Sunday, September 26, 2010

Laying low in Chengdu

I know I told you last time that I was going to write a post after getting to Kangding, but energized by how nice Ganzi was, I decided to take a detour to Danba. The road from Ganzi to Danba was the worst of the whole trip, with a ride that took about 14 hours, including one hour caused by a breakdown on the suspension system. I'll put a more detailed post on the road later when I can put up pictures, In any case, by the time I got to Danba I needed a break from buses, so stayed there two nights, then on to Kangding, which was a pretty ok place after I took a soak in the local hot springs. Otherwise it is a quickly modernizing small Chinese city, and cold. There I did get to meet more friendly Israelis who taught me another great card game to add to my repertoire.

So now I'm in Chengdu, and I've decided to pack it in for the October holiday, which starts on Friday. Essentially I have two choices: go back and hide out in Beijing or find some small place far away from any population center to lay low for a week (Sershu would fit the bill, but that's not somewhere I exactly want to spend a lot of time). I chose to go back to Beijing, especially considering I was going to head back after the holiday anyway to get a jump on grad school apps. Also, multiple plans to meet up with people fell through.

But what really pushed me was that upon arriving in Chengdu I found that every single hostel is fully booked for the whole holiday.  This is actually part of a big change I've noticed travelling this time around compared to our previous adventures across the country: many hostels now have majority locals for guests. Before, these types of backpacker places were entirely foreigners. That being said, few locals do the kind of hardcore travelling that I come across many foreigners, particularly Israelis, doing. Thy seem to be mostly students looking for cheap accommodation before they start tours or young yuppie couples doing a week-long trip. In any case, it's a big change.

So I have a couple days to hang out in and around Chengdu before hopping a train back to Beijing before the holiday starts. The city honestly hasn't changed all that much since I was last here (tonight I'm staying in the same hostel as five years ago; it's getting a bit long in the tooth). Of course there are new buildings and cleaner, wider streets, but otherwise it still has the same super-relaxed feel that I enjoyed so much last time. Oh, and the food is still awesome.

Unless special circumstances require, I probably won't post again until I get back to Beijing and throw up some pictures from this first stretch. Until then...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A short missive from the end of the world

That certainly is where it feels like I am now, stuck in Serxu, a Tibetan town and what appears to be the mangy dog capital of the world, right over the border from Qinghai in Sichuan province. I rolled into town this morning hoping to catch onward transportation to a town further down my route, but turns out they all leave early in the morning, so since I'm not willing to fork over 600 kuai to hire a car down myself, I'm stuck in this place tonight. As I mentioned to my sister in an e-mail, the scenary is great but the accomodation is horrid. Dorm-style situations that take foreigners are actually quite rare in this part of the world (though I managed to find one tonight), meaning that I often have to pay for double rooms, which really sucks. I've found that I don't really have the stomach anymore for (as the ineffable Lonely Planet loves to say) dingy dorm rooms, odd smells and lack of running water. The monks that run the guesthouse where I'm staying, however, let me hang out in their office, drinking yak butter tea and watching stupid Chinese television. Their Chinese is way, way worse then mine, so the conversation runs out pretty quickly. I plan to stay up as late as possible until I'm nearly passing out and then crawl into my bed. Luckily cars leaving for my next stop, Ganzi, leave really early in the morning, so I can be up and out of here quick.
I do like being on the road though; if I could just keep moving without having to stop I would. The ride from Yushu this morning was beautiful, up and over a 4,700 meter pass and then bumping into a huge fesitival at a monastery about an hour from here. Tibetans from all over were coming through, many on horseback and as many in Hyundai SUVs. It was raining a bit and now is cold, and I think I can see a dusting of snow on the higher peaks around. The scenary is basically high, windswept plains that gently climb to massive peaks, rather than the jagged mountains that long-time readers will remember from when I went up the Kharakhorum Highway with Clark and Tyler. Once I got to Serxu, though, my momentum was lost as all attempts to hitch a ride out of town failed. I think from here I'm going to high-tail it down to Kangding, stopping in Ganzi overnight. Kangding is about a day's ride from Chengdu, which means comfortable foreigner-oriented hostels and hopefully some fellow travellers, where I can relax for a while and reasses plans. Though it seems a bit of a cop-out, and I'll be passing some cool sights on the way down, I still have plenty of time to hop to some other nearby places, especially if I can find some people to tag along with.
So, I'll try to post again when I reach Kangding two days from now. In the meantime, glad to know people are enjoying the tweets. I'll keep it up.
Also loved ones can rest assured that there've been no problems with altitude.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Life and Death of a Little Birdie

I must start with this is not really my story; this is the story of my roommate. And the first part of the story I only know second hand. The second part I did witness. The timeline above pretty much tells the story, but I will recap it here.

My roommate was on her way to work, and when she opened the door she noticed a bird flying around, and for some reason that I don’t quite understand she is intensely afraid of birds (which might help to explain her lack of knowledge of what types of birds can fly, for example, ducks and geese). Instead of running for the elevator, which in hindsight would have been much more effective in terms of what happened later, she ran back in to the apartment, attempting to hide from the theoretical violent attacks of the winged creature outside the door (maybe my roommate has watched too many Hitchcock movies).

Hoping that the bird would eventually fly away, and forget all about her, she waited for a little while in the apartment, periodically checking the peep hole for the vulture that was outside her door. After looking through the peep hole and not seeing any sight of the pterodactyl, she opened the door, to find to her horror that the bird was sitting on the floor looking at her, which is why she didn’t see it in the peep hole. Then her rational mind kicked in, and she realized that this winged menace was not the threat she thought, she looked down to see a 6 inch green little birdie. Then the cuteness of this little bird clouded her mind as she let it hop toward her and eventually let it hop its way into our apartment, and once it was in the apartment it took flight and started flying all over the place. Because of the fact that she went and hid in the apartment for several minutes, instead of heading straight for the elevator, she was late for work and didn’t have time to catch the bird. So for several hours, there was an unattended bird in our apartment we are still finding the places where it cacaed everywhere, and I am sure it will be a while before we find all of them). Please refer to the timeline for the things that happened prior to this next sentence. When I got home the bird was in a cage and not looking great. After trying to soothe it and give it food, the bird only lasted about another five hours from the time I got home. In total, the bird was in our lives and our apartment for about a sixteen hour period. The lesson from this is that birds that I encounter in China have very short life spans and I don’t think that I should be getting any pets anytime soon; I am having enough trouble trying to take care of little Ben and Hey Zeus, an orange tree, I inherited.

Catching Up on the Blogging

Currently, I am reading The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. I am 1/3 of the way through the book and I don’t think I really like, it is a little too pornographic for me and maybe too intelligent for my liking. I have realized that any book that is highly touted by the New York Times Book Review will probably not be in my fav 5. Nevertheless, in honor of this book that I am currently reading, I have decided to write a blog post in its style. This style works for me because I have been neglecting writing blog post, mainly because I have been very busy at work and nothing interesting has happened, and also because this style will make writing one long blog post about multiple events more effective. And when I say in its style, I just mean like diary entries.

Saturday, August 28th

Today, I was ignominiously inaugurated into the confederacy of dunces. Regrettably, it was not a choice. The inauguration was painful and should have probably ended with a trip to the ER. All and all, the experience could have been much worse.

The day started with me waking up with a fever and deciding whether or not I should cancel giving my English class. I thought, no, I won’t cancel, it is only an hour and I earn more in this hour than an hour at my real job. Take the money, leave the cannoli, as the expression goes. Since, I wanted to sleep in because I was feeling terrible, I decided to ride my bike to the class, otherwise, I would have had to leave earlier on the subway. I arrived to the class feeling not extremely terrible, but immediately regretting my decision to bike. Ironically, when the class began, the first thing that we discussed was how dangerous it is to ride your bicycle in Beijing, and how you need to be careful if you do ride (the irony will be apparent soon). When the class finally ended, the only thing I was thinking about was how nice it would be to be in bed right now. And once I got on my bike, I was calculating the time it would take me until I was back in bed; I estimated about twenty minutes.

First, before I explain what happened next, let me tell you. It is pretty routine in China to cross the street even when the little man is not green, especially when the turn signal is green and the rest of the lights are red. Well, while I was in the haze of my fever and day dreaming about my bed, I decided to do one of these routine green turn signal traffic crossing. I should have known this was a bad idea, when I noticed that I was the only one doing this, and normally every Chinese person trying to cross the street is way out in front of me doing this illegal crossing; however, they were all patiently waiting for the light to change. Anyway, I slowly edged my bicycle out in to traffic looking to make sure no cars were coming from my left (cars coming from my left would be making a right hand turn, and they normally don’t stop and/or yield for red lights, as you will read in a minute). No cars from the left, good, I keep going. Now, it’s important that I get the timing right here, because the light is green for the cars making a left turn and red for cars going straight. I have to make my move to cross when a car is to slow to react to the car in front and leaves a ten foot space (cars are normally too slow to react because most drivers here have cell phones attached to their ears or hands making phone calls and text messaging). So, I get the time right and can get a cross the lane where the cars are turning, and I am looking up to my left to make sure the light is still red for cars going straight, and it is. So, I don’t have to rush and I can keep going without any problems and I am that much closer to my bed. However, I made a miscalculation and didn’t take into consideration cars don’t stop at red lights when they make right hand turns. And WHAM! At about 3 mph, I slam my bike into a car that is going about what seems to me 50 mph. As I said in my last post, I have a gym membership now, and luckily I have been using it, and I also think the fact that I played foot ball helped in the fact that I didn’t die. Because, as I slammed in to the side of the car, I instinctively used a technique in football called getting skinning, which means making yourself small at the point of impact, and I bounce off the side of the car and land on my feet, only to have my foot ran over by the tire of the car (I really don’t know if any of this happened as I said, but this is how it played out in my mind, I think the car ran over my foot because it was in pain afterward). So, I am hoping on my left foot, trying to gage whether or not my right foot is broken. It seems okay but has a little pain.

The car stops and the passenger gets out asking if I am okay, and I am thinking oh shit, there is a big scratch in that guys door, he is going to try to make me pay for it. But, as the guy is making sure I am okay, there is fear in his eyes, and I realize that he is probably not going to make me pay for the scratch. So, I am trying to think how can I get out of here quickly, before he changes his mind and tries to make me pay for something (because in my experience and from stories from other people, Chinese people will try to get as much money out of a foreigner when ever an accident occurs, even if they hit them with a car). I tell him, I am fine. And he says something about the light was red, didn’t you see it. I don’t say anything. And he seemed to get belligerent. And I think oh no, I didn’t make my escape in time. Then I remember someone telling me that if a car hits a pedestrian, it is always the cars fault in China. And since, he seems to be getting angry, I ask him if he wants me to call the cops. And he immediately shuts up. I think tides have turned buddy. Then he asked me if I am okay again. And I am like I am fine. And try to ride off, but my bike is FUBAR. The wheel is out of alignment. The driver finally comes around, and inspects my bike, trying to help me fix it so I can leave. After about 10 minutes of him trying to fix my bike, and me getting on trying to ride a way, he offers me money for a cab and asks me if I need to go to the hospital. I say no I don’t want your money. Just give me a ride home, and he is like no way. Finally, after realizing I can’t fix my bike, and at this point I realize I am not that injured because I can walk okay, I tell him that my bike is broken and cannot be ridden, and he offers me 100 kuai to get it fixed. I take it and walk away trying to find the nearest bike stand. And he speeds off not looking back.

I end up walking from Chaoyangmenwai to Sanlitun, which is about 2km. So my foot seems fine, I drop my bike off at a repair stand there, and the guy tells me, I need to replace my whole front end. I am like whatever (I just want to go home and sleep at this point because I feel sicker and now my body aches from being hit by a car), how much does it cost? He says 45kuai, I think it’s less than 100kuai, so it’s okay, and I have money for a cab home. Things are coming up Milhouse. I leave my lock on the ground with him and the bike and hop in the first cab home.
Once I get home, the only thing I am worried about is my fever and only feel a slight pain in foot and leg, and a little pain in my wrist. I guess I hit my wrist on the side of the car. The pain is not intense, and I feel terrible from the flu, so I don’t think I need to go to the hospital. Anyway, I take some flu medicine and the lights go out.

Sunday, August 29th

I wake up with a throbbing pain in my leg and wrist. Hospital time. I go to the ER of Beijing United (I love having insurance) and end up getting checked out by this friendly American doctor. He checks my leg and wrist and says nothing seems broken. He gives me an x-ray on my wrist, just in case, and finds no cracks or breaks. I leave the hospital relieved and go back to bed and overdose myself with flu medication.
Monday, August 30th

Take a flight to Dalian for a business trip. My flu has been downgraded to just a cold and the flu medication is doing a great job at suppressing my symptoms. But, I am popping pills like Skittles every four hours.

Recently, I have heard a great analogy or metaphor or onomatopoeia, whatever the literary device is for what I am about to say. Going to second tier cities in China, is like standing with your mouth open behind the exhaust of a car and throwing a handful of sand and dirt in your face. As for Dalian, it is not as bad as most second tier cities in China, so the air is a little fresher than most cities and there is a little less dirt in the air. The city is on the coast, so that helps maintain the air quality. The city recently had an oil spill off its coast, so it is the Louisiana of China.

Tuesday, August 31st

I had 烤鱼for the first time, which is grilled seafood. Since Dalian is a coastal city, it is famous for its seafood, even if it is enriched with crude oil. I really enjoyed it, except for when the live scallops came, and I watched them being grilled alive in their shells. Watching their shells open and close over the fire was a little disturbing. I think I heard one scream, but that was probably only in my mind. However, its meat was delicious. Later, I poured a little beer out for my dead friend.

Wednesday, September 1st

Ate at the Brooklyn pizza restaurant in Dalian, it was absolutely delicious and I highly recommend you go there, if you ever find yourself in Dalian. For more info, revisit Golze’s blog post on the subject.

Thursday, September 2nd

I am so sick of walking around office buildings and especially shopping malls for work. I am glad I am flying out of Dalian for Beijing.

Friday, September 3rd

After work, I went and watched kendo with my friends. It is one of the most interesting sports that I completely don’t understand. Like, I have no idea what is going on or how points are scored (I found this video of one of the final matches we watched).What attracts me most to the sport, besides watching people be bludgeoned with bamboo sticks is the random yelling. Sometimes, I like to just randomly yell things too, so this sport really interests me (in the opening seconds of the match in the video you can hear what I mean). Also watching the ceremony when they put on their gear is pretty fascinating, it is probably how traditional samurais got dressed.

The most interesting match we watched was with the women. We watched this Japanese lady destroy this Italian lady in like 30 seconds. I guess the equivalent would be watching Mikey T knock someone out in 15 seconds.

Saturday, September 4th

I went to pick up my bike, and it works much better than before I got in the accident. Because the whole front end was replaced it sits much higher and makes it much easier for me to ride. So I guess getting in the accident has an upside. Unfortunately, I have to replace my bike lock because I carelessly threw it on the ground when I left, and according to the repair stand guy, it was stolen.

My leg still hurts, but my wrist is much better.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hitting the road

I've been hanging out in Xining for about five days now, and in an hour and a half I am about to board an overnight sleeper bus to Yushu, in far western Qinghai where the province meets Tibet and Sichuan. Long-time readers of the blog may remember a disastrous sleeper bus trip from Lijiang to Kunming back in 2005, after which I swore off sleepers forever. But this is the only way out there short of flying and or breaking the trip into two days staying at a boring nothing town in between (where I don't even know if there's anywhere to stay). Anyway, I got my ticket two days in advance which means I have a solid berth near the front. Hopefully it won't be too bad, and when it comes down to it, I will have survived.

It's taken a bit of effort to get out of Xining. I stayed at a hostel and met a number of really nice people hanging out waiting to go to Tibet and/or Nepal. Hanging out with other travellers is much nicer than travelling alone. I took a one-night trip out to a nearby town called Tongren, and found myself incredibly bored/lonely at times. There's always the potential to meet other people on the road, but the way I'm travelling is pretty barren of tourists so I imagine I'll probably be alone most of the time. By and large it's fine; I can do a lot of reading and maybe a bit of self-discovery (this is Tibet, after all), but I think by the time I make it to Chengdu I'll be worn out of being alone. But we'll see how things go.

Anyway, to quickly recap the planned trip, I'll be heading from Yushu over in Sichuan to a town called Serxu, then hop through a couple of places whose exact names escape me, but include Maningango, Garzi, Kangding and others. All Tibet and all at very high altitudes (3000-4000 meters). It'll probably be a week before I make it back to civilization in Chengdu. Hopefully there'll be internet along the way and I'll put up another post before then.

Monday, September 06, 2010


yesterday i went with my friend jeff to attend heyrobics in chaoyang park. heyrobics is apparently a very popular swedish aerobics-style group exercise routine (in sweden it's called something else, while heyrobics is the international name). basically, it's a series of medium tempo aerobics moves and strength exercises interspersed with light running set to swedish house music and led by a very swedish guy about my age named linus (pronounced lee-nus). it's totally ridiculous but also an effective workout. i'm sore all over today.

linus says that in sweden you sometimes will get thousands of people attending free sessions in city parks during the summer, which must be quite a sight. there were probably about 50 people yesterday, though jeff says that's about twice as many as normal (a swedish young professionals event swelled the ranks a bit). most everybody was a foreigner or a significant other of a foreigner. of course this attracted a lot of attention from the families enjoying a late summer sunday evening in the park, but funnily enough a number of them joined in. i guess with a strong tradition of group exercises in public places, many people in beijing don't find it that odd to dance around in a big group in the park for exercise. jeff and i we speculating about where you could pull this off in the states, and decided probably only san francisco and portland, maybe new york.

so i'm back and relaxing for a week before taking off to xining in qinghai province next sunday. the flight was uneventful but the movies sucked. we left in august but arrived in september, so i think they just showed a random assortment of whatever they had on hand (goddam iron man 2 again). i went to the summer palace finally with a former coworker visiting from out of town. it's as nice as everybody says. otherwise, i've just been biking around, cooking, watching dvds and thinking about getting ready for traveling.

it's surprising how quickly i've adapted back to life here, considering that i got very used to living back in the states this summer and it was a bit hard to leave. but when i went to register with the psb, the ladies working (or sitting and chatting) behind the counter began interrogating me on the difference between butter and cream, down to how they were made. i said i didn't really know because i'm not a peasant, but i was still admonished because americans are supposed to know stuff like this. it reminded me that it's these kind of bizarre interactions that make daily life here fun, and make me glad to be back.