Although we can divide our trip thus far into roughly four parts (Europe, South Asia, South East Asia, and East Asia), we’ve spent the vast majority of our time in Asia. We’ve had the time of our lives and I think everyone should visit Asia (if not travel it extensively). It truly has something to offer everyone, so I’ve made the following guide and tribute to the great continent.
India: just show up and something exciting WILL happen
Maldives: go sailing and snorkeling on remote atolls
Nepal: go trekking
Thailand: explore the entire country
Laos: travel and live on the Mekong
Cambodia: yes its cliche, but you HAVE to explore Angkor
Malaysia: take in the diverse cultures and food
Brunei: meet characters at the Pusat Belia (not pictured)
Thankfully we made it through immigration at Beijing with no problems. You see, we weren’t exactly sure how everything would go since we don’t have a valid China visa anymore, but there is a 24 hour stay allowed if you have a connecting flight. But still, just in case, Matt and I checked our bags as carry-ons and crossed our fingers and prayed there wouldn’t be any complications…you just never know. Being too tired and too lazy to brave the muggy heat and smog for a quick trip into the city, Matt and I spent our entire layover (over 17 hours) at the Beijing airport. Most of this time was spent sleeping.
Surprisingly, we weren’t the only ones sleeping in the terminal. By midnight I think every single row of benches had a person sprawled across, fast asleep. Those not lucky enough to score a bench had to resort to other places, such as these guys who slept in and on the x-ray conveyor belt.
Despite being woken up a couple times when the cleaning crew had to move our section of benches to wax the floor, we had an ok night’s rest. While we weren’t busy sleeping, Matt and I passed the time spotting Olympic participants. Many wore team jackets, and all had id passes hung around their necks, almost as a badge of honor (those affiliated with the Olympics do receive special treatment at the airport). They weren’t all athletes, but it was interesting nonetheless. We even spotted many of them eating at Burger King and Starbucks, the food of champions. I guess we’re kind of like champions too then.
The guy behind Matt took off his shirt partway through the meal.
We successfully ordered a hearty meal at a new restaurant using a combination of hand motions, pointing, the phrasebook, and our pitifully small Chinese vocabulary. It was simple—BBQ pork, rice, salad, beer, and flat bread. (Did I mention it was a Muslim restaurant? In many places they won’t serve pork or beer but I guess there is always an exception) Only the salad was a surprise, since I had thought I’d ordered a cooked cabbage dish. When it arrived I winced in dismay as it simply looked like a pile of chopped lettuce. It was the first dish to arrive however, and, being hungry, Matt dug in for the first bite. Apparently there was dressing on it, so I decided to try a bite myself. It was good. Each of us separately figured that since we’re both currently on some form of anti-biotic, a little raw lettuce that may or may not have been rinsed couldn’t hurt. The dressing tasted like apple juice and vinegar (probably some of the well-known vinegar from the North West region of China) and the lettuce was crisp. We ate slowly, discussed random things, and toasted to a good year of traveling. Things at the restaurant began to wind down as we finished our meal. The once packed dining area had begun to empty. It was about 9pm as we left and exited out to the street to walk back to our hostel. Despite the late hour, the sidewalk was still lively. People were sitting on little stools in front of their shops talking with neighbors. A father and daughter were eating a feast of a dinner off a small card table on the sidewalk. And a pair of toddlers rolled playground balls back and forth. “I’m going to miss this,” I thought to myself before saying it out loud. Matt agreed. Even if we don’t want to see another temple, and we’re tired of breathing Beijing air, there is something about China that seems like it will always be wonderful: the community of people.
Who knows, maybe it will change as things are apt to do, the way urbanization and then suburbanization changes the way people relate with their neighbors. But for now the little communities spread throughout Beijing, and China for that matter, are just wonderfully simple yet rich things to behold. Extended family members sitting outside the family grocery playing with the baby. The group of old men who gather on the bench alongside the main road at the end of the day. Ladies stopping to chat as they pass in the street. There’s the group of boys whacking each other with Styrofoam boards while an old man watches and laughs. And of course the neighborhood exercise station used as a drying rack for blankets during the heat of the day, as a social hangout for kids in the late afternoon, and exercise in the early morning. Most people seem to have their own routine, just as Matt and I have our own set of things we do each day: go to breakfast place, buy some juice (me) and milk tea (Matt), go see somewhere, eat at one of two lunch places, get some ice cream, return to hostel and pump the ac while we write (or nap), figure out where to eat…I’ll miss Beijing, but I am ready to go visit my own little hutong of sorts back home.
I commented to Joylani last night, this last week in Beijing is kind of an anti-climatic way to end an otherwise pretty crazy year. So rather than recap our day, I’ll write a little about my impressions of China.
First off, I have to say that overall, China really exceeded my expectations. As so often is the case, the people really made the difference. The Chinese people are some of the most helpful and kind people we’ve come across. I think we’re both really thankful for all the kindness and help we’ve received over the past six weeks. Secondly, China is really modern and comfortable. Not super important to me, but when Joylani’s comfortable, she’s happy. When she’s happy, I’m happy. Besides her comfort, the main thing I appreciated development-wise has been the transportation infrastructure with plenty of trains and buses to and from anywhere to everywhere. Thirdly, the food has been good. I’ve mentioned a few times that the food is really weird too (pick any menu and you can find order and vital organ of almost any animal), but you can eat well without eating weird. Along with this, is the fact that China is a beer culture. People always drink beer. Everybody drinks beer with every meal. Alcohol consumption is frowned upon in some parts of Asia, so being a beer guy, I can really appreciate this aspect of Chinese culture. Fourthly, Chinese culture is different. Its unique and doesn’t try to imitate other nations/cultures, due to its size. This was especially difficult for us language-wise as nobody speaks English, but you have to appreciate that its different. Related to culture, my last post touched on the fact that I think Chinese society is somewhat interesting too. There’s a lot that Joylani and I have seen in China and our only response is “why?” (for better or worse). Lastly, China is big and has a lot to see. I wrote a few posts back that China doesn’t have much to see and Joylani wrote a little rebuttal. Well, here’s my rebuttal to the rebuttal: China doesn’t have very many interesting tourist sights, as they’re all a bunch of fake/restored junk. So in that sense, it doesn’t have much to see. But it’s a huge country with very diverse regions and ethnicities/cultures and its worth exploring. There’s things I dislike about China too, but I’ve covered those things to varying degrees of detail in past posts. Overall, I’ve very much enjoyed my past six weeks here in China.
Today the sky is blue again, but I’m sure there are still a lot of pollutants in the air. A friend told us that a girl he knew who had been living in Beijing for a year went back to the States and had a check up—the doctor told her she should stop smoking (except that she was not a smoker). Matt read that spending one day in Beijing is the equivalent of smoking 70 cigarettes. In some ways, I think that if you are living in Beijing and like to smoke, you might as well because your lungs are going to be damaged anyways. Yesterday was my “I hate Beijing” day. As in “I hate Beijing because the air is appalling.” The air was brown and felt thick with smog. I’ve been fighting a cold and lately I’ve found myself wishing I didn’t have to breathe so much because I’m afraid of what’s happening to my lungs each time I took in a breath of air. It’s a fact that Beijing only has about 100 “blue sky days” a year. The closest the air quality has failed to come close to WHO standards. And this is all during a time when the government is supposedly trying to improve air quality for the Olympics. It’s sad it is taking the Olympics for them to [more actively] do something about it. Why wait until now when during non-Olympic times there are still millions of people who have to breathe in this sludge? Idealistically I pondered over the likelihood and effectiveness of the citizens of Beijing going on some sort of strike to get the government to do something more significant to improve the air quality. I never want to live in a place where the air is this bad. It makes me want to shun off all factory-made goods, wear environmentally friendly clothes—like re-made, vintage, thrift (I’m not going to go as far as Gandhi and start spinning my own threads), start a victory [over pollution and high produce prices] garden, and walk everywhere…or else get some roller-skates and make Matt pull me around. Anyways, my hatred of Beijing was justified this morning as Matt and I made another trip to the China-Japan Friendship Hospital. After passing oversized Olympic mascot stuffed animals at the entrance (those things are everywhere), I registered and went to go see a doctor where I got my latest diagnosis of the trip: bronchitis. Yay Beijing. If polluting the air and pooping in public were Olympic sports, Beijing would get the gold. Not only did I yet another dose of antibiotics (trick or treat—it’s like Halloween except for instead of smarties I get some type of -floxin and instead of being free I have to pay for it), but also the NASTIEST cough syrup I have ever had or could imagine. Matt says it looks like petrol. I think it looks like shoyu, and it tastes like it too…only way more salty and with a toxic medicinal aftertaste. What I really wanted was a nice little jar of cherry-flavored cough syrup with codine. But no, why make it taste like cherries when it can taste like fermented soy beans instead? Which reminds me, I am SO over savory. I just want a bowl of frosted mini-wheats and some strawberries. Ah California, two more days to go…but I hear the air isn’t so great over there right now either. I hope there are still trees left when I get home. On a lighter, non-illness or environmental note, with the help of Matt’s top-notch picture matching skills, we were able to catch the correct bus to take us to the Panjiayuan Market today. It’s known as an “antiques market,” but there are many different types of exciting things of the home décor and trinket variety that are not actually old. The absence of knock-off clothes and purses was refreshing, and Matt and I spent an hour or so poking around various aisles checking out the goods. There were many things I expected to see such as porcelain vases, tea pots, ceramic and metal figurines but other things as well, like fancy door-handles and playfully shaped pad-locks resembling animals. Other sections of the market offered jade, paintings, and custom seals, but my favorite sections were the ceramic and metal objects. Countless items caught my eye, but I found it hard to determine what I liked at first glance, as opposed to what I would actually like to have and use at home. In the end, it was just too hot and we were too hungry to think about what bowl or plate might look good in our “home” (which is currently spread across Northern California in boxes), and I gave up any hope of selecting anything for Matt and my own use. Fortunately, we didn’t leave empty handed though, as we were able to find some nice wedding gifts. I think buying a wedding gift can be tough. The dilemma of selecting a non-registered gift is that you want the recipients to like it; hopefully it will be useful, hopefully it won’t end up at their office’s white elephant gift exchange later this year. But just because you would like it in your home doesn’t mean they will. Of course, there’s always the registry, it’s easy—plus you know its something the couple wants. They already decided if they prefer Calphalon over Circulon and what color dish towels they want to use when they dry the x-brand china. It’s good to buy from the registry. But sometimes, it’s just nice to let the other wedding guests take their pick of the registry items while you see if you can find something else for the newlyweds. Besides, after opening box after box of things they’ve seen before, I think every new couple can appreciate a little surprise gift that they didn’t pre-select. Like a little turtle, or maybe some dried seafood from Qingdao. Anyways, I hope our friends like the his and hers Mao watches we bought them.
The other night at dinner with Paul, we were mocking the commercials on China’s only English channel, CCTV-9. They’re all tourism commercials, so every commercial break is like a five minute tour of China, broken up into 30 second segments on each province. Every single province’s ad ends with a cheesy quote, one being “Come, experience the mystery that is China.” Paul remarked, “The mystery of China. C’mon, its China!” referring to its modernity. Of course, that’s true in one sense. BUT HIS COMMENT GOT ME THINKING ABOUT THE STATEMENT MORE IN DEPTH. But in some ways, I feel that China is mysterious. There is definitely more that meets the eye.
One thing that is interesting to think about, but annoying to deal with, is the censorship. The inability to access my or others’ blogs, the blockage of certain websites, and the lack of free English-language media is frustrating to say the least. CCTV-9 and the China Daily are jokes, if not straight propaganda (but certainly not journalism). The only news is President Hu’s comments on this and that, the Olympic Torch, Tibetans and Uighur “terrorists,” earthquake survival stories. I miss the days when we were in HK and could read free press allowed to take critical views of the government. I remember articles critiquing Hu, exposing corruption in earthquake hit areas, and denouncing certain domestic policies. But mainland is totally different. Besides the censorship, you can feel the paranoid government’s presence. Its in the way they break up the crowds in Tiananmen after the flag lowering ceremony, you can feel it with the thousands of military and police everywhere, you experience it with the arcane tourism rules for foreigners.
Related to the strict censorship is the government’s authoritarianism. While China is modern and everything seems to be well in the country, there is more than meets the eye. Locals have told us stories of entire neighborhoods being displaced in the name of urban development. Most of the hutongs in Beijing have been destroyed to make way for wide boulevards and new buildings. There is no public debate about such things, as the government is the only authority. Additionally, we noticed Beijing has no beggars or homeless, something we’ve seen in other Chinese cities. Heck, and city of 15 million, even in the West, will have beggars, but Beijing is mysteriously void of them. This is because they were forcibly removed from the city so as to not blight China’s image during the Olympics. One night I wanted to go get noodles at one of the fancy noodle shops, but I was told that authorities had cracked down and deported many of the noodle cooks out of the city. While the government touts its successes, it is apparent from talking to most people that it is making a lot of bad decisions, if not failing in certain areas. The censorship keeps negative sentiment underground, as China wants to keep its failures hidden.
Another interesting thing about China is the juxtaposition of old and new. Throughout Asia, old and new is often side-by-side, but China seems unique in a few ways. One, it is more modern than most other places we’ve been. And while Chinese are a lot further along etiquette-wise than a lot of other nationalities, they seem pretty far behind compared to the development of their country. Snot rockets still fly, men walk around with their shirts off (or at least pulled over their pot bellies), and kids still dump and piss all over the place. I’ve already covered the bathroom situation, which seems like the oddest and most drastic juxtaposition. Fixed-price shops aren’t super prevalent and transportation is way overcrowded. And while technology is around, its not always used. I’m amazed at the number of high-end places that don’t accept credit cards. This goes along with my reading: although China is a huge and growing economic power, its financial systems are still young and fragile. There is so much about China that seems modern, but just below (and sometimes not below at all) the surface its totally different. It just goes to show that China is still developing and it’s come a long way in a short amount of time.
And so I think China still does hold some mystery at least to me. The paranoid government, the façade of modernity, and a handful of other smaller issues makes me wonder about this place.
Outside of the city center is a collection of old factories. Some are still being used for production, but many have been converted into art galleries. Not only do the buildings remain, but pipes and chimney stacks linger as a reminder of what used to happen inside the structures.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition to have the modern art in a factory—places which once housed assembly lines creating identical items now host one of kind pieces of modern art. The idea of assembly lines and the creation of art is also interesting when I look back to the works of some artists in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam where many potentially talented artists are caught in a trap of reproducing famous works or uninspiring landscapes of Angkor Wat or ladies in ao dai riding on bicycles.
My favorite gallery was a photo gallery, 768 Photo Gallery. The main exhibit of photos by Yao Lu consisted of large images of what looked like traditional landscape paintings, but upon closer inspection were composed of digitally arranged photos of construction sites. Instead of village fisherman, the figures in the works were construction workers in hard hats. The collection provoked thought on examining our modern environment in a traditional light, and treating it as we would other old traditions and treasures (i.e. preservation). Yet the collection also provokes one to examine if what we think and see is really the true image.
The part of the gallery that I especially liked was a back room where photos from older exhibitions could be bought. Some photos that I really enjoyed for their simplicity and thoughtfulness were a series taken of families in front of their homes joined by all of their possessions. It was interesting to see what the families, each from a different region, owned. Some photos had many items, some just beds, some included all the families animals. The photos were posed in a manner similar to the usual family portrait. Have our possessions become a “part of the family”?
On our way back to the bus stop we passed by some artists working on a graffiti mural. The way the work was being done was a contradiction to the style itself—they had mapped out plans for the entire (pro-government) mural that took up a very large stretch of wall. The mural was making out to look pretty cool, but I found the methodical and institutionalized nature of what I view as a more spontaneous and independent art form to be pretty lame, though definitely an interesting representation of modern China.
I’ve gone through a range of emotions while here in Beijing. Reading my last two weeks of posts, it would be easy to conclude that I’m schizoid or bipolar. First I was excited to see Beijing, then I was down as it really hit that going home so soon, followed by a bout of boredom from being in the same place for too long. We still have a couple days left, but I feel that my thoughts and emotions are settling towards thankfulness. I think this feeling is beginning to overshadow, or at least encompass, all my other thoughts and feelings about the past year.
Although my feelings of thankfulness are really overflowing, at the moment, (which is why I feel compelled to write this down even at midnight now), I doubt I can adequately write all that I’m thankful for. But here’s a few things:
I’m thankful for the past year. I’ve written a bit in the past few days how I’m bummed this part of our trip is over, about going home, and about our trip as a whole winding down. But my sadness about those things reflect how I feel about the past year. It has been unbelievable and I’m truly thankful for a number of things. One, we’ve had a safe year; we’ve been continually sick, injured ourselves a few times, and had a few other sketch moment, but we made it relatively unscathed. Two, we made it a year; a number of events could have forced us to cut our trip short, but none have occurred thus far. Three, not only did we make it a year safely, its been a smooth ride; we’ve had a few things lost and stolen, had some transportation issues, and a couple minor things not go our way, but overall, we have NOTHING to complain about. Call us lucky, blessed, or whatever you want, but I’m incredibly thankful for the past year.
While I’m thankful for the past year itself, it has really highlighted some other important things that I’m grateful for. Off the top of my head, in no particular order. I’m thankful for my wife and my family. I’m thankful for my health. My friends. An education, economic opportunities, and all else that comes from being born in America. From what I’ve read online, times are getting tougher in America. And not to sound unsympathetic, but Americans have nothing to complain about. Even the poorest Americans are doing pretty well, compared to most of Asia. The dire headlines in the US highlight, among other things: housing woes, expensive oil and food, economic issues like inflation/unemployment/rates, war, and terrorism. Compare the US economic/political/security situation to any Asian nation and you have to be thankful as an American. The more I travel, the more I’m thankful for.
This trip has emphasized is the importance of being content. While commercialism and consumerism are growing quickly among the upper-classes of many places we’ve been, the vast majority of the people we’ve crossed paths with have very little. Standards of living are low, political rights vary from non-existent on up, social and economic mobility are low, and most peoples’ futures are not what us Americans would consider bright. Yet people are still thankful for and content with what they do have. And I can say that my overriding thought as I prepare to go home after a year of travel is: I am very, very, very thankful for everything in my life.
Sidenote: Sometimes Westerners cannot understand how people can have so little and still be content, so they try to make sense of it with various theories. Some say fatalism is a condition of the Asian mind. Others say that poor third-world inhabitants don’t know what they don’t have. Both are ridiculous. Asians are not anymore fatalistic that Americans. The fact that they live under tougher circumstances and can be happy does not mean they don’t care. And to address the “simple native” argument, I’ll make an analogy. Most Western and Northern European nations have a higher standard of living that the US; are Americans unhappy because we have less than our transatlantic counterparts? Perhaps contentment and happiness is independent of external factors.
Matt and I were walking around today after breakfast, and I had to go to the bathroom. Luckily, there was a nearby public restroom. I walked in, and three sets of eyes looked up at me. My initial reaction was, “Whoops, men’s toilet.” But then, I quickly realized that it was three old ladies with short hair. One spot was left in the middle of the bunch, but I was not bold enough to claim it, even for a quick pee. Thankfully, around the hutong areas, public toilets are somewhat plentiful. A few minutes later we came to another. I cautiously entered; it was happily deserted. And there were partitions betweens the squatters. With all the hubbub about the Olympics coming to town, Matt and I have been wondering what new sport is being added. Public pooping perhaps?