Monday, March 30, 2009

the race

After 6 days of purging food poisoning by ingesting only water, bottled juice, soup, crackers, and bread, I felt OK enough to go running this morning in Jodhpur.  I started off at 8:30am.  It felt about 70F, which is cool enough to feel quite pleasant, especially as compared to the normal wilting heat here in the afternoon.  (And this is spring, not even summer where we're told it reaches a temperature in celsius that was off our internal celsius fahrenheit conversion chart.)

There weren't that many people out and the streets by our hotel were wider than in many places, so it also felt more open and relaxed than as usual in Indian cities.  The streets of Jodphur also feel much cleaner, possibly because there seemed to be fewer animals wandering around.  There were, however, still just enough cows, goats, and dogs to leave presents on the street in order to keep things interesting.  In India they don't need petting zoos for their children, which in some ways is very nice, except for the ever-present poop.

I ran by a big dusty open field where two impromptu cricket matches were being played simultaneously by rifle-thin men.  Despite the heat that was leaving me covered in sweat, they wore nice pants and collared shirts while batting and sprinting around in the dust.  

A little while later I was running on the dusty shoulder on the left, with traffic (Indians drive on the left), and I noticed that to my right (in the street) and slightly behind me I could hear the constant low throttle putter of a motorcycle.  It was staying with me, rather than passing.  It would be flattery to say I am fleet, and in any case I am obviously not fleet enough to really be faster than a motorcycle.  It was apparent that I had company.

This has been a fairly common occurrence in both India and China, usually with motorcycles and sometimes bicycles.  (I occasionally outrun the slower bicyclists, to my satisfaction.)  My interpretation is they simply want to either watch me out of curiosity, and possibly want to know how fast I am going.  There is probably also satisfaction in observing the amount of effort going into my running, while they coast along easily.  It affirms their superior choice of transportion over that of the crazy westerner.

In this instance, I decided to at least put on a good show for the motorcyclist.  Acting like I didn't know he was following me, I refused to look behind me to recognize him and increased my pace to a near sprint.  I coasted along for a couple minutes in the heat, building up a good rhythm of breathing, harmonized with the putter of his low cc engine.  Finally, satisified or bored, he throttled up the motorbike and jumped past me.  At this moment I looked up to glance at the driver.

Helmetless with black hair flowing backward in the wind, the driver was a 12 year old boy.  Although his posture on the motorcycle was convincingly adult and professional, he grinned at me with the wide malice-less, almond-eyed smile that all Indian children seem to have.  Smiles like that are impossible to resist so despite my effort at running I instantly grinned back.  Thankfully, he turned back to watch the road, but as the motorcycle finished passing alongside me I was doubly rewarded with the nearly identical, except for more babyfat, grin of his kid brother.  He was no more than 8 or 9 years old and was perched on the back of the motorcycle behind the juvenile driver.  The younger brother continued to smile as the motorcycle sped off down the street.

(We've seen a number of kids driving motorcycles here.  Our driver assures us it's illegal, but that if the police caught the kids they would at most only go yell at the parents.  There are at first many things on Indian roads that give us a double-take, but you quickly no longer even notice them unless you're paying close attention:  a woman in a beautiful sari walking along the road dragging a moping small child behind her in one hand and carrying a massive pickaxe in the other hand, a man rolling like a log along on the road surface to a temple out of devotion, the presence of large quantities of every variety of domesticated animal often directly on the road, carts carrying loads of straw that look impossibly 4 or 5 times the actual size of the cart, wagons hitched up to camels, cars nonchalantly going the wrong way down a multi-lane highway, etc.)

Nice Shoes

Before we left on our trip, I bought new running shoes.  (It was actually the day before.  I like to keep things interesting.)  I bought a relatively modestly priced pair of Asic's; I think they were about $100, which is worth paying for me because I do so much running.  If I try to skimp I end up paying a visit to the doctor, wondering why my leg has a fracture in it.  

On our trip I've worn the shoes every day for both running and walking around, and they've worked out great.  Usually in SF I wear slightly hipper adidas flats, but we packed light so I didn't bring them.  I don't really care about being that stylish, especially when I'm traveling.

One thing we've noticed about India is how well dressed people are.  Even the poorest people often seem to have nicely starched button down shirts and long pants.  Maybe it's because they're too skinny from not enough food, but they usually look lanky and quite nice in their brightly colored clean clothes.  (even as they dodge huge piles of feces on the street)  It makes me feel pretty unpresentable, with my hot-weather REI hiking pants/shorts and my running shoes.  I've taken to wearing long pants, despite the heat, so I don't stick out as much.  (which may be pointless given my other obvious differences in appearance)

Indians tend to wear sandals, but many people do wear nice leather-looking shoes.  Their shoes seem much nicer to me than my running shoes.  I'd wear such shoes with a nice outfit or a suit.

To my surprise, when I walk around, little children in nice looking clothes say to me, "Nice Shoes!"  I've heard that at least 3 or 4 times.  Given my already present concern about feeling underdressed, at first I thought they were making fun of my running shoes.  However, Indian children have this adorably innocent way of smiling at you (perhaps unlike in the US, where children are told not to talk to strangers).  It's hard to think the children are being mean.  Also, when we went on our camel trek, Marisa noticed that the little Indian boy helping her camel spent the entire time, a couple hours, staring at my shoes, which he was fascinated by.  

Why would they be fascinated by my shoes?

It took me awhile to figure it out and was confirmed by queries to our driver.  The explanation is kind of depressing:  The black/brown dress shoes that Indians wear are very cheap to buy, even though they look nice.  My name-brand Asic's, which I consider to be "moderately priced", are quite expensive shoes for any Indian to buy.  To those kids, my running shoes are "nice shoes", probably nicer than the handmade dress shoes most people here wear.

On a side note, the other thing Indian kids say to me is "Ali Baba!  Ali Baba!"  Ali Baba is apparently a figure in a children's story who has a goatee beard, ostensibly similar to mine.  I stay good humored about it.  A 15 year old Indian kid started talking to me at a temple, probably to practice his English.  After going through the usual English lesson repertoir of "What is your name", "Where are you from", he complimented me on my beard, to which I replied knowingly, "Yes!  Like Ali Baba!"  He laughed, "Yes", and repeated,  "Like Ali Baba."

Sunday, March 29, 2009


I've tried writing a blog post a few times about our experiences so far in India, but I can't collect my thoughts. It's been very fast paced and we've seen and experienced many intense things. Here is a slightly random list of a few of our highs and lows.

We've been mostly in Rajasthan and Delhi. Delhi is not that great for sightseeing or hanging out. However we spent an afternoon in Raj Path, the park near the government offices. We lounged around in the heat along with the locals, and walked around the nearby politician houses which were heavily guarded and had beautiful, big, grassy yards. Delhi is very green (at least compared to China) and it made us feel relaxed.
From 20090321_Delhi_Starred

Rajasthan is a state in India with a stunning concentration of important and beautiful historical sites. We've seen the Taj Mahal, Amber Fort in Jaipur, Fatehpur Sikri, and the Jaiselmar fort. All of these sites have a lot of Muslim design, were very expensive to build, and were important historically. The pictures may express their beauty and scale better then I could write (although my pictures don't do justice to these sites, which are all top notch).
The Taj Mahal. From 20090324_AgraTajMahalRedFortFatehpurSikri_Starred

The mosque at Fatehpur Sikri. From 20090324_AgraTajMahalRedFortFatehpurSikri_Starred

A mirrored palace at Amber Fort. From 20090325_Jaipur_Starred

Jaiselmar fort from a distance. From 20090327_RoopangarhFortJaiselmar_Starred

In Rajasthan you also see many things Westerners have come to expect of India - women in beautiful, brightly colored saris; animals of all kinds (camels, elephants, donkeys, goats, buffalo) on the roads; cars next to rickshaws, next to men pushing fruit carts, next to camels pulling carts of wood, all packed in side-by-side on a tiny road.
From 20090324_AgraTajMahalRedFortFatehpurSikri_Starred

From 20090325_Jaipur_Starred

From 20090325_Jaipur_Starred

Jaiselmar is a city built entirely out of Jaiselmar sandstone, so it's the same color as the surrounding desert, it's built on a small plateau, and it appears to emerge from the desert. It's beautiful. We did a mini camel safari here, and a tour of nearby villages. The village women were constantly at the wells drawing water. They lived in houses made of dung that have to be rebuilt every year after the monsoon. The women were always immaculately dressed in bright saris (it's apparently easy to snap the dust out of saris). Rajasthani women are said to have a hard life - they draw water from the wells in the morning, work in the fields during the day, and come home and cook at night.
From 20090327_RoopangarhFortJaiselmar_Starred

From 20090327_RoopangarhFortJaiselmar_Starred

From 20090327_RoopangarhFortJaiselmar_Starred

There are many unhappy sights in India as well. It goes without saying that there is a great deal more poverty in India than in the US. There are a lot of child beggars. There are many skinny, frail-looking people here. There are many crowded streets in Agra, Jaipur, etc. with animal and human feces all over the street. A significant number of men here are crippled from polio or for other reasons.

We got some first hand experience with an Indian doctor (that's a horrible segway, but I don't have words to tie up the previous paragraph). I was suffering various side effects from anti inflammatories and my home doctor wanted me to see someone here. Seeing the Indian doctor was quite similar to seeing a doctor in the states, and he used to work at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. He charged me $30 for the visit and my perscription medication was $2. Aside from the price the care was comparable to my American medical care and medical tourism is popular in India.
Dr. Chawla's office in Delhi. aFrom 20090321_Delhi_Starred

The problem with the above doctor was that he failed to mention that the medication he gave me increased my risk of diarrhea. Everyone I know who has been to India has had food poisoning. Nothing could have prepared me for our first 10 days. I had 10 consecutive days of diarrhea and stomach pains, probably due more to the medicine than India. Then Steve and I both ate an old paneer (cheese) dish that put us both in bed for a day and I vomitted 4 times. But it gets worse. Just when Steve got his appetite back, he got sick AGAIN from an old mutton kofta dish. He vomited 4 times.

Figuring out how things work here is incredibly difficult here because it's so different than the states. For instance I've felt sick and I've been hoping for a supermarket where I could find some reliable packaged food (i.e. well preserved food) that won't make me sick. But there are no supermarkets and there is very little packaged food. The limited packed food is sold in tiny stalls. (I suppose this means people eat mostly fresh food here, however Steve and I are learning first hand why food preservatives were invented in the first place). Wi-fi is uncommon here, and that makes trip-planning difficult. We can't find a good website for cheap Indian airline fares, which maybe because most Indians don't have internet at home. Finding flights to Kerala has taken us about 3 hours whereas in the states it would take about 30 minutes.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

the god of small scams

In India, something like 35% of the population lives on less than $1 per day.  China is higher but still similar.  Keeping that in mind puts in perspective the hundreds of small scams we've encountered every day.  What for us is a small amount of money to be scammed out of, for an Indian might be an entire day's, week's, or year's wages.  

For instance, in China the taxis were regulated in all the cities we visited, so you paid exactly what the meter said.  However, we often wanted to take smaller autorickshaws or even bicycle-cabs, which were not regulated.  We'd always be surprised because the unregulated autorickshaw or bicycle driver would quote a price to us that we knew from experience was double that of a real volkswagen or hyundai taxi cab.  He'd often have a seeming gleam in his eye.  He'd make us suckers and perhaps earn himself a nice extra amount of money.   The extra amount of money would often be the equivalent of $1 or less (for a total fare of $2).  To take a taxi anywhere in San Francisco is always at least $5.  The irony is that probably we looked like ignorant suckers to the drivers, but $1 just isn't enough to get all worked up for us, especially since the final fare is still 30% what you'd pay in any big city in the US.  Plus, the rickshaws had much better views of the city than a normal cab, and since Marisa has trouble walking long distances, they were great for us to see lots of things.  We didn't mind paying the little extra westerner tax.

The same thing goes for bargaining for all kinds of other things, like souveneirs at the market and necessities.  For example, today in India a little kid tried to sell us water.  I asked him how much, and he said, "50 rupees!"  I countered, "come on.  15 rupees."  What a little entrepreneur:  Usually it costs 15 rupees.  All he did was go and buy bottled water somewhere and carry it in a big plastic bag to the tourist site to sell.   He offered back 20 rupees.  I started to walk away, so he quickly accepted my 15.  I gave him 20 and told him to keep the change because I was impressed with how he was hustling to carry the water around, if not by his honesty. 

With all that as background, we have a story to share about our first 2 hours in India.  Before coming to India we were warned by practically everyone to be on our guard about the scams.  Our India coworkers warned us (in a more subtle way) about hustlers overcharging us.  

Fellow travelers we met in China who had been to India warned us in particular about the taxi cabs at the airport.  They told us how you need to take an official taxi, and that the airport guy will write the taxi number on a slip.  One of them said that when they went to the taxi line, the taxi's number didn't match their slip and the guy kept trying to get them into his cab, but eventually they found their properly assigned cab, despite the first driver repeatedly claiming he was the right cab.  We also read the taxi section in the book, which basically said the same thing and insisted that you need to go to the Delhi Traffic Police booth in order to get a proper taxi.  Before getting off the plane we read more of the Delhi safety section.  Even though there were two of us, we read the dire warnings in the book to single female travelers.  It said to never get in a taxi with more than one man, and to make a big show of handing the taxi receipt to the police officer at the taxi line in the airport.

Our flight to Delhi left Beijing at 8pm and arrived in Delhi at 1:50am local time.  It was effectively even later for us because we had been adjusted to Beijing time.  Marisa had barely slept on the plane, and I had gotten at most a couple hours of fitful sleep.  We were quite tired, but in a way we were lucky.  Most travelers from the States to India go directly with a stopover in an airport somewhere in Asia, so the trip ends up being an exhausting 30 hours or something ridiculously similar for many people.  This reduces them to even more bumbling morons than we were.  For instance, Marisa had to explain to a very tired passenger the simple logical conclusion that if he and his wife sat in separate rows, they wouldn't be able to sit together, but if they sat in the same row, they would.  He looked awestruck at Marisa's profound intelligence and decided to sit in the same row as his wife.

Even though we had more presence of mind than people direct from the States, we were still not at our best.  We got our bags and cleared immigration and customs.  Before exiting the baggage area, we went directly to the Delhi Traffic Police booth and told them where we wanted to go.  One of the guys first said 200 rupees ($4), but quickly the second guy at the booth said "no, no, it's 250!".  I assume this was the Westerner tax kicking in -- charging us an extra $1.We asked them if we could use US Dollars as we didn't have any rupees, but they said no, and that we needed to go out of the baggage area to the ATM.  We asked if we could come back in once we got money, and he said something that sounded like an affirmative, but many Indians don't speak English well, so we weren't sure if he understood.

As we left the baggage area to the outer part of the airport, a small man (maybe 5'3 or 5'4 and really skinny) ran up to us and offered to help.  We'd already read all about the hucksters who offer to help you in India (this is less common in China), so we told him we didn't need help.  Marisa and I argued about where the ATM was briefly, and he  'helped' by pointing it out.  We went to the ATM and he followed us and stood outside the ATM booth, which was more annoying than worrisome.   After we left the ATM, we saw that there was a second Delhi Traffic Police stand outside of the arrivals area.  We walked back over to where we had seen the first booth, but there were guards with shotguns standing by the entrance.  Because we preferred to go back in to the seemingly safer people we had already talked to, I asked the guards if we could re-enter.  They didn't seem to understand, but the little guy who had been following us around 'helpfully' told us we couldn't and pointed us to the Delhi Traffic Police booth that was outside the guarded area.  We had already seen that, and the logo and uniformed person looked exactly the same as the other booth.  We also noticed that there was a line of Indian-looking people waiting at it, which indicated it was probably legit.  We decided to go to the new booth.

At the new booth the guy quoted us 320 rupees.  We told him the people inside had said 250 (and remember, the initial price was 200).  After some arguing in which he used our ingorance against us (probably), he told us that 'these are nighttime rates,  I don't know why they told you less inside.'  It was now past 2am (later on our Beijing time).  The extra 70 rupees was exactly $1.20 and didn't seem worth arguing about when all we wanted was bed, so we agreed.    Small scams.

To our surprise, when we paid, the guy at the booth told us to go with the little guy who had 'helped' us as we emerged from security.  Assuming now that he was legitimate, I looked at him and tried to smile and make up to him for being a jerk and ignoring him earlier.  Marisa is every vigilant and was still on her guard, though, and asked the booth guy why he didn't write the taxi number on our receipt.  He said something about how they don't do that anymore.  As I will explain, in hindsight we should have trusted Marisa's instinct.  Marisa and I discussed it very briefly, but I thought it was plausible they might have a different procedure now, so we decided to go with the guy, especially since everyone had told us we should use the Delhi Traffic Police booth, which is supposed to be safe.

The airport signage said something about going out a specific exit, B2.  Funnily enough I still remember that message, but I don't remember if the little guy lead us out that exit or not.  In retrospect, I now assume he did not.  He led us out an exit into an area that was nothing like any airport taxi collection area I'd ever seen.  It was our first view of India, and it was pretty bad.  It was extremely dusty.  There was what might have been an airport circling road, but it was nearly in the dark, and we waited on the side of a road in the dim lighting with the guy.  There was no sidewalk.  There was no obvious queue for a taxi and no signage about where to stand, and no police officers around.

At this point I was already 50% suspicious.  This didn't seem like a taxi line, but I and Marisa had no idea what a taxi line would look like at an Indian airport at nearly 3am in the morning.  The airport seemed busy enough with international flights arriving, so in hindsight we should have known that there would still be a real taxi line.  I would normally have been more concerned for our safety at that point, but the guy was so little (maybe this is part of the scam and is intentional) that he wasn't that imposing.  Also, there was a group of about 5 Westerners also waiting on the dirt shoulder of the road.  I assumed they were also waiting for taxis, but then a big charter bus pulled up and picked them up.  After that we were alone with the little guy for a couple minutes, but then a white van-like car pulled up.  Marisa thinks she remembered a Delhi Traffic Police taxi sticker on the van, so it looked semiofficial.  At this point maybe if we hadn't been so tired or knew a tiny bit more about Delhi, we could have given in to our suspicions and checked with someone else at the airport that this was actually the taxi line.  Instead we just assumed it was normal and got into the taxi.

To our further surprise, the little guy got in the taxi with the driver.  Again Marisa was more suspicious than I, because the book said that single women should not go in a taxi with two men.  We were not a single woman, obviously, but still it seemed odd that there would be two people in the taxi.  Marisa whispered this to me in the back, but probably stupidly we decided to stay in the taxi.

For that reason we started off in the taxi completely nervous.  The little guy started to make chitchat with us.  He seemed friendly enough, but he asked a lot of questions about us, and we let it slip that it was our first time in India.  Translation:  We are ignorant and you can scam us.  He continued to make chitchat which made me feel a little better, although his demeanor in retrospect was a little strange/distant.  Maybe he was just trying to get information from us.  We also didn't get to feel much more comfortable for another reason:  The driver's driving was completely insane.  We of course had heard many stories about how crazy driving is in India, so we weren't sure if it was normal or not.  It certainly felt unsafe to us (driving 100 kmh down a city street), but we had no idea what to expect.  Now that we've been in several cabs and have had more time in India, the guy's driving still seems crazy.  

Another weird thing was that they got off the freeway.  They claimed they did that because the freeway was clogged with transportation trucks (which it was), and they explained that after midnight the trucks are allowed on the freeway.  That seemed like a plausible explanation, but it added to our suspicion.  As they got nearer the city we were stopped at a police checkpoint.  At this point things seemed OK since they seemed to be taking us in the right direction.  Even though they got off the freeway, we hadn't entered really seedy neighborhoods or anything (we'd passed nice government buildings and some nice hotels).  I had been paying very close attention to the streets because we were worried they might be taking us somewhere to rob us.  However, given all that we'd read in the book, I got out of the car and made a big show of walking around until the policemen at the checkpoint saw me.  I also saw that the driver and the little guy noticed the policemen see me at the checkpoint.  I assumed that would diminish the change they would do something horrible to us if the police knew Westerners were with them (so we couldn't later go missing).

The little guy called someone on his phone.  The conversation was in Hindi, but I heard the words 'Connaught Place' in the conversation, which is where we were staying.  I guessed he was calling for directions, or maybe just telling someone where they were going. 

Things continued to seem OK as they drove to Delhi, although the driver's driving continued to be nerve-rattling.  A few minutes later Marisa saw a sign for Connaught place pointing right, and we went left.  She asked them "That sign said connaught place!  Why are we going in the other direction?"  They told her, "Do not worry, Madame!  Connaught place is very large.  This is all Connaught Place."  We were ignorant, so we had no reason not to believe them.  Still, Marisa was very suspicious, and this also made me more suspicious.    A few minutes after the sign, we asked them what the nice gardens were to our right, and they told us it was the President's house.  We were still in a nice area.

In retrospect, I don't know why it did not occur to either of us to read about connaught place and delhi in the book as we drove to get a better feel for whether what they were telling us was true.  I think we were too tired.  I did have the presence of mind to turn on my phone and open up my gps application.  I had no data plan access, but I could at least track our path to get a feel of the direction they were taking us in.  I remember thinking all that as we drove, but somehow I never even activated the tracking.  (I thought I did, but the next day when I checked there was no track.)

A few minutes later (now well after 3am), the little guy told us we were almost there.  (By now it had become apparent the driver did not speak English.)  The neighborhood looked a little less nice, but not horrible.  We had been staying in small hostels, so it seemed conceivable to me that we could have a hotel in such a neighborhood.  At this point the driver started going much slower.  The little guy told us, "Your hotel is in that area, but the streets are closed off."  From the car we could see that the streets had chains going across them to prevent cars driving in.  (This didn't look dangerous  -- they were the sort of chains you often see in neighborhoods that close off car traffic.)  The little guy continued, "We will drive around to the other side to see if it's open there."  The other side was also chained off.  They made a big show of driving around more of the neighborhood to show that it was all chained off, called someone on the phone, and finally told us there was no way in.

At this point we had a bit of an argument between Me, Marisa, and the little guy.  I asked if it was safe enough to just get out of the car and walk to the hotel, but Marisa wasn't comfortable with that at 3am in the morning (which was probably good judgment), and the little guy agreed that it wasn't safe.  He asked if we had a number to call the hotel at.  Marisa had the printout from expedia, but for some stupid reason expedia didn't include the phone number of our hotel.  It did have the exact address in Delhi.  We weren't too careful about checking for the number because we have stayed in literally hundreds of hotels and have never had a problem with a cabbie finding our hotel before.  I asked if he could call information, but he said (or pretended) that there is no number for information in India.  Marisa said that we didn't care if it costs money, that we would pay.  I thought this was a pretty subtle move on Marisa's part that left it open to them to take an additional bribe to take us to our hotel.  They could have responded by saying, "Oh, sure, we'll call information, but it'll be 500 rupees".  I would have gladly paid if it meant we would get to our hotel, as 500 rupees is only $10.  However, his response was very scary because he raised his voice a little and said, "Lady, look, you have no number, I can't find out how to get in if you have no number!"  If he didn't want more money, what we did they want?  We asked him, "Isn't there anyone you can call or an information place where we could get the number for the hotel?"

At this point he suggested, "We will take you to tourist information center to call your hotel."  We agreed to that because we didn't know what else to do, although I think at that point we were both 99% suspicious.  What sort of cabbie can't find a mid-quality hotel in a major city, if he's given the exact address?  After this as we drove we tried to pay attention as closely as possible, because we were paranoid about them taking us somewhere dangerous.

Our paranoia was richly rewarded with real world confirmation.  Within a few minutes they pulled up to a very small one storey building that had a seedy sign out front saying something like, "India Travel Agency".  It was very dimly lit in a dark driveway off a small street.  There was a tiny greenish fluorescent glow coming from inside the window and low wattage lights underneath the outside sideboard, but otherwise no lighting.  It wasn't clear anyone was even in there.  It's one of those places where the one forlorn and dirty plastic palm tree decoration makes it looks less instead of more welcoming.  This didn't seem like the promised "Tourist Information Center".  At this point Marisa and I were damn sure we weren't going to get out of the car.  (We agreed while whispering with each other in the back.)  I think we had both read about the shady indian "travel agencies" that try to scam westerners out of money, so it seemed pretty obvious why we were there, although we didn't know how the scam would play out exactly.

I was also worried about physical danger, especially because at this point the driver got out and opened my door.  I was sitting behind the driver, so the seat in front of me was now vacant.  The little guy who spoke English was sitting in front of Marisa, so now the driver was standing to my side, and the little guy was in the front seat to my other side.  They were surrounding me.  I had to lean back to keep both of them in my field of vision as I sat in the car, which I needed to do because I was afraid they might try to hurt us.  I'm not sure what I would have done if the taller driver had done something.  I was worried that if he tried something and I had to defend myself, then that would leave the little guy alone in the car with Marisa.

Anyway, the little guy told us we should get out of the car and go into the office to call our hotel.  We told him, "We're not going inside there."  He insisted to us that we should go in and get them to call our hotel, "Look, this is tourist information office.  Go in and they will call your hotel."  Since I was half-facing the taller driver who was standing near me with the car door open, I directed my response to him, "We're not going in there."  The guy grunted at me and said, "I don't speak English", and the little guy repeated angrily that the driver didn't speak English.

I can't remember exactly what happened next in the dialogue, but we basically argued about whether we should go into the stupid travel agency.  They kept insisting we get out but finally stopped when I said, "We are not going in there.  Please take us to the police station.  We will find out from them where the hotel is or get another cab."

The little guy claimed that he didn't know where a police station was.   I had been paying close attention during the drive and was sure I had seen a police station (because its presence made me feel better), but being completely ignorant of Delhi I had no way of describing where it was.  In hindsight I don't know why we didn't think to ask them to simply call the police and ask them where the nearest station was.  Instead we asked them to just take us to another hotel, but they told us that the way to get a hotel is to go into the travel agency, which we did not want to do.  Marisa (I think) finally had the fantastic idea of just telling them to take us back to the airport.  At least we knew the airport was safe, and they couldn't pretend they didn't know the way to the airport since they had just driven us from there!

Since we'd made it clear we weren't going to get out of the car, the driver slammed the door and got back into the car really angrily and took off in a huff towards the airport.  He drove even faster than before, at more than 100kmh down normal city streets.  They seemed extremely agitated and were muttering to each other in Hindi.

As I mentioned, I had been paying careful attention as we drove from the airport, so I knew that there had been several very nice five star hotels along the way.  I saw one of hotels and asked them to stop, but they were driving so fast (100kmh) that they had already zipped by it.  The little guy said, "Sir, you do not want to stay at that hotel because it's too expensive."  I repeated that we wanted to get out, and he said again "It's too expensive!"   I didn't tell them this, but I didn't care about staying there.  I just figured that a 5 star hotel would be able to find us a taxi that wasn't driven by scam artists.

I knew the second hotel was coming (The Taj Palace), and they zipped by it too as we told them to stop.  I hope they simply intended to return us to the airport and weren't going to do anything else.  Up to that point they were certainly retracing the route they had taken earlier.  However, since we were nearly powerless, I wasn't sure where they were going to take us, I was ready to reach around the seat and start bashing the little guy's head against the window until they stopped the car.  I was pretty afraid for our safety.  As they passed the second hotel Marisa and I started yelling at them at the top of our lungs "STOP THE CAR STOP THE CAR".  The little guy incredulously said, "here?" and we kept yelling, "YES RIGHT HERE  RIGHT AT THIS INTERSECTION RIGHT HERE STOP THE CAR".  

I'm not sure how we got them to stop, in retrospect, as they seemed determined not to let us out.  Maybe the yelling finally scared them enough to let us out.  They had driven a full 1/4 a mile down the road from the sign for the Taj Palace, so we felt pretty vulnerable.  I was also afraid they'd drive off but had the presence of mind to insist Marisa get out before I got out so she wouldn't be trapped in the car with them.  We quickly grabbed our bags.  (We have two small backpacks and two big backpacks.  They're bulky but easy to grab in a rush, luckily.)  At this point the little guy asked us for our taxi stub.  It didn't have his taxi number on it anyway, and since we were a ways from the hotel and still seemed to be in danger, it seemed best to just give him whatever he wanted.  In hindsight, I'm pretty sure he needed that stub in order to claim our 320 rupee fare from the Delhi Traffic Police.  I can't believe he had the gall to demand that from us.  Psh.

Before they managed to drive off, we quickly memorized their license plate number (we later sent a complaint to the delhi traffic police.  We read online that the police physically beat drivers who play at scams like this.  heh.).  Since we were still afraid, we half-ran half-walked for 5 minutes down the road to the Taj Palace hotel front.  It was all barricaded, so we had to walk another 5 minutes to the side entrance.  Entering the security gates at the Taj felt like what I imagine it would have felt like to enter the Green Zone in Baghdad.  It was a huge sigh of relief.  The doormen were really friendly and held the door for us, the porters carried our bags even after we told them we weren't guests and simply wanted to talk to the concierge.  We explained to the concierge what happened, and he was horrified and apologetic for India, but not really surprised.  He asked us if we wanted a room there (which I assume we would have paid for), but we said no, that we were wondering if he could just arrange a reliable cab to take us to our hotel.

We got in the Taj taxi, and less than 10 minutes later we were at the doorstep of the Hans Hotel, where we were staying.  As we arrived, we realized it was in a completely different neighborhood from where the crazy taxi had taken us when they claimed the road was closed to our hotel.  It was in a nice 20+ story building which looked nothing like where they had taken us, and was in a much nicer part of town.  We asked our taxi driver if it was possible that the previous guys could not have known where the hotel was, and the new driver thought that was ridiculous.  He also told us that we should have only paid 200 to 250 rupees, not 320.

We finally got to our room around 4am, and had some things we needed to take care of and were too worked up to sleep until 5am.  I was very very pissed off that the scammer taxi had wasted so much of our time, when all we wanted to do was get off our stupid redeye flight and go to bed.  We were obviously relieved we were safe, though.  I would have willingly paid more money to avoid that hassle and the fear.  At that point, we also had no idea how much money they would have gotten from dropping us off at the travel agency, so maybe they put us through all that just in the hopes of getting a couple extra bucks (which might be a lot for them, but not much for us).  

Later we read more about these types of taxi scams online and in a section of our book that we'd missed earlier and also from talking to legit Indians in the travel business.  Apparently if you do go into the shady travel agency to call your hotel, the agent only pretends to call the hotel.  You are connected to another scam artist who pretends to be that hotel, and who informs you that your reservation wasn't held, and that you'll need to seek new accommodation.  At that point the helpful 'travel agent' sets you up in a crappy hotel where you are charged $100 a night for a room that normally costs $5.  Evidently the taxi drivers would have gotten a commission on that huge profit, but we still don't know how much money they would have gotten.  We were told repeatedly by Indians that we were not in any physical danger, and that these people are just trying to scam money out of us.  Our taxi drivers never threatened us physically, although like I explained, we both did feel in danger.

After the experience we felt pretty crappy about India the next day.  (which only started 3 or 4 hours later, since we went to bed at 5am, and we wanted to get up at a proper time )  We almost wanted to stay in the hotel all day, but instead forced ourselves to explore parliament and the public building area.  We actually had a great time, and it was a nice relaxed way to start to feel better about India.  We sat in the park outside the parliament house, read about Delhi, and relaxed.

It was also a great intro, because since then we have never fallen for any major scam, as far as I can tell.  We're very careful about everything.  (For example, checking many references for the driver we hired and the agency we hired him through.)  There are still scams everywhere.  We went to the government of India travel office to get recommendations for a driver agency.  While looking for the government office, we were directed by maybe 10 different people within 5 minutes to several different tourist offices that they claimed were the government office.  Presumably if we'd gone there we would have been directed to crappier drivers and tour groups that got kickbacks from those tourist information offices.  Luckily for us, we're pretty sensible usually (when we're not tired after a long flight), and we had the proper address and knew where to go to get to the right office.

I hope the long saga above doesn't make people think we hate India.  To be honest, we did hate India for about 12 hours, but our time since then has been great.  We'll hopefully write more about that soon.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

interesting fellow travelers in china

We have traveled to other countries where we didn't speak the language before, but China has probably been one of the hardest to communicate in, both because less Chinese people know English (although the English seemed to be about as good as in Japan), but also because we were often traveling without anyone who knew both English and Chinese.  (In Japan we were often with friends who knew both languages and thus were a huge help.)

One of the downsides of traveling to a country where few people speak English is we don't feel like we got to know many Chinese people.  It is also quite stressful, especially if you aren't with a Chinese speaking person, because you can't communicate with anyone without great difficulty.  The difficulty is usually not insurmountable, but it often requires creativity.  We have mastered pointing, the primal affirmative grunt, counting with fingers, and more complex miming and gesticulating.   How do you tell the food stand guy you want a specific type of soup, but without the green peppers on top because they've probably been washed with tap water that will make you sick, and that you only want one bowl of it, even though there are two of you?  (Answer: You point at someone else's bowl that's nearby, hold up one finger and put your hand over the bowl of green stuff before he can add it to your soup, and then wait for him to hold up the number of fingers of yuan you owe.)

I have now even greater respect for immigrants who move to a land where they don't speak the language.

This naturally leads to one of the upsides, which is that it's safe to assume that anyone who is non-east-asian (which usually means caucasian/western in china) is your friend, or at least is willing to talk to you.  Marisa is a little more talktative than me to new people, but we're both fairly reserved.  When traveling in China, though, we found that we were not nearly as reserved because when you find someone you can talk to you have to jump on the opportunity.  We've met a number of interesting people on our journey so far.

Of course nobody can be bucketed perfectly, but Steve likes to stereotype people.  Here is an exhaustive list of fellow traveler types:

1.)  The pre-real-life student or recent-student:  This person (or group of people) is typically under 25 and has just finished a degree, may have worked one or two years to save up money after a degree, or might still be a student (often a graduate student, since they have time on their hands to take off and do nothing for a month).  This person usually seems to be trying to get his traveling in before taking on real responsibilities.  They're often traveling for a long time, e.g. an entire year.  These people (especially those who have not worked at all yet) are shocked at the idea that someone would take a $4 cab ride because that's how much they spend each night in their shared dorm housing.  Spending $22 on a private room with your own bathroom is a grievous waste of funds.

2.)  The eternal student/career-less traveler -- This is a little hard to distinguish from Type 1 (and in fact may be a later stage of Type 1, except that sometimes you encounter people who claim to be students but are >30 years old and spend 4 months each year traveling and have been in school for 10 years.  They are usually lucky enough to be from countries that subsidize their education.  They don't like to talk about what they'll do 'after school' or at least have not put much thought into it.

3.)  The hostel bum -- This is the drunk guy in the bar who bends everyone's ear and seems to have been living at the hostel for years.  One wonders how he's paying for it, but at $3/night for a hostel dorm room, $60,000 in savings would last you until you die.  China is cheap.  Type 3 may be a natural progression from Type 1 and Type 2.

4.)  The working professional:  Often this person is European, because Europeans get many more weeks of paid vacation a year than Americans (sometimes >5), so they can travel for months at a time.  Marisa and I are sorta in this category, except we're taking an unpaid leave.  These people can vary in age from 20s to 50s.  You could imagine, depending on how disenchanted they are with work, Type 4 may become Type 3.

5.)  Retirees:  Surprisingly enough, there is a sizable contingent of retirees who stay at 'youth' hostels.  It probably requires a little more energy and courage than taking a tour group.  

With that said, here's a few people we'd like to remember from our journey in China:  

Awhile back in our description of the great wall, we joked about a group of people who we assumed to be russian based on their language and their amusement at buying commie (soviet star) fur hats.  (Marisa thought they were finnish, steve thought they were russian.)  It turns out they were Polish-Canadian, so we're not sure who was right.  (Marisa argues she was closer to being right because they were from a soviet satellite country.  I'm not sure if that counts.  Was Finland actually in the warsaw pact?)  Amazingly enough, the Poles ended up paralleling our journey for more than a week.  After the great wall in Beijing, they stayed at the same hostel as us in Pingyao, which was a full 12 hour journey from Beijing.  After that, they stayed at the same hostel as us in Xi'an, which is another 6 to 9 hour journey from Pingyao.  Not surprisingly, they had the same Lonely Planet book as us, which recommended all this stuff.  

We traveled on different days, but ended up having a good time in the hostel bar with them at Xi'an, and they gave us tips about traveling to India, which they'd been to in a previous trip.  Another coincidence was we discovered that one of them had been offered a job at Google but turned it down!  (This came up in conversation because he was talking about how he didn't ever want to work for a big company again.)  These people were sorta Type 4 (working professionals) but were far more interested in talking about their 3 months of traveling they managed to do each year than what they do for a living.

We have a great example of the kind of bonding that comes from finding someone else who can actually speak English.  In Chengdu we wanted to go out for hotpot.  Hotpot is where they put a boiling broth in the middle of your table on a gas burner, and you drop your own ingredients in to cook it.  Sichuanese hotpot is knowng for being very good and also quite spicy.  We took a auto-rickshaw to a restaurant area and simply walked to the hotpot restaurant with the most people.

Unfortunately they didn't have an English or a picture-based menu.  When the waitress seated us she got very confused by our questions, and it was impossible to order.  She next did what we found is a common coping strategy to overcome the language difficulty in China:  she found a Chinese *customer* in the restaurant who was eating at a table with some white people, under the assumption that he could translate.  She brought this guy over to us, and he started to translate, but then he just said, 'WHY DON'T YOU JUST JOIN US?!??!?!  I AM EATING WITH CANADIAN AND FRANCE PEOPLE!'  (This particular fellow was very enthusiastic and friendly, although that seems to be fairly normal for Chinese.)  After he insisted we wouldn't be imposing, we thought this was a great opportunity, so we went over to sit with them.  It turned out that the Chinese guy was in town from Shanghai and was staying at a hostel (not ours), and had just met the Canadian and the Frenchman at the hostel, and they'd all decided to go out to dinner together, so we were at least not unwelcome intruders since they'd all just met each other.  

We had fairly nice conversation (for people who had never met each other).  The Canadian and Frenchman both worked in Asia (South Korea and Taiwan) and were traveling around the mainland of China for a vacation.  The most interesting bit was that near the end of our dinner, Marisa asked the Chinese guy (who was fairly young) what his job was.  He told Marisa that right now he is working as a manager at H&M, but that his lifelong dream is to go to the Cornell Hotel College (In retrospect that helped explain how friendly he was).  At that point Marisa turned to me and told me what he said, and I said, 'I... went to cornell!'  At that point he exploded and insisted on shaking my hand.  He shook my hand several times that night and also when we ran into eachother the next day at the Panda Zoo.  We also exchanged email addresses, although if he thinks I can help him get into the hotel school, he's mistaken.  I did explain that I majored in computer science, and that the one class I took at the hotel school was 'Wines 101', which was pass/fail and was spent slurping alcohol.  I thought the Frenchman at the table would be impressed by that, but his facial expressions didn't seem to change from mildly quizzical.

In Chengdu we also met a nice young British couple who fit stereotype 1, as they'd worked for a short time after university before starting on a 9 month trip.  We ended up seeing the Panda Research Center with them and also shared Sichuanese cooking lessons to split the cost of the lessons.  (Marisa is writing in a separate post about the Chinese interpreter who helped us in the cooking lessons.   That wasn't his job, as he's in Tech and simply interpreted as a favor for the hostel owner.  He was interesting in his own right.)  The British couple is eventually heading to San Francisco, so we even shared our email addresses with them in case they need tips.  They were sleeping in a dorm room with an obnoxious guy of stereotype 3 who apparently snores by night and brags about his multiple degrees by day.  (He claimed he was an 'engineer', but later said he was a 'doctor' and a 'teacher'.  Chengdu is a launchpad for Tibet, and he talked in the bar about his hiking and climbing exploits, but we suspected based on his behavior that the most climbing he did was into the top bunk in the dorm room after tossing down one too many in the bar.)  He appeared to be living in the hostel.  This is exactly why we didn't get the ultra-cheap dorm housing option.

We've met many more people, but another interesting person we came across in Lijiang in Yunan was an elderly retired woman from Denmark.  Although her English was not fantastic, she was extremely talkative, and we ended up sharing a driver with her to visit the famous Yulong Snow Mountain.  We observed that she was very good at communicating with Chinese people despite speaking no Chinese.  Later she told us that her career had been as a teacher of retarded children.  She said many of her students were unable to speak, so she has had to learn how to make rudimentary signs and to mime actions to explain things.  There are apparently many interesting differences between common Western gestures and Chinese gestures.  For example, apparently holding your crotch in China and jumping up an down does not mean you have to pee.  (Actually, we already figured that one out, because Marisa tried it at a restaurant.  For some reason they always seem to know what I want when I get up from dinner, so maybe I look more bestially desparate when searching for the toilet.)  Another interesting sign difference was that miming putting food in your mouth with your fingers isn't a recognized gesture for eating in China.  ('Why is this lady putting her fist in her mouth?!?!?')  Instead you have to act like you're holding chopsticks.

Besides those people, we shared some period of time with a number of other people:  An American Mesa Airlines pilot who planned to travel to 15 countries in 20 days, an our-age-ish British couple on a 3 month holiday, an 40-something Israeli couple who we shared a bunch of travel tips with, and of course some of our Chinese tour guides that were able to speak English.  (We had a particularly good guide in Xi'an who spoke very good English.)


We spent all of our time in China (and plan to spend most of our time in India) staying in 'youth' hostels.  (as we will perhaps elaborate on in a later post, it's not really just youths who stay at youth hostels, and we met lots of interesting fellow travelers in hostels so far.)  We normally stay in more expensive accommodation, but since this is such a long trip we wanted to try to do it on the cheap.  On average we paid about $22 a night for a private room for two people with a private bathroom.  Dormitory housing with shared bathrooms is ridiculously cheap (a few bucks a night), but we figured for such a low price it was worth springing for privacy.

In Europe we have a little experience in hostels, and it's been hit or miss.  In China we were overwhelmingly impressed by the quality of hostels.  They were all very clean.  It tends to be mostly westerners that stay at them (or at least at the ones recommended in lonely planet), so most of the staff speak at least a little English.  They were very helpful and were able to arrange events and transportation (plane, train, bus) and also recommend and make reservations at other hostels for our later destinations.  We could have gotten by without their help, but it would have been much harder since so few people in China speak good English.

Many of the smaller hostels seem to be run by families who live at the hostel, which is quite interesting to observe.  In the main room where the computers are (for patron use), there's sometimes a TV that they all sit around and watch.  You can get a view of the family dynamic, including loud yelling between the husband and wife in Chinese.  

The one downside is that often the rooms are fairly small.  The trickiest thing has been the bathrooms.  Usually they are clean, but if you've ever been at sea, they resemble the head in a tiny cabin.  Excepting some of the nicer hostels we stayed at, usually the entire bathroom IS the shower, so as you shower you spray the sink, the toilet, and the entire bathroom floor with shower water.  There's a drain that everything drains into in the middle of the bathroom.  Maybe I'm a spoiled American, but I like an isolated shower container that I can stick my caboose into while showering so that 30 minutes later I'm not galoshing around a still wet bathroom floor when I have to use the toilet or the sink again.  It seems like a good way to spread fungus.  Luckily, we brought bathroom flipflops.

(note from marisa:) The biggest plus for staying in hostels is the advice you get from fellow travellers.  You always meet someone who has been to the places you are considering going, can tell you which hostel to stay at, how long to stay there, and what types of scams to watch out for.  We managed our last 1.5 week in China planning everything at the last minute, relying largely on advice from others.  We also got a ton of advice on how to prepare for India - India appears to be a mandatory stop for any long-term traveller, and it feels like everyone has been there.  It was based on traveller advice that we decided to hire a driver in Rajasthan - train stations are the single place you're most likely to be scammed, drivers are cheap to americans (about $50/day), and you can see more faster.  Having a driver makes me feel extremely lame/incompetent since my parents journeyed all the way from Europe to India over land on their own in their youth, where someone tried to by my mom for a camel (or was it a horse), which my dad could have conveniently used to get the rest of the way to India. However I'm consoled by the fact that we've met several hard core, long term travellers that go with drivers.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lijiang, a charming old town in China

We spent the last few days in Lijiang, a town in the Yunnan province which borders Tibet and Vietnam. The old town is the most perfectly charming, attractive and well-preserved place I have been. The narrow cobblestone streets are lined with waterways that the people use for washing and fetching water. The houses have traditional Chinese arched, tile roofs. Depending on where you stand you can see snowy mountain views behind the houses. The Naxi, a unique minority ethnic group in China, are the primary home/shop-owners in Lijiang.
From 20090317_Lijiang_Starred

From 20090317_Lijiang_Starred

The town is a little too perfect in fact. The Chinese government figured out how much money tourism could bring to Lijiang, has promoted tourism, and the town is now packed with and caters to tourists. We still loved it though - many of the Naxi people, especially the older generation, live and work amongst the tourists. You can escape to parts of the old town that are all Naxi. Plus it's really interesting to see how the traditional Naxi interact with the imported Western and Han cultures.

The Naxi are matriarchal. Traditionally the woman runs the business. Men are known for arts and poetry. These traditional roles weren't totally obvious as we walked around but we saw a lot of women shop owners and men taking care of the children. The women we interacted with and ran our hostel were assertive, competent, and seemed like they could take care of business.
From 20090317_Lijiang_Starred

From 20090317_Lijiang_Starred

Traditional Naxi lifestyle is still very present. Many of the Naxi women wear traditional, non-Western costume. It's very common to see the women carrying huge baskets of produce home from the market; family members delivering freshly prepared lunches and dinners to shopkeepers; closely knit families living and working together in 1 room shops/homes; and people cooking their meals in the street and washing their clothes, dishes and even hair in the waterways that line the streets. You don't see many young people wearing the traditional costume though, unless it's a getup for the tourists. The young people mostly seem to work in Han-owned "Naxi" shops in the center of town, or restaurants that cater to the tourists. In the old Naxi village Baisha, where there are very few tourists, you see almost no young people - they are probably working in Lijiang. It's quite sad to witness and be a part of the forces that are eroding the Naxi culture.
From 20090317_Lijiang_Starred

From 20090317_Lijiang_Starred

I went for a walk early this morning and stumbled on a group of 25 older Naxi women doing dance performances in the main plaza. Some of them seemed to enjoy themselves but many seemed to be going through the motions. I thought they were being paid to perform for the tourists. There were a handful of locals that were not a part of the costumed group but joyfully participated in the dancing nonetheless. It brought a tear to my eye to think about how music and dancing could bring Naxis so much joy, but it could be reduced to a tourist gimick that the old women felt compelled to participate in to make a little money. Fortunately I may have misinterpreted. The woman at the tourist information booth claimed that these women perform for free AND that there is a group of young women who dance every day in the afternoon. So it's difficult to understand what impact tourism is having on the traditional Naxi culture.

(Steve's comment) : Baisha is a small village about 9 miles outside of Lijiang. It's funny that Marisa didn't write about how we got there, because she didn't have to make any of the effort to do it. :-) We rented a tandem bicycle for $4 for the entire day (In San Francisco that'd probably cost $30). Because of her knee she can't bike, so I had the pleasure of biking 9mi uphill (+500ft vertical distance) while moving about 400 lbs of cargo (including myself). Actually, it was a lot of fun, because we got to see the countryside along the way. For the most part is was quite beautiful, although as is unfortunately common in China, there were parts of the road that were well-decorated with rubbish. The ride back took us 1/3 the time, and I didn't have to pedal at all because it was so downhill.
From 20090317_Baisha_Starred

From 20090317_Baisha_Starred

When we walked through the streets of the Baisha village, which is more Naxi, agricultural and poor, I said "Nihao" to everyone we saw. A third smiled back warmly, and the rest either thought we were freaks or wished us gone from their neighborhood.

Walking through Baisha gave me a first-hand glimpse of hard manual labor. I saw old people (it's hard to know how old, since their lifestyle probably causes them to age earlier than we do) crouching in fields, breaking rocks and carrying huge loads. My first impression was how lovely and peaceful Baisha was, and what beautiful mountain views it offered, but the villagers' bodies pay the toll for their lifestyle.
From 20090317_Baisha_Starred

(Steve's comment): It was really amazing to see all the things that were done in Baisha via physical labor. In many places people built walls by pounding the crap out of rocks until they were in the perfect shape to fit together (rather than using cinderblocks, which were readily available). I'm not sure if that's because they prefer the look of the hand-hewn rock walls or if it's because that's cheaper for them, as labor is so cheap in china. All throughout Baisha we heard the sounds of pickaxes and hammers powered by human muscle. Another interesting construction technique was that people seemed to be making bricks, by hand, from the mud/clay in their front yards. They also mixed in hay and animal dung, and then left the bricks out to dry.
From 20090317_Baisha_Starred

Our hostel in Lijiang, Mama Naxi's, was a unique experience. Whenever you sit down in the common room/dining area you are given some sort of food, wanted or not, e.g. banana, yak yogurt, even muesli one morning. You also get a snack handed to you on your way out for a day trip. Mama Naxi doesn't want anyone to go hungry. She likes to ask what you are doing that day and insists on helping you arrange a driver, guide, future hostel bookings or travel tickets. She does this for no commission because "Mama Naxi loves to help her guests!" according to a sign near our room. Mama Naxi walks around the dining area and makes sure everyone has the right condiments and if they don't shouts, sometimes to noone in particular, "more honey!," "milk and sugar!" Actually her English isn't even that good, but she uses choice vocabulary, body language and intonation with incredible effect. Her husband is also around and occasionally serves people or asks them what they are doing today, but Mama Naxi is definitely in charge. She has several female helpers who help when requested but would rather be sitting in front of the TV in the corner. The staff hangs out here whenever they can. They also cook eggs, french toast, etc. on a tiny camp-looking stove that sits conveniently beside the TV. Other than that, it's pretty much a normal hostel.
From 20090317_Lijiang_Starred

(Steve's comment): My favorite mama naxi moment was when I walked in for our free breakfast and she said something like, 'Today you have banana pancake!!!' to me. How could I resist? It wasn't like a normal pancake, but was one of the local ways of making a pancake-like piece of bread, covered with bananas and wild-flower nectar-tasting honey.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Chengdu, Sichuan

We came to Chengdu to experience Sichuanese cuisine and see the scenery. Sichuan is a moist region surrounded by mountains, and the fiery food here is supposed to dry you out. A lot of backpackers come here to go to Tibet or backpack in the mountains in general, and otherwise there aren't too many tourists.
From 20090312_Chengdu_QinChengShan_Cupping_Starred

From 20090312_Chengdu_QinChengShan_Cupping_Starred

From our first day we heard about foreigners getting stopped by police. It's near the 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan rebellion. Our hotel has informed everyone that the western part of Sichuan (which borders with Tibet) is closed, tourists are being turned away, and mobile phones don't work there. Even the Tibetan neighborhood in Chengdu is closed to foreigners. The police came to our hotel 3 times looking for a group of Israelis at our hotel that were caught taking a picture of a self-made sign in the Tibetan neighborhood of Chengdu. The Israeli's claim it said "Happy Birthday," but the police suspected something like "Free Tibet". A lot of our fellow travellers have had to totally change their travel plans, including our Polish-Canadian friends.

Our hotel manager, Sim, is quite a character. He's Singaporean and his wife is Japanese, and theirs is the only "foreign-run backpacker hostel." He's very knowledgable and helpful and takes his guests on a variety of custom trekking tours. The Tibet problems are causing him a lot of grief since he wants the best for his guests. And apparently the landlord and police are rough on his hotel since they don't like foreigners. Further the Sichuan earthquake caused a decline in tourism and cracks in their building that the landlord won't fix. You have to feel bad for the guy - he's obviously staying in Chengdu because he loves helping his guests live out their travel dreams, but running this hotel seems to cause him a lot of grief.

When Sim found out Steve was sick he personally walked us over to a nearby spa and waited with us while Steve got a cupping treatment, which dries out the body and involves torches, cups and wierd purple spots on your skin.
From 20090312_Chengdu_QinChengShan_Cupping_Starred

Probably the top rated site in/near Chengdu is the panda breeding center, where several hundred pandas live. China breeds pandas here and loans them out to zoos around the world and in China, and any offspring pandas belong to the Chinese by contract. We saw tons and tons of pandas of all ages, especially babies. The adults were all eating or sleeping. Pandas don't get much nutrition out of bamboo so they have too eat a lot and conserve their energy. The babies were all playing. They are still fed milk/formula so they get to mess around all day instead of chewing bamboo. There's not much else that needs to be said other than that they were basically the most adorable animal you could imagine.

We also tried to take in some scenery at nearby Qin Cheng Shan. This steep mountain is a (or the?) birthplace of Taoism and is dotted with temples to visit on the way up the mountain. Oddly this is one of the most expensive things we did in China. The temples in the park were hit pretty bad by the earthquake.
From 20090312_Chengdu_QinChengShan_Cupping_Starred

From 20090312_Chengdu_QinChengShan_Cupping_Starred

I got carried in a sedan-chair like thing up part of the mountain. I wasn't particularly keen on doing this, but it was the only way we could get to the top without destroying my foot. 2 middle aged men carried me up a rapid 200 ft elevation hike while smoking. This was impressive, though one of them sounded like he was about to have a heart attack. Part of their trick was that they had 2 younger guys with them and they switched off when they got tired. There were at least 10 carriers milling looking for people to carry and, and roughly 1 customer - me. The chair was actually extremely uncomfortable, both physically and mentally (because I don't like the idea of paying other humans to carry me), however the carriers were really happy to have work. They maybe having an exceptionally tough time because of the earthquake's impact on tourism and the economy. On the other hand, it seems normal in China to have 3 people employed doing the work of 1 person, or doing work that is isn't necessary at all. For instance each bus stop has a rush-hour attendant, and it's common for stores to have multiple employees milling around chitchatting with each other.
From 20090312_Chengdu_QinChengShan_Cupping_Starred

The other really memorable thing we did here was take cooking lessons. We did this at our hostel and it was a surpringly good lesson since we each got to personally make 3 different Sichuanese specialties: kung bao chicken, spicy green beans and ma po dofu (tofu in spicy red sauce). Everything was delicious, although the chef didn't wash his hands after touching raw chicken. It's a freaking miracle we don't get sick more often from eating out.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Running and Pollution in China

Before coming to China, my officemate warned me that 'Asian people don't exercise', and he said I probably wouldn't want to go running when in China.  I sort of knew what he meant, as I went running in Japan and saw almost no other runners out.  In Singapore it was similar.  Still, though, I didn't feel that out of place running in those places.  His comments also seemed strange because many of the Chinese-born Googlers are quite athletic.  (As examples, I used to run fairly frequently with the same Chinese officemate and another Chinese coworker, and I regularly see a Chinese Googler running pack near campus who seem pretty intense.)

We only spent a few days in Beijing, and we were so busy that I didn't end up running at all.  I think we saw one runner on the street.  We later saw about 20 runners, but they were all in military uniforms and boots and were clearly doing some sort of training exercise.  :-)  I don't think I'd have wanted to run in Beijing anyway.  My officemate warned me that the pollution and dust would be bad, and it was.  Our noses regularly blew black mucous from the dust.  The sun was out all the days we were there, but was obscured by a thick haze that left it barely viewable on all except for a single glorious day where Beijing suddenly seemed much nicer.

The air smelled thickly of what I now know/assume to be coal.  We traveled to Ireland a few years ago.  In Ireland in some parts of the country they burn peat in furnaces for heating.  Peat is an early stage (not yet fossilized version) of coal.  It's cut from decaying plant matter in bogs.  When it's burnt it has a very distinct smell that I had never smelled before (but probably people from our parents' generation smelled all the time in American cities).  Luckily, when I was running in Ireland I could run out of town and get out where the air was clear, but in China the smell of coal is everywhere, and it smells exactly like peat.  I don't know why its thicker in China than in the US since we also generate the majority of our power from coal (seems like a number of reasons: coal plants located nearer town, people burning it in their personal furnaces in China, lack of scrubbers/de-pollutants on the power plants).

Between the lack of sunlight and the smell, it's pretty stifling of any desire to go running.  We have stayed at low budget hostels.  I'm told that if you stay at a fancy hotel, you can work out in the exercise room because inside nice buildings the air is always filtered.

I finally went running in the second stop of our journey, in Pingyao.  I thought since Pingyao was a small town it would be less polluted than Beijing, but in retrospect that was probably a stupid assumption.  In Pingyao most houses had a small pile of coal outside them that was fed into the furnace, so I should have realized that all of the houses burned coal for heat.  Marisa and I had climbed up the city walls earlier, and it looked pretty, so I decided to go back to try to do the loop around the city, which was only about 4 miles.  (On a side note, Marisa and I got into an argument because you have to pay to get onto the city walls, and you can only go up once per ticket.  I wanted to go up a second time for my run, but the ticket office lady didn't speak English and simply couldn't understand that I'd want to buy a second ticket to be able to go on the city walls again.  Since she wouldn't sell me a second ticket, I had proposed to Marisa that on my run I simply slip/sprint past the guard who wasn't paying much attention anyway, but this being the people's republic of china, Marisa thought that was a stupid thing for me to do.  In the end I relented and said I'd only run on the walls if they'd let me pass, even though they'd see that my ticket was already punched.  When I ran up in my running clothes, the woman looked confused but waived me through.   Disaster/Imprisonment Averted.)

I had to run through the city about 0.4mi to get to the walls.  Pingyao is extremely provincial.  I'm not sure that *anyone* goes running in Pingyao, let alone a tall white guy in running shorts.  It was about 45 degrees F, which is not extremely cold.  In Illinois and New York, where real men fall off trees like crab apples, people go running in shorts well into the 30s.  But people in China were shocked that I'd be wearing shorts in 45 degree whether (FYI 2 weeks later, we still have seen no one in China in shorts, even though in Chengdu and Lijiang it was near 60).  Running through the city was pretty uncomfortable because everyone just stopped and gawked at me, and even yelled up the street to announce to their buddies that something special was coming up the street.  It wasn't that bad, though, because we were already used to being the odd people out in China.  I tried to reward their looks by running really really fast, so hopefully I was impressive.  I outran all of the people on bicycles on the street and a couple guys on crappy motorbikes.  (they drive slow in pingyao)   At first I thought people were staring at my crotch; I still don't know for sure but I think they were gawking at my shorts and/or my white legs.

After getting up the wall it was an easy run for the first couple miles to about the halfway point.  What I hadn't counted on, though, was that the smoke from Pingyao was much more intense on the walls.  I speculate that it rises from the town and gets sorta trapped on the wall.  In any case, by the time I got halfway around the wall, my throat was really itchy and my eyes were starting to burn.  I did everything I could to only breathe through my nose but it was still pretty bad.  I finished the circuit of the walls (4mi) and goaded myself into doing another half circuit because I partially got used to the smoke.   I think later that day or the next I got chest pains of the sort I used to get when I was a kid and had asthma attacks.   (I have weird asthma where I get piercing pains in my lungs when I breathe.)

Running in the rest of China has been pretty similar in terms of pollution.  I ran in Xi'an and Chengdu, which are both fairly big cities.  Big cities are always hard to run in, but China is especially crazy.  Perhaps we will write a post later about the traffic.  It is insane, but strangely enough that makes running more interesting because every step is like jumping a hurdle: Do I jump off that curb with my right leg so I can hop around the motorbike, and then spin off my left leg to dodge the gaggle of schoolchildren, or do I instead just try to jump over that barrier?   It takes your mind off being tired and the crap going into your lungs.   I've run in manhattan, singapore, tokyo, and touristey areas of SF, though, so none of the dodging of people is too different.

What's different and unfortunate about China, though, is there don't seem to be any uninterrupted pedestrian areas like you find in other places.  Even in Japan and Singapore I was able to run along rivers that had pedestrian underpasses for major roads, but in Chinese cities I end up waiting 3 minutes for absurdly long lights to switch so I can cross.  I compensated by running fartlek sprints after the waits at each intersection.

The final thing I was surprised by was how many comments I've gotten even in big cities where I'd think they see at least some runners.  I wonder if people yell stuff at Chinese runners; they definitely yell, 'Hello!' at me.  I've been good-humored about it, though, and have taken to replying with a friendly yell of 'Hello!' or 'Nihao!' (Chinese for 'Hello') back at them.  I'm tentatively proud of my good humor in China because when jackasses make comments to me in the US I usually respond with the finger.  I'm not sure if the Chinese are being jackasses or not, so it seems better to give them the benefit of doubt.

Our last stop in China is in a place in Yunan called Lijiang.  This is the first place in China where we've seen gorgeous blue skies and sun.  It's also at 7900 feet elevation (nearly 1.5mi), so it may well be above the smog layer that's everywhere else.   I thought this was a small place, but I just read a little more about it and was shocked to discover that Lijiang has a population of more than 1 million people.  That's small by China standards but is larger than San Francisco!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Historic China Route

We've been travelling south from Beijing to a historic, provincial town called Pingyao and then on to Xi'an to see the Terra Cotta warriors. The earliest Chinese dynasties were based in Xi'an and this region.

We took a hostel tour of the Terra Cotta warriors, complete with a stop to a tourist restaurant/trinket store and the Terra Cotta Warrior Factory/trinket store. It appears that Chinese tours are not complete without mandatory walks through maze-like (think IKEA) trinket stores. We learned most of our Terra Cotta Warrior background information from the video we watched in the car on the way there. This was a super-cheap hostel tour so we can forgive our tour guide Zsa Zsa for not being all-knowing.

A Qin dynasty emporer had the warriors built in front of his tomb so that he'd have a military force in his after life. He was a bit obsessed with his military, having used it with a large degree of brutality to become the first emporer to unify China. He put the mock army in front of his tomb so he'd have a military force in the after-life. It seemed like the emporer wasted a huge amount of resources on the warriors (money, labor and human life - he had all of his laborers killed when the project was done). But if he built them for eternal protection then I guess it seemed like a good idea to him (historical note: his empire fell apart a few years after he died). Other emporers include mock armies in their tomb but this particular set is massive in terms of the number, size and individuality of the warriors.

The warriors are mostly shattered when they are discovered, and pieced back together for our viewing pleasure. From 20090308_TerraCottaWarriors_Starred

The commander warriors were found standing in some sort of formation in this pit. From 20090308_TerraCottaWarriors_Starred

Xi'an itself was more attractive and cosmopolitan than Beijing, but it's still a big city. It was an ancient capital of several Chinese dynasties and the start of the Silk Road. It's surrounded by the old city walls, anochronystically juxtaposed against large modern buildings inside the walls. The highlight is the charming Muslim quarter, with narrow, stone-paved streets lined with outdoor shops and street food vendors.

The Great Mosque in this neighborhood looks like a Chinese temple complex and is hardly discernible as a mosque except for the beautfil Arabic Koran inscriptions all over the wooden walls inside the mosque.
This is the mosque's minaret, disguised as a pagoda. From 20090309_Xian_BigGoosePagoda_MuslimQuarter_CityWalls_Starred

This is also the neighborhood for great street food in Xi'an and we had Yang Rou Pao Mo 3 times: goat broth with noodles, goat, and a thick, unleavened bread in tiny pieces crumbled into the soup. I'm not sure why it was so good but I think I will try to make a goat broth when I get home.

Our hostel in Xi'an was happening and busy. Everyone we met made us look like small-time travellers. It's awesome to meet other travellers from all over the world, it's like travelling to all of their countries for free. There was a good blend of people with real jobs as well as young, aimless travellers. The hostel was clean but loud at night from the people leaving the bar downstairs. I guess we're old farts at this point since we were trying to sleep instead of getting in on the action. Much to my chagrin Steve encouraged the loud-aimless-18-year-old crowd by giving them our extra, free drink tickets on our way out, instead of to the more "mature" travellers.

Before we got to Xi'an we spent a day and night in Pingyao. Pingyao has an old, walled city that is extremely well preserved and the buildings are famous for their traditional courtyard architecture. For a city that looks, smells and feels like coal dust, it's surprisingly charming. Historically it was a provincial capital and many of the old buildings are now setup as museums were you can learn about what made Pingyao such a great city in it's time, including the armed escort service and the country's (and maybe world's) first draft bank, both oriented around allowing people to trade with other locations without running a risk of being robbed on the road. Pingyao is more slow-paced than Beijing and Xi'an, and there are hostels at every corner with restaurants, bars, etc., so you never have to worry about making any decisions. It's a nice, mellow alternative to the bigger Chinese cities.
From 20090306_BeijingTrain_Pingyao_Starred