International Superstars

Twin Gate Mountain -Yangshuo China

Twin Gate Mountain -Yangshuo China

We had a few onlookers for our climb today at the ‘Twin Gate’ crag which was among the fields but much easier to find than yesterday (yesterday we set out to find ‘The Egg’ but a new road had been paved rendering our directions useless, and after getting lost among the mandarin orange orchards and wading across some streams with our bicycles we ended up at ‘Low Mountain,’ an entirely different crag a few kilometers away).

The farmers mostly just glanced up briefly as they walked by, though an elderly woman settled down to watch as she wove flower garlands to sell at a local park and another stopped to sell us dried persimmons.  A lone Chinese tourist came over to ask us “where you from?” When I told him America he got very excited. “NBA!” he exclaimed. “Kobe Bryant! Barack Obama!”. It was nice to finally meet someone who was enthusiastic about the US of A.

On our way back to the main road we passed villagers returning from the park (site of a 1400 year old banyan tree and a major tourist attraction) with small trained monkeys, some wearing bright orange outfits with tall pointy feathered caps – a new source of nightmares for Mark.  Dinner was stuffed eggplant and sautéd bok choy at the local restaurant across the street from our hotel, where Westerners get their dishes sterilized and shrink wrapped. It was delicious, we are going back for the snails which is what everyone else seemed to be eating.

The Mandarin phrase of the day was hot soybean milk (rède dòujiāng in Pinyin) which is my new breakfast staple. Mark is going through coffee withdrawl again as while you can pay extra at the Western style restaurants for “Yunnan coffee,” it’s only marginally better than Nescafe. That being said, there is no shortage of green tea here in China.

Adrift in a Sea of Mandarin

I was going to do a post about the found poetry of Taiwanese promotional brochures. I was also going to be sure to highlight the remarkable niceness of the Taiwanese people (they really were strikingly helpul to us hapless foreigners in multiple instances). Perhaps I still will or maybe they’ll just get added to the contemplated posts post.

We spent over a week in Taiwan, imposing on Susannah and Aaron, who were delightful hosts (Aaron arrived in Taipei after us so we even got to show him the ropes in his new apartment). We were eager to relax a little in an apartment (we volunteered to cook – how exotic!) and enjoy a modern, developed city (which Taipei very much is, though I’ll leave it to Mark to expound on its virtues since he’s spent so much time complaining about lack of mass transit – Taiwan’s high speed rail kicks our butts).

The only difficulty was the language.  Susannah wildly impressed us with her Mandarin skills.  While on the one hand, grammar is very simple (for example, there is no pesky conjugation of verbs), on the other there are four tones (plus neutral), and tens of thousands of characters (of which only about 3,000 are commonly used, but that’s still a lot more than 26 letters). So I’d safely say the difficulties outweigh anything else.  Despite this, Susannah is able to have what appear to be actual conversations with people, and was able to write some wishes on our lantern festival lantern in Chinese (traditional, as used in Taiwan) characters before we released it into the sky.

(Lengthy aside: I am careful to say Mandarin when referring to the spoken language because although Mark and I keep talking about not speaking “Chinese,” there are many dialects. This was driven home by a woman we met who was London raised by Hong Kong parents who bemoaned that although she had learned to speak Cantonese, she had never learned to read it and thus it was of no use to her here. Moreover, because she looks of Chinese descent everyone expects that she can speak to them. We told her that most people keep trying to speak to us in Mandarin too, but I’m not sure if that’s any consolation.)

So the side benefit to our Taiwan detour was that Susannah also helped us with our survival Mandarin training after we came back to Taipei from the Taroko Gorge having attempted to teach ourselves numbers using Lonely Planet and a free iPhone app. It appeared we had mastered the vocabulary but not the pronunciation.  For example, fourth tone (I think – the one that’s rising) should be pronounced as if asking a one word question: really? right?

Learning numbers really opened up our world. Out of the incomprehensible babble came some glimmer of comprehension. At the park we could understand photo takers’ countdowns: 1, 2, 3, cheese (okay, we still couldn’t understand the cheese part, or whatever the Chinese equivalent is). Young girls play marching through the park intoned 1, 2, 1 2 1 instead of left, right, left right left.  And with the acquisition of “how much?” we were able to have our own mini conversations with shopkeepers and street vendors every day.

I am trying to add a new phrase a day, though now that we are on the mainland, and I no longer have Susannah to correct me, it’s doubtful that I am pronouncing it anywhere near correctly (improper pronunciation often means you are saying another word entirely).  Drumroll please- my Mandarin abilities, extant and desired (this will end the post; I’ll leave etymology and the frustrations of different transliteration systems to Mark, who excels at such things.  Mark, you are now two posts in the hole, better get blogging):

In the repertoire (Xièxie, Sus):
– Hello, goodbye, thank you, excuse me
– How much, and numbers 0-99 (once I master “hundred” I will be able to do up to 999 but I keep forgetting it)
– food basics: fish, pork, beef, chicken, is it meat? is it sweet? (our great difficulty with Chinese cuisine is decifering what’s inside dumplings and whether buns are filled with strange meat concoctions or red bean paste)
– that’s okay (ie no thanks, for fighting off touts). also, not going (wherever it is your bus, boat or motorcycle is going)
– and the two questions Susannah says she gets asked most in Taiwan: spicy? and, do you want a bag? (this has not been an issue so far in China where they’re not as in to the whole environmentally sustainable thing like the Taiwanese have become; I did however sucessfully refuse a bag by saying I don’t want and pointing as I had forgotten the word for bag. Gesturing wildly, pointing, and occasionally pictograms are surprisingly effective in many instances).

Up next (ie things I want to learn):
– I’m walking, similarly I already have a hotel (with very persistant touts it pays to be specific and it also seems to shake them if you reply in Mandarin, maybe it reinforces that you can get by without them)
– where is the toilet (though I do now recognize the character and can also differentiate between the characters for male and female)
– how do I get to …? (the problem is that this requires understanding the answer, the yes or no Is this the way to …? is probably more practical)

China: the final frontier (an introductory post)

Scene from Impression Sanjie Liu (not my photo)

Yángshuò is known as China’s backpacker haven, but there just aren’t that many here – at least, not in nearly the same numbers as in Thailand (may have something to do with the expensive and hard to get visas, or the fact that it was 5 degrees celsius when we got here, though it’s since gotten warmer).  What there are however, are Chinese tourists. Yángshuò is probably the most popular place in China for domestic tourism. And given China’s population density and ever expanding disposable income, that’s a lot of people.

That’s why even now in the off season,  there were still hundreds of people packed into the open air theater to see Impression Sanjie Liu, Zhang Yimou’s epic nighttime spectacle with the river and lit up karst mountains as backdrop.  This show put the Vietnamese water puppet show to shame. Its scale is so big that it is only conceivable in China.

Zhang is the filmmaker (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, earlier dramas like Raise High the Red Lantern) who was also responsible for the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Picture that transported to a riverside in Southern China, with a cast of literally hundreds of fishermen and hundreds of young girls dressed in LED enhanced ethnic garb – plus some water buffalo and cormorants- plying the river as their stage.  It’s pretty wild.

The karsts more than held their place among the dancers, singers and assorted animals though. These are similar to the beachside mountains in Tonsai, Thailand and the bayside ones in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.  And yet different (just as each country we’ve visited has had its own flavors despite many communalities, like horn honking, sidewalk welding and fruit vendors).  For climbing, there are more vertical faces, allowing for more technical moderate climbs (as opposed to overhanging jugfests).  And there’s somehow a tranquility to these peaks; away from the battering sea air, they are less wild and deformed.

Author Update

Bowing to his wife’s nagging and her insatiable need for recognition and aprobation, Mark has finally added new users to the blog so you can know who wrote what: Zoe, Mark, or Zoe and Mark (we sometimes pass each other the iPod every other paragraph).

As a retrospective guide, if the post (or paragraph) includes kvetching about public transportation and lack of infrastructure, it’s probably by Mark. If it contains flowery description, parenthetical asides, and overly long run-on sentences (there I go again), it’s probably Zoe.

Contemplated blog posts

Topics we wanted to write about, but never got around to:

– Crossing the street in Hanoi: a primer by Mark and Zoe
– Driving a motorbike with one hand while carrying a parasol: a primer by Laotian school girls
– Horn honking as a defensive (and offensive) driving mechanism: a primer by Vietnamese bus drivers
– Regional variation in Coca-Cola, including can versus glass bottle comparisons
– Sticky rice: a Laotian’s best friend
– 70 km through the mountains on a ladies’ Dutch single speed bicycle
– Thai music videos: heartbreak and cell phones
– Thai karaoke videos: pretty ladies and waterfalls and wait, is she taking her shirt off?
– Ode to potable tap water
– Any road with less than 2 lanes in each direction and no median does not deserve to be called a highway, especially if there are water buffalo on it
– Small birds in cages: good luck, except in Mark’s nightmares
– The insidious proliferation of Nescafe

Pak Beng, we hardly knew ye (misadventures in Laos)

We thought we had left the beaches behind in Thailand. We were wrong:

The 2 day slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang has been described as “a floating backpacker ghetto” (thank you Wikitravel, our new favorite source of pithy travel advice). It’s a pretty apt description for a boat crammed full of Europeans smoking constantly and drinking copious amounts of Beer Lao. There were a few Lao but I think it’s rare for villagers to travel that far and for shorter trips they take motor powered canoes.

It’s dry season and the river was low; running down some minor rapids we hit bottom pretty hard and bent the rudder. We docked near a small village to check out the damage to the boat. Curious children ventured over and went into paroxysms of glee when shown their images on a digital camera. The rudder was bent pretty bad and a second tourist boat flagged over. Just when we had all squeezed on, it was decided that there wasn’t enough daylight left to make it to Pak Beng, where we were supposed to stay the night.

Instead both boats ended up sleeping on the beach/on the boat (the boat was less comfortable but marginally warmer as it actually gets chilly overnight this far north). The children’s parents descended to give us succor in the form of ramen noodles and more beer Lao. Meanwhile the boatmen attempted to bang the rudder back straight over an open campfire (unsuccessfully, as it was far from hot enough; we got a replacement boat in the morning).

Needless to say it was epic. However, it did breed some traveller camraderie. I practiced my Spanish with some Spaniards and a Peruvian and sang some Serge Gainsbourgh with some French Belgians with a guitar. Mark drank some varnish-smelling Whiskey and Coke with an Irishman and a South African woman who disliked Americans (but not all of us). Plus, the scenery was nice, and as we discovered later on a twisty turny and bumpy overnight ride to Ventiane, buses are something you want to avoid in Laos. Except tonight we’ll be hopping on another one for the 24 hour ride to Hanoi! Let’s hope the Pho is worth it.

Vivre le Roi

Thais love their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX. He’s been on the throne since 1946, longer than any other Thai monarch. Now, however, he’s in the hospital as speculation rages over whether he will be replaced by his neer-do-well son or more beloved, but less likely for succession because she’s a woman, daughter (side note: if the son ascends the throne the national color remains yellow because he was born on the same day of the week as his father; if it’s the daughter Thais need to start investing in another color).

The king’s face is everywhere. You cannot lick stamps, because his image is on them. Similarly, it’s the height of disrespect to step on a coin or bill. Every home, shop, or restaurant has at least one large photo displayed, though often an entire wall is dedicated. On the highways, long banners hang from street lamps, and at the entrance to each town his enormous visage, 10 to 15 feet high, looks out at you from gilted frames. At the Chiang Mai flower festival, his face was arranged in flowers on floats.

Through the variety of photos, we feel that we have come to know him. With his mild countenance and wire rimmed glasses, he looks less at ease in royal regalia on the throne or in military dress with a formal sword than he does posed peering intently at an open book. These are the most common photos, but occasionally there are new ones. In a cafe in Chiang Mai there was a treasure trove of older photos including one colorized shot of the Queen in a very Jackie O outfit, and another black and white shot of a younger king looking debonair in a Western style suit perched on the front of a car. His glasses haven’t changed much over the long decades of his reign.