Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mongolian Stories: Over the Border and Through the Steppe

July 27th:

Early in the morning, I rode out of Beijing on K23, the train line direct to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The train seemed almost deserted: maybe twenty westerners, half as many Chinese and Mongolians, and a bevy of sullen train attendants. The few passengers all seemed excited, however. The train compartments were decorated with heavy woolen rugs and blankets in patterns redolent of Mongolia or Siberia. The fan bolted above the window could have easily been soviet issue, as it clanked to life. I shared my room with a young 20-something Brit couple: Dave was a wind-power engineer who had been working in Beijing (and sometimes inspecting turbines in Inner Mongolia province... in the dead of winter); Susan had been teaching school kids in Ningxia province (another desolate part of northwestern China). She sported a mischievous sense of humor and a miraculous ability to figure out how the various 'Soviet-era' fixtures and mechanisms of the train could be made to work. Sean, an Australian programmer/surfer dude, settled in by himself in the compartment next door. Not counting our one train attendant, the rest of our train car was empty. The attendants, occasionally marching past our door, were stolid in physiology and brusque in manner. It almost seemed as if they weren't happy to be returning to Mongolia... or perhaps they just had hangovers.

Initially, the train passes through dry, wrinkled mountain ranges--possibly under but somehow past the Great Wall without our noticing it. Narrow valleys house brick villages as well as the occasional factory steaming in the morning light. Rivers rush onwards towards Beiing and the North China plain where they will soon be entrapped in reservoirs, sucked dry for irrigation, and polluted with runoff. But here in the mountains, the river still runs in unfettered enthusiasm.

The landscape rises higher and drier. Inner Mongolia spreads out beyond the wall once meant to keep it out. The province, after centuries of fighting back and forth over its border, finally fell to permanent Chinese control and cultivation in the Qing dynasty. By now its Mongols are a minority, their culture submerged in the same bathroom-tiled homogeneity to be found anywhere in China. This shaving sliced from the Mongolian heartland contributes to the general enmity Mongolians hold against China. More on that later. The land becomes more inhospitable by the hour. Isolated sheep ranches, coal mines, wind power turbines, dot the horizon. Desert sands appear as dusk falls.

We reached the Chinese-Mongolian border at midnight. The visa process and inspection was painless, although we were all subjected to an instant temperature reading from a laser thermometer beamed at our foreheads--an ode to the swine flu in its carmine gaze. The train was refitted with new bogies because Russia and Mongolia have a different standard than the rest of the world (an attempt to slow down any attempted invasions). Passengers were confined to the customs control house during the process. As we waited, a British fellow who sold insurance in Ulaanbaatar and Beijing told me about his first run up to UB (expat nickname for Ulaanbaatar). At the border, the engine exploded into flames and had to be decoupled and allowed to burn to the ground in isolation. Such a wonderful anecdote to have swimming in my mind, as we got back onto the train and tried to fall back asleep--now in the empty vastness of the Mongolian Gobi.

July 28th

I woke up mid-morning, bright sunlight reflecting off the desert sands of the northern Gobi--we'd crossed most of that desert in the night. Breakfast proved that bogies hadn't been the only thing to have changed in our train car: a Mongolian dining car had replaced the bland Chinese one, complete with a sullen Mongolian attendant drinking vodka (and carefully pasting the seal back onto the bottle after she was done sipping) in the corner. The car itself was ornate, with dense wooden carvings, bows, horsehead fiddles, and other Mongolian knickknacks for decoration. The land became greener, bit by bit, as we ate.

Around 2 PM we came over a mountain ridge, and into UB itself. The transition was startling, as most of Mongolia is a grassy wilderness undeveloped by outside standards in which nomads still live more or less as they have for thousands of years (with the addition of satellite and motorcycles, however). Even up to the edge of Ulaanbaatar (population 1 million out of the 3 million or so people living in the whole country), there is nothing but grass and grazing livestock until one breaches the city's central valley. Tents or 'gers' were the most common domicile to be seen in UB's suburbs. Wooden fences cross-hatched the hillsides, each defining a family yard in which sat a pure-white ger. We had arrived at the heart of Mongolia, a city exemplifying nomadic Mongolia's modernized future as well as its Soviet near-past. Our hostel, The Golden Gobi, was located in a residential quad next to the 'State Department Store', one of UB's main malls and a remnant of that former Soviet-satellite era. The Golden Gobi, a typical backpacker hostel benefits from a sense of the traditional hospitality of a Mongolian family. It is family run, and the first thing you do after coming in the door and removing your shoes and backpack, is to sit down and enjoy a nice cup of tea. Whether or not one stays in this hostel (or in one of the many others that have sprouted up in UB in recent years), it was quickly apparent to us that the Golden Gobi was a sort of nexus for traveler activity, with many backpackers just stopping by to band together and share costs (guides and transport are fairly necessary to traverse Mongolia's desert wastelands, frigid peaks, and grassy steppes if one doesn't have months of spare time) on their travel plans. I was fairly quick to arrange a trip into the Gobi and up through central Mongolia. My companions were two Danish girls, Bina and Louisa, as well as an American, Stephanie. I became a millionaire (after exchanging Chinese Yuan into Mongolian Togrog), checked up on Facebook (no Chinese censorship!), guarded my day pack and money zealously (Susan had her wallet snatched right out of her backpack by a pickpocket), and finished with an evening out on the town with companions once and future. Despite the misadventure of being assaulted by a dwarf beggar and the realization that a Tuesday night in UB is not prime time for nightlife, a good time was had by all.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Driving in China: The Deadly and the Dead

Recently the Chinese government has stepped up a campaign against various driving offenses (drunk, speeding, or other violations of traffic law; a major problem in China). Like many other campaigns--at any given time, there's always something!--I'm aware that this one has cropped up sporadically for many years. Some years ago, in the desolate town of Cherchen which skulks by the remote southern edge of the Taklamakan desert, I witnessed a battered and scarred poster showing car crashes--propaganda intended to scare drivers into obeying the traffic rules. The decayed state of the signage suggested that the desert sand storms of many years had rasped across its surface since the bygone campaign of its inception. The sign may soon blow away into the sandy expanse, but the problem it addresses won't.

The latest campaign may have begun this past spring, around the time that my college posted on its bulletin board full of edifying/horrifying pictures chock-full of dead and dying car accident victims similar to what I'd seen before. The other foreign teachers expressed disgust at the goriness of those pictures, but of course the intended audience was our wealthy, irresponsible batch of students: many of mine spent this summer practicing for their driver's license and I shudder at the thought. The image of one of those kids behind the wheel makes me more sympathetic to the government's methodology.

By late summer, the campaign must have been in full swing. In the little Miao (Hmong) minority village of Xijiang, set amid the mountainous countryside of Guizhou, Kiera and I watched a film version of the same. Drunk drivers were interviewed, traffic police were shown giving breathalizer tests, and further corpses were shown strewn outside the wreckage of their cars. This must have been diverting edutainment, because a decent selection of the townsfolk turned up to watch as the bloody images were shone (and shown) through the fabric of a white sheet strung up across the town's main road.

The fear of the local drivers pervades those of us who have lived here a while, but what has brought this problem to the surface at this moment? Certainly accidents are happening everywhere in China, all the time. Actually, I saw a taxi run into and tip over a woman on an electric moped earlier today. A co-worker tells a story of two little girls he saw killed on the streets of Suzhou, little, orphaned slippers lying askew in the middle of the intersection ahead of him. The richer cities are paradoxically suffer worse from deadly drivers, it seems. Suzhou and Hangzhou, both rich cities full of so-called 'Chuppies' or Chinese yuppies, seem to have some of the worst accidents reported in the news. Perhaps this is because wealth in China so often removes any sense of accountability (guanxi, or connections, is all you need to escape consequences in most cases); also because rich individuals have money to buy driver's licenses rather than go through the testing process. I have Chinese friends who have done just that--thankfully, the couple I'm thinking of don't yet have a car. The driver's licensing department here in Nanjing even provided a cheating service to a foreign co-worker of mine who was trying to get his Chinese driver's license. They provided, for around 400 yuan (approx. $60), a "translator" who just went through, question by question, and told him which answers to circle. Yes, Nanjing is a very foreigner-friendly city... but it's drivers aren't. I've seen enough flipped or smashed cars along its roads to be leery in extreme of ever driving here.

So Hangzhou was the scene of the latest furor--and what I imagine began this campaign for better driving. A rich kid drag-racing through the city killed a pedestrian. Another recent accident saw a Porsche kill a young girl, also in Hangzhou. This article ( talks about an elderly gentleman who threw stones at a succession of cars running a red light. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't considering doing the exact same thing. Clearly public opinion is coming to a head on the issue. Thus the crackdown. The problem with crackdowns, however, is that they often seem to end with little substantial, permanent change. A few show trials and many propaganda speeches later, the political elite move on to crackdown topics of personal interest to them and the nomenclatura to use their influence to continue their bad habits--whether whoring, gambling, driving drunk, or pirating foreign products. I hope, for the sakes of all who live in the grasp of China's grid, that this time is different: drivers less deadly, less of the dead.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sixty Years of Oppression... yay.

Little more than a week from now, TV channels across China--and news stations around the world--are likely to be blanketed with Soviet-esque military parades and other fun displays of Chinese chauvinism at its most presentable. As we know from the Beijing Olympics, when it comes to triumphant displays, the Chinese government doesn't stint. And so it will be for this little party for the Party--the CCP "liberated" China some sixty years ago.

The organizers know that any successful birthday, like its confectionary, is a mix of ingredients. Our first ingredient is the sauce of delayed gratification: students at Chinese universities have been ordered to remain studying until the very day before the celebrations, and not to get an early start traveling back home to their families for the national holiday. Certainly the Party has been burned by student idealism and discontent; the Party will chance no repeat of that old Tiananmen classic, 'Student versus Tank'. Next fold in the solidity of government strictures against hospitality: In Beijing, residents are being told to not invite friends or family to stay during what has long been one of three main Chinese holiday periods. Furthermore, the residents have also been told to seal their windows and stay off of balconies facing the parade route. Apparently, the festivities are primarily meant for the vetted participants and for the cameras, not for the common people of Beijing.

Add a bitter note of ethnic strife: the Party is taking no chances in Tibet, where foreign visitors are under yet further strictures (the few allowed in: NYTimes reports that China has now barred any further applications for foreigners to visit Tibet during the next three weeks); the government also reports having foiled a bomb plot in Xinjiang/East Turkestan, the restive Turkic territory in western China. Racial tensions are not going to disappear any time soon, and what better time for one to show displeasure with cultural assimilation than at the birthday bash of their oppressors?

And let us finish this concoction with a lascivious frosting... but not to be eaten until later, lest it distract from those glorious, oppressive flavors: as my family observed*, pink-light districts across China have been shuttered at least for the duration of the celebrations. Yes, that's right. Whores have been given an impromptu holiday in which they can celebrate the liberation of their country from bourgeosie depravity and exploitation. Doubtlessly, they'll be hard at work again in their parlors after the official vigilance has passed by again.

The flavors evoked by this mix of recent actions takes us back through the sixty years that the CCP has ruled China. While it is not fair to say that nothing has changed in their management of the country, it does make clear that heavy-handed control has never gone out of style. Subtlety, like the fresh flavors of a Cantonese dim sum delight, has never overtaken firey bombast and overkill--as exemplified by the mouth-destroying explosions of Sichuan pepper--in popularity with China's movers and shakers. The country has grown richer, more cosmopolitan, and yes, almost a parody of bourgeosie affectations, but the strategy and methodology of China's rulers hasn't really changed much in the more than 2,000 years of their imperial dominion. So, forget about a mere 60 years of communist dominion, let us give factual wishes for a chronologically greater episodic subjugation:

Happy 2,370th birthday, emperors of China past and present! May your actions bear strange and difficult fruit.

(*Yes, my sister was interested in seeing, in passing, the 'pink light' beauty parlors that infest China's cities. However, in neighorhoods of Xingyi and Chongqing once chock full of such places, almost every store front was shuttered. Other symbols of the pampered bourgeosie were not given repreive, however: our bus passed by a truck full of caged dogs bound for the restaurant.)