Friday, September 30, 2005

Emei Shan Mountain

This is the first time I've been able to post in the past five days. Apparently, some computers block posting websites and others don't.

We left Beijing on Monday and traveled to Chengdu via train. The ride took about 30 hours. There are four classes of travel on trains in China. We traveled second class, which means that our tickets granted us a hard sleeper in a cabin where sleepers are stacked three high and 66 hard cots are jammed into one car. Fourth class travelers sit on hard chairs next to cargo for the entire ride. I can't complain. We met a few Chinese people who spoke a bit of English and taught me more Chinese. Nothing is more fun than meeting people who live a life entirely different than my own. The ride provided some breathtaking views of the countryside; it also provided a first hand look at the grating rural poverty that still defines the lives of so many Chinese farmers.

Chengdu is another bustling Chinese city. I can't figure out whether the population here is 13 or 4 million. Either way it's big, it's busy, and the traffic is crazy.

We left the next day to climb Emei Shan mountain. My time's up. More to come...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Censored Material

I found out yesterday that Chinese censors prohibit people from reading blogs. You can read this, but once I post it I can't. I wonder why people in China are allowed to post to blogs but not read them.

Train tickets were sold out for yesterday's train to Chengdu, so we leave tonight. We spent Sunday playing tourist in Beijing. The Imperial Palace (commonly known as the Forbidden City) and Tien Amen Square took most of the day to explore. We missed Mao's mausoleum, but we're going back. There is no way I am going to miss meeting a guy who chose to be pickled.

The square, the mausoleum, the Imperial palace, and the building that houses the people's congress are together in one big park of national monuments. In some ways, they reminded me of American national monuments. Each building, sculpture, open space and decorative soldier reinforced the memory of a national dream. Chinese monuments are a bit more obvious, and the written propaganda is pretty chintzy. A giant red sign currently posted above Tien Amen square calls on citizens to "promote the scientific friendliness of the party, and create a more harmonious people's China." The Forbidden City is genuinely big enough to be called a city. One wing of the city was constructed to keep each of the emperor’s thousand-plus concubines in a small palace of their own.

In the early evening, we left the Imperial Palace for Wang Fu Jin, the biggest, ritziest mall in Beijing. There are a concrete differences between Chinese and Western culture, and I can’t buy the argument that globalization is a pervasive phenomenon that explains why people everywhere do everything. Still, globalization may explain why people with people with decent disposable incomes want to buy things. American brand anything is an impressive luxury. Barbie is a hot commodity (slightly altered eyes make her ‘Chinese,’ but there is no meaningful deviation from a skinny white standard of beauty.) Drug-store brand make up like L’Oreal is sold at expensive department store counters like Lancome is sold in the states. McDonald’s is a nice restaurant decorated with swanky modern furniture. Chinese consumers can enjoy knock-offs of McDonald’s, with three golden arches, knock-offs of Kentucky Fried Chicken, with a Chinese guy in the Colonel’s bow-tie, and two brands of imitation Nike, one with the swoosh backwards, and one with it upside down.

The mall is surrounded by blocks of open air food stands and merchants selling trinkets, all packed into small lanes that are only accessible on foot. The food includes such delicacies as sea urchins, centipedes, and live scorpions still writhing on their sish-ka-bob skewers. I thought that every street was unbelievably crowded. Jin said that it was a nice, slow day. The square and the palace are must-sees for anyone visiting Beijing, but they are pretty obvious tourist traps for Chinese citizens and foreigners alike. The outdoor mall was great, also well worth visiting, but both destinations left me with that same feeling of exhaustion that comes from walking around a tourist museum all day long.

Between Tien Amen Square, the Imperial Palace, and Wang Fu Jin, we spent some time just wandering the city. A number of my first impressions were pretty off. There are homeless people in Beijing. They are visibly few in number by major U.S. city standards, and each person that I saw was seriously maimed or disabled. The homeless beggars don’t own wheelchairs; they drag themselves where they are going, which can’t ever be far. Wheelchairs wouldn’t help. Nothing in Beijing is accessible. There is poverty in Beijing, but it isn’t in the high-rise soviet era apartment buildings that house most of the city. In the center of Beijing, long drooping mazes of one-story buildings are a grim reminder that Chinese poverty is of a rural character. These complexes are blocks deep, and are surrounded by crumbling walls with one or two entrances spaced every hundred meters. I tried to enter one, but the tiny passageways, the heaps of salvaged trash and a noxious odor triggered my sense of personal danger. We snapped a photo and got out of there. In the photo, the complex looks quaint and charming. I wonder how many quaint and charming photos hide

Even in the tourist spots, it was pretty tough to get around without speaking Chinese. We still had Jin to bail us out of a few difficult situations. We leave today for Chengdu, which is still a large city, but it doesn’t cater to awkward Western tourists and we’re going without Jin. Cheers to an adventure.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Bu chi rou
(don't eat meat)

The concept of vegetarian doesn't exist in China. Since the concept of vegetarian doesn't really exist outside of California, I'm used to people not understanding my dietary needs. Anywhere else I can usually explain that I don't eat meat and that fish and chicken are, in fact, meat. Even in other languages limited words and ridiculous gestures get the job done. No meat, no chicken, no fish. Yes, thank you, I'll just have the bread.

Dinner last night proved that finding vegetarian food in China isn't going to be as easy. I can't speak Chinese, which is an obvious problem, and I can't find anyone who speaks English. People also don't understand my gestures, which is really making it tough to get around. Apparently, pointing at oneself no longer means 'me.'

I had friends here to help me order food last night. But I'm leaving Beijing today, and my bilingual buddies aren't coming with me. I think my veggie options include hiding at a Budhist monestary for the next two weeks or getting by on a lot of rice. This is a bit of a dissapointment, since China is said to have great veggie food. Sigh...if only I knew how to order it.

Aside from the veggie challenge, my inability to communicate with people has been a bit of fun. Devin and I skipped the expensive cabs that American tourists take from the airport and opted for a public bus. We missed our stop, only to hit the streets of Beijing on foot and realize that we had been on the wrong bus. We found a cheap cab and a driver who knew where we were going, and wound up in the right neighborhood with no clue what building to enter. We were rescued by Jin's boyfriend Cameron. He doesn't know us, but found us wandering in an open street market after Jin had sent him to look for two lost Americans.

First impressions of Beijing: Bicycles, smoking, smoke-related spitting, and people are abundant. The best dressed people in town wear crisp government uniforms. People seem to have far less than in the U.S. (big suprise) but I have seen no poverty and no homelessness. Everything is dirty, and the air quality makes L.A. seem like a conservation paradise. Otherwise Beiling is much like what I expected: a major city in a big country, with noticeable similarities to any other big city in any other big country. In Beijing, I can buy Pizza Hut pizza and get eel as a topping.

Today, we're planning our trip to Chengdu, where we'll catch a cruise down the Yangtzee river. Plans may change if Jin's agent can't help us, but we need to get out of Beijing as soon as possible. National Holiday begins this Friday and lasts for a week. Which means that just about all of the14 million people in Beijing will be headed out of the city on vacations of their own. We're told that crowding may get bad enough to prevent us from leaving the city. So we'll visit other parts of the country now, let the people of Beijing celebrate the founding of China's communist government without us, and return when it isn't as crowded.

After managing the veggie food dilemma, my next challenge is connecting the digital camera to the computer without the cord that was left in California. I hope to start posting photos soon.

Right now, I'll leave you with the first lessons that a American needs to get by in China. Don't drink the water, don't eat the fruit, always choose the hotel upgrade, and beware of those who can speak English and are trying to sell you something. They're trying to rip you off.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

This isn't something that you should be reading. I mean it.

This little blog was never intended for my use, and my posting here is an accident. I blame this free blogging service. Forcing me to create a blog so that I have an identity when I post to other blogs is a cruel game that I can't win. I've spent the past month avoiding this dangerous little place, but alas, boredom has worn down my resistance.

Berkeley professor Bruce Cain tells each of his students that the most engaging years of our lives will be the few that we spent at Cal. My first nine to five summer makes me worry that he may be right. I miss the thoughtful conversation that makes college so great. I miss being asked to form an opinion about something bigger than me. I think I may even miss writing papers.

What you'll get here are opinions that I ought to keep to myself. This isn't a political blog or a feminist blog or a blog about anything specific. This is my attempt to keep talking, er, writing about anything that I find important or interesting. If you know me, you know you may find some weird stuff here. Or you may not find anything. I may never post again, and I promise that I will never check my spelling.

Don't read if you don't know me, because you may not like what I have to say. Or you may love it. I could be brilliant, and if you fail to check in every day, you may miss something that will change your world. Seriously folks, I don't expect readers, but the potential that someone may view this proves that I am not talking to myself. Comment if you feel like it, or comment because it will make my day. Comment because I miss you and it's been too long. Just comment, and always remember to be nice.

You know that saying. You know, the one I just invented.
You give a careful woman a blog, and she's going to have the sense to stay away from it.