Archive for the 'china' Category

the colour of money

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

it’s fascinating how one’s perception of money changes when travelling. it’s quite different to being on holiday, when you are continually making comparisons between the price of things where you are, and the price of things back home, thinking of value in terms of purchasing power for what you earn. so when a souvenir is only a pound or two, or a meal is much less than what you’re used to paying, it’s easy to classify it as “cheap, and to justify spending money on it.

when you’re travelling, however, you have no income. a little money has to go a long way, and your trip succeeds or fails by how well you manage your budget. things become “expensive” or “inexpensive” only in comparison with other relative costs. for example, one of the benchmarks which quickly emerges is the average cost of a meal. the other evening, we ate at a somewhat touristy restaurant, and had a middlin’ meal for 57 yuan, or about 4 pounds. for londoners, that seems unbelievably cheap when the same amount would usually buy you a sandwich and a bottle of water. but when you consider that our accommodation for that same night only cost us 60 yuan, suddenly that same meal looks like a huge splurge. you just can’t think of your budget in terms of your home currency, or you’d never get very far. and so taking the diy approach to see the terracotta warriors only saved us less than ten pounds, but that 100 yuan was a whole night’s accommodation, or a whole day’s food or entertainment. suddenly throwing away an extra 100 yuan just because we’re too lazy to find the local bus seems frivolously wasteful.

which is why i get so incredibly angry at people or places who try to rip us off just because we’re westerners. that somehow our money is less valuable to us, because they assume we have a lot more of it. that it’s okay to steal from us because we’re “rich” by comparison. taxis try to drive us to the end of the street. beggars attach themselves to you assuming you’ll feel too guilty to pass them by. people “help” you without asking, then expect money for “services rendered”. there are to0 many ways to mention.

and when i think about all the hard work and sacrifice i put into making this trip happen, i get furious about the scam artists, hawkers, beggars, touts that zero in on us like heat seeking missiles because we have white faces. i don’t owe them anything just because they think it’s open season on the tourist. that may sound cheap and heartless, but i refuse to subscribe to the notion that i should expect to get ripped off just because that’s what happens. it infuriates me that people think it’s okay to take advantage of those who don’t know the language. i will not be embarrassed or guilted into paying for things i didn’t ask for and don’t want. I will not just “chalk it up to experience” when someone tries to fleece us. and i will not be ashamed of taking the economical route even if i can afford the nicer option. because in the end that 100 yuan puts dumplings in my belly too, and the only colour that matters is the colour of money. call me stubborn and callous, cheap and naive, blind and bullheaded – but i refuse to believe any different.

merry christmas, love china

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

showing a relatively tenuous and newfound grip on the whole “christmas” concept, it seems festive yuletide decorations are commonly used in these parts to add some random sparkle and cheer, or just left up year round in a nod to the trailer trash tradition of the southern u.s.a. either way, it’s eternally christmas here in china, no matter where you go. and for some reason, that makes me happy.

She made me do it

Monday, May 1st, 2006

Greetings one and all. Apparently ‘blogging’ or something like that is some new fandangled craze thats got everyone excited – personally I dont see anything wrong with the average guys version: an annual 4 line e-mail, am I right or am I right? Anyways, in the interests of the preservation of my sanity I will contribute my meagre offering to the all conquering god named ‘BLOG’.

OK, well the missus has kept you all pretty much to date with our movements etc. so far so I’ll not start at the beginning. We’re in a small Town called Lijiang at the moment which is really awesome in fact – quaint, relaxed and picturesque as its nestled in the mountains, its pretty much all you could ask for of a small town in China. After an overnight bus ride(lets just call the bus fragrantly rustic and your imaginations can do the rest) from Kunming, we arrived mildly rested at like 6am. In what seems to be the norm for chinese bus journeys these days we were uncerimoniously dumped at the ass end of town and left to make our own way the last few miles to where we actually want to be. After an great little breakfast (yeah you really start to appreciate things like toast, butter, milk and fried eggs when they are not readily available) we checked ourselves into a cute little place called Dongba House <- hope thats right I’m sitting here trying to see the name on a window somewhere but cant so my best guess will have to do as I cant be arsed to get up walk 3 feet to check for sure. After we got our shit all set down in the dorm room after breakfast I had an idea. “Lets go for a leisurely bike ride through the countryside”, I says to myself and so I suggest it to the missus. After we hand over the moola for the bikes we pick the ones we want from the 10 or so bikes the hostel has for hire and set off. After about 500 meters of actually riding (you have to push our bike out of the old town here as theyre banned) I hear a nagging voice in the back of my mind which astonishly transforms into a nagging voice about 200 meters behind me on the road. Jen had a 1 in 10 chance of picking the mule of the pack (gears are screwed, chain slips, cant adjust the seat etc.) and she nailed it first try, thats pretty damn impressive. Anyways after Jen spent another 15 minutes or so in Dante’s 9th Circle of hell astride the wild beast, I caved. I adjusted the seat on my perfectly servicable Giant mountainbike, handed it over and got aboard the most evilly contructed 2 wheeled machine known to man. We made it back about 3 hours later, sunburned and sweaty and a little the worse for wear. After all is said and done though the scenery , surroundings etc of the rde were well worth it. Definitely some of the nicest scenery we’ve come across anywhere in China. I have all manner of ailments now, including probably at least 3 slipped discs from my time aboard the 2 wheeled paralysis machine masquerading as a mountain bike, but I’m sure a hearty meal and a few beers will start to ease my pain.

OK kids, thats way more than 4 lines now so I’d best love and leave you all. Ya’ll take care and we’ll see you on the other side.



beats a monday at the office

Monday, May 1st, 2006

a strange and busy few days. we flew into kunming, and just stayed a day en route to lijiang. unfortunately the day in kunming was pouring rain, so instead of exporing the city, we went to the cinema to see an english language movie (”eight below” in case you were wondering – which, if you’re a dog lover is a schmaltzy but wonderful movie. not that we had a whole lot of choice.) and hide out for a while. then we went shopping in parkson’s department supermarket, which was just *nirvana* for me. see, other people collect teaspoons or t-shirts. i collect new snacks. i love to try things i can’t even identify just to see what they taste like. most are interesting and tasty, some are blah, and only a few a truly awful. yesterday was a bonanza. i found wasabi flavoured potato chips, extra strong mentos, barbeque meat snacks, green tea biscuits, lemon custard filled marshmallows, and seaweed flavoured peanuts. yumm-o. needless to say, however, i felt rather ill after tasting all those at one sitting.

and then we took the overnight sleeper bus to lijiang. which i imagine is something like the night bus from the harry potterbooks, only cold, dirty, uncomfortable, and smelling strongly of fetid feet. not the nicest 11 hours i’ve ever spent. and then we got dropped off in lijiang at 6 am, in the dark, with no idea where we were (not the bus station, certainly).

but, with a hefty dose of deductive reasoning and not a small amount of wandering, we found the town centre – which is quaint and cobbled, and full of handicrafts and food. we had a gorgeous breakfast, and then rented some mountain bikes for a nice long ride into the countryside, through picturesque naxi minority villages, rice fields and green mountains. i got sunburned (since it’s the first time my skin has seen daylight in a year), then we came back and relaxed with a beer and a hot shower.

beats the hell out of a monday in the office.

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.)

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