Hotel dinner challenge redux

January 8, 2018 Comments Off on Hotel dinner challenge redux

It’s funny how when you write everything with pen and paper you entirely forget about using a keyboard. Nothing to plug in or turn on, no socket to search for, no concern over how much battery you have left. You just take out your notebook (those under age 40, “notebook” originally meant a paper pad for writing), and get to work. Takes up zero space and weighs nothing.

It was the last full day of my trip and it turned into another odyssey, this time to a truly horrible place called the Yunnan Wild Animals Park. Getting there involved a ride to the end of the subway line, and then a couple of miles walking along very busy streets, where I got to appreciate one basic design fact: China knows how to pour concrete,

I found the park, which was an animal abuse area masquerading as a zoo. It was all horrible, but the lone sad orangutan gazing out at us while people shrieked and pointed and banged on the glass was more than I could bear. I had never seen an orangutan before and didn’t realize how large they were and how utterly human. This one lay on his steel display bed, so sad that it made me want to cry, his giant black eyes occasionally blinking, and I wondered how many decades he had left inside that tiny little cell.

I had expected some kind of park where there were paths and wildlife, but instead it was indeed “some kind of park,” the hideous kind. I saw only a handful of wild birds the entire time I was in China, less than twenty, despite countless hours outdoors and travel to some pretty non-urban places. The fact is that most of China has no wildlife of any kind left, not even house sparrows. What can be eaten or caught, which is everything, had been.

I found the main road and walked another couple of miles but my feet hurt so badly from the pavement that I couldn’t walk fast enough to get warm. Walking slowly, cold, is its own special displeasure. Another bus stop, another series of complex ciphers, another freezing wait, another uncertain trip, but 32 cents and heating, so there was nothing to complain about. Since the value of one yuan is about sixteen cents, and since people in the markets and on the street will bargain and haggle over one yuan, it gave me pause that despite its incredible wealth, the poverty in China is so profound that sixteen cents is an amount of money worth working for.

The bus seemed headed for downtown, which was a joyous feeling, until we made a left heading out of the city, which was not. I got off and figured I was close enough to find a subway station, and the plethora of scooter cabbies meant I was never really close to being lost. At the bus stop where I alit a woman was making gyoza, so I ordered fifteen. She was surprised but shrugged. I was starting to learn that when people responded to my perfectly mangled Chinese with surprise, I was usually saying something insane, so pay attention. It was fortunate I did, because instead of reaching for the gyoza tray she lifted the steamed meat bun container, fifteen of which would have amply fed a hungry family of, well, fifteen.

“No, no,” I said, pointing to the gyoza.

“Ah, gyoza! Why didn’t you say so?”

I felt like saying, “Because I am a fucking idiot,” but it was so self-explanatory as to have been redundant.

Her husband steamed the gyoza as I shivered and shook on the plastic stool, but when they came it was well worth the hypothermia, which the gyoza banished. I smothered them in soy sauce and fiery hot peppers, took out the reused wooden chopsticks (“Disinfected!” a sign on the wall promised) and got to work. Yum. As I ate I watched the woman do the meticulous work of rolling each gyoza skin, carefully fill it, pinch it closed, and line it up on the tray. Each one took about two minutes and the cost of each gyoza, retail, was twenty cents each. At the end she had small gob of leftover dough, about the size of a pair of dice, and instead of chunking it she put it back in the dough sack and returned it to the refrigerator. And I remembered, sixteen cents.

I was still northeast of downtown and figured I’d walk until I got cold again. It took a few hours to get back to my hotel, during which time I began trying to keep note of all the different things being sold at the hundreds of tiny shops and stalls and on blankets spread out on the sidewalks.

They included vendors who sold only chickens, toys, shoes, vegetables of every kind, guitars, haircuts, scooter repair services, donuts, games, bread, bikes, gyoza, noodles, used books, posters, printing services, silkscreening, tailors, medicine, beauty products, real estate, cardboard recycling, chicken coops with live chickens sold separately, pineapple carving, noodle dough, rag cleaners, garbage pickers, plumbing supplies, supermarkets, convenience stores, Chinese medicine, medical equipment, hairdresser/barber supplies, bags of every size and material, lottery tickets, internet cafes, roast duck, hot pot cafes, smog masks, thermoses, slippers, slipper liners, pots and pans, toilets, jewelry, diabetic foods, smoothies, wieners, nuts, feng shui furniture, gourds, necklaces and bracelets made from beads, safes, educational software, tracking devices, miscellaneous home goods, Playboy brand menswear, eyeglasses, picture frames, batteries, community health centers, blood banks, cigarettes, surveillance equipment, security guard supplies and clothing, uniforms, electric scooters, urns, wedding services, inns, sake, oranges, flowers, and even an old mendicant lying on the pavement in his underpants, thrashing his leg stumps and rolling on his belly while playing a sad song from a boombox and begging for money.

But what I didn’t see were bookstores or magazines or newspapers. The only bookstore in the entire city that I’d seen, Xinhua, was owned by the Party’s biggest “news” organ, and reminded me of East Germany in the days of the DDR. Nothing is deadlier to a police state than books, so you have to vet them with great care, and predictably there was hardly anything in Xinhua worth reading, especially literature or history or biography, i.e. “things with a different version of the possible than that espoused by the state.”

This is the big tradeoff in China, truth for security, and although people didn’t seem very happy or enthused about the prospects of tomorrow, which promised the same brutal toil of today as they battled for profits in 16-cent increments, the knife fight in the mud of selling useless shit on the street or in a cramped rented space, China also felt incredibly safe. And healthcare was available everywhere at little cost. And hundreds of millions were experiencing a rapidly increasing standard of living which included, for some, 100% carbon that was made fully of all carbon, purely.

China has 1.3 billion people and is incredibly heterogeneous, and heterogeneous nations have the potential for massive unrest. Through surveillance, a total police presence, a consumer economy, a corporatist state, and a continually rising standard of living, it offers stability, safety, growth, and a meaningful chance to participate in the global economy, soon to dominate it.

Is that worse than a corporatist state that openly wars against its racial and ethnic minorities, that humiliates the poor, that reserves healthcare for the rich, and that provides primarily for the profits of the richest? If freedom is so important and such a distinct part of our “special” democracy, why do so few people exercise it even to vote? Why is our “freedom” expressed in moronic captivity to football and professional sports? Why is our freedom of speech mirrored by a fundamentally illiterate and innumerate society?

Most importantly, if you don’t like China’s approach, what steps will you take to make sure it doesn’t happen here?

The fact is that free people die young, whereas properly enslaved people live longer. The older I get, the more I appreciate the extra minutes and hours.

Back at Hotel Unhelpful Clerks I collapsed and it was just barely three o’clock on New Year’s Eve. I watched TV for four hours, enjoying the amazing personality cult of the Great Leader. It was done with none of the heavyhandedness of the DDR, DPRK, or USSR, but cult is cult. And to be fair, Xi Jin Ping is a much better, smarter, more thoughtful, more humane, and a better human being than Trump or anyone in the current U.S. congressional majority, and much of the minority.

China spends billions on education, feeds, clothes, and provides healthcare for its poor children, and is continually struggling with how to raise standards and not simultaneously wreck the earth’s environment completely. Best of all, since all TV is run by the state, there is zero screaming on the news, zero attack-dog politics, and no bad news of really any kind. The repeated messages are:

  1. Be happy.
  2. You’re lucky you’re Chinese.
  3. This is our century, our world.

The surfeit of happiness and good thoughts made me hungry, so I decided to brave the hotel restaurant one last time for dinner. They seated me at a lone table again, but this time in front of the cashier and manager’s business desk, facing the rear of his two computer monitors, and boxed in by a refrigerator.

I felt like the orangutan, as the table sat squarely in the entrance so every patron could analyze my menu choices and my facility with chopsticks prior to being escorted into the free range dining area, which was private.

We hashed out the menu thing and they brought a delicious lamb and vegetable dish. My waitress from the first night had ended her shift and was in street clothes, but nonetheless stayed around until I finished eating to make sure everything went okay, i.e. I didn’t leave hungry. Having conquered the mighty Hotel Dinner Challenge I deemed it time to take on the Hotel Coffee and Tea Lounge Challenge, so I removed downstairs to the cafe.

I had little faith in the barista despite the fancy espresso machine, and she was nowhere to be seen, and I had nothing to do, so I grabbed a tourism guide for Kunming and began thumbing through it.

Who knew?!?!?!?

Kunming and its environs are packed with countless amazing travel experiences, exactly zero of which involved miles of frozen tramping along freeway side paths, zero of which involve seven-hour bus trips, zero of which involve haircuts and tea swindles, and all of which look tailored to show you a great time. If only I had known that things like travel and tourism guides existed, hidden as they were in the hotel lobby that I had passed through every day, given away for free, and spread out on large glass tables!

The barista took my order and brought out a beautiful cappuccino with a milk heart in the middle. It was the best coffee I had had since leaving home, and was $1.66 cheaper than Xingbaka. As the coffee warmed me, I thought of home. I missed my friends. I missed my bicycle. I missed my family, and I really missed my wife. Time to call this a wrap. Time to go home.

 

 

END

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Mid-trip crisis

January 7, 2018 Comments Off on Mid-trip crisis

There comes a time in every journey when you wonder “What TF am I doing here?” which usually follows hard on the heels of “I don’t think I brought enough money” and “Where can I get some diarrhea medicine?”

I was up at 4:30 again and realized that I had been traveling so hard that I’d not had much time to think. Before leaving, a friend who knows me well had prophesied that “This trip will be life-changing.”

First and foremost I realized that travel was largely about fear, or rather about tackling my fears of the known and my fears of the unknown. China had been a great big ball of uncertainty and fear, and each obstacle surmounted left me with an amazing feeling, no matter how trivial the conquest.

Likewise, there were challenges that had gotten the best of me, fears I couldn’t overcome, and each residual disappointment was as acute as the thrill of the tiny victories. What fears? What obstacles? What monsters lurking under the bed? Glad you asked. Here’s a list:

  • Fear of stepping in excrement on the edges of the squat toilet
  • Fear of catching the wrong bus
  • Fear of getting off at the wrong stop
  • Fear of going into a restaurant
  • Fear of menus
  • Fear of having my passport squeeze out of my front pocket and into the squat toilet
  • Fear of asking a question
  • Fear of not understanding the answer
  • Fear of getting lost
  • Fear of staying on the beaten path
  • Fear of ordering food
  • Fear of ingredients
  • Fear of exchange rate arithmetic
  • Fear of overpaying
  • Fear of underpaying
  • Fear of running out of cash
  • Fear of credit card declination
  • Fear of traffic collisions
  • Fear of emergency dental work
  • Fear of failing the subway/airport security screening
  • Fear of immigration
  • Fear of being a stupid tourist (redundant)
  • Fear of being mistaken for a loser expat
  • Fear of dialects
  • Fear of tones
  • Fear of kanji
  • Fear of asking in broken Chinese and being answered in perfect English
  • Fear of souvenir shopping
  • Fear of haggling
  • Fear of foul weather
  • Fear of smog
  • Fear of smug
  • Fear of other tourists
  • Fear of being the only tourist
  • Fear of losing shit
  • Fear of losing fitness
  • Fear of vanishing

There are probably a whole lot more, such as “Fear of running out of instant coffee,” but you get the point. However, this was only part of it. It has taken me a lifetime of travel, and it was only thanks to China, that I realized I’ve never cared for authenticity and have instead enjoyed travel for the solitude that came from brief interactions with strangers.

I began to figure this out when flying into Kunming from Hangzhou, seated next to the women from Oklahoma City. One of them had lived in Kurdistan for several years as a missionary and had learned the local language. She bemoaned the fact that in a few short years she had seen the demise of so much traditional culture, from language to clothing to customs.

“People no longer sat down for tea that spanned five hours,” she said, causing me to thank dog for at least that bit of cultural genocide.

That’s when I started to realize that the authenticity of a culture, whatever that even means, had no allure for me. I didn’t care whether people sat down for a five-hour tea or none at all, because authenticity doesn’t exist, if by authentic we mean that which is true to itself, independent of and unaffected by Starbucks and Wal-Mart. The trends and imperatives of a global consumer economy are irresistible and, with English as the globalizing weapon of choice, they flatten everything in their path.

But it took that seven-hour trip by bus into the farthest reaches of China for me to finally understand that I would never find the mythical authentic culture and that I not only didn’t care about now, but never really had. I was as happy strolling a neon strip punctuated with sales outlets for Apple and Huawei as I had been the time I wound up in the headman’s hut on the island of Sebirut, in the Mentawais.

The thing I sought was all around me, solitude and the oblivion of a strange land. I didn’t need cultural references and artifacts from 2000 BC to make it feel real.

By 6:30 it was still pitch dark and the hotel breakfast buffet didn’t open until 7:30. I hit the streets of Pu’er, which were so silent and pleasant in the darkness. Early morning cleaning crews swept the sidewalks, and they were wearing hi-viz vests with electric red blinking lights … we need those for Team Lizard Collectors! The cleaners’ presence explained in part why Kunming and Pu’er were so clean.

But there was another, more important reason. The Communist Party sees its role as a moral force, and throughout town there were exhortations on signs for people to take responsibility for helping build the new China. One of those jobs was not throwing shit on the ground, and another was not spitting. I saw zero public urination and smelled its residuals nowhere, thanks to effective moral instruction and numerous free public toilets that were cleaned all the time.

Pu’er was even warmer than Kunming, and after breakfast I checked out and did some more walking prior to heading over to the airport. A small hill on the north end of town had a series of morality murals telling people how to live. In addition to being very beautifully painted, the messages were good ones.

“Strong children make strong China.”

“Care for the elderly.”

“Wealth is helping.”

No one seemed to pay any attention to the murals except me.

Like Kunming, Pu’er had its own city bike rental program, which cost about 32 cents an hour. I longed to go for a pedal, but without a data aggregator/tracking device and a WeChat data aggregation/tracking account, I couldn’t rent.

I was now on my fourth day of going everywhere on foot and I wasn’t sure but that I didn’t prefer it. For one, you saw so much more. It’s easy to stop and look and snap a photo on foot, but the imperative of momentum on a bike makes you want to keep going.

Of course you cover a fraction of the territory on foot, but what you see, you remember, and the details are more carefully observed and much less evanescent. I doubt I would have scored that sweet potato on a bike. I wended my way over to the airport and went up to the ticket counter.

“I”m here to pick up my ticket.”

“Passport, please.” The clerk picked up a stack of boarding passes and flipped through them. “Here you are, sir.”

Chinese efficiency was putting on a clinic, and the one-hour flight back to Kunming was a contrast to the Baling Wire Express. My neighbors never looked at me, much less offered me a bag of oranges or took off their pants. In addition to the bus breakdown, which the airplane didn’t emulate, at one point in the bus trip one of my companions had taken off his pants and lounged around in his undershorts. He also cracked the window every now and then to smoke a cigarette in defiance of the ABSOLUTELY NO SMOKING OR SPITTING signs in the bus.

My genteel seatmate on Each China Air didn’t spit, didn’t smoke, left his pants on, and never once tried to open the airplane window. Cheap, slow, difficult travel makes a good pengyou and a better story. Fast, pricey, seamless air travel makes nothing but lousy sleep and a stiff neck.

During the flight I had studied my map of Kunming a bit more and decided that rather than return to my hotel I’d strike out by subway and on foot to find Humashan Park. It was a big green glop on the map and I thought it might be interesting, not least of all because it was east of town, far from the city center and therefore new territory.

On the subway a group of students hogged all the space on the benches even though if they hadn’t been spread out like a warm breakfast I could have sat down. An aged man carrying a blue bundle and wearing a ragged coat tugged my arm. “Come sit down,” he said. He turned to the students and gruffly said, “Make room for the gentleman!”

They did and, impersonating a gentleman, I sat next to him. We began chatting but it was rough sledding as his accent was brutal. The crammed subway listened.

He wanted to know all about my travels, how I liked China, where I was from, whether America was as nice as Kunming, why my wife wasn’t with me, and the ages, occupations, and marital statuses of each child. When he learned about my grandson, he was especially happy.

This one kind old man, he was 85, made as much of an impression on me as anything I’d seen or done. When he found out that I was going to Humashan Park he took out his data aggregator/tracking device and began giving me directions. Finally he offered to guide me though it was out of his way, but I declined.

We parted at the station and I began walking up a broken down and rotting street that, after a mile or so, crossed a freeway and became a miracle mile of restaurants. It was two o’clock and I was hungry, but my fear of menus and ordering really came on strong, like hives, plus the lunch rush was over and most of the staff at each restaurant were sitting down to eat.

After passing two hundred yards of restaurants I got disgusted with myself and swore I would enter the next place I passed. I did and of course the staff were just sitting down to eat.

“So sorry!” I said, and made to leave.

“No, no!” said the owner, a younger man in his early 40s. “Come here!”

Everyone stared at me but they were friendly. “This okay?” He pointed at something in the display case.

“Yes,” I said, unsure which of the 250 raw ingredients he had meant.

“Go sit now,” he commanded, donning his apron.

I obeyed and one of the staff poured me a cup of much-needed hot tea. After about fifteen minutes he came to my table, slung a heaping plate of chicken in peanut sauce, ripped off his apron and sat down to watch me eat. I tore into it with a gusto that no politeness could fake; I was hungry and the food was exceptional. Then came the questions and by now I was getting the hang of it, even with the molasses-thick Kunming accent.

Lunch stretched out and he took some pictures, offered me a ride to the park, and refused to take a penny for the massive lunch. When I left, he put out his hand.

“Pengyou,” he said.

“Hao pengyou,” I said back, there on the edge of town a few miles from my home, and it was good.

The walk to Humashan Park turned out to be not good, a bust actually, but it also turned out to be a bus, a local bus. After leaving the restaurant I concluded that my friend was a poor estimator of distances. He had said “about 1.5 km” but two hours later I was still walking, and all pretense of anything remotely scenic was left far behind as I was tramping along a sidewalk along a concrete barrier along a freeway.

After forever plus a long time I reached the park entrance but it was closed and hadn’t, from appearances, been a going concern since Mao was in diapers. The freeway bent off into the distance, and after several days of 8-10 hours worth of walking, my legs hurt. My feet hurt. My everything hurt. And it all hurt in unison, reaching a crescendo at the moment I passed a bus stop.

The local bus system for a city of six million people is complex. This stop alone hosted six different bus routes, each route printed on a small sign. There were a couple of other idiots freezing along with me, and I started studying the routes, trying to figure out which bus would get me back downtown.

After an hour’s wait and a coldness that had permeated my mitochondria, my bus came. I hoped it was my bus.

It only cost 32 cents, and more importantly it was warm, so I cast aside uncertainty and Fear of Wrong Bus and boarded. Less importantly, it appeared to be going in exactly the wrong direction, and even less importantly than that, I couldn’t understand the stops being announced, and the digital sign up front wasn’t working. Wrong bus? Wrong way? No directions? No problem because, heater.

I could have asked someone for help but I was afraid they’d say I had to get off and I still hadn’t thawed. Some of the bus stops had signs and names, and my initial worry gave way to confidence. Soon I’d be downtown, near food, and a mere hour or so walk back to the hotel, two at the most. When I disembarked I felt pleased, like Columbus five or six years after discovering America when he learned that he’d not discovered a new route to India but rather a couple of continents.

I ducked into a restaurant arcade and picked something off the menu that looked ghastly hot and it did not disappoint. Imagine my surprise when, on the tromp home, I passed Kunming’s very own Specialized store! Inside it felt like home! Carbon everywhere, virtually all of it 100% carbon and made all of carbon for silly prices, and salespeople clearly marking the minute until their next ride. We had a lively conversation! They wanted to know all about cycling in California, but all I could tell them was that the Wanky blog was blocked by the Great Firewall. They said that cycling in Kunming was excellent and growing, but the whole time there I saw exactly one cyclist, so I guess if they sold one bike they’d be doubling the cyclist population, and 100% growth is definitely growth. They confirmed lots of hills and climbing, and the presence of a nearby Starbucks meant they had all the ingredients for a Cycling in the South Bay Kunming franchise.

I got back to Hotel Lukewarm Shower late and dead, but it sure was nice to wash off and slap on a clean pair of underpants, my last.

 

END

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My tea button is bigger than yours, and it works

January 5, 2018 Comments Off on My tea button is bigger than yours, and it works

My alarm went off at 4:30 but I didn’t go off until six. After a quick shower in lukewarm water I scanned my map, which had blow-up sections of all the main cities in Yunan Province, including Pu’er. In tiny characters at the bottom was a list of bus stations and which destinations they served. One of them listed Pu’er, so my only task was to show the name of the bus station to the front desk and ask them how to get there.

When I approached the desk with my map they scurried but I nabbed one. He scowled at the name on the map and shrugged. “I don’t know that place.”

He took it to his co-worker, who was equally perplexed. “Go to the subway,” she said. Back to square one.

I left the hotel and decided to walk to the main train station, which was a mile or so beyond the nearest subway stop. I got there and saw nothing besides a local bus stop, so I decided to do what they had been saying all along, that is, go to the subway. I wondered what magical thing would happen when I appeared at the subway to direct me to the bus stop.

Halfway there I saw a giant green sign for a travel agency touting tours throughout Yunan, and paused before it, wondering whether it was time to seek professional help. A woman darted out from the crowd proffering a business card.

“Where would you like to go? I’m a licensed travel agent!”

“Pu’er.”

“Pu’er?”

“Pu’er.”

“When?”

“Today.”

“Today?

“Today.”

“Returning when?”

“Tonight.”

“Tonight?” She looked perplexed.

A man in a shabby black coat ran up, also holding a business card. “We can do that,” he said.

“We can?” asked the woman.

“Of course!”

“He’s is my colleague, Wang. He is excellent and will be a good friend to you.”

“How much?” I asked.

“180 yuan,” he said, about $28, which seemed steep but not unaffordable.

“Okay,” I agreed.

They both brightened like Christmas trees. “Follow me,” Wang said.

We began walking back to the train station, then turning down various side streets until we reached a small office filled with people holding massive suitcases, and everyone was in a huge hurry. The man brought me to a woman. “Here,” he said, like a fisherman delivering a giant tuna to his happy wife. “My hao pengyou.”

“When do we leave?” I asked.

“You want to go to Dali instead?” the fish wife asked.

“No. Pu’er.”

“Dali more famous. And pretty.”

“Pu’er.”

“Dali is much better. Pu’er is old country town.”

“What time do we come back from Pu’er?”

“What time do you want to come back?”

“Evening.”

She wrinkled her nose but didn’t miss a beat. “Okay.”

It didn’t seem very organized. “What time does the return bus leave?”

“You just call me and I’ll come pick you up.”

I could see several people smiling when she said that. Something was wrong. “No, thanks,” I said, and started walking.

My two hao pengyou sprinted after me. “Come back!” they howled as the tuna swam away. “You will love Pu’er! Great price!” I opened up my long stride. If they were going to follow far, they were gonna need some lungs. After a minute I dropped them, then headed back towards the subway.

At the entrance a bunch of motor scooter cabbies were standing around looking for fares. “Where you going, friend?”

I showed the cabbie the name of the bus stop on my map and told him I wanted to go to Pu’er. He whistled. “50 yuan.”

“Too much.”

“Bus stop too far.”

“15 yuan.

“No.”

“15 yuan.”

“No.”

“15 yuan.”

“I will take you to the bus stop where you can catch a bus to take you to the bus stop to catch the bus to Pu’Er. 15 yuan.”

“Okay.”

I climbed on the back of the scooter and we shot off into traffic. It occurred to me to be scared, but I decided to focus instead on not falling off. It worked.

He whipped into a sad parking lot with a handful of small, sad, dirty buses, and offloaded me. “That’s your bus, number C71, cheap!” And off he sped.

It was cheap, only 5 yuan, or 80 cents. I boarded and waited as the bus filled. We took off, and it became clear why the cabbie had wanted 50 yuan. We were taking a very, very long trip. After half an hour we reached the massive South Bus Terminal. I got off and went in. A bus was leaving for Pu’er at 10:30; my timing was perfect. You have to give your passport to buy a ticket for a bus that goes out of town, so the government knows who’s going where. The ticket cost about $28, which again seemed pricey for such a nearby destination.

I boarded and soon we left. My seatmates across the aisle were well provisioned for the trip with several bags of mini-tangerines, thermoses of booze, and a stack of bread cakes. They were enjoying themselves immensely before we had even left the parking lot.

The traffic was horrible and an hour flew by, then a second, though we had left Kunming completely and were flying down the expressway. I turned to the guy nearest me. “What time do we get into Pu’er?”

“5:30,” he said.

“5:30?”

“Yes. It’s a seven-hour trip.”

Now it all made sense, everyone laughing at the travel agency when I said I wanted to return that evening; the “high” fare; the extensive provisioning of my neighbors. It was also clear that I would be spending the night in Pu’er.

Pu’er sits at well over 10,000 feet, and the bus never went in a straight line for more than a couple of minutes. We plunged down huge mountain passes that descended for ten miles or more, and clawed our way out with the vintage diesel engine groaning and bucking up the grade every inch of the way. I wondered if the bus would break down, but then put aside my cynical superiority complex. This was China and it wasn’t this bus’s first rodeo. They knew what they were doing.

By the third hour I was famished and dehydrated, and my seatmate offered me a bread roll which looked delicious but which I could never have chewed with my dust-dry mouth. “Thanks but I’m too thirsty to eat,” I said.

He nodded and pulled out a giant bag of mini-tangerines. “Here.”

I began peeling and devouring them, and they were probably the tastiest things I’ve ever had. “Hunger is the best sauce,” as Sancho Panza was so fond of saying.

We struck up a kind of traveling friendship; he and his pal were going to Pu’er for a short vacation, and soon the whole bus knew that I had thought it was one hour’s drive from Kunming, generating much hilarity.

About an hour from Pu’er, the bus really did break down. We pulled into the village of Tong Guan and all got off the bus. The driver called the main office, and they advised him to “fix it.”

With a much put-upon look he opened the engine compartment, poked around, then took out his toolbox. Everyone stood around and watched, along with a great many villagers for whom this was capital entertainment of the finest sort. No one was shy about offering advice, either. One man seemed to have very decided opinions about the repair job, which he punctuated with spitting. Everyone smoked. No one got angry. Broken buses seemed like a part of the ticket purchase, and the driver’s filthy and well-worn wrenches alternately inspired confidence and despair.

After half an hour of very intense wrench work, the driver took off his greasy mechanic’s apron, took a photo of the repair job, and texted it back to HQ. They were not impressed, because he began cursing and kicking his tools. He finally went over to a small side storage compartment, unlocked it, and pulled out a fat coil of baling wire. Everyone had an opinion about this latest development and Mr. Very Opinionated began expectorating with such vehemence that I feared he might spit out his tongue.

The driver climbed halfway into the engine compartment, and fifteen minutes later he emerged black from head to toe with only a short snippet of what had originally been a fifteen-foot coil, at least. He ordered us all back on the bus and off we went, another hour of dreadful mountain road with death at every turn, bound to this earth by nothing more than a flimsy strand or two of cheap wire. There is a metaphor there somewhere, and if you find it, it’s yours.

The arrival in Pu’er was anticlimactic. We shuffled off the bus and as we alit my pengyou mentioned that if I were really in a hurry to get back to Kunming I could always fly. If I wanted to have a good time, a really good time, a really, really good time, I could spend the night and hang out with them. “There’s an airport here?” I asked.

“Yes. Tiny town but has an airport.”

“How tiny?’

“800,000.”

I kept forgetting that tiny in China and tiny in the USA meant different things. By now I knew that the best shot outside a bus terminal or subway station was just to stand around and I’d have a pengyou in no time.

Sure enough, a group of illegal cabbies began chattering about me until one came over. “Where to?”

“Airport. Is there a flight tonight to Kunming?”

“Oh, yes, many.”

“How much to the airport?”

“30 yuan.”

I was too tired to haggle. If he didn’t murder me en route I’d not worry about the four dollar cost. “Okay.”

Pu’er was bustling on a Friday evening. I saw young people everywhere and the town consisted of, it seemed, one endless main street. My illegal cabbie seemed nice and was loquacious and inquisitive, but his accent was an impenetrable firewall. I imagined his questions and supplied my own answers, which seemed to work.

In a few minutes we reached the airfield, which was smack in the middle of town. “You’ll have to get out here,” he said. “The airport police know me.”

I exited and walked into the airport and up to the one ticket counter. “Any flights to Kunming?”

“Yes. In one our. 900 yuan.”

I handed her my passport and credit card. She entered my info. “Sorry, flight is full.”

“Oh. That was quick. Do you have another?”

“Yes. 11:00 PM. 2000 yuan.”

“Wow. Okay. I’ll take it.”

She took my credit card. This was the first time I’d used it in China. “Sorry, Chinese credit cards only.”

“I don’t have enough cash.”

“WeChat?”

“No cell phone.”

My friends who had traveled in China had told me that without WeChat to pay, I’d be fucked. Now I was, as I contemplated another full day on the Baling Wire Special.

“Tomorrow’s early flight is cheap. Only 600 yuan.”

“I’ll take it. How early?”

“11:15.”

“Perfect.” I shelled out the bills.

“Come here tomorrow at 10:00 for your ticket.”

“I want my ticket now. I just paid you for it.”

“No ticket now. Come here tomorrow.”

“Can I pay then?”

“2,000 yuan. And maybe no seat like now.”

“Can I have a receipt?”

“No. We will remember you.”

I gave up and left. At least I’d get to see Pu’er. Then I realized I had no place to stay. I hailed a cabbie. “Where?”

“Nice hotel that takes American credit cards.”

He nodded and off we went. We pulled up at Jing Land Hotel and he opened my door. “15 yuan, please.” My illegal cabbie really had ripped me off a whole $2.15.

I entered Jing Land in fear, fear of credit card declination. Fear of sleeping on a park bench. Fear of arrest for vagrancy. “Do you have a room for tonight?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you take foreign credit cards?”

“Of course!”

I never bothered to ask the price. I did not fuggin’ care.

The Jing Land Hotel was a big step up from my $33/night crash pad in Kunming. At $42/night I got more space, a nicer bathroom, hotter water, and two free condoms placed thoughtfully next to the toothbrush. I decided to walk around for a couple of hours and called the front desk to ask if they had a map of Pu’er.

“Staff will bring to your room.”

Soon there was a knock at the door and a pretty housemaid was handing me a map. “20 yuan, please.”

I was about to pay, a bit surprised a the $3.33 price tag, almost three times more than the awesome maps I had bought in Kunming that were already falling apart. “This isn’t even new,” I said, looking at the ratty edges and tears forming along the creases.

“Yes, it is.” I stared hard at the holes and ragged edges, so she doubled down. “Brand new.”

“Here I am, 400 km away from a provincial capital which is itself thousands of miles from anywhere and I’m about to argue over two dollars and some holes in a perfectly serviceable but shitty little map,” I thought. It was half principle, half cheapness, half stubbornness, and half annoyance at spending the day on the Baling Wire Express. Then I thought about the park bench I wasn’t on, the vagrancy charge I wasn’t facing, and her pretty, smiling, lying face. At least if you’re going to lie, don’t do it by halves. “Okay,” I said, giving her the 20 yuan. China won again.

Outside, Friday night was going full blast, but the main street was nothing but retail shops. I figured the food was elsewhere but after an hour couldn’t find it, and the few restaurants I passed were shuttered. One place was open, down a side street, called “World of Steak.”

The bored staff were playing with their data aggregator/tracking devices, and hopped to attention when I came in. I pointed to the Steak in a Box on the menu pinned to the wall.

“Cola or juice?”

“Water, please.”

“It comes with cola or juice.”

“Can you make it come with water?”

“Cola is better.”

“I believe you. Can I have some terrible water instead?”

“Okay,” she gave in, giving Team USA its sole goal of the tournament.

What came out of the kitchen was amazing, and not just because it took half an hour and sounded like thirty people were taking apart an old car with hammers. It was amazing because there was nothing there. The girl brought out a large drink cup 3/4 full with a lid shoved far down into the cup and from which a cute, curlycue straw protruded.

Atop the lid was a tasteful arrangement of a celery stick, a carrot stick,  seven french fries, and about ten tiny, tiny cubes of meat. Each french fry had a ketchup-and-mayo face drawn on it. The whole thing was about three bites of food. It tasted great, but my last meal had been almost fourteen hours prior. I figured I’d do the hour walk back to the hotel and go to bed hungry again, which most certainly would have happened had I not passed two old women hawking baked sweet potatoes. The potatoes were huge, hot, and all carb. I bought one and sat on the curb to enjoy my dinner. That night I slept like a log.

END

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Untethered, for reals

January 2, 2018 Comments Off on Untethered, for reals

I left for China the day after my 54th birthday. I’d wanted to visit China since I was in my 20s. Do you know what it’s like to look forward to something for most of your life and then finally get to do it? It’s a lot of excitement mixed in with a whole bunch of apprehension.

Part of the apprehension was related to my decision to travel off the data hook. It was a crazy feeling to turn over my data aggregator/tracking device to my wife and march down the security screening gangplank completely untethered. I would be lying if I said that something akin to panic hadn’t set in. But do you know what immediately followed the queasiness?

Freedom.

For the first time in some incredible number of years I felt free, no thoughts about last minute messages or emails or voicemails, and the bare knowledge that whatever happened from then on was going to depend on me, not the globe and Library of Congress that I had in my pocket, ever ready to answer any question, resolve any crisis, allay any worry, comfort any loneliness. Oh, and convert any exchange rate.

That feeling of freedom was followed by amazement and pity, amazement at the fact that alone among the several hundred people waiting to be screened, I was the only one not looking at a phone or holding one. The pity? Realizing that every single person in that line was chained to their data aggregator/tracking device and would never know, until death, what it was like to walk off into the wild without being chained to an integrated house arrest monitoring unit and algorithm generated dopamine stimulator.

And of course going to China was hardly off into any kind of wild. It was a seven-day lark to the most populous place on earth, a country more advanced and connected in computer technology than any other, and a place whose wildness was discovered and brought to heel more than five thousand years ago. The fact that a very brief respite from my data aggregator/tracking device felt like a daring excursion to the edge of the solar system says everything about how captivated I had become, and nothing about the relative adventurousness of the trip.

In addition to the wonderful sensation of standing in a screening line feeling fully engaged was the realization that untethering had also allowed me to pack light. No laptop, no charging devices, no fear of having my phone stolen, and of course no concern about battery life or where to plug in my paper notebook, or where to recharge my pen. My reading wouldn’t be tied to a screen but to paper. My writing wouldn’t be done with a keyboard, but with ink.

In no time at all I began to think differently, as every moment wasn’t being chopped into attention-destroying snippets of phone gazing. What was even more enjoyable was the way my eyes began to look around and really observe people. With no data aggregator/tracking device to distract me, I could watch continuously and leisurely, remember what people looked like and what they were wearing, and try to eavesdrop on their conversations. The amount of information about the real world that we miss by the distractions of a data aggregator/tracking device is extraordinary, and it’s clear that the real question isn’t whether it was good to leave the damned thing behind, but rather what in the hell I would do with it when I got back?

Here were a few random notes about my flight on Sichuan Air:

  1. New Airbus, clean and nice, and better in-flight service than any US carrier I’ve ever flown on.
  2. My seatmate was a U. of Washington grad student from China getting her Ph.D. in the interpretation and application of mass data, all in English of course. I’m 54 and learning how to say hello and ask where the toilet is in Chinese.
  3. The spicy chicken … two stars, ergo better than anything on any U.S. airline.
  4. Tiny seats, but I suppose the Roman galley banks were tinier, harder, and came with a lot more whipping.
  5. The in-flight magazine was a government propaganda piece.
  6. Watery tea.
  7. Did they have to disinfect us with cattle spray before landing?
  8. I had no electronic devices to turn off!
  9. 14 hours is a long-ass time.
  10. Boiled carrots for a tasty dessert snack. Who knew?
  11. This regional carrier is as good as any major US airline; China is coming for you, America.

END

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Proper travel preparation through eating

December 31, 2017 Comments Off on Proper travel preparation through eating

Most people who live in LA know about Chinatown, which is downtown near Dodger Stadium. But that’s the old Chinatown.

The new area that has a very dense population of Chinese people is in the Alhambra area. As soon as you get there the businesses have signs in Chinese, there are numerous Chinese supermarkets, and of course countless restaurants. One place we like to go is Mama Lu’s Dumpling House.

It is always crowded and there is always a wait, but the food is cheap, tremendously good, and the portions are monstrous. There is always a smattering of non-Chinese customers, but the giant TVs on the wall all play Chinese movies or TV shows and the sound of Chinese predominates. Families are often there celebrating birthdays, the table spread with so much food it almost hurts to look at it.

The family wanted to have dinner there, so we went and stuffed ourselves. I figured that with my upcoming trip it made sense to eat as much Chinese food as I could. So I did.

One of the great things about leaving the #socmed grid is that I have become less and less tethered to the other parts of the digital grid as well. Although it’s hardly an adventure into uncharted territory, going off to Kunming for a week without a phone or laptop seems daring. That’s how much things have changed. I still remember arriving in Tokyo on January 15, 1987 and it didn’t seem daring at all to travel without a cell phone because they didn’t exist.

When you took a trip, part of the deal was that you were going to be incommunicado except for postcards and emergency phone calls if you had to make them–phone calls made from a phone booth. Remember those?

As the trip has gotten closer it has seemed more and more like an untethering, although in reality it is a pretty ordinary trip. Millions of people fly to Kunming every year. There is no unexplored part of China, and there hasn’t been for about 5,000 years or so, maybe a lot more.

Since I knew I’d be without a phone I spent some time memorizing the subway lines, which are very simple, and it reinforced how helpful it is to be able to read Chinese. For the last couple of years I’ve been slogging away at the language, the area I’ve thought was the least important but that I nonetheless kept hacking away at, reading, turns out to be, I think, the most important.

Unlike other recent trips, I’m also traveling without a bike. It’s amazing how little you need when you are traveling alone and without a sports toy. A few pairs of socks, underwear, t-shirts, tooth equipment and razors, pen and notepads, passport, cash, a couple of credit cards, and you’re good to go.

When I get there I’ll try to rent a bike. Rental bikes are ubiquitous but you have to use a phone and an account with Ali-Pay or WeChat, so it’s possible I’ll just be walking, riding the bus, and riding the train.

Have you ever wanted to do something all your life, and then when the time actually comes to do it, you get nervous, and are even a little bit unsure about whether you really want to do it? That’s kind of how I feel. I took Chinese in college and even had a job offer from the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, but other things intervened. After traveling to Japan, China always seemed like the next logical and exciting and interesting step.

But I never took it.

Now I’m on the cusp of getting on the plane and am nervous, not so much about the trip but about whether it will live up to my expectations, which is weird because I don’t have any. My only travel plans so far are:

  1. Go shopping for razor blades for my razor.
  2. Get a haircut.
  3. Visit a few bookstores.
  4. Visit a few bike shops.
  5. Take a day trip to Puer and buy some tea.

The haircut might be the best part. We’ll see.

END

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