Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dunhuang, Hexi corridor, China

I am constantly amazed by China. A vast land of constrasts whose wonders seem to jump out of nowhere and whose friendly people help you challenge your own preconceptions.

Sorry for the drivel above, I am just practising backpacker bullshit. This is because I am truly one of the scruffy turtle race again. I got here after a 30 hour train journey followed by a 2 hour drive through the desert as the sun rose. As scenic as this seems the drive was a result of a fuck-up. My outdated guide left me unaware of the new train station in this town so I had to get here the old, long and scenic route. Like anywhere in China where money is to be made, frenzied construction is the norm. What this meant for me is that my guidebook is obsolete and worthless.

Hence the true backpacker experience. I had to track down a cheapish yet decent hotel whilst lugging my bags and cursing Chinese entrepreneurs and Lonely Planet writers in equal measure. I then had to haggle down the price of the room despite being obviously ready to give one of my kidneys for a lie down and a hot shower.The joys of the road.

The main reason to go to this small towm in the middle of bugger-all is the Mogao caves. A series of artificial caves, dug and decorated over the centuries by Buddhists. These vary in size and content from the basic 10 square meter, statue and fresco job to huge sitting and lying Buddhas.

The chaps in charge have to balance greed against preservatio so only 10 of the 100 or so caves can be seen. And this only with a guide. All the caves have doors and locks on them in case you feel like ditching the tour and going walksies. To add to this, the staff refused to let me join a Chinese tour despite my insistence that I didn't really care and I had to twiddle my thumbs for an hour untill enough whities could be rounded up. Still worth it though.

The one cave everyone gets to visit is the one where a local chap found a huge stash of ancient documents around the start of the 20th century. These where promptly swiped/bought for paltry sums by explorer types from cannon owning countries. One of last on this list of rogues did make me laugh. Langdon Warner, an American, arrived late in the game as is the custom of his country.Upon finding that more timely Old Worlders had already twocked the best stuff he decided that he was not going to be outdone by effete Yirrupeans. Showing the cultural sensitivity that makes Yanks loved worldwide, he simply chiselled out huge sections of frescoes and nabbed a few statues for good measure. America was now a recognised player in the great game of stealing old and pretty stuff from the poor and coloured of this world.

Why the caves came about is still a bit confusing to me. The guide claims it originated form a vision by a passing monk followed by eons of the residents of Dunhuang celebrating their faith or having fuck-all else to do than dig into cliff faces. Guidebooks claim the main impetus for the construction of these holes was merchants coming back through the Silk Road giving thanks for their safe passage. A vaguely remembered CCTV(China's national telly setup) feature I watched stated that the caves were commisioned by wealthy chaps on their way West to ensure safe passage.

Like most acts of faith, I choose to believe what is most convenient for me even though I know CCTV is about as reliable as a cheap Chinese watch. I like their version better as it makes me a pilgrim of sorts. I like to think that I, like many others before me, have gazed upon statues of the Big B before setting off on the Silk Road.

I know the Silk Road kicks off in Beijing but for my purposes it starts here. Tomorrow I will be in Xinjiang which culturally and ethnically is Central Asian in spite of the best efforts in social and racial engineerring of the Chinese government. Here is where the land of rice, chopsticks and weird creatures wok-fried with MSG ends and the kingdom of the lamb kebab starts. At my next stop I will be amongst those submitted to Allah instead of those who believe a number, colour, age, foodstuff, setting off 20 kilos of explosives over a fortnight or letting a fucking pile of cabbage rot on yur doorstep is lucky for some reason or another.

Before I scoot off I should mention my stay in Shanghai. I guess I did the usual backpacker stuff of watching the BBC, stuffing myself with foods all over the world and catching a choir performance of Beethoven's 9nth. I stayed with my ex boss and indulged myself in some worldly comforts.

One thing worth mentioning is that I went to the aquarium.It's all fish but a couple of things did get my attention. There is a huge underwater tunnel which has a shark, rays, and other large dangerous things section. Once I got there my contemplation was spoilt by some chap who decided to be as loud as possible. I have seen this before in Chinese blokes of a certain age but this time it struck me as odd. Usually it is a face gaining procedure often triggered by the combined presence of pretty Chinese girls and foreign blokes. Was he worried that the sharks will promise the girls a green card and further deplete this country's stock of women?

The other thing that I found amusing is when I got to the area where they have seals playing around. They basically swim in circles and come up to the window. A few couples where there as the girls obviously thinks they as cute as her Hello Kitty umbrella and they hail them as the seals swim by. What they actually say is "hello".

I found this odd but it sorts of make sense once you've been here a while. The logic maybe goes as thus: Non-Chinese are foreigners, foreigners respond to "hello", seals aren't Chinese people hence they are foreign hence speak English. It's weird but frankly it's the best explanation I can muster.

Finally, to illustrate the point of strange leaps of Chinese logic, the Beijing rozzers have kindly furnished me with a recent example. Recently they raided Sanlitun which is the big expat bar area near the embassies. This was a targeted raid. By that I mean they seized every black man they could find, roughed them up and carted them away. If I reapply the law of Chinese logic, the reason for this little exercise in Apartheid police tactics is the following. There are drugs being dealt in Sanlitun (true), the dealers are mainly Nigerian (probably true), Nigerians are black (highly likely) therefore all black men deal drugs. Let's roll!

This might backfire on the local plod as they managed to beat up the son of the ambassador of Grenada. Methinks a few people are soon going to get posted to Inner Mongolia.

Next stop Urumwi, Ulumqi, Wulumqi or whatver they are calling it this week.

Take care,


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Qingdao, somewhere on the yellow sea, China

My first true backpacker post in a while and somewhat of a test in itself. I am going to try to revert to my trademark collection of half-truths, snap judgements and silly anecdotes. Here goes:

Qingdao has been around for a while but the distinguishing feature of this place, historically speaking, is that the Germans tried to make it into their own little Hong Kong. Like many Teutonic attempts to emulate the Franco-British sport of colonialism it didn't really pan out though, to be fair, this was less disastrous than other affairs. Their legacy seems to be churches, quaint houses and beer.

Beer is omnipresent in China but here it is nearly revered. The Germans built the Tsingtao brewery which makes the only famous beer in China (ie: one of the few breweries who can produce something consistently fit for export). One difference between here and the rest of China is that the 60odd cl bottle is no longer king. Here draught beer is the norm. It's a bit of a shock as I am now used to wrapping my lips round the cool neck of the beer bottle with the same regularity of oral insertion as the scrawny chap done for tax fraud in a tough prison.

It is nice change though and it is not difficult to find a pint. The many small fag and snack shops in Qingdao's old town all have four or five kegs under an umbrella and you can just stop and get them to fill a mug or, if you don't walk around with a beer stein on you, a plastic bag. As trampy as it seems it is fun to drink beer out of a shopping bag with a straw. This was a bit unsettling until I saw someone get a refill as I thought the local hobby was to carry around bags of foamy piss.

Beyond silly daytime drinking the main things to do here are beach bumming and eating seafood. These two pastimes make the fame of Qingdao around China. My train from Beijing was full of people assuring me how great it was though very few of them had actually been there. I decided to take their advice and start working on my sunburn. The beaches are cleanish and the water not to murky. I took my first dip in the great brine pool in a while then watched Chinese chaps digging up the beach in search of crabs. It wasn't fantastic but I am making the most of it as my next swim in the sea will be in the Med and in 2008.

Seafood here is nice, cheap, plentiful and, unlike Changchun, doesn't transform your arse into a bladder. Particulalry of note are tiger prawns (local name) which don't really look like prawns at all but are much nicer. More like a yummy sea-dwelling centipede. Then again a lot of things are tasty after a few bags of beer.

I'll leave it there as this is just a post to get into the swing of things. The next bit is a recap of what I did prior to reaching this alarmingly clean city and a slightly wussy introspective waffle that I am writing down for my own sake.

I left Changchun and went straight to Beijing, the big BJ. I been there before and had no intention of seeing anything but was out to score a visa for Kazakhstan. This was the initial purpose of my stay in the increasingly charmless capital of China. I eventually got my visa and had my first encounter with member of a species that I suspect I am going to be very familiar with: The Lesser Powered Central Asian Official.

This was in the shape of a fat knacker who got huffy that my visa apllication from was a blatant collection of lies. Previous experience with visas is that you only need to let them tick the boxes. This man seemed intent on checking the crap I had written down and it wasn't looking good. I was looking at having to rewrite the form, get interviewed, cough up 55 dollars and wait for 5 working days (these exclude weekends and Tuesday which, in Beijing, seems to be some sort of consular Holy Day). I pointed out to the chubby fuck that his government might want to be a tad more accomodating if they wanted to develop a tourism industry and suddenly all things changed. Exeunt annoying lardy twat and enter smiling friendly woman. She took my form, drew a line through half the stuff the officious prick had scribbled, told me to come back the next afternoon and charged me the princely sum of 160 yuan. All this with a big smile.

I am not sure what happened but I am guessing I used the magic word: Tourist. For all his zeal the fat bastard had failed to check what type of visa I wanted and made me go through the hell they inflict on Chinese migrants or expat businessmen intent on corrupting Kazahk officials to grab some of the country's oil. Once they twigged I was just some dosser with no intention of stealing the manufacturing jobs of Kazaks by working for cheap I got fobbed off to the resident consular worker who still has a soul. Objective completed.

The other task that appeared in Beijing was that of re-adaptation. This came out of the blue and forced me to reconsider what my time in China meant for me.

I knew I would be a bit moody as I left Changchun and once in BJ I dealt with it in the time honored fashion of getting sozzled and showing off. I enjoyed passing myself off as a font of wisdom on all things Chinese, basking in the admiring gaze of young backpackers when accomplishing the tricky task of ordering food and getting unsuspecting fools to try Baijio.I doled out tips, anecdotes and warnings with casual confidence and got drunk untill I morphed into that beloved creature; the pissed wanker who stumbles into the dorm at 4am and wakes everyone up by trying to be quiet yet spends 20 minutes dropping stuff.

One evening I went to the common room and got started again. Suddenly I got tired. Tired and bored. I didn't want to introduce myself for the umpteenth time. I didn't want to go through the predictable Q and A again. I didn't want to resume the past 2 years of my life to a 10 second backpacker's soundbite. I didn't even want to pass myself off as some sort of Old China hand. I slunk into the chair and drank quietly watching my fellow backpackers and giving very short answers to any forthcoming questions. I then realised what was happening. I was homesick.

I had managed to convince myself that my time in Changchun was part and parcel of my little jaunt. I would pack my bag and up-stakes with the same ease I used to leave a guesthouse. I was, of course, wrong. Whether I like to admit it or not, Changchun was a home for me for more than a year. The patterns and habits, joys and annoyances, likes and dislikes, freindships and enmities I experienced there were not the ephemeral ones of the trail but the deep lasting ones that affect, influence, integrate and modify one's identity.

As I am back into the happy world of hostels and sightseeing I now have to admit that I have come back to the same mental spot when I landed in Jakarta what a long while ago. I am not a tanned and seasoned traveller but someone who has just left home. In a sense it is even worse as, unlike the friends and family in Europe I have to face up to the brutal reality that it is unlikely I will see more than a few of the Changers crowd again.

Hence my time in Beijing was also a period of acclimatisation. I had to enjoy myself when I was up to it and ride out the stroppyness when it occured. The real switch was when I got to to the unfamiliar town Qingdao as I had to go through the rigmarole of finding lodgings, getting settled and planning the next move. I am now backpacking again.

Next stop, the bejewelled and expensive whore of the Orient: Shanghai

Take care,


Saturday, September 01, 2007

Changchun, China

Last post from the town that was my home for more than a year. Once again I am unemployed and of no use to society. Thankfully, I am middle class and abroad so I am “travelling”.

I find I have little to write about after my time here. I have not gained any wise oriental insights into life, I have not grown as a person although my gut has and my Chinese is still piss poor (my CV might not reflect this). My socio-political look on the place is seemingly less acute than when I got here. In a sense I have fallen victim to the great Chinese syndrome of reverse knowledge. The more you know about the place, the more ignorant you realise you are.

On a personal level this past chapter of my life has been like so many others. I have met good people and enjoyed their company. I have met tedious people and mentally filed them as part of the scenery. The good thing is that there are a precious few of the latter amongst the foreigners as the very fact that they have chosen to live in this smog-filled paradise tends to make people interesting. Another bonus is that personalities become much more distinct here or maybe I just mentally typecast people.

The Chinese people I have met are nearly all inherently fascinating. As you get to know them you play the happy game of finding out what aspect of them is a product of their culture and what is one of the zillion of idiosyncrasies that make us so similar and yet so different.

My skewered view of other humans as actors in the great play that life puts on for my pleasure has been a blessing here. The cast of “Arabin in China” has been tremendous. Bravo.

The other part of my life here is something that generates mixed feelings. I am referring to that tedious necessity in life: work. I am unsure if this has been the easiest or most difficult job I have held. The doss part are laughably low hours and basing your job on a skill that all but the simplest of creatures master. The tricky part is that teaching has little or no autopilot. You have the focus on what you do. No playing solitaire or daydreaming about torching the office.

What was even harder for me is that, unlike spreadsheets or the Tuesday budget review in Warrington, I actually started to care about the recipients of my work. I pride myself on being able to disconnect what I do for a living and what I am and have become frighteningly good at it. Work related stress is not something I will ever be a victim of. However, this past year has seen some worrying new developments. I started to actually like the kids.

Before I became a teacher I held a view that children were somewhat of an unavoidable annoyance. Loud little creatures that selfish people had inflicted on society as they needed something to do after their ambitions have come to nothing or couple conversation has morphed into a dull litany of clichés and complaints. Yet now I think I understand why people decide to effectively bugger up all that was sweet about their life and start to spawn. As a teacher I manage to get myself some of the unconditional adulation that, I guess, parents get and it is fun. My former self probably wants to deck me as I am now toying with the idea that some day in the far future I might go out and get myself one of these things. The 5 year old models are the best.

Now I am faced with describing what my life was here. Having a job and a regular life has killed off a lot of my fascination for my surroundings so I find it tricky to discern what might be of interest. I have nixed the idea of listing what I have done or seen in the past year or so. Instead I will make a brief list of what aspects of China I will or won’t miss.

Things I will miss:

-The Raj lite: After an evening of obnoxiousness and doing what the hell we want it is hard not to see myself as a privileged, quasi-colonial expat. Never having to consider money in a nightly foray, taking taxis for 500 yards when it’s cold, waving a beer bottle out the window so the recyclers can come and clear up the green clutter and abusing the local inability to distinguish boorishness from cultural differences are things one gets very used to.

-The lies: Sweet, wonderful lies. Nothing massages the ego quite like a Chinese person telling you obvious bullshit about you being smart, handsome and interesting. It used to make me want to shake the dispensers of these fallacies but now I like it and crave it like a smackhead.

-Selective stupidity. My level of Chinese is somewhat a tragic monument to lazyness after a year and a half but it is not inexistent either. I have enough basics to get by and can eavesdrop a little. I love being able to do as I want by pretending not to understand a word of the poor sod trying to prevent me from doing something forbidden. Dealing with tall loud foreign creatures is tricky enough and if you add the frustration of not getting your obvious point across it is quite easy to completely shatter whatever confidence the chap had mustered and get him to give up.

Things I won’t miss:

-Being poisoned:
There are hundreds of elements in the periodical table and all of them have been converted to gaseous form and pumped into the air of Changchun. The socialist free market is a wild unfettered beast that spews its deadly waste with gay abandon. Feeling strange for no reason, inexplicable aches and seeing clouds of strangely coloured smog are part and parcel of living in the world’s factory.

As if coating my lungs with mercury wasn’t enough, China will occasionally make sure you have a fun packed couple of hours living in your toilet. Getting the trots here is not a symptom anymore but a regular visitor. A strange byproduct of this is that, in the land where manners have all been shot during the cultural revolution, farting is a no-no. At least when you are out of running range of a clean pair of trousers.

-Being deafened: Atmospheric pollution is a concept known in China even if nothing substantial is done to rectify it. Noise pollution is a notion that has yet to earn its Chinese character. Midnight is a great time to do roadworks. 5am is when I most want to be woken and informed that I may give away any surplus cardboard. Of course I want to hear what you are talking about on your phone so thank you for shouting. It is good of you to sound off your horn, mister taxi driver, as I was unaware of your presence blocking my way as I try to cross a busy street. I easily forget that it is the New Year Festival so a fortnight of fireworks is just what I need

-Being illiterate:
I have been told to start learning Chinese characters and to be fair it is good advice. What ticks me off a bit is that you have to learn 4000 symbols to be considered literate. Pictographic alphabets are essentially cave drawings with delusions of grandeur. I am not impressed when being told there are an estimated 50000 Chinese letters out there. All that tells me is that 49000 letters ago they should have realised that this was getting stupid and ditched it in favour of something based on sound.

-Mei You: The two words that guarantee to get me seething with rage. Basically it means that you are not going to get what you want. For full effect it should be delivered with mild resentment that you asked a person to provide what you require or bemusement that you are stupid enough to believe that the item you have bought in the store daily for the past fortnight will be there today. A personal favourite is when it comes with a brief admonishment that I should not be so tall, fat or bigfooted if I want to buy something.

-Being racist:
As you might have guessed from some of the above, I can get petty and frustrated. I have experienced my fair share of Bad China Days. These are days where it just gets to you. Minor annoyances keep piling on and you lose the ability to laugh them off. You then start to loathe anything Chinese and project your anger through a general disparagement of a culture. You create a unified stereotype in your mind and blame it for all your ills regardless of merit.

I think what annoys me the most about this is that it has revealed an ugly side of myself. My inner monologue has sometimes become an embodiment of the narrow-minded bigoted fucknuts I have had the misfortune to meet in dreary pubs. The above is a beautiful example of the condition. I blame China for what I am.

Things I bitch about now but will probably miss:

-Mandopop and Chinese music: It’s truly vile and so syrupy you could coat your nipples in it and get a broadminded person to lick it off. Someone has found the very worst of late eighties eurodance and built a huge industry off its rotting carcass. I do think I will miss it though. There is nothing quite like seeing a heavyset 40 year old man lipsynch and bob along to some horrible ditty that sounds like they got a 7 year old girl to talk about her favourite lollypop.

-Pinkness. Pinkness is the generic term I use to describe the huge amount of fluffyness and cuteness that has spread around this country like a bio-engineered form of Ebola. No mobile phone is complete without 49 dangly hearts attached to it. No item of clothing will be unembroidered. The kitten is god. If you had a gaydar it is now useless as the metrosexual/rent boy look is the norm. Good luck trying to fantasise about some superb local girl as all the visual cues on her are conjuring up memories of childhood.

-Chinglish. If you are interested, google it. Chinglish is what happens when a Chinese sentence get run through babelfish. It’s everywhere and tremendous fun. A legendary local example is a chain of restaurant who revamps itself constantly but failed to remove the item on the menu that is an instruction to put arsenic in a pot. Chinglish is sadly endangered as the government wants to ban it presumably so that visitors to the Olympics will forget that they are corrupt murderous cunts since they can spell so well.

-Chinese medicine. Complete and utter bollocks that gets lucky occasionally. It is said to work slowly as opposed to western medicine which explains why your daily soup of platypus scrotum has had no effect whatsoever on your ingrowing toenail. It’s nice though as I can listen to advice and reject instantly despite being a complete dunce in science

-Baijo. Wrongness in a bottle. The local rotgut. The best description I have ever heard is that it tastes like poverty. It is foul and even the smell of it now makes me queasy. The plus side is that it encourages stupid behaviour so it’s fantastic to coax a newcomer to lose his/her baijio virginity. I myself will never drink the stuff again regardless of the occasion.

I am going to stop now and just be satisfied that I have managed to post again. I will update once I get to an unfamiliar place. Off to Beijing tomorrow to try and get a visa for Boratland.

Take care,