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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Zhongdian

Right now it is about 8 C outside but I am damn warm inside. Not inside the building but inside my belly.

In Zhongdian, here are your choices: 1) Eat at one of the many western and Chinese food cafes that fill the old town area, in nice ambience with wooden tables and Tibetan paper lamps hanging from the ceiling with a variety of loungy electronic music playing, paying extra for this ambience because the food is not worth it, or 2) walk a little ways away, to the small restaurant with concrete floor and dim lighting, where you either point at the veggies and meat you want stir fried or you can find one that has hot pot with pork and mushrooms and lettuce and tomatoes and tofu, and then, as a surprise, sliced potato at the bottom, and as you eat it you can listen to the girl working singing Tibetan songs just because she wants, and you can warm your hands over a little black iron stone with red glowing coals and listen also to the sound of the Tibetan men who are sharing their own hot pot. Guess which one I chose?

And as a bonus, a guy just walked in complaining about the sandwich he ate at one of those other places, saying it tasted like spam. Am I bragging? I'm not trying to. Am I happy? Yes. Oh...and for that big hot pot I paid 10 RMB. I bet he paid at least 15 for that sandwich. [Try harder, Alan.--ed.]

Anyway, I am happy. Zhongdian, right now, the days I have had, is just about perfect. Yesterday I walked a good 20 km, first out into the countryside where all the trees are colorful and mountains are snowcapped and cows eat amidst wide open plains that are a bit flooded from recent rains, but the grass show its colors, red and orange and yellow...took very cool pics of that. Tibetans walking by smiling, or driving by on tractors stacked in a ridiculous way with long logs and slowing, showing white teeth in bright red faces. Clouds dropping strange lines of mist over the town, over the mountains. Wow.

The second part of yesterday, walking twice up a hill behind the city, through a cemetery with graves somewhat overgrown, more colored grass dotted by bright blue flowers, tiny tiny things. And at the top, at a small monastery a million prayer flags draped everywhere, from tree to tree, through bushes, hanging low over the narrow gravel path, and light shining on golden leaves backdropped by a perfect blue sky. And no one there but wind and cows and a barking dog and a growing peace. The view in 360 degrees of mountains and the plains and old city with all the black tiled roofs and the new town spreading out...and I want to stay but that wind..when I stand at a small pagoda type pavilion the wind cuts through and down I go. After a nap taken while the camera recharges, running back up the hill because the sun is ready to drop. The sky bluer than before. And a monk, gazing off into the distance at that pavilion...a picture that speaks lots and lots of words.

At night, writing at my guest house, in a darkish room with a fire burning in a stove and low voices.

Today, I woke up a bit later, at 7:30, not wanting to leave my toasty heated bed. My body was sore from yesterday, or not sore but tired. A slow start then, breakfast of jiaozi soup and then an aimless walk because despite all of the cafes here, and despite the fact that a large number of people, tourists, get up early because of buses or the cold, it is impossible to find a place to drink coffee before 9.

Anyway, fast forwarding. No real expectations for the days beyond taking it easy with tomorrow's trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge in mind (meaning a few days of hiking). I walked again through the old town, admiring the variations of the Tibetan houses, intricate wood fronts with different carvings and colors, large red doors with dragon handles, wrought iron doors. Painted facades, bright colors and flowers. Never mind that by this time next year you will not be able to spit or flick away a cigarette without hitting a guesthouse/CD burning/internet/western/chinese/tradtional Tibetan food/yak butter tea place...with all the buildings going up and the smell of wood, and seeing several for rent, a tiny part of me thinks: wouldn't it be nice to get Natalia over here, to rent one of these and turn the first floor into a gallery to sell the pictures Iv'e already taken in China, and then the ones that would no doubt follow living in Shangri-La over the course of a full year, with all the seasons...Because with all the tourists coming and bound yet to come, and with all the other buildings either providing the same service or selling the same tourist trinkets, why not stand out a bit?

Anyway, then I went to a large monastery outside of town, accessible for 1RMB by bus number 3. Songzanlin Monastery. And there it was nice, with the golden tops standing out against another clean blue sky. Huge off-white buildings, or orange-yellow, dark paint around windows. And all over the place, because of the sun, shadows and brilliant light. A load of Chinese student tourists I guess studying art all around and drawing. A town falling down from the monastery on top of the hill. Monks and Tibetans praying and tourists pestering monks for pictures and all that go with such a place. From there I walked into the village nearby, where lots of kids were hanging around school, on lunch break, and little kids with big baskets on their back walking down muddy muddy roads. Low houses with muddy green lawns and manure and glutinous rice hanging to dry.

Getting back to Zhongdian, a pause, to recharge battery and to eat and then to sit in one of those cafes I've been bemoaning, but this one the cheapest one--really, only 5RMB for coffee compared to at least 10RMB in every other place I checked out (unless of course you get Nescafe, but even then, 6RMB) and besides, this place, a plate full of some kind of seeds and no pressure whatsoever from the nice nice Tibetan girl working who I don't think even expected me to order anything, as she gave me some hot water and those seeds and then went to a window table to read. Later, I saw her when I was sitting with some Tibetan women and a guy whose picture I had just taken (and which made my day, by the way...this one was really good) and she smiled and waved and then smiled and waved again.

After writing for about an hour and a half I was off again, after getting my camera. I headed first towards the new town, where Tibetan women wearing bright pink scarfs around their head walk with their hands behind their backs or in their pockets and have those baskets on their backs or sit and sell fruit mix with the Tibetan guys in dirty clothes who still look somehow so stylish - and really a lot of poor Chinese guys manage to do this and it makes me mad - and older Tibetan men with those off-white hats with orange bands that I commented on in a posted picture (and which I almost bought today, but 150RMB seemed a bit steep) and dressed like any old person Tibetans as well. Past all the new but nice buildings and stores and little markets and a girl singing karaoke very very badly I eventually ended up back near the old town. I headed towards the east then, along the perimeter of the old town. This took me near where the military guys here are posted and I watched some of them running in full uniform (including the dressy shoes worn with the green suits) and some in fatigues...a few photos. Then down some muddy roads and meeting some Tibetan guys and taking pictures and laughing and joking, etc. etc. The rest was just nice. After a brief conversation with a Swiss guy, and a bit on that in a moment, going up a ways to watch huge clouds turning pink and black and gray and weird as the sunset before coming back down and having that brilliant hot pot.

The Swiss guy was at least the thirtieth person this trip to ask me where I was from and say I did not sound American at all. I cannot tell you how many people are surprised when I say I'm from America, not because I'm traveling but because of the way I talk. I still find it strange. He also said we have strong accents. Do we?

So, tomorrow on to Tiger Leaping Gorge for a few days' hike. This is supposed to be a highlight of many people's trips to China. I guess it will have to be pretty great to beat some of the highlights so far, but we can hope...

Shangri-La (Part 2)

So, I am in Shangri-La now, and you may read a bit about the first day or two when David posts what I wrote about Deqin. [Now posted.--ed.] Today I took a bus back from Deqin to Zhongdian, and it snowed! For the first time since the last Christmas I was home I saw snow! It was beautiful because the trees are all yellow and red and there was enough snow to blanket the needles and the branches of trees. The mountains rising up were obscured by the snow and fog. Prayer flags whipped in the wind and small cabins with smoke coming out of the chimneys and lone men standing in doorways looked archetypal. Can I say that? By that I mean like something, some basic image that is ingrained in your mind, one of snowy mountain landscapes in hard to reach places.

It is raining now, and I just can't make myself go out and walk in the rain. I think I will find a coffee shop (they are turning this place into another backpacker dreamland of "authentic" buildings with cheap rooms and Western food and traditional food and coffee and wine and beer, etc. so there is the smell of wood everywhere in the old town and the feeling that in two years' time there will be a much different spirit here). I make that judgment based on a very short walk through the old town and the words of a German man who was here last year and said none of those buildings existed a year ago. Things change fast here.

As a postscript to the Deqin post about my rant on being charged 17 RMB for a plate of food and a bowl of rice: Last night when I went out to eat, I asked the price first. 5 RMB. That girl screwed me big time, and in part because of that, Deqin will hold somewhat negative memories, proving once again that beyond the landscapes and the sights and so on and so forth, it comes down to the people you meet and the interactions you have. I wish I had the address of that restaurant so I could tell everyone not to go there, but I guess that would just be a babyish thing to do. [Vindictive maybe, but not babyish.--ed.] I have decided though that from now on anytime someone tries to f*$k me like that I'm going to take out a notebook and say I am a writer for a travel guide and I'm going to make sure the place gets a bad notice. Maybe that will help?

Monday, October 24, 2005

Shangri-La (Part 1)

By way of note: for anyone coming to this site from Footprints recruiting, you would be best served by going to my archives from February to June for information on teaching, living, and traveling in Taiwan. There is some pretty helpful stuff there (well, I think) and a lot of pictures from around the island.

So here I am in Shangri-La. Or am I? I don't know. A few things first. In Chinese, the pinyin would be "Xiang ge li la," and this name is applied on buses headed for ZhongDian. I spent a total of ten minutes there, long enough to relieve myself and buy a bus ticket on to Deqin, which others consider more Shangri-La than the official Shangri-La, if the place even exists at all.

I took a night bus from Kunming to ZhongDian, the only mishap being a blown tire about two hours in. After a half-hour spent fixing it we were off again and arrived in ZhongDian about 8. For some reason I decided on the spot to hop on the first bus to Deqin. This meant 6 more hours on a winding mountain road with scenery as stunning as one might expect for a region so close to the Tibetan border. If you look at a map now, in fact, you will see that I am quite close to Tibet, Myanmar, and the border of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. I am near the Mekong River and am surrounded by mountains reaching well above 15,000 feet.

Arriving in Deqin, I was persuaded by a tour guide from LiJiang who is accompanying a German couple on their travels, that I should go just a bit further, to a viewing area for Snow Mountain which is about 10 KM from Deqin. After looking over a huge billboard at the bus station featuring the mutilated heads and bodies of people who have died in car crashes I hopped on the last bus of the day. I took a bed for 20 RMB and then strolled around, wondering why I had come to this place as I did not know much of anything about it. Snow Mountain, though (and I may not be quite right on the name of it as I don't have the Chinese handy, but I think this is right) [seems to be "Meili Snow Mountain"--ed.] is a major tourist site in the area, and a bit of a sacred place. Apparently Tibetans will make pilgrimages, walking around the base of the mountain, taking a few weeks to finish the route.

Due to clouds, though, the mountain's peak was not visible and so we were left to imagine what lay behind the clouds. We did see the glacier that spills down from the mountain and which, I think, is the lowest glacier in either the world or in China, one or the other. I am just a fountain of information today, huh?

I walked to a small monastery nearby and then spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening in a nice, if overpriced cafe/restaurant next to my hotel. They played good music, though, and I needed the coffee after the bus rides so I could not complain. Also, the Germans came by later and we ate a hot pot together and with the wind blowing and the temperatures now high, this hit the spot.

Back in the hotel, in this hotel which was not much to look at and is in the middle of nowhere, I took advantage of wireless internet for the second or third time in China.

Today, this morning, back to Deqin. Then a walk through town, along the busy streets crowded with Tibetans and monks pestering people for money (one stood over me while I was eating this afternoon for a good five minutes muttering prayers or words cursing my existence. I had already given money to a few of them though, and I'm sorry, but when I'm eating and reading, please, leave me alone).

Then I came to the market and took some pictures that children under 13, vegetarians, and anyone who loves animals will not enjoy. Huge slabs of meat with the hairy tail still attached (donkey, maybe, or yak?). Pigs' heads...very surreal those. A man slicing open a sheep. A cow's head lying on the ground, stripped to the skull, with glassy eyes looking up. Etc.

I started walking out of town then, back towards Snow Mountain. The mountains tower above, across a valley through which runs a narrow river. A few small towns as well, the roofs orange from the drying corn. Because it is fall, the trees are changing color, and this is the brilliance of the scene (yesterday on the bus ride here as well), with huge swaths of yellow and gold, with blood red highlights, spilling down in arrow shapes, towards the stripped brown red of the base of the mountains. It is a bit like when the aspens change in Colorado. Mountain goats and oxen share the road and the hillside, and cow bells clink and clank and sound a bit like an out of tune Christmas carol. Smoke coming from the valley and gun shots echoing across the tops of the mountains. Tibetan men and women collecting branches with leaves that have already changed, and leaves fluttering down across the road. A woman, 5 feet tall if she were straightened, hunched over a cane smiling an empty-toothed grin as she hobbles by. A stretch of brown terraced field running down and through a small vilage. Prayer flags fluttering against a golden backdrop. The clouds not high above, thick and then breaking, a patch of blue light and a beam of sun enlivening the slopes, bringing the colors to life. It is beautiful here, of that there is no doubt.

I will admit to being in a bad mood at the moment, and before I explain why, I will accept responsibility, as one should always ask prices first. I walked for a good six hours without eating and so returning into town I went straight to a restaurant. I ordered a stir fry of cucumber, tomato and pork. She brought the plate, an average size, and a bowl of rice. After eating I asked for the bill. 17RMB. 17RMB? My mouth dropped and I am sure I spit those words out. You've got to be kidding me, I said. I argued with her for about 5 minutes and in the end paid it because I should have asked the price first (had she quoted me that much I would have laughed in her face and walked out). She was trying to say that things are more expensive here because Deqin is so far from everything. Fair enough. Water costs 2 RMB instead of 1 or 1.5. I can deal with that.

And maybe, just maybe, she was not trying to take advantage of me. And perhaps I sound like a real ass complaing about paying 2.50 USD for a meal. To put this into perspective though:

In Guizhou, the exact same meal, with the same ingredients and the same smoky flavor would cost 6 RMB, with the rice free (and a bowl of soup for good measure). In Kunming it would have been between 5-7 RMB based on the places I ate there. This means I paid 2.5 to 3 times what I would pay in those places. I think it would be a bit like going to Montana and being charged 3 USD for a cheeseburger at McDonalds, you know, because Montana is kind of not to close to things.

Sorry for the complaint, but I hate being taken advantage of, and I hate being to blame for it even worse. So if you are coming to Deqin and you are used to very cheap food, ask the price first!

Otherwise, enjoy life in Shangri-La.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Juiced

Chinese visa in hand, Myanmar visa not. That is okay, though, as I will have to come back through Kunming in a few weeks time. I will take care of it then.

Tonight I am off to ZhongDian, on a night bus for the first time since the days in Xinjiang. It should be 12-16 hours, and in the morning I will be in one of the places tagged as Shangri-La, or at least the regions. I suspect it will be cold and perhaps I might be seeing snow again for the first time in ages, being back up in the mountains. I must say a thank you to whoever left the jacket in my dorm room in Kunming. I will put it to good use.

A few things on Kunming. I went to the Stone Forest yesterday. It is hyped by people here as a natural wonder of the world, with karst stones jutting up out of the ground over a 10 KM area (hence then Stone Forest moniker). To be honest, while the landscaping is nice, with deep green grass and flowers dotting the main parts of the attraction, I found it in general not worth the 16 RMB to get out there (and almost 2 hours as I was taking public busses), the 80 RMB entrance fee, or the 20 RMB ticket back on a mini-bus. I spent most of the time pestering people from the Yi minority for pictures, with limited success, although a few consented and one of them, a woman at the bus station was downright the most wonderful grandmotherly woman I have met since, well, my grandmas. We talked until my bus left, she in a soft soothing voice with a smile that never left her face.

The other positive of the trip, such as it was, was driving into the countryside. It wasn't as nice as that in Guizhou, but there were a few highlights. Sun breaking through a foggy haze hanging over a lake and some wet fields. A town where almost all the houses looked like yellow cake icing had been applied by careless children to the roofs, except that there were endless strings of yellow/orange corn on the cob hanging and drying (also giving a bit of impression of houses cum banana trees).

Nearing Kunming, there are also several highways being constructed at once, and it is something seeing them, incomplete, bobbing and weaving and dancing around one another, with tall bamboo scaffoldings thick and complex growing from the ground.

Other than that, I haven't done much. Ive seen the nice clean downtown area. I spent some time walking around the east part of the city, where endless identical apartment buildings tower above narrow market streets crowded with children returning from school and women and men and elderly who look far removed from the downtown area two miles away. I've spent most of my time writing as, in the words of the great Hemingway, I have been juiced for the last few days. Every spare moment, really, has been spent scrawling lines in notebooks or sitting at the laptop untangling previous scribblings. Whether or not any of these are any good is unknown, but I am writing, and doing a lot of it, and I can only hope this doesn't go away.

In the meantime, don't expect so much coming up here.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Visa stress

First I have to confess I don't really want to write this right now, and for the last few days the idea of writing at all, except on a fiction thing has been anathema (am I using this word right here?). [Mmmhmm.--ed.] So, there aren't going to be many details of things here, which is a shame as the Sunday market in Kaili, which spread throughout the old town, and included a mahjong tournament and people blowing horns and many minorties from the area left me feeling just like a cameraman dropped onto a movie set where thousands of extras and workers are milling around getting things ready amidst the architecture, the smells, the faces, and the Chinese-ness of it. Kaili on Sunday morning and afternoon is one hectic place. Horns blaring from 6 AM, and fruit vendors, veggie vendors, clothes vendors, people selling sharp, rusty farm implements, selling Maxell cassette tapes and ghetto blasters, old washing machines (starting price 200 RMB, without bargaining) and refrigerators (350RMB) and other old things. It was a bit like walking through a garage sale in 1985 Middle America, but multiplied to include not just a family or a neighborhood but a whole town.

From Kaili I took a train to Kunming, arriving yesterday morning. Yesterday I shamelessly accosted a few foreigners so I could speak English for the first time in a week, not counting conversations with Natalia. I had planned to arrange for my Myanmar visa yesterday, but it was a holiday in Myanmar so they were not working. Then I called to find out that for Chinese visas I had to prove I have enough cash to last me another month in China, at a rate of 100 USD per day, which I have neither in travelers checks or cash in total. This meant wondering if showing them my bank card would suffice, or, as I ended up doing, calling my mom at 6 in the morning to ask her to fax me a recent bank statement showing what I have.

The rest of the day yesterday, walking through the Flower and Bird Market (nice neighborhood in Kunming, old buildings wooden and rounding with the corner, all two stories or less) and up to Cuihu Park was not all enjoyable as I was fretting about what lies ahead this week (memories of Beijing visa hassle fresh in mind - and a side note, why is it that every city in China has different requirements for renewals?). On the way back to the hostel, where I wanted to get the fax number before calling mom, I did walk through one other street near the market which I found interesting. All the shops sold red lanterns or signs, which meant huge clusters of lanterns hanging from the entrance ways, and also bathroom signs and hotel room number signs and huge chinese characters meant to be placed on buildings, etc. Because it was late afternoon and there was (for the first time since I can remember) a blue sky and sun and a few lazy floating clouds, the colors of the signs and the lanterns burst forth from the shops.

Then it was through a more upscale shopping district in the middle of the city, past modern skyscrapers and back to the hostel.

After doing all the stuff I needed to do, I did laundry and worked on pictures. Fun. Meanwhile, talking to the people sharing my room, a guy from Holland on his way to teaching in Yangshuo (this trip has taken him through Yemen, Pakistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Pakistan before China) and a woman from Laos living in Bangkok who I just could not figure out. The obvious thought, and many other guys who encountered her had this first thought as well...prostitute. But on holiday? Would a pimp let a girl go travel to China on her own? I don't know. She said she worked at a beauty shop in Bangkok, so take from that what you will. More on her in a moment.

Then in the hallway I saw a guy who looked very familiar. He works in Taiwan for the same company I worked for and I realized I've seen him around his school and at meetings several times. He had met another girl living in Taiwan earlier in the day and the three of us went out for dinner...discussing differences between the places and the peoples, and about other travel experiences.

This morning started with a bit of a surprise..well, last night ended with and then this morning began with...the girl from Laos sleeping all but naked. I was woken up this morning as she was packing her things before her bus ride to Dali. She was walking around in her bra and a G-string. One of the more interesting wake-up calls I have had.

Then I headed out to the PSB in Kunming to check on the visa stuff..would my bank statement be enough? A young guy, very handsome, good command of English was sitting at the visa desk. There was one couple sitting with him and then me. It was a well-lit office in a little garden park, and compared to Beijing it was about as similar as two things that are near polar opposites. I explained to the guy my situation and he said everything would be fine, in a very reassuring voice. I asked how long it would take. Three days. So if I drop it off Wed, it will be ready Fri? Sure. Really? Yes. Now, if I drop it off Thur, go away for a week and then come back to pick it up (my original plan, for those who have been following)...no. Ahh...so...a change! Quick calculations and here we go:

So today I left my passport to have the visa renewed for China. This means I lose a few days on this current visa, and that I will have to leave China by the 18th of November, but it fits the timeline for what I still want to see... So now, I pick that up on Thursday afternoon, run back to my hotel, where the Myanmar consulate is, apply for a rush visa, and head off to Zhongdian either Thur night or Fri. This means instead of going near Laos first, and then back to Kunming for passport and then north, I will just head north straight away, to the mythical (or is it?) Shangri La region near Tibet, and then work my way back down south, crossing into Myanmar near the 18th of November. What this means, though is that I will have almost no time to spend in Malaysia and I'm not really sure what will come about in December. We can worry about that later.

So...this is the plan, until Thursday. Let's wait and see how it gets shattered this time, shall we?

Head in the clouds

[Busy busy week, so minimal linking will be provided. Sorry for the inconvenience.--ed.] [By the way, saw The Decemberists last night at St. Louis's venerable Mississippi Nights. Excellent set. Check them out. Praise the Infanta!--ed.]

That's where I was today, up in the clouds, on a dirt and gravel sort of road in the mountains above the Miao village of Xijiang. The clouds were think and foggy and a light drizzle fell. Most of the sounds were nature based. Crickets and water. An occasional loud and sudden rustling in the brush beside the road as a bird or some four legged creature took flight. Sometimes there was no sound at all but for the drizzle falling on my umbrella and a stream running somewhere far away.

It was cold, very cold after the heat in Yangshuo and Sanjiang and Congjiang. With my shoes soaked and a sweat I knew would become cold on my back as soon as I stopped walking, I pushed on, and then back. The scenery, as is the norm in this area, stunning. The fields in the valley below again segmented with graceful curves, raised and terraced as the mountains begin their rise. Yellow and green but dim in the grayness, singular small stalks rising from muddy water. And dots on the landscape, people, women wearing bright pink tops.

The comment I have heard over and over again the last few days: Wow, how tall! The people here are short. Some of them are little more than half my height. No wonder, and I think I've mentioned this before, watching them walk under the loads they bear. These people work hard.

From my perspective as one who is coming and going, there is something wonderful in watching them go to the fields, and then return with huge buckets bending the stick over their shoulder, weighed down with grass stalks. There is something special and basic about seeing a group of women hunched over in the field as 20-30 foot high stacks of dried grass rise above them, all around. Looking out at the fields with these rising is a bit like looking out over Prague from up on the hills near the castle, out over all the church spires rising above the skyline. I was told these stacks, which also resemble an unwrapped Tootsie roll cut in half and stood up by the middle part, are collected and later will be used to feed the pigs.

I stayed in Xijiang last night (not to be confused with the more famous Xijiang that is in Yunnan Province and is famed as one of the possible locations of Shangri-La). [Oops. Hope I didn't mistakenly link to that one in previous posts!--ed.] The town is composed almost in whole of the wooden houses I have been writing about so much of late. There are two portions of the town, or rather two main bunching of these houses, each spilling down hillsides and looking, with the black rooftops jumbling together, not unlike a large box of tinker toys has been tipped over, with some of the toys still in the box. There is one main road running through the town, a wide cobblestone road lined by shops in rectangular two story wood buildings. Shops selling seeds or clothes, or tourist goods, Miao-made silvers and batik patterned hangings. Also Miao fashions. I even saw a Chiang Mai shirt in one of the shops. There is a basketball court next to the road and even in the rain there were always at least a few kids shooting around.

I stayed in one of the jumbled houses, getting to it by walking on a narrow cement path cutting between the houses, and up stairs that lead up the hill. Water running down a narrow gutter past the houses. Chickens walking loose, as always. The house I stayed in is, I think, properly called a long house. I stayed in a room near the front entrance. The door from my room led into another room, this one with a few couches and a counter with water and glasses. This led, without a partition, into the family room, which had two wood couches, a coffee table, two wooden seats, and a TV. This led, without partition, into the dining area, which had a table, and some low wooden stools. This led into a room which I guess is a bit of a storage area. There was a bedroom partitioned off to the left, and in the far right hand corner, a wooden ladder leading up to something above. This morning there was a big wide basket full of red peppers and two others with things that I can't name. At last is the kitchen, with two sinks (in one of which were swimming fish to be eaten later), and a stove with a huge wok. All the light was provided by a single exposed bulb in the middle of each room (not counting, of course, the TV).

It was interesting, going to bed at 10 last night, hearing the front door squeak in a murderous way as it was opened by someone going to the bathroom. Below me a pig snuffling and snoring. Waking in the morning to cocks crowing all over the village. Going to the bathroom in a WC built into the area under the house, the empty space created by the high wooden supports. There was a screened window meaning that as the hosts went to feed the pigs they could with ease peek down and see me squatting there, or hear my gassy explosions, caused by the spicy and much fried meal we enjoyed last night.It is strange squatting over a toilet while listening to a huge pig slopping around on the other side of the wall.

Now I am in Kaili, with more plans laid to waste by unexpected turns of fortune. There was a bus scheduled to go straight from Xijiang to Kaili at 2. I was sitting on the bus reading my book and waiting to go when another guy came on the bus and said, nope, sorry, this bus isn't going to go because no one is on it. What about me? I said. Sorry, not enough people. So, muttering curses not quite under my breath and more than a little peeved, I switched busses and then waited ten minutes past the time that one was supposed to start and returned to Leishan, which is the town I came to Xijiang from.

Now, why was I peeved this time? Well, because going back to Leishan meant three things, at least: 1. Having to by one more bus ticket (albeit only 8 RMB) 2. Adding an hour and a half of time to my travels, as it takes an hour-and-a-half to go from Xijiang straight to Kaili, and also an hour-and-a-half to go to Leishan. Meaning, instead of taking one one-and-a-half-hour trip, I make one and then 3. wait an extra half hour for the bus from Leishan to go to Kaili. SO what should have been 1.5 hours became four, and then as a result of all of this, 4. by the time I arrive in Kaili, the last bus to Chong'an Jiang, my last intended destination on this trip through villages has already gone.

So there goes that. I bought a train ticket on to Kunming instead, which will leave tomorrow night. This is what I had planned to do anyway, but I had hoped to sleep in Chong'an Jiang and hike there tomorrow before returning at night. I suppose I could still go there in the morning, a two-hour bus ride, and be back in time for my train, but I am thinking that four hours of bussing before a 15-hour train ride may not be what I need...esp. with a market day here tomorrow.

So now, on to Kunming, By Monday morning I will be there, and by the afternoon I will be applying for a visa to Myanmar. If all goes according to plan (which means I really have no idea what will happen) I should have that by Thursday, and then it will be time to apply for my second visa extension for China, which will be the official beginning of the last leg of my China tour, with one month spent in Yunnan. This is the plan. Anyone want to guess at what might go wrong with this?

Stay tuned.

Friday, October 14, 2005

On hospitality and misinformation

There is more misinformation flying around China than even there is coming from the White House. At least, though, here it just relates to bus tables and the possibilities of getting from place to place in a given day, or, in a more annoying fashion, visa issues. It is with this in mind, and tied into a "f'ing hospitality" theme that I recount today.

I started the morning with great plans to take a bus to a town called Xiao Huang, and then from there another bus to another town, from which I would walk about 18 KM through the country side and through some attractive looking villages before returning to CongJiang. Then I was, in the afternoon, going to visit another town called Xia Jiang before returning again to CongJiang for the night. Everything was ruined by 7 am.

First I was told at the bus station that the bus to Xiao Huang (of which there is only one in the morning, at 7) picked passengers up on the road across the bridge. I went across the bridge and was told by two other men I needed to go back across the bridge, and down to the left, where there would be another road by which the bus would pass. The problem is, there is only one road leading through the town and so, even now I have no clue where to get the bus to Xiao Huang. I have a feeling those two guys just didn't know what they were talking about.

So, back to the bus station and a slight change of plans. I would go to XiaJiang in the morning, and the return in the afternoon to go to the largest Dong village in the country, Shao Xing. I would spend the night there. I told the service girls at the hotel I would be back in the afternoon to get my bag, which I had packed and left in the room, up against the wall, as I have done in other hotels in these smaller towns. I would have put it behind the front desk, but I couldn't even get into the lobby as it was locked. Please remember this.

Off to XiaJiang, an hour or so away. An uneventful bus ride. XiaJiang is a nice town. A mix of Miao, Dong, and Han Chinese, plus one other minority group, whose name I forget. The architecture was a mix as well, with dark chocolate colored wooden houses and grey brick houses with rectangular balconies hanging over the road, and traditional ugly bathtile Chinese buildings which I seem to mention in just about every post.

There were more flies per square meter in Xia Jiang than I have seen in any other town in China. Perhaps because of the small market that was running when I arrived, or perhaps because of the wedding feast being prepared by 20 or 30 people sitting at a long wooden table, chopping red peppers and mushrooms and crushing herbs. Women were defeathering just-killed and boiled chickens by hand. There were stomachs and intestines lying around on the table, waiting to be cooked. The happy mood was physical and after taking some photos and chatting, they invited me to come back to eat.

I went out then to walk a bit more, up the hill side away from the river, past isolated wooden houses and through stillness. The heat, by 1100, was stifling. I returned to the town and sat in front of a run-down temple with statues worshipping the sun and another deity, which I am not sure of at the moment. In front of the temple was a massive tree that must have been several hundred years old and which provided shade for a large swath of land. While sitting there, a group of girls passed by, wearing traditional clothes, black outfits with pink and turqoise highlights which I mentioned yesterday. There hair, again, up and wrapped in a beautiful way, held in place by bright colored combs. Off I went to see if anyone would be willing to take a photo.

Then I was back to the second largest street in the village, which is not saying much. There was little action. Sleeping dogs, a woman sewing a booty, sitting on a low stool in front of her shop. A few old women. A few kids popped out of a doorway and I snapped their pictures. Then the mother invited me to eat with them, a large meal with several Dong dishes, mostly fish based, or spicy veggie mixes.

Three teachers from the middle school came as well and we ate and chatted and all was nice. I told them of my plans to go to Shao Xing (I told them early, so that I would be able to leave without causing offense at an appropriate time). We talked about sports and China and America and the war (and while I'm thinking about this, I forgot to mention the man I met in Guiling who was raving about Hugo Chavez--he is the president of Venezuela, right? [Right.--ed.] and how he has insulted Xiao Bushi many times on TV) The man of the house pulled out, appropriately, an oil can which contained Mi jiu, or alcohol made from rice grains. It was brutal, better used as something to move a car with, and after a few drinks I explained about my bai jiu day in Beijing and said I did not think I could finish it. This meant the 12-year-old boy was off running to the store next door for a box with 9 big bottles of beer.

We talked more as we ate. We were sitting on stools no more than a foot high, and as we ate the fish - small fish, which you pretty much just sucked the meat of as their little dead eyeballs peeked at you - we were expected just to spit the bones onto the cement floor. Light cut in through the windows above the broad wooden front door and as the bones piled, and the empty bottles, a wonderful motif was created, with a bright red-orange soup as the centerpiece.

It was a nice time, but having been told that there was a 3:30 bus and a 4:30 bus to Shao Xing, and not wanting to get drunk, I continued to give strong indications that I would like to leave. Each time another glass was poured and a parry was offered--one of the teachers was saying he was going back to Congjiang as well, at 4:30, which meant he could go with me. But I need to be there by 4:30, I explained. He then called a friend to buy a ticket for me in advance, but the friend said there were no buses to Shao Xing. But the ticket lady told me there is, I said. At 2:45, after more than 2 hours, I was able to extricate myself at last, feeling bad that perhaps the man of the house was feeling a loss of face, but wondering why they wouldn't just listen to me and understand that I wanted to get to Shao Xing.

Why was I in such a hurry, you might ask? That is a good question, and one I've been asking myself. I think it has something to do with the fact that I need to be in Kunming by Tuesday at the very latest because of visa issues and I still want to get to a few more minority areas in the meantime. By staying another night in Congjiang, because of the roads and bus links and such, I would lose a lot of time and I was not willing to do that in the name of getting drunk with my new friends. So there you go, my justification.

Anyway, I waited about 20 minutes by the road, three women near me talking and playing with a small baby the only life about really. There were a few people walking but it was all slow motion in the heat and with the beer and food in my belly. The bus came and I was happy to see I would able to get to Congjiang by 4.

Only to find out that there was no more bus to Shao Xing. I could go to another town first, but there might not be any more buses from there today, and there are no hotels either, so the best would be to go in the morning...but that was exactly why I had left those people behind in Xia Jiang. I formulated a new plan. Forget about Shao Xing. I will go to Rong Jiang (alhough a lot of people here say Yong Jiang, so I'm not sure which is right) tonight, and then in the morning, after talking to Natalia (which was also a motivation for getting to a place tonight as we had arranged to talk tomorrow morning), go to Leishan and then to Xia Jiang or some other minority town around there.

Then there was the little matter of getting my bag, and then my deposit back. Getting the bag, no problem. Getting the deposit, well...I think I have mentioned before the way everybody stops what nothing they are doing to watch when two people have an argument in the street, and today I was in the middle of one of those small crowds, watching from in front of the hotel (the door is like a garage door, and so the front is exposed to the street). The lady was upset because I was leaving well after the 12:00 checkout time which was not posted anywhere. I explained to her that I told the cleaning girls in the morning that I would be back in the afternoon to get my things which I had already packed and set aside so someone else could use the room. The cleaning girl told you that checkout is 12, the woman said. No, she didn't, I said. Yes, she did. You must not have understood. Now, I think if I had said, yes, I did not understand, things might not have become so heated, but I was just not in a happy mood about this woman trying to take 50 RMB from me and I said...no, she did not tell me that. I would be able to understand her if she did. Then I said, look, this is huai dong xi (scoundrel like bad stuff). You want my money, fine, give me 30 RMB and piss off. After going next door to buy some water, I thought why the hell am I even giving her any extra money. Yes, check out is usually 12, but no one ever said that and I've been in other hotels where what I did today was no problem and if they had had another guest, all they would have had to do was move my stuff because I did tell the girls I was leaving. And besides, as I mentioned earlier, there was no one at the desk in the morning even if I wanted to store my stuff.

I went back to the hotel and in a cooler voice explained that I thought she should give me the other 20 RMB for just this reason and at first I thought she was cooler also. She walked to the desk, but then she flew off the handle and this is when everyone started watching. She pretty much threw the 20 RMB at me and I think told me to piss off and not bother coming back. Well, no problem. I know I could get a cheaper and much quieter room at a different place if I come back...so, I am not sure of the name of the place but it is the hotel that has an English name (the only one) and that is across from the bus station. The guy there was super helpful, and for this I recommend it...the woman, though...that turned me off the place just a bit.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Backtracking

On day two of my long journey from Guilin to Kunming, I find another internet cafe. This time I am in a town called Congjiang. Another town along a river side (jiang, by the way, means river). On one side of the river, and on one side of the bridge, there is, beyond the rocky bank of the shallow water, a strip of soft looking green grass running into a short hill which has been sectioned into several small squares and rectangles for crops. Beyond the crops, a cluster of dark brown wooden houses. Beyond the wooden houses, and on the other side of the bridge and the other side of the river, the 5-7 story traditional ugly bathroom tile buildings that are found all through China and Taiwan. This is pretty much another one road town, or really two, since there are buildings on both sides of the river. There are also mountains beyond the buildings on both sides.

The drive from Sanjiang was another exercise in patience and pain. Dust clouds and white puffs of gravel smoke again accompanied the drive, making opening the window an ill-advised choice. As the crowds of people ebbed and flowed (at times with at least ten people standing, and each of them with poles and pails and buckets and shopping in burlap sacks. More ducks, and chickens, and thankfully the driver deemed it, at last, too full to accomodate a man and his two pigs). It was a sweaty ride, and at 5 hours with no bathroom breaks, almost devastating. Of interest, though, were the minority women coming on and off the bus, Dong women, mostly, with black clothes highlighted by bright pink and turquoise stitching, their hair pulled up in intricate wraps. There faces, despite an occasional beatific smile, betrayed the daily hardships of their lives, and watching them struggle under the weight of heavy pails accross their backs, or lugging children around, it is no wonder that so many of them, already short, are hunched over as well.

Arriving in Congjiang, I booked a room for 50 RMB at a hotel across from the bus station. A bit pricier than yesterday, but a nice room. Again, the room has a bathroom, with a squat toilet, and as I showered after another long long walk today, I contemplated having a squat toilet in the same place as where you shower. On the one hand, it makes it easy and guilt free to pee while you shower. On the other hand, and which almost happened to me, there is a fear that the soap will drop and fall into the hole. I guess everything has an up and a downside.

As I said, I walked a lot today, about 18 KM I would guess, the first half up a mountain, the second half back down. More stunning scenery--terraced hills more beautiful than those yesterday, although the land seems a bit more parched. Taller mountains than yesterday as well. Today I had a chance to get onto some paths leading into the fields, and in doing so encountered some members of the Miao minority. I encountered more later, in a string of villages which are a tourist site of sorts, but which seems not yet to have caught one. [So, Miao is another term for Hmong (well, with a few qualifications, as the Wiki article points out). Interesting how this info connects with our travels in Laos.--ed.]

I will try to keep this short. First, most of the people wanted money for their pictures. I just have to throw that in there. A lot of children ran away from me, laughing. Other people just stared. Not a friendly stare, or an unfriendly stare. Just a stare. I entered the string of villages, all under the basic name of ba shao (I think), but each with its own name, on a dirt path before I had arrived at the spot on the main road which announces it as a special cultural location (meaning, that for an hour as I wandered the fields and watched women roll long swaths of black fabric against a ridiculous backdrop of curving and swooping yellow and green terraced fields and mountains, that I was unaware I was in a tourist destination. It was only when I came off the dirt paths and saw a sign in English pointing to a house where a 100 year old person lives did I realize where I was. This is beside the point, though).

Strolling through the village I felt like a stranger. Of course, in traveling to a foreign country, one is always going to be a stranger of sorts, but there are times when you enter a place so different from that which you are used to, and in which people stare at you because of those differences, that you really feel what it is to be a stranger in a strange land. Wooden houses spilling down the hillside, satellite dishes the only thing hinting at modernity. The women with black skirts rolled up to reveal deep brown, almost black almost gold legs, hardened by work in the fields. The black skirts complemented with black - what would you call this - like a sash across the chest, and a bright pink or yellow or other vivid color shirt underneath. Faces weather beaten or still fresh. Young children with requisite dirty faces. Young girls in black and pink doing homework while laughing and joking. Cows in the fields, chickens everywhere. Dogs, all white and identical, lazy and everywhere. Fat, pot bellied pigs, teats almost dragging on the ground. Hammers sounding. The smell of fresh cut wood (what a wonderful smell...I have not mentioned yet the abundance of pine trees in the area, which makes for a wonderful counterpoint to the bright yellow and green of the fields). Smoke.

After wondering through this village, I came to the main road and saw where I was. I walked across the road to another village, this one with more new houses going up, though not many. This means a stronger smell of wood. Standing high above the main, stone paved path running through the village, twenty-thirty foot high what would have to be called racks made of long thick logs on which the villagers hang glutinous rice to be dried. More bright clothes hangin from windows, drying. The legs on which the houses stand rising different heights to ensure a level house, providing shelter for snorting snuffling hogs. It was here that I felt a stranger again as a group of young girls ran at the sight of me, and then back, and then ran away again, all playfully. And I stood and watched them, checked out their math homeworks and such, and spoke their own dialect which left me totally in the dark, feeling exposed as the true outsider that I am.

Then a bit of a comical occurrence, after leaving that village. I came across two separate groups of students on the same field trip, from Liuzhou in Guangxi Province. They are on a field trip to get introduced to minority cultures, and in each case, when running into their groups, I had to pose for several photos. I was the attraction. Odd.

A bit more on the Miao. The men have wicked hair styles... shaved on the sides and back, the top grows long and then is wrapped into something like a cinnamon roll on the top, with the end hanging free like a pony tail on the top of the head. They wear black collarless shirts and loose pants and carry daggers. They live, when not being tourist sights, much as they have for the last 2000 years.

A few final things from the last two days, things I did not mention before. In Guilin, at night, watching the sunset over one of the rivers - sounds of a lone swimmer. A motor. Low voices on the water. A dog barking on the opposite shore. Scattered neon lights, isolated, casting long reflections in the water. A motorboat rushing, cutting through. And then, without warning, the bridge lighting blue neon, and the cluster of buildings near the bridge lighting as well. A low haze, still, to the right, where few lights disturbed the southeast Asian smoky hazy river ambience. This repeated in Sanjiang, but without all the neon, and the haze so much thicker. I did not know if it was a low fog like the kind you see in the mornings rising along River Road on the way to airport in Cincinnati or if it was dust settling, kicked up from the roads over the course of the day. With the low hills rising and falling into each other above the river banks, though, and with the orange red almost gone light of the sun, it was a scene like the photos you see of the Smoky Mountains sometime, except that here was a river and the mountains were not so high and it was Asia after all so the sounds were much more chaotic and in the end to compare the picture in from of my eyes at that moment to the Smoky Mountains may not have been the best idea.

So, with the help of my hotel's lao ban, I have a bit of a rough itinerary for the next two days, one which will require more bussing, more walking, and another night in Congjiang. This means I will probably be back at the keyboard tomorrow night to recount more encounters with some of China's minorities and the nature of the countryside. [I went looking for a link for "lao ban"--roughly translated, "old leader" or "respected boss"--but discovered an article on the Plain of Jars near Phonsavan. It's a good read...the cave referred to near Ban Ang was used during the Secret War as a munitions site.--ed.]

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

How long can it last?

How long can it last? This is a question that came up a few times today, in very different contexts. The first, and the not so fun context came with the bus ride from Guilin to the mystery destination that was Sanjiang. I had heard the roads were not so great, and for the first two-and-a-half hours I was pleased to find this report inaccurate. Then we passed the new tourist hotspot in the region, Longsheng, and after that it was like being in Sichuan all over again. Bumping this way and that. Head banging the back of the seat. Horns honking and dust clouds flying. On the bus today, there was a basket full of puppies and a goose that did not like the bumps at all, at each one honking its displeasure. There was also another peeing baby and a breast feeding mother.

At times the road was covered with a good two inches of a very find sand/dust mixture and with cars in front of us, visibility was reduced to inches. But to the sides, the view was clear, dust wafting down towards streams and rivers and gentle mountains. Fields and green and just plain nice countryside.

How long can this last? The question came the second time we had to stop for an extended period of time. The first was for a couple of bulldozers working at building a better road by clearing away stacks and stacks of rock. The second was a more serious situation. A truck had run over a motorbike. In fact, the back tire of the bike was still under the wheel of the truck when I saw it. There was a large puddle spreading from the bike, but I think it was oil and not blood as there were no corpses there and the men standing around and watching things unfold did not seem too bothered.

The big problem here was that a bus had been coming the other way (I'm guessing) when the accident occurred, and because the road is so narrow it had almost no room to pass. This is where we came in, with the bus's left front tire already in about three feet of rock and sand, and its right side, just behind the driver's side window, less than a foot away from the mirror of the truck. And somehow, somehow, after lots of inching back and forth, the bus made it by. This was a work of serious talent. I really don't think a westerner could have pulled this off (because we would not have been in the situation), but that man deserved a driving award. Unfortunately, though, while we watched him work his magic, a jackass on our side of the road, another bus driver, got impatient and pulled up until he was next to the truck and in front of the bus. Then we had to wait for him to reverse all the way back to the end of the line so that the first bus could pass all the way through. All told we must have been stuck for an hour.

I left Guilin at about 7:45 this morning and arrived at Sanjiang at about 2. I then found a room--30 RMB for a huge, I mean huge, room with 2 double beds, my own bathroom (squat toilet, but who's counting) and a desk under a wall-sized window. I then went and ate a nice stir fry with rice for 6 RMB and then headed out to see things.

Sanjiang itself is not so nice, although it is different in many ways from anywhere I've been here. It occupies two sides of a river. It is crowded and busy and there is a sense that everything here is happening a few minutes after it happens everywhere else in China. [Should feel like you're at home in Cincinnati.--ed.] I was not in the city long before I took a car out to the sight people on the bus told me I should go and see, the ChenYang bridge. The bridge is 20 km outside of town, and as we were driving, I kept thinking to myself--OK, on the way back I will get off the bus here and walk the rest of the way. No, here. No, I need to start walking here...etc. In the end, we got to the bridge and I saw that it cost 30 RMB and I decided hell, I'm not paying 30 RMB to walk on a bridge, no matter how old it is or whoever made it (this one is made with Dong minorty architecture, I think) so why not just walk until it gets dark. And that's what I did.

Now, I need to try to relate this so that I don't ramble all over the place. In order to do that, I am going to mention now that at the bridge, there were vendors and such but they were not in any way pushy. Also, there were a few guesthouses on the opposite side of the river, one of them the Dong Guesthouse, I think. It seemed like it would be a wonderful and peaceful place to stay. While there, I saw two foreigners and asked one of them where he had come from (meaning other villages or Guilin or Kaili) and he said he and his friend had been hiking in the mountains and on the roads for about 3 days. He works for a tour agency in England and he is mapping our potential tour routes for the future. He said the owner of the guesthouse had several suggested hikes already mapped out and he thought that it might cost about 20 RMB for a room. Nice, I said. Then I started walking and thinking.

The scenery is stunning. The road leading to the bridge is paved and narrow and sometimes small buses pass, and tractors, and men or women pushing wagons or walking back from the fields. Everyone smiles and waves and says hello. Everyone is willing to be photographed. The landscape is...I said stunning already and I am trying to think of a word now that might mean that something is beautiful enough to make you want to cry with happiness or with the sense of well-being and peace that washes over you just from passing through it.

The green fields are terraced and curve around mountains. Except that they are not just green. In the sunlight they are chameleons, red, gold, orange, yellow. Waterwheels line the river, turning slow slow water up and down with slight splashes and creaks. Dragonflies rest on pink flowers. Villages bend with the river and with the fields. The houses are built of dark brown wood and look as fragile as my grandfather did a few months ago when he was still in the rehab center. There are slabs of empty space where the boards do not meet, and the houses are elevated, built on pillars. The interesting thing, though, is that around the pillars are fences and the area under the house is used, I guess as some sort of storage area for goods or animals. The roads in the villages are not roads but paths, because none of them could ever afford a car. The children shout hello and run after you. The women working in the fields rise and say hello, whether they are in the shimmering, changing green, or in the dark blue green of tea or fruit fields that cover other mountain sides. Old men passing wave. They welcome you. They invite you.

And now to bring this together. My descriptions will not do it justice, and this is why now is a good time to say come and see this place before it is no longer the same. How long can it last? The guesthouses back by the bridge. The men planning future tour routes. The authentic village life. It is happening already, but it is still pretty hard to get here. But a year from now, or two. "Yangshuo junior" would be my prediction. In some village on the river, all the wooden houses will be renovated and turned into guesthouses, and bars will be put in. Trips into authentic minority villages in the countryside and lazy rides down the river. And how long before the people change along with it? Maybe this won't come to pass, but believe me...the difference between the villages around Yangshuo, and the people there, with the people here - it is visceral.

This is one of the contradictions of travel: Coming to a place that is so beautiful you want to tell others to come see it, but at the same time, you fear changes similar to those outlined in the previous paragraph, even though it is possible those changes will bring more income to the people. With more income, though, will they be as happy? My brother sent me a great article about Bhutan the other day, and how they measure happiness there... [...as opposed to economic production. Since the NYTimes article will doubtless lapse soon, here's another site on the topic.--ed.] I wonder, is there some way to make a village area into a tourist area without destroying the soul, without removing the very thing that made people come in the first place? Anyway, you are left with this dichotomous way of thought - come, but don't ruin it! And that selfish piece of yourself thinks, don't come because I want this experience, the memory of this place to myself. [Perhaps you should start masking the town names and locations...I just finished reading "The Historian" and I understand that Kostova deliberately obscures the names and locations of some of the towns and villages she describes in order to prevent fans from flocking to them.--ed.]

And there is a second contradiction. This relates to solitary travel, and is especially relevant at a time in which my girlfriend just went to a beautiful wedding and perhaps both of us are thinking about the future, and having a hard time doing so when we can't look at each other and comfort ourselves with the physical presence, the smiles and hugs and reassurances that have helped to build what I hope is a relationship that can end in marriage. My lifestyle has taken me to some places, some sceneries that are beyond what I might have imagined seeing in my childhood. More than once, many times in fact, I have found the things I am looking at bring back memories of the National Geographic magazines my parents used to store in the basement and that my friend and I used to leaf through in search of naked African women. (And while I have yet to see a naked African woman, I do suspect that embedded memories of those magazine photos inform the photos I take now). Whether the sights be old cities of Europe or Asian landscapes, I can say that I have seen some amazing things, and almost always alone. Alone. A wonderful way to see things in many ways. It is yours and yours alone. There is no pressure to explain what you are seeing, or to try to put words to it, or to listen to someone else who might prefer verbal processing. It is yours.

But then, where is someone to share it? As you stand there alone in the face of beauty, you look around for the person to stand with in silence. To share the fact of your vision, and perhaps to have someone else affirm that what you are seeing is special. And with that affirmation, build upon whatever special thing it is that you already have. This goes beyond the cliches of romantic kisses and held hands. This is something that I have long searched for answers to...what is it that drives me to travel alone, but then to pine at the most wonderful moments for someone to share it with--and this is most true now, with my misguided belief that I should make this trip on my own while my girlfriend works in Argentina.

So this is what I was thinking about while I strolled through some of the most simple and, in its simplicity, breathtaking, heartbreaking scenery in China. This is why I travel. To think and drive myself crazy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

An unexpected stop

So here I am at the internet at 11 a.m. on a beautiful hot day in Guilin, wasting away the daylight hours. And why? Because I seem to have picked up a bit of a stalker. Yea for me.

I left my hotel this morning and found a cheap little restaurant where I had some noodles with beef for 3 RMB. Then I went to the bus station to by my ticket for tomorrow, to a place called Sanjiang, about which I know nothing...not even if there is a hotel there.

Then I walked to one of the rivers in town, passing a shaded little area where there must have been 20 card games in action, with the average age of the players running somewhere around 60. I walked down to the riverside and watched as some women carrying baskets full of green vegetables took off their shoes and walked across the river, at a place where an elevated platform had been put in so that the water is only ankle deep. It looked nice, and I went by the water to take some pictures and to feel the water on my feet. Cool. I listened as a bamboo raft carrying people from across the other shore approached. A swoosh of water as the pole cut down. A click as it hit the bottom of the river. The silence as it was raised out and set back in to repeat.

I then walked across the river myself. Along the way, I heard someone approaching from behind and moved over a little to let the person pass. The person in question is a rather large girl of indeterminate age and questionable mental capabilities. She asked me where I am from and I said the usual. She asked me if America is nice. I said yes.

When I got to the other side, I spent some time putting my sandals on, noticing in my vision that the girl was standing there waiting. I took some pictures of the guy guiding an approaching raft. I chatted with him and still the girl was there. At last I walked up and straight away she started asking questions about if America might attack China or if Japan and China might go to war. I don't think so, I said. I hope not. Then she asked me again and again. Then she started going on about how she is going to America next year because George Bush is helping her go, or anyway that is my understanding of what she said. I told her over and over I don't understand. I walked faster. I walked slower. I changed my route. And still there she was chasing after, talking with an evermore breathless voice.

So then I got to where she was a good five yards behind me, and I went into an internet cafe thinking at least by the time I leave she will be gone and I will be able to see what the Bengals are doing.

And then, about 5 minutes later, here she comes, up the stairs. I turned away as soon as i saw her. She walked back out and then back in. Now, for the last half hour she has just been standing around waiting for me, at times coming up to see what I am writing. I have shooed her away like a fly, given her dirty looks and done about every possible get-the-hell-away-from-me type body language motion I can imagine. Now I have just asked one of the people working here to ask her to leave, and I don't see her. I imagine she will be waiting outside, and so perhaps I will have to use some of these bad words I have been learning. If this is not the occasion for it, I don't know what is.

Monday, October 10, 2005

A strange phenomenon

[Before we return to our intrepid (and today, somewhat indisposed) correspondent, I draw your attention to a recent article in the NY Times on Shanghai cuisine. Regular readers will recognize some of the locales Alan visited.--ed.] The phenomenon referred to is not my uncanny knack for ending up with keyboards whose space bars need to be punched or whose enter keys stick. Rather, it is a phenomenon which occurred today, and changed what was looking to be one of the worst days of my travel life into a phenomenal day.

I woke up with difficulty, as I have the last few days. Being the good student that I am, though, I rallied myself and got to the cafe next door where I have eaten overpriced western breakfasts the last few days (but I really like pineapple pancakes...Natalia can we start making those in Argentina?) while I study my 10 characters per day. Today I changed things up a bit, having a fruit salad with a Spanish omelet (in anticipation of next year's focus on Spanish) and a Yunnan coffee. [Or for a more independent introduction, try here.--ed.] By the time I was finished I was already feeling a bit qi guai, a bit strange.

Despite the growing pain in my stomach, I headed out, determined to see the town of Yangshuo in daylight, on foot. Soon, though, it felt as if several coils of barbed wire were squeezing my stomach and I was not sure if vomit was in my future, or perhaps a change of plans whereby I would not go to Guilin, but instead spend the day in the squat toilet of my hotel.

The pain grew, and so did the hazy tiredness that wouldn't let my brain go. I stopped at a pharmacy and explained I had a stomach ache...not la duzi (spicy stomach, or diarhea) but duzi teng...stomach hurt. I bought a little jar of pills (and I don't have it with me so I cant tell you what it is, but I don't think it is something you would find in a pharmacy in Cincinnati) and I proceeded to swallow the suggested 4-6 little brown pills that had just a hint of a minty flavor (that according to the label).

The pain stayed, and it was made worse by the fact that every single person I asked to photo either said no, or "give me money," or said no and then changed their mind and asked for money. But then I got one, an old lady who lowered her head just a bit and somewhere, amidst all the wrinkles, there seemed to be a flirtation. I think she was just expecting me to pay her, though. For the next few minutes, I felt a bit better.

More rejection followed as I walked through a market full of sleeping men behind tables covered with bloody slabs of meat, and old women selling fruit, and the requisite people offering rides, and the people just sitting and not seeming to serve much of any purpose. The pains came again.

Then another change of fortunes. I changed tactics. First I got a picture of a little boy, hoping that would get his grandma into the spirit of things. Failure. Then I started taking pictures of people who don't live here. A guy from Guilin. A girl from Henan. And then some pictures of people from Yangshuo hanging out by the river, and a couple street and river scenes that thrilled me. Then a couple more portraits of people as I walked back, as well as some landscapes. By the time I reached my hotel at 1:30, I was fine. My stomach problems forgotten. I was able to eat some bread and an apple without fear. Wonderful.

And so the question, was it the strange Chinese medicine, or perhaps did that little burst of photographic luck (and I'm going to give myself a bit of credit here for an uncharacteristic amount of perserverance in the face of rejection) release something that relaxed my tummy and cured me?

So, the score. I am now in Guilin. Tomorrow I will write again, and then after that it may be five or six days before you hear from me again. I am heading to several minority villages and I don't even know if most of them have hotels, let alone internet cafes. It is kind of exciting, the idea that I have no idea what to expect...

Yangshuo, and a complaint

Oh my bleeping bleep...I just wrote a whole heap load of stuff and then somehow deleted it on this crap keyboard and, so now I am going to have two complaints: This keyboard sucks. Also, I am getting sick and tired of seeing things in my inbox leading me to believe someone has left a comment on my blog only to find a spam message advertising some stupid company. Please leave my blog alone. Its bad enough I already had to change my email account because of you lifeless morons. [Apt description, since it's probably some automated script posting those comments. They really are annoying.--ed.]

Now, for Yangshuo, and what will no doubt be a much more abbreviated description than what I had just written.

I had heard of Yangshuo from a friend of my parents just before I left town. It was one of my favorite places, he said. We got there at night, and waking up was a truly stunning experience.

I arrived at night as well. Walking out the door of your hotel to discover that a bunch of giant penis- and cucumber-shaped karst peaks have been dropped in and around town is a bit of a shock. They are all over the surrounding countryside, and others look almost like mountains, except that perhaps they have been on Slimfast for a while and have lost a few pounds.

Yangshuo is a nice place. There is a lot to do. You can see caves and play in mud. You can float down one of the many rivers floating in a lazy way through the countryside. Or you can do what I've done the last two days and ride a bike.

The countryside is wonderful. With the karst pinnacles as a backdrop, golden and emerald green fields stretch out and shimmer in the breeze. Soothing. Waves rolling from bamboo boats, lapping at stone. Farmers just visible in the fields, hunch backed with wide round brimmed straw hats. Cows and bulls strolling in the roads, the dirt and stone strewn paths that lead from village to village. Bulls bathing in oily, fetid, mucous-thick water, water rolling off their backs.

Farmers with snakelike veins pushing out of their sticklike arms and legs. Thin men with copper, dark copper skin, all ribs and stomach muscles. Women with silver teeth, with babies on their backs, with white hair, with poles across their backs, loaded down with buckets on each end. Angelic children shouting hello, asking for money. (After being upset with this practice, I remembered the first sentence I taught myself in Chinese. Translated: "You are very beautiful. Please give me $10,000." These kids only asked for 5RMB.) Kids in classrooms with no front walls, open to the streets, and me the distraction with the camera. Old women with pale blue cataracts and drug glazed stares sitting on steps waiting.

The villages, with old houses, houses with gray brick. And other houses, too, maybe newer, with big orange bricks that make me think the guy from Fantastic Four was killed and dismembered and used in construction. Houses using wood with huge front rooms decorated with a few small wooden stools, a foot stool, a sewing machine, a TV, a poster of an angelic Mao. And dust.. Narrow dirt lanes with the eaves of the houses flying out over the path and out towards the towering pinnacle beyond. A pond and a pile of trash and flies buzzing around what must be excrement.

The towns on the main roads, the front buildings two story and tile faced. Cars and trucks fast, tractors spewing black death, bikes tinkering small silver bells. Men and women sitting in shade, sleeping on scooters or in wagons, waiting and waiting.

The vibe in these towns and villages is similar to that of the quiet fishing villages we visited in Penghu and I saw in Kinmen. A beach town vibe without the visitors, without the life. (Especially with 30 C temps, a breeze and a bright blue sky.) A lot of young children and old people, but most in between have gone on and it seems that not too far in the future it will all be gone. Except that here, there is building and roads are going in and yes, some villages will pass away, but others will find new life. The towns, the towns will stay and grow.

On my bike rides, a few scares. A bad fall after the edge of a path collapsed as I walked my bike between two fields. Only after I was lying on the ground five feet below the path, in a patch of lettuce, and after I checked to make sure my leg was not broken, did I realize the path was not wide enough for a man and his bike. Three separate meetings with dogs, escaped with nothing more serious than an elevated heartbeat. A thorn jabbed into my toe, between the toe and the nail.

But the sights make it worthwhile. It is beautiful here, with the rice and the karst and the green greeness of it all. Something is missing, though, and it is called soul. Too many people want to make money off of you, and because enough bikers go into the villages it has spread there as well. I do not begrudge people the chance to make money, and I know it is nice that these opportunities have entered their lives, but I suspect many of them have changed their ways and rely on the people coming through, many of whom do not wish to feel like they are not a visitor but a mark. In Yangshuo as well, on West Street, where it is advertised: Just put a store here! and the road is lined with bars and cafes with drink specials and Italian ice cream and pizza and burgers, and, of course, spaghetti bolognese. This place exists for the sole purpose of tourism, and while that is all fine and good, it does not do much in the way of leaving memories. In fact, I'm a bit confused with the landscape and the weather, and all the cafes and such - it is all so similar to Vang Vien in Laos [scroll to the bottom of the page for pix.--ed.], and it is only when I see that the cafes here are a bit nicer and they have live music instead of endless episodes of Friends that I remember where I'm at. [No, I'm not going to link to anything about Friends. I was annoyed with that in Wang Wien also.--ed.]

This soullessness also makes it much harder to get good portraits, as everyone wants something in return. Again, I don't begrudge them this, I just put my camera away and wait until I go into less touristed areas. But it was as I was returning to town this evening, with the light almost gone, that I passed a girl walking three cows and stopped in my tracks. I ran back to ask her to take a picture and she said yes. Beneath her wide round hat was a smooth face so unlike that of any of the farmers I had seen here. I walked with her to the field, chatting and finding out that she is not yet 17. We talked a bit more and she told me she was hoping to leave by January, because she is bored by life here. She hopes to find work in Guangdong - not yet 17 and one more small town farm girl off to the big city in China. Her story, her attitude were so unlike those of the older people I had encountered, and even of the few younger people I have talked to in town. Perhaps she will be lucky and get a job at a factory like the one I stayed at in ShunDe so long ago. Or maybe she will end up like one of the countless women I saw in Beijing, doing anything to collect plastic bottles. Let's hope for the former.

And while I am on this subject, I feel the need to address something that has been brought to my attention in regards to recent posts. I hope that I am not making it sound like Chinese women, all of them, are naive and at the mercy of western men on the prowl. This is not true. If this has come across, this is why: With the girls I have spoken to, and then with the western me I have spoken to living in China it becomes obvious that (and not unlike in Taiwan) westerners (men and women) tend to have a much different idea of what a relationship is and should be than Chinese do. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to paraphrase what a British friend said: I've come to the conclusion that you should never date a Chinese woman younger than 28. By then she is at least 25 in terms of maturity. 25 year olds are about 21 and anything younger is not better than 18. If they have not had at least one real relationship in the past, forget it. The point is perceptions and backgrounds mean a lot, especially when it comes to relationships. I had pretty much given up on dating Taiwanese girls when I was there, and it was only by my most wonderful fortune that Natalia changed my mind about that...but then again, she was raised in Argentina and so has a much different mind set then she probably would have being raised in Taiwan. The subject, then, should not be the relative naivete or lack there of in the women in China, but the mindsets of East and West, the way media and cultures and traditions influence the way we think about love and sex.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A trip home

That's what my last day and a half in Shanghai felt like, a trip home. I went to stay with a guy I knew in Taipei, who has been teaching in Shanghai for awhile now. He's a younger guy, trained to be a teacher, and he's for the moment pretty much ready to go wherever he can get a reasonable job (although now that he has been teaching young kids for a few years, he is hoping to find something more in line with his training, and I wish him luck with that--it can be hard with the kids sometimes). Anyway, Jon just moved into a new place last week, in a nice apartment in an old building in the French Concession. He is only paying a few hundred RMB a month for his place, which has a small but nice living room in front, and then a large bedroom in back, off of which is the bathroom on one side and the kitchen on the other. There is also a courtyard in back. As he put it, this kind of place should be a lot more expensive, but the person renting it had allowed it to become coated in dust and didn't realize how nice it could be. In his neighborhood, you can find buildings that might fetch upwards of 10,000 USD a month to rent, and apartments that might go for 5,000. It is a nice neighborhood, the streets all lined with trees and quiet (in a relative sense) and with plenty of things within walking distance.

As I mentioned in my last post, it was raining an awful lot in Shanghai, an effect, I think, from the recent typhoon in southern China and Taiwan. After arriving at his place, we watched a bit of TV and chatted, had a cup of coffee and so on. Then we headed out for a cafe that he was quite keen on, for some food. It was a very nice cafe, with wireless and good Western food, including a delicious sandwich on whole wheat bread. We chilled there for awhile, and then went back out. [Check out the link if you have a moment: Wonder Bread is going against its grain.--ed.]

After dropping things off at his place, we went walking, in search of a DVD market he knows about. The DVD market was full of, well, DVDs. New movies, old movies, television shows (all the CSIs, Lost, Law and Order, Simpsons, etc.) all for about 10-15 RMB a disc if it is coded for Asia and 20 RMB if coded for the West. I ended up not buying anything (I could say it was about conscience, and pirated stuff, but really it was about practicality, weight and cost as I was going to buy the first season of Lost and the last season of 24, but they were a bit big and 80 RMB per season). Jon picked up a bunch, though, and was wondering why he was when he still had so many at home he had not watched. I can understand, though, when none of these movies or shows will ever be shown here.

Then we went out again, now to a few markets. One was full of art, some of which was quite nice. The other, the big market, was famous for its cheap knock-off goods. Again, I hesitated to buy because I am just that way when thinking about buying things. I did end up with a pen. Jon is a very good bargainer, though, and I watched with great pleasure as he took things down from 180 RMB to about 30. He also beat me to the one things I might have gone for, a hooded zip-up jacket. The people in the market are not shy about coming up to you and offering "watches. No watch? How about DVD? I have sex DVD, too. Come, look look." They were more desperate than normal, perhaps, because of the rain and the small crowd making its way through the maze of narrow paths running between shops, and as Jon said, it was a perfect time to go.

As we were leaving, Jon gave Papa John's a call. Yes, Papa John's is in Shanghai now, and I was thrilled at the prospect of having a real pizza. [Papa John's is online, too. Perhaps they will want to consider a sponsorship deal with Alan, so I'm going to plug them: That garlic sauce, though decadent, is really tasty! Alan, we can discuss my percentage later.--ed.] Jon was on the phone for several minutes, and I could hear his voice rising above the din around me. When I asked him what was going on, he explained that because he had moved his old Papa John's did not deliver, so he had to call a new one, and even now he was not sure of if the pizza would come. He had given his phone number 5 times and his address about the same number and it seemed doubtful it would come.

On the way back, and by now we had been walking for about three or four hours, we picked up a few beers for just in case the pizza came, and then we settled in to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is bloody hilarious. After an episode, we called the pizza place again, and this time I talked to them. They said it would take an hour for the pizza to get there, and I said, OK. After hanging up, Jon, the super-bargainer said, you should have told them we won't pay full price. Right, he was, and so we called again. This time, I said we wanted it cheaper. They said they could give it to us for 97 RMB. They also said we would have to pay for the taxi to bring it to us. What? No. We are not paying for a taxi. We've already waited more than an hour, and you aren't giving it to us for free, and you want us to pay for a taxi. So the woman I was talking to kept going to her boss to figure things out, and this all on Jon's cell phone, so it was getting all the more expensive already. We are not going to pay for a taxi. Then it will be an hour and your pizza will probably be cold. Hang up. We need to change phones. Call back. Now, can I tell you something, I said, do you know that in America, if a pizza takes more than 40 minutes to deliver it is free? A few minutes to consult with her boss, come back. 97 RMB. Jon took the phone. Here is my address. We will pay 97 RMB. Bring it. Hang up. (English)

We hung up doubtful that the pizza would be coming. After two more episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Jon said he was going to take a shower as we were going to head out in 20 minutes. And then, as I was putting a Simpson's DVD on, the sound of what seemed to be knocking from the door. Hey Jon, I think someone is at your door? Think it could be the pizza. Holy...I can't believe they brought it. More than 2 hours after we first ordered it we are paying 12 dollars for a large supreme pizza. Well, it was worth it.

Note for Papa John: you may want to give your Chinese staff some training if you want the expat community to be happy, and the new Chinese customers need to be clearer on what to expect.

So then we headed out, after the pizza. First we went to a street lined with bars, many of which were magnets for hookers. A gin and tonic for the first time in months. Talking to Jon's expat friends, two of whom are working with law firms (one of whom is fluent in Chinese), and the other a teacher like Jon, but also involved with businesses in Canada and China. Learning a bit about the expat thing here, I learn that: there are some very attractive foreign girls living in Shanghai (not so many in Taipei). The bar scene is all right, but expensive in most places. Generally felt that Shanghai girls have more style than Beijing girls, but that they are not as pretty, and are quite keen to dip into your bank account. It is a pretty segmented thing, the expat scene, both from what I saw and what they said, and I think of things I have read about the Shanghai of the concession days, when there was very little interaction between Chinese and foreigners, unless it directly involved money or sex.

From this bar we went to a club called Mirror. Mirror is the exception in Shanghai. It is cheap to drink, about 10 RMB a beer. This is also why it is popular, especially with the younger crowd (I also ran into a few people who had been staying in my hostel the night before). The bar was also a dank, stinking, sweaty darkness slippery with spilled beer and loosened hormones. Morals forgotten. Cynicism, desperation, soul-seeking, and just plain want-to-fuck horniness joined in a bar as predictable as the conversations, the flirtations, the sloppy kisses, and the blank, saddened drunken eyes cutting in and out of visions and sound fields.

In Mirror, I danced a bit and watched a lot. I helped translate some conversation between guys and girls. I watched beautiful girls gear up to make mistakes. I talked to some other girls about why they wanted to have foreign boyfriends so badly. The answers were never clear, though. Usually involved English and the thought that they might be nicer than Chinese boys. Do you know a lot of foreign guys will just want to get you into bed for a night or two? I asked (these things were in Chinese, so sometimes I had to use hand gestures which was a bit embarrassing). Yes, I've heard that. But I am careful. And I sighed because these girls are so wonderfully and dangerously innocent. They are so naive and they are begging to be taken advantage of. (I should note, though, that as Jon mentioned, there are plenty who are not so naive, who know exactly what they want and if you don't have it adios). I guess it is all a game that has been going on for a very long time now.

This scene was contrasted in a nice way the following day, or was it two days later? Well, you see I had 28 hours on a train to Guilin, and once I got there, I said, oh, what the heck, what's another hour on a bus and headed down to the backpacker enclave at Yangshuo (home of all those crazy pinnacles sprouting up out of the ground like so many odd shaped penises and a whole lot of western oriented cafes and restaurants). Anyway, during that train ride, a mother and son (a very spoiled and obnoxious son, I might add, but that is but a digression) were playing cards and started laughing like crazy. They could not stop. And a little boy who was staying in the next set of beds over came over to look. He was resting his hands on the ladder and watching them unnoticed, and he started to smile and he looked like he wanted to join in with them so badly. He disappeared for a moment and then was back, secretly sharing in their happiness. Except that I saw him, so it was not so secret, and it was watching him be happy that gave me a little secret happiness which I am now sharing with you.

Today I rode around the countryside and came damn close to breaking my leg, but that story, and others, will have to wait for another day.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Shanghai

A brief discussion of Shanghai. I have always wanted to come here. Images fly into mind at the sound of the name (mostly R-rated images of people smoking opium and women and men of loose morals) and with the city having such a long and strange history, I knew I had to come. Of course, I also know that I am only going to be here for three days which is by no means a real visit, but hey, such is life.

I wrote a bit about what I saw on my first day in my last post, and am just going to add a few things now. The delineation between modern and old is, if anything, more defined in Shanghai then it is in Beijing. The modern buildings, being already up, often stun the eye. The TV tower, the (oh, I forget what hotel it is, but it is on Nanjing Lu and the building is all glass and metal and odd angles and grows wider as it goes up), a few of the skyscrapers on the Pudong side of the river. In Beijing, most of the new things, have not been finished yet and thus much of the new city is more an act of imagination and anticipation then it is visual.

There are also a sufficient number of modern buildings, cookie cutter 20-40 story glass buildings, or apartment blocks whose rounded balconies blur before the eye and make one dizzy to see what can happen if areas build up without being too concerned for appearance.

Then there is the old. There are some nice old buildings here, of course. All of the buildings along the Bund, the ones that went up after the British won the Opium War and a crazy amount of concessions from the Chinese government as a result. The Bund, wrapping along Zhonshan Lu, has long been ingrained in my mind, a place that I had to stroll along, and it lived up to what I had pictured.

Then you get into the old Chinese settlement, and here you see neglect. Buildings crumbling and falling apart. Many of them attractive in an evocative way, but as the lady I spoke to pointed out, in no way an enjoyable place to live. Piles of trash lining walls, and as my previous post mentioned rubble and destruction from torn down buildings. Walls pieced together from plank boards and metal sheets. Broken out windows. Sagging roofs. Perhaps the weight of what the Chinese gave up bearing down on these homes, and the pressure of modernization weighing down on these homes, their future uncertain.

Then there is the graceful and old. The French concession. Streets lined with two story buildings, gentle curves, and trees hanging over the road and pressing against the walls of the buildings. Fruit vendors and foot massages. A few DVD sellers and people walking to and fro. Residential, really. I think the best way to describe this area would be to say not too fast and not too slow. Not too new and not too run down. Just right.

When I talk about these things I must make clear that it is all based on observations made in one 6-hour walk. I am leaving out the clubs and bars noticed in the French are, near Fuxing Park. I am not mentioning that I did not go too far into the concession, only as far west as Ruijin Yi Lu (and here, it should be mentioned, were countless hip boutiques filled with shoppers, pretty girls and stylish guys wanting to be at the top of the game).I didn't make it out to the area where the diplomats and Consulates are located, and I did not make it all that far north either.

A last mention: the Bund at night. All the old buildings on Zhongshan lit up and looking classy and wise. And out across the river, out to Pudong. Dawn coming at 9:30 PM, that is the impression. The sky aglow, the clouds drifting across the light cast off by the TV tower and the various buildings. To the east an orange-red glow rising from a massive neon light. All the lights mixing and rising and drifting across the water to make each face on the opposite shore, each expression of happiness and wonder and misery evident.

And misery there is. So many beggars in the tunnel running under Zhongshan Lu. Burn vicims and limbless men. Homeless women with their children. Enough to make you sick and to feel impotent.

Now for Shanghai Day 2. It is raining, though, so don't know how much walking will get done today. We shall see.