Friday, December 01, 2006
Everything and Nothing
Everything is sacred and nothing is sacred. This statement pretty much sums up India. A place where people and billboards profess that cleanliness is next to godliness yet they walk barefoot through cow dung to bathe in a 'holy' river filled with sewage, dead animals, and ash from the local crematorium. A place where people speak the Queen's English and drink milk tea yet eat slop (albeit delicious slop) with their hands. The economy is one of that fastest growing in the world, yet the poverty is astounding. The government is praised for being a beacon of freedom and democracy in a hostile sea of enemies, yet is so bureaucratic, ineffectual, and corrupt that roads are barely paved, child labor is frighteningly common and the literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world. Spiritual ascetics are believed to be powerful enough to kill you with just a negative thought, but you'd better watch your belongings at the temples they frequent because pickpocketing and theft is rampant. Varanassi, a city locally famous for the holy Ganges river and widely known as where Hindus go to die and be cremated. is also famous with travelers as a place to watch out for being drugged and having your belongings stolen. Only in India could such paradoxical statements all ring true.
Likewise, our travels in India have involved a heavy dose of the sacred. We started, almost accidentally, at Bodhgaya, the site of the famed Boddhi tree where the Buddha supposedly became the enlightened one. It was almost an accident because although the city of Gaya has less than 100,000 people, it is one of two places that have direct flights from Burma. Our plane was filled with Burmese Buddhist pilgrims on their way to their religions’ most holy place. When we (two whities) got off the plane, the airport staff were perplexed by our presence and had to double check that we were in the right place. The town is filled with temples from Buddhist communities around the world. We even took a class in Japanese Buddhist Zen meditation, but given the fierce mosquitoes and the uncomfortable cross-legged position, I can't imagine how anyone would reach anything more than an itchy and painful state of mind.
From there, we moved on to Varanassi, City of Light, on the Ganges river, and one of holiest cities in the Hindu religion. The river is so polluted from human waste (i.e. excrement) that it is 1000 times dirtier than is the highest allowable safe bathing water. Nonetheless, every morning Hindus 'fortunate' (as goes a famous Hindu proverb) enough to live on the banks of the Ganges go down to pray to Shiva, drop flowers, offerings (and other droppings) in the river, as well as bathe, brush their teeth, and do their laundry. All this with sewage and human excrement pouring in. It is also a city famous for music, and here Jon had a chance to jam with a superb tabla player as well as a motley crew of foreign travelers (Brazil, Israel, the UK) all learning various Indian instruments. He also took his first sitar lesson here.
In most mountain cultures, high peaks are considered to be sacred, and that is definitely the case in the Himalayan hill station of Darjeeling. Although the name connotes an air of British colonialism, in many ways the convergence of Bhutanese, Sikkimese, Tibetan, and Nepali high altitude peoples have had a much stronger impact than the British Raj. We took in views of the sacred peak of Khangchendzonga (third highest in the world) as well as a few faint vistas of Everest, during a four day trek in the hills. With a great guide, a personal chef and a porter, we only had to struggle with the weather. But that was formidable nonetheless, as we had only a half day of clear skies (fortunately at the best viewpoint) to view the snow capped mountains surrounding us. A persistent thick blanket of fog (and occasional rain) made the cold weather that much colder.
Darjeeling proved to be a pleasant respite from the realities of urban India. It is pedestrian, and too hilly for the throng of autorickshaws, pedal rickshaws, cows, chai and produce wallahs (vendors) and bizarre ascetics that fill up every indian city till it overboils. However, as soon as we arrived in Calcutta we realized that we were back in the thick of things. Though once the seat of power for the British Raj, Calcutta is a thoroughly Indian city, The people play cricket of the lawn of Victoria Memorial, but many more fill the streets, and many of those are beggars. It is also famed as a source of Indian and Hindu reform movements (which may be why the British moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi) and known throughout the Subcontinent as a proud place of free thought. We enjoyed the traditional side with a visit to Kali temple, where we witnessed a live goat slaughter and had a Brahmin (top priestly caste Hindu) take us through the motions of an offering. While we at first thought this was an honor, to be personally escorted passed the throngs of Hindus worshippers – the paradoxes of India once again took hold when we were coaxed into making a donation to the temple as they were praying for the health and well being of our families. Then we moved on to the new cultural Calcutta where we went to a short film festival (with topics ranging from love, to globalization, to anthropology). And with that, we ended our tour of North India. Now we are in Tamil Nadu, in South India, and are enjoying many of the differences (and struggling with many of the similarities). We are on our way to Kerala, where we will get a strong taste of Indian culture in a one week cultural education program where we will take classes in yoga, cooking, and tabla (Indian drums).
Saturday, November 25, 2006
The country is ruled by an evil military dictatorship; the democratically elected leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sun Sui Kui, has been under house arrest since overwhelmingly winning the country’s first free elections in 1990; half the country is off limits to tourists because of tribal uprisings, slave labor practices in the gem mining industry (and possibly opium cultivation) and lack of tourist infrastructure. There are several power outages per day, roads are barely paved and the people are devastatingly poor in this resource rich country. To top it off, even in the cool and dry season, which is purportedly best for travel, temperatures regularly shoot above 90 degrees and its so humid that you always think it will start to rain, but never does.
What the hell, you may ask, are we doing here? Honestly, many a day we woke up perplexed by that same question. But from the minute we stepped out our door the lovely people of Myanmar provided a resounding answer in warmth, interest, and genuine good will. We had more interesting discussions with locals in Burma than in any other country. We learned more about the country from talking to the people than we ever would’ve learned from books. And, despite the ridiculous difficulties getting around the country, and the ethical and practical issues of traveling in a country whose government you don’t want to support financially, Burma has been our favorite country we’ve visited.
You cannot walk two minutes down the street without a “Hello! Where you come from?” And unlike in most other countries, they are not striking up a conversation to make money from you, they are genuinely interested in talking to foreigners and learning about life in the outside world. That is, until the subject of the government comes up, and they become visibly uncomfortable. A Californian monk studying in Burma that we met on the road told us that 1 in 10 Burmese are Military Intelligence, thus you must be very careful with what you say to the locals, in order for them to avoid the ubiquitous jail term.
One of the reasons why we decided to go to Myanmar was because of the fascinating experience we had while traveling in Cuba several years ago. We found that the warm Cuban people, incredibly eager to talk to foreigners while living under an isolated harsh Cuban government, provided a unique experience. And sure enough, there were many fascinating similarities. The Burmese economy is just about as functional as the Cuban economy. To start off, their currency is a joke. Its called the kyat (pronounced chat) and their largest bill, the 1000 chat note, is worth less than 3 quarters! The smallest note we saw in circulation, a 20 chatter, is worth a penny and a half. The black market is the source for many goods, and luxury items, including Coke, which is smuggled from Thailand, costs more than it does in the U.S. The government rations gasoline to such a limited degree that almost everyone buys it on the black market for prices more expensive than back in LA! This despite the fact that the country is rich in off-shore oil resources – but the government has sold its oil rights to China. And the old-fashioned barter system is alive and well. We had to take a taxi for the 7 hour / 60 km (yes you read that right – the roads are that bad) ride between Inle Lake and the main highway to the capital. Rather than pay for it, we gave the driver our old 4 megapixel backup digital camera as payment.
We vividly remember eating in Cuba as an adventure unto itself, as the corruption and black market prevented there from being any normal amount of food available, and the only palatable meals were bought and consumed in 'black market restaurants' found in peoples homes. Likewise, eating in Burma was a challenge. Their cuisine is a blend of Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian, but rather than being a tasty fusion, it is more like a stinky wet mutt. We actively sought out non Burmese food, and ate pizza twice, thai, korean, indian and anything else we could get our forks on that was not burmese. For two big eaters, we have to say that this is the first cuisine to be banished from our culinary island.
Cuba has a famously musical populace, and we were surprised to find the same in Burma. There were always people hanging out playing guitar, and their music videos always showed the musicians rather than lame cheesy shots of tribal people skipping in the countryside like the rest of Asia. Nonetheless, when we had a chance to learn a bit about Burmese musical appreciation, the comparison became weak. The American band Scorpion is the most popular band, and punk and heavy metal are the most popular genres. A jam session between Jon and some locals found little common ground, and he had to learn some Scorpion and impress them with Hotel California (the king of songs in Asia, 7 years ago and still running).
But it was the people we met that made the strongest impression. Some of the highlights included:
The university student studying Myanmar law who yearns to study international law, but is forbidden to by the government. Her goal is to meet a foreigner who will sponsor her study abroad, and then to leave Myanmar for good. She is the only one in her family who can afford to go to university, as her mother earns less than $30 a month as a school teacher and supports four children. We exchanged emails and we promised to send her international law articles.
The doctors, who after explaining how they operate using only local anesthesia, told us that they hoped President Bush would “bring his rockets to Burma”. They believe that is the only way to purge the government from power. One hospital we visited performed routine operations, like appendectomies, without putting the patient fully to sleep. Another doctor in Yangon, after a few queries about the state of health care, anxiously told us that any further questions would have to be directed to the Ministry of Health.
The comedy troupe, the Moustache Brothers, who bravely perform each night for tourists despite each member having served some length of jail term for making jokes about the corrupt military regime. They have been banned from performing in the country, but have creatively worked around the ban by performing only in English for tourists each night in their home.
During our visit, a revolting video was released on YouTube of the leading General’s daughters wedding that features the bride literally dripping in diamonds. It was reported that the newlyweds received over $50 million in gifts, over 10 times what the country pays for its citizens’ health care. We thought this kind of provocation might launch the Burmese people into the streets to protest the governments excess.
But that would never happen. Not in this deeply Buddhist country. Everyone allows religion into their life. Even a friend we met who spent his time DJing and smoking opium in Mandalay had spent two years as a monk and spends a week each year reconnecting. It is a place where foreign buddhists come to practice - we've met monks from New, York, California and Indonesia. And scattered throughout the country are literally hundreds of thousands of stupas and pagodas.
It is difficult to see how the government will fall given the financial support of Asia’s superpowers. U.S. sanctions, like in Cuba, have had little success other than to further isolate the Burmese people and allow China, who reportedly owns 60% of the Burmese economy, to further monopolize the country’s resources. (see New York Times link for great article on this topic)
On our last day we received a slight ray of hope. While roaming around the gold and diamond topped Shwedagon pagoda at sunset, we met a university student who told us of an underground movement of young people that are secretly meeting and exchanging ideas through private meetings and email. The student told us he moved out of his family’s house and has asked them to formally remove him from the governments register as a member of their family. If he is suspected of any subversive activity, he will be thrown in jail, and his family will also be targeted by the government. He was exhilarated when we promised to send him articles on political events in the U.S. and set up an anonymous website for him and his movement.
After two and a half weeks in Burma, it is almost frightening that we found ourselves yearning for the relative sanity of India. For a local food that we can enjoy (even though it will likely make us sick). For a bank with an ATM that accepts foreign cards (but will be surrounded by thousands of beggars). For a transportation network that connects a country in a reasonable fashion (though the roads may be just as bad). After 2 weeks in India (yes, putting our thoughts down on Burma took us that long!), we can safely say that our stress level has dropped a notch. And that is saying a lot - you'll see why when you read our India post!
Thursday, October 26, 2006
Long live the King
And we can understand way. It was their royal family that prevented the Empire of Siam from being carved out as colony to the French or British, like all of their neighbors (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma). And the royal family is at least partly responsible for the thai economic miracle, that has made this country twice as modern and twice as cosmopolitan in half the time as all of its neighbors. The roads are all paved, the electricity rarely cuts out and the internet is cheap and plentiful, with wi-fi spots all over the city. It is so modern that there are even fat people here - along with gyms and frequent advertisements for weight loss programs.
Another reason why Thailand has raced ahead of its neighbors is its incredible beach based tourism industry. Unfortunately, the south of Thailand, where all the best beaches are, was hardest hit by the tsunami in 2004. We stayed for a week to decompress in the beach town of Khao Lak. It was the province hardest hit in the south, with ,more than 75% of all the fatalities in Thailand occurring here. They are still trying to lure tourists back, but a large portion of their tourist industry is for Thais, who are very superstitious and may never return to a beach with over 6,000 ghosts.
We could see the effects clearly. Next to our resort was another resort that had supposedly opened on Dec 25th, 2004. The day before the tsunami hit. It was entirely wiped out and they had no capital to attempt rebuilding. All that is left is the concrete shell. Riding around on our motorbike, we saw several memorials, including a Thai Navy boat that had been thrown two and a half kilometers inland by the giant wave and was left as a testament to the power of nature.
Every person had a story. Our bellhop had lost a daughter. Our snorkel guide had boat problems and left the dock to head uphill back to town. When he got to town it had practically been wiped away.
We took a snorkeling trip to the Similan Islands Marine National Park. The water and beaches were the most incredible turquoise blue and white sands we had ever seen. But we found that underneath, the coral had been shredded and shattered. Coral grows extremely slow, and it is doubtful if this important ecological / tourism site will ever come back to its former glory. Despite this tragedy, there were colorful schools of fish everywhere we looked.
Overall, Thailand has served us well as a place for us to recuperate from 2 months of travel, and recharge our batteries before our next journey to Burma and India. The food, aside from the scorpions, insects, silk worms, and frogs that find their way into the markets, is incredible and cheap. Bangkok, our base of operations, has great shopping, hip kids break dancing by the subway, and stylish shops filled with chic thais. I am sure that within a week we will be longing for the comfort of the air conditioned elevated subway to the local mall food court for a bowl of green curry and spicy papaya salad.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Land of giggles
If Thailand is affectionately known as the land of smiles, then Cambodia must be the land of giggles. Any gesture, miscommunication, or funny look can launch a cambodian into a fit of high pitched giggles. The young are most susceptible, with a giggle so high pitched that men and women are indistinguishable. The giggle syndrome is a testament to their cheery disposition. It seems that every day, in every town we've been to (Phnom Penh, Siam Reap, Battambang) there is a festival. Its the moon festival, or the family reunion festival, or the build a pagoda for the poor festival. The most memorable commemoration for us was the family reunion festival.
Walking back to our guesthouse in Siem Reap we were invited to join one. They showered us with free beers and dragged us onto their dance floor to learn Cambodian circle dancing. With kids surrounding us teaching us the simple dance moves, we danced in a circle to music ranging from traditional Khmer to Cambodian rap. We were treated like celebrities, and had trouble leaving the party - we had to make an excuse to get out at midnight!
Its hard to understand how such a spirited people could have such a tragic recent history. When the US left Vietnam, they also pulled out support for the Cambodian monarchy, which was fighting against leftist guerrilas, the Khmer Rouge, scattered through the nations dense jungle country side. Shortly after the US left Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge suceeded in taking over the capital, Phnom Penh, and consolidating their grip over the country. Their leader, Pol Pot, attempted to rapidly transform the country into a purely agrarian society. The cities were emptied. All intellectuals and professionals were tortured and then exterminated in over 300 killing field camps throughout the country. Anyone with soft hands was killed. Then the people that did the killing were killed. Somewhere between 1 and 2 million people were killed between 1975 - 1979, and another million died from famine, exhaustion (they worked 16 hours a day and were fed 3 small bowls of rice porridge a day) and disease.
Finally in 1979 the unlikely heroes - the communist Vietnamese - after provocation on their border, overthrew the Khmer Rouge in just two short weeks. Although not officially in power, the Khmer Rouge wasn't actually fully defeated and disarmed until 1998. To this day, none of their leaders have been put on trial for the terrible crimes commited against humanity. There is talk of a war crimes tribunal, but to date, nothing has materialized.
There are still so many weapons left over from the years of fighting that tuk-tuk drivers continually offer to drive tourists to shooting ranges where you can, for a price, fire off anything from an AK-47 to a bazooka.
As if the Cambodians had not suffered enough during this brutal period, thousands of landmines were laid throughout the country, and to this day still maim and kill rural cambodians. Landmine victims are frequently ostracized by their family and village as their amputation and medical care is very expensive and they can no longer contribute to the rural economy. Our guide at the landmine museum, Poi, lost his leg to a mine at 10 years of age while working in the fields with his father. While his father left him to seek medical care, he lay waiting in the jungle and was approached by a ravenous tiger who smelt his fresh blood. He fired several gun shots at the tiger who ran away in fear. He ultimately had to leave his family and village because they couldn't or wouldn't help him. He now has rebuilt his life and works as a guide in the museum and non-profit that deactivates mines throughout the country.
It is a common occurance to be followed by a pack of beggars in Cambodia. Some of them missing an eye, others a leg, sometimes, both arms, and sometimes worse. A parade of NGOs have set up shop and it is easy to have every meal at restaurants that support orphanages and buy your souvenirs from stores that support the many disabled.
Despite the chaotic recent history, their past is responsible for one of the most awe-inspiring cultural accomplishments: Angkor Wat. Built over the course of the fall and rise of multiple Khmer dynasties between 900 and 1300, Angkor is a temple complex that is paralleled by none in this world. Of all the landmarks we've been to; Machu Pichu, the Taj Mahal,Petra, Agha Sofia, Athens, the Great Wall, Las Vegas etc.... Angkor stands above them all. We barely had a sunset, couldnt see the sunrise, had to withstand torrential rains and a guide that tried to renegotiate his fee halfway through our tour in the pouring rain, and we still were awestruck. Its not just the sheer size, but the incredible detail found throughout these temples - commemorating Hindu deities, paying respect to Buddha, and covered in uncontainable jungle growth - that kept us full of vigor during a 10 hour day of temple hopping.
Ankgor is still the focal point of Cambodian culture. Every town has streets
and hotels named after it. The national beer is named after it. It is the one place that every person that comes to this country, and practically every person that comes to this region, goes to. Even with 1 million visitors, paying up to 60 dollars a ticket, Angkor will not be enough to lift this country from the absolute poverty it faces. Hopefully the Cambodians can learn from the Vietnamese story of economic development.....
In our last few days in Vietnam we finally began to understand some of the secrets to their development success. In no small part thanks to one John Speck, a native Georgia peach who moved to Vietnam after a random favor for a friend left him with a Vietnamese wife and a NY style deli in Saigon. When we asked him why open a NY deli in Saigon, he said "If I had pictures of a swamp on the wall and served crocodile meat I wouldn't get many customers". This colorful character explained to us that the Vietnamese model for success involved: 1) strict laws ensuring that all foreign ventures have majority Vietnamese ownership 2) limiting foreign labor to a term of 1.5 years and 3) training vietnamese workers to take over from foreign labor. He himself owns only 49% of Central Park Deli - his young Vietnamese wife (30 years his junior) owns the remaining 51%.
We have had some rough times traveling in Cambodia. Not everyone (especially the people looking to make money off of you) is as cheery as described above. It is so dirty and poor that there is not one stop light in the country's second biggest city and many of its roads are not even paved. The cuisine ranges from a delightful blend of thai, vietnamese, indian, and chinese, to fried spiders and bugs. But here, more than anywhere else yet, we have a great desire for their people to succeed. For the crippled beggars to regain their dignity. The children who sell souveneirs on the street (rather than going to school) to learn something more than foreigners' capital cities. The women to not have to stand idly in massage parlors waiting for a "lucky" customer. Everytime we shook hands with a Cambodian, we felt a sincere desire for them to have enough good fortune to validate their cheery nature and easy going giggles.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
You know its a small world when the old, half toothless, Vietnamese man in the internet cafe next to you is cruising style.com and downloading images for local tailors to copy. Market research in communist vietnam! It is the combination of Vietnamese drive, independence, and flexibility (with help from decent language skills) that has allowed them to reinvent their country over the past 7 plus years. And I know, because that was the last time I was here. I remember crossing from Vietnam into China and being impressed by the modernity, the feeling of development. Now its the reverse. Although China is billed as the next economic superpower, in many ways it feels as if Vietnam has advanced more rapidly to a modern economy. The buildings are modern and stylish, the air is clean, and English is as common as Vietnamese.
Crossing the border was our first adventure. Both of our passports were issued the same year from the same NY passport agency. But mine is much more weathered, having been to Asia and Africa in the interim, as well as fallen in a river and the washing machine. The chinese border guards were convinced that one of our passports was a fake. They studied mine with magnifying glasses, they tried to lift off Kim's picture, convinced that it was too new and shiny compared with my tattered passport. After being detained for about two hours in a holding room, while our Bangladeshi traveling companion sailed through customs, they let us go onwards to Vietnam. Visions of an intense Chinese interrogation passed through our imaginations, but instead the border guards entertained us by singing "Take Me Home West Virginia" and serving us water. We've watched one too many "24" episodes.
Our first stop in Vietnam was Sapa, where 7 years ago the town was just a provincial capital filled with hilltribes, whose people were uninterested or too shy to interact with you. Now they are still dressed in their traditional garb, but they are aggressively selling their wares to tourists and hanging out in bars challenging you to a game of pool.
In Hanoi, every corner is filled with young Vietnamese in stylish clothes on their cellphones. Bicycles were the Hanoi of the past. Now motorbikes rule the road in Vietnam. Cars are few and far between, and crossing the street with thousands of roaring motorbikes and few traffic laws is a significant challenge. We grew frustrated with the challenge of walking, and decided to join them on our own motorbike.
The streets are also filled with a plentiful bounty of Vietnamese food, built on the combination of fresh herbs - mint, cilantro, lemongrass - garlic, and chili. Its a refreshing cuisine after a month of greasy food in China. So much so that we took a lesson in local cuisine. Our grandmotherly chef took us too the local market where we bought all sorts of goodies, and then went back to her kitchen where we learned to cook three dishes: beef spring rolls, honey chicken, and a fish dish. Vietnam is a former french colony, and aside from leaving behind grand boulevards, quaint french colonial buildings, and a love for art, they also influenced local cuisine. This was evident as both our fish and chicken were buried in thick butter and wine based sauces. But still delicious.
All of these changes is involved with what I perceive as the Disneyification of Vietnam -- DisneyNam. There seems to be a diversity of industry here, but there is no business like the tourism business and everyone is working hard to earn your francs, pounds, shekels, and dollars. That makes it a much more pleasant place to travel than China as people actually want to serve you and sell to you. Children are continually shouting Hello, and occasionally What is your name? as we pass them in the streets. Whereas in China, you would be hardpressed to find an English speaker, almost everyone we encounter speaks English in Vietnam.
Its hard to believe that only 30+ years ago war ripped this country apart. There is no evident ill feelings toward Americans. In fact, as our tailor Hong told us, the Vietnamese love Bill Clinton, almost as much as Ho Chi Minh. His visit in 1995 that opened trade and ended sanctions is widely known to have increased Vietnamese development momentum, and lifted the country out of devastating poverty. We took a tour of the DMZ (demilitarized zone) around the 17th parallel that divided the communist north from the pro American south. This area was where some of the fiercest battles took place, but not much remains. Bald hilltops from deforestation remind us of the damage of American napalm bombs and agent orange. The famous battle ground of Kahn Se, where the bloodiest battle of the war took place, now houses a museum, left-behind American helicopters and a few bunkers. We visited one of the underground tunnels the northern Vietnamese used to hide and transport goods during the war. Its hard to imagine they lived in these tunnels, as we could barely walk through the caves, they were so small, dank and dark. There were even 17 births in the 'maternity room', 15 meters underground!
We are now in the small quaint town of Hoi An, where there are more foreigners than locals, and everything here is done 'your way'. The food and lodging are great, as the barrage of thousands of foreigners have given them many opportunities to improve their offerings. Every street is packed with tailors who know the latest fashions and will copy them for you, straight from the latest magazine pages to the sewing machine, to your back, for a fraction of the cost. We've bought two suits, two shorts and three shirts for Kim, and two jackets and two pants for me. They all fit perfectly!
In Hoi An we've had the luck to have good weather for a change. Several days of sun have given us time to explore a local fishing & pottery village with our friend Mr. Trung, ride our motorbike down to the beach for massages and fresh seafood with our new American friends Erin and Ben, and have another cooking class (this time the dishes were traditional vietnamese food, fish in banana leaf, chicken with lemongrass and chili, and spring rolls). Now we are getting ready to leave, and just in time. A typhoon is heading here from the Phillipines and should make landfall within a day. So off we go to Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon was renamed after reunification in 1975).
Thursday, September 14, 2006
The Modern Monk
in internet cafe amazed by Jon's arm hair
We are writing this entry in an internet cafe packed with Tibetan monks playing Warcraft and Doom. We are in Xiahe, the home of the Labrang Monestary, the second most important monastery in the Tibetan Buddhist yellow hat sect. There are over 1200 monks studying various religious and philosophical displines, but it seems that almost all of the religious youth are playing video games, talking on their cellphones, and hanging out (just like any teenager). It is a bizaare sight to see a monk dressed in traditional garb mow down a bunch of enemies with a submachine gun!
We spent a few very nice days here soaking in this unique atmosphere. For a long period Tibet was its own country, and the region retains a unique feeling. This particular town is about 50% tibetan. Not all of them are monks, many are dagger toating, sheep jacket nomads (though now they wander with a motorcycle). Others are pilgrims who traveled thousands of kilometers to spin the prayer wheels of the monastery, hoping for a better present or future life.
We tried the local cuisine, once. And it was enough. Yak, or in Chinese literally hairy cow, makes for better warm sweaters than tasty food. Fortunately, a local place serves up Nepali curries and yummy western style breakfast that attract all the backpackers who cant handle yak dumplings (mo-mos), yak soup (jaathik), and yak butter tea. To the monks, Yak butter is a holy item, and even sniffing the yak butter candles in a temple can render them impure. To us, it is a stinky delicacy that is to be avoided at all costs.
We spent a day exploring the town, a day exploring the environs by bicycle, and then headed to Tongren, a Tibetan town known for its artistic monks. According to my GPS, it is only 34.5 miles away. The bus takes 4 to 6 hours, depending on whether you get a flat from the unpaved road (which we did). There we met several monks who eagerly invited us into their living quarters to show off their art, and in many cases, their international notoriety.
It felt awkward to bargain with monks, but some of the prices they quoted were incredibly high. Our impressions of contemporary Tibetan religious culture have been turned upside down; People are people and so are monks. In fact, the only truly pious monk we saw was the one who gave us the tour of the Labrang monestary, and this might be clouded by the fact that he was the most handsome local we've yet to see. Ask Kim, she's got a big crush on him. Its a good thing that we're leaving tommorow for Kunming, and travels to Southeast Asia.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
China's Wild West
We arrived by plane from Urumqi and were immediately in awe of the central asian vibe. The music blaring from cars or donkey carts was no longer chinese pop but a central asian uighur variety that sounds like it belongs more in Bishkek (Kyrgistan captial) than Beijing. At every corner hot ovens serve a variety of breads, called nan (think naan), including a local version of the bagel. Incredibly tasty when fresh, they have a shelf life similar to a piece of hubba-bubba (for those of you older than 40 thats about 3.5 minutes) and biting into it after that is sure to induce winces of pain. The streets are filled with women covered in head to toe, with a headscarf that covers their eyes. Some are beggars (we haven't seen many beggars in China). In the narrow alleyways of the old city, daily life proceeds in decrepit yet beautiful old buildings as craftsman pound tin and iron into kebab barbeques, knives, musical instruments, and teapots. Supposedly these buildings are being torn down at a rate of over a thousand a year to make way for white tile and blue glass 'modern' chinese developments. Government billboards all around town praise the merits of progress and development, with smiling Uighurs and proud officers, but I doubt that the Uighurs are as likely to abandon their traditions like the Chinese did (or were forced to do).
We spent our first two days exploring the city, visiting the famed Kashgar bazaar, and enjoying local food. There aint nothin' you can't do with mutton is clearly the motto - it is served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We visited a local tea house. Kim was the only woman in the place, and it was packed. We enjoyed visiting local musician shops - but when the call to prayer strikes everyone closes shop and heads to the local mosque. Nonetheless, we felt very comfortable being American Jews in a largely Muslim area. First of all, I didn't have to worry they were going to slip us the pork (as the Han chinese like to do). The children would follow us around, asking us to take their picture, and die laughing when they saw their image. Lastly, this is still China, and the PSB (Public Safety Bureau) is as strong, if not stronger, than anywhere else.
Then we took a nine hour bus ride to Hotan (pronounced Chotan in Uighur, Hetian in chinese) - a city almost two thousand years older than Kashgar, to view their Sunday Market. Kashgar and Hotan have competing Sunday Markets. Kashgar, with a real airport, and a train stop, wins all the tourists. Hotan, with only a beaten up road linking it Kashgar is off the beaten path. It is on the Southern Silk Road, that traverses below and through the Taklamakan desert and through many sand swept cities that have seen little change. Though we had to endure close to twenty hours of bus ride in two days, the market was worth it. There were no other westerners - just thousands of locals clammering into the streets to sell anything from livestock (see video below) to jade. We hoped to get a silk carpet at a bargain but to no avail. After a day to recoup in Kashgar we headed in a different direction from Kashgar; the Karokarom Highway.
One of the highest highways in the world, this road connects Pakistan to China through a series of high passes between ice mountains and desert plains. Although we didn't have the chutzpa to go all the way and cross the border to Pakistan, we went halfway and spent the night at Karakul lake - a shimmering high desert lake ringed by ice mountains. Of course we stayed in a yurt, but this time we stayed in a Kyrgryz yurt. Kyrgryz peoples have been living in this region for centuries and judging from our night with them not much has changed. The central furnace of our yurt which supplied warmth, hot water, and cooking heat was fueled by a mixture of dried twigs, pages from chinese schoolbooks, and of course, animal droppings. I am going to try that at home with my Weber.
We stayed with an entire family and it was interesting to see how they interacted. The family member we interacted with the most was Dinara, their one year old daughter, who crawled around the yurt, butt exposed with chinese style diapers (ie slit down back of pants), was fascinated and frightened by us. Actually, mostly Kim was the one doing all the scaring. For some reason all Kim had to do was look at Dinara and she would break into tears. She didn't have her usual magic touch with babies (maybe only american babies like her) but that didn't stop her from trying. We saw how the mother would calm the baby with song in their makeshift swing crib, and how the dad would coo the baby. We were kind of in the party yurt. After a dinner of noodles and noodles (two varieties! yum) a parade of family members came in to have a smoke, a cup of yak milk tea, and a piece of surprisingly tasty cantelope.
The lake was gorgeous, and we hiked into the wilderness. Actually, it started with a run, as the lake is ringed by swarms of black flies, and we had to scramble up a small rock wall to get to a higher ground where they wouldn't fly into our mouth and ears. The terrain from then on was like another planet - just rock, sand, and the occasional animal dropping. We could see over to the grazing yaks on the hill side and could see the glaciers on the mountain sides.
After a breakfast of two day old nan (solid as a rock) and yak milk tea we headed back to Kashgar. We had our last Uighur meal at our favorite local spot. We had the 'special' polo (rice pilaf) which included apricots, raisins, leeks, and mutton and an order of the filet mignon of mutton - wal kebab. The english translation would be waist kebab, the charade would be to point to the upper flank, but it really is just straight up mutton back. You eat it right off of the back bone, and its pretty damn good, especially when spiced with a bit of salt, pepper, and cumin.
Tommorow we leave the Uighur Autonomous Region (AKA Xinjiang) and head to Gansu and Sichuan (Szechuan) provinces where we will spend some time in Tibetan areas. That means a totally different culture and people, and yak butter tea. First stop is Xiahe, the largest Tibetan monestary outside of Tibet province.
Thursday, August 31, 2006
We have left the smoggy dirty Chinese cities for the province of Xinjiang, China's silk road. But before we get to that, a bit on Xi'an, our previous stop, and home to the famous terracotta warriors. Xi'an has a unique Moslem community that dates back thousands of years, thus the flavor of the city was a bit different than Beijing and Pingyao. We strolled through the Moslem quarter and the rest of the city's sites, but were really in awe at the size and scope of the city's shopping malls (see photo below). New Jersey pales in comparison to the size and scope of these new fancy shopping malls. Almost every block has them and all are packed with chinese consumers. The next day, we headed out to the terracotta warriors - a Chinese peasant discovered these clay creations in the 70s while digging a hole. They are now well preserved and well visited by throngs of chinese and international tourists.
We decided to head West to get away from the crowds to China's Xinjiang province to see a different part of china. We flew to Urumqi, the gateway to the silk road and were greeted by the desert sunshine after several days of smoggy weather. Urumqi is a modern city, with no real tourist sites, but a pleasant city to walk around - much cleaner smelling than our previous destinations. This area is also home to China's Uighur minority, a population that is more Central Asian than Chinese. Thus, kebabs, all types of breads, figs and headscarves fill the streets. We headed to the night market for a taste of Uighur food. Two city blocks of kebab and dried fruit vendors were lined up. It was hard to figure out what part of what animal was on which stick - we had to resort to pointing on ourselves and on the chef in order to communicate. Flank meant kidney, upper abdomen meant either liver or stomach, and ribs meant, well ribs. Also on the menu was stewed goat head and entrails, as well as snails and other assorted critters. Somehow, in the worlds city farthest from the ocean, they managed to have shrimp, squid, and crab. We settled on some mushroom, eggplant, potato, and jon had some lamb and beef.
The following morning we set off for Tian Chi - Heaven's Lake. It was raining in the morning, and when we got to the bus depot late we were worried we may have missed the last bus. In a bizarre twist, we ended up on a chinese tour. It costs the same as the bus, so the additional chinese karoake, loud bickering, and confusion was free. The leader asked us to sing a song, we politely refused, and she said 'i think you not friendly'. (chinglish interpretation: you are shy). We got to the lake, the sky started to clear, and we ditched our group. We met a Kazakh guide who offered us yurt (i.e. Central Asian tent) accomodations for the night and we gladly obliged.
The lake is home to several hundred semi nomadic Kazakh, who come there for the summer and return to warmer areas in Kazakhstan the rest of the year. However, their life is not entirely primitive: our yurt had a TV / DVD! We stayed with a very nice kazakh family. On our arrival they offered us fresh milk tea, which tasted like sweaty (possibly goat) milk with a hint of tea. The matriarch of the family cooked us a dinner of handmade noodles and a central asian stew consisting of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, leek, and lamb. For a Kazakh cooking lesson, watch the video below. We had a great time with the 8 year old daughter in our yurt that night: we taught her how to play blackjack and she taught us how to dance to kazakh and chinese pop. Though she did think me (jon) to be a very funny dancer.
We slept well in the yurt, under a pile of colorful kazakh blankets. We caught an early bus back to Urumqi and now are planning our further travels along the Silk Road. Highlights will surely included Karakul Lake, the famous bazaar in Kashgar, and Hotan. More later....
Friday, August 25, 2006
On the road
In many ways the beginning of our trip was marked with the train out of Beijing. We each had a hard sleeper bed for the 13 hour journey. Our car had appromixately 20 compartments, each with 6 beds. We shared ours with a nice family from Taiyuan. The 8 year old son, Jim, was fascinated with us. So I tried in broken mandarin to communicate - but I can barely get from point A to point B, so it was difficult. Then a proud father of a 14 year old soon asked us to talk to his son in english. His son was painfully shy, and blushed from head to toe.
Supposedly, in any given moment about 1 million chinese are riding the railroad. It is their main intercity transportation system, and railroad stations can be massive, throbbing, individual cities of their own. Beijing has 4 'main' train stations. There are three classes: hard seat (cheap, uncomfortable, and for the masses), hard sleeper (more expensive but allows one to attempt sleep), and soft sleeper (out of range for most chinese, but not all - Jason Fei rides soft sleeper with his family).
We arrived in Pingyao at approximately 8 in the morning. We were promptly attacked by touts, trying to take us to hotels with 'big discount' where they would get a commission. We weren't sure if the city was in a cloud of mist or smog, but as we never saw the sun for two days straight, we think its the later.
Aside from environmental concerns, the city of Pingyao has some charm. Its an ancient chinese city with an intact city wall and old chinese architecture. It has a long financial history as the banking headquarters of the Qing dynasty. Its also a total tourist trap. Although the city came highly recommended, we were underwhelmed. The highlight was the chinese opera we stumbled upon during one of our many walks. It was filled with locals and chinese tourists, and was hillarious. They even had english subtitles! The best part was when a large bald chinese man played his local trumpet while performing various feats - like balancing a bucket of water on his stomach, holding a bicycle with his mouth and playing through his nose, as well as other maneuvers. I hope to upload some video soon.
Now we are in Xian, having a restful day, and nursing some stomach issues picked up in Pingyao. The plan is to see the famed Terracotta warriors, enjoy what this city has to offer and continue west.
Monday, August 21, 2006
Now we are MEN!!!
"One is not a true man until he (or she) has climbed the Great Wall" - Mao Zedong
Its actually very interesting to see how aspects of China's communist past manifest themselves differently in the New China. For example, we went to a contemporary art space the other day. It is an old military factory that has been converted into multiple artist lofts. Now these artists are actually creating art that subtley mocks red China. This statue has a traditional Chinese worker prototype, but wielding a brush rather than a hammer.
We also saw paintings of the Tiananmen massacre, as well as art that points out the ironies of the Cultural Revolution. They sell Mao's Little Red Book (a book of his famous quotes) as tourist kitch items. This is the book that the Red Guards used as justification as they suppressed China's intellectuals. At dinner the other night, Jason made a joke using a Mao quote. Mao's quote was "People work for the betterment of society" and Jason said the same thing but just replaced society with money. Jason had a hearty laugh. Capitalism has toppled communism.
Still, it is considered a big deal to climb the Great Wall, which we tackled yesterday. It was a splendid day, and we made the right choice to go to a more secluded section of the wall. Still, the chinese were well afoot in making it a commercial venture. There were vendors every 100 feet, even at the highest peaks, selling ice cream, water, and hand carvings. There was a cable car up if you didn't want to walk, and a zip line down if you wanted some adventure (I did, Kim opted out).
goodbye to the Fei family and Felipe. The Fei's were incredible hosts - cooking elaborate breakfasts and dinners and sharing their Chinese traditions. They clearly were doing this because they wanted to interact with foreigners (rather than make a buck). They would tell us about a Chinese delicacy and the next day we would have it. We were talking of cheese, which Jason imports and likes, and he told us about Chao Daofu - Stinky Tofu - which tastes like foul blue cheese. Beijingers love it. The next day we came home to find a table set up on the balcony so we could taste this delicacy without smelling up the house. I almost vomited. They got a good laugh.
We were touched by how they opened their home and traditions to us, and highly recommend this homestay for those traveling through Beijing.
Tonight we head to Pingyao, a city with traditional Chinese architecture and city walls protected by UNESCO from the everpresent Chinese bulldozer.
Saturday, August 19, 2006
Misty Hong Kong, Steamy Beijing
Not to say that the flight was uneventful. We hit pretty bad traffic on the way to the airport, but we knew that the plane was delayed half an hour. And after calling and specifically reserving seats they ended up giving our seats away. I guess Cathay doesn't understand the purpose of a reservation. It was almost a disaster as they gave us seats apart from one another across the plane for the 12 hour flight from Vancouver to HK. Fortunately, we managed to switch, and even got an aisle seat. And aside from the annoyance, the flight was actually quite pleasant. A good selection of videos, decent food, and the service was phenomenal.
Nonetheless, when we arrived in Hong Kong we were tired. We spent eight hours in the city walking up a lot of steps in 100 degree humid weather. Hong Kong was very much like the Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco. A chinese feel with a western influence. Modern skyscrapers and fancy stores all over the place and more banks then I have ever seen. The highlight of our 8 hours in Hong Kong was the tea house visit and the dimsum. The dimsum restaurant, Maxims, was in Hong Kong's City Hall- I always enjoy seeing where hardworking munipical workers like myself eat lunch.
That evening we arrived in Beijing at 9PM not knowing whether or not our host, Jason Fei would be there to pick us up. Sure enough there he was holding up a sign "Ms. Kim" with his son. Turns out we really lucked out with this homestay. Jason is one of China's new upper middle class. He owns his own food importing business (and showed off his products at breakfast the next day with new zealand butter, spanish sardines and german cereal). He also owns his own apartment (two actually) in a nice new building on the top floor. The place is spotless and his wife cooks us breakfast and dinner each day. There is another American - Felipe - staying at the apartment, who is there for two weeks to study Chinese, as he is getting his Masters in Asian Studies in Miami. He is a great guy, and his Chinese was very helpful as we navigated the city yesterday.
After finally getting a full nights sleep in a bed and a nice shower, we headed out to do some sightseeing and shopping. We hit the Forbidden City and Tiananmen square first. Like most of Beijing, a good portion of the Forbidden City was under construction - which was a bit disappointing - nevertheless, it was still quite impressive in its magnitude, and we enjoyed strolling around in the hot steamy weather with thousands of other chinese tourists.
Felipe, our fellow homestayer, was on a mission to buy knock-off purses for his wife. I happily obliged this errand. We headed over to the Silk Market, which basically is 5 floors of western knockoffs at chinese prices. It was pretty much all foreigners haggling for deals. It was Canal Street on steroids. I wanted to buy my sister and mom a bunch of louis vitton and gucci bags, but it was our first day and I am not so good at telling whether they are good fakes or not. Plus, we would probably get arrested for shipping a ton of fake bags to the US, so we instead opted for Cartier and Tag watches for ourselves for the hefty price of $35 for both. Not bad.
After $7 hour long massages, we returned home for what we thought was a homemade Peking Duck meal with the Feis. Turned out they opted for takeout bird, but it was still the traditional meal. Jon and I ate as though it was the most delicious meal we ever had, but both thought it was too greasy for our palates.
We both woke up at 3Am this morning and couldnt fall back asleep - were not yet on China time. Today we will head over to an arts district - former military factories converted into artist space - and see some live contemporary chinese music tonight.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Alex - My nose is here!
Monday, August 07, 2006
Sand in my pants
Before the guests arrived Kim & I had a rousing and ear shattering karoake session. Our greatest number was Hungry Like the Wolf. It was pretty cheasy.
Beach Bonfire Video
A slew of guests dropped in on us, including the Elkinson clan (Angela, Liz, Dan, Emery, the italian cousin, Ken, Eddie, and Mark), Frank & Kris, Jenny & Josh, Laura & Nick, and Dalit & Atsushi. We had a nice meal on the beach including hot dogs, bbq chicken, and various salads. We had a great fire - with some pyrotechnic help from Frank - who told me with a frightening degree of seriousness that he has burned many a house down.
We whittled away the night with a marathon game of Catch Phrase. Standing on the edge of the fire as the cold ocean wind swept behind us, we couldn't stop playing. Except for the girls - they had their usual photo shoot (just like they did at the standard). Finally we cleaned up and took off (thx nb,jc,lc for the help) - the last bonfire to depart.
Today we have another party - Polliwog!
Saturday, August 05, 2006
Bite of the Viper
Fortunately, no one noticed a thing, and our friends who came out had great time. We had our usual crew including Dalit & Atsushi, Jenny & Josh, Laura & Nick, and Maggie and crew. We stayed downstairs after the show and had drinks and listened to bad solo acts cover Tom Petty and play originals in Italian. Bizzaro
Now we are up and getting ready for our bon voyage bonfire. We have lots of stuff to do to pull it off. Hopefully we'll get a spot on the beach. Josh thinks we're gonna have to fight with a Mexican family to get a spot on the beach.
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