Mike's photo adventure weblog

Mike's photo adventure weblog: August 2008

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Future is Now (Update #11)

Upon landing in Japan I was expecting to be guided by multi-lingual robot assistants to a mag-lev bullet train which would take me directly to my destination. This did not happen. I obviously had some misconceptions about how advanced this country was. But after more than a week I've come to appreciate the subtle but brilliant design prevalent here.

For instance,

Taxis: Drivers can push a button to automatically close the rear doors.

Fridges: The door can open to the left and to the right.

QR codes: Lots of products feature 2D bar codes (called QR). If you photograph the barcode with your camera-phone, it will automatically retrieve extra information from the internet, such as nutritional information of McDonalds burgers from the wrappers.

Toilets: I've already mentioned the automatic lid opening and wiping, but even more brilliant is the tank refilling system: A tap pours water into a basin where you can wash your hands, before draining down into the tank to be used for the next flush. So you've washed your hands without using any extra water and without touching any door handles or faucets.

The people here are so very polite. It's very nice of course, but when an everyday encounter with say, a cashier, involves an endless stream of polite formalities it must begin to lose some meaning. There's even a really funny statement I've heard a few times to say 'Thanks', which is "sumimasen arigato gozaimas" or literally "sorry thank you" plus a polite suffix word at the end, for extra politeness!

More on the (polite) culture of Japan:

- While watching The Dark Knight in theatre (it just came out in Asia last week), the movie ended and the credits started rolling. I got up and went to leave but when I reached the doors I noticed the lights still hadn't come on. And nobody else had gotten up! Fascinated, I stayed to see how long they would wait. The entire audience sat through the whole credits.

- With no cars coming from either direction, people will stand at an intersection endlessly awaiting the 'Walk' sign. I don't hesitate to j-walk here, which was the norm in China. In fact more than a few times in China I triggered mass mob j-walks where dozens of people stepped off the curb with me to cross a busy street, stopping all traffic despite our clear absence of right of way.

- Public sleeping is totally acceptable, and you see people napping all over the place. Sometimes I wake up (hey, when in Rome..) on the inter-city train to find no less than half the passengers dozing. And as Afton pointed out after living here, people have an amazing ability to wake up just in time for their stop.

I've put up some more photographs accompanied by explanations on my flickr set (click the thumbnail!)



Rising Sun (Update #10)

I have continued my eastward trend and have come to Japan. Before commenting on all the zany things this country has, and how completely different two neighbouring countries can be, I'll say a few things about China:

I spent 64 days in China including Hong Kong, and visited 17 provinces. There is far more to see but I think I covered much of it, leaving for another time the furthest reaches of the north-east and the south-west. The country is a world unto itself: The history is long, the country vast, the population enormous, and the ethnic variations rich. Most of the young people desperately want to travel within their own borders before ever considering moving away or traveling outside of China. Many even have shockingly little knowledge about the outside world -- because to them, like I highlighted earlier, China is the world.

I spent my final days in Beijing eating Peking Duck and having engaging discussion with Oker (who spent longer in China than I, and speaks the language), and returning to the restaurant a few nights later for the most expensive dinner of the trip with Jordan. In between, Jordan and I visited the most hiliariously menu'd restaurant in China Our choices included (rewritten exactly as shown):

- Heat the oil Splash at Similar Stick The Noodles

- Like Helmets The Noodles [this was actually Naan bread]

- Northwest sheep face

And our favourite,

- Sour odor hot amorphopallus riveri filament [a bowl of noodles]

We laughed until we cried and the waitress who spoke zero english must have thought we were mad.

We also visited the Olympic buildings, with great difficulty. We couldn't ride the metro to them without tickets, and after crossing one section of an intersection passing 23 police officers (and not that many tourists) we found the bus that took us nearby the Bird's Nest and Water Cube buildings. As you've probably all seen from watching the spectacular opening ceremonies last night, the buildings are truly magnificent. But what you didn't see is the distasteful military barracks -- complete with camoflouge trucks, portable trailers and tall razor wire fencing -- that they've dumped in front of those wonderful buildings.

So, I'm in Japan, a land where toilets sense your approach and welcomingly open their lids and heat up the seat; and if you're feeling adventurous you can press a button and experience a refreshing but tickling spray of water to do the wiping for you. At this moment I'm not writing to you from a toilet -- though that would be pretty cool -- but from an internet & manga (comic book) cafe. My spacious private cubicle has a padded floor, beanbag chair, and sheets. I'm staying the night by buying a night package for $20, and they even have free drinks and a shower. This is a far cry from the warehouse-sized cafes in China where a sea of young people hack away at each other's virtual selves in online video games.

Culture Shock summary, so far:

- when taking the train in Japan I noticed demarcated lines on the floor where people calmly queue; and passengers disembark the trains before the others embark. In China a wave of embarking passengers push their way onto trains as you exit by swimming salmon-like through them.

- after a spectacular fireworks display in Kyoto I noticed all the people carrying their rubbish out of the park with them. In China the streets and public places are spotless, but not because people are clean. On the contrary -- people through trash wherever they please -- but an army of migrant workers roam public streets and parks cleaning up.

- Japanese being much richer are consequently larger. I have noticed far more obesity, and also much taller people here than in China. But people are also more active here, running or playing baseball in the parks; whereas in China people seem to be more sedentary but stay slim through healthy diet and very light exercise. (You'll often come across groups of 50+ people performing Richard Simmons-esque light aerobics)

- My first impression of how people appear differently is that Japanese tend to have larger eyes, noses, and jaws than Chinese; and the women have shorter legs.

- I realized what a monoculture China is in terms of style. Most young people dress very conservatively, but the women very elegantly. Business men tend to wear formal pants and shoes with golf-shirts. But in Japan the style is of the extreme kind. Businessmen wear formal suits with jackets in 35 degree heat. Some young people have outreageous bleached hairdos, heavy makeup, glasses frames you'd wear in Halloween, wild hats -- many young people even dress in traditional kimonos with wooden sandals -- the variation is endless.

Its quite daunting to be once again completely incapable of communication. All that Mandarin down the toilet! So far everyone in Kyoto and Hiroshima has fundamental english comprehension, but this won't be the case in the countryside. I'm finding Japanese much harder to pickup than Chinese, because everything is at least triple the syllables to remember. It doesn't help that most verbs and many nouns have polite suffixes that must always be added. Or that sentences are constructed subject-object-verb; or that that counting up numbers and counting up objects are completely different numbering systems. *sigh* I'll just point at the phrasebook or mime my way around the country.

Click the thumbnail above for more great photographs and stories.

-Mi-e-ku Fu-ra

Final China Updates

Here are the final three China updates from newest to oldest:

Escape from Xinjiang (Update #9)

The policeman on the phone hissed,
"You must leave Kashgar. Now." and hung up.

That's where the story left off before.

Some background: After 5 days of painful bureaucracy (an entire story itself) in early July, Jordan got his visa extension granted by the Beijing police. They kept his passport and gave an official government receipt, and ensured very clearly that we could travel anywhere within China using this receipt as his passport replacement. We did just this for a few weeks, until we reached the edge of the world in Kashgar where -- thousands of kilometers from Beijing -- the 'laws' are whatever the police fancy. (The Chinese proverb states "The mountain is high, and the Emporer is far".... so do whatever you want)

So as he instructed, we left town. Not permanently, but for 2 days to visit the beautiful Karakoram Highway and the Pakistani-border city of Tashkurgan. Of course this isn't what he meant when he said get out, but we're too clever to listen to instructions plainly. (Digression: On the highway trip we had to cross 3 military checkpoints. Our tour operator is big and has plenty of 'guanxi', or connections, that I spoke of in Update #8. When the military denied Jordan passage, our driver phoned the commanding officer directly, who arrived in minutes to order his underlings to let Jordan through. This was a real eye-opener -- to fudge the paperwork we were all written down as being German!). Upon our return to Kashgar we had to stay one more night, then catch an afternoon train the following day. Early in the morning the day of our train departure we went to the tourist police station to ask for Jordan's visa number, so we could appease the hissing, accented officer who was complaining 3 days prior. This turned out to be a really bad idea.

The woman hardly asked us what we wanted before snatching Jordan's all-important government receipt and grabbing the telephone to make 6 consecutive phone calls. Minutes later the police arrived and we were arrested and brought to the real police station for interrogation. This was pretty interesting.

Our lovely policeman -- who named himself "Max" with a laugh -- flip-flopped between telling us that (a) we completely misunderstood the Beijing police instructions; and (b) that the Beijing police were 'crazy'. Max hand-wrote a 5 page confession, in Arabic, that Jordan had to sign and thumb-print with ink in 30 places. During the hours I sat in the office, Max's partner "Abdul" was a very busy officer: He carefully balanced his time between drinking tea, staring out the window, and drumming his fingers on his desk. At one point an old man wandered into the office and without a word handed him $800 cash.

To make a long story short, we were still being questioned within an hour of our $120 train departure time, with all our bags unpacked in our hotel across town. Within 5 minutes of our train departure, we were still not on board. In the end we did make the train, but Max made Jordan pay an $80 fine/ransom/bribe and didn't provide any receipt. Jordan almost laughed out loud at the piddly sum, considering the 4 annoying hours it took the officer to issue the fine.

Ah but the fun didn't stop here! In our next city -- Turpan, the hottest place in China and second lowest place after the Dead Sea -- the hotelier saw Jordan's receipt and immediately reached to phone the police. My heart sank, aiya! And we had no evidence of the fine he just paid! Fortunately the ridiculous climate (44 degrees everyday we were there) means the town shuts down in the afternoon. The police were closed! Huzzah! We very suspiciously slinked away from the hotel, and spent the next 2 days hiding in the basement of another hotel with Jordan checked in as a New Zealander named Tarn (another story). Every footstep in the hallway made us freeze in fear, and I contented myself by consuming a kilogram of the most delicious grapes each day (for $0.75!).

To make things even more fun, all the internet bars in the city were closed to foreigners so we had to use the one temperamental machine in the back of the hotel's cafe to reach the outside world. Then we discovered as I tried to change my flight that the flight website was blocked by the Chinese government's Great Firewall -- but only for flights between our province and Beijing; all other flight combinations were okay.

This morning, from the comfort of Beijing, we read some shocking news. It seems that karma caught up with the police in Kashgar; this morning 16 police officers were killed -- by truck, grenades, and swords -- outside what may be the same police station we were interrogated at last week.

Tomorrow Jordan and I leave China, and I head to Japan for two more weeks of lessons in East Asian culture. For now please check out the final photos from my 8+ weeks in the Middle Kingdom, China. (click thumbnail!)

Nimen de pengyou,


New Frontier (Update #8)

In this edition: We learn about guanxi; Jordan nearly falls in a man-hole; the bureaucratic headache continues with a creepy twist; and we see how far from "Chinese" you can get with two consecutive 24-hour train rides.

On the train the other day I was recalling ideas about "Chinese food". As a child, Chinese food was oily fried brown rice, spring rolls, and shrimp or chicken balls covered with impossibly red syrup. When attempting to a explain fortune cookies to Chinese friends we met on the train I burst into laughter -- they had never heard of such things. I realized that in over 50 days here I have yet to see any of the aforementioned foods.

We also discussed with my new friends the idea of guanxi ('connections'). In China you need guanxi to get good jobs, apartments, or into good schools. It's not what you know but who you know. For people considering immigrating to Canada who feared their lack of guanxi, we had to explain that things don't work the same there.

Jordan and I have been moving steadily westwards after escaping the bureaucratic nightmare in Beijing. A 24 hour train ride brought us through Gansu province into Xinjiang; through poor and sparsely populated areas full of energy resources (coal and oil); and across Gobi landscapes. On more than one occasion we witnessed a coal mine out one window, and nodding donkey oil pumps out the other. But hours later we passed through Asia' largest wind farm. A land of extremes!

Arriving in Xinjiang we felt we landed on another planet. The people look and dress nothing like the typical Han Chinese; nor do they eat the same foods, or speak the same languages. We saw ginger-haired children with green eyes, men with long pants and kufi hats, and head-scarved women with thick unibrows. There were mutton dumplings and bagels everywhere. Signs that weren't just in four different languages, but four different alphabets! Greeting people in Mandarin, Arabic and English in a span of 10 minutes. Police with bullet-proof vests and automatic weapons (this province borders eight countries -- six of them Middle Eastern). And like mentioned in the intro, man hole covers that are faulty - we'll never step casually onto another Chinese manhole cover again after one trap-door nearly swallowed Jordan.

Now for the creepy story. Last night at 2am a heavily accented man opened Jordan's dorm room and asked "Which one of you is Canadian....?"
The American girl replied with her nationality, while Jordan smartly kept his mouth shut and pretended to sleep. The man quietly slinked off into the dark. I was awoken in the next room to Jordan's story, and we both slept uneasily the rest of the night. I had a wild nightmare. In the morning after I confirmed with Jordan that I wasn't dreaming, the boss stopped us at our door. He demanded we show Jordan's visa -- which we don't have, because it's in Beijing being extended! We were then put on the telephone with a heavily accented police officer who would only speak and not listen. He yelled for a bit, then hissed,
"You must leave Kashgar. Now." and hung up.

But no need to worry! We should have things sorted out soon.

I've uploaded more photos to the China gallery, especially from Kashgar's famous Sunday Market. The people look amazing, and aren't what you expect from China.


Go West (Update #7)

When I woke up, I couldn't feel anything below my waist.

Don't worry, I'm not paralyzed; but I imagine the feeling I experienced to be similar. I was riding a hard seat train overnight to Xi'an last night, and forced to contort my body into countless uncomfortable positions in order to rest my head against something comfortable. Like my knee; or a table. It reminded me of other terrible transportation experiences in the past (like the 'fish bus' or the 'vomit ferry' from my Africa updates), except that the story I have is not quite as entertaining: I spent 10 hours on a dirty train sleeping in 5-10 minute periods, and didn't get up once for fear of losing my awful seat to something much worse.

Hard-seat is a very interesting mode of train travel; once all the seats sell out, the tickets keep flowing. People cram the car beyond the clearly posted capacity, standing where they can or commandeering enough real estate on the side of someone else's seat to place a butt-cheek. In the past when trying to visit my friends in their hard-seat car, I swam through one train car of people before giving up and returning to my hard-sleeper car. It's crowded.

In Beijing I was joined by Jordan and saw the necessary sights nearby. I was struck by a few things, which made the city my least favourite so far in China.
- the people were the least friendly, and a few tried to rip me off (for $0.80; and they failed)
- their Mandarin is horribly difficult to understand, as they mumble and say "arrrr" a lot, like pirates.
- their ability to understand, or patience to attempt to understand, my 'Mandarin' was lacking
- the city is really sprawling and the sights aren't 'exciting' as much as they're 'historically significant'.

But there were some great things too. Like the Metro system, which was super cheap ($0.30) and featured computer animated educational videos about various olympic events. And of course the Great Wall was beautiful; we hiked it with a young surgeon we met there from Beijing, originally from Inner Mongolia. I reminded him that the wall was built to keep Mongols out of China. His english was poor so he didn't understand me. But I laughed enough for both of us.

Another awesome Beijing experience was the enormous mall of Silk Street where you can find replica watches, jeans, shoes, suits, ties, polo and lacoste shirts, goretex, and softshell jackets, all being sold cheap by pretty young women who think I'm handsome (they wouldn't flatter me just to get a sale, would they?). I usually warned them before I began bargaining that they're going to hate me before we were finished, because I bargain hard. As is the case everywhere in China, the people have number tags instead of name tags, and I always ask their *Chinese* name (since most have an 'english' name for foreigners). One girl selling watches had a particularly difficult Chinese name -- but a pin of Snoopy on her vest. Throughout the entire negotiation I kept calling her Snoopy and trying to contain my laughter (and Jordan's) over her half-laughing, half-annoyed protests about her actual name. I bought the watch from her, so everybody wins.

Now that I'm accompanied by Jordan (a Canadian of Chinese ancestry, who speaks no Mandarin), the locals here assume he's my tour guide, and ask him permission to take my photograph. After he finishes staring at them blankly, I reply in broken Mandarin that my friend doesn't speak any Mandarin, and yes they can take my photo.

So, now Jordan and I are heading to the western extremity of China. Our plan to Mongolia fell through on account of train unavailability, flight and visa costs, and inadequate time to plan and execute a proper tour. Instead we fought with Chinese bureaucracy to have his pathetic 12 day visa extended -- a fight that took 3 days, 7 visits to a bank, 3 visits to the visa office, and $3500 -- and we're going to see Xinjiang province. The province is a country unto itself: It makes up 1/6th of China's size, borders 8 countries, and has completely different languages, cultures, and foods. And should be less busy than the Beijing area!

I've added some more photos of course, so check them out and leave comments!