Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mongolian Adventures (2): The Road Into the Gobi

July 29th--

The phrase, 'screaming bloody murder' has new meaning to me now. 3 AM or so, at my chosen guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar. A 60-year-old American man comes back to the hostel, pounding on the door and screaming 'Wake up! Police! Wake Up! I'm an American citizen! You can't do this to me!" and proceeding to lay a variety of threats on Mongolia and this hostel in particular. The fellow even claimed to know the American ambassador... I was half-asleep and already I had no sympathy for the imperious brat (actually an old man). The story later came out that he felt he'd been cheated by his taxi driver--and may even have cheated the taxi driver himself. An insane response--particularly towards the hostel, which was doing everything it could to calm him and respond to his panic in a reasonable way... while also trying to get him a bit quieter so that the rest of us could sleep.

The next morning (morning proper, that is, with a risen sun and no psychotic old coots giving Americans a bad name) we met our driver, a quiet older fellow named Ganba, and our guide, a spunky young woman named Zolaa (pronounced a bit like Szoot-luh). With little ado (and only a short stopover at a net cafe) we were off on our way to the southern wastelands.

The road into the Gobi turned out not to be any proper road at all. While the Mongolians have a few two-lane highways that extend from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, these peter out rapidly. Then the real fun begins, as a multitude of dirt tracks expand across the open steppe. These tracks are left behind by SUVS, old pickup trucks, cars, horses, various herd beasts, and motorcycles. There seem to be no rules or limits on where the tracks may range, although the rainy season (late July through September) bogs down quite a few modern caravans in the depths of sudden quagmires.

Much like Montana, the landscape seemed fixed just a short step below the sky. Great burls of cloud let down rain, greening the wild grasslands as they passed by. Rocky spines intruded on our periphery. Herds of sheep, goats, and horses scattered about in search of food; great eagles stood watch, talons digging into the turf as they eyed their fleecy prey. Stately cranes stalked the grasslands too. I was hoping for more cryptozoological sightings. I had read in a local (English-language) paper that a British expedition was then using explosives in the southern Gobi to search for a creature known as the "Mongolian Death Worm". This death worm could shoot lightning from its anus and spit toxin from its mouth. It was also apparently attracted to seismic disturbances, hence the use of explosives as a sort of mating call to find it. Certainly this creature must make any must-see list (just below the slightly less rare, but rather more beautiful, snow leopard) of Mongolian creatures to sight... from a safe distance.

The lands grew more arid as we go (the opposite of the effect we observed coming up from Beijing), the grasses more yellowed. The passing rainstorms brought out vivid greens amid the yellow, though; rainfall set the dust ablaze with ruddy color. Wind-scarred rocks crept like gnarled goblins around the desolate remains of ruinous monasteries. The sun was low in the sky as we came to one such, a place known as Ikh Gazrin Chuluu. A Buddhist monastery was once sited there, before the Mongolian communists slaughtered the monks and toppled its stones. The remnants stand in a sheltered ravine carved from the bulbous surrounding ridges. The only trees to be found for miles are hidden away within the cleft, one reason this place is said to be a nexus of unseen powers, perhaps a locus on some Mongolian ley line. The ruins were peaceful, anyway, and one could see why monks would choose to meditate amongst the desolate beauty surrounding it.

Stone piles (called ovoo, a tactile form of prayer) trapped small offerings of food and money. Passing pilgrims bound the trunks of the lithe aspens with blue and gold scarves. The former monastery had not been forgotten by the locals. More eerily, cairns were scattered upon the ridge above--reminding me of 'Pet Sematary'. Do gruesome semblances of once-living dogs, children, and yaks prowl the steppe there at night? We didn't stay to find out.

A little girl--her hair shaven so short we first took her to be a little boy--greeted us as we ended the first day of our journey. The Mongolians consider it lucky to keep the hair short until about the age of four. We were welcomed into the gers of a nomad family. They shared their fresh yoghurt--so sour it could make a lemon cry for mercy--and a bit of soup with us as we sat with them around an iron stove. As we got to know one another, they showed us a bit of Mongolian humor as well: they told us they would give each of us a Mongolian name. The girls were given nice enough names, 'Adimii', 'Chitske', and 'Tuya', with meanings like 'apple' or 'sunshine'. Then the old men took a good look at me. Zolaa almost fell over laughing as she translated their naming of me: "We think you look like a Russian! So we want to give you a Russian name: Lenin or Putin."

That night, a man, recently rechristened "Putin" by a band of Mongolian nomads, dreamed sweet dreams of spreading tyranny and mayhem across Eurasia.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Deluge (of Reporting from China)

With Obama's first state visit to China earlier this week, there was bound to be a torrent of generic news stories covering that country--and indeed there was. I had a few general thoughts.

(1) No new news. The spotlight was on China, certainly, but there was nothing particularly noteworthy about what either Obama or China had to say publicly. There should have been some serious discussion between the US President and the various Chinese powers that be, as many a news piece hinted, but should I waste several minutes on an article that can do no better than hint at what should have been said? For the most part these articles accomplished the same thing usually accomplished for the US public: they provided some back story on China (for those who don't know anything about Chinese history), provided the laundry list of disagreements between the two countries, and provided the laundry list of contemporary problems the two countries should try to cooperate on. So while I appreciate that I'm probably not the target audience (i.e. I'm overly familiar with the basic 'China narrative), I also felt a bit of a letdown that 'spotlight' opportunity was mostly put to such generic use.

(2) The eternally undervalued Yuan. The Economist harps on the subject pretty much every week, and this week every major (non-Chinese) newspaper seemed to have an article on the subject. I'm in complete agreement: the Chinese artificial devaluation of the Yuan is akin to cheating the rest of the world, and China shouldn't be doing it. But... frankly I'd say it's time to stop whining, and start hitting China with harsh penalties until it actually does float its currency. Everyone treats 'tariff' like a dirty word these days, but sometimes a big, scary stick is needed to incentivize good behavior. Such a move won't really save basic manufacturing jobs in places like America (because there's always someplace where labor is going to be cheaper), but it would lead to a fairer apportionment of outsourcing to countries (SE Asian, S American, African) that need the export income and jobs more than China apparently does.

(3) The 'town hall' meeting. Obama's attempt to talk with the youth of China and answer some of their questions was a necessary and important gesture. For some time now, the Chinese (and youth in particular) have been upset that their voice isn't heard or their feelings understood enough on the international stage. While hearing and understanding are not the same as heeding or following (and some here might not understand that difference), it is a fair point to make. The CCP often misrepresents China, both by representing most-faithfully its own party interests before the country's and through its bad reputation abroad which often overshadows broader aspects of Chinese culture and opinion. This was an excellent chance to break through the wall of that still separates most of the Chinese public from the world; it also was a good example of Obama's pledge to at least listen to the world's reactions to US policy.

For that very reason, the event was threatening to the CCP--the very substance contrasts sharply with their opaque, 'imperial mandate' style of governance. Of course the newspapers abroad all pretended to gasp at the impertinence of the CCP for (a) stalling on whether or not to allow the meeting at all, (b) limiting Chinese domestic media coverage and access to it, and (c) vetting the audience and planting more than a few non-student CCP members. Well, come on. The CCP has no reputation for honesty or sincerity. As the Chinese would say, these guys are 'pianzi' (cheaters). I wouldn't have been surprised to heard that every person in that room was a vacuum-packed zombie cadre of the CCP, but they don't really have to strain themselves that far. The CCP recruits members heavily from the elite universities (much as US politicians heavily represent Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and a few other leading institutions), so finding 500 junior party members to attend Obama's speech should have been a breeze. And for all we know, that teacher supplanted a student simply because she wanted to see the US president and had the guanxi (influence) to do so. Recap: a positive event, despite its 'fixing'.

(4) And finally, we have all the sad laments about the decline of American power and the rise of Chinese power, particularly the loss of confidence among Americans due to the recession. Well, I don't know about those of you whom are still back home in the States, but the narrative strikes me as an unnecessary pity party. The Chinese right now are like a rubber band that has been pulled back for the past several hundred years, storing potential energy the entire time. Incompetent rule by a succession of imperial dynasties, warlords with pretensions to imperial power, and imperial communists has acted as a stopper on that potential, much as does the finger that pulls and holds the rubber band. All Deng Xiao Ping had to do (and I do respect him for doing this) was remove the restraint on China's natural potential, and... BAZINGA!

That's great for the Chinese--and for the world, if the Chinese can keep a lid on their imperial pretensions and chauvinism--but I don't buy the story that this rise (or return) has to come at American expense. Human progress is not a zero-sum game, even as it isn't assured. And while Chinese industry has been adept at profiting from shanzhai (fake) interpretations of American innovations, Americans should never forget where those innovations came from, and the conditions that made them possible.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

More Thoughts on China and the Zombie Apocalypse

That quintessential (and rare) day of horror, Friday the 13th passed beyond the barren western borders of China just a few short hours ago. In the spirit of the day, I watched the excellent new film, 'Zombieland'. Having heard a few details on the movie, I had dismissed it. Surely any new parody of the 'zombie apocalypse' genre couldn't out do 'Shaun of the Dead'? Well, I have to say that at least in some respects, this movie took a shotgun to Shaun's place in the pantheon of zombie parody and gibbed it. The key, of course, is that (like Shaun), Zombieland takes the genre seriously, creating an interesting storyline, sympathetic characters, and finding some hilarious new perspective on life after the big Z. Bill Murray's minor role was the cherry on the putrescent, rabid cupcake.

What I was left with, however, was a burning desire to see the zombie apocalypse in China. Hollywood being so Ameri-centric (and everyone knows its Cali-centric, since it's often cheaper and more convenient to shoot there), no one--with the exception of one or two sections in the novel, World War Z--has taken on the setting. If you thought Zombie America was bad, think about how things would play out in a country with more than four times the population, living in much denser communities. Although (in this case) the authoritarian government's massive army would count in China's favor, you do have to deduct the fact that very few private citizens own a gun or other proper anti-zombie weapon. Most Chinese (i.e. everyone except the spoiled middle-class youth) also haven't even heard of Bruce Campbell, so it does make one wonder what instinctive defenses would come to their minds as they watched a rabid corpse run their way... probably they'd get gobbled up, but there's plenty of room for innovation away from the hackneyed (but satisfying ) chainsaw.

The other point in favor of a movie about the Chinese version of the zombie apocalypse is the usual comparisons made (by such movies) between modern society and zombies. This sort of parody-rhyme on real life has become popular in zombie fiction--perhaps since 'Dawn of the Dead' and its comparison to mindless consumerism--and surely could be used symbolically to good effect. Granted, the western perception of the Chinese as a culture of brain-washed conformists is definitely overplayed. Every society has its share of brain-washing (think TV advertisement and Fox News) as well as conformist sheep to be herded by political, idealist, or religious symbols. My experience of China (perhaps not that of others) suggests to me that the relatively enhanced conformity of the education and political systems just brings into greater contrast (and sometimes greater extremity) those people in society who exhibit a strong character of some sort... and of course it's easy to miss the sometimes subtle signs of the individual amid such a vast, insular population when you are new to it and don't know the language. In any case, there are interesting themes to be played with... if done with the right understanding and subtleties.

In some sense (and I've said this before), Z-Day is a state that has--from time to time--already existed in China. The competition for survival can be brutal, particularly in the times of anarchy or famine which occur cyclically in China. The environment already seems to mirror a world of zombies--the wild animals stay hidden from ravenous humans, or end up eaten.

Hmm... maybe I need to write this script?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Thanks for all the birthday wishes!

Well, this will have to do as a substitute for actual replies (on Facebook) to the various people who sent birthday wishes. At the moment, the Chinese censors are relatively more successful in their blocking of my activities there: I can see the whole website--thankfully including some sections devoted to better methods of bypassing the Great Firewall which I will soon try to put into practice; I can't, however, post much at the moment.

So anyway, thanks for your wishes! My own birthday wish I shouldn't tell--as tradition dictates--but I think you can guess. I hope everyone else had a good 'Guy Fawkes Day' as well, and the various terrorists, hobgoblins, and 'culture warriors' burned merrily upon their respective bonfires.