is p.p.p. : paper perpetually in pocket. toilet paper, that is. i take off my clothes at night and pull wads of tissue from everywhere. i feel like my mother.

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

china is *dry*. it’s getting greener the further south we go, but i feel like evry drop of moisture has been sucked from my skin, my hair, my nose. i’d sell my soul for a humidifier.

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