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