Thursday, September 6, 2012

PYONGYANG DIPLOMACY: COMMUNIST DISNEYLAND IN AN UNCERTAIN STATE



North Korea is like the urban legend of the Japanese soldier still fighting WWII out on some lonely island in the remote Pacific.  In his mind, it’s all still very real for him.  When he starts shooting at us, then it’s real for us, too.  At first I didn’t know if they were even going to let me in the country, something about journalists not allowed in on tourist visas.  That’s the first time I’ve ever been accused of journalism.  Them’s fightin’ words.  Obviously they’ve never read my work.  Finally I convinced them I was just a blogger, so apparently that’s okay, heh heh.  But the plot only thickens, of course, in direct proportion as the prices rise.  You can only enter the country on guided tours, and ‘guided’ here means just that…guides, and lots of them.  Tourists are not only NOT allowed to travel independently, but are rarely even allowed out of sight of the guides assigned to them, not hard when the assigned hotel is on an island, I guess.  I was pretty skeptical, frankly more interested in notching my 145th country on my bedpost than in getting all cozy with the commies. 

It’s not as restrictive as it sounded, in fact, mostly just pricey, especially for someone like me who almost always travels independently.  The number of Western tourists for the whole year, in fact, is about equal to the number of Western tourists who enter Bangkok every hour of every day of every week of every year.  There are more Chinese than that, though, they with something of a special relationship with North Korea.  The occasion for my particular “mini-tour” was the ‘Arirang’ Mass Games, which are recognized as the largest choreographed spectacle of its kind, something like the opening to the Beijing Olympics on some really good steroids, them not me. 
 
Approximately half of the spectacle occurs on the playing field itself, mostly of marching-band style, though much more intricate and grandiose, and ultimately a combination of history, choreography, gymnastics, circus tricks, and fireworks.  The other half occurs in the bleachers opposite us spectators, which suggests a whole different dimension to the typical playing-field tableau.  This is an elaborate card stunt, of course, in which each seat and slot is used in its capacity for playing pixel, producing color and texture, each person holding up cards on cue for massive mosaics.  If it all sounds corny, as it may well be in one sense, in another it’s really quite spectacular.  Still this, other spectacles, and tourist sights in general, are not the reason I travel.  I travel because I want to know how the rest of the world lives.  I want to hear their songs and their stories; see their homes and their hovels; feel their pleasures and pains, at least vicariously. 

If nothing else, Communism stops the clock.  I’ve seen it over and over and over as countries “come out”—or not—from the “iron curtain” of Communism—Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, etc.  The countries behind those curtains are usually time-warps of the past, frozen in glass.  However thoroughly they may distribute wealth, they weren’t particularly good at creating it…or anything else.  Whether that is due to lack of profit motive is debatable.  Most artists I know aren’t too motivated by profit.  Cuba is probably the best country to compare with North Korea, since these two are almost alone in any modern defense of communism with connections to the Soviet past.  But the two are totally different.  Where Havana is funky, even skuzzy, Pyongyang is squeaky clean, almost sterile.  Where Havana has crumbling buildings—sometimes with quite decent digs inside, Pyongyang has decent modern sky-scraping apartment buildings, each with a little puddle of shrubbery on the balcony ledge outside, and hopefully some food in the cupboards. 
 
Whenever I told anyone that I was going to North Korea, the response was unanimous.  “Take some food; they don’t have any.”  At a few hundred bucks a day you expect food, though, don’t you?  And this is the best (read ‘most’) I’ve eaten in days, if not weeks, if not years, if not decades, three (very large) squares a day, buffets and hot pots, multi-course dinners and brew-pub draughts.  To what extent any of this is available to the average North Korean I don’t know, probably not much, though certainly available to the few ex-pats and embassy crews.  The surprising thing is that what little commerce is there is hardly visible, usually no more than a small sign outside to indicate what is inside, and that usually located on an upper floor with concrete steps leading up to it.  Nothing seems organic, intuitive, or even especially logical.  Nothing is more sacred in free enterprise than “location, location, and location.”  Irish pubs don’t hide themselves away in a corner up five flights of stairs.  People don’t carve their initials on the bar here, either.  There is no actual ‘bar’ in fact, just seats at a table in my elementary-school cafeteria.  

The beer is good, though, and reasonably priced at 5RMB or .50EUR.  I never saw an actual North Korean won, though prices are quoted in them.  Is this the first virtual currency, merely a number without a piece of paper to back up its value?  Sounds like “Haitian dollars” to me.  The surprising thing is how pleasant the city is.  I’ve often wondered what future cities—without cars—will be like.  The day will come sooner or later.  Will people kill themselves?  Will people go “Mad Max” in search of gas?  There is no one alive today who remembers a city without gas.  This is probably the best clue, and almost worth the price of admission right there.  This is a city built for living in, and if the atmosphere is a bit sterile, then that may not be too surprising in a city once almost destroyed be war.  And where Havana is populated by an aging fleet of ‘50’s-era American honkers, Pyongyang is traversed by few if any vehicles, just a few trams and trolleys and the ‘Metro of Time’ (the old Berlin subway).  It’s a trip, too, all puns intended, complete with chandeliers on the ceiling and ladies holding flags along the edge of the platform to signal trains.  They won’t let me take their pictures.

The sights are pretty scarce, in fact, almost the only history that which has transpired since the war.  In this scenario there are only two leaders, Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il, and their pictures are everywhere, including the lapels of every citizen.  Their son and grandson has yet to make his appearance on the walls and bridges, but makes the rounds frequently in the popular media, of course, increasingly with his wife.  The few newspapers that exist are full of slight and slander, especially toward the US and South Korea, and placed prominently on sign boards for citizens to read.  That tells you something right there, sooo old-fashioned.  But sights and sites are pretty much limited to war memorials and monuments to workers’ dignity.  It certainly keeps the kids busy, they all dressed up in matching black pants and white shirt—apparently the national uniform—and busily working on the next socialist celebration on the schedule…cool.

Kids may be the key to the castle here.  Everything seems geared to them in that sort of father-son relationship.  For fun, besides the brew pubs and celebrations, there are amusement parks.  There’s nothing like a Ferris wheel to get my blood flowing.  But all in all Pyongyang is a rather pleasant city, though I hear the countryside is much more primitive and poorer. Still for me it offers valuable clues as to what a future city might be like, without all the cars…and the cult of personality, of course.  That’s where North Korea shows its true colors, that and a certain missile program.  I’d like to think that a few more tourists and some person-to-person contact might help alleviate some tension around the peninsula.  Surely these people know that they’re the world’s last Communist state, don’t they?  Don’t they?

Friday, August 31, 2012

CHINA IN THE REAR-VIEW MIRROR: PARADISE LOST IN AN EDIFICE COMPLEX



China’s cities are so large and massively developing that it’s sometimes frightening, and as hard as ever to travel independently.  There’s scarcely a word or destination written in Pinyin (Romanized Chinese)—much less English—in the typical Chinese bus or train station, nor counter help equipped to deal with it verbally, something common in most of the world these days, from Mongolia to Madagascar, Botswana to Berlin.  Hotel staff are a little better—but not much.  So a little Chinese language is almost indispensable to independent travel in China, something which many people would consider impossible.   It’s not, of course, but many people probably won’t believe that. 

This is 2012, mind you, not 1984 nor the 1998-99 era when I was last here, and after an Olympics event which logically should have brought China well within the modern era of travel.  I’m here to report that it has not.  As I struggle to learn up to at least the level of language proficiency I attained a decade or so ago—not much—the obstacles to travel only increase.  Cities only get bigger and more intimidating—and less inviting—while transportation hubs are ever harder to find and navigate.  And malls may be pretty much up to international standards, but the typical “supermarket” lags way behind, a throwback to the era in which a typical “Chinese grocery” worldwide consisted of rows of shelves and piles of provisions stacked haphazardly upon them.  Good supermarkets are indispensable to modern “point-and-click” travel.  China is truly a place where a travel-guide can come in handy, and that’s a tough admission to make for someone who typically eschews them.  Here you can actually chew them.

I have a few days to kill before going back to the US, so I decide to go to nearby Chengde, a city typically described as small and bucolic and the point of departure for trips through the countryside to temples and summer retreats of the Manchu Qing emperors.  There’s even a hostel here (if not quite a “real one,” i.e. it’s a hotel with suites converted to dorms and other private rooms devoted to foreign budget travelers—not a bad idea).  The trip has even been reduced to some two and a half hours now, thanks to a new expressway, a trip that used to take up to seven hours by train.  That comes with a price, of course.  My first view of the bucolic “village” includes more skyscrapers than in all of downtown LA, most of them devoted to apartment dwellers, a half-dozen here, and another handful there all going up simultaneously, jib cranes perched on top like ghosts in the machines, robot aliens sent to conquer us all.  It feels that way sometimes, like an alien army sent to dominate, imposing skyscrapers where houses once were, imposing them by force.

I’m constantly on the lookout for “old China,” not Communist China, but Ming China, with the upturned roofs and the arched entranceways to neighborhoods, neighborhoods with traditions going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  This is a culture traditionally attached to its past, bloodlines far preferable to Communist bread lines.  While that may be all changing on the surface, I personally don’t believe that it indicates a change of heart.  Interestingly the place that seems least affected by all the modern development is Beijing itself, the monster of them all at some fifteen million mortal souls, depending on when and how you count.  There, Beijing’s hutongs—its narrow alleyways—are a living link to its glorious past and part of its individual character, though I personally find it hard to believe that it wasn’t once similar all over the country.  If so, then that means that there is a developmental doctrine exported to the rest of the country that Beijing feels little need to follow itself, something like an imperial army subduing the provinces, bulldozers instead of tanks, rounding the peasants up into luxury apartments.  Conspiracy theories’ greatest beauty is that they can’t be disproven.

The smog is no better in Chengde than in Beijing, though, maybe even worse.  I’d forgotten how the smog in Mexico City was worse in the hills surrounding.  There I’ve been twice with the highest recorded smog levels ever, though I’m sure those levels have long been exceeded.  This looks worse than that, visibility reduced to a few hundred feet.  I don’t see how planes could land in this pea soup, like the “fog” that made London famous back in the day.  I picked up a cold and a cough back in Mongolia, and while the cold is long gone, the cough is lingering like the foul unvented bathroom odors typical of these parts.  The smog doesn’t help.  The sites around here are mostly temples and grounds favored by the Manchu Qing emperors of a few hundred years ago, including a summer resort and replicas of the Tibetan Potala in Lhasa and the Buddhist bodhisattva and goddess of mercy Kwan Yin.  Some references call it the original Disneyland, something like “Qingland” or “Buddha-land,” with a mixture of styles and influences intended to elevate them all to an enlightened equality—with mixed results. 

Though disappointing, mainly because of the smog, still Chengde is not without its charms, and at some half million people is not a bad “small town” to poke around.  Small towns in China are upwards of a half mil.  Still I’m appalled at the lack of development for tourism in China, especially considering the massive development in other areas.  Tourism is easy money.  I think this is not government policy, just a lack of vision on the part of every individual proprietor who serves noodle soup and can’t take the time to write some names and prices in English to increase his eatership.  It’s not that hard. 

Sure there are plenty of places around Tiananmen and elsewhere with proprietors eager to guide you through the process, but that’s not a transparent process.  Beijing is known for its hundred-dollar tea-tasting scams, too.  This is simply cultural myopia on the part of the Chinese.  This is why China will never rule the world.  Despite the Marx brothers and their theories, the world is not ruled by its factory workers nor its factory owners, but by the buyers of its products.  That’s the difference between a demand economy and a command economy.  But wait a minute.  Aren’t these the same Chinese who populate the world in a far-flung commercial diaspora, the likes of which the world has never seen before?  There they open stores and learn languages where the average Brit wouldn’t stoop to manage a bank, learning to make “jerk” cuisine and quick-curries in Jamaica, in addition to their own cuisine, all while speaking fluent patois.  Why don’t they do that here?  Go figure.  There’s a cause-and-effect relationship here, but I’m not sure where.

Not surprisingly, therefore, I’m one of the few foreigners in town here, and people tend to look at me as if I’d just dropped in from Mars.  That may be because I’m wearing a baseball cap that says “Mars” (the candy bar, not the planet) on it, but I doubt it.   Finally the best part is leaving, to catch my flight without getting stuck in a flood or typhoon somewhere, or getting lost in translation when I’ve taking the wrong bus down the wrong road.  I don’t have time to devote to all this right now, maybe next year.  China is not a casual date… or the cheapest.  It’s a serious undertaking, best accomplished with plenty of time, lots of patience and a choice of venues.  I’m not really a city person, so I’d rate my previous time in Guanxi, Guizhou, and Yunnan as not only my favorites in China, but some of the best times of my entire life.  I’d like to go to Tibet before it changes beyond recognition. 

So I catch the mini-bus out of Chengde railway station, not knowing where it’ll drop me off in Beijing, only knowing it’s certainly easier to get to than the long-distance bus station out on the edge of town.  I could try to ask, but the answer would likely be meaningless to me.  If there’s a subway station nearby, then I’m good.  If not, then I’ll find one.  The driver’s way ahead of me.  He drops us all on the side of the road on the edge of town at the first subway station we come to.  It only requires the leaping of one guard-rail and the free-style navigation of one small slope.  If you’re old and decrepit, then… sorry.  I suppose for the average independent traveler, China then is limited to a few easy cities and a few choice villages and a few simple routes: Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and environs in the north, and Guilin/Yangshuo, Kunming-Dali-Lijiang, and Lhasa/Tibet in the south and west.  So I spend the rest of my day in the retail Disneyland on Wangfujing Street.  If Chengde was the Qing’s self-caricature, then this is the modern Communist one.

Do I like China?  Definitely.  Do I love it?  Maybe.  After all, you gotta’ love a place where hot steaming corn is sold at almost every newspaper kiosk.  More than that, this is a place that, with a little time and effort and mastery of the language, a laowai like me might find himself amply rewarded.  It’s too late for that in Thailand.  Mostly, though, there’s a human scale to Beijing in the streets that belies the massiveness of its model or its mission.  In the alleys it’s time immemorial on any given day, Islamic pizza and sizzling hot woks, the confluence of cultures on a high northern plain, rice from the south, grilled meats from the north, and flat breads from the west.  Oh, well, two out of three ain’t bad…

It’s interesting sometimes to consider how closely China and the US parallel each other: they’re almost exactly the same size at almost exactly the same latitudes, and almost exactly half a world away from each other.  In this fantasy scenario, New York, D.C., Miami and Atlanta somehow correspond to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong.  And if Kunming’s mile-high doppelganger is Denver and Xi’an’s is Xicago, then Lhasa would fit in nicely as a Chinese Santa Fe, I suppose.  It’s an imperfect model, of course.  The backward southern states of Guanxi and Guizhou could easily pass for… you know. 
 
So where’s California in this plan?  Maybe that’s the true common ground.  After all California has as many Asians as many Asian cities themselves.  That’s where I’m going.  This trip’s history.  Interestingly, my wife Tang and I will be returning on the same day to the same destination from different origins and (mostly) different routes.  I’m leaving for LA from Beijing with a stopover and a change of planes in Seoul, South Korea, while she’ll be starting in Chiang Rai, Thailand, and after a change of planes in Bangkok, making a brief stopover in Seoul on the way to LA (scuttlebutt is that no one wants to land in Japan anymore for the free radiation therapy).  Theoretically I’ll land in LA an hour and a half before her, and we’ll live happily ever after.  Fingers are appropriately crossed.  There’s only one problem: my flight gets canceled… so I catch an earlier flight.  That’s where experience counts.  I expect snafus, especially with a storm in the neighborhood. 

I have to spend a night in Seoul International either way on this long layover.  Others are stuck from the typhoon, and have been here a couple days already and still waiting for a flight out.  A Thai girl hears me speaking Thai to Tang via Skype and almost goes berserk to hear her language… so I try to help her, without much luck.  The flight to LA leaves on time.  Tang’s doesn’t.  One hour passes, then two.  There she is now.  Then this must be home.  Don’t try this there.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

MONGOLIA: SO FAR FROM GOD, SO CLOSE TO CHINA



As the plane is landing at Chinggis Khan International Airport in Ulaan Bator, I look down at the dirt tracks swirling through the pastures surrounding the runway.  They look something like a beginner’s guide to chaos theory, the likely paths and the harder ones, converging and re-converging according to some logic or design.  I figure this must somehow be the map to the Mongolian persona if not history.  I mean, you’ve gotta’ give these guys a lotta’ credit, not just for conquering half the known world of the time, but for somehow getting out of China’s grip in the end.  No other of China’s conquerors ever accomplished that; just ask the Manchus, who lost their own country in the process, just like all the others, including the Khitans who gave us “Cathay.”  Of course the Mongols had some help from neighboring big brother Russia, who took a piece herself in the process; I believe the teeth-marks are still visible on the map.

Not knowing what kind of place or where my hostel will be, I booked an airport pickup to facilitate things.  Last time I did that, I got shanghaied in Nairobi.  I wonder if this time I’ll get nairobied in Shanghai.  I don’t see my name anywhere at first glance, but then I see a young kid listlessly holding up a sign with my name in one hand, an iPhone in the other, head buried in it.  That’s my guy.  He leads me out to the van.  There’s a tire iron in the front seat.  I’m home… for a day or two at least… but no more than that.  I’ve got five days in Mongolia and I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit in the city the whole time, so I’ve already booked onward trans for the next day to Tsetserleg, where there’s not only an English guesthouse, but it’s supposed to be one of the nicer of the provincial capitals.  Sounds chahming, dahling. 

The bus terminal is not much more than a parking lot, but at least they do have a ticket office.  The road itself is another matter.  We break down before we barely reach the edge of town.  That eats up almost an hour, listening to the eponymous noises of tools and tire irons clanging and clattering in hidden compartments.  In the Old West somebody always rode shotgun.  Here in the Old East I guess somebody rides tire iron.  Flat tires are common, as are other roadside maladies and challenges to a vehicle’s mortal soul.  You could count distances by the number of potholes.  Sometimes it feels like we’re going to leave an axle behind.  Sometimes the adjacent pasture is preferable to the road itself, so the driver just goes off the side and keeps going. 

About every hour or so, the bus stops so that everybody can get off to go peepee and poopoo, right there on the side of the road, every man pissing to the wild blue yonder, every mother trying to get her kids to get it all out while the getttin’s good, because the green pasture is certainly preferable to the actual mid-point lunch break.  Think you’ve seen some primitive loos before?  Here it’s a little row of cordoned off stalls, each wide enough for three planks, with the middle one missing.  That’s where you send your deposit off to the fetid swamp that lies twenty feet below.  It’s big enough for a child to fall through… or a laptop computer, too, for that matter.  I get dizzy thinking about it, and almost can’t urinate.  Camp Kickapoo was a party poop compared to this chasm of filth and chaos.

I count several dead horses along the side of the road, no telling how many die off in the pasture.  They’ve got plenty.  Livestock far outnumber people in Mongolia, some herds reminding me of the great migrations of wildebeest in Africa, at least when they cross the road.  But these are not wild.  These are all stock, great herds of cattle and goats and sheep and horses, the ponies for which Mongolia is famous, the ponies that conquered the world, but failed to conquer the selectively-bred alfalfa-fed monsters that some of their more creative enemies—Parthians I believe—came up with to respond to the challenge.  Such is the history of Mongolia, and they’re quite proud of it.  I can see why.  The green rolling fields are as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen, if not so spectacular, just going on forever.  Gers (yurts) dot the landscape, the traditional homes of a traditional people, nomadic by nature, moving with the seasons and pastures.  They seem a cross between Dine’ (Navajo) hogans, igloos, and Playmate picnic coolers.  I suppose that’s how they work, too, a few layers of insulation between the inner fire and the outer cold.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remind me of where I am.  I’m in freaking Mongolia, man!  That’s almost Siberia!  It may be as close as I ever get, in fact.  At one point a little finger of the Gobi Desert kisses the road we’re on, with the requisite Bactrian camels and desert-dressed countryman, but mostly it’s green pastures and ponies, though motorized vehicle—especially motorbikes—are obviously making major inroads, pun intended.  I guess they can round up herds as well as any pony.  It reminds me more of Bolivia than anything I’ve seen before, both the people and the landscape, vast and desolate, but not desperate.  If those two peoples are not related somehow, then they’re certainly missing a good opportunity.  Of course the Mongol physical features resemble their Chinese neighbors in many ways, though there is no obvious cultural connection beyond the couple hundred years that the Mongols ruled China.  Linguistically they’re closer to distant Istanbul than Beijing.  But physical types (so-called “races”) must predate language by many millennia. 

When we finally get into Tsetserleg, it’s still light out, not hard up here at almost fifty degrees north in the summer, about the same latitude as the US-Canada border.  Travel the same distance north as we’ve just traveled west and you’d be at Lake Baikal in Russia, Ulan Ade in fact.  So there’s the connection between Russia and Mongolia, the sharing of this region and mutual relatives, maybe not as obvious as with China, but still there.  And Russia has a long history both with and against Turkic peoples, the Mongols’ close relatives.  This is where much history was made in an earlier era, and that included Russian-related Indo-European speakers, too, long before Russia itself made the great migration eastward. 

But Tsetserleg itself is no great shakes, though pleasant enough, I guess, something of a crossroads out here in the outback.  I’m almost the only guest the first night, but the crowds roll in the second, Europeans on motorcycles even, just in time for the rain.  That’s okay, as there wasn’t a whole lot to do anyway, except walk around town and environs.  I did stroll the market, though, which ruined any desire I might have had to try the local food, since the market and vegetables on display are filthy and disgusting.  I don’t think veggies play much of a role in the local cuisine.  Nutella and thick Russian brown breads will have to suffice.  

I worry that the road may wash out for my trip back, which I barely got on anyway, seat number forty-five at the very back.  But the road is okay except when we have to turn off of it.  At one stretch we must go for five or ten miles in water-soaked pasture adjacent to the distressed road.  It’s stressful, but we finally make it through.  Somehow we always do.  So I guess I’ll get my full day in Ulan Bator after all.  And it’s nice enough, if nothing spectacular.  My favorite part is the Buddhist temple a short hike up the road where I’m staying.  It’s almost a little copy of the Potala in Tibet, with which it shares a sect if not sects.  J  They even sell Dalai Lama calendars here.  Somehow that seems appropriate, though it’s only been the case for a few hundred years.  It’s oddly compelling, though, I’ll have to admit. 
 
I’ve been Buddhist philosophically for many years, without ever feeling the compulsion to kneel and pray and make wishes to the four winds.  But listening to the monks recite their prayers is effective.  I know it’s just ritual, endless repetitions of the same incantations, but the effect is transcendent and I feel myself being swept up in it, the recitations more than the sum of their particular words.  There may be something here for me.  I spend hours looking through the nearby shops full of Buddhist adornments and accessories, even buying a couple for myself.  Mongolians mostly shop in the “State Department Store,” though, a throwback to the Communist era.  But whereas before, that might’ve meant shoddy merchandise on scarce shelves and long lines and little fulfillment, today it’s a dizzying array of dazzling displays and more clichés than I have to describe it, a paradigm shift of cosmic proportions.

Mongolia, too, is more than the sum of its individual parts.  In a way, I wish I had more than five days to spend here, but I’m not sure what I’d do with them.  I guess I’ll have to come back.  On the other hand I could die right here right now with few regrets.  If I were to go to heaven, then I wouldn’t have far to go.  It’s not that the people are especially warm, because they’re not.  Nor is it that the land is especially inviting, because it’s not, either.  Both seem as brutal and challenging as they are warm and inviting.  But somehow that seems appropriate, a blank page on which to write something besides my name, rank, and serial number.  I’m sure I could think of something to write, though I have no idea how the end result would turn out.  It all depends on how it starts.  That’s how chaos theory works.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

BEIJING RUNAROUND: BUSES & PLANES & SUBWAYS



Any flight that leaves at 1:20 in the morning is already doomed as far as I’m concerned.  It can only go down hill from there, especially when the airplane seat back doesn’t seem to want to recline backward.  But this one’s worse than that.  Not only do I arrive in Shanghai at six in the a.m. with seven hours until my onward connection, but I have to change airports—not terminals—to do it.  Fun fun fun.  At least I get something of a view of Shanghai in the process, though not exactly like cruising the Bund in a British double-decker bus.  Unfortunately the exchange houses in China will fleece you right there at the airport, charging you fifty yuan to change your money, so I ask him for it back.  I thought he said fifteen.  That’s almost ten bucks!  I do the ATM instead.  It can’t be any worse.

Fortunately I get to the other airport with plenty of time to spare, nothing to do but free-base caffeine and try to get my jollies in an airport that’s singularly lacking in character(s).  In a previous life I’d’ve been trying to get on an earlier flight, but that’s so verboten in the US now, that I just forget all about it, wouldn’t pay extra for it anyway.  This day’s already trashed; my only goal is to find my hotel before dark using the subway system in a city I’ve never visited using a language I don’t really know written in characters that mean little or nothing, though the character for pot-stickers looks surprisingly accurate.  Too bad I don’t eat meat…usually.  I’ll eat anything if I’m hungry enough.  Shanghai’s is the airport of the future, symbolic of their field-of-dreams mentality, their edifice complex, the notion that the world is there (and theirs) to be developed, a mall in every village, an airport for every town.  I’m not sure I like that vision; I’m pretty sure I don’t in fact.  Nature may not always be right, but probably more often than humans.  I don’t think I’ll ever lose my love of fields and streams, mountains and valley daydreams.

The weather is bad, so the flight is an hour late leaving Shanghai, but still I find my hotel before dark by the grace of God.  Allahu akhbar.  There’s a reason I book hotels close to subway stations.  I have no desire to meander down some hutong with full pack in the darkness after a long night flight.  And it’s a peach, too, the hotel, that is, $30 net with a couple bucks extra for the best breakfast I’ve had since Istanbul; and shows it’s influence, too, with hard-boiled eggs and plenty of salad fixin’s, not to mention forty-two different kinds of tofu, a vegetarian’s dream in cheap hotel heaven.  There’s everything but the coffee and/or tea.  I guess that has nothing to do with breakfast in China.  They do that at the office all day, or wherever whenever.  The water fountains at the airport have hot water, too; way cool.  The hotel doesn’t have Wi-Fi, but I guess a hard-wire connection will do.  Steve Jobs wouldn’t like that, though, would he? 

They even confirm that there are rooms available for the extra day I want.  I just have to book through Expedia again if I want the bro’ rate.  If I pay at the desk it’ll be 25% more.  Steve Jobs probably would like that, wouldn’t he?  The first day I walk so much that my feet are mush.  Tiananmen Square and Sanlitun Village—the foreign quarter—will have to suffice.  I’ll save the Forbidden City for another day.  I can do that any half day.  The Great Wall will take a little more planning… mostly waiting actually, for the bus.  I blow off the tour companies and opt for the public bus, but that means the long lines familiar to Communism.  Ha!  That’s about the only thing left of Communism here, “Chinese characteristics” indeed!  I think they mean “Chinese characters,” i.e. in name only.  You can see the wall at many places, probably most of them better than the carnival atmosphere around nearby Badaling, but still I figure I should catch it while I can.  I’m not sure I could back-fill the logic to myself trying to explain why I went to Beijing and missed the Great Wall.  Marco Polo is still trying to explain it.  So I figure it’s worth the hour-plus wait.
 
It’s impressive, too, as much or more as any picture could attempt to do it justice.  I even thought about walking it, but… naah.  On the way back, though, I jump the bus line when I hear the guy yelling, “Spaces for two!”  At least I think that’s what he said.  Most Chinese travel in packs.  They yell a lot, too.  You’ve probably heard that they’re not really yelling, that’s just the tonality of the language.  That’s pure BS; they’re yelling.  In fact Beijingers are just about like any other big city residents, whether it be New York, Moscow, London, Mexico City or Jo’burg.  They’re brash and rude and loud.  It comes with the turf.  If you parachuted into one from outer space, you probably couldn’t tell it from the others… but for the writing on the wall.  Do not test these drivers’ basic humanity while crossing the street, I warn you.  Take the subways.  Line 2 is the ticket here, the loop line that circles the city, just like London, so hard to get lost.

It’s now many years since China “came out” from its self-imposed Iron Curtain, and the world’s changed almost as much as China since then.  No longer is China the butt of anybody’s jokes as it was on Seinfeld as recently as the mid-90’s.  You can’t laugh at a country that puts a man in space.  Mao hats are no longer the latest fashion, either, for tourists or locals.  I doubt that Vietnam can make the same claim.  Still there’s censorship, which means no Facebook or Twitter.  Do they know something we don’t?  I believe they made their point that economic advancement trumps political equality any day.  So why not drop the political charade and at least give people the illusion of freedom?  But no government gives that up willingly, do they?  Taiwan only gave it up to one-up the mainland, something they never did while China was genuinely Communist.  Of course, there’s no foreign TV, either, but that seems a lesser crime.  Chinese reality TV and costume dramas are not that much different from similar fare from other countries.
 
Fortunately at least a little bit of old China—but not much—lives on in the back alleys of Beijing.  Here you can find the best street food and the most interesting little shops.  They’re rapidly becoming upscale and fashionable, too, since the faster they disappear the more valuable the few remaining ones become.  It reminds me most of maybe the old quarter in Hanoi, with which it must share a common ancestor, if Hanoi is not a direct copy itself.  Fortunately that district is not far from where I’m staying, so it’s the best of both worlds for me.  I like it.  I’ll be back.  But first I’ve got a date with Chinggis Khan.  C U there.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

THAILAND SLOWLY GETS ITS PARADIGM SH**T TOGETHER




The good news is that it feels good to be in Thailand, a place I once lived for some ten years or so, depending on how you count it.  The incorrigible wackiness and petty racial nuisance of being a “farang” in a foreign land where such things matter is easily overcome by the gentleness of the culture and handsomeness of its people… where such things matter.  What I don’t like is the rainy season, and it’s not getting any better.  A couple nights ago I had to drive through a flood with water almost entering the car, no fun, some of the scariest moments of my life, in fact.  I couldn’t believe we made it where other cars were dying left and right.  I didn’t sleep much that night.

Given the current idiosyncrasies of the American political and economic dilemma it’s tempting to be encouraged by the fact that there might be some place or places in the world that are worse… but not really.  Such nonsense as the current debates over health care, economic justice, and senseless violence—not to mention multiple fronts in a series of never-ending wars—are the stuff of Grade-B science fiction.  But yes, there are places in worse shape, mostly in the Third World.  And for all its self-styled rep as the Land of Smiles, Thailand—along with many others—would probably fall into that category.  Despite the fact that hundreds died for democracy in 1992, the real thing seems farther away than ever. 

It’s complicated.  The students that wanted democracy then don’t want it now, because it’ll get you a populist megalomaniac multimillionaire who acts essentially as dictator due to his base of support among the impoverished peasantry, where votes are bought and sold for a few dollars a pop and people seem to like having a Big Man whose larger-than-life presence is so reassuring that a shadow government run by his cutie-pie sister and a handful of henchmen can still run the country as effectively as the opposition.  And of course they do have a national health care system—unlike even some developed countries—thanks to that same popular populist and his deep pockets, so that helps.  Ending the violence in the Islamic south is another matter entirely.  Neither major political party has a pair that big nor the grey matter to deal with the problem effectively.

But that’s politics.  Society is another matter.  Not long ago Thailand was so awash in drugs, prostitution, and corruption, that it seemed nothing could even conceivably ever change all that.  As a Buddhist society there is a certain amount of tolerance and passivity built into the system.  Of course there is also a certain amount of negativity.  What do you expect from a religion whose first tenet is, “Existence is suffering.”  Ouch!  Thai Buddhism makes original sin look like a picnic in the park.  The religious reductio ad absurdum that follows from the premise that we’re all sinners takes different turns in different places.  If that means horrendous restrictions on the rights of women in Islamistan, and not much more than some vestigial guilt in the Western Lands, in Thailand and much of SE Asia, it’s more like “WTF—carpe noctem,” complete with little white lies to Mama-Papa and appropriate back-filling of logic to oneself to assuage the guilt of not-so-original sin.

The idea that one can be anything one aspires to be and that we should all be all that we can be is slow to catch on in a society where conformity is the norm and paths of least resistance are the paths most frequently taken.  To follow a preexisting business model is the business model, which partially explains why enforcement of intellectual property rights in the ‘hood here is so difficult.  What intellect?  What property?  What rights?  So women spend money on lipstick and powder instead of education and careers, and society happily clambers down the path to its LCD’s—liquid crystal displays and lowest common denominators.  The value of a human life is well-known, and that of a woman is much less than that of a man.  For an older woman it’s almost nothing, of course, so women have to stick together.  This is not the popular Western conception of “trafficking,” mind you—though that happens, too, sometimes—just women making bad choices, over and over and over, until Mr. Right comes along…  yeah, right.

Poor business models are not all bad for the consumer, of course.  The fact that one modern coffee shop here looks just like the coffee shop across the street with similar menus and prices and interior design means that if I do happen to pass that way, then I certainly won’t fail to notice.  Too bad there’s not one in my neighborhood.  Maybe one day one of them will even realize that most people drink their serious coffee in the morning… but that could take years before someone finds an appropriate model to copy. 

This is all part of what I call “village communism,” living within a house of mirrors and the opinions and judgment of your neighbors, mostly having to do with the accumulation of wealth, the more the better, as long as you don’t lose face in the process.  The logical conclusion to this model is one street for stationery, one for hardware, one for groceries, one for restaurants, and one for bars, etc.  As one fails or prospers, then so do they all.  Other consequences are not so good.  No one really even notices when the dancing girls bring their little dog-and-pony shows right on the temple grounds, at least not at first.  Where’s a money changer when you need him?

All that’s changing… slowly.  It comes with the turf.  When Japan was the big shot in the neighborhood back in the 80’s, Thailand and others got some benefit by association and their first economic “boom”… ever, to my knowledge.  When that faded after a decade, and the Afghani Taliban sent the prices of White Powder Ma up here in the Golden Triangle soaring in the 90’s, Thailand was right back in the cesspool.  China should be able to deliver a benefit longer and stronger than that—given the genetic relations—as long as they mind their political s and ’s.  The business class in Thailand—and everywhere in SE Asia, for that matter—is and always has been Chinese-descended.  The difference with other countries is that here it’s also been gene-shuffled, so that after a generation or two, Chinese people here “become Thai.”  Would that it were so easy for us “Farangs.”  

So, while life continues a slow if familiar pace up here in the north at Chiang Rai, the changes are palpable, if a bit long in coming.  Gone are the sex shows in many a bar’s back room.  Gone are the go-go dancers—most of them, at least.  Bars themselves have been removed from the ever-popular and generally family-friendly “night bazaar.”  There’s even a weekend street-long arts and crafts market, copied from Chiang Mai, of course.  With the collapse of an export handicrafts market, this is essential to maintain traditional skills and products.  Bars in general are in decline, while coffee shops are on the increase… and they make a mean frozen blended espresso drink I might add (though none dare call it “Frappucino™”).  And marketing madness still rules, as always, a cure-all pill in every medicine cabinet and a 7-11 on almost every block.  The psychology department of the local bookstore will explain it all to you.

So the future is bright for Thailand, economically at least.  A solid and successful free and open market trumps a black one any day by some law of economics that I’m still working on.   Unfortunately there are still one or two white elephants in the room yet to be dealt with.  One is named Thaksin, of course, the fugitive financier ex-PM that has set the country back decades politically with his power grab and subsequent expulsion from the country, where he now rules by proxy and a clear majority.  The other is the King, whose death will set a series of events into motion the likes of which this country—maybe even this world—has never seen before.  But I can’t talk about that, because that would be against the law.  It’s complicated.

Perhaps even more annoying, though, is the poor quality of products here and the general perception that nothing really works, not the way it’s supposed to, anyway, electrical systems especially.  I turn on the light switch and it finally comes on…four hours later.  Most annoying is that when there’s lightning it’s strongly advised not to use the TV.  They tend to explode.  Electricity is not grounded here, running wild and subject to surges and spikes.  Computers get it bad.  It storms a lot here, too, especially in the season.  They explain on Thai TV how to ground your appliance: drive a metal rod deep into the ground, etc. etc…  Repeat for every sensitive piece of equipment.  Welcome to Thailand.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

US & MEXICO’S WIDE WIDE WEST—BUSES & BORDERS


Puerto Libertad is a notch ahead of Puerto Lobos.  At least it has some hotels, and restaurants, too—even an Oriental one, I hear.  But I know in my heart the trip’s really over, anyway, because once the rhythm’s broken, then you have to skip to the next act…and that’s LA.  So why am I going southeast when I need to go northwest?  Chill, Hardie, chill.  All is not lost, of course.  During that hour or so of uncertainty, standing on the sidewalk, waiting for the bus, I probably chatted with more local strangers than I have in the last thirty-five years—the hardware guy, the hotel guy, the construction guy on the bicycle—just wanting to chat, just like the old days.  That was in Mexico, too.  Sadly it happens all too infrequently around the world, and when it does happen, it’s notable.  If I may riff on a theme: “so far from the US, so close to God.” 
“Are you Gringo or Mexican?” the guy on the sidewalk finally asks me.
“Gringo.”
Cien por ciento?”
          “100%.”
Maybe just a little bit pocho?
Puro gringo.
And genetic theories of language acquisition die another little death, racism in one of its mildest forms, the reverse Lamarckian fallacy in linguistics—acquisition of inherited characteristics—and pitfall of the uneducated.  No, language is not coded in DNA.  One of the nicest things about Mexico is that so few people speak English…or even care.  Good for them; that’s the way it should be.  If intermingling with the locals is the highest goal of travel, then passing for one is the Holy Grail.  If we all could pass for local all over the world, then there’d be no racism.  Racism in its vicious form is hatred—and fear—of the “other.”  If there is no perception of “otherness,” then there should be no racism.  But besides chatting up the locals, not much else is happening in the metropolis of Puerto Libertad.  It’s election time at the local and national levels.  At the national level PRI is predicted to win the presidency for the first time since finally losing their “perfect dictatorship” in 2000.  On the local level it’s “Nacho” against “El Melon.”  I’m getting hungry.

But of course I can’t sleep with a 5 a.m. bus to catch, so that adds insult to injury.  I need help from the desk people.
            “You’re going to give me a wake-up call at 4:30 a.m., right?
            Si, senor, a las cuatro y media.”
There’s only one problem: no telephone.  So next time I pass the desk I try to act my cutest and remind her, “you’re going to call me with a megaphone, right?”
She smiles.  Si, senor.”
Now I know I’ll never get to sleep.  I try to remember that Seinfeld episode about the long-distance runner who missed his alarm for the marathon.  What did he do?  But the concern was all for naught.  The night clerk actually did come knock on my door—twice—but I didn’t need it anyway.  I’ve got an internal clock that checks the time every hour on the hour all night, and it’s got an alarm, too.

So sometimes the epiphany is in the brilliant mistake, and the devil is always in the details.  One of the main purposes of this trip was to see wartime Mexico, and how it’s holding up.  I’m happy to report that it’s doing fine.  No one is hiding behind metal shutters—no more than usual anyway—and no one is scared to talk to strangers.  So I make my morning bus and continue on to Hermosillo, the wrong way to LA, but still holding out my options.  We’re going through Seri Indian country now, and they pile onto the bus at several intermediate stops.  They certainly don’t look like the bad-asses they’ve got the rep for, quite a handsome people in fact, far more than their fat-ass mixed-blood counterparts.  If anyone has diabetic obesity here, it’s not the natives; it’s the overweight Mexican women.  A young Seri couple sit behind me, so I listen in on their conversation.  The language sounds like somebody gargling…and then swallowing.

We finally get into Hermosillo and it’s hotter than PHX—pardon my Spanish—but I mean Phoenix, of course, Hermosillo’s sister city to the north.  If Phoenix had ended up on the other side of the line, this is what it’d look like.  The hotel I booked is located five minutes’ walk from the bus terminal, of course, something I didn’t even know at the time.  I consider begging them for a refund, but blow it off.  I’d probably fare better if I showed up to check-in today, but… naah…  I continue to the bus terminal…and the “ruta Sonora” up river toward Arizona is problematic, only three buses per day, and one of them already gone.  If I don’t like Aconchi, I wouldn’t want to wait seven hours for another bus OR spend the night in the Godforsaken place.  I just did that last night. 

So I’ll book onward trans to Tijuana through the night, get there early Sunday morning, then see how I feel.  I’d like to see how it’s doing anyway, especially after spending so much time there in the interstices of my two-year “hypertravel.”  Everyone asks me about Ethiopia, Yemen, Madagascar, and Papua NG, but nobody ever asks me about Tijuana, and that’s where I spent more time than any other single place.  I doubt I’ll spend the night, though, not with an apartment waiting for me two hours away in LA.  So this trip’s over…almost.  I ask everyone—literally everyone—how many hours it is to TJ: “Twelve hours,” like they’re reciting a mantra that they wish were true.  It’s important, not because I want to spend the night on the bus and get psychological payback for the night’s rent I paid on a hotel where I never stayed…but because I don’t want to get into TJ into the middle off the night…especially not on a Saturday night…especially not TJ. 

So I decide to go at 8 p.m. since that one’s a guaranteed seat, no wait to purchase after bus arrival and head-count.  Of course, the Visa machine doesn’t work for the bus ticket.  Welcome to Mexico.  And they stop us for “revision” no less than four times along the way.  Welcome to Mexico.  That should deter any small-timer drug dealers from competing with the big boys.  Or do they honestly expect to bore the cartels to death?  And there’s no water for the crapper on the bus, so the poop piles high.  That’s a bit too much like the old days.  Welcome to Mexico again. 

Much of the trip to TJ we’re going parallel to that fence that defines and divides cultures and families through the great southwest (Mexico’s great northwest).  Anything divided by nothing, of course, is impossible, meaningless infinities, and that’s the way it seems here, like treating the symptoms rather than looking for a cure.  Chinese restaurants line the border in San Luis and Mexicali—all looking northward—like pieces in a game of Chinese chess (Go, 圍棋,weiqi), in the process of surrounding their opponent, trying to accomplish with hot woks and hard work what others accomplish with stealth and cunning, grabbing and running.  And the trip to TJ is really sixteen hours, not twelve.  Welcome to Mexico one last time, on the way out.  So I connect straight to a bus north.  They allow an hour to cross the border.  It takes two.  Welcome to Mexico.  And the trip to LA is supposed to take three hours.  It takes four.  Welcome to Mexico.  By the time we reach Long Beach I jump ship.  I can’t take it any more.  I know my way home from here.  By the time I sit down half-starved to supper—twenty-two hours and twenty-two ounces of granola later—the sun is going down.  Welcome to Mexico…I mean LA. 

Afterword: A few days later I pay my credit card bill, so check the details first.  There’s that $38.38 charge, except that…it’s not from the Mexican hotel I booked at all.  It’s from the Air Asia flight that I booked before I left, albeit thinly documented on the statement itself.  So I’ve skipped out on a charge I really was liable for, though I never used the service.  So not only did I break even, but I really came out ahead, in effect getting payback for the glitched charge from two years ago.  Score one for incompetence.  So does that mean that “3838” is my lucky number?  Welcome to Mexico.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

MEXICO’S WIDE WIDE WEST- LIFE IN A REMOTE FISHING VILLAGE





(Part 2) Puerto Lobos is a study in contrasts.  If (the more developed) Bahia de Kino feels like “land’s end”—per Lonely Planet—then this is off the map, though that is changing with the new highway, as previously mentioned.  My only visit two years ago, the road had just been paved to here—from the north down the coast—shortening the distance from the big city of Caborca (pop. 60,000) and transportation links to the rest of the country.  Now that link to the links is even shorter, as there’s a bus thirty minutes to the south in Puerto Libertad, that connects to the much larger city to the southeast in Hermosillo (pop. 700,000).  But if Puerto Lobos looks like a tiny little God-forsaken Mexican fishing village on the surface, peel back a layer of the onion and there’s more (actually I prefer those large Mexican green onions for this purpose). 

There’s a tiny community here of similarly-minded ex-pat American hipsters (ex-Flagstaff, mainly) looking to get off the grid on the cheap, at least part-time—build a crib, put a lock on the door, etc.  If that sounds sooo colonial, well rest assured the Mexicans do it, too.  In fact, on weekends, and especially the Holy Week preceding Easter, the whole place takes on an entirely different personality, raucous and rowdy.  Thus, this tiny village of fishermen is nothing so much as a village of beach houses (mostly shacks, actually) for city dwellers, Mexican-style.  And when I say “get off the grid” that used to have a different meaning entirely, i.e. off the power grid.  Now civilization is impinging little by little, and power and light poles are going up one by one…and a community that used to be pitch black at night is gradually taking on the appearance of “normalcy.”  Some like it that way.  Some don’t.  There are even cell phones now, so put a little thingamajig on your laptop and that means Internet, too.

What about the war, you ask, that drug-fueled war that has in the last five years claimed as many lives in Mexico as the Vietnam War did to the US in ten?  That’s somewhere else…in somebody else’s village…in somebody else’s mind.  Oh sure, there’s a bit of drug trade here, coming from who-knows-where going to God-knows-where.  They come in, do their thing under the cover of night, and then they go home, usually.  Sometimes they hide in fifty-five gallon drums while the helicopter’s search lights probe overhead. 

As long as nothing really bad happens in town, then everyone turns a blind eye to the drug trade…the storeowners, the fishermen, the American ex-cop.  The bad guys are good customers in town, after all, for the supplies they need, so everybody wins.  Yeah right.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that that’s how the war got started in the first place, everybody turning a blind eye as long as it was somebody else’s son carrying the gun and somebody else’s husband getting killed.  Now it’s starting to hit home, especially in Ciudad Juarez and Monterey, the main drug routes to the US markets.  How long before the western lands get ripped up by violence is anybody’s guess.

So in my few short days I establish a little routine—coffee and a light brekkie in the morning, long walk, see the town, see some friends, lunch, nap, internet, etc. But the best part is the afternoon swim, out about a quarter mile to the pelicans’ island.  If the tide’s out, you can walk almost the entire way.  There are miles of unspoiled beach around here.  In the right season you can even see some misguided whales taking the scenic route.  The fat-bellied mother-flippers still don’t have GPS.  All good things must come to an end of course, so I try to put together an onward plan as best I can.  First that means to get to Hermosillo, and then decide where to go from there.  I call the hotel down the road in Libertad (cell phones now, yes!) and they tell me there’s a bus at 2 p.m.  Another Mexican friend says there’s also one at 11 a.m.  With that info in hand I decide that I’ll crash a night in Hermosillo, then maybe take half a day out to Bahia Kino and back—looking for an ironwood carver (long story), then back to Hermosillo and continue onward.

Of course the Kino leg is optional, subject to my shifting moods and desire to do business when I’d really rather write, so the “continue onward” part is of primary importance.  That could give this trip a life beyond merely visiting friends.  The Sonora river route looks pretty good, if the bus schedules are sympathetic to my needs.  I won’t know until I get there.  If it all sounds sketchy, that’s because it is.  I prefer to recycle back statements (“space intentionally left blank”) for those sketches.  But the river route sounds nice, traditional little Mexican towns with hot springs and furniture makers and cows and cowboys—no more Indians.  The original Opata-speaking inhabitants are down to fifteen in number, and they all live in Mexico, D. F. now.  It’s a shame.  Or I could go farther south into the heart of the Yaqui/Mayo territory, but I’ve done that before.  So I get the brilliant idea to book a room in advance by Internet for Hermosillo.  Expedia has some, but I decide to book another on its own Spanish-language website.  It goes through without a hitch, confirmed.

The next morning I check my credit card online to see what the charge is in dollars.  It’s $38.38.  Uh-oh, that can’t be good, not in Mexico—anywhere else, maybe, but not Mexico.  A sign is a sign.  Suddenly I don’t feel so good.  D & E take me to meet my 11 a.m. bus, but there is none.  I’ll have to wait until 2 p.m.  We see the town’s few sights—there ain’t much—and have lunch, but that sick feeling won’t go away.  D & E leave me at the bus stop, but the bus never comes…never.  I’ll have to spend the night in Libertad and catch the 5 a.m. bus, even though I’ve already paid for a room in Hermosillo.  Something like this happened the last time I came here, exactly two years ago to the week.  Then I tried to book a Mexican bus in advance and never got the confirmation, so assumed it never went through.  I made other plans, then the charge showed up; I never got my money back, and not for lack of trying, including calling the bus line’s head office in Mexico, D.F.  I assume I’ll have to eat this one, too.  If things went smoothly, then I guess it wouldn’t be Mexico.  (to be continued)