I have no excuse or explanation, but my much-delayed post on my travel to China will not be the cohesive, thoughtful, and incisive piece I would have wanted it to be (I have delusions of being a travel writer, you know), but short notes on various subjects, experiences and people I came across along the way. They’re long and rambling, and I’m letting it all out in one go. Aside from my laziness, I choose to blame the fact that WordPress is banned in China. An outrage, yes, I know.
October 19, 2006, 11:05 AM
I’m flying at 24500 feet, halfway from Urumqi to Beijing. To my right, ladies and gentlemen, the Himalayas (at which point I stop typing and think, why am I even wasting time writing about this now, while I can still feast my eyes at the sight? But, but. I can touch type. Not perfectly, but I can correct the typos later).
It’s been discussed lots of times in the conference materials and during the conference itself that trade and transport in Central Asia is hampered by rugged terrain, and boy, isn’t this it. Huge open spaces of dry land, punctuated by rugged mountains and snow-capped peaks. Everything is dry, except for the snow and the occasional body of water that’s probably a reservoir of some sort. It’s a lonely part of the world, one where you can imagine angels tired from witnessing the world’s depravation would come and just sit.
(Another thing that comes to mind: the lighting of the watch towers of Gondor, calling for aid from neighboring Rohan. And Theoden the king says: “Rohan will answer.” Sigh.)
On the way to the Urumqi airport this morning Nico looks out the window and bids the place goodbye. It’s unlikely, we say, that we’ll ever find our way to this part of the world again. And I realize that, yes, probably not. Maybe we’ll go to Beijing again, the Hong Kong airport will definitely figure at some point, but Urumqi, which is so far north of China you’d feel you’re already in Mongolia and will need another visa to cross the street? Probably not. I do want to go to Tibet, especially after this airplane view of the Himalayas. Certainly, one should never be content with an airplane view of the Himalayas.
Exploring at the international bazaar yesterday was such a treat, where even the people walking the streets look so different and interesting. “This is such a National Geographic scene,” Vikki said when, walking around, we emerged from the market into a street filled with vendors of what looked like two hundred varieties of nuts and dried fruits. Nobody looked like your typical Chinese, they all had the strong Uygur features and dark clothes. I took a photo of one stall, after which the vendor (the vendor with the strong Uygur features and dark clothes, you will remember) scowled and beckoned me to come over, pointing to his wares. Apparently he wanted me to buy something since I took a photo of it anyway. I scowled back and walked back to Vikki, defiant but certainly a little bit scared, suddenly wondering where the rest of group could be.
Please speak slowly
For some reason very few of the hotel staff spoke comprehensible English, which made life quite tricky for all concerned. Suddenly ordering a Coke Light became a five-minute process, and forget all those little quirks like how you want your eggs sunny side up but not too runny. One of my favorites was when Ms Pat tried to order room service. “I would like to order oatmeal…oat-meal…no, not milk, OATMEAL…okay I’ll change my order. I would like some bread instead – muffin…. M-U-F-F-I-N….”
As Leo, our Great Wall tour guide, said, “If you learn to speak Chinese, you’ll be understood by 1.5 billion more people. You’ll never be lonely. Think about it.”
The Miranda Priestley moment
In the course of arranging the logistical needs of the conference Sir Junie practically took over the Sheraton Urumqi hotel, monopolizing the function rooms, appropriating chairs in the restaurant to be used in the panel discussions – he even had the aircon settings in an entire floor changed because we were feeling warm in the secretariat room.
Such was devotion of the hotel staff to our needs that during the one night when we ate outside and encountered the usual language barriers, Sir Junie called up the Food and Beverage director and asked him to talk to the restaurant staff and tell them what we wanted for dinner. “Frank,” he said over the phone, “can you tell them to serve us something like that fish we had for dinner at the hotel the other night?” I could imagine that this gave Frank some pause, having to recall one dinner among the countless ones the hotel had served during the past week, and what particular fish was served during that dinner. Even I didn’t know what fish Sir Junie was talking about. So John talked to the waitress, and apparently some kind of fish was agreed upon. I’m not sure if it was deliberate, but Frank sort of got his revenge on Sir Junie when, a few minutes later, the waitress came back holding aloft a bag, which she presented to Sir Junie for his inspection. Sir Junie, in the midst of regaling us with his former adventures as a diplomat in Paris, innocently peeked into the bag, shrieked and jumped three inches out of his chair. The bag contained a live fish, squirming. “Ang gagang ‘to!” Sir Junie exclaimed to the fortunately uncomprehending waitress. I guess Frank wanted to make sure we got to eat the right fish.
Growing old in China
Having taken the requisite tour packages of the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and all the usual sights, our version of Beijing was necessarily defined by what our tour guide told us, and by the sights he took us to as we walked among two thousand other tour groups and obediently followed the “Gray Line” placard he held aloft so we won’t get lost. Here’s what Will told us about growing old in China:
The government provides a pension as one reaches retirement age, which if I remember correctly is 60 for men and 55 for women. The pension depends on their salary grade while they were still working, but apparently it’s generally enough to allow the senior citizens to live quietly and comfortably and just take walks at the park for the rest of their lives. Indeed, the parks are full of old people going about all sorts of relaxing activities: tai chi exercises, chess, calligraphy, biking, or just plain sitting. It all looked very comfortable.
But the other story is this: like the most of the rest of the world, the population of people over 60 in China is growing every year. Currently, the ratio is something like 10% to the total population, in a decade or so it’s expected to reach as high as 30%. That’s 30% of the population not working, just receiving pension from the government. One thing’s for sure, the social security people now need to do some seriously wise investments in order to generate the kind of money needed.
To make things more interesting, there’s also this phenomenon of the inverted triangle family. China has successfully implemented the one-child policy for the past 20 years or so. This means that for the coming generation, one child would have to take care of four people: the parents and the grandparents. Sure they’re receiving pension, but still. It all makes one more fully appreciate the Filipino extended family, with its cousins galore and brothers and sisters helping each other out and potentially endless childcare or elderly care options.
follow the blue Gray Line sign, DON’T get lost.
Don’t ask me which dynasty this story happened in, or which Emperor was involved, but anyway this is one of the imperial chismis our tour guide told us about while touring the Forbidden City:
Two palace guards drank too much anti-freeze one night (some rice wine, I think. I sampled a gulp and thought my entire respiratory track had burned up), got drunk, and somehow a fire broke out that gutted the entire Hall of whatever-it-was (they always have long, felicitous names like the Hall of Womanly Virtues, Hall of Longevity and Prosperity, Hall of Everlasting Love or whatever). The Hall that burned down, unfortunately, was where the Emperor’s son’s wedding was supposed to take place. In two weeks. Now, no matter how many slaves the emperor had under his command, it simply was not possible to rebuild the hall in two weeks. The wedding had to be moved somewhere else. And the Emperor had the two guards shredded into something like three thousand pieces. The Emperor, needless to say, is one powerful guy.
Haggling in Beijing
Gabe told me that I absolutely have to experience going around Beijing in a bike. That’s what he and his friends did, back in 2005. He and his friends also climbed the Great Wall by accessing it through some remote fishing village and actually scaling the wall and camping out in one of the abandoned (and actually closed to public access) watch towers. It was so the anti-tourist way to do the Great Wall, and I loved it. I also knew that I would never get to do that, not even the biking, not on this trip anyway. In this trip, my companions were not so much as the let’s-see-if-we-can-hike-that-in-under-three-hours types, but the where’s-the-best-shopping-places types. And on that aspect, Beijing had a lot on offer.
Bracelets. Silk scarves. Pashmina shawls. Jade frogs. Mahjong sets. “Lolex” watches. Beijing 2008 Olympics souvenirs. Decorative chopsticks. Chinese scrolls. Ming vases. The variety was endless. To get your hands on them and make it worth it, however, you have to engage in cutthroat haggling.
One starts, normally enough, by asking the vendor the price of an item. There’s no such thing as a price tag. The price is very much negotiable. You know it, the vendor knows it, the vendor next stall knows that you and the vendor know it.
The vendor names an outrageous price (and you always, always assume that it’s outrageous. It’s never reasonable). You widen your eyes, act taken aback, and exclaim, “Too expensive!” You name a price that’s 30, 20% lower than the original quote. Now it’s the vendor’s turn to act shocked. She gasps, shakes her head, and says, “No, too much, too much!” She picks up the item in question and caresses it, or turns it this way and that, extolling its virtues in a babble of incomprehensible Chinese. She hands you a calculator, so you can type in your “best price.”
Now this is where your mettle gets tested. You should always remember that your best price should always be the first that you asked. You should have no tolerance for the usual rules of negotiation where you raise your price a bit and the vendor lowers her price a bit and you meet somewhere in the middle. No such thing for someone like you, who’s schooled in Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the Shopping Annex. No matter how many times the vendor gasps and rolls her eyes and reduces her price and hands you the calculator yet again, you always type in the same price yet again. That is my best price, you say. If the vendor still refuses to give it, it’s okay. Just shrug your shoulders, turn around and walk away. Barely three steps away, you will hear the vendor heave a big, tortured sigh, make some sort of “what the heck” sound, and say, “Okay, okay.” At that point, the deal has been made. As good as a contract with the imperial seal itself. Keep walking, and you will find yourself violently pulled back by the arm with the vendor screaming at your ear saying, “Okay, Okay!”
Of course, this is just one of the possible, logical things that can happen. In another scenario, you can get accosted by enterprising street hawkers while walking to the subway station, laden with your purchases from the market. The hawkers know that you’re still on a high from it all, perfectly primed for, say, a bunch of socks that they’ll sell to you for a hundred yuan to the dozen. What, you’ll say, you’ve got to be kidding me, okay, I’ll take that, never mind if I don’t actually need two dozen socks, I can always give them to the garbage collectors and their cousins come Christmas. You’ll make some attempt to haggle, of course, but by this time you’re surrounded by five or six vendors all offering unbelievably low bulk prices. And you will say, yes, yes, I’ll take that. I’ve seen it happen. It was an incredible sight. My boss, normally a very composed and commanding person who had already bought way too many fake Ralph Lauren shirts for her own good, turned out to be very easy prey. Our great deputy managing director, who can demolish CEOs and government dignitaries alike with sheer confidence and perfect wit, was helpless before the street hawkers of Beijing. We practically had to stage an intervention.
six Filipino women against three thousand tourists and the Beijing vendors
Something missing from all these ramblings. Oh yes, the Great Wall. How did I find the Great Wall? This, I guess, would be the right place to wax eloquent about how grandiose and breath-taking the Wall was, and, for that matter, how back-breaking the work must have been. And yes, I was mulling about all those things. I also noted the irony that the Wall built against invading Mongolians, and now the Mongolians can be found all along the Wall selling souvenir items. Progress, I guess?
posing in the streets of Urumqi – yes, we were that tourist-y
Great Wall souvenir made right there on the Wall, anyone?
sepia-colored Great Wall photo with Beijing 2008 Olympics logo.
turned out i used old film and all my pictures looked weird (yes, i don’t have a digicam)
long walk to the South Gate (and we were just beginning)
playing coy at the Great Wall
two marshmallows went up the wall, and almost came tumbling down
in front one of those huge things they built for the emperor
The China trip? It was a blast.