Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Just Plain Wrong

I'm all for innovation and fusion in the food and beverage industry - but sometimes things go too far. I was innocently ordering a beer on a street stall in Turpan the othe night with a couple we had met travelling, and I yelled out to the chap who was up at the counter purchasing another beer "get the Xiliang!" which I had spied on the shelves. The Xiliang is a nice wheaty beer that tastes much better than the other Xinjiang province drops.

I was the first to taste the new purchase when it arrived at the table, and I immediately noticed that something was badly awry. "This tastes strangely like it has pineapple cordial in its guys!". Sure enough a closer inspection of the label revealed that it was indeed a fruity flavoured beer:

Ice in beer when it is warm (a Cambodian necessity) and shandy I can just tolerate, but not an abonimation like this. As an aside a bloody fight about an unpaid bill involving multiple locales, stools and bloody noses broke out moments after I took this photo at the shop beside ours.

Public Goods

One of the great ironies of travelling in "communist" China is the shameless commodification of anything that could be vaguely construed as a tourist attraction. I will confess that many of the museums and some other sites we have visited have been relative bargains when compared to what you would pay in the West - other sites though have been rather more dubious. The old town area of Kashgar, and an ancient Uighur village outside Turpan have all been slapped with "entrance fees". We quietly noted that the ticket booth for Uighur village (which we did not end up going in to) and all the surrounding souvenir stalls were manned by Han Chinese. Without being too cynical one can be pretty sure that the economic benefit of tourism to the local Uighur minorities is pretty minimal.

My favourite example of commodifaction that we have witnessed so far has to be the dunes of sand outside the small town of Dunhuang:

Sure there is a famous oasis between the dunes that Marco Polo allegedly once visited on his travels - but an 80 yuan (over AUS$13) fee is even steeper than the dunes. Needless to say we cycled alongside the fence until it had fallen down and climbed up with all the locals.

At least we are getting an idea of what some of the money is being used for though. It seems that pretty much everywhere we have visited - regardless of size - has undergone a massive facelift. I won't complain as I'm sure that most locals (at least the ones that haven't been forcibly evicted to make way for shops and apartments) and the massively increasing numbers of domestic tourists are enjoying the country wide building boom, and the associated commodities boom is keeping the Australian economy afloat. Unfortunately Anth and I have frequently been left thinking "I wonder what this place looked like a few years ago..." Its also meant that we've had to work a lot harder to find the unique character of each place we've visited behind the uniform facades of "progress".

Take Dunhuang for example - a town that was described in a guide book from two years ago as "a charming collection of a few dusty streets" now looks like this:

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Tower of Babel

Several days when we were in Lanzhou waiting for the train to Jiayuguan, we watched Babel (a movie that we spent all Summer trying to catch in Melbourne). Given the films's central themes of miscommunication and being a white person in a foreign land - it was quite timely.

The further West we have gone, the more I have been reminded of the China I remember from when I taught English here for 6 months in 1999. The percentage of people who can speak English abiblity has dramatically decreased as we have progressed, and we have found ourselves feeling powerless and staring a mutual wall of incomprehension more and more often. My initial reaction to some of these situations has initially been frustration - especially at some of the major tourist sites, where one would expect at least a minimal level of English to facilitate the smoothe passage of the tourist dollar. But I have to keep reminding myself that I am a guest and that the onus is on me as a guest to speak Chinese (I suspect I have also picked up a few bad habits from Cambodia where everyone tries to speak English and the unhealthy White-man-as-God complex still lingers).

I have also struggled to adjust this time to the Chinese way of social interaction - and how everyday conversation frequently escalates into yelling. Most of the time this is perfectly innocent, but sometimes it is not. The number of fights and scuffles that we have seen over tickets for buses and trains has been quite eye opening. I've often tried to remember whether things were the same when I lived further South in 1999.

Unfortunately, there have also been a few times when someone has spoken to me in what I instinctively perceived to be rude and confrontational and I have reacted in a rather unbecoming fashion - when I probably completely misinterpreted the original intent.

Lest I paint too negative a picture, I should say that the memories that I formed 8 years ago of all the incredibly friendly and hospitable people I met with has not changed at all this time round in China.

Friday, April 20, 2007

International theft, miscommunication and crazy driving

Dunhuang seems like an interesting place, it's certainly warmer than the other places we have been, and it was kind of a relief to get here.

We arrived after a lengthy and somewhat confusing bus ride which involved many of the classic Asian bus journey problems experienced by foreigners. We waited mysteriously at random locations for lengthy periods, we drove at 100km/hr the wrong way down a split laned freeway (which was still under construction), there were heated arguments over passengers tickets, passengers were sick, the bus was overcrowded and we got pulled over by the cops (possibly for overcrowding, possibly for crazy driving). Reasons for much of this were completely unclear to us, and all we could do was sit and wait till we arrived at our final destination. We have been doing a lot of travelling though. Getting from the east of China to the far west is no mean feat public transport wise and so in many ways we took much of this in our stride.

Dunhuang is in the middle of the desert and is famous for the Mogao caves which were first built around 366AD and were developed as places of worship and depositories of books, paintings and sculptures. After being hassled by our hotel we agreed to take their bus out to the caves. At 10am the little minivan, containing us, 3 Chinese businessmen and a driver, sped out of town, took a right turn at the skeleton of the brand new train station and headed out into the desert to the caves.

On arrival we discovered that the ticket office workers didn't speak English and that there wasn't an English tour for another hour and a half which would mean that we couldn't meet back at the minivan at the appointed time. We traipsed back to the gold minivan and tried to explain this to our driver using our little Mandarin phrase book. It wasn't clear that he completely understood so we hauled him over to the ticket office so that they could explain in fluent chinese. Much discussion ensued. The driver kept on addressing us in Chinese, and we kept on smiling and saying (in awful Chinese) "we don't understand chinese!". Finally he gave up and seemed to agree to wait for the end of our tour.

Before the tour, to kill some time we had a look in the museum on site. It had an impressive exhibition of beautiful Tibetan bronze figures obtained by unspecified means.

In a fitting display of the Chinese approach to Tibet, a Chinese security guard in the exhibit room, wandered around leisurely touching the figures and rapping them with his knuckles to hear the resulting reverberations.

The tour itself was good. It started late, but our softly spoken, young Chinese guide kept up a lively discussion on the caves, buddhism and the local weather. The paintings in the caves were interesting, in particular how they showed buddhist art over many dynasties in China. In another part of the caves an exhibit, rather mercilessly detailed the circumstances as to why the ancient books, paintings and sculptures that had been hidden in the caves are now located in museums in England, France, Russia and Japan. It seems there was an all out international raiding, not that this was limited only to foreigners, the local Chinese authorities also took their cut.

Once we had seen our allotment of 10 caves, including one cave which had what is now the second tallest buddha in the world, carved from bottom to top, standing 34 metres, we took a look at the time. We were late. We rushed out of the ticket area and over to the carpark. We stood breathless as the driver angrily gesticulated at his watch and then quickly clambered into the van. The other passengers didn't look to happy either. Dust spraying out behind the tyres we floored it out of the carpark and down the new bitumen road. After an angry exchange with the men at the gate of the in-construction train station the van came to a hasty halt and the 3 businessmen got out.

We had no idea what was going on. The driver kept on speaking Chinese to us, and by now we had given up trying to say that we don't understand Chinese. Were these men catching a train? had we made them miss the train? The driver then asked us if we wanted to go on a tour to some nearby dunes and was all smiles again, whilst loudly honking the horn. Finally the men returned and we drove back into town. Although in doing so, our driver who seemingly was taking out his frustrations through his driving avoided paying a toll at the toll booth by screaming through close at the heels of another car when the toll gate went up. The businessmen seemed to cheer up at this behaviour and happily we made it back to town.

We were dropped off at our hotel and Andrew made pains to fetch one of the hotel staff who spoke english to apologise to the driver for being late and if we had inconvenienced the other passengers. She refused to apologise for us and kept on saying "no problem".

Hmmmm. Confusing, huh. I am enjoying being in China and we have seen some wonderful sights, but I have really felt that our inability to really communicate with people has meant we are really just skimming the surface.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


We came to Xiahe as our substitute for not going to Tibet. However, as it turned out Xiahe is possibly a less touristy window into Tibetan culture and according to the locals this IS Tibet. We couldn't help but stand at the window in our hotel and peer out at the fascinating array of local Tibetan people in traditional dress. The women in colourful skirts, chunky metal belts and large colourful jackets with furred lining which are worn with one arm in and one out; the men with even larger silk and fur lined jackets with large sunglasses and knives at their waists and the children in smaller versions of the above wear with huge rosy red cheeks. During our time in Xiahe we indulged in some serious people watching - and photo taking (link to our Xiahe flickr album). It seems so far that the delicate balance and dynamic between outsiders and the local Tibetans has not been polluted by tourism - yet...

The centrepiece of the Tibetan part of town is the Labrang monastery which today houses around 600 monks. At it's peak there were over 1,200 monks in the monastery community (a large part of the monastery and many monks were victims of the Cultural Revolution). On our first day we went for a tour through the monastery. Despite the fact that it was freezing cold, this was possibly one of the most striking experiences we have had in China so far. We were given a personal tour by one of the local monks who escorted us through the many temples, school rooms and prayer rooms.

We saw amazing, colourful buddhist sculptures made by the monks for the New Year festival. The most interesting thing about these sculptures is that they are made from yaks butter (at least the cold comes in handy in maintaining these art pieces) and then melted down again at the end of the year. It seems yak products are all the rage, in addition to sculpting material, yaks butter is used for candles and yaks milk, cheese and meat are all staples of Tibetan cooking.

Then at 11am, our guide took us into the main prayer hall where many of the resident monks were assembled for prayer session. It was a simply amazing experience to walk around edges of the darkend a hear the low murmerings of the monks, with the tall wooden pillars of the room and the muted colours of the large buddha sculptures and flags from the roof.

We wandered out of the prayer hall into the cold morning air and looked around us. This place really was enchanting. After the tour we grabbed a bite at a local Tibetan restaurant, up on a third floor with a stunning view of the monastery and surrounding mountains this was our restaurant of choice. It is also the best place to sample all the different varieties of yak products - if you're game. According to Andrew yak is tasty and somewhat similar to roast beef.

We woke up on our last morning in Xiahe for our 7am bus back to Lanzhou and discovered the hills covered in snow. It was a sharply cold morning but the prettiness of the scene made up for the cold.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Happy Snaps

We have just set up a Flickr account which will hopefully enable anyone that is interested to see the various temporary dwellings that we will be galavanting around in the coming months. More to come soon - I promise!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The journey begins....

After months of painstaking preparation we are finally on the road. Our first stop is ...

Well, this is not technically our first stop. The very first thing we did on the trip was to arrive in Bangkok and have our fill of massages, movies and good food. It was all so comforting and familiar and I was loving the humidity!

We then hopped on a plane for the real journey to begin and arrived in Beijing. Things we like about Beijing so far:

  • Wonderful exhibition of American art from the Guggenheim(s) which is currently taking up two thirds of the national gallery.
  • Contemporary Chinese art, such as that displayed at the red gate gallery, and the Liu Qinghe exhibition, at the National Gallery.
  • Dedicated bike lanes.
  • Listening to the Bangles in a McDonalds outside the Summer Palace.
  • Getting the inside story of an expat's life from Stew, an old friend from Cambodia.
  • A plethora of delicious fake meat restaurants. I even stuffed myself at my first Chinese vegetarian buffet.
The city is also nearing the end of a manic beautification phase - which has seemingly transformed the city and supplemented some of the drab Communist era buildings with some very cutting edge contemporary designs. The hidden cost of all of this progress can be found in stories like this subway collapse that happened last week.

It's also really cold here. Thankfully, today we both bought big jackets. Although, according to Stew it is positively tropical at the moment. I guess these things are all relative.

And can I just say, to further elaborate on the faux meat restaurant thing. We have found simply the best vegetarian restaurant in Beijing. And possibly one of the best veg. restaurants I have ever been to. We ate the most "I can't believe it's not pork" sausage in the world tonight - complete with fake fatty bits. Yum! And that was just the entree, for mains we ate deep fried fake chicken covered in cumin and sesame seeds and served with fresh coriander and faux Beijing duck (pictures hopefully pending).

We are currently planning our next steps, which involve a trip to Xi'an to see the terracotta warriors. However, we still have a few more Beijing sites to cover... like the great wall.