30 December 2007

Going, going, gone!

I woke up this morning feeling absolutely reinvigorated. Ah, vigor, it is truly the spice of life! With my new found vigor, I decided to eat my first meal in days at the Everest Steak House. Hearing a familiar, almost magical, sound coming from behind the host's counter, I was delighted to see two world championship matches in a row, one which pit an also reinvigorated Chris Jericho against heavyweight champion and ruffian Randy Orton; the other was a "triple-threat" match featuring Edge (plus two clones?!) and Batista attempting to make the Undertaker (!) look good. Even I have the occasional weakness for such entertainments, and nostalgia, when so long deprived.

I got my trailhead bus ticket changed for tomorrow morning at 6:30 am. This time, I am absolutely, definitely, officially, positively, really going! "See you" in about three weeks! Happy New Year!

A Moment of Silence

For Benazir Bhutto. A great loss.

29 December 2007

Still not watching what I eat?

I don't know whether it was the glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice or the "special" peanut butter, banana, and fried onion sandwich, but something I consumed yesterday returned for a regurgitative revenge last night. So weakened, I couldn't make my bus, and I've decided to put it off an additional day, as well, to be sure I'm alright. This is very frustrating, since every day of delay brings a greater chance of snow and freezing temperatures. But despite my recent streak of bad luck, I am determined to prevail and hike in the Himalayas--definitely within the next two days!

28 December 2007

World Peace Pagoda

I have time for one more post.

Since the boozy white revelers are already transforming lakeside Pokhara into a cheap, tropical cheap thrill extravaganza for New Year's, I have decided to throw caution to the wolves and embark guideless on my Annapurna trek tomorrow. I ought to be back in around 20 days, but I can't say for sure. No doubt, all of you, my friends, have subscribed to my blog in your RSS readers, which you check religiously.

Today, I walked up to the World Peace Pagoda overlooking the city. The views were quite nice, though a bit obscured by fog. Above Pokhara, the most famous of the dozens of white mountains that are visible is Machupuchere, or something like that. It looks like a giant, snow-dusted pyramid. It's also sacred and therefore has never been climbed. I will not be the first to violate this taboo. The pagoda was built by, guess who, the Japanese under the auspices of a monk of the Nichirenju (sp?) sect of Buddhism who died in 1985 at the age of 101. One of his last students, a nice British lady, noticed my prone body collapsed in the shadows of the nearby temple, and asked if I wanted a bed. We got to chatting, and she ended up telling me I could stay at the pagoda if I liked, as long as I didn't mind waking up at 4:30 am for prayers. I'm pretty sure I would mind that, but her offer has piqued my interest, so I will be seriously considering it (free accommodation, Buddhist experience, fantastic views, gardening--why not?).

And that's the news from Lake Phewa, where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are all above-average.

27 December 2007


Did I happen to mention, amidst all the vitriol I poured on Thamel, that Nepal is a jaw-droppingly stunning/beautiful/utsukushii country with incredibly polite/charming/only-sometimes-a-bit-too-unctuous people? The bumpy bus ride down (only 900 meters!) to Pokhara reminded me. And it's so warm here (sorry, my cold-climate dwelling readers)! Well, I decided to pass up the chance to see the International Elephant Race in Royal Chitwan National Park--maybe not Royal anymore since the monarchy was dissolved on Monday? I might say it sounded like animal cruelty (not to mention, potentially, much more boring than it sounds), but the real reason I skipped was to get here, Nepal's second "city", and a convenient jumping-off point for my next epic trek: 20 days on the Annapurna Circuit, one of the most beautiful treks ("hikes" in American) in the world. You can Google "Annapurna" for more hard info, but the route basically circumnavigates (walking around stuff again!) a bunch of lovely, 8000+ meters peaks, with names like Annapurna I, Annapurna II, III, etc. There is one tricky part, a 5700 meter pass currently under snow, so I may reluctantly hire a guide, because I still, even after all this time, do not want to slip over a cliff edge and die. The views from the city itself are supposed to be stunning, as well, especially from the Japanese-built World Peace Pagoda, but I just got here and haven't seen any of this yet, so I will have to report on that later. It looks like they are gearing up here for 5 days of New Year's celebrations, too, so between that and the trek, I may not make it onto the Internet again to report anything.. for weeks! But bear with me, gentle readers, I will be back again, by hook or by crook, I will.

25 December 2007

Kathmandu.. or KathmanDON'T??

Merry Christmas. It's funny to me how that is no longer a politically incorrect thing to say once you leave America and go to a developing country where nobody gives a s**t about being PC and everybody just wants to have a good time, continuously. I met an Israeli girl, and even *she* was celebrating. This morning, she went to exchange gifts with a British couple (who asked me the night before if we have "Christmas crackers" in America.. I thought he was talking about the food we leave for Santa.. nope).

I've decided to officially embrace Tibetan Buddhism as my new faith--not because I have had innumerable spiritual experiences that have guided me onto a new path toward self-understanding. No. It's because Tibetan Buddhists are supposed to walk around stuff. Over and over. Since I do that anyway, I might as well earn merit for it. Finally, a religion that suits my (slightly?) obsessive-compulsive, circumambulating personality.

Kathmandu is krazy. There are *SO* many people, and they all seem to be going somewhere all the time. This city is so old, the streets are really narrow--medieval narrow--and clogged with cars, livestock, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, beggars, playing children, garbage, and probably gods. The air is a bit filthy, too, and my cough has not gotten better. I've taken to wearing a face mask, in Japanese style, to ward off the particulates. Another reason KTM is krazy is the time zone, 5:45 ahead of GTM (or something like that). In comparison, India is 5:30 ahead. The reason, according to my LP, is that Nepal wants to assert that it is definitely a different country. Since I've heard Nepalis are more laid-back than Indians, my own theory is that they added the extra 15 minutes for the same reason we sometimes set our watches ahead a few minutes so we don't miss our appointments.

Last night was Christmas in Thamel. Have I described Thamel yet? It's awful. Convenient, but awful. I want to blow it off, in one big chunk, the face of the Earth. I pity the hippies, though. I imagine they were genuinely trying to escape an oppressive culture 50 years ago. Nowadays, Western culture is pretty permissive, so there's nothing really to escape. But people still want to wear the ugly clothes, dreadlock their hair (really will never get that), not shower, do drugs, and at least adopt some of the stylings of their overdosing, NEET forebears, if not their philosophy and spirit of rebellion (as far as I can tell, the only things young people the world over really care about are money, image, and success). That has nothing to do with Christmas here, but I didn't want to miss a hippie-bashing opportunity. I must have a traditional streak in me somewhere, because Christmas to me is still a family holiday, not an excuse to go out and party just because you happen to be away from home.. but I suppose any excuse to party is an excuse for the local bars to offer dinner and drink specials and encourage the stupid foreigners to indulge in whatever perversities they enjoy at home, despite this being an extremely conservative country (I saw a white guy walking around in a monk's robes with a white chick under each arm... I wanted to destroy them all, but that was the day before I converted to Buddhism). I am not completely innocent from partaking in Thamel's delights, though, because I did have a gin and tonic last night, I do enjoy browsing the scores of used book shops, and it's nice to have a wider selection of restaurants, after a month, than Chinese or Sichuan Chinese (btw, Tibetan food is boring). There are more white people here than I've seen since Cuzco. I have a question: why do tourists go places and then complain that they're touristy?

I hate to inform the poll-interested that I will probably *not* be collecting folktales in Nepal. The reason, other than the exorbitant fees ($300 just for the application--more than Harvard!), is that the guy who runs the volunteer organization is a self-righteous blowhard. I know my own.

Friends! I've written yet another cynical post and on this holy day, as well! Jesus would not be pleased with my lack of Christmas spirit! Well, I must end by assuring you that I love and miss you all--even I am sentimental on the traditional holidays--and that my heart is always partly with you on this long and difficult journey. In fact, it is all that sustains and comforts me, and I look forward to reuniting with each and every one of you whatever day of the year it happens to be.

If anyone wants to see Radiohead in Milan, mid-June next year, I bought four tickets. Meet me there!

Corrections: Miyuko is actually named Miyouko and Abdul from Hotan is really named Ablimit. Foreign names are tough, you know?

23 December 2007

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (cont'd)


(sorry, I was pretty excited by that one)

More to say about Kathmandu and Nepal and how beautiful and delicious and wonderful everything is in future posts. I ought to be off now for another 50 cent fancy Italian coffee.



22 December 2007


I'm back! and finally beyond the confines of the Great Firewall of China.

But not without incident.

Leaving Lhasa some days ago, my mostly Japanese group and I traversed the Tibetan plateau first to the village of Gyantse (oh what picturesque poverty! cows in the streets! joy!) and then to Shigatse, Tibet's other "city" and home to the Panchen Lama--did you even know that the Dalai Lama had a rival? and that China uses him as a tool to create intra-Tibetan factional strife, like in some (bad? good?) professional wrestling angle? During this journey, one of our number--young Hiroshi--developed a fever, and didn't move much the entire day. So we brought him to the "people's hospital" in Shigatse, where not only the patients are allowed to smoke, but the doctors smoke, too. I stepped out for awhile to guard the car, and when I returned, two other group members also had confirmed fevers, one of them seriously high. Miraculously, when I checked myself, I actually turned out to be normal. An hour of IV fluiding later, and we were ensconced for the night in our heated (!) hotel. Given the ailments going around, we decided to extend our trip by an extra day, as afforded by our contract and, inevitably due to Murphy's Law, refused by our driver (*after* we had spent the day there, naturally). This guy turned out to be rather petulant, becoming angry and frustrated whenever we asked him to do anything or even tell us what the hell he was doing, even though I kept giving him oranges and cans of Chinese Red Bull as peace offerings. The best time was when he left us stranded at a gas station in the middle of nowhere without telling us he was going to fix a tire. So, for those Free Tibet loyalists out there, I hate to break it to you, but Tibetans, too, can be a--holes. At least we got to see the Tashilumpo (sp.) monastery (where my thangka was made!), almost overflowing with ecstatic, elbow-poking pilgrims. I walked the kora around the monastery, too, which went up into the hills, affording wonderful views of the old town and surrounding mountains. There were some beautiful Buddha images painted colorfully onto the rocks up there, too, and tons of mani carvings. A few people were even doing prostration around this steep, rocky, dusty dirt track. And I thought *I* was cool!

The greatest disappointment of the trip was when we arrived at the entrance to the Everest Base Camp area only to discover that our agency had *not* supplied our driver with the necessary permit to get in. Everest (in Tibetan, Chomolangma, "Mother Goddess of the Universe"--whoa) in all its 8850 meter glory loomed magnificently before us, but we couldn't travel the last five miles to the base camp itself (5520 meters). Undaunted, we begged the Tibetan guard (another a--hole) to let us through anyway. He kept saying "no" and then finally demanded 100 yuan (~$13) *per person* to lower his little ribbon. All smiles and kindness, I agreed, and went to round up the others. Then, the Chinese police came up, and the Tibetan was unable to proceed with his extortion. These guys were friendly enough and responded favorably to our near-tears pleading. Miyuko-san, the Japanese woman in the group, was particularly effective at begging for mercy (lots of bowing). But it took awhile... first they said no, we couldn't go, then yes and took down our passport details, then no, then yes, but not in our vehicle. It was all very frustrating. The head Chinese said he would go with us, but then he discovered that one of our tires was leaking, and didn't want to risk being stranded at the wolf-infested base camp (ok). This wouldn't normally be a problem, because the Land Cruisers all carry spare tires, but I guess they only use secondhand spares in China, because another tire, yet again, had already blown out and been replaced with the spare on the very bumpy, three hour trip to the checkpoint. I asked if we could go in the police car and even offered to pay for the "petrol" consumed on the way. But not even corruption can fix a leaking tire, and we had no choice but to return to Tingri, the SLT where we spent the night before heading to the border. Please, for a moment, imagine yourselves in our shoes: we had all traveled quite far and at great expense to see Mt. Everest, possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity given the hardships involved in getting there. And we were prevented from realizing our goal by bureaucratic bullshit and incompetence. I wanted to f--king kill these people, especially the by now totally obnoxious driver. I decided not to give him anymore oranges and told him so (he doesn't understand English).

The next day, we were off to Zhangmou, the Chinese border town, before lunch, all of us trying to forget the pains of the previous day, most of us (but still not me!) still suffering from fevers or varying degrees of altitude sickness (first symptom: denying that you have it). None of the tires popped this time. Instead, an entire wheel broke off as we were careening down a dirt road at 100 km/hr. Luckily, another Land Cruiser stopped to help with repairs (but I found one of the bolts!), or we might have been stranded in the parched cold of the high Tibetan plateau. Repairs finished, on we went toward Zhangmou, the road going from bad to worse to not too bad to Jesus Christ this is an international highway? I realized then how difficult it actually is to get into China. Third largest country in the world or whatever it is, it's main population centers are isolated by vast wastelands, towering mountains (mountains upon mountains), and impenetrable jungles. There aren't too many land access points, and few of them are easy or open. Zhangmou itself is fascinating: it clings to the side of a mountain, flowing along the zig-zagging Friendship Highway down to the border post. When you enter it, the climate becomes suddenly subcontinental. Everything is green, the air is warm, and the pink glow of innumerable "massage" parlors add a touch of romance to the night.

We had hoped to escape China that afternoon, but the mechanical failure held us up too long, so we slept in Zhangmou. The next morning, we plunged into Nepal, greeted right at the border by a traditional Nepali traffic jam. En route to Kathmandu, I think we were stopped a few times by Maoists, because the driver gave money to these ununiformed guys who held ropes across the road and dispensed receipts from Communist-sounding organizations like the "Nepal Students Union". Finally, we arrived in the third world urban chaos of Kathmandu. The driver dumped us off in Thamel, the backpacker heaven/hell of Asia (second only to Khao San Road in Bangkok), and, like flies on yak s--t, we were immediately preyed upon by my favorite type of people: touts. And me without a Nepal Lonely Planet! (quickly remedied--really hard to go without in such situations: mapless, clueless, easy targets). The group I was with were in no mood to pay more than about $1.25 for a hotel room, a price I also found attractive. But, like all things, you get what you pay for, and this morning I upgraded to a nicer $2.50 hotel with hot shower. You see, I hadn't showered for days (too cold or nonexistent in Tibet), and I have only had a handful of decent showers since, say, the beginning of August. I was sad to leave the cheap place, because it was run by a Tibetan lady who kept laughing at everything I said. "Can I hang my laundry here?" "Yes! Ha ha ha!" "Is there hot water for a shower?" "Of course not! Ha ha ha!". I thought this was a riot.

Since I seem to have developed a persistent couch, I have to wait for it to go away before I can start my epic trek. Which means, I'll be spending Christmas in Kathmandu. No problem: everything here is so cheap, I thought at first I was back in Bolivia. But it's even cheaper than Bolivia! I had an enormous breakfast this morning with a cappuccino, Nepali tea (mmmm), and extra dessert, and it only cost like $4. And in Kathmandu, unlike in China, you can get any kind of food you want: American, French, Indian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Persian, Middle Eastern, etc. and it's all pretty good and dirt cheap. And, and...

EVERYONE SPEAKS ENGLISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

17 December 2007

One more communicado

I have to write one more post before I forget the details of this evening's "gotaitouchi" experience. Let me explain. The Tibetans circumambulate stuff because they think it will help them accrue merit toward rebirth in a better life. I am not a believing Buddhist to this extent, but I nevertheless wanted to experience something that they experience--just to see what this sort of self-mortification is like (what recovering Catholic doesn't secretly enjoy self-mortification?). And as it is, if I don't worship gods, I certainly worship concepts, and Tibetan Buddhist seems oriented, in its less animistic varieties, toward worshipping concepts. One needn't ask favors of statues. You can simply imagine the part of your own personality that is represented by whichever Buddha or Bodhisattva or other deity you are presently contemplating. In so imagining, you let go somewhat of your own ego, identifying instead with, say, an embodiment of a general principle or virtue. I keep bringing up Avalokitesvara. You can pray to Avalokitesvara and ask for mercy (or simply phone up his Earthly manifestation, the Dalai Lama), or, more interesting to me, you can imagine yourself *as* Avalokitesvara, or other people or all people--all beings in the universe--as themselves embodiments of compassion, all this in the effort to be, simply, a more compassionate person. Avalokitesvara refuses to enter Nirvana, after all, until everyone else has first. I can relate to this sort of thing, I can even worship it, or meditate on it or even prostrate myself before it--a humbling act for the sake of a quality I wish I possessed more of and that I wish were more prevalent in this world.

Enough of justification, here's what I did. I bought a Tibetan style coat, "wool" on the inside, and down to the ankles in length. The salesman wanted 350 yuan, but I convinced him that 100 yuan was a much better price (still too high, I think, especially when it was to be used--doubtless the salesman would have been unsympathetic--for a holy purpose). I also bought cheap gloves and a cheap hat. So I was well-protected against the dirt, spit, and all else that one finds on the ground. The Japanese participants somehow found empty rice sacks for 2 yuan each and cut holes in them for their head and arms. Much more economical, but I looked way cooler. We left as a group for the Jokhang Temple a little apprehensive. We did a few practice prostrations in front with the dozens of others doing the same. And then we were off. And what a wonderful experience! It was like swimming in a river of happiness. Sure, I was face to face, as we seldom are, with all the cast off debris and detritus of human urbanity. Sure, thousands of people thronged past, in some cases leaving the smallest space open for me. But there was something just so relaxing about it. The Tibetans were all smiles (and quite pleasantly surprised), the monks, too, all thumbs up ("very good!"). Several times, I was besieged by cheerful old ladies who helped adjust my coat. Tourists (white ones, too, I heard!) snapped photos of my companions and I continuously--a healthy role-reversal, I think. "Vivienne" even recorded a brief movie with her camera. Soon, you will be able to see me live-action prostrate on (but not yet *to*) Facebook. I was somehow able to ignore most of the distractions circulating around me, though, and concentrate on my ritual. The whole time, I chanted the prayer (mantra?) recorded in previous posts: Om Mani Padme Hum. I pronounced it the Tibetan way, of course. I also tried to visualize myself, then the people swarming around me, then everyone in the universe as Avalokitesvara--and that's a heck of a lot of arms. The circuit took about two hours and its toll on my knees (zeugma?? zeugma??), less time than I expected. When I completed it, I did feel satisfaction, but it also felt good to have shared this experience with other people. I was dirty at the end of it, true, but also somehow more clean. I cannot really say much more than that right now.

16 December 2007

Traversing the Friendship Highway

Tomorrow morning I depart with my mostly Japanese cohorts on our 4-5 day expedition to the Nepalese border. Hashing out the details amongst ourselves, with the travel agent, and then amongst ourselves again took a predictably Japanese amount of time and is still somewhat in process (they prefer a set schedule determined in advance, I prefer to wing it). I bought a traditional Tibetan "thangka" painting, a nice gold one of Chenresig (the Tibetan version of, naturally, the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara, Om Mani, etc.), had it sewn into a traditional silk hanging device, and mailed it home at the traditional Chinese post office--they boxed it for me and everything (please be expecting this and other boxes in 3-6 months, Dad). Last night, I attempted to throw a party at the hostel bar for my new Japanese friends. I had bought the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez retro double feature, "Grindhouse", in Xi'an, but I hadn't had a chance to watch them. After I ordered ten pizzas for less than $30, we ordered beers and settled in and, bootleg DVD karma on queue, there were no Japanese subtitles and the voice track didn't work.
So instead, we watched the bar owner's pirated copy of "The Simpsons" movie (in English!), which was fine, because I hadn't seen that, either. Sort of lame, though.

My idea of doing the ritual prostration circuit around the Jokhang Temple will become reality this evening. I asked a few Japanese at my hostel if they'd care to join last week. At first, they hemmed and hawed because they aren't sincere Buddhists. But I convinced at least one of them of the irrelevancy of this, he apparently told others, a Chinese girl found out about our plan, and now six of us are going tonight. The Japanese word for "prostration" is "gotaitouchi" which means "laying down five parts of the body." After I finish writing this post, I have to go buy some cheap clothes to protect myself from the spit puddles. While I may earn a modicum of merit from this act, I've read that many pilgrims do kora circuits three times, a few 108 (!) times, since this is an auspicious number in Tibetan Buddhism. The even tougher Tibetans go out west to prostrate around Mt. Kailash, which takes three days just to *walk* around and has passes above 6000 meters. And if you're really, *really* devout, you can prostrate sideways, so that each time you stand up, you're only taking one small step forward instead of a whole body length. Insane..?

Our route to Nepal goes via the lovely turquoiseness of Yamdrok Lake, the old Tibetan towns/cities of Gyantse and Shigatse (home of No.2 in Tibet Panchen Lama), the Mt. Everest Base Camp (5200 meters and reputedly has much better views than from the Nepalese side), and other small towns with notable must-see temples. We ought to cross unceremoniously, and with no turning back (illegal!), into Nepal, and arrive at Kathmandu (wish I still had that T-shirt, but it didn't survive), on Saturday or Sunday. I may be incommunicado until then. Dhal Bhat three times a day for a month... here I come!

15 December 2007

Behold! The jewel in the lotus!

When I first arrived in Lhasa, it was evening. I had just gotten off the train from Lanzhou, a more than 30 hour journey. Does this sound like a long time to be on a train? Well, it's one of the shortest routes. From Beijing, it takes about two days, and some die-hards (Japanese) come by hard seat. Luckily, the shared taxi driver who wanted 30 yuan (I paid 10) to take me to the city center also rounded up a Chinese woman who speaks perfect English (with a New Zealand accent). I have been relying on "Vivienne" for the last week as a translator and companion. I feel like this is cheating, but she doesn't speak Tibetan, so there are still challenges.

On our ride to the Tibetan side of town, I caught my first glimpse of the Potala Palace. I was reminded of a similar experience in Athens, when I first saw--beteared--the Acropolis. So white, from such a commanding height. I visited it the next day, I and Vivienne and hundreds of pilgrims and few other tourists. Every temple I would later visit would have such an atmosphere. Maybe the Acropolis looms large in the imagination of the sentimental Classicist, but it is a dead place, a ruin. The temples of Tibet, though embattled, are alive, and you there are immersed in a stream of life with a continuity of centuries: the whitewashed, gold-accented buildings; the combined odors of incense, yak butter, and pilgrim sweat; the chants and prostrations of Tibetan nomads from all over the plateau, speaking their innumerable dialects, adorned in innumerable styles of hair and dress; and the crimson monks, freely bestowing benedictions on all and even on me. It's pilgrim season in Tibet, so even though it's (not that) cold, it's fascinating. So fascinating! In all the ways you expect fascinating, hidden mountain kingdoms to be, though they tend so often these days to be engulfed by the gaping jaws of bourgeois tourism. I have never been to a place so permeated by sincere religious feeling--except Jerusalem. But Jerusalem is a wicked place, tense with competing exclusivities. In Tibet, all are embraced (despite the odd internecine slaughtering) in the exhortations of infinite compassion.

Too many days have passed full of too many details, too many odd and interesting encounters, already fleeing from my overwhelmed mind, for me to recount them in full. At Samye monastery, designed to be a map of the Buddhist universe, and which I just returned from illegally visiting, a monk in the Longevity Buddha chapel poured fragrant water into my palm to drink. At Sera, another monk prayed over me while balancing a stick from my forehead to the heart of a Buddha image. And at Drepung, some teenager monks who were fooling around sat with me for funny photos. And all the while, I am handing out the common currency of pilgrims (notes worth 1/10 of a yuan), intermittently drinking liters of yak butter and sweet milk tea, sometimes in caves with surprised Tibetans, sometimes at the behest of a lonely monk in a less-frequented mountain temple.

But Jokhang Temple... tucked away in the Tibetan 'hood east of the Potala, the holiest temple in Tibet. By no means imposing, though lovely, it is a magnet of fervent religiosity such as I have seldom (never?) seen. A circuit, called a kora, circles it. To either side, the inevitable stalls and shops. But in its midst, hundreds (thousands?) of pilgrims--a river of colorful, dirty pilgrims--circulating irresistibly clockwise. Most pray, some spin prayer wheels, a few make the rounds laboriously by prostration (I have considered trying this). Inside the temple, I had an experience.

Most temples I visit, and have visited in China, certainly, seem no more than glorified souvenir shops. Tourist groups herd through, look around, and leave. Some burn incense, but they hardly seem the notable structures of a vibrant, current culture. Not so Jokhang. Again, I was the only white face in the crowd of humming, worshipping Tibetans. At the rear of this, the holiest temple in Tibet, is its holiest precinct, containing the nation's holiest Buddha image--a golden Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha of ancient India and Eastern Philosophy 101. Normally guarded by a steel mesh, on this day the monks drew it aside, allowing the devout to just touch the sacred statue, circumambulate it, and pass out again, blessed with prayer scarves by a monk within. This sort of scene is typically intimidating, because, you think to yourself, "what should I do?" Participate, or is that disrespectful? Or merely look on, reflecting with idiotic sentimentality on how beautiful this people is? And there was such a crowd, waiting turns, shoving their way in, foregoing the niceties of queueing. And I let myself be shoved in, too. As I entered, one monk was undressing the golden image. He removed layer after layer of rich, silk garments, to the astonishment of all, finally exposing its golden, naked radiance. Passing around the back of the image, giant protector deities looming above me, I passed a monk handing out white prayer scarves on the other side. I was shy and kept moving, but Vivienne muttered that she'd like to receive one of those scarves. Apparently, the monk understood English, because he turned to us both, blessed us both, and I kept that scarf around my neck, not knowing what else to do, the remainder of the day. When I stepped out of the chapel, a small child in his mother's arms spontaneously reached out to me his little hand. I grabbed it, his mother smiled, and I almost cried... certainly had to get out of there. I am not a religious person, but I am a deeply feeling one, and it's difficult not to be persuaded by such moments, even if you are currently reading Hobbes' "Leviathan". What struck me the most, is that I was allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the holiest temple of this religion and even touch my forehead to the leg of its most revered, ancient icon. Would I be permitted, much less invited by beckoning smiles, to do the same at Rome? Jerusalem? Salt Lake City? Mecca?

I must add that my dorm room is just about 100% Japanese, and their personalities run the gamut of that subtle country. I'm getting lots of Japanese practice and haggling advice, too: Miyuko-san somehow managed to get a 200 yuan coat for 40. "I always win!" she said triumphantly. Naturally, nobody has a Tibet permit. I have already been invited out for a night of Japanese fun--avoiding that by doing this--and the group seems to agree that I am a "yasashii hito (desu ne!)". Given their charm and reliability, I figured they would be perfect Land Cruiser companions, should any of them be going that way. I quickly assembled a group of five, called a meeting (they love that) to discuss the details, and it looks like we'll be on our way to the Maoist-ridden kingdom in the next few days.

I imagine you all, my friends, as manifestations of Kannon, Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva of infinite compassion--whose thousand-armed, myriad-headed form witnesses the lamentations of the world--in my thoughts (however confused) and in my prayers (however conflicted and however infrequent).

Om Mani Padme Hum! Behold! The jewel in the lotus!

Om Mani Padme Hum

Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum

13 December 2007

Latitude for Lhasa lassitude, please

Post coming soon. There's been too much going on, all of which I will explain anon.

I had dinner in a Sichuan restaurant last night, and I realized that I've never gotten a fortune cookie here. Where's my fortune cookie, China?! How am I supposed to know my lucky numbers?!?!?!?!??!

11 December 2007

10 December 2007


Tibet is wonderful.

07 December 2007

Keep your fingers crossed

Friends, I have to apologize for the rather atrabilious tone of my recent posts. But you can understand how, heaped atop the melancholia of long term, independent travel, sudden illnesses compounded with minor frustrations and irksome disappointments can deflect the momentum of an otherwise positive experience into the shady pits of despair. Now, that is all past, because I have miraculously obtained a train ticket to Lhasa, Tibet. Oh, it wasn't easy, friends, but I have it now, in, as my 10th grade biology teacher would say, my hot little phalanges.

The story so far...

Despite being told in Kashgar that the road from Hotan to Charklik is terrible and the road beyond to Golmud impassible, I barrelled ahead anyway, convinced of my redoubtable, unflappable mettle. This much you know. Five hours further journey from my aborted attempt to cross into Western Tibet brought me to the oasis city of Hotan, once a mighty Silk Road kingdom and now the last outpost of urbanity before the wastes of the Taklamakan and Qinghai plateau. Look at a map of China. It's the most populous country on Earth, right? See that big, blank spot in the middle, where no people live? I was going to travel through there! Discouraged by people (Uighurs, even!) who bristled at the thought of such a journey in winter, by Lonely Planet descriptions of 17-hour bus journeys over horrendous, often washed-out roads, and by the possibility of having to pay exorbitant sums to make the trip, or to have to wait days in ignorance, or to reach Charklik only to have to turn back--all this put me off the venture. "What for?" I mused to myself, searching for the justification only I would ever care about. And that's the extended version of why I bought that 24-hour cross-desert bus ticket...


I happened to run into Abdul (or something.. real name forthcoming), and he changed everything. Interesting guy. Uighur, he studied English in Pakistan and Canada. I was sent to him by the Hotan CITS (Chinese International Travel Service), the organization with offices everywhere in China that's supposed to help foreigners get around. Naturally, nobody spoke English, the international language, but they were able to figure out what I wanted through rudiments and gestures and asked Abdul, a curator at the gorgeous new Hotan museum (they have mummies! Indo-European mummies!) to arrange a tour of local attractions. These consist of numerous ancient cities, which I uncharacteristically skipped (too expensive to get there and, according to Abdul, there's absolutely nothing to see), and working silk and carpet factories. We had a nice chat en route to the carpet factory, where local workers earn about $100/month (!) laboriously weaving lovely carpets by hand. I explained to Abdul that in America, I make about $1400/month as a graduate student, and I myself am woefully poor there, though I played down the woe part. At the silk factory, a dearth of tourists in winter meant a dearth of workers demonstrating how the famous Atlas silk is made. It was neat to learn about, anyway, since I never knew before that the cocoons of silk worms, having fed on the cuttings of mulberry trees, are thrown into a vat and boiled before the precious silk thread is worked out of them and then spun into the finest clothes in the world. And this was the secret so closely guarded by China for so long, the secret that created the Silk Road to begin with, allowing Europe to drain its meager wealth to buy fancy dresses useless against the cold--until the Italians figured out how to do it. I bought a hat for $8.

But I digress.. the reason my chance meeting with Abdul was so fortuitous was that he informed me of how cheap flights are from Hotan back to Urumqi. My travel guide suggests they aren't cheap at all. So, "how cheap?" I inquired. Well, if you buy them a few days in advance, sometimes as low as 600-800 yuan. Hmm, I thought, that's still rather more expensive than my 335 yuan bus ticket. But the yuan is 7.5 to the dollar, and it's really not *that* much more expensive, meal stops and such factored in. He made a call to a travel agent, and miraculously, there were tickets available for 530 yuan for a flight that afternoon! Not wanting to spend another night in my SLH, an entire day on the cross-desert bus, or several days in the eastern Xinjiang wilds, I told Abdul to take me to the travel agent and step on it. Now, I realize internal flights are cheating when you're traveling as I am, but I was really in dire straits, friends, and close to mental collapse. So please, just don't tell anyone, ok?

By the time we got to the travel agent, the 530 yuan tickets had sold out, but 650 yuan ones were still available. I relented to that, naturally, and a new plan formed in my demented brain. I would fly to Urumqi and immediately take a train first to Lanzhou and then to Lhasa, assuming berths were available on both trains on such short notice (almost never) and assuming I could buy a ticket to Lhasa without a permit (increasingly possible). To be safe, I emailed my Urumqi friend Tracy and begged her to buy the train tickets for me (since a Chinese will not be refused entry to Tibet). As it turned out, she had another friend get them, and he was only able to get a spot for a Monday departure. Monday! You saw me swear on this blog, and that was why. Stubbornly, undeterred, I went to the train station myself the next morning and demanded in the strongest possible terms the ticket lady sell me a ticket to Lhasa. I insist, you see, that the usual nature of things not apply to me. Of course, she didn't speak English, but did manage to scrounge up an expensive soft sleeper for me to Lanzhou, once the world's most polluted city, whence I could then buy a ticket to Lhasa, if available, highly unlikely. Well. I took it and ran back to my hostel to get my pack, sailed back again to the train station, called Tracy to apologize for not staying to visit her again and for wasting her time getting a train ticket I now wouldn't need, boarded the train, and shared a compartment for 24 hours with a young couple and their relentlessly hyperactive little boy, who was funny and cute, but who I also wanted to kill (after hour 12; up until then, I only wanted to maim). I offered him oranges and his father offered me some small, green peppers. Sensing trouble, I accepted one and just bit off the tip. When I picked my head up off the floor, I graciously declined further offers, with the exception of the beers he bought and then opened against a footrest.

All night on the train to Lanzhou, I prayed and prostrated to the travel gods, begging them to look kindly on me and grant me passage to Tibet. There may be no greater request to make of them, and I knew if they granted my request, I would owe them big time. Clearly, my obsecrations did not fall on deaf ears. When I nervously entered the ticket hall in Lanzhou, I feared the worst: "Where's your Tibet Travel Permit" or "There's nothing available until next Friday, soft sleeper only, 1000 yuan". Instead, she circled "hard sleeper, middle berth" on my little note (even though I can't speak Pudonghua, I can write Chinese characters, so I write notes with them to buy train tickets), departing 15:21 today. Amazing! Not only a ticket, not only today, not only without a permit, but a middle berth hard sleeper, gold standard of backpacker travel in China! People sit on the bottom berth, you see, and the top berth is too close to the ceiling and the loudspeakers. I remain in suspense, however, because I might still be stopped before boarding the train or thrown off en route when I am discovered permitless. I've read that nearly everyone makes it to Lhasa without incident, however, so I am hopeful, and when I get there, I will be even more thrilled that I PULLED IT OFF, which gives me more joy than could visits to a thousand ancient cities or a million mountain valleys. Pray for me anyway, my friends. Pray to the travel gods or whatever other gods you hold in esteem. Tomorrow evening, after another interminable journey--30 hours on, reaching 5000 meters+, the highest railway in the world--I hope to write here again, from Tibet, of my success.

06 December 2007



05 December 2007

Cheap Joke

I forgot to mention the name of my accomodation in Kashgar: The Seman Hotel.

Even today, the Silk Road is just too tough for some people...

I am fickle, people. Even after months of deliberating, I have no compunction about shoveling all my carefully crafted plans--plans that have even become fetishized dreams--out the window! Today, I decided I am an idiot to think 5 days on horrible buses on horrible roads is a good idea just to say I followed the route of the Southern Silk Road to Golmud, the hard way. In winter no less! No! I'm not doing it! I would if I had time to stop in each town for a few days and explore, which is proper. But I want to get to Tibet. And though I kind of like the eerie, skeletally forested desert oases out here in the A.E.O.N., I don't like them *that* much that I want to just sail through them for days, possibly get delayed by snowstorms and avalanches, and even more possibly be unable to cross the Qinghai plateau (near a lovely asbestos factory and, I am not kidding, a gulag) without hiring a $1000 private 4x4 vehicle or some such other absurd series of "adventures".

Please forgive me.

Instead, I am going to take a 24 hour bus ride *across* the horrid Taklamakan Desert (remember? enter and never leave--yay!) back to Urumqi, drink pomegranate wine with my new Chinese friend Yan/Tracy, and then take a 2 day train to Lhasa with a ticket also purchased by friend Tracy, thus, theoretically, getting me around that nasty Tibet permit ($200/10 days?!) all foreigners are supposed to acquire before daring to venture to the forbidden land and which I shamelessly, even proudly, do here officially and before all of you in the name of freedom and the license to dream and explore and go and do whither and whatsoever you like here now forever and everywhere


I went to a doctor in Kashgar, and she told me I don't have tendonitis, so obviously I was erring on the side of hypochondria once again. I don't believe her, though, because my father raised me to be a skeptic, and I believe no one. She smeared some weird-smelling red liquid on my foot, wrapped it up in a bandage, and told me it'll either be better in a few days or will never be better. Thanks to my Uzbek friend Guleya for translating without laughing at me too much! I now know how to say "diarrhea" in Uighur (which gets a place of honor in my vocabulary next to Mayan for "eye booger" and Japanese for "rabies").

My bowels finally stable, I left Kashgar yesterday and traveled to Karghilik, an SLT a few hours away, piqued by my Japanese colleague's story of Tibet hardships. Those hardships sounded more appealing than the ones I had planned (including, as mine did not, for example, holy Mt. Kailash), so to Karghilik I went. The Uighur lady at the front desk of the bus station hotel was quite nasty to me when I appeared, demanding 160 RMB for a room. After I expressed my indignation, she furiously wrote "100" on a piece of paper, clearly disgusted with my penury and impertinence. Though I agree with her in principle--that the poor are a disgusting people--I counteroffer-wrote "70" and smiled a cheery American smile. She blathered and protested at this, but when I reached for my bags, she gave up the fight, threw a room key at me (literally), and went back to dying her mother's (?) hair. Victory! Odd that she didn't try harder, given that there are no other hotels in town (none, at least, that I could find). Before I went up to my room, she asked me if I was Japanese (!). Has it rubbed off that much? The next morning, I made a peace offering to her and the Chinese lady stationed beside her of three stale bagels, which they gladly accepted. Later, when the unhappy Uighur lady was gone, I returned and tried to extract information about a trip to Tibet from the Chinese lady. I hadn't wanted to do this, because the hotel might be too closely connected with the police (this being China and everything being owned by the government), and the road to Ali in Tibet is closed to foreigners. Still, many make the trip, often by hitching rides in trucks, and I thought I might be able to cover the 1100 km at 5000+ m in winter (not counting the next, what, 3000 km to Lhasa?) easily enough--if the Japanese kid could do it on a bike! Sadly, my total lack of Chinese and Uighur language skills yielded no results out on the "street", where I went to, ha ha, inquire on the down low. I resorted to having the Chinese receptionist call my Uighur friend Guleya in Kashgar, who communicated to me that my best bet would be to wait for the next bus--5 days, ticket price $110. Twenty minutes later, I was on my way to Hotan. And here I am, at the heart of yet another ancient, ancient kingdom, surrounded by the pulverized remains of yet others and others. They needn't be conquered by raiding hordes, these desert redoubts--wind and time write their own slow history.

PS - you may not hear from me for a few days as I make my way to Tibet

PPS - I'm not sure what "Kashed out in Kashgar" is supposed to mean

02 December 2007

Kashed out in Kashgar

Actually, I've had a very interesting time in Kashgar, but the lingering effects of bacterial illness compounded with the continuance of my tendonitis (and dancing-induced pain in the right knee) have made it a rather mixed experience. Surrounded as I am by delicious Uighur food, I can eat none of it--no, appetiteless, I am confined to antibiotics luckily brought along--as, likewise to my chagrin, the temperatures plunge below freezing, and I am left unable to walk and in contemplation of having to miss out on Annapurna in Nepal, which I surely oughtn't do with a bad foot, it being a 21+ day venture into sparsely villaged, roadless countryside. On the plus side, I am currently using my new couchsurfing friend Guleya's computer. Guleya, a Uighur-speaking Uzbek whose quite traditional Muslim family is being kind enough to allow me into their lovely, carpeted home, has been a delight and a great help to me. She has served me tea, bowls full of chocolates and dried fruit, plates of enormous Uighur naan bread, and a bowl of pomegranates and apples--and yet I can eat none of it. I think I've had nothing but a bagel-like thing and a few oranges in the last three days. Yesterday, we attended the going-away-from-Kashgar party of another couchsurfer named Cindy, who is an anthropology graduate student studying Uighur language and culture. She was going to host me, at first, but she's not allowed to have guests, and it would have been too hard sneaking me past the dormitory guardian. Instead, I went to her party, where I at least got to enjoy traditional Uighur music--an intangible UNESCO World Heritage don't you know (I didn't know). And that was a saving grace, because there also were heaping plates of paradisaical food placed before me that I couldn't touch. That's right, people, I, Steven J. Syrek...


God pity me. God help me.

Funnily enough, my dormitory room (finally got the toilet fixed) has been host to at least four independent Japanese travelers, naturally a delight, who are also naturally doing things I could never dream of. One guy was a cop and quit for I don't know how long, perhaps two years, to travel and has already been to about 20 countries in 2 weeks or something, sneaking past border posts and whatnot so he could get into, i.e., Tajikistan. Another guy was in the midst of the same, I forget all the envy-inducing details of these hardcore Nihonjin types, and recently left for Urumqi on the same train I took to get here, except he's going by hard seat--hard seat for 23 hours!--whereas I, the sissy, went by hard sleeper. Well, he's only 24, and I've done things like that. I think my hard seat days are over (though a 35 year old French guy staying here does the same, curse them all). There's also a young Japanese woman, but she's very quiet and seems loathe to speak to me in that Japanese loathing-to-speak-to-foreigners way to which my Japanese readers can attest. Oh well. A new arrival is a recent Kyoto University graduate, soon to be Tokyo University grad student (International Development), who, at the age of 23, has just ridden his bike from Dali, through Yunnan and Tibet--the really hard part of Tibet--in winter--to Xinjiang--illegally--all of which is insane. On his way to Kyrgyzstan, I reckon. And you people worry about *me*?? Please, what I do is nothing. I might as well give up, I'm so lacking in the spirit of adventure. But I am not really so down as that. It's only a mood brought on by my restless stomach, refusing to give quarter to my unrested body. It gives me hope in the possibilities of life to hear such people's tales and exploits. People tell me all the time how they couldn't do what I'm doing. And yet, I'm hardly doing anything given what other, more robust, more ambitious, perhaps wealthier people than myself are up to. And it pains me to admit that, given the constraints of space, I've really only told you but half of it. If that.

To quote a description of the Kashgar bazaar, which I think is as much applicable to travel, and experience, and life in general (translated from the Chinese), "Let's join into the crowd and taste the pleasure."

30 November 2007


I can't believe I'm in Kashgar.

I spent 23 hours on a train from Urumqi to get here. I ate something disagreeable to me in that train's restaurant and, amidst much vomiting, got an unfortunate case of TD. At my hotel, the Western toilet in my room doesn't flush, necessitating frequent sprints to the somewhat grim squat toilet. But, nevertheless, I made it, and I'm glad I'm here. I don't know why I dreamed of coming to Kashgar, poised as it is, at the furthest end of China, so close to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Look for it on a map. It's way out there. This was the epicenter of The Great Game, as immortalized by Rudyard Kipling's "Kim". Actually, my hotel was once the Russian consulate, which would be exciting if the toilets flushed. Central Asia has so many ethnic groups, you become dizzy trying to account for them all. Chinese, Uighurs, Tajiks, Kazahks, Russians, Kyrgyzs (?), Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Turkmen, etc. etc. I'm missing more than a few, but they're all here in Kashgar, storied chokepoint and crossroads of the Silk Road. I hope I learn something about them while I'm here. To that end, I am off. I've already lost too much time to illness. I'll have more interesting things to say later.

27 November 2007

Truly, Central Asia


Good news: my travel insurance company has miraculously approved my claim, and I am now a few thousand dollars Back in Black

Bad news: I have self-diagnosed myself with Achilles heel tendonitis (thank you WebMD)

Night trained it from Jiayuguan to Turpan, fabled oasis, land of grapes. Arrived 6 am, oops forgot Xinjiang "time" is 2 hours behind Beijing time, "time" in quotes because all of China is on Beijing time, even when the far west is still shrouded in darkness and the far east is already having lunch. Communist thing? Asian thing? The Japanese don't do daylight savings time for perhaps the same reason? So I had to take a shared taxi 60 km to Turpan itself, second lowest continental depression in the world and also a somewhat depressing place. The Uighurs seem friendly, though. I hired a taxi for the day to take me to the sights--including the ancient ruined Silk Road city of Jiaohe and the traditional village of Tuyoq (resting place of the first Uighur Muslim and so holy that seven trips there equals one trip to Mecca--1/7th on my way to Islamic paradise, suckers, and it's the best one by far)--and the driver bought me lunch. Lunch was a traditional Uighur dish called laghman: mutton, veggies, and tomato sauce over noodles. Very good. Muslim food eaten with chopsticks. Weird. Delicious green tea with rose petals and spices served with. At Tuyoq, I managed to communicate a bit with the locals using a combination of Uighur (from my phrase guide), Chinese, and Arabic. When I told them I am American, one guy in the mosque made some unpleasant-sounding remarks and then sound "Bush". Using my phrase guide, I managed to utter "not good" in Uighur, and we all had a nice laugh. Then they asked me for money. Also saw the Flaming Mountains, made famous in the Journey to the West.

Some random facts:

I think Tamurlane was a Uighur.

The Uighurs write their language using Arabic script. They used to use the Roman alphabet, but the Chinese switched them back to Arabic because, so I've read, it gave them too much of a competitive advantage over Chinese people learning English.

The Uighurs don't like the Chinese and don't speak Chinese. I don't know if the non-Uighur speaking Chinese like the Uighurs, but they certainly like the MASSIVE OIL DEPOSITS they live on top of. Seriously, are Muslims like oil divining rods or something, like that Chief character's Native American family from Catch-22?

I left Turpan same day on a bus to Urumqi, where I am now couchsurfing with a nice guy from New Zealand by the name of Carl. Do any of my New Zealand travel buddies remember Invercargill? He's from there!

I will be meeting some Urumqi locals through couchsurfing today, but, due to my Achilles heel, whose mythological name makes me feel no better about it, I will have to be taking it easy. Soon, I am on to Kashgar, a city with its own mythological connotations. I am covering lots of ground very fast. The southern route back will not be fast. But, I am determined despite setbacks to make it to Lhasa.


26 November 2007

Where the Great Wall Ends

Jhenn, yes I am using couchsurfing.com, and no, I did not beat up any prostitutes--I simply neutralized them.

En route to Xinjiang, I stopped off after an easy 14 hour rail cruise in Jiayuguan, Gansu. Why did I bother coming to this industrial city with an unpronounceable name perched on the edge of one of the world's vastest desolations? Why did I take a train that required me to spend an entire day and night in transit, to get off at 3:30 am, to sit in the train station until 9 am, and finally to get right back on the train again this evening?

Because this is where China ends. Or begins. Depends which way you're going, really. But for me,

This is where China ends.

This is the beginning (end) of the Great Wall and the traditional gateway into the Middle Kingdom. The Jiayuguan fortress guards the crucial Jiayuguan pass, the only route in/out (before ambitious sea voyages) from/to the West. I came to see the UNESCO-listed fortress (impressive) and some restored sections of Great Wall and also for the sake of visiting this last, lonely outpost that marks the beginning of the next segment of my journey, the beginning of my Silk Road adventure. There truly is an enormity of nothing beyond here. I saw it--Gobi desert on one side, threatening mountains on all others.

At this dramatic juncture, indulge me as I enumerate the various delights of Han China I have been privileged to enjoy:

-air pollution visible from space that makes you ill your entire trip
-hordes of tourists at every attraction no matter how minor
-tour guides who shout in amplified voices above the din of other shouting tour guides
-when no shouting tour guides are present, there is at least loud, tinny music being played from somewhere in even the otherwise most tranquil locations
-hordes of annoying salespeople every 10 feet at every attraction no matter how minor
-hordes of touts and taxi drivers at every bus and train station at all hours of every day (no matter how minor), none of whom speak English or seem to have caught on to the fact that most white people don't speak Chinese
-outrageous entrance fees for absolutely everything
-additional entrance fees after you pay the entrance fees
-loud music and radio broadcasts in trains
-bathrooms more frightening than a Kevin Costner movie
-men defecating into putrid squat toilets in said bathrooms with stall doors open
-sometimes there are no stall doors
-usually there is no toilet paper
-men who hawk loudly, often several times, before launching their gobs of spit and phlegm
-men who hawk and spit while using the toilet; sometimes smoking, too
-women who hawk somewhat less loudly before spitting somewhat more demurely
-this often occurs repeatedly, often by groups of men/women all at the same time
-this also occurs indoors (it just happened at this Internet cafe; guy also smoking)
-men who close one nostril so they can projectile-fire snot out of the other one
-this also occurs indoors (sometimes right in front of me)
-I have not seen women do this... yet
-men who (chain) smoke in places where smoking is not allowed and flick their ashes everywhere
-groups of men on trains who fart freely and audibly in the corridors and snore loudly (sometimes synchronized) while sleeping
-taxi drivers who (sometimes) overcharge you and refuse to use the meter
-taxi drivers who drive 120 km/hr on bad roads or in city traffic
-taxis without functioning seat belts (see above)
-random piles of decrepit, festering garbage
-limbless beggars
-restaurants where the dripping garbage is wheeled out through the dining area
-people constantly taking photos of each other with digital cameras and cell phones in front of the dumbest shit
-coffee that's more expensive than it is in the US
-people who cut in line, shove you out of the way at ticket windows, push you through crowds, and bum rush at every opportunity for no visible reason
-people constantly staring at you
-people constantly yelling "Hello!" at you
-people who yell at you in Chinese and then, when it's clear you don't speak Chinese, yell at you in Chinese
-an overdeveloped, overpolluted, overexploited, overpopulated, ugly countryside
-overdeveloped, overpolluted, overexploited, overpopulated, ugly cities
-fake temples
-fake everything else
-a different $10 permit to visit every town in Tibet
-a ludicrous number of blocked websites (such as this one)
-dirt cheap pirated DVDs (it isn't all bad)

For those who misunderstand my sardonic pleasure in making offensive lists, I have to say that, despite all these things, I sort of like China (especially the Chinese friends I've made here--to my Chinese friends: if you ever manage to read this post, please understand that I am joking). For those who would accuse me of cultural insensitivity, I invite you to come here yourself and enjoy Chinese culture. In fact, China is poised to become the world's leading tourist destination in the near future, so I am clearly exaggerating. Finally, for those who like to argue, smugly or not, that this country is poised to take over the world, please reread the list above, which is not fictitious, and ponder the future you anticipate.

And so, for all these reasons, I once again state that here, not too soon, for me,

This is where China ends.

24 November 2007

Tianjin Days note

For fans of my Tianjin Days post, and I gather there is at least one, I have recently edited it after noticing that my hilarious bracketed stage directions, now parenthesized, were ignored by Blogger as comments. Please now feel free to amuse yourselves.

And to add something else of substance to this post, I must confess that I actually bought something at the Tianjin Wal-mart, much to my disgrace. On only my second day in China, I lost my coveted Neutrogina Oil-Free Sunblock--a superior product, which I bought for peanuts in Lima, Peru. Figuring I could buy anything in China, I searched all the relevant shops in Tianjin but only managed to come up with something from Nivea. I really don't know why I am even sharing this. But losing those small things, those prized products we have grown to love--it stings.

City of Western Peace

I am in the heart of China: Xi'an, once Chang'an, for centuries the capital of imperial China, and the capital of the first Qin emperor, who first united China and from whose name, pronounced "Chin", is probably derived the name of the country in English. You can witness his bold cruelty for yourself in the excellent movie "The Emperor and the Assassin" featuring three hours of subtitles. The emperor's burial mound is the size of a small mountain--the largest tomb in the world--and reputedly contains, vast riches, rivers of mercury and Indiana Jones-style booby traps to ward off intruders. Nearby is the famous Army of Terracotta Warriors. What can I say about the Army of Terracotta Warriors except "I saw the army of Terracotta Warriors"? Those who have been there will know what I mean. When I returned from the warriors, I unwittingly walked down a seedy street near the train station where several women actually grabbed and tried to physically force me into various sex toy shops and massage parlors. Although this was creepy, I got to evade them by using Aikido.

Xi'an was also the Chinese terminus of the Silk Road, and it is from here, tomorrow morning, that I will set off on the epic journey to Kashgar popularized by my paison Marco Polo. The first leg of this journey will consist of a 17 hour journey by train to the small settlement of Jiayuguan. Here, the Great Wall ends and a narrow pass between mountain ranges guards the erstwhile entrance into the Middle Kingdom. Beyond lie only the deadly barrens of the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts (Taklamakan means "enter and never return"--nice). Following Jiayuguan, I have another long trip to Turpan, the second lowest spot on Earth and home to several ruined cities long ago eaten by the desert. A short hop up to Urumqi follows, and then it takes another 24 hours by train (!) to reach Kashgar, heart of Uighur country (pronounced WEE-ger, which sounds like wigger, which is funny). I think it was my recent reading of "Against the Day" by Thomas Pyncheon that inspired my trip into the no-man-lands of Xinjiang.

I have been enjoying a pleasant couchsurf in Xi'an these past few days, hence my inactivity. Today, I really did very little except buy train tickets and hang out with another local couchsurfer, this one a young Chinese woman named Maria. She tried to help me find a place to try acupuncture, but we didn't get to that agenda item until after they'd all closed. So another time I'll do the Chinese needle pain thing. I have a few more couchsurfing gigs lined up, so I may not be paying for hotels for some time. Yay.

22 November 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

I am couchsurfing in Xi'an for the next few days. Yesterday, which was Thursday here, I celebrated Thanksgiving with my American host at the five-star Shangri-la Hotel lunch buffet (less than $10). I gorged. They even had traditional Thanksgiving food, providing me with yet another opportunity to betray my vegetarianism. The turkey was very tender. The sushi, however, was poorly cut.

And now, I am off to see the Army of Terracotta Warriors. Enjoy Black Friday, everyone!


Cheap pomegranates! Cheap gooseberries!

20 November 2007

Everyone, except me, was Kung Fu fighting

I wish I could write for you all, dear readers, a long and entertaining post about the Shaolin Temple, but, sadly, I have neither the time nor the genuine memories of a memorable experience with which to do so. So I will, instead, be brief.

The Shaolin Temple is a Buddhist monastery in the heartland of China famous for being the origin of the Dungeons & Dragons "monk" character class. Inside, there are various frescoes of monks doing cool combat moves in period costume (probably because they were painted, uhh, in period). In one of the buildings, the floor is pitted where the monks used to train, so intense was their practice. This is the sort of thing people like to believe when they go on tours. Outside the temple, there are various wushu training academies, and I witnessed many (hundreds) young people--some small children, too--practicing kung fu or something outside. These kids were doing flips on a hard brick pavement. Crazy.

My visit to the Shaolin Temple was a misadventure. I woke up early so I could catch a bus directly to the temple and spend the day there without having to rush back for my night train to Taiyuan. But I was thwarted! As soon as I arrived at the bus station, a cluster of overexcited Chinese surrounded me with shouts of "Shaolin? Shaolin?" They knew where I wanted to go. I hate that. Anyway, I let them direct me to a "bus" which, to my horror, turned out to be a tour bus. I ended up having to visit a bunch of other temples I had no interest in (and no interest in paying for). Periodically, the tour guide would start singing. Combat songs? I was sitting in the front seat of the bus. When we finally arrived at Shaolin, it was already pretty late, and when we left--after a cute little kiddie kung fu show--I made it back to Luoyang with minutes to spare to catch my (late!) train. Funnily enough, on the bus ride back, they showed a Jackie Chan HK kung fu movie. Later, when we stopped at yet another temple and I really started to sweat, they directed me to board a different, more direct bus, so I missed the end of the movie. But that bus was showing a Jet Li flick, so no worries. In Luoyang, I jumped off the bus and immediately onto the back of a waiting moto and pointed authoritatively ahead. Go! We went quickly back to my hotel, got my bag, and then to the train station. In my gratefulness, I gave the dude the princely sum (seriously) of 10 yuan (about $1.30).

Yesterday and today, I have been enjoying the historic city of Pingyao, which is the best preserved ancient walled city in China. I should probably go see more of it rather than sit here longer at the computer. Tonight, I am taking a train to Xi'an. I think I may have to pass on the spicy delights of Sichuan province, foremost among them a $200 photo of me with a baby panda. Tempting after the koala experience, but not in the budget. So it's straight into Xinjiang for me on the old Silk Road. I might have to skip Iran, too, because, horror of horrible horrors, Americans are not allowed to visit except on a guided tour--$80/day or so. Also, definitely, not in the budget. My heart is breaking friends with what I have to give up to accomplish my journey. And with that sad sentiment, for now, I bid you adieu.

19 November 2007

New poll - please tell me what to do

Even though I was not able to rehabilitate any animals and, due to seizure-fear, never got around to trying the reputedly disgusting chicha, there are still many chances for me to do an interesting thing or two as I make my way across Eurasia. In my new poll, I have offered the three likeliest options. Pick the one you would do, given these choices.

Real post coming soon.

18 November 2007

Short people at Longmen Caves

I am in Luoyang now, which was once an imperial capital, but is now pretty nondescript. When I came out of the train station after 8 hours on a Chinese chaos cart (where I was the chief form of entertainment, by the way), I was assaulted by innumerable touts who all wanted to drag me to hotels or take me to the Shaolin Temple. This prompted me to coin the term "toutrage" as I charged past them. One woman, the poor darling, followed me all the way to the youth hostel I was planning to stay at anyway even though she had to run to keep up with my fast walk. The problem is, most touts get a commission for bringing in customers which is then passed on to me. So even if they are touting a place I intend to stay at, I try to shake them off so I don't have to pay extra. This also means it's hard to trust anyone who approaches you on the street for any reason. It's a tough world. Anyway, it turned out she was legit, or something, because I actually got a discount instead of being overcharged. Well, what can one do?

Today, I went to the Longmen Caves, which have been UNESCO'd. They are more like grottoes or recesses than caves, all with Buddha statues large and small (some gargantuan, some tiny). They're nice, too, because they're all along a river bank.

Following, I decided to treat myself to Luoyang's "famous" water banquet. Stupidly, I splurged on the 12-course version, expecting small dishes--too much time in Japan, I suppose. The dishes were *not* small. To my credit (or gluttony), I finished most of them, but I couldn't bring myself to eat most of the meat. The bowls of food covered the entire table, and they just kept bringing more. Every Chinese person who passed by marveled. I knew then that I had to eat as much as I could or lose face. I think I carried myself off fairly well in the end. I also had a beer, which, in China, seem only to come in 1 liter bottles. So I'm also pretty sleepy now. Good night!

16 November 2007

King Kong

Oh friends, traveling long term requires constant editing and reediting of one's plans. Like a trashy novel, one must constantly adjust the action to maintain the excitement, roughly cramming in unexpected side plots and crudely cutting out much that was long planned for. Instead of my initially-planned direct route to former imperial capital Xi'an, I have been Lonely Planeted into diverting myself first to other former imperial capital Luoyang (whereis located the "famous" Longmen Caves and the arguably more famous must-be-please-be-cool SHAOLIN KUNG FU TEMPLE, then up to best-preserved-historical-city-in-China Pingyao. Then to Xi'an. Friends, please do not ask me how to properly pronounce any of these place names. I do not know.

Today, I am in Qufu, the birth and death place of a different Kung Fu, Kong-fu-tsu, or, as we bastardizing-Eurocentric-Latinizerists refer to him, Confucius. Even more exciting than that, I am typing this message from a YHA hostel that offers free internet access--and I'm not even staying here! I'm also sitting in a large, storefront window, and every Chinaman that passes by is staring at me in delight, amazement, and possibly some alarm.

Confucius was born in 551 BC and died, like Simon Bolivar of earlier post fame, poor and ignored. His goal in life was to encourage the rulers of his time to be just rather than grasp after power and fortune. Hence his ignominy. Subsequent generations of the Kong family, however, did much better, with power and fortune of their own heaped upon them, while poor, old, anti-power and fortune heaping Confucius lay in a forest with nothing but dirt heaped on him. I can't believe that 77 generations, 2500+ years-worth of Confucius's heirs lived in this town in an unbroken line. They finally left in 1948, when the Communists took over. Today, their former mansions and the Confucius Temple--together they occupy most of the old town--are a UNESCO World Heritage site and major tourist attraction (only for Chinese people and me; I dig graves). The grave of Confucius itself really is just an earthen mound in the eponymous Confucius Forest north of town. If I survive the horrid toilet conditions of my SLH tonight, I plan to visit the nearby Temple/Tomb of Mencius, another great Confucian I read about in college, tomorrow morning.

Now all I have to do is find a restaurant that serves Kung Pau Chicken, and... trifecta!




15 November 2007

Tai'shan - sacred mountain: CONQUERED!

Not wanting to spend all my time hitting major cities and the usual tourist attractions, I decided to stop at Tai'an city, jumping off point for pilgrimages to the top of Tai'shan, the holiest Taoist mountain in China. I took a sleeper train from Beijing and got off at around 6 am with no Chinese language ability to see me through the beginning of my provincial adventure. Predictably, I was netted by a taxi driver ten steps outside the station (slow for China). I "told" him which hotel I wanted him to take me to, but he said that it had closed and recommended a different, much more expensive one. I told him I wanted to go to my selection anyway to see for myself because I was pretty sure he was a filthy liar. He seemed to refuse. So I found another driver. Again, I produced my map and I think jabbed my finger at it fairly convincingly. After telling him several times that I don't understand Chinese, he kept speaking Chinese to me. And he took me to two very nice hotels anyway. "Very nice," I said, because I know this one in Chinese, but "too expensive" I indicated in my phrasebook. I don't stay at very nice or even adequately nice hotels. Still, he kept yammering away in Chinese, occasionally jabbing his own finger into my shoulder either to get my attention or emphasize points that escaped me. He was also a close talker. I had to keep moving back, and he would then move into me again. In retrospect, this all seems kind of funny, so I'm writing about it now at unecessary length. Finally, my early morning patience circuits fried, I gave him the universal f*ck off wave of dismissal, and decided to walk to my hotel, which was not closed, and which cost a whopping $9 after negotiation. The climb itself was OK. It reminded me a little of Sam Mountain in Vietnam. Again, low visibility, but not too many people, either, which was nice. A guy at the halfway point told me it would definitely take 2 hours more to get to the top. Ironman did it in 45 minutes.

By the way, people here definitely stare. This is Shandong, not Beijing. Some of them laugh at me, too, but I think it's because I wear a funny hat from Peru.

Peking Man

I spent my last day in Beijing doing a bit more sightseeing. Firstly, I went back to the Great Wall, this time to the tourist feeding frenzy of Badaling, to see it in its restored and more undulating form. Sadly, the undulations were invisible to me because, naturally, the weather turned foul and there was no visibility. The souvenir sellers on the Wall are particularly annoying, and I would like to have thrown them en masse over the side. Again, sadly, the Wall isn't actually high enough in most places to cause death-on-impact. I don't understand why they aren't banned. Even Egypt did that at the Pyramids. After I got my required photo at Chong Chong, I bused it back to Beijing (total cost of Great Wall experience: $6) and went over to White Cloud Temple, a Taoist complex on the Lower East Side. It looked like every other Chinese temple and prompted me to wonder how many more of them I'm going to pay for the privilege of ingress. Interestingly, there were a few whities there burning incense and putting foreheads to floor in front of the cheesy statues of the Peach Blossom Emperor or whoever. I wanted to go over and casually ask them what the hell they were doing--were they "Taoists"? why were they praying to cheesy statues? were they wannabe Buddhists who made a wrong turn on Lotus Petal Street? I swallowed my incredulity, however, and left.

Did I mention? South American may have had dirt cheap avocados, but China has cheap dragon fruit and "Asian" pears (nishi?). Oh heaven of joys!

My next destination was a very special one: the Old Cinema Cafe, where I'd been spending many an afternoon drinking overpriced tea and coffee. Supposedly, the Chinese cinema was born there. I saw Ang Lee's (new?) film "Lust / Caution" one night and realized then that all of his movies have the same kind of ending: tragic but flat and contrived, as all tragic endings might be, I mused, since they come with a thud, dissolving whatever narrative crescendo was at work to restore amity. I went to the cafe so often, I actually befriended the girls who work there--all of them!--who wanted me to stop by to teach them English. Which I sort of did. I went through their textbook with them the day before the Great Wall trip (they all gathered round, listening intently, obeying my instructions as my Japanese students--sorry readers in Japan--never did, and their boss even supplied free coffee). The following night, I was treated for my pains to a Belgian waffle, more free drinks, and more food. "God", I wondered, "what else might happen if I stay here?" Dreams of leading an empire of Chinese schoolgirls were to no avail, however. I had a train to catch. After the opera (yeah, I went to see Beijing opera that night, too), all the girls accompanied me to the train station to see me off. How charming that was! And now I have Chinese friends. They barely speak English, but they still seem sincerely enthusiastic to have met me, which is more than I can say for most of you ingrates.

12 November 2007

Thanks for your comments

But I can't respond to them. I think Communist China allows you to post to your blog, but it doesn't allow you to read said blog.. so I have been unable to write my usual witty retorts. Anyway, not much of grave consequence to report of the last few days. I visited the Summer Palace, which looks like every Chinese structure I've seen in the US except it's in China. I went to the "famous" Donghuamen night market where, in addition to the ubiquitous meat on a stick, you can also savour grilled scorpion, centipede ("very good! you try! how many?! two?"), cricket (?), other large fat insects, snake, dog, sea urchin, squid, octopus, and Buddha knows what else. I opted out of the insect category, but I did try the lamb. I also had duck at a "famous" Peking Duck restaurant, so, my vegetarian friends, I apologize for lapsing. Karmic revenge was visited back upon me later that night, though, when I got a little queasy. Too much meat!

What else? Well, I did forget to mention that I got to name a Chinese person. Remember that evangelical Christian girl I met on the train to Tianjin? When I asked her her name, she said "Coco". The thing is, Chinese names are just about impossible for Westerners to pronounce. Seriously, I tried. It's harder than in Japan. So young people here often pick English names. Seemingly at random. I decided I had to do "Coco" a favor and politely explained to her that, as she is neither a world-renowned fashion designer nor a dog, she should never tell an English-speaking person that her name is "Coco" if she doesn't want them cracking jokes behind her back. Given that she is Biblically-minded (is "Coco" the name of a prophet I haven't heard of?), she wanted a name from the good book, so I thought Rebecca would be a nice alternative. And she loved it! She seemed to remember that Rebecca was a beautiful woman, too (?), so that sweetened the deal. I thought maybe she was the wife of Isaac, but I forget. Anyway, she thanked me profusely for renaming her when we parted. I was proud, too. I haven't gotten to name a living thing since my cat Tiger.

09 November 2007

Tianjin Days

The Chinese really do spit all the time, and it's really disgusting. I can't blame them, though. The air here is god-awful and has already stripped several layers of protective membranes from my sinus cavity and throat. Lovely, eh? I went to Tianjin so I could officially say that I, more or less, visited the ocean on this side of the Eurasian land mass so I can officially say, more or less, that I went from ocean to ocean at the end of this ill-begotten adventure in Portugal. On the way, I chatted with the girl sitting next to me, who turned out to be an evangelical Christian. She had her Chinese Bible with her and even gave me a small pamphlet containing the wisdom of Jesus. In Tianjin, I saw some colonial-era architecture and even managed to order lunch at a Chinese restaurant, which thank God had a picture menu. Here is how that went:

Waitress: ?????????????

Me: Uh, I want food. Food. Uh.

Waitress: ??????????????

Me: (pointing, gesturing pointlessly)

Waitress: ???????????? (points to a seat) ??????????

Me: Shie-shie (thank you)

Waitress: (hovering)

Me: (in Chinese) What are the specials of the house?

Waitress: (confused) ????????????

Me: (showing her the phrasebook)

Waitress: ?????? ??????? (points at like five different things) ??????????

Me: (in Chinese) Is this one eel?

Waitress: (confused) ?????????????

Me: (showing her the phrasebook)

Waitress: ????!! (No?)

Me: Ok, that one (stabbing the menu with my finger)

Waitress: (scribbling) ????

Me: (surmising) Oolong.

To be fair, this is what I imagine it was like from her point of view:

Waitress: Welcome to our beautiful restaurant. Do you have any idea what I'm saying?

Me: ??????????? (pointing to a menu) Food. Uh.

Waitress: Are you alright, sir? I don't understand. Do you need medical assistance?

Me: (pointing, gesturing pointlessly)

Waitress: What's wrong with you? Oh, do you want to sit down? (points to a seat) Sit there where the other customers can't see you.

Me: Tank you.

Waitress: (waiting for the white man to order, eat, and leave)

Me: ??????????????????house

Waitress: (confused) I'm sorry, sir, but I don't understand. Was that German?

Me: (showing her the phrasebook)

Waitress: Oh, I see! Yes, we have many special dishes. (points at like five different things) Please feel free to choose one of these. They are all excellent.

Me: (in Chinese) Do frogs wear underpants?

Waitress: (confused) Excuse me, sir? I didn't study Biology. I was an English major.

Me: (showing her the phrasebook)

Waitress: Oh no, that's not eel. It's manatee intestines. (No?)

Me: Ok, ?????????? (stabbing the menu with my finger)

Waitress: (scribbling) Do you want something to drink?

Me: (surmising) Oolong.

But I think I'm getting the hang of it anyway. I have to end this post now, because several Chinese people are standing behind me, waiting to use the computer, and are in fact watching everything I do. Perhaps, if they can read this, they will stop doing it... no, they're still there. So I will continue my bloggings later.

07 November 2007

Forbidden Cities and Great Walls

I like China!

That said, it is so much more modern than I expected. I mean, it's really modern. Those Communists really know how to build a shopping mall. On Day 1, I blearily, jet-laggedly wandered through the Forbidden City after being deterred by large crowds from Chairmain Mao's embalmed corpse. The Forbidden City is BIG. I've seen quite a few of these Chinese-style palaces now, in Vietnam, Japan, and Korea, but the mothership is absolutely ginormous. I am beginning to have some thoughts about them, too, in wondering how I should be reacting to what are somewhat interesting structures but not as awe-inspiring as the palaces and castles of Europe. I think other travelers find them a bit blah, too, but I think they combine an aesthetics of austerity with a design that is meant to confound not with lavishness but rather with a richly symbolic architecture--and this is what it takes some effort to appreciate if you've only a passing interest in Asian palaces. The entire social universe is represented by the palace and its arrangement of halls, chambers, and antechambers. The main hall, for example, is the Temple of Supreme Harmony, which is surely the kind of ideal aspired to by the most totalitarian governments. The views were not great this day--too much smog, perhaps.

The following day, I took it rather more easily. I bought even more pairs of cheap glasses, as planned, in the morning and then made my way to the US Embassy. As I mentioned in a prior post, I think it would be interesting to travel around the world comparing US Embassy complexes. This one was not as colossal as the one in Lima, but it does occupy its own security-sealed neighborhood. I flashed my passport and was easily admitted, of course, and there was nobody in the Citizen Services office. I can't believe this happened, but I got new pages put into my passport *while I waited*. That's right, the US government provided fast and friendly service! Unfortunately, they couldn't tell me exactly where the Embassy of the Kyrgyz Republic is located, so I was more on my own for that one. I headed north for a few hours--Beijing is mind-bendingly huge--and finally located the multiple-embassy-housing building I was looking for. I asked for directions at one point, and this gave me a chance to reflect on how difficult it is to communicate when you aren't able to understand a single word of what someone else says to you. Just point! I frantically exhorted, and I showed her this expression in my phrasebook (I can't get those tones right to save my life), and finally she pointed, and soon enough I was standing before the closed and locked door of the Kyrgyz embassy. I considered this something of a sign.. perhaps I don't really need to go to Kyrgyzstan. And someone today told me that Americans don't need a visa to visit Mongolia, so that has given me further food for thought. Afterward, I visited the Lama Temple, the largest Tibetan temple outside of Tibet and containing the largest, Guinness-record holding statue of Buddha carved from a single piece of wood and also a subway station. Impressive. I almost (almost) wanted to prostrate myself (I worship convenient subway stations). Across the street was the Confucius temple. So nice of them to build these attractions in close proximity! The great attraction there is the Imperial University next door, which has a giant golden throne from which the emperor once lectured enormous bodies of congregated students on Confucianism or something. Since I want to be a professor some day, I could feel the power. Alas, no gold thrones for me. That evening, I went to a really great kung-fu show that I fell asleep during due to travel fatigue and jet lag.

Today, I went on a tour arranged by my hostel to the "secret Great Wall", a section unvisited by any tourists except those from my hostel and without an admission fee. The other attraction is that this section is also unrestored, so I got to see it in its dilapidated state, and lunch was included, too. I think I will visit the restored bit, too, so I can see both versions and also so I can properly collect my infamous photo-op. I met these nice Americans from Brooklyn--Alexis and Russell--and we hung out for awhile afterward, chatting amicably about hippies and Eurotrash. There are few topics I enjoy discussing more.

05 November 2007

Most People are Chinese

Unexpectedly, I arrived uneventfully in Beijing. Seriously, I expected an event, like some sort of Communist-style, hard-nosed interrogation at immigration. Or panicky moments trying to locate a broken-down bus amidst endless throngs of spitting people. Or something weird involving chickens. But there was nothing. In fact, I got to press a button on the panel in front of the customs officer indicating how satisfied I was with his job (I pressed "extremely satisfied"); the airport was orderly and the bus system efficient; and there were no visible chickens. At baggage claim, I was delighted to be ambushed by a high school group from Nagoya, Japan. As usual, I shocked them by speaking Japanese, noting "nihon no koukousei desu ne!" and got at least one of them to jump. Beijing looks more advanced than many American cities and at least as capitalistic. There was a Starbucks at the airport (buy a latte with Mao-portraited money!) and KFCs everywhere else. And thick, brown air.

03 November 2007

Leaving America, again

Tomorrow, I am off to Beijing after a brief vacation in the United States. Here is a possible itinerary for the next 9 months:

USA --> China - China/Xinjiang - Kyrgyzstan - China/Tibet - Nepal - India - UAE - Oman - Yemen - Iran - Armenia - Georgia - Turkey - Greece - Albania - Montenegro - Croatia - Slovenia - Italy - France - Spain - Portugal --> USA

28 October 2007

Coming to America

Tonight, I am flying back to New Jersey. I will be in Highland Park on Monday and Tuesday, the Findlay wedding on Wednesday, and New York City on Friday and Saturday. Since I have but limited chances to see people while I'm home, I've decided to organize a get-together at a bar. I will be at the following venue on Friday, November 2nd from 7:00 pm. I will be leaving the US on Sunday for Beijing, not to return again until the end of next summer. If you can, please join me for a night of thrilling conversation and anthropological study of the inhabitants of the Upper East Side at:

The Auction House
Neighborhood: Manhattan/Upper East Side
300 E 89th Street
(between 1st Ave & 2nd Ave)
New York, NY 10128
(212) 427-4458

27 October 2007

26 October 2007

Fecal matters

Perhaps I feel inspired by the toilet humor of Rabelais, because I want to share a brief and rather tasteless anecdote from yesterday's events. The following post is vulgar, graphic, and disgusting. Please do not read it.

Four days ago, I was in Tupiza, Bolivia, which is near the southernmost end of the country. From there, I traveled to La Paz, at the northern end, in Matthias' jeep (10 hours) followed by a night bus (12 hours). I slept in La Paz and took another set of buses beginning the next morning: to Puno, Peru (6 hours), from Puno to Arequipa (6 hours), from Arequipa overnight to Nazca (9 hours), from Nazca to Ica (2 hours), and from Ica to Lima (6 hours+).

Let's focus in on that last leg.

Spending more than 50 hours sitting on your ass in bumpy buses without washing or sleeping well and eating nasty food tends to transform you into a rather disgusting person. To confirm this, I had only to open my pants a little to smell the sweet aroma of backpacker putrefaction. I had only to lift my arms to keep even the Peruvians from intruding into my seat-space. And, of course, there is that wonderful phenomenon I like to call "altitude stomach" that makes you fart in fifth gear when you're above 3000 meters. I sat in all this me-filth for the entire time--even the odor-resisting powers of my synthetic trekking clothes were overcome. When I got to Nazca, thoroughly pasted over with several layers of sweat, hair grease, and bio-stink, I asked the hotel where I booked my Nazca lines overflight if I could use one of their showers. The owner said yes, but I'd have to pay 8 soles (about $2.66). Naturally, I found this unreasonable and offensive and refused to pay the asshole anything. So I continued to Lima in my state of horrible malodorousness. About four hours into the allegedly six hour journey, I began to feel a familiar discomfort. This was compounded when, after showing the first two, the third "Fast and the Furious" movie of the trilogy began playing on the bus TV. Oh God, I thought, there can't possibly be that much time left, because... I HAVE TO GO. Realizing that the plumbing was about to burst, I nevertheless practiced yogic patience. The bus, I thought, would surely arrive soon. It didn't. It kept going and going, and I kept having to go, to go, To Go, TO GO TO GO TO GO OH GOD I HAVE TO GO!!! I ran to the front and begged the driver's assistant to stop somewhere with a baño. He pointed to the side of the road. I said no, I need A BAÑO. He understood, but there really was nowhere to stop on the highway. Finally, the bus pulled over to let off passengers, and I noticed an Internet café with a sign: Baño, 50 cts. My pupils dilated at this, a more wonderful sight than Machu Picchu ever could be, a miracle granted me by whatever gods look over this world and its miserable inhabitants. "Baño!" I shouted, "Baño!" I was like a small child, I was so excited. But the assistant hadn't seen it, and said simply "No hay." "Hay!!" I shouted, pointing, "Hay!" and then he did see it, and told the driver,


I have to tell you my friends, that I have spent years on a long journey through my emotions, trying to rid myself of anger and hate. I believed at the beginning of this process that if I was unhappy, it was my own fault, and I had to work hard to feel less malice toward people and more genuine good-will, positive humanity if you like. But in that moment, I never hated anyone more in my life. I moved to the front seat, just in case I had another chance, and as the pressure built in my bowels, I started uttering (in English) the coursest of profanity at the bus driver. This was New Jersey cursing, New Jersey anger. To the poor guy sitting next to me, I unloaded my plight. After all, I couldn't unload anything else. I felt the piss rising into my head, making me pissed off, and the shit pouring into my spleen, making me splenetic. The colic pain came in spasms, like birth contractions, the time between them shorter and shorter. And then things got worse, because...

We hit a massive, massive traffic jam in Lima, ten minutes from the bus terminal.

For a half hour we didn't move at all. And I didn't know how much longer I could really take it before I'd have to squat like an animal in the highway median or, better yet, squat right in front of the bus, shitting with my ass in the driver's face. Or even better yet, I thought, I should just shit in his lap and piss down his throat. I even said that out loud, "I should just shit in your lap, you motherfucker" since he probably didn't know English. Neither did my neighbor, but I said to him, too, "I should just shit in his lap, that asshole." I stared at him with fiery eyes, wishing I were an evil Superman, fantasizing about ways he could die, only my anger keeping the excrement contained. When the urgency really became demanding--during the first "Tokyo drift" scene in the movie--I spontaneously began pounding the plastic divider in frustration and shouted at the driver:

"¡¿Entiendes Usted que quiere decir 'emergencia'?! ¡Necesito usar el baño, ahora! ¡AHORA, AHORA, AHORA! ¡Estada un baño, pero no pareda! ¡Jesús Christo! ¡Tengo muy muy dolor! ¿Entiendes?"

I'm not sure how correct any of that is, but I felt a small victory because I still had the presence of mind to use Usted and afterward said a few "esculpe"s for making such a scene, though the fucker deserved it. Finally, we started moving again (finally, after what felt like another hour), and I thought I was going to cry. I was in so much pain, I couldn't hide it, and I was embarrassed, too. At the second to last stop, the driver's assistant spotted a dirty little Chinese restaurant and pointed. "¡Espera!" I shouted as I bolted toward it, ignoring employees and patrons as I shot into the inevitably disgusting baño in the back, like that scene in that one movie I can't remember right now. And then:


Pardon the foul language, but I shat the shit of the ages. The toilet had no seat, of course, so I had to practice my squatting--no problem. I squatted and shit for about five minutes, the combined junk food waste and politely held-in farts of 50 bus hours reverse-geysering out of me. I shit like an elephant, like a demigod of shit, like Kevin Costner shits out shitty movies.

And then it was over. I dabbed my poor, sore rectum with the baby wipes I cleverly stashed in my pocket (never any t.p. in SA) and then examined my work, the masterpiece defecation of my life, greater even than the great Mt. Washington Shit of '99. It was the size (not the consistency) of a bowling ball. For the sake of tradition, I tried to flush, then ran out, handing a waitress 5 soles on the way (can you say "shit-eating grin?"). I hugged the driver's assistant with genuine affection and reboarded the bus. Everyone's eyes were on me in that funny, leaning-into-the-aisle way. I sheepishly apologized for my behavior, but the passengers were all smiles. I think some of them actually applauded. The guy behind me wanted details, which I gave him, and he laughed his ass off. But I slouched into my seat a happy man and made it to my hotel without further incident.

I would have posted this awful story last night, but I had to dash out of the Internet café for round 2.

If you actually read this far, I am truly sorry that you ever had to know me. As compensation, here are today's events: I actually saw blue skies in Lima, bought three months of seizure medicine, had my photos developed, learned that, for the third time in a row, a friend's digital camera is malfunctioning (so no photos of Bolivia), and got, for the Findlay nuptials, my first ever manicure and pedicure--and liked it.