Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Red Ink Run: land of the lumpy green sheet

First get a bed sheet; green if you have it but don’t worry if you don’t. Now get ten to twelve shoes of various sizes and arrange them randomly on the floor. Shake out the bed sheet and let it fall, resting over the shoes. Kneel down and lower your head as close to the floor as possible, looking out over the lumpy bedsheet. See that? Welcome to Mongolia.
Marty and I had booked a one night tour of Gorkhi-Terelj national park the day before, then promptly went out that night. Something about having finally shaken off the grim reserve of China made restraint next to impossible. So, it was through the filter of squinting eyes and a hangover that I watched two Germans with bulging backpacks descend the stairs, load them into the boot nearly filling it up. “Shotgun!” one of them said.
Ulaanbaatar is the smallest capital of any country I’ve ever visited. Standing in the busiest street of the CBD you can see the naked hillsides nearby through gaps between the low-rises.
The centre is laidback and cosmopolitan but here, bouncing through its outskirts, stuffed in the car with Marty’s elbow displacing my liver, the dwellings began to look impermanent.  The further out we travelled the more frequently gers appeared. A ger for those who don’t know is like a yurt — think the big top, only with a wooden frame, scaled down to house a single family and you’ll be close.
Ulaanbaatar was founded as a mobile Buddhist monastery in 1639 before its location became fixed over a hundred years later in 1778. It’s no wonder then that most of the city looks like it can literally head for the hills at a moment’s notice.
Sebastian and Helge, or “The Germans” turned out to be great fun, though they didn’t make things easy for themselves. They had arrived that morning on the train from Irkutsk and had told us they travelled from Moscow to Irkutsk (a journey of some four days) with only a bowl of noodles and a loaf of bread. “It was a like a prison” said the toothy Sebastian as part of an extended commentary about their travels so far. “All we had was the boiling water from the samovar for 4 days. I’m so dehydrated man.” I could hear the sticky smacking of his mouth as he spoke. He was a scout leader but prepared he was not.
Eventually civilization relented and another hour later we came to a stop at the crest of a hill. Getting out and looking around invoked a feeling of tremendous expanse, like when you see a night sky full of stars. It was one of those moments where, just for a fraction of a second, your identity retreats and it’s impossible to differentiate between yourself and everything else. For that moment you are, by definition, universal.
Speaking to Gaats, Marty’s Mongolian mate, the night before, we’d been told about the proper etiquette with which to conduct ourselves when interacting with the family who we were to be staying with. “There is the head of the family. You give him a cigarette like this,” he flipped open the lid and drew out a single cigarette.
“The wife might like some chocolates, the children too, and the husband would like a horse or a wrestling magazine.”
“A horse magazine?”
“Yes, a horse magazine.”
Further to this Sebastian had told us it was bad luck to touch the door frame and bad manners to walk inside with your shoes on. Combined, these two last things made getting inside this ger a hopping affair. Inside was cosy, the wooden frame vividly decorated with intricate geometric patterns. Beds were arranged along the walls and in the centre sat an iron stove, its pipe extending up through a small hole in the roof. Throughout the night, inside was very warm even without the stove on. A ger has since featured in this author’s retirement plan, perhaps up a tree and near the beach somewhere on the south-east coast of Australia.
“Lunch at 2. Horseriding at 5″ we had been told by someone in our host family before we had been left alone. It was 12. Clearly they prescribed to the non-intrusionist method of hosting. There was a steep hill just behind our dwelling and it had to be climbed. We schlepped up it through the ash grey skeleton of pines. The air was sweet and clean, and I occasionally got whiffs of spearmint and pine. Once at the top, looking back down the incline I saw the terrain of the lumpy green sheet. Concavities on the hillsides were textured by leafless trees. It was rugged, beautiful and seemed infinite.
Back at the bottom a child came and gave us all a plate of rice, pickled carrots and meat. We ate it and it was good. Almost immediately after everyone finished we all fell asleep. When we awoke it was time to go horseriding. Sebastian had said he was afraid of going horse riding. His sister’s friend had been thrown off a horse and broken her shoulder. I didn’t understand how trauma could be felt from an incident so far removed. We made our way down the hill, to the base of a valley where there was a corral where four almost comically diminutive horses were tethered, being saddled by a Mongolian boy from our host family.
He gestured for me to get on and I did. So did the Germans. When Marty got on I half expected to hear a crack followed by desperate whinny as something broke. Marty swivelled around to look at me then suddenly, his horse began bucking. Marty fell off its back but was still clinging to its flank. The three other horses pricked up their ears and their eyes flashed wild looks. Marty’s horse began to spin, throwing him to the ground and galloping off away from the corral.
“No bag, no bag,” the boy yelled
Perhaps a loose strap from the backpack had struck the horse’s rump like a whip. Sebastian had a bag on too which he tried to take off but then his horse bolted. Another boy, about five years-old, had managed to get Marty’s horse and calm all of ours. Not a good start.
It’s generally known that the Mongolians have a pretty good reputation regarding horsemanship. It is said that the archers in Ghengis Khan’s army would be able to synchronize when they fired their arrows to the instant when all four hoofs of the horse were in the air. Our Mongolian tour guide who was just behind would occasionally gallop off past us to one of his friends sitting or playing in the distance out the front of their ger, the horse kicking up a cloud of dust through which we would slowly plod a few moments later.
When he turned his horse around it would be as on a pinhead always in total control. For us four it felt more like a ride on rails — despite pulling the reigns either this way or that, the horses unwaveringly maintained their course. But it was the scenery that made up for that. The embrace of the valley was littered with shrubs, bleached cattle bones and rocks from which shadows began to lengthen in the setting sun. A dog that looked more like a wolf had decided to accompany us, trotting along in front, he would now and then break off from the group to shadow a marmot, catching one once and shaking it wildly. That made it feel more legitimate. But best of all were when the horses decided to line up; we were, for that moment, less City Slickers and more like the Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Australian/German guy (roles were not specifically assigned).
Gaats had told us that there would most likely be a vodka ceremony and that this ceremony would involve putting a few drops in a glass then throwing it over your shoulder as an offering. Then a glass should be offered to the host, then his wife then us. Back at the ger, we had tried this but the host had said “Only for big families” then left. The vodka ceremony ended up with just us four, sitting on a log outside drinking Chinngas Gold vodka with Minute Maid orange juice, watching the waking stars form a hemisphere overhead, and listening, through the gathering murk, to the gallop of wild horses as they worked the lumpy green sheet.
Originally written for Crikey, on July 5 2012. Link is here.

Red Ink Run: Mao Money, Mao Problems

They were halfway done resurfacing the road in the town of Linying. I say halfway because although the old road has been dug up and left in big dirt mounds on the side of the road, they haven’t gotten around to putting in any bitumen for a new one yet. It was the kind of thing I had long since come to expect in China — an almost pathological drive to tear up the old and make way for the new.
At the southern edge of Linying I was still navigating through these mounds of detritus when I saw that this half-trench, half-road intersected with a wide, clean, tree lined avenue. This avenue exhibited classic Soviet characteristics and looked more like Karl Marx Allee in Berlin than anything I had seen elsewhere in China. Straddling the avenue was a sign informing us that we were entering the town of Nanjiecun, the last Maoist collective in China.
Nanjiecun collectivised in 1980 about the same time when most other towns in China were beginning to run in the opposite direction and embracing the open market. Whether it is a legitimate, functioning collective or just a glorified theme park depends on interpreting some of the facts of its existence. On one hand the collective provides its members with free healthcare and education but on the other it relies heavily on migrant workers to fill out its workforce. These migrant workers are not part of the collective when means that Nanjiecun’s collectivised economy is bolstered by uncollectivised workers.
Furthermore these facts are sometimes difficult to accurately establish. Whether the collective’s economic model is working effectively is a salient question. This depends on the amount of debt the collective has. External estimates put the debt at $250 million while the local party secretary says the number is more like $15 million. Perhaps it is the mark of an authentic communist collective that the truth is evasive.
As we passed under the sign and entered Nanjiecun we were assaulted by three staccato impressions, the first was of space, the second of order and the third of quiet. Any of these three things alone were hard to find in China but here they all were together which combined to evoke the feeling of walking through an immense outdoor museum.
The day was exceptionally misty and, like a video game with the detail turned down, things began to appear piecemeal as we continued down the avenue: a park with exercise equipment in it; a series of Bauhaus low-rise office blocks; another sign over the road, this time with a portrait of Mao, rosy cheeked and wearing a slightly amused expression. Along the avenue were propaganda posters done in the Soviet realist style.
One pictured a group of workers. The ethnic minorities were represented in this group and they were smiling effusively perhaps at having finally put their differences aside, now united under international communism. We then entered a shop that we mistook to be a supermarket that was in fact a large and nearly empty refectory. I noted that the workers far outnumbered the customers.
We made our way down the road to Red Square, the centre of the town, where tinny speakers belt out some of Mao’s speeches and a large statue of the man stands on a pedestal in the centre, under 24 hour guard, his arm outstretched, in a Roman salute tilted slightly to the side. Mao is flanked by the portraits of the Gang of Four which lie on the periphery of the square, Marx and Engles to his left and Lenin and Stalin to his right.
On the other side of the square, a manmade rainbow (lit up at night) arches over an avenue in the background. When you stand directly in front of the statue, the rainbow provides the tyrant with a multi-coloured frame. This is clever and clearly an instance of having their cake and eating it too — they get to frame Mao with gaudy lights but because technically the rainbow is not within the square its marble white dignity is retained.
The scene was accompanied by a strange smell. Something like star anise mixed with MSG. A signpost at the corner of the square pointed towards the “Seasoning Factory”. A quick wander around was enough to show us that Nanjiechun did in fact have functioning industries. In addition to the Seasoning Factory, there was a brewery and an instant noodle factory. We were lucky enough to see closing time for the factories when the empty avenues were filled with the putt-putting of scooters, as they hurtled past us in pairs, a far more orderly example of traffic than anywhere else I’d seen in China.
We decided to spend the night in the Nanjiechun hotel rather than return to, Zhengzhou, the grey smear on the satellite photograph from which we had come. Entering the lobby we saw that the otherwise empty reception was staffed by three smiling, enthusiastic women in red cotton dresses. It was difficult to locate the reason for this enthusiasm, whether it was due to the novelty of serving foreigners or because they were at a loose end and finally had something to do, was not clear.
We tried bargaining with the price but were told a flat out “no”. This was unheard of in a country where accepting the first offer is seen as an insult both to the seller and the buyer. We agreed and were shown up three flights of stairs, at the top of each was a member of staff whose job it was to open doors on her assigned floor. This in a hotel which seemed a little thin on patronage.
We were shown our room, a simple affair with stains on the carpet, the musty smell of damp and wooden furniture. I had seen a TV station in the collective and scanned the TV channels looking for it but to no avail. I was able to see a German variety show dubbed into Chinese, set in a kitschy imitation colosseum. The act on was of a celebrity called Sabrina who was tasked with trying to hula hoop a tractor tire for more than 20 seconds. She passed on her third attempt, clutching her flank where the tire had no doubt bruised it.
I went downstairs and got a few bottles of beer made locally in the collectives “beer factory”. I poured the room temperature liquid into a glass and it fizzed to a head promisingly. I took a sip. It tasted strange, like the difference between powdered milk and real milk had been applied to beer.
That night we visited the Chaoyang gate, at the town limits of the collective. On the Nanjiechun side, low-rise worker’s blocks in slight decay line the well-lit quiet streets. On the other side street vendors crowd the narrow passage, their tables loaded with colourful plastic junk. Mounds of garbage piled up and rotted in corners. People were smoking and spitting and hawking, scooters crowded a tiny gap between a honking tractor and a parked car. This chaos was modern China and it was literally banging at the gate of Nanjiechun.
To see these two scenes in quick succession is to finally understand what Nanjiechun is — an anachronistic oddity that, for better or worse, holds little relevance in a world where theme parks cannot afford to run at a loss.
Originally written for Crikey on June 28, 2012. Link is here

Red Ink Run: Sichuan hot pot is the bomb

The nineteen hour overnight train from Guilin to Chongqing had been a multisensory experience. My new collection of horsefly bites, angry red welts, braided around my legs and itched like mad. The squat toilet next door gave off extravagant wafts, which roamed the hard-sleeper carriage hassling its occupants like a drunk. Opened windows, thanks to no air conditioning, brought the amplified shrieks of the tunnels through which we passed.
After a near-sleepless night we were happy to leave the train. But Chongqing greeted us with only grunge and grime.
Formerly the capital of the province of Sichuan — until 1997 when it separated into its own municipality — Chongqin has only five million inhabitants. That’s relatively small by Chinese standards but surrounding villages and towns total 32 million. That day it seemed everyone was contributing to the city’s air, which was like lukewarm gruel.
I believe cleanliness is akin to smelting. The clean you is extracted when the impurities are either burnt off in the extreme heat or washed away with water. This was to be a layover day so the possibility of a shower did not exist. So Marty and I tried another option.
We made our way to Dongtingxian Huoguo, a Sichuan restaurant appropriately located in a former bomb shelter. We were greeted at the entrance, by a lady in a red Chinese Shenyi (the classic full body garment) and shown our way through the low roofed corridor to our seat. Our order was taken — we asked for “zhong la” (medium hot) broth, as with Sichuan food the heat scale is always ratcheted up a few notches. We ordered the ingredients to cook in the broth — lamb strips, beef strips, mushrooms, greens, cabbage and strange egg sheets (something lost in translation). We had gotten the attention of a few of the staff who stood together in the intersection of the two corridors, watching us.
“Do you have the feeling our masculinity is being assessed here?” I asked.
Marty eyed the entirely female staff.
“Yes. Yes I do,” he replied.
Our waiter returned with individual bowls full of yellow oil, a dish of salt and a bowl of minced garlic, which we mixed together. And now the main event, a large steel hemisphere quartered with dividers was placed on the gas stove inset in our table.
Its contents was clearly a portal to the underworld, the bloody liquid began to bubble, throwing up chillies and Sichuan peppers like damned souls in their eternal dance. A yellow froth began to build in from the edges. The ingredients were then brought to the table. We dropped in a few of the beef strips, and then with a surge of bloodlust committed the entire plate. We waited, watched and drank our beer.
The hemisphere’s appetite seemed to be momentarily satisfied as the boiling died down. Then it began to anger again, I plunged in my chopsticks and, after a little bit of feeling about, found a strip. I retrieved it and dipped it in my oil-garlic-salt mix, for a second, then flicked it up into my mouth. I chewed and swallowed. I waited for the flash of fire. Not much there, a bit of a smoulder, a glowing ember maybe but this was offset but the numbness of brought on by the Sichuan peppers. So I got cocky.
Marty slid the rest of the plates into different quarters and we began to seriously tuck in, punctuating each few bites with a gulp of beer.
We were about three or four bowls in when something began to happen. I noticed that my vision had narrowed and my face was wet. My tongue felt tender but I kept eating. There is something unique about the pace of eating a Sichuan hotpot. When you have a meal, which is on your own plate, or even a communal meal, sitting there in front of you it’s all right there just waiting to be consumed. But with Sichuan hotpot when the ingredient falls beneath the crimson gloss it disappears from sight. This makes each one retrieved a successful scavenge.
But there is something else with Sichuan hotpot. It has to do with a delicate balance formed between the heat of the chillies on one hand and the numbness of the Sichuan peppers on the other.  The thing is you never realise the tipping point has long since passed while you are eating. Due to the accumulation of chillies in the bowl it is the heat that always triumphs over the numbness. It’s only when you sit back in your chairs and crack your knuckles you realise you’re on fire. So it was with this meal.
Our faces were streaming and suddenly the corridor felt too small, the roof too low. From the rich meats to the mushrooms to the cabbage, all had their distinct flavour enmeshed with the red hordes of chillies in the hotpot. Yet this was entirely peripheral to the main issue now, which manifested itself as a throbbing, whooping, all-encompassing alarm. I looked at Marty. He removed a streamer of toilet paper and rubbed his face, scrunched it up and added it to the large pile that began to spill over onto the floor.
“Time to go?”
“Agreed,” he replied.
We paid and got up almost knocking over the table in the process. Stumbling, as if drunk we made our way to the light at the end of the corridor. It seemed to get a little further away with each step. I imagined a massive set of forceps plunging in from the exit and grabbing me by the head. Eventually we crashed out into the bustle of the street. A bus rushed past and its slipstream felt cold on my face. Was this the way we’d come in or not? It was, but this felt like our first arrival.
Originally published on Crikey on June 13, 2012 link is here

Red Ink Run: Tulou or not Tulou?

Ask anyone who has seen the 1959 movie Ben Hur which is the best scene and most will instantly reply “the Chariot race”. The sense of speed achieved by the camera, set on the ground, angled up, at close range tracking the horses as they tear around the track is profound. It was this scene that played over and over in my mind in the dark in China’s Fujian province. Yet it had been the accompanying sound of galloping that had woken me moments before, just as I was crossing over into sleep.
I was sleeping on the top floor of the Tulou Can Guan. A Tulou (pronounced like the first part of the French city Tulouse) is a mudbrick circular structure, a house of an entire clan. Its contents are oriented towards the centre with the outside a bare wall so as to be easily defended.
They have three floors; the ground for food preparation, the middle for food storage and the top for sleeping. Most are hundreds of years old (the oldest I found was from the 14th century) and are protected as a UNESCO heritage site. Plus, you can sleep in them.
That was the plan anyway. Everything had operated like clockwork from Xiamen. We’d been moved from bus to minivan and were ushered into our room, a bare wooden cell with just enough space for two double beds, a glassless window and a naked bulb dangling from the gap formed by two tartan tablecloths stapled to the roof. “And out there,” our host gestured through the wall, “to pee”. In the afternoon light it looked a little medieval but ample. We thanked her and she left.
I went out of the room and surveyed the courtyard, wood creaking underfoot. Chickens incessantly complained around the cobblestone well. Old ladies sat around the perimeter or busied themselves with chores. Sure a portion of the Tulou had collapsed leaving a pile of dust caked wood and the remaining balconies bowed precariously in places but if it had lasted a few centuries it would last another night. It was only later that we found a newspaper article informing us that 2100 residents had been evacuated from the Can Guan Tulou as it had been deemed unsafe.
I went back into the room and tested the mattress. It was very hard. I rallied myself with a quick shot of heroic rhetoric. Had not my forefathers lived every day of their existence in similar conditions? I owed it to them and what’s more I owed it to myself — if only to prove that I was not some spoilt, pampered Westerner who couldn’t spend just one night in a room with no WIFI, on a mattress without a chiropractic certificate. Princess and the pea and all that.
Once night fell things were a bit different. Marty and I were the only ones staying there and as such were the sole target of a insect offensive of the likes I’ve never experienced before. In Sydney, me versus the mosquitoes is a pretty even match — they have the numbers but not the wiles. I sometimes feel sorry for them as they sit on my arm, gorging themselves and waiting for the hand of god to end their pathetic lives. Here, they were a wholly different species. Totally immune to my Chinese Kool-Aid scented insect repellent. They dodged and weaved as if with a sixth sense. It took all my agility to take down just a few of the buggers.
And then after lights out I experienced a new shade of dark. Sun-cream, insect repellent, dust and sweat forming a paste on my legs, the mattress like a granite slab, the pillow like a few fistfuls of cotton buds in a sack and, of course, the galloping. Staying on the third floor really limits the possibilities of what can gallop on the roof overhead. Could it be a colony of well disciplined rats marching in time, just over my head? Try to sleep with that image in your mind. I crammed in my ear plugs and gave it a shot.
The next morning I woke, my bladder like a hot rock. I went downstairs and out and was greeted by a town waking, women beating clothes clean next to a stream, motorbikes putt-putting, old men smoking and spitting. Marty and I were to spend this morning visiting Tulous. They are separated into clusters, like towns. This required a means of transport and today transport was to take the form of an tight skinned old blister of a man (his name Li Geng Meng we would later find out) and his Suzuki motorbike. A little disconcerting was the fact that only he wore a helmet, but we were off, double pillion, me in the middle of this grotesque sandwich, in shorts, my eyes sand-blasted by the wind and the dust.
So we travelled from one Tulou to another, attaching ourselves to an English speaking tour here, sitting and drinking green tea with a resident there. One man, sitting outside Chengqi Lou (the largest Tulou), in Chinese formal wear, was playing this long thin horn like I play the saxophone (and I don’t play the saxophone). Marty and I approached with sceptical smiles. He then plucked a leaf from the tree he was under and played it, Aussie bushman style. He produced a rich, full melody and our smiles became sincere. I saw pictures of this leaf toting maestro throughout many of the Tulous we visited. These pictures of him with what we took to be local dignitaries were often in the position of honour in the Tulou, the central living space, reserved for weddings and other important functions.
Music was to be a recurring theme. Later at Li Geng Meng’s house (he invited us back for lunch) he showed us to a room where we drank yet more tea. The room Marty took to be a shrine to his late father had pictures of an old man everywhere — in front of the Grand Canyon, shaking Shrek’s hand in Disney Land, at other places, standing by certificates in Mandrin. The guy was important that’s for sure but we were unable to sign language our way to what it is he actually did.
Then, back from the dead, the guy walks right in and pours himself a cup of tea. He was holding a velvet pouch from which he drew out four thin wooden blocks, each with one serrated side. He then clicks them together, making a beat, then he took one and drew the serrated edge along a smooth edge of the other to bring into play a further staccato tick. His hands moved with the practised fashion of a master. He finished, sat down and lit a cigarette. With the aid of pictures, a great deal of pointing and gesturing we worked out that this man is 84 years old, his name is Li Tian Sheng, Li Geng Meng’s father and still tours, playing percussion with the Xiamen Philharmonic Choir.
Looking down from a mountain at Tianluokeng, one particularly picturesque cluster of Tulous, you can see them run along the seam of the valley. On the sides of the surrounding mountains, tobacco and tea are grown in tiered fields which, at a certain height, give way to bamboo and banana trees. It’s welcome relief from sitting between two guys on a motorbike when your pants had split the time you tried to mount up with a bit too much gusto.
Originally published on Crikey on June 7, 2012. Link is here.

Red Ink Run: Chinese training impressions

According to Lonely Planet China, the Han Chinese especially love their children. Me, I’m not so hot on them. At least not while one of them is kicking the back of my chair while his mother looks on adoringly and his grandmother pats his head.
At this very moment I am on a train from Hangzhou (pop: 6.16 million) to Xiamen (pop: 671,000) on China’s east coast. The boy’s family is passing plastic bags full of thick noodles or thin tripe right by my head to his grandparents in the seat behind. A man in front plays and replays a video on his phone, with the volume up full and an old man is battling to dislodge a something from his throat which, by the sounds of it, must have the dimensions of a billiard ball. Nearly two hours in and I’m not sure who will win but I’d say the smart money is on the billiard ball.
The boy who was kicking my chair has now come to squirm all over his meat dispensing family sitting over the aisle. This kid probably has no idea that he is one of the most recent progenies of the most numerically successful people on the face of the Earth — the Han Chinese. It’s a cliché, but it’s impossible not to equate what’s going on in here with what’s going on out there. China’s population of 1.34 billion has increased in the last decade by the size of Brazil. Watching how the people cope and deal with this ever-present fact is one of the most fascinating parts of travelling through it.
Take yesterday for example: Marty and I were buying a train ticket from the city of Ningbo (pop: 7.6 million) to Hangzhou. It was midday on a Friday and the darkened ticket hall was jam packed with a university crowd. All but half a dozen of the twenty-four ticket windows were open and the lines ran almost to the back. One of the closed ticket windows opened right next to me and the two adjacent queues split and coalesced, turning into three even ones. There were no gasps or yells at this new opportunity, just the silence of water filling an open space and reaching equilibrium. Here were a large bunch of people clearly well versed in being around a large bunch of people.
Of course it’s not just isolated to buying train tickets. Nearly everything in China is conducted amongst seething, surging multitudes. Consider driving for instance: I would challenge anyone to find a city with more chaotic roads than Shanghai (pop: 12.9 million). Almost every conceivable vehicle will clamour for any gap, no matter how small or on which side of the read. We’ve dubbed electrical scooters “silent killers” on account of their silence and the fact they freely mount the footpath. Lanes, lights and directions are rules, all frequently violated, sometimes simultaneously. Yet there is some kind of logic there, hidden to my Western eyes. Take the horns for instance. I am accustomed to using the horn for one use and one use only, the transmission of a message signalling extreme frustration and anger to another driver. Perhaps I occasionally do the double tap too, for a “hello” or “goodbye”. Travelling in a bus the other day, Marty and I registered no fewer than a dozen different messages ranging from “excuse me, please let me past” to “look out — I’m right behind you”.
The display in the train now reads 196 km/h. Freeway overpasses swing by overhead, their pylons pinning down fields all the way to the horizon. Huge identical blocks of units built in a hodgepodge of Tudor and Victorian styles repeat for miles and miles, joining one city to another. The vast majority of them are empty. How many people could they hold? Two hundred thousand all up, maybe? Talking to a local at the hostel last night, Marty had heard they had all been sold to investors, people were just holding onto them, empty. It’s possible the parents next to me had already bought a place for their squirming kid.
A large population needs a large infrastructure and as such the engineering feats are awe inspiring. A few days ago we crossed a suspension bridge that looked just like the Golden Gate Bridge, with orange towers, but in the middle of nowhere, as if it was no big deal. But all this development and population does not come for free. We visited the Island of Zhoushan (pop: nearly one million) and  the last ten kilometres before we crossed the bridge from the mainland we passed a series industrial leviathans, all cranking out smoke. When we finally got to the bridge the sea and sky never met, they were lost in the smog.
It’s not all smog and traffic, though. There’s the kid and the parents, behind me, the grandparents, and so on. Chinese civilisation is the oldest one still on Earth. From Zhoushan, once we actually reached the island of Putuoshan, a small and verdant dot on the map, I realised that antiquities could provide peace and quiet, even in the face of the swarming multitudes. With three Buddhist temples, beaches and tropical forest, it dissolved the city grit underneath my fingernails. Better yet was Huangshan, a 1,500 meter vertical ascent almost entirely up stairs. The hard-as-nails mountain workers do it with a crate of water hanging from either end of bamboo poles. When we approached the top the mist slowly cleared.
Now, I’m not really one to embrace transcendent experiences, I prefer to keep my feet on the ground. But witnessing the sandy rockface, occasionally encrusted with tiny pines, clutching on to any crevice, plunging up through the clouds, and me atop of it, was something powerful that I’d repeat. Once the feeling returned to my legs anyway.
We’re running two hours late on account of trackwork but we’re rocketing past towns and rice fields, bamboo forests and grey communist worker blocks. The kid still won’t sleep but at least, he’s slowed down a bit. He’s restless and so am I.
Originally written for Crikey on May 29 2012, link is here

Red Ink Run: Scammed in Shanghai

They say the best scams are when you’re not sure you’ve been scammed. But you do have to decide and the options aren’t great: you’re either a sucker or a cynic. Marty and I, after extensive deliberation, decided that anything is better than being a sucker.
We had been in Shanghai less than 24 hours when we rose up the escalators out of the Yuyuan Garden metro station and into the midday haze. At the top we were immediately intercepted by three sprightly early twenty-something girls. They wanted me to take a shot of them standing on the edge of a busy intersection with a needle like tower barely discernible through the apricot smog in the background. I clicked, shot and was immediately suspicious. The “can you please take picture” is the perfect (not to mention well documented) in for scam artists. Turns out they were students from Tsing Tao (“like the beer?” “Ha, yeah! Like the beer! You know it?”) studying English.
I was partially disarmed. I had the assumption laden thought that no one who had the dedication to make the crossover from Mandrin to English so successfully would have to resort to grifting to make a living. One told us that the Yuyuan gardens were full this time of day but it was OK because they were going to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. What luck! I could tell Marty was having second thoughts. “What do you reckon?” he asked me.
The question was a loaded one. Imagine a set of scales — on one side there’s the fact that these three had caught us just at the top of the Metro in a tourist area, we had taken a picture of them in a less than picturesque location and they were trying to shunt us away to a strange location. All sensible points. But then there was the counter-weight, a series of voices urging me on: “There’s nothing so eye-rollingly dull as an eternally suspicious Westerner”, “Dammit man, you’re on holiday” and, every backpacker’s favourite “Here’s your chance to lift the veil and get to the real so-and-so-a-place”. The voices were louder than sense.
So off we went, along a main road, down one of the small alleys, and with a bang on window and a loud “Ni Hao” we were let into a small tea shop. We went along a corridor and into the first room. Strange Chinese muzak played, distorted, through speakers not up to the task. The roof was low and the printed wallpaper was close, but it was tranquil.
Five chairs were arranged around a table with a stocky polished wooden altar on it. In front was five jars containing tea, all different. We sat in the middle, surrounded, one girl to Marty’s left, two to my right. The ringleader Tiffany maintained a constant train of witty and light conversation. Silence was never permitted. The other two were called Bei Bei, a plump, quieter but similarly enthusiastic student, and Fanzhiya, who was thin and silent. A new young lady entered in traditional silk garb, she was to be the host. She explained everything in short flurries of Mandrin which were translated immediately by Tiffany. Their one-two pace was relentless.
We were given a quick history of tea in China, shown a statuette of a three footed toad (the God of Tea) with inset gems in his back in the shape of a constellation, each gem a different colour, one representing luck, love, etc.
“All this comes from the Book of Tea. Over three thousand years old.”
“Oh yeah I know it,” I said.
“You should be teaching us about tea!”
To their credit they flashed us a menu in Han characters with a price next to each item.
“Plus you’ll have to pay for the room. But we’ll all split it. Do you know these teas?” Tiffany changed the subject smoothly.
We worked our way through the five teas, the host displaying dexterity with the tiny white cups and pots, a stream of history and trivia associated with each one. First Oolong, then green tea, then a fruit tea, then ginseng. One pot had heat activated sticker which turned from dull charcoal to vivid watercolours when the hot water was poured in. The climax though, was the final one, the Triple Flower Tea, an ash grey nugget dropped into the waiting water, unfurled into three flowers, one within another — chrysanthemum, jasmine and a tiny rose coloured flower. It tasted bland but in the words of a famous chef — the first bite is with the eye.
Then came the bill. Which was passed from the host to sweet Tiffany a tad too comfortably (only in retrospect, mind).
“So that’s five times 48 Yuan, and 67 for the room which is 307 Yuan each.”
Right. So that’s about $50 each. For five cups of tea. And what did we do? We emptied out our wallets like good little boys. I’ll be the first one to admit that I was charmed and the tea was great but it was at the money point that I realised we’d been had.
“Please take these gifts.”
Some kind of recompense? They offered us a choice of coloured baubles which they insisted we attach to our bags and we parted ways.
In the following hour Marty and I had unpacked the grift, one piece at a time. Even then we were not entirely sure. We eventually went back to the same metro exit and Marty was asked to take a photo of man in front of the same intersection. He took it. It was overexposed, almost white. Marty showed it to him and asked “I should take another one”. The man said “”The computer can fix it. Where you from?”I stood back but they left us without saying anything. Call me paranoid but I think he spied those baubles on our bags, those baubles which are code for mark that’s been marked.
(Originally written for Crikey on May 16, 201, link is here)

Red Ink Run: ‘Can we cross Azerbaijan and back in 72 hours?’

Travel plans are like children, conceive them when you’re tipsy then leave the details until later. Dutch courage is necessary to hit the points on the map boldly, with enough conviction that the ink stains the paper and there’s no turning back.

So it was with my mate Marten and I (the travel plans, not the children). I can’t remember the inner-west Sydney pub but I can remember things really began when the conversation turned towards the breakaway state of Transnistria. I had researched it years before and tried ever since to find someone to accompany me there. Problem was it’s a pretty tough destination to sell.
“The last autonomous Soviet state. It has its own currency, stamps and passports, it runs along the Eastern border of Moldova but is independent.”
These words came easily, the spiel well rehearsed even though no one had signed up. “Transnistria acts as a corridor for illegal traffic to flow from Eastern Europe to the West and back … Another round?”
Luckily, Marten was right there with me. We had a mutual curiosity in the legacy of international communism — this political and historical juggernaut that had collapsed in a cloud of radioactive dust before we were old enough to understand it. Still, the ruins were there to inspect, their edges hopefully not too rounded by time to be beyond reassembly into a coherent picture of day-to-day life.
“Also, have you heard of a place called Baku?”
We shifted our attention east, to the largest city in Azerbaijan, Baku. It had been the focal point of the early oil industry. Transformed almost overnight from ancient fortress to cosmopolitan metropolis, it had attracted rich investors and criminals looking to exploit rich investors. The Soviets had built the first oil rig 100 kilometres out to sea from Baku, a vast wooden city built on silt and garbage, accessible by a system of long wooden platforms. It was now disused and, section by section, slowly falling back into the oily water.
Then, Chernobyl. The site of the largest nuclear disaster that the world has ever seen. Only officially opened to tours in 2008, it is now possible to see Soviet life frozen in time at the moment the town was evacuated.
“Your round, mate.”
Finally, rural China. Such a nebulous destination — a result of both Marten’s and my ignorance on the subject and the amount of alcohol we had consumed.
“Oh, and we should do it all on motorbikes.”
In the coming weeks, on a map smuggled to my desk in between sheets of work, a trip took shape. Destinations and transport were researched and information flowed in like breaking news updates. “It’s not possible to hire or buy motorbikes in China without a guide. $100 / day” Marten wrote in a chat window. “Ok, maybe China on rail, Trans-Siberian to Moscow and we buy our bikes there … Actually bikes in Berlin would make more sense – everyone speaks English” and so on. Routes flexed and warped, snared on new locations while modes of transport evolved or devolved to match constraints.
Eventually as regions became definite and modes of transport solidified, it became clear a panoply of skills had to be attained. We had to buy motorbikes, learn to ride and fix them and learn emergency first aid. Most of all we had to learn some semblance of Russian to have any hope of interacting with locals on a level deeper than between a man and his goldfish. Individually these skills could take years to master but, all superimposed over one another, they formed a constant background noise in my mind.
Courses were attended and weekends were sacrificed; first aid course, motorcycle maintenance course, provisional license test, Russian language course. Money was stored like nuts for winter under a brutal saving regime — no more lunches out instead a 1kg block of cheese, aging in the work fridge, lost a few slices every day.
The research still hasn’t stopped. In fact it grows at an exponential rate as every question is answered with more questions. For example “How do we get around a limit of 72 hours (to the minute) for foreign vehicles in Azerbaijan?” becomes — “Where do we go to after Azerbaijan?”. The country is hemmed in by the Caspian Sea, Georgia, Iran, Armenia and Russia. So the next question is “Which borders can we go through?” The answer is: all these borders are closed to us except Georgia and Iran.
Next, “Can we cross the Caspian?” No, travel across the Caspian to Turkmenistan is not an option because Turkmenistan requires you to always have a guide and seems to close its borders on a whim. “Can we cross Azerbaijan and back in 72 hours?” Kinda, this would mean crossing the entire width of it and back (more than 1000km) in 72 hours — a recipe for a sore arse. So now, this means seeing Azerbaijan in any capacity requires entry into Iran. “What are the visa requirements for Iran?” etc.
This means that even now, with under a week before I leave I can’t be sure exactly where I’m going. It’s a situation that sits you down, slaps you in the face and tells you to relax. What I am certain of is that the stones of fear, guilt, anxiety and excitement that are in my gut will get hotter and heavier till the moment I lift off from the runway and up into the blue.

(Originally written for Crikey on May 8 2012 link is here)