G’night. S’tight.



It seems that most of SE Asia is infested with bedbugs. Here in Melaka I suffered my third attack (Xian, Yangshuo, then here). I changed beds and washed all my stuff. Everything was OK for two nights.

And then, two nights ago, I woke up to the now-unmistakable itch of bedbugs. Gah! It was around 3 or 4 am, so I just grabbed my computer and headed downstairs to the hostel’s common area to write. That’s where I found Winston, from the bed diagonally across from me, watching TV and itching his arm. Bedbugs attack! I smiled, sat down and we compared war stories for hours.

Around 8 am I came back in to the TV room after a bathroom visit and…BASEBALL! Yes, ESPN Asia was showing game 1 of the NLCS. As it turns out, Winston’s a Dodgers fan. So we settled in to watch the game, which lasted until noon local time.

After the game Winston went up to try to nap and I went for a wander in Melaka. In the evening we took a bus to Medan Portugis, a nearby settlement where descendents of Portuguese settlers and their Malay wives still live. We ate a dinner of spicy fresh crab and “devil” chicken curry washed down with cold Jaz beer. The chicken was a bit dry, the beer a bit tasteless, but the crab was excellent – just spicy enough to make you sweat a bit, and just tangy enough to cut the spice.

Winston is a really great guy – a Korean-America TV editor and aspiring writer from LA. When I first saw him I dubbed him Hot Asian Guy II. (Grrlz who attended Lissette/Andy’s wedding will get the reference!) He’s about 3 months into a 5-month motorbiking trip through SE Asia. He started in Vietnam, bought a cheap bike, and has come down through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and now Malaysia. We clearly have a lot in common (travel, baseball, writing) so the conversation was easy and interesting. Dinner felt like a really great (and chaste) first date.

After dinner we taxi’d back to Melaka, which fills up with KL tourists on weekends. Looking for some wine, we instead ran into a few Americans & Canadians from our hostel at the local expat bar. We joined them and they drank beer & I drank Jack-rocks until the place shut down. Back at the hostel, all of a sudden it was 2 am. Game 2 of the NLCS started at 4 am, followed by Game 1 of the ALCS at 7:30. “No point in going to sleep!” I decided. Our friends shook their respective heads and went to bed. Winston and I headed to the local 7-11 for game-watching supplies: caffeine (Diet Coke, chocolate) and food (pretend Doritoes, prawn chips, etc).

So yeah, no sleep for 36 hours. Winston left today – he’s meeting friends in Singapore. I tried writing for about 5 minutes, then gave up and took a 3-hour nap. Sleep is good.

OK, I’m off to find some dinner. More on Melaka tomorrow (I promise!).

Last post about China

I am *so* glad to be out of China. Malaysia is…*friendly*. Polite. Happy. Full of tasty food. In such an atmosphere it’s easy to overlook things like mosquito attacks and sudden, unexplained interruptions of internet service – things I would have railed against in China.

I would love wrap up my feelings about China (something more sophisticated than “I hated it”) into a clever Chinese box, but I don’t think that’s possible. My ignorance of Chinese history robs me of proper context. I have no idea what it’s like to grow up and live in a communist society, so my powers of empathy are limited. And there’s no way to overstate the handicap of the language barrier – few people could speak English, no one could understand my sorry attempts at Mandarin, and most importantly, I couldn’t read signs. All these factors make contemporary China impenetrable to me.

All I can do, as the ever-insightful Henry points out, is report on what I observe from my demanding-critical-skeptical-tightwad-ignorant-western point of view.

I went to China expecting philosophy, ancient architecture, modern hyper-development, great food, and plenty of unexpected stuff.

What I found, I think, is…meanness. Most people were completely uninterested in me. This sounds rather self-centered; what I mean is that people didn’t even try to understand – what I was trying to say, to find, to do. People weren’t curious. With a few notable exceptions, few people went out of their way to be helpful. Tour operators didn’t give a shit if I was happy with what I paid for. I can’t remember anyone ever saying “good morning.”

But this lack of cheerfulness extended beyond my tourist-haze. On the streets, no one smiles. You rarely saw anyone (including Chinese people) strolling, enjoying themselves. I don’t remember many random acts of kindness. In fact, people would barrel right over you on the street, cars and motorbikes would run red lights and almost hit you in the crosswalk. Like Russia and Eastern Europe, communist “collectivism” paradoxically seems to have bred a people who will shove old ladies out of the way to get what’s on offer first.

It’s like they’re hoarding time.

People didn’t even take the time to enjoy simple pleasures such as food – most of the time people shoveled it into their mouths, or slurped it up, as quickly as possible.

No one seemed happy.

That’s why Guilin, full of vacationing families and strolling couples, was such a pleasant surprise. All of a sudden, Chinese people seemed human.

Indeed, the change here in Malaysia further highlights the meanness of China. People smile. There’s gentle music playing in the shops. There’s *street life* – markets, parks, restaurants, bustle. Other than in Kashgar, I can’t remember much street life in China – everyone was too busy rushing around their Levitt-cities.

Malaysia is more human.

I’m sitting in a cafe in Melaka (aka Malacca), on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The wicker chair ain’t too comfortable, but the fans in the high ceilings keep the air moving and the mosquitoes at bay. Chilled-out lounge music is playing on the stereo. On the rough, peeling walls hang a haphazard collection of random B&W photos, art posters and a few paintings. There are just the right number of knickknacks strewn about the bar and tables. Earlier the server came around and offered each guest a fried banana that his friend had brought him in a bag. In fact, I just looked up, caught his eye, and he smiled at me. For no reason.

This place does not, could not exist in China. Outside of hostels, there are no public venues where people linger in China. Even the thousands of malls lack seating.

So the question is: do I love this cafe because it’s what I’m used to, or because it’s just good?

Back to Henry’s observations for a sec: I think he’s wrong that Eastern non-individualist culture precludes having an ideology. AFAIK, Chinese people had ideology/philosophy for most of their history – from religions to communism. The fact that they don’t seem to have one in the post-Deng era is troubling. If you go back and read the quoted dude in the NYT article, you’ll see that even *he* was taken aback when he couldn’t say what China stands for. He struggled, but he came up with an answer, because he knew that you gotta stand for something.

His struggle – and my search – to come up with a guiding ideology outside of economic power and development is telling.

I didn’t look very hard – and couldn’t, given the language barrier – but I don’t know that there is any funk in China. One billion people and no funk (art, personality, etc.). Now that’s troubling.

Sorry – Just two more quick things about China.

First…maybe this is another indication of lack of funk, but everyone dresses in the same drab, ugly manner. The men wear cheap collared shirts tucked in to pleated (pleated!) trousers hiked up and fixed in place by a simple leather belt. On their feet they wear thin white socks and black or brown loafers. It’s *so* ugly. Awful.

Second…a little rant about Chinglish. People think it’s funny, and it can be. The menu translations are hilarious. But when you see Chinglish on sign on a train, in a bus station, in a hotel (fire escape instructions!), or even on a billboard, to me it shows that they just don’t give a shit. It’s inexcusable in the age of the internet, even the one behind the Great Firewall. I mean, even spellcheck would help matters. So yeah – I don’t think Chinglish is funny. I think it’s one more example of Chinese insularity and fundamental lack of interest in anyone but themselves.

OK – no more ranting about China – I’m tapped. From now on, it’s hot, sticky, friendly Malaysia.

On further reflection…

I keep thinking about the negativity in my past few posts. I’m out here in the world, seeing new places, meeting new people, doing what I love to do! Why all the complaints?

A big part of it is the tourist/traveler tension. In roughest terms, someone on a 2-week holiday is a tourist: You see the sites, eat the local specialties, take lots of photos, and go home happy. Someone on a year-long trip is more of a traveler: You read the history and literature, you learn the language, you get off the beaten track, you have the option to stop and hang out for a while.

The observable differences between the two are fewer than most long-trippers would like to admit. “I’m not a tourist,” they sniff. “I’m a traveler.” Whatevah. See you on the shuttle to the local shrine, along with all the other tourists wearing zip-off trouser-to-shorts cargo pants.

The difference is in frenzy. Tourists have little time to see/do everything, so they rush about during frenzied, tightly scheduled days and go to bed exhausted. Travelers have little time to absorb what they see/do; their minds are frenzied. Tourists can reflect on their trip to China in a leisurely fashion back at home, but travelers must try to think deeply about a place in the moment; tomorrow, after all, is a new country, a new culture, a new language.

By this definition, I am a traveler by disposition, and suffer the consequences. But new China doesn’t let people be travelers. Foreigners can’t drive here. Many mountains, lakes and other beautiful places now *charge admission*, the proceeds from which are used to build chairlifts and offer themed rides and other horrors that spoil the very nature we’re being charged to see. No wonder I feel so uncomfortable here.

Following this tangent for a bit: let’s talk about the Disney-fication of China. Most travelers I’ve met have commented on it. The best-known example is of the hutongs in Beijing. These traditional inner-city neighborhoods were the lifeblood of the city…and tourist attractions. But the Chinese government chose to tear them down (for political reasons as well as simple short-sightedness, I’d imagine). Now the government is scrambling to rebuild some – newer! better! cleaner! with tour guides and shopping! But they miss the point: hutongs were interesting to tourists as a glimpse into real life, an older way of life, a different life. They were a chance to get lost, slam into the odor of their public toilets, see old men playing MahJong with their lifelong neighbors, etc.

Here in Xian I met Ben, a native of Taiwan, now an American citizen splitting time between LA and Hong Kong. Like the Chinese-Singaporean I had met on the train to Ulaan Bataar, he was eager to explain and defend many aspects of China which I find distasteful. He said the Chinese government is learning – slowly – that foreign tourists do not (for the most part) want Disney-China. In the past, he says, it created experiences for Chinese tourists. And these Chinese tourists, he continues, are similar to the caricatured Japanese tourists of 25 years ago: They travel in controlled our groups, with cameras, obediently boarding buses and eating buffets on cue. They *want* Disney.

Now the Chinese government is learning, Ben continued, that foreigners don’t want a sanitized, easy-to-digest, manufactured version of the country. I smiled and nodded at him, but I don’t believe it; the senseless destruction of Chinese heritage continues apace. See: Kashgar.

[Please note that I’m not saying that hutong residents shouldn’t get modern plumbing and internet if they want it; in fact, if they want to knock down their homes and replace them with ugly concrete modern high-rises, so be it. But it’s not the residents that choose; it’s the government. And the residents of the “modern” tourist-hutongs are turned into human zoo attractions, forced to put signs on their doors that say, “This is a private residence. Please do not enter. Respect our privacy.”]

Indeed, as China destroys the artifacts of its cultural heritage it has no soul to replace it with. I *thought* I had written an earlier post about my (unsuccessful) search for Chinese funk, but I can’t find it in my archives. Anyway, I had a whole thing about how there’s no FUNK here, how the Chinese artists at the 798 Art Space in Shanghai, and musicians like Carsick Cars (“just like Sonic Youth!” said a promoter at a concert I attended) are the definition of derivative. I’ve seen no originality or uniqueness in the 7-ish weeks I’ve spent here.

Lo and behold, my instincts were dead-on! Read this article in the NYT, about the 60th anniversary of the PRC: “On Day for China Pride, Little Interest in Ideology”.
A short quote:

“…ask Mr. Xie to explain China’s core values β€” not what his country achieved, but what it stands for β€” and he is dumbstruck, a student called on in class to report on the book he forgot to read.

“The ability of China to adapt,” he said after a long silence. “To learn from the West.” And, in a phrase that sounds plucked from a pamphlet, β€œthe diligence and industriousness of the laboring masses.”

(italics added by me)

I could go on and on here – is it the end of political ideology around the world? After all, America seems to have lost its own centering ideology, its politics having devolved into sniping and mutual obstruction. And remember the Russian business-school administrator I wrote about earlier, who said that her country is also searching for a guiding philosophy.

These are the questions on my mind. They make me want to read more books, by clever people with PhDs in history and/or sharp, witty insights. Instead I’m stuck with what I can scrape together from hostel book-exchanges (trash) and Chinese English-language bookstores (American and British classical literature). I would give my left arm for 30 minutes in Idlewild or a free Malaysian delivery from Amazon.com.

Natural disasters (and other irritations)

I’m sitting here watching the nth hour of creepy Chinese propaganda on TV – today is the 60th anniversary of Communism (ahem, now “with Chinese characteristics“) in China. Every building, car and motorbike is festooned with Chinese flags. On TV, cute 9-year-old girls in colorful dresses and forced smiles dance in perfect synchronicity. The air is filled with proud nationalist song.

No wonder I’ve broken out in hives.

No seriously – I have. My arms, legs, back and face are covered in swollen, itchy red blotches. I’m losing the battle to not itch. I’m chewing antihistamine tablets like Limbaugh pops OxyContin.

Though I’d love to blame it on Chinese propaganda, I must point my finger at a much smaller and possibly more insidious culprit: bed bugs. Before the hives came, I woke up one morning covered in slightly smaller but just as itchy bites, thanks to an infested hostel mattress. I got so many bites, it seems, that my body freaked out.

So today, instead of facing the stares on the streets, and possibly being quarantined by an over-zealous and paranoid Chinese health official, I have stayed in, watched propaganda and read the sporting news. (I’m furious at the Red Sox – do they really think it doesn’t matter to enter the playoffs with an effing 6-game losing streak? Argh.)

After a night in a different bed and waking with no new bites, I’m hoping I’ve left the bugs behind. Yes, I washed all my clothes (ugh) and tried washing my bag, but bed bugs are notoriously hard to get rid of. Here’s hoping.

The physical irritation and horror at my appearance has exacerbated a simmering emotional uneasiness as well.

I’ve been away for just over 5 months now, doubling my previous longest trip. And I’m starting to get psychologically tired. One reason is just China – it’s too difficult for me here, I don’t love it at all, and I’m so happy that I leave in about a week.

Another is that I’m not just traveling, but (in theory) working all the time – thinking of story ideas, asking questions, reading, paying attention. But when you move as much as I have, it becomes an exercise in ADD – I can’t possibly learn enough and be interested enough in every place I go to come up with an idea. So I don’t do either very satisfactorily: I’m a shitty tourist and a lazy writer. I still need to figure out how to balance the two.

Even more exhausting is the transient-friend aspect of travel. You arrive in a place, meet a cool person or two, go for dinner/drinks/a tour of the sites, and just as you’re getting to know them you’re all moving on. I’m not one for home-sickness, but what I do miss is the ease of spending time with people to whom I needn’t explain myself. It’s like living life in a singles bar, or at a business-networking event. On some days, I put up my old survive-NYC walls – no eye contact, no smiling at strangers – just to catch a break.

Transient friendships can be fun at the time, but taken together they are unsatisfying and ultimately uninteresting. Many of you (as well as my transient friends!) have expressed jealousy at my so-called fabulous life: I’m running around Asia seeing eclipses, climbing mountains and eating fat-stuffed intestines (ugh) – and (in theory) getting paid for it! But there’s a a lot to be said for home life, real relationships, and even routine.

I would feel different if, like most other long-term travelers I’ve met, I planned to go home to regular life at some point. The open-endedness of my range life is disorienting and possibly unnatural. Are humans hard-wired to settle down? I wonder. Even the so-called nomads I met in Mongolia have specific areas they return to every year: the same pasture every summer, autumn, winter and sometimes spring.

But enough.

Goddamn China. It’s so lacking in soul and BORING that I’m spending all my time navel-gazing. Yeah, that’s right. I blame China for my melancholy. I’m sure it deserves it.

And like China and the bed bugs, I will soon leave melancholy behind, as I always do. I’m delighted to be headed to southeast Asia, where typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis await me. I couldn’t be happier.

Notes from China

This is sort of a catch-up post. The first two bits were written while I was in Xinjiang province, where I had zero internet access. The last part was written here in Xian. Not my best post ever, but whatever.


Greetings from Urumqi, city of Chinese race riots.

Actually, this post can’t possibly be from Urumqi, as the internet here is completely blocked by the government. So are international calls and (potentially) local mobile phone/texting services. This has been the case since July, when a peaceful march by the minority Uighur population, which is Muslim, turned into a large-scale riot in which more than a hundred (and possibly hundreds) of people died – mostly Han Chinese, according to reports.

More recently, in early September, it was the Han Chinese turn to demonstrate. Evidently a few Uighurs attacked some Han with hypodermic needles. A few reports of these attacks turned into hundreds – most of them, even the Chinese government admits, are fake. But still, at least a hundred (if I remember correctly) did happen. And the Han are angry that the government hasn’t done enough to protect them.

So here we sit, in a city decorated with phalanxes of young riot soldiers on every corner. Their hairless faces peek out from under helmets, above tall riot shields they wield like teenage gladiators.

Despite all this, I like the feel of Urumqi. It’s friendly somehow – hard to put my finger on it. Can you imagine? The friendliest Chinese city has riot police on every corner.



This morning Karly left me in Kashgar to try to extend my visa while she and another Aussie take a three-day trip to Tashkargan (a Tajik village in China, near the border) and Karakul Lake. But like everything in China, it’s not that simple. The PSB (the police), which deals with visa issues, “is not working for two weeks,” according to the friendly woman at the office. No explanation for this, erm, holiday. She assured me that it’d be no problem to extend the visa in Hotan, which is along the road I intended to take. But I don’t believe her, and neither does the manager of the Old Town Hostel, where I’m staying.

After much consideration of my options, I’ve decided to just fly to Xi’an, where there’s Internet and sites to see. The other options (saving money by taking a 3-day train journey instead, extending my visa in Urumqi, etc.) were too complicated and expensive; I don’t want to travel the southern silk route *that* much.

Or maybe I do. It’s so confusing, because most sights I’ve seen in China have been neatly packaged and Disney-fied (that’ll be 100 yuan entrance fee, please) and competely sanitized of soul. I’ve come to expect the worst, delighting in the occasional pleasant surprises where the government hasn’t wrung all reality from a place – the Mogao Caves outside Turpan, for instance.

Indeed, I’m so glad I made it here to Kashgar, which feels more like one of the ‘stans (Kazakstan et al) than China. It’s similar to my feeling when I visited the Tuvan Replublic in Russia – it’s like I left the country. Of course, the Chinese government is quickly implementing plans to rip the soul out of the Uighur Muslim population by tearing down the old town (“for safety’s sake”) and moving everyone from their ancenstral homes to bland concrete high-rises. (Google “destruction Kasghar” for more – China won’t let me get to any websites that explain.) So yeah, I’m glad I made it here before that happened.

But what will the rest of the “South Silk Route” be like? Has China destroyed the other towns yet? I’m not sure, and I’m not willing to run the gamut of Chinese visa-renewal bullshit to find out. It’s crazy to have come this far, this deep into China, only to be turned back by bureaucratic nonsense. Normally I would do it – I’d dance the required dance in order to see what I want to see. But in this case, I doubt the payoff will be worth it. My pile of Chinese Disappointments is high enough already.

So I’m leaving Karly to complete our itinerary alone while I make a beeline for the border. I’ll be gone by the time she returns from her trip.

As last year, knowing I’m traveling alone again is a relief. I couldn’t concentrate on anything – writing, traveling, reading, learning – during the month I was traveling with Karly. Was she an unsuitable travel companion for me, or is the problem my own pathological comfort with being alone? I’m not sure. (I imagine DrC might have something to say about my issues with life-sharing!) All I know is that I feel that a burden has been lifted, that my mind is free again.

(To be clear, I did very much enjoy my time traveling with Karly. We had plenty of laughs (especially in the Gobi), saw some interesting and uninteresting stuff, ate good food and bad, complained about China, got ripped off, met lovely people, etc. etc. It’s just that I seem to be better at traveling alone. I don’t understand!)



OK, now I’m actually writing this today. I’ve been in Xian for 5 days, and I’m staying until October 2. I’ll write *about* Kashgar later.

I’m sticking around Xian for a week for a few reasons: First, my visa extension won’t be ready until the 30th. Second, October 1 is the 60th anniversary of communism (such as it is) in China. This means the entire country is shut down that day, so I postponed travel to the 2nd. Third, Xian is a fairly pleasant place, as polluted an crowded Chinese cities go.

And finally, I’m getting pants (erm, that’s “trousers” for all you thinking “undies”) made. It’s terribly exciting, as this is the first time I’ve done this.

Explanation, aka “The Pants Digression”: In Urumqi I received a box of clothes mailed from Boston by my dear, dear sister. What a relief to put on something other than the 2 pants and 4 shirts I had been wearing since April 22! But also, both pants were literally falling apart, despite my best hand-sewing efforts. The washing machines in Russia and Mongolia are not kind. Anyway, threw out one pair of pants, but the other was my absolute favorite. So I went to a local tailor, handed them the pants to use as a pattern, chose fabric, got measured (they marveled at the size of my inseam and hips), and shelled out a mere $25 – probably still overpaying. Fingers crossed for good results.

OK, enough pants. What of Xian? I’ve met some lovely people at the Shuyuan Hostel, where I’m staying thanks to a recommendation from a lovely Belgian guy I had met in Kashgar. Tourism-wise, the highlights have been the Terracotta Warriors – Xian’s main tourist attraction and one that is actually worthy of its billing. The other highlight – one that surpasses the Warriors in my estimation – was the excavated tomb of a Han Emperor called Jingdi. Both sites are tombs, and remarkably well-preserved examples of ancient Chinese burial rituals. Rather than burying the emperor with *live* servants, horses, pigs, and other food, or with *real* weapons, gold, household items, and so on, the Chinese sculpted *thousands* of replicas of these items. The burial areas are *kilometers* square. It’s mind-boggling. Check out my pix on Flickr once I upload them (I have a HUGE backlog).

Entertainment wise, the highlights have besen two delicious meals with large groups from the hostel – one night there were 8 and the next 9 people. We ordered about 10 different dishes and shared. Delish. The first night especially, when we went to “First Noodle Under the Sun” restaurant, there was not enough room on the table for all the food. We each had two beers as well. The bill? 30 yuan each, or about $4.50. Good times.


The good times continued when a smaller group went to the great bar attached to the hostel to carry on drinking. I got my traditional one-blue-drink-per-country (Drea stay tuned for an emailed pic), and then Jemma, one of the women I was with, ordered me a “Red Sex” cocktail. And she had no idea I’m a Red Sox fan (she’s a Brit – from Brighton in fact – and wouldn’t even know they exist). In any event, the cocktail (which in the end is just grenadine and Baily’s, I think) was *presented* rather than served, including being lit on fire. I made a wish and blew it out. No, I won’t tell you my wish.

The festivities ended at 2:30 am – the bar was closing and we needed sleep, despite our spirited discussion about the merits and morality of drugs.


Today, with a little yelp of glee, I bought my AirAsia e-ticket out of this damned country. On October 10 at 11:10 local time I’ll be on a plane to Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia! The beach! Sure, it’s monsoon season. But I don’t care! I’m gunna find me a spot, become a divemaster, and be ready in time to work when the monsoons are over. I need some salty surf, seafood and my swmsuit.

In the meantime, this Friday I head south by train, arriving in Guilin a mere 27 hours later. The area is known for mystical scenery – limestone peaks, terraced rice fields, and so on. I’m hoping for the best – some *unspoiled* and un”improved” nature, please China! – though expecting chair lifts and ticket offices decorated with white bathroom tiles. Chinese architecture. [shudder]

$#&*%ing China

The good news is that I’m back in the world of the Internet – I flew out of Xinjiang province and into Xi’an this morning.

The bad news is that I’m back in the world of the Internet – about two weeks ahead of schedule.

The problem is my visa, which expires on September 30. I had intended to extend the visa in Kashgar – no problem! – before embarking on the south Silk Route adventure, which would have taken at least until realy October.

However, for a reason no one can explain, the Kashgar PSB (the police bureau that handles visas and such) is “not working” for two weeks. The receptionist suggested I go back to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang and about 1000 km (24 hours on the train) in the wrong direction. The application process takes a week – meaning I would have had to hang around Urumqi alone, and then take a train *back* west to meet up with Karly.

$#&*%ing China.

Instead, I left Karly to do the SSR alone and shelled out the cash to fly to Xi’an. I still need to extend my visa, for various reasons, but at least here there are sights to see, and the Internet works as well as it can in China.

I have more to say about China, but I’ll post it later. At the moment I’m sleep-deprived, thanks to: a sudden and mysterious increased air ticket price, necessitating an itinerary change, which included a 7-hour overnight layover, which involved a lying shuttle bus operator, getting lost at 2 am, riot police sleeping in the lounge of my hostel, and very VERY noisy Chinese tourists who took 45 long, loud minutes to leave our shared dorm room at 6 am (3.5 hours after I had gone to sleep). Oh yeah – and on arrival here, I spent the afternoon running up and down stairs at the Xi’an PSB, fetching what the official requested, one item at a time: photo, photocopies of various documents, visa-extension payment receipt, etc. etc.

Meh. I’m going to celebrate when I leave this country, and I vow to never, ever come back. I’ve come to despise it that much.

And yes, I see the irony of having to pay to extend my stay in a country I’m desperate to leave. I’d laugh about it, but I’m too cranky at the moment

Instead I’ll just say: $#&*%ing China

Ill communication

I’d love to write a thoughtful note about China, Take II. But I’m too distracted – the cats, yes, but also there are other people about, and we’re going into town in a few minutes for lunch. In the afternoon we’re catching a bus to Liuluang (sp?), then tomorrow morning a train to Turpan, near Urumqi in Xinjiang province.

After the demonstrations by Uigurs in Urumqi this July, and recent demonstrations by ethnic Han, and the fact that on October 1 it’s the 60th anniversary of communism in China…well, we’re assuming that there will be no internet access or international telephone connectivity in Xinjiang province. Reports travel message boards are sketchy, so we’ll just have to go and see the situation ourselves.

This means you won’t hear from me for a while. To assuage any anxieties, here is our *very rough* itinerary:

9/14: train to Turpan
stay 3ish days

9/18 ish: Urumqi

maybe go north to the lakes near Altay, or else head to Kashgar

9/24 ish: Kashgar

stay a few days

Then buses along southern edge of Taklamakan Desert (Yarkland, Hotan, Niya, Charklik), and finally across to Golmud in Quinghai province. From there we’ll catch a train to Xi’an – probably by the first week in October.

This means I will probably lack internet for three weeks. I’ll ping (via a post or mass email) as soon as I can.

Not that I don’t love you all, but the thing I’m most distressed about in RE lack of internet is that I won’t know who makes the baseball postseason until the playoffs have started. GO SOX.,

I would have written sooner, but there’s a cat in my lap.

I swear I’ve tried to write this afternoon. But the three kittens at Charley Jhong’s Guest House, in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, won’t let me.

First they jumped onto the table and demanded food, though I have nothing but fruit and crackers. I gave them crackers, which they practically bit my hand off to get. Back at my computer, I barely had time to check the baseball scores when the larger orange one jumped on my lap and started playing with the string from my hoodie. After a brief post-play tongue bath, she kneaded my thighs with her claws and settled down for an afternoon nap. The other two are sleeping on a nearby bed, with one eye half open should I offer more food.

Outside my room – a 5-bed dorm – is an open courtyard surrounded by a covered walkway (I know there’s a technical term for this, but the name escapes me at the moment). There’s no one about (other than the cats); the guest house is in a quiet apricot grove outside town and adjacent to the famous sand dunes near by – I’m near the start of the old Silk Road. It’s a perfect, relaxing environment to write. Except, as I said, for the cats.

Karly and I arrived here from Xiahe a few days ago. I needed to *stop* for a few days, to let my slow-moving consciousness catch up with my ever-migrating body. She was supposed to try to arrange a multi-day camel trek for herself, to keep herself occupied while I wrote. Instead, she has caught my laziness – at the moment she’s in a cafe in town making pretend to study her Mongolian language book.

And I’m making pretend to write, using cats as an excuse for my failure.

Never mind.

Xiahe was like seeing a little piece of Tibet without going through the extreme hassle and expense of actually going to Tibet. (I could go into a long, boring digression on why I’ve chosen to avoid Tibet. But I don’t feel like it.)

There was no breathtaking mountain scenery, but the town does boast one of the top Tibetan Buddhist monateries (Labrang Monastery) and attracts plenty of colorfully dressed Tibetan pilgrims.

Beyond the monastery visit, it was interesting to witness the progressive Han-ification of a non-Han Chinese town. To explain: The Chinese government “unifies” the parts of the country dominated by ethnic groups (the Uigurs in the west, the Tibetans in the south and west, etc.) by enticing (or forcing?) Han Chinese to settle there. It’s an ethnic power play as well as a consolidation of control over land and resources. Just as Siberians and Russian Far Easterners say “Moscow is far away…” so do Chinese southerners and westerners say, “Beijing is far away…”

The process in Xiahe is just beginning. Along the main street, the old wooden houses are gone and giant, modern brick buildings are just going up along the half-paved sidewalks. There’s a military outpost – we saw impossibly young recruits training in full riot gear. But Xiahe is still a sleepy town. Its streets are colored with bald monks in wine-colored robes; Tibetan cowgirls in traditional bright wool chupa and striped aprons, their long ebony braids tied together with ribbons; and Tibetan cowboys dressed in what looked like Mongolian dels, riding Chinese motorbikes down the main drag. Tibetans dominate the western part of town, near the monastery. The eastern part, near the bus station, is where the Han Chinese seem to live, alongside the Muslims. (We think they’re Hui Chinese, but couldn’t find out.)

The monastery itself is colorful and old – it was founded in the early 18th century. The air smells of incense and brown coal. Our tour guide was a chubby, cheerful monk who spoke decent English and repeated himself a lot. I didn’t learn much about Buddhism, but no matter. The highlight was our quiet walk though the main prayer room, where about 900 monks were in midday prayers. Some were chanting, some where whispering among themselves, some just stared at us we walked past. At the front, sitting cross-legged on a raised platform, sat the head monk in a buttercup robe that seemed to glow despite the gloom inside.

After the tour Karly and I made the 3-km trek around the monastery, turning every prayer wheel – more than 1100 – along the way. The locals seemed delighted that we went the whole way around, instead of stopping halfway as most tourists do. (It’s hard work spinning badly-greased wheels with just your right arm, 1100 times.)

As we began the last third or so of the trek, we were overtaken by an older woman and her middle-aged son. She beamed at us – at me, really. Her muddy eyes sparkled in a familiar way. Her dentured smile also reminded me of something. What was it?

We caught up to her again a few prayer-wheel sections later. She smiled again, and looked directly into my eyes. As she walked away I realized that her face – her eyes, her smile – were my maternal grandmother’s. It was like my yia popped in from the dead to just say hello. (Yiayia is Greek for grandmother. My nickname for my maternal yiayia was “Yia.”)

Now, you all know that I’m not a religious person or subject to mystical nonsense. This cheerful old woman simply reminded me of my grandmother. But at the time, it felt like more.

Something similar happened to me 4 years ago, about 3 months after Yia died. It was May 2005. Henry and Michele had just gotten married in Ireland. A few days after the wedding I flew to Paris with the Guineys and Jake. One day we visited their mother Louise, who was ill and losing her memory. Her still-gentle confusion reminded me of Yia’s confusion as her dementia took hold. Pat and Lis’s distress and helplessness (gamely but ineffectively masked by cheerfulness and action) reminded me of my mother’s distress and our pain watching our strong, self-assured Yia deteriorate to a scared and scary shell.

Just three months earlier, in late February, my family had all flown to Greece to bury Yia. Her body had finally succumbed, and I think we all thought it was a good thing that she no longer suffered. But in Paris that spring, the pain of losing her was still fresh. Seeing an echo of what had happened to her ripped open the scab.

That night, in my tiny Paris hotel room, I had the most vivid dream of my life. I dreamed that Yia was standing in front of me, her eyes sparkling, her denture-perfect smile wide. I felt her warmth as I hugged her; I felt her smooth but wrinkled skin as I kissed her cheeks, her forehead, her hands. Neither of us said a word. When I woke up, I thought, “Yia said goodbye to me last night.” Nothing like that had happened to me before. Nothing has happened since – until Xiahe.

Of course, the dream was really *me* saying goodbye to *her.* It was part of mourning. And the praying old Buddhist in Xiahe just had a similar smile. But these things *feel* mystical, like there really could be another dimension/heaven/nirvana/what-have-you. If there is, Yia is certainly making the best baklava around.

Hiya, Yia. S’agapo.

Back to China

Well I’m back. On August 31, I crossed the border from Mongolia back into China. And…Mongolia worked like a charm. Its big sky, pure nature and hospitality cured me of the China Blues.

This time around, China isn’t trying to rip me off. It’s not 100 degrees and oppressively humid. The people are helpful and friendly and curious.

Of course, the Internet is still unpredictable. Getting around the Chinese restrictions only seems to work sometimes, and never for Facebook. But I guess there’s no easy cure for the Chinese government. At least not in Mongolia.

Anyway, what of the Gobi? In the end, the so-called sights were a disappointment. The exception was Khongoryn Els, 300-meter-high sand dunes that sprout from out of nowhere. We got caught in a sand storm, made an unscheduled stop in a dusty provincial town to see a concert by Haranga (“Mongolia’s greatest rock band!” according to our tattooed interpreter), ate a ridiculous amount of mutton, and drove a *lot*.

I need to write more, but at the moment I’m, trying to type quietly while the other three people in my dorm try to sleep.

So, where am I, who am I with and where am I going?

At the moment I’m in Hohhot, the provincial capital of Inner Mongolia. I’m here with Karly, the Austrialian I met in Russia and happened to run into again in Ulaan Baatar. We did the Gobi trip together, and in a few hours we catch a train west.

Today we’ll go to Xiahe, a town with a Tibetan monastery. Then we’ll continue west go to Turpan, a leafy grape-growing city. It’s nearly harvest time, so it should be lovely. Then it’s Urumqi, the provincial capital, and finally Kashgar, the farthest west you can get in China, and a famous Silk Road town. Then we head back east, following the so-called “southern Silk Road” along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, skirting Tibet. We’ll end in Xi’an, see the Terracotta Warriors, and then make our way to Vietnam. We imagine all this will take about 6 weeks, depending on the number of bus breakdowns.

I’ll try to write more on the train an post from Xiahe. Happy September, everyone!

Gobi or bust

Hello friends!

In a few hours I am at long last leaving for the Gobi. Karly, the Aussie I met in Russia, and I have hired a van and driver to take us to the Flaming Cliffs (where archaeologists keep finding dinosaur bones, eggs, etc) and the great sand dunes. Then he’ll take us to the Chinese border.

I don’t want to leave Mongolia, but Karly’s visa is up on the 31st. and since we’re going to travel to western China together (Urumqi, Kashgar, then loop back to Sichuan province) I gotta go.

This means that, assuming my previous experience with shitty internet in China still holds, I won’t be posting extremely often.

The general plan is to go to western China, try to get to Xian, and then head for Vietnam, probably near the end of September.

I wish I could write more, but there’s no time. Sometime soon, however, I’ll need to find a place to sit for a few weeks and just write and think and write. I am, as they say, all backed up.