Saturday, March 10, 2012

China: The Final Days - Part 2

"If there is a look of human eyes that tells of perpetual loneliness, so there is also the familiar look that is the sign of perpetual crowds."
- Meynell, Alice
We decided to spend our last few hours in Lijiang exploring the markets of Lijiang Old Town.

Mercantile aspirations are the barometer to measure the health of a community. Here, we got to see it at the local level. The soul and heart of a community are definitely in its markets. Amidst the economic hustle, we get to see social interactions; forces of supply and demand bringing communities onto common ground.

The Chinese obsession with meat is well-documented, and it plays an important role in all of the Eight Culinary Traditions of China. Yunnan is home to a mixture of Sichuan cuisine and neigbouring South-Eastern Asian/Tibetan cuisine, so it was no surprise that most of our walks were in the vicinity of meat.

The journey through the markets was fascinating, a trip through Chinese eccentricities and traditions. They seemed to eat everything that moved, which would obviously be an over-exaggeration. But the Chinese are known to be efficient. They are already practising what the world will eventually practice many decades down the line - eating every part of every animal. I would love PETA to start a campaign in China (if they can get through the Chinese censor machine), and watch how the Chinese react to all the crazy talk.

Utility certainly trumps western concepts of yuckiness, and it makes life interesting for tourists like us.

P unsuccessfully attempts to decipher the spices.
But life does move on from meat. It was here that we finally got a glimpse of the spices Chinese use to give their food its unique taste. I do not know what they are called, I do not know how they are made, and I certainly do not know how they are cooked, but I can now safely say that I know what they look like. That certainly should count for something.

The other major ingredient of  Chinese cuisine are the noodles. And here we finally got to see the different varieties of them. I now understand the difficult job chefs have to deal with when it comes to cooking. There are just so many versions and types of ingredients out there in the world, it does take an artist to put them all together and create beauty; almost like choosing between the infinite shades of colour, except here it is taste and texture.

The railway station with an endless courtyard
We moved away from the markets for the penultimate leg of our journey - the train ride between Lijiang and Kunming. Our cab took us through the wide and empty roads of Lijiang - which at 8 in the night looked like a ghost town. The railway station  was overwhelming. It was huge. For a small town, and compared to any Indian railway station.

And we Indians pride ourselves on our trains. We had trains run by the British exploiting our countrysides when large parts of the world were still galloping on donkeys and asses. But the Chinese trains were something else altogether.

To start with, the trains were double-deckered. And they refused to make any sound. No sound. Not one bit. We didn't feel like we were in a train. It felt too comfortable. And too clean. At 10 pm sharp, they switched off the lights. And the train uncomplainingly went to sleep. We were woken by the gentle murmur of the Chinese at 5am, and proceeded to head to the Kunming airport for the plane back to India, via Thailand.

After many long hours of waiting at the various airports, as we ate 'Hindu' food in the Thai airlines from Bangkok to New Delhi, we were reminded of the reason we had chosen to escape India - our own Indian brethren. We watched the passengers get drunk on the complimentary alcohol, and proceed to have loud altercations that had to be broken up by the only Hindi-speaking steward. I would be honest in saying that I spend the night huddled up in my blankets, smiling apologetically at the scared and bewildered Thai hostesses.

We landed at New Delhi, and as I soaked in the all so familiar Hindi and Punjabi, I watched the crowds. 2 weeks in the midst of emptiness, I had forgotten the feeling of crowds; the feeling of heat and the humidity of sweat as we stand in close proximity. Of the clamour and chaos of life used to living in little personal space.

And I cannot wait to escape it all once again. There are just too many empty places in the world, and just too many of us in the cities out here.

There's just way too much to see out there.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

China: The Final Days - Part 1

Supermarket automatic doors open for me; therefore, I am.
Craig Bruce
The end was nigh for our long and rather untiring China trip. Manufactured tourist experiences appealed to neither of us, so we spend large parts of the day looking at the real Lijiang - tarred roads, department stores, hair-dressing saloons and supermarkets.

Tip for the traveller -
If you ever wish to buy a memento for your travels, the supermarkets are the best place to do so. 

The supermarkets were way too large for a small town. It was heaven for urban folks like me. We frolicked through the aisles, like kids in a candy store, attempting to decipher Chinese products. Not daring to splurge. And yet we did.

We picked ourselves dumplings, only to realize that we need to cook them before we could eat them. Off we went to one of the random eateries on the way and through clever use of sign language that we had now practised for the last many days, we got our hostesses to steam them for us. While they were at it, we ordered another hotpot. This time it was beef. And we did not have any Chinese translations to help us out this time ...
We ended up buying our most expensive meal to day. We felt mildly cheated but we had no way of knowing if we were correct in our accusations. And so we beat a hasty retreat, picking up as many complimentary chopsticks as possible on our way out.

We sauntered through the clean and bright streets, and watched the Chinese as they relaxed on warm sunny  afternoons. This was a week day and we still found many sitting around playing cards and chess. It's a far cry from the reports I hear about Foxconn and others. But I guess tourist towns can afford to be less hectic than the manufacturing towns. And they take full advantage of that. The faces were smiling as the cards were shuffled, and the beer bottles littered all the tables.

I stood watching a game of Chinese Chess, but the rules of the game were as complex as their alphabet.
Next stop - To the supermarket, to buy myself a Chinese Chess board. Some day I shall master it, and return to China and challenge someone on the street, on a nice warm sunny day. Like a boss.

The parks were full of people, and we often found old people dancing in them. Old people dancing away, oblivious to awkward ogling Indian tourists is a sight to treasure. The men seemed meeker than the women, an observation made in every town we visited. And the women were always stylish, with overcoats and high-heeled boots. The streets were filled with the clickety-clackety sounds of heels, each in individual harmony with its owner.

I do not wish to stereotype Chinese women, but the following image plagiarized from the internet is what I truly observed -

 And so it goes.

The absence of private property was conspicuous. The buildings were rigid. All uniform and little soul. But the lack of poverty makes up for it. It really does. Would I rather see mansions and slums, or colonies of average similar homes?
But what would I prefer to live in? Therein lies the debate between capitalism and communism. Sigh.

We would move away from urban Lijiang and continue the last part of our travels in Lijiang Old Town...

Saturday, March 3, 2012

China: Day 8 - On The Backs of Horses

Horses are uncomfortable in the middle and dangerous at both ends. - Anon.
We found ourselves going to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to hike and maybe, just maybe, touch some real snow. It was a cold December and in the distance we could see the snow-peaked mountains.They were enticing enough for P, and I tagged along with hope of seeing yaks grazing in meadows.

We paid to see meadows and snow, and were bundled up on 2 horses - as old as the guides who held their reins. My horse was a beautiful black horse who farted with every exertion. P faced the brunt of my horses's gastric inconveniences. P's horse, on the other hand, grunted its way up the hill. It seemed tired enough to collapse, even without anyone riding it.

The old man and woman who accompanied us looked equally frail. And P and me found ourselves getting off the horse to allow the horses to rest and allow the old guides to ride the horses.  This was until I realized that they had more stamina than I could possibly hope to have. The air was getting thinner as we went up the hill, and I found myself out of breath when I walked. So for the next hour or so, I sat on the horse like royalty and let the guides earn their money. All of this while P still graciously allowed the the woman to ride her horse. Though I believe this was mostly because P didn't want to be on the horse if it decided to embrace an untimely demise.

We were supposed to go up the mountains through 2 or 3 meadows, on the way looking at some luscious green patches of beauty. But found ourselves going nowhere close to anything remotely good-looking. After an hour of randomness, we finally found something worth our money. Nestled in the midst of the mountains was a lake. Greenish-blue clear water. We stood in the face of winds that nearly swept us off our feet, especially little scrawny me.

It was a breathtakingly beautiful place. A still scene out of a fantasy novel.  The old woman, through very efficient use of sign language, conveyed that in the spring, the place looks even more beautiful. P meanwhile stood in the distance, a speck contemplating her place in nature.

We sat back and rested, smoked cigarettes with the guides. And then it was time to leave. We were excited about what other pearls lay nestled in these hills.

But then oddly enough, we began to descend. We tried communicating with our guides, that we had paid for more, in the best possible sign language. But we failed. We sat fuming on our horses, as our butts ached from the hard saddles and the lack of sufficient posterior fat.

And then the couple refused to let us get down our horses. We pleaded, gesturing towards our butts and aching legs, only to be ignored by the now rather sullen and indifferent old man. We rode for a long time, towards the town, still not allowed to get off. I had thoughts that maybe the old couple were having thoughts of kidnapping us. It made no sense but there seemed no other justification. I wondered if jumping off a horse could ever be fatal.

When we were finally allowed to get off on a deserted road in the middle of a town, the old woman demanded money from us, which we reluctantly took out. She took a 1 Yuan note and pointed at a sign. We're slow when it comes to trusting human nature, so it took a while for it to dawn onto us. The old couple had taken extra effort to get us to a bus stop so we could get back safely to humanity. Or maybe they wanted to get rid of us as soon as possible, so we would not be able to complain about not getting what we had paid for. We would never know.

The woman waited with us till we caught the bus. And we rode back to civilization on the modern horses of steel, which farted exhaust fumes. They were cool though. And more comfortable.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

China: Day 7 - On Loving Dragons

"Eats its victims... burns its victims... buries its victims, chokes its victims, turns its victims inside-out... Extremely dangerous, extremely dangerous... kill on sight, kill on sight, kill on sight..."
- Hiccup, How to Train a Dragon

Advice of the day
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Especially when it is complimentary in your hotel. Eat it. Eat it well.

Post breakfast, we decided to walk to the Black Dragon Pool at the north end of Lijiang Old Town. Built during the Qing Dynasty, it offers some of the most spectacular views of the region's tallest mountain, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. With names like that, I saw now reason to not visit it. Have I mentioned that dragons are my favourite animals? Well they are.

Our walk to the Pool took us through Lijiang Old Town, south boundary to north . Cobble-stoned roads, waterways and bridges gave it a certain charm, and an indication of what kind of water systems have existed in this part of the world for centuries. We reached the main square called the Square Street.
Four roads radiated from the square. 
And sorry I could not travel all four. 
And be one traveller, long I stood....

At the Square we were treated to a 'spontaneous' burst of Naxi expression, an act which is repeated day after day for the past many years. Someone starts a song, and the old people dance in their native costumes for a few minutes. The tourists join, and then it stops. And we move on.

And then it repeats. I was amused at how forcefully constructed this event was. And how bored the local Naxi women looked.

And then I finally noticed - a Naxi woman picking garbage from a trash can. I had found the poor people of China. There were the original inhabitants of this region, now forced into a corner.

The Black Dragon Pool was exactly what it promised to be, except without any black dragons. There might have been a legend about them, but we didn't find any. The park is called the Jade Spring Park, because the water supposedly sparkles like jade on a bright spring morning.

The tourist places were clean and efficient, except for the toilets. The Chinese toilets are odd, because they offer no privacy of any kind. Squat toilets are ok. They exist all over Asia. But to not give a place to hide is shameful.

We returned to Lijiang Old Town and found ourselves gravitating towards Qi Street. It is here that we discovered street food. Tonnes of it. We felt like pirates stumbling upon treasure. We broke lose on the food like rabid dogs, salivating all over.

And so on, and so forth... It's what I loved about Chinese food. They ate everything. Everything edible. And it was all so tasty, and good-looking.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

China: Day 6 - Lijiang - On Cooking Pots of Meat

“If you don't eat yer meat, you can't have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don't eat yer meat?”
Pink Floyd, 'Another Brick in the Wall, Part II (1979)
Mornings are the most pleasant part of the Yunnan winter. The sun shines on you and warms your soul. With mountains enveloped in soft white haze gazing down at us in the distance, we wandered through Shuhe Town.

This town is designed for tourists. The town seems to have no other occupation but to cater to the needs of ignorant tourists such as me and others.

We followed the waterways upstream towards the clear water springs. These waterways, like the ones in Dali, are used by all the shopkeepers for all their domestic purposes. I did wonder about the ones who lives downstream. Classic problems to keep economists busy.

In the midst of all the touristy stuff, we found little indicators of the communist regime. Absolutely no propaganda. And trust me, I did hunt for it.  That was until I found beautiful life-size statues of workers in the act of working, paying ode to, well, the workers.
It was heartening and inspiring. Communist symbolism has always touched my heart, and this did too. Of course these were right in the middle of the busy market place, and did get me wondering at their intended purpose. Maybe they were just yet another prop for the cameras. That would truly be ironic. Like the man who painted himself black, held a gun and pretended to be a (painted?) soldier or the Bai women who wore their traditional dresses, all for us, the tourists, and a few extra bucks.

We tried the local food - dumplings and fried cakes of noodles, found them unappealing, and ended out short stay at Shuhe. I repeat my sagely advice - stay away from tourist towns like Shuhe. They are boring.

Bruce graciously offered to drive us to our hotel at Lijiang Old Town. Now Bruce had been the perfect host. They ended their hospitality by writing on a slip of paper the words 'hot pot - 1/2 kilo lamb meat) in Chinese. It was their noblest act, one that we shall remember for the rest of our lives. I still have the slip lying with me, just in case I land in China again.

Our hotel was good. Really good. Naxi-style architecture in a modern setting. Beautifully decorated. And warm. Sooo warm. We stood under the air-conditioning, soaking our cold toes and fingers in warm air.

It was late afternoon. So we head out to have the complementary tea which consisted of cold 'English tea' and cold 'coffee'. And fruits and nuts. We do not know the names of anything we had.
But there is a rule that most people on low budgets know about  - Everything free tastes good.

So we ate. And then we ate a little more.

Lijiang Old Town was once again a reconstructed old new city. The town has a history going back to more than 800 years, and has been declared a UN Heritage city.  Most of the architecture is reflective of the Naxi style, a rather unique design not found anywhere else in China .

The place itself had waterways and bridges, and mostly just inns and restaurants, and tourist shops, and music shops. It was a hippie paradise, with music flowing through every street.

The main Lijiang city is outside the Old Town, and is like most towns in China. Smooth beautiful roads with rows of identical buildings, and government run monopolies. Our dinner adventure at night consisted of roaming around these roads with Bruce's slip of paper and hunting for a place that sold hot-pots. We found ourselves the friendliest place we could find, and began our culinary adventure.

So this is how I figured a hot-pot works (explained by a helpful Chinese girl in slow Mandarin, and many laughing waitresses) -
Take a large pot and throw in meat and water. Watch it boil in front of your eyes. You shall receive a tray filled with vegetables. Look around to see what the others are doing. Give up when no one offers to help. Toss the vegetables that suit your fancy into the pot, without realizing that every vegetable you use will cost extra.

There shall be many spices on your table - one that shall look like bean curd and another one that shall make your pee change colour. You need to then awkwardly take the boiled vegetables from the hotpot using the chopsticks, dip it into the spices, put it in your mouth, and love the taste. The boiling water is a soup that you shall keep drinking. When the meat is cooked, you eat the meat similarly.

After an hour or so, you would be done. The pot shall now contain many pieces of intestines and other parts of an animal that didn't look edible. You, on the other hand shall be full and ready to pay the rather moderate amount they charge for such a complete dish.

With this meal we ended our first night in Lijiang.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

China: Day 5 - Shuhe - On Frozen Moments

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
- T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)

Bus rides in China were always comfortable and mostly cheap. We left Dali in the morning and arrived at Shuhe by noon. The roads, as mentioned before, were smooth and left us feeling in awe of the totalitarian regime's infrastructure. Again. Of course, we again found little evidence of the poor people. They HAD to be hiding somewhere.

At Shuhe, we were greeted by Bruce, the owner of  the rather conveniently named inn - Bruce Chalet.  Bruce was a pleasant young man, round and cherubic. He used to work in Hong Kong, but left it all to buy this place in Shuhe and construct his hotel. He and his girlfriend run the place, and it certainly was beautiful. Quaint and charming, and amongst the better  hotels I have stayed in for a long time. But the clincher was that Bruce spoke English. We suddenly felt even more at home.

Unluckily for us, a homely inn also meant that it lacked the only feature that allowed us to survive the cold Yunan winter - An internal heating system. Air conditioning. The beds had a metal rod which warmed it over many hours. So this is how our ordeal went -
Leave the bed to warm for a while. Sneak into bedsheet without disturbing anything, lest the warmth escapes into oblivion. Now contort your body till it lies exactly over the warm region. Do not move. Lie inert for many hours, refusing to come out of bed.

And so it went.

Prior to the bed ordeal, we had roamed around Shuhe Town. This was a town built for tourists. It had nothing but trinket shops and food stalls. Every few meters you would find random puppies, which seemed to have been thrown around to entice the tourists. The food seemed a little more exotic, albeit a costlier than the food in Dali. It was here that I had my first taste of grilled insects; a crunchy grasshopper like creature found its way into my mouth along with a deep sense of awe at our ability to eat without discrimination. Meat or no meat. If something is edible, it will find its way into the belly of our race.

For lunch, we found ourselves eating fried yak meat, Baba (a Naxi bread) and noodles. Overpriced, compared to Dali. And as explained to us by our helpful innkeeper, this was because Dali is less touristy than Shuhe. The yak meat, Bruce explained to us, was most probably fake. And the baba was the worst thing we had had since the time we stepped onto communist soil. The next morning we would have a better baba at the Bruce Chalet. Today, we just chose the wrong restaurant.

Note  - Avoid these touristy places. They are a trap. Meant for the western 'backpackers', they are now ironically exactly what the 'backpackers' had hoped to escape from - crowds and fake constructed cultural experiences.

And so we survived a day in Shuhe. After the bed ordeal, we head out to Shuhe in the night. We were assured that it was safe, and that the crime rates were close to 0. We believed them, and wandered into the night to find dinner. Here we met more friendly Chinese who offered us cigarettes and a share of the warmth around their fire.

We ended the night with another bout of shivering under the blankets, and cursing our decision to come to this part of the world in December.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

China: Day 4 - The Cangshang mountains - On Elements of Nature

“If you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all.” – Ronald Reagan

I was never too keen to go up the mountains. I have an aversion to watching nature in strange lands. Strange lands are strange only because of the strange people who occupy them and their strange cultures. Nature often ends up uniting, rather than dividing. A common denominator that is often shared between multiple nations and cultures.

Case in point - ALL mountains are colder than the plains. Everyone of them. Without exception. Throw in a couple of trees, some waterfalls, a lot of tourists with cameras, and you got yourself how most mountains in most countries look. And here it wasn't any different.

But P insisted on seeing the Cangshang mountains, from her deeply entrenched desire to not have any regrets in her life. So we went up the mountains. Dali was cold and we assumed the mountains were colder. In our zest to trek to obscure locations on the mountain, we bundled ourselves up in multiple layers of clothing.

Five is the magic number. It is the maximum layers you can wear without feeling uncomfortable and still be warm in single digit temperatures. It is the number of layers that can make scrawny little me actually looked rather muscular. It is also the number of layers which make trekking impossible. The weight pulls you down, and when the sun comes out late morning, you wish you were somewhere else. The cold ice-capped peaks of the mountains seem inviting.

So we didn't really trek. We watched the Chinese tourists and the enthusiasm with which they pose for the cameras. And then we attempted to mimic them. We could never pull it off, the Chinese enthusiasm far exceeding even the Gujarati tourists we see in India.

Many of the Chinese were fascinated by us Indians. The ones who spoke English ventured to take photographs with us, and we graciously agreed. Our photographs probably lie on some Chinese's albums with the tag 'Strange Indu People'.

We came back early, tired and a little bored, buying a cheap wooden Bai sword on the way back for AG. The back-story for this purchase went some thing like the following -

Me : So would you like something from China?
AG : A Samurai sword
Me : That's ****ing Japanese
AG : Then get me a cheap Chinese knock-off

And so it was.

We head out to the Erhai lake across the city the afternoon. We stood there, pretending to be in deep contemplation, as we watched the clear waters and the many ducks.  The lake is supposed to lie next to many historical places. But we didn't really care for that. P stared into the distance with a look of profundity, while I took photographs of ducks. The highlight of this lake, which we never took because we were too lazy to care but hope others will, was a boat ride to a Bai village.

We head back to Dali Old Town for the rest of the evening. Here we were finally cheated by a taxi driver who left us at the 'Cultural Building' when we wanted to go the 'Wuhua Building'. We couldn't complain. It didn't really matter. This building looks as gorgeous as any other building.

We arrived back and walked through the local streets, stared at goth Chinese girls, and 'sign language''d our way through the market place. Here we sat amongst the locals, and clumsily ate spicy, oily cup noodles with chopsticks. Then overpriced fried rice. Then skewers. Then fried bananas and grass.

Post-binging on street food, we retired early. Sat back in the hotel room drinking Dali beer and watching melodramatic Chinese films and documentaries without subtitles.

And so ended our last night in Dali. I do miss the place. *Sigh*.