Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chinese: The World's Newest Dead Language

Chinese censors strike again: this time Chinglish (pidgin English based on Chinese grammar and idiosyncratic direct translation) is to be the victim.

Chinglish, RIP 2010?

I think not. Such hybrid language usage is far from dead. This does make me wonder about both the motives and the methods of the government in attempting to impose linguistic purity amidst China's debut on the world stage and accession to the forces of globalism. Mixed messages, a righteous volley against cultural imperialism, or just another imposition of the Great Firewall of China?

One motive may be that Chinglish (as well as English and acronyms derived thereof) can be effective in circumventing government censorship. Outright use of the English word 'government' on some BBSs, for example, sometimes hyphenated or with spaces as additional protection from the censors, allows commentators to directly reference the one party regime. The government could attempt to block input of non-hanzi characters on some websites, citing this new law, but is possible to block English (and Chinglish) from all the various non-governmental mediums such as social networks or text messaging services? Again, I think not.

Let us compare, moreover, living languages--such as the current lingua-franca, English--that attain wide global usage with dead languages incapable of assimilating alien concepts or making them easy to use. This government directive, then, is one step towards a harmoniously dead language, rather than a culturally vibrant, or creative language capable of innovating or renovating itself for modern usage. Less-than-grammatical borrowed appendages of the English language may offend snobs or nativists, but they are part of a larger creative process. Where would English be without bona fide Chinglish phrases such as "long time no see" and "chop chop", much less words like ketchup and tofu? And what of more elite loan words such as fengshui, kung fu, or yin yang? Descriptions such as 'salty/sweet tomato paste' or 'oriental martial arts' lack elegance and insert bulky explanation where none is necessary. The same problem happens when the Chinese broadcasters are forced to use the entire Chinese translation of a simple (and popularly understood) concept such as the NBA.

One last thought: will China soon be attempting to popularize acronyms based on pinyin transliterations of its own language? GCD (Gongchan Dang), for example, instead of CCP (Chinese Communist Party)? Or are any acronyms (by necessity romanized) verboten?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Waving the Bloody Shirt (if allowed)

Something I'd been meaning to get around to mentioning:

>Some months back, I was invited to go on a weekend outing with some of my students, a Chinese colleague, and the colleague's daughter. We were to visit a local museum, or perhaps climb the nearby mountain--I forget which. The important bit is that the outing was called off without explanation. Curious about this, I asked my students what had happened. The weather had been nice; no revolution had yet begun; everybody involved was in good health. Apparently, all students were quarantined within the university that weekend. My colleague probably felt embarrassed to bring the matter up--as with so many other political issues. The reason being that there had been a demonstration in downtown Nanjing, so the undergrad students in their isolated, suburban "university town" developments were being deliberately kept from the fun. This follows a theory (I may or may not have expressed on this blog) that one reason for the university suburbs so popular in China now is the ability to cut the vast majority of students off from the city center in event of any event the government does not approve of. There are, of course, other reasons for such developments, but this anecdote now provided solid proof of this theory. Later, trolling the web, it turned out that the weekend had seen a number of anti-Japanese demonstrations (related to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute).

While I find myself ambivalent at the idea of my fresh-faced young students being fascinated with a sometimes-racist nationalist protest of a matter that could be easily solved through diplomacy and concessions by both sides (and almost was)... I also feel quite sad that they were not allowed to see what a protest/demonstration is. Yet another example of how Chinese citizens, and particularly young people who are no longer children, find themselves unnecessarily treated as helpless, hapless children by their "strict father" government. I wish they could have been given the chance to see both what is nasty and base and what is exhilarating and uplifting in mass protest. They are old enough to discover their position on the matter for themselves. If the protest be an unreasonable protest which the government wished to keep from escalation, perhaps that should be seen as the consequence of frequent government sponsored anti-japanese "waving of the bloody shirt". Regardless, it is certainly not the fault of my students who are merely responding as they have been taught throughout their upbringing to respond.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Sinocan-Catholic Church (and its repercussions)

Does the Pope piss in the woods? I do not know, but, he is currently pissed at the Chinese government (okay, that was horrible). Several ordained bishops of the official Chinese Catholic Church (the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association or CCPA) were more or less kidnapped and forced to witness the ordination of a man chosen by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) without consultation from Rome.


The Chinese side of this story just sounds like Chinese politics per usual: the Revered Guo Jincai had the guanxi (influence) to rise in station, so the CCP made sure that he did so regardless of moral credentials or Vatican approval.

I'm surprised that the Economist--given its home country--was not reminded of a historical parallel.

As in: five hundred years ago, King Henry VIII decided he wouldn't accept a church controlled by a political entity in Rome, so he created his own church--under English state control. True, this occurred within the context of a more general religious schism (the Reformation); regardless, parallels abound.

Today, the Chinese state has created the CCPA for similar reasons: an understandable paranoia about foreign political entities maintaining influential operations within one's borders as well as rivalry with the moral authority of religion in general. Also, there exists (as did in Henry's England) a Catholic church in secret, recognizing the papal authority and meeting privately within members' homes.

Perhaps Rome should just disavow itself entirely of the state-owned Chinese catholic church? Is there really any benefit to be gained from the continued semi-association and semi-legitimization of the CCP's puppet organization? Reconciliation with the state-owned church recognizes that the Chinese government is not as fanatically anti-religion as it once was, but the apparent ascendancy of hardliners within China's government suggests that there will be few if any religious freedoms won through such diplomacy.

The problem, of course, is that the Roman Catholic Church is acquisitive and not particularly content with the knowledge that other forms of Christianity win converts for the base religion. I doubt it wishes to accept--as it didn't with the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches--a schism which creates yet another church more-or-less catholic in tradition but which has no actual ties (moral adjudication or otherwise) with the Roman Catholic brand.

And now the Orwellian twist! The Catholic church decried this latest action by the Chinese government as a violation of Catholic religious freedom. The Chinese government then turned around and claimed the Vatican's criticism as a violation of its (the atheistic state's, apparently) religious freedom. Aside from the question of whether a protest or criticism (verbal) can be a violation of freedom, I began to wonder whether the Chinese government would actually have any basis for argument along those grounds if the Vatican fulfilled its threats of excommunications or came up with any other actions against the CCPA. For that matter, if the threat of excommunication is viewed as an action, rather than a verbal threat, does that mean that the Chinese Communist Party is recognizing the Vatican's spiritual authority to enact such a threat upon the Chinese government's church-like organ? Does this mean that an atheistic government (albeit one that claims the ability to assign reincarnations to politically-acceptable candidates) recognizes a spiritual threat as an actual threat? The CCP does leave itself open for so many hilarious zi xiang mao dun (self contradictions). 

I give you this question: Could it ever be considered a violation of religious freedom to oppose a government's strictures on (or control of) religious activity?

The self-contradiction seems less so if one considers a state-backed church (like the modern Anglican Church) as a fully separate religious entity which citizens are fully free to join or not to join, to respect or disrespect as a religious authority. That would be to say that the Chinese government has the right to do whatever the hell it wants with its church-like organ, and the Chinese people have the right to view that organ with whatever disdain it earns.

Finally, perhaps we should view this matter as the theft of a brand: if the CCPA claims the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church, but views the Vatican's punishments as a violation of the CCPA's religious freedom, then perhaps the Chinese state is guilty of having stolen a brand (the Vatican's) which does not belong to it. This CCPA does seem similar to a shanzhai (pirated, knock-off) product--such as the Blockberry--trading on the good reputation of the product it imitates--such as the Blackberry.

My advice, Pope, is this: Perhaps the time has come for the Vatican to join the WTO and accuse China of moral and/or intellectual property theft.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Fifth

I did have a nice, long weekend--my birthday, the fifth of November, happened to coincide with my school's sports meet.

I've been thinking further on the meaning of the Guy Fawkes gunpowder treason plot. Wasn't this an example of Christian fundamentalist terrorism? A precursor of the IRA?

Far from being the social revolutionary hinted at in the movie, 'V for Vendetta', Guy Fawkes was a Catholic reactionary. If I had a nice bonfire handy, I'd be happy to toss him on. I do sometimes wonder if the U.S. needs a similar cathartic holiday on September, 11. Perhaps I've mentioned this before, but I think we could throw effigies of Bin Ladin onto twin towers of burning Bush, I mean brush.

Fashion Zombies Get a Makeover

I've been in China for almost five years. That's a frightening fact in itself. Given that time period, it would be reasonable to expect some changes. Hype provided by both the Chinese government media as well as foreign media suggest that China's current mantra is change: Change for the millions seeking economic upward mobility; change for China's openness (or sometimes lack thereof) to the world; change for the business climate and all the infrastructure that underpins it.

These examples are quite easily seen. Entire neighborhoods are being leveled to make way for leviathans of infrastructure and compositions of sky-sculpture from the trendiest architecture firms. But, five years spent in China reveal that these changes are just more of the same. Perhaps there is a more subtle evolution happening behind the veil of smog and skyscraper-barnacled horizons. The scenery of construction hasn't changed much in five years--recently-built streets experience precious few months of harmony before they are torn up and rebuilt-- but how about the people? Are they also merely static noise--a chaos abstraction--in their hearts, or have they reached new equilibrium points in that time period?

That's not a question I'm not prepared to answer at the moment. I have to ponder more on some of the conversations I've been having with various Chinese.

What I am prepared to talk about are some of the habits and behaviors that I found so fascinating on arrival in China. Habits aren't easy to change--says the computer game addict--and yet I've seen them do so.

NB: I now live in Nanjing, a far more cosmopolitan city than either Lianyungang or Chongqing. Some changes in attitude and dress might be reflections of that quality.

I remember a blog post from my first year in China. I excoriated the fashion-sense to be seen on the streets, and affirmed a (Chinese-American) college classmate's joke about the main external difference between Japanese and Koreans, and Mainland Chinese being the lack of fashion sense demonstrated by the latter. Does this unkind joke still make sense? Not from my observations on the streets of Nanjing in 2010. Perhaps off-brand, quirky Chinese outlets are still selling clothing meant for Martian prostitutes (in 50's B-movies) in the hinterlands, but it is no longer often to be seen in the major cities. It seems the Chinese fashion scene has reached accordance with world fashion in general--even if quirky bits of Chinglish still proclaim themselves from the otherwise sensible clothes.

Spitting. What foreign observer doesn't like to comment on the state of China's saliva, and whether it currently patters down on sidewalks from Harbin to Kashgar? My own observation is that public spitting is still alive and well amongst the country-folk and older generations, but its frequency seems to have greatly decreased--at least here in Nanjing. I only hear the torturing of tonsils followed by a watery 'thwack' about once or twice a week. Public campaigns for 'civilized behaviors' seem to have had an impact.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ashen Wisps of Hair

In any gathering of young Chinese you are likely to make a surprising observation: many of them, at the ancient ages of 17 or 21, have a significant frosting of white hairs radiating across an otherwise pitch-black scalp. Like the majestic silver-back gorillas, this fashion statement (intended or not) is not without its lining. But it does raise a mystery that I haven't answered to my satisfaction.

Is this a medical condition? Signs of bodily distress from all the pressure that young Chinese endure in the pursuit of good test scores, good college diploma, and a lucrative career? Deficiencies of an important nutrient? Evidence of the pod people? Shampoo chemicals run amok? A reaction to environmental hazards?

Or is this a fashion statement? Many young people--myself included--admire the Sephiroth look. That said, a few hoary strands do not make a pearly mane.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Wedding on a Budget?

I need some advice on how to conduct a wedding on a budget.

With a prospective move to US, visa/immigration costs for my fiancee, and costs of settling into our chosen destination (Seattle), the prospect of paying for two weddings (one in the US, one in China) has my financial future looking a bit grim. Furthermore, my Chinese in-laws have suggested that the Chinese wedding will cost about 50,000 yuan (about $8,000). While that's not an unreasonable cost for a wedding--a friend recently paid about 10k for her wedding, so she tells me--it may be unreasonable to expect that we can pay for one at that cost and still have money for another wedding. Not to mention, I'd like to keep some of my savings as a buffer/nest-egg for starting the next leg of life with all its various responsibilities and needs.

Unfortunately for me and my bride to be, we're up against a conception of honor, obligation and shame that permeates the bedrock of Chinese culture: "face". Face is the shame inflicted by the eyes of others--never the guilt one inflicts upon oneself--for not living or acting the socially accepted norm. Face is the obligation to succeed and become the envy of others. Face is being calm, collected when staring at calamity or injustice. All these and more. Face, as you might guess, insists that a wedding be a grand one, providing (among other things) a feast 30% more abundant in food than even the most gluttonous guests could possibly consume. While I've been hoping to plan simple and smart, spending at most a couple thousand per wedding, my fiancee's family has been thinking about the envy on their neighbors' faces.

Face has not always been unkind to me. Kiera's family perceived a great gain in face with their neighbors and friends for having caught themselves a foreigner as a future son-in-law. They are kind people, so I doubt they would have mistreated me in any case, but it certainly eased the acceptance of such an alien element into their lives. This conception of face is not without reason, but it does not fit well with an unconventional guy like me in an unconventional situation.

One bit of brightness, although it may sound crass in the extreme: the Chinese do have a tradition of wedding money given to the bride and groom. Some Chinese even manage to gain a net profit from their weddings. Alas, this does not solve my problem. Kiera's extended family and friends are not (by and large) well-to-do, upper-class or upper middle-class Chinese. Her father estimates we might get back about 20K RMB on an outlay of 50K. That still leaves about double the cost I was looking to pay on the Chinese half of my wedding.

Well, strategies for the weddings in general may have to be reformulated, and budget ideas may not translate well to the Chinese ceremony, but I'd nonetheless appreciate any ideas any one of you--out there in cyberspace--might have to share. Do keep in mind that although this blog gets re-posted on Facebook, as well as on Buzz and the blog at Blogspot itself, I'm not often able to get through the Chinese Great Firewall to check FB or Blogspot. Shoot me an email (to my Gmail account) or find me on Google Chat/AIM.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This Island is... Diaoyutai or Senkaku?

Island disputes in the waters surrounding China seem to be all the rage of late. The Paracel, Spratly, and now the Senkaku/Diaoyutai island chains are being contested by the resource-hungry rising powers of East Asia. Will the world's next naval conflict be fought over these barely-emergent atolls and shoals? I'm beginning to worry that it might, and plan to be long gone from China when that does happen.

The surrounding fisheries might be reason enough to covet these islands--remote outcrops that support few if any humans, and in some cases only the odd goat or a few colonies of seabirds. But like many major conflicts in the world,the natural gas and/or oil below the seafloor seem to be the root of the problem. I doubt that China would see fit to attempt to claim the ENTIRE South China sea if not for the resources supposed to be down there, and I doubt the Chinese and Japanese would spend much time wrestling over the Diaoyu/Senkakus if not for the natural gas fields located squarely where Japan claims (and China disputes) the sea border between their two territories.

These disputes could be solved amicably through negotiations (China has certainly settled disputed borders with almost all of its other neighbors, excluding India), and many observers had thought that such a resolution was well on its way to reality--Japan and China had agreed to jointly exploit the gas reserves along their border. However, lately China has taken a bullying, sometimes petulant, approach. A zero-sum, winner takes all, Neocon approach to diplomacy seems to have taken root in Beijing. Why?

Is it that recent financial turmoil has given China's government a new confidence in its clout? Or, conversely, is this evidence of weakness: that China's central government is now beholden to the whims of a variety of special interest groups--populist, military, and industrial? Opaque in its methods and its considerations, it may be impossible to pinpoint a singular, main reason for the recent aggressiveness of China's foreign policy. Many possible culprits exist.

Chauvinist nationalism has been promoted among the populace to replace the defunct ideals of socialism (with or without Chinese characteristics); in recent years, China has reaped unpredictable dividends from this educational campaign. No longer do top leaders seem to have much leeway in negotiating foreign policy, particularly when it comes to territorial claims or protecting Chinese and Chinese interests overseas. Does it seem odd that an authoritarian government bows to populist pressure at all? Perhaps the politburo feels that giving in to populist pressure on foreign policy issues allows it to ignore demands for domestic reforms.

China's industrial/military complex--like in other major countries--seems to have grown in power and sway as well. Territorial claims (and bordering territories where China's cultural assimilation process is yet weak) certainly come under the remit of military concerns. Unfortunately, some of the top brass seem to have reached their melting points in these recent, relatively peaceful times. Several top generals have weighed in on a variety of border disputes, rarely with anything diplomatic to say, whether or not it aids China's foreign ministry. How much power do they exercise over China's leaders? Again, hard to say, but clearly the CCP can not rule without the aid of the military. As one of my Chinese friends put it: "The moment the army turns on the Communist Party, many of us would be happy to end one-party rule." Consequently, military aggressiveness, like populist chauvinism may be a force that cannot be contained, or as the Chinese might say, a tiger that must be ridden.

Last, industry may also play a large part in the unfolding drama of the barren islands. Steel price negotiations, revaluation of the yuan currency, and China's strategic loans to resource-rich countries have all shown the degree to which China's government and its business establishment have melded into one entity. Fossil fuels to be extracted so close and so cheaply could hardly fail to attract the interest of powerful bureaucrat-businessmen within the state-owned energy companies. I have read that Chinese negotiations to buyout Australian resource extraction company, Rio Tinto, were organized from the office of the premier, Wen Jiabao. Consequently, when Australian governmental and populist unease blocked the negotiations, anger reached to that very same lofty office in the official heirarchy. Retribution shortly followed. Is there a parallel to be seen?

While the Japanese have at last released the Chinese fishing trawler captain, the Chinese are now demanding an apology. An apology for a legal process and relatively quick release that would not have occurred had the shoe been on the other foot? This bodes badly for peace in the seas surrounding China, whether populism, militancy, industrial greed, or diplomatic overconfidence be the cause. I would wish to be neither fish nor trawler in those frought seas.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Concerns in a New Semester

A new semester and a new school. Both seem to be going well, thus far.

Pros: Motivated students well-qualified to take the IELTS exam; a computer with a printer (although the computer seems to be the exact same one I had about 10 years ago, back in the states); housing in a nice hi-rise condo in downtown Nanjing.

Cons: The campus is huge, and my oral English classes--and office--are on the exact opposite side of it from my IELTS writing classes; my direct boss (of the foreign study program) seems to be the penny-pinching, more concerned with cutting costs on foreign teacher maintenance than on taking care of those particular charges; my office is a barren shell of a room in a building where the paint flakes from the walls like a grove of birch trees.

Other current concerns:

> Starting the process to obtain a fiancee visa for my fiancee. The outright costs look to be about $1500, not including medical exams, translation fees and suchlike. Yikes.

> I wrote (or adapted) a few nursery rhymes for Kiera's kindergarten classes. One of the kid's parents happens to work in publishing. They have an idea to publish a book of English-language nursery rhymes adapted where necessary to make the language easier for 5-year old Chinese kids to learn. They want to hire me to write/re-write the nursery rhymes. This idea has a lot of profit potential, apparently. The parent/publisher gave Kiera a 500 yuan "Teacher's Day gift" on her phone--both a practicality for future business calls and a standard Chinese method for obtaining guanxi (influence) in order to reserve Kiera's (and my) services. The parent has also suggested that the book would include some mention of the school where Kiera works. Great advertising opportunity for the school--the boss is thrilled--and a great way for the publisher to work out any problems with Kiera's main employer before they develop.

> Preparing for and looking for a proper career-type job in the States. Seattle, specifically. In order for the Fiancee visa (and then Green Card) to be issued, I have to have an income of $10,000, then $17,000 a year in order to prove I can support my new bride. So, despite having saved up a small nest egg, the job issue is a crucial one. Great timing to be looking for a job, also, right? But despite all the doom and gloom in US news reports and the perceptions of the middle and lower classes, I have a lot of faith in the economy of my home country. Jobs do exist, for people with skills, talent, and the willingness to take on less-than-perfect work as a stepping stone. I believe that, and I hope my belief is not misplaced, because now all our plans are riding on it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Problems, always problems

There's just no relenting by the forces of Murphy's Law. It turns out that the Foreign Affairs Officer at my previous school booked me for the wrong visa. This whole year I have been incorrectly and illegally working while on a 'student' residence permit. I have no idea how she even finagled this, but we're guessing she did so because the student residence permit might be cheaper, and she can just pocket the difference. Well, she seems to be out of town (or just not answering her phone, which would be just like her-eternal-laziness), and my visa runs out on the 31st of July. So even assuming that I don't get kicked out of China about one week from now, my travel plans for the month of August might have just gotten kicked in the teeth. I have to have my residence permit thing worked out so that I can take my passport with me while traveling in China (needed for checking in at almost all hotels and hostels--just the ones that aren't technically allowed to house foreigners will keep you off the books, and thus not need to see passports).


My Burmese Days (5): Pilgrims of the Golden Rock

My previous missive (over a month ago!) left us on the shoulder of a highway several hours north of Yangon. The time is about 3:00 AM. A large pig roots through darkness in the ditch below the highway. Several Burmese are seated with us on flimsy plastic stools. My plan is to flag down a bus heading to Kyaiktiyo (pronounced: jike-tee-o), the place of the holy, golden rock poised at the brink of a mountaintop. The fellows seated nearby have other suggestions. A pickup--much like the "jeepneys" of the Philippines--hurtles from the dark, and in we jump. Cold wind whistles through the interstice of our clothing, and we huddle with little old ladies, their baskets of fresh-picked roses ( the fragrance a presence as well), and a rack of gas tanks warning us not to smoke. An old woman sat smoking towards the back, sandals hanging off into oblivion. Forty minutes on, Kiera and I are passed on to another pickup like batons in a relay race. And we do race on, the dawn sneaking towards us as we do. Our new coach is laden with sugarcane, and my knees are scrunched up at eye level in order to accommodate it. Kiera is none too happy, either. A fourteen hour bus ride and then this? And I do not even know if this will be our final truck in the journey towards the golden rock. It isn't.

Day 8

Passed on again, an ancient lady--squished against Kiera--belches constantly and the surreal, serene pre-dawn blue infiltrates our muddle. No one speaks a word of English. Minority women, most likely Mon or Karen chatter on in their own languages, and the need for a bathroom break makes itself known at this least convenient of moments. I can't find the correct translation in my guidebook, and my garbled Burmese enlightens no one. We arrive in the village of Kinpu around 9 or 10 AM.

Kinpu is a quiet village resting at the base of the mountain ridge where the golden rock, Kyaiktiyo, perches. Jungle canopy shades the motley wooden assortment. The town is named for a arboreal seed pod that yields the natural shampoo that helps keep many a Burmese coiffure glossy and black. Oddly enough, the subject of hair brings us back to the object of our quest: Kyaiktiyo.

The golden rock was not always golden, one must guess, and neither did it always perch precariously on its aerie, gazing at the distant sea. The perfect balance of this cottage-sized rock upon the edge of the abyss is aided by the presence of one of Buddha's hairs somewhere beneath its bulk. And how did this wondrous rock get to where it is now? It was floated there, of course, on a flying ship captained by an alchemist prince of yore, from its origins in the depths of the ocean. No one seems to know exactly why the stone was brought from seabed to mountaintop, the logic lost to the mists of time. Now an object of pilgrimage, we see how the animist traditions live on within the folds of Burmese Buddhist tradition. Worshipers of the rock ascend the mountain and daub it in eternal layers of gold leaf, and where is Buddha to be found in all this fuss?

Regardless of the compromised theology behind it, I respected Kyaiktiyo. First, like all good pilgrimages, sweat and tears and a bit of sacrifice had brought us here. Fears and a little bit of fury. Through an all-night odyssey of cramped conveyances and a final, steep ascent, we had moved towards this lodestone. I'm still not sure if this stop on our journey through Myanmar felt predestined for Kiera, but for me it did. Ten years previous, I had sat in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, absorbed by photography and a description of Kyaiktiyo. Buddhist I may not be, but this had been an actual pilgrimage for me.

Marbled paving, heated by the afternoon sun and slick with the wax left by evening pilgrims, caps the final few hundred meters of ridge approaching the rock itself. Young monks in crimson robes stand beside us on the quieter, inland side of the plaza. Lands disputed by minority militias race away towards the Thai border. A helipad plasters a knob of ground closer below us. Tourists gravitate to the seaward side and its golden glint. A small pagoda rides the back of the rock like a barnacle on the shell of a sea turtle. Men are allowed across a short bridge that guards the rock itself. There they prostrate and wrestle little square tabs of sticky gold leaf onto the available surface of the Kyaiktiyo. Wisps of fugitive gold leaf flutter in the turbulent winds that wash across the face of the rock, and off into the abyss beyond it. Semi-detached bits curl in the wind like the fluff of a newborn chick. The hair and clothes of the pilgrims is speckled with wealth.

 A mere hop away, a terrace projects. Women are allowed to worship the rock from there, or from a desk that extends down the cliff face beneath the rock. God forbid the men behind and above should accidentally shift the rock with all their fervent daubing, down upon the bent heads of the women worshiping below.

I cross the bridge and tamp down some gold. On closer inspection, the surface within range of pilgrims' hands bulges and undulates with accumulation. The brilliance of the gold here is blackened with the grime of a million imploring fingers and the natural shampoo of a million bowed heads.

Day 9

Down the coast to Mawlamyine (Ma-lee-myen) where George Orwell was once stationed. We're in the long, thin tentacle of Myanmar that gropes its way south between Thailand and the Andaman Sea. Much of this region is off-limits to tourism, particularly in the mountainous territory inland. Bombings and incidents between the national army and armed minority militias are not unknown in these parts. That said, the trip is uneventful. A thousand palm trees nod assent in the drowsy tropical breeze. Kiera has never been to the ocean, and we hoped to find a beach where she can make that acquaintance. What we found, however, were reedy mudflats and a romantic city sleeping by the sea.

Approaching Mawlamyine, a great bridge crosses the mouth of the Salween River (now called the Thanlwin). Both north and south of the river, a ridge accompanies the highway and backdrops the city. Spines of numerous golden paya erupt from its backbone. The bridge crosses above Shampoo Island, so called due to the hair-washing rites that ancient royalty took part in. The city itself is decaying grandeur: teal mosques and high-peaked temples of teak are lost among ravenous, long-limbed banyans.

Arriving hungry, we set out to find what seafood delicacies were to be found. What we found, however, was a local marriage ceremony for a young ethnic Indian couple. Two of the guests (a Burmese and his ethnic Chinese wife) invited us upstairs from our chosen restaurant where we supped on caramel ice cream and met the happy couple. This was probably about the thousandth happy accident I've experienced while traveling. My advice? Forget cast-iron plans and let the accidents happen. Given the language gap, we could have easily refused to be beckoned upstairs.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Burmese Days (4): The Pagan Plains and Mount Popa

What is now called Bagan has at other times been named "Pagan". I'm not sure if that's happenstance or a Western judgment of this sultry plain strewn with a multitude of brick temples and raised plinths dedicated to an un-Christian god. Regardless, I couldn't resist the alliteration.

Day 6:

Sandy tracks proliferated among the brush and temples, sucking at the ravaged tires of our bikes. Vendors, today's temple guardians, stick close to their fount of spirituality and present-day wealth. Sand paintings, postcards, and the usual assortment of contraptions that clueless tourists buy. Considering Myanmar's closed economy, a vital string of potential sustenance for people who have no other strings to pull.

At one magnificent pahto (full-blown temple with interior circuit) squirrels clung to crumbling crenelations. Hop-scotch across sun baked stones became necessary--we shed our shoes on crossing into the temple grounds, including the outer courtyard. The peace is interrupted, and a meal, when I'm backing up to try and get a picture that can encompass the height and breadth of the temple. A hiss interrupts my thoughts of composition, and an angry snake left off wrestling with a dazed gecko. The snake quickly disappeared into a chink in the temple wall, but the gecko remained sitting upon the brick of its almost-doom. Dazed, perhaps, or just wary of this new bipedal savior.

The next temple is accursed. Spires rise from the burnt-umber plain, blunted. Unfinished. A cruel and hated king of ancient Myanma built this place. That king had decreed that the bricks should be fitted so tightly together that not even a pin could be pushed between them. Slots in the walls supposedly are where the king had laborers' arms chopped off--slashed from living bodies that hadn't managed to build the temple to the king's exacting standards. Some years into the construction the king was assassinated and the interior of the temple bricked up. Sealed with its evil memories inside. Coincidentally, Kiera's bike went completely flat (one tire broke open along a lateral seam) while we were inside the cursed temple. We scuttled back to the hostel, defeated for the moment.

Another sunset watching the Bagan plain. After nightfall we biked along unlit roads towards the most famous (and most touristed) temple, Ananda Paya. We walked in just minutes before closing and got a guided tour from one of the caretakers. Bat flit in the cavernous interior; a 10 m Buddha carved from a single pine tree trunk (hardwood trees of such splendor must be long gone from Myanmar) gaze down at us, mingled apathy and bemusement in those eyes. So I've always felt. Mini-Buddhas occupy the hundreds of niches that interpose each giant, cardinal-point Buddha.

Day 7:

We got up very early to start the first of two pilgrimages we undertook while in Myanmar. We chartered a minibus with two European couples. Outnumbered by the Europeans, I fear Kiera had a difficult time keeping up with the chatter. These days in China I don't get so many chances for quasi-scholarly conversation. Our conversation took us past the bumpy miles of washed-out road leading to Mount Popa.

Mount Popa's veneration predates Buddha, going back to the pantheistic nature worship that prevailed in Myanmar before the arrival of saffron-robed monks from the Indian subcontinent. Mount Popa is the home of the remnant, Nat spirits. Are they angry that they're no longer the sole gods of this golden land, or just grateful to be given any sacrifice, any attention? As with other Asian cultures that took up Buddhism--but didn't wish to forsake their native religion--the Nat pantheon was given a place as servitors of Buddha, using a theological loophole. A compromise that allows them to remain revered.

Mount Popa is a spire of shriven volcanic rock, a core from while all the dross has been eroded over the ages. The palace of the Nat rests upon its brow, much as fabled Olympus. Whether or not the Nat actually reside there, simian servitors certainly do. A horde of monkeys awaits on the winding stair that ascends the cliff face toward Nat heaven. The excrement and piss left by unrepentant monkeys exceeds the alms left by penitent pilgrims. And we had to climb the mountain barefoot!

Pilgrimage should never be without trial or treacherous obstacle, however. As it is, the cement and iron re-bar path, carpeted in parts and tiled in others, is too easy on the foot. I can only imagine what manner of rocky, sandy path and bamboo ladders might have once existed here as access and egress from the home of the gods.

Knowledge of the Nats, unfortunately, was beyond our ken--we didn't hire a guide--and as a result, the full effect may have been lost on us visitors. The Nats themselves were mannequins dressed in fairly ordinary clothes that would look at home in any Asian mall, rather than this sanctum sanctorum. They all had a pissed-off expression molded into their plaster faces. I suppose they have reason. "Damn you, Buddha! You fat bastard." You'd think that all the (admittedly nearly-worthless) Myanmar currency deposited around them and pinned to their clothes would mollify them a bit.

The panoramic view from the top: dry lowlands crisscrossed by pilgrim trails to one side; a high, volcanic rim sheathed in fog and monsoon forest on the other side. Once upon a time this must have been a true Olympus, aloof from the earth beneath and insulated from the troubled country beyond. Now, a Disneyland kitsch and the overall ease of the ascent detract from the spiritual ambiance. What Mount Popa does have, is the steady stream of very real, very devout pilgrims that come here. The worship of the Nats and the mercurial natural world they represent (see above: monkeys) yet lives on.

On my descent, a monkey napping in the rafters was disturbed by my passage, bared his fangs, and made to jump at me. Who is the Nat of Monkeys that I should placate?

Day 7 1/2:

Another dreadful twelve hour bus ride through the Burmese night, past the stolen wealth of Nay Pyi Daw. Epic sore butts. Our bus left us on the shoulder of a deserted stretch of highway outside the town of Bago. Three o'clock in the morning. The next adventure began there.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

My Burmese Days (3): The Road to Bagan

Day 4:

The murderous tropical sun caused Kiera to lament for a parasol--boating along the dockside shores of Yangon was out, then. The sampans on the Irrawaddy lay bare to the heat. Would we travel up to see the gems museum--but avoid buying any of the gems for sale in the attached Junta-run gems market? No, we opted to get cheated out of about $30 by a black market money changer instead.

On our way to the train station, I allowed myself to be beguiled by an offer of 1,000 Kyat on the dollar. Kiera, by contrast, was the voice of reason, and I should have listened to her. We were led to a darkened stairwell next to a youth hostel at the Sule pagoda's roundabout. The moneychangers split the stack of money they were trading for my 'Benjamins' into two sections--asking if I wouldn't like to trade more than just $200? I counted one stack, handed it back to the fellow (see the mistake?) and counted the other stack. They then proceeded to kick up a fuss about the annotation of the notes--HB on my notes, but CB notes have often been refused in Myanmar due to a counterfeit 'superbill' that had circulated some years back. I stood up, ready to take back my dollars and walk out (I had the kyat back in hand), and they backed down. So here the darkness, the fact that I was planning of leaving Yangon for the countryside that day, the diversionary tactic, and the fact that kyat are so devalued that it is unwieldy to count an entire stack of 200,000....

Oh well, it could have been worse. I decided to change *only* $200 (and kept back another couple hundred). Palming off 30,000 Kyat ($30 at the exchange rate they claimed they wished to give me, or about $22 at the exchange rate given at our hotel) from a stack of 100,000 kyat was about the limit of what they could possibly take, given the circumstances. So let all future travelers beware: Exchange your dollars with neither tourist-area black market exchangers or the Myanmar government--both are reliably criminal.

An old city train--probably British-era--encircles Yangon. The train cars were battered, rusting, with wooden planks for flooring more commonly seen in a barn. Creaking as it swayed on mangled tracks beneath us, the train carried us onwards as we pushed through curious, helpful crowds of Burmese. Piles of fruit and small goods lay about the train car, strewn like turds behind a horse. An area at the back of each train car is roped off. This might be called first-class seating--instead of sitting on our haunches among the holloi polloi, we needn't even knock elbows in the section reserved for low-ranking soldiers, police, and tourists. These three groups are the only forms of VIP likely to be stuck on this trundling mode of transport. At least we were getting value for our overpriced $1 ticket fee.

3:00 PM - 4:00 AM

The bus ride to Bagan really did take that long, eating its way across the dusty central plains of Myanmar. Scrub brush and prairie grass as far as the eye could see--not exactly what one pictures when thinking of tropical Burma, but reality rarely does fit itself to the distant predictions of armchair wanderers. Bumpy, cramped, uneventful.


Sometime around midnight, the unlit darkness pared back to reveal multitudes of sodium lamps borne on their poles like the slim palms of a Hollywood boulevard. That demonic, vermilion glow was appropriate illumination for the newest creation of a junta gone mad with money and numerological paranoia: Nay Pyi Daw. The brand-spanking new capital city of Myanmar.

Is Nay Pyi Daw a developmental oasis in an otherwise parched and unlivable section of the country, or is it a mirage that will eventually become just another ghost town in a county dotted with the projects of power-mad kings? Analysts around the world tried to parse the decision in 2005 by Myanmar's junta to relocate the government from downtown Yangon to an area of barren fields some 200 miles north of it. Some said that the Iraq invasion inspired the paranoia of Myanmar's junta, Yangon being more susceptible to seaborne invasion; some said that astrologers and numerologists had precipitated the move by playing on the superstitions of the generals--most of the now-rotting capitals of Burmese kingdoms past were built for similar reasons; and the generals themselves claimed that Yangon was too constrictive, not spacious enough to allow for expansion of the government. Any or all these reasons could be true.

What is also true is the unimaginable amount of resources it cost to construct--in a country where electricity blinks on and off constantly, public utilities in even the largest, most urbane city of Yangon are crumbling, and the vast majority of its population lives in abject poverty. Can a capital be a crime?

Triple rows of unblinking lights cast light on ostentatious sculptural effigies; flower gardens sprouted from dessicated earth; massive new boulevards sketched wanton runes of oppulence across the dark, empty plain. Spas, malls, and mansions clustered like torpid zombies by the side of the highway. This place built for SUVs and gated communities--a new Versailles or a new Beverly Hills?--fawned upon by every infrastructural advantage conceivable. Whatever other conclusions one might draw about Nay Pyi Daw, the most obvious one was just how insulated the ruling elite would be from the mundane difficulties experienced by their subjects. The aftermath of Cyclone Nargis would be but the first of many horrors that these McMansions on the road to Mandalay would be able to ignore.

We arrived in Bagan around 4:00 AM, the stillness of the early-morning dark cloaking both village and the wonders beyond it. Avoiding the touts, we walked across the road and onto unlit sandy lanes. Both stillness and darkness were occasionally punctuated by the chug of generators and the filaments of light that they supported. I think we walked past our intended hotel (which had neither generator nor light) several times before a helpful local cast a high powered flashlight across its entrance for us.

Day 5:

We woke at noon. A batch of Indian curries served on palm leaves dispelled the last vestiges of fugue from our stomachs and minds. The owner of the restaurant was once a gem salesman in Myanmar's center of ruby mining and trade: . He appraised the ruby of Kiera's engagement ring: real, but apparently rubies of that size used to cost only $1, back in the day, rather than the much more expensive price I paid for it. Nonplussed, I hired a couple trishaws (bicycle rickshaws common to Myanmar and other parts of SE Asia) to take us to Bagan's UNESCO treasure trove. Kiera's driver was so old, wheezy, and decrepit, we were concerned that he might up and die as he strained at the peddles of the trishaw.

Bagan: A vast, dry savanna dotted by hundreds of ancient brickwork temple spires. A mere skeleton of its ancient grandeur, when the cruel kings of old sought to placate the divine with the building of these temples, Bagan is still easily one of the wonders of the world. Like Angkor Wat, but more numerous in its spires, and much more dispersed. No one picture could ever possibly encompass or capture the breadth of this place. I tried to do just that, of course, if only in microcosm.

We shed our shoes and climbed up to the roof of a lonely pahto (pahto: a type of temple containing an interior as well as several accessible decks on its roof) sited well off the main road and halfway to the greasy, green waters of the Irrawaddy. Dusk closed slowly upon us, rapine clouds descending to steal the sunset's ruddy glow from us and every other tourist upon the plain.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

My Burmese Days (2): The Shwedagon Paya

*NB: I'm omitting last names of people I met in Myanmar... there's no knowing if things they said to me could get them in trouble with the government.

Unmissable and unmistakable as one taxis around the scuffling low-rise urban sprawl of Yangon: the jewel-encrusted spire rises from a golden bell and a forest of lesser spires. The Shwedagon Paya is Yangon's most ancient symbol, and Myanmar's most holy place. This was the crowning jewel of our second day in Myanmar, but I get ahead of myself.

Our night's sleep plagued by the blackouts that periodically sweep the city (and the country). What better introduction to the criminal lack of public infrastructure (not) developed under the current regime? The problem for sleeping was less that the lights went out, but more that when the lights went out one would reconcile oneself to an early night's sleep... but forget to make sure that all the room's light switches had been turned to the off position, only to be wakened in the middle of the night when the lamps blinked on again.

We awoke fresh, with aspirations to blend--as well as tourists can--into the hubbub of Myanmar's main metropolis. We walked past the Sule Paya, at the center of the city, into the Chinese Quarter. This part of town marks the importance of economic migrants from China and India, when Myanmar was under British rule. The British rulers encouraged Indian civil servants to fill a gap in educated labor and Chinese merchants to bring international commerce into Myanmar. Both minorities were faced with racial pogroms, however, as power was handed back to the Burmese, and thousands of Chinese and Indians fled the country at that time. Quite striking compared to post-colonial Malaysia, wherein harmony is maintained by Malaysian domination of civil service and Indian/Chinese domination of the private professions.

Today's Myanmar, however, sees a resurgence in business-immigration from China and India. I'm told that the boom in Chinese business and investment is much more evident in Mandalay (further up the Irrawaddy river, and thus closer to China) as well as the regions bordering China, but that day in Yangon's Chinatown, we saw much more evidence of Indian investment and business-migrants.  On a side road dotted by electric generators we met a middle-aged Indian businessman from Calcutta. His first name was *Haji Mohamed. Mohamed's import business was thriving--having the right to add 'Haji' to one's name signifies that a Muslim has made his pilgrimage (or Hajj) to Mecca... not a cheap trip to make from India! Mohamed's business was mostly concerned with bathroom fixtures and other necessities for home decoration, but Myanmar's economic isolation meant that even this simple business could be quite profitable. Mohamed's English was basic, "Bush BAD, Bush just knows WAR; I don't know politics, don't know war, just know BUSINESS!" In this fashion (and through his son who was completely fluent and articulate in English) we learned that he didn't like the Myanmar government (whom he referred to as Communists, which at one point they loosely were), disliked the Chinese government for similar reasons, but liked the Chinese people just fine (he sometimes did business with a Chinese furniture/bathroom fixtures company), and liked Obama quite a a lot. As we had this stilted conversation in the cool recesses of his office, his son was on Skype with a business contact located in Bankok, Thailand who overheard our discussion of the current US president. "You like Obama?" It turned out that all of us there, from the US, from China, from India, from Myanmar, and from Thailand could agree on that. No matter what other political discussions may be ongoing in the States these days, anyone who steps beyond the US borders will quickly understand the difference Obama has made on foreign perception of the US.

Outside, mosque cupolas were obscured by the shifting flocks of pigeons; another pigeon perched upon the head of a Hindu god; street sellers of myriad goods called out their wares. A pervasive street good was betel nut: a reddish, mild narcotic quite popular throughout parts of India and SE Asia. This SE Asian equivalent of a cigarette called for elaborate preparations: the nut of the Areca palm is laid upon the leaf of the Betel tree, squirted with a liquid made up of dissolved mineral lime (to catalyze the narcotic chemical), cut with tobacco or flavorings, and wrapped up into a neat little package that can be tucked into the mouth and chewed. The eventual remains of that chewing can be seen streaking the gutters of the city, and a lifetime of chewing Betel leaves one's teeth burnished dark red.

Just north of the famed Aung San Bogyoke Market (named after Aung San Suu Kyi's father, one of Myanmar's liberators from colonial rule), we had lunch. Fried butter fish lived up to their name, melting in our mouths. The Burmese cuisine, we found, was not very spicy at all--quite strange considering that it is surrounded by SW China, Thailand, and India. A centerpiece of the meal is a salad of random fruits and greens (uncooked Thai eggplants were quite common) soaked in fermented fish sauce. Kiera wasn't really a fan, but then she (like most Chinese) doesn't much appreciate the taste of uncooked vegetables.

Given Myanmar's aforementioned economic isolation, imagine my shock to find A&W root beer sold in a department store in the midst of the Chinese quarter!

After our wanderings and meanderings under the hot, tropical sun, we both felt ready to catch a taxi north to the Shwedagon. Feel free to skip the following paragraph which is certain to be a history lesson if you don't have the patience!

This is the story of Buddha's hairs, a subject of much concern as Buddhism spread beyond the confines of the Indian subcontinent, and newly Buddhist (formerly pantheistic or animist) faithful sought pilgrimage sites that were closer to home and more cost-effective than trekking all the way to the Bodhi tree. These particularly Buddha hairs made their way to the site of what is now Yangon, having lost several of their brethren (hair brethren, that is) to the manifold perils that a journey from India held in those days. The total number of hairs had been depleted to just four, but when the King of these parts opened the holy package he discovered the full number of eight Buddha hairs. Then a special sort of chaos ensued involving rays of light, dumb people speaking, blind people perceiving the hairs, etc. The hairs themselves were laid to rest in a golden stupa, then encased in silver, in turn encased in tin, copper, lead, marble, and finally bricks of iron. Despite all the shock and awe produced by these hairs, or the glorious monument raised above them, the site eventually was lost in the jungle, only to be rediscovered by the great Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, and reclaimed from its ruin. Eventually, the Burmese kings of old encased the shrine in gold, adorned its upper spires with saphires, emeralds, rubies, and diamonds... and the rest is (yet more) history.

More recently, the Shwedagon has suffered from Portuguese pirates (who carried off one of its bells), wars with the British, fires, and several earthquakes. And yet it stands today amidst an impoverished and isolated country and has lost none of its gilded luster. The plaza below is a place of peace and quiet (when not used as a gathering place for political dissenters as it has done most recently in the monk's uprising of 2007) where tourists snap pictures, the faithful pray, and monks stroll. A couple young monks beckoned me to join them. As their English was excellent, I had a good conversation with them... only having to pretend I was not conversing when some government minders strolled past. One of the monks was twenty-two years old, possessing an impish grin and an unquenchable thirst for information. He asked me much about American politics (particularly my thoughts on the present president and the recently departed one), noting that he'd read about them both on the internet. He seemed to have a preference for Bush *gasp!*. Perhaps this young fellow approved more of Bush's hard line stance on the Myanmar junta rather than Obama's offer of detente, or perhaps his online readings had been partisan in source. Given that he thought that Bush had fought in Vietnam and wasn't sure if Obama was originally from Africa, I would say that partisan sources were at least part of that puzzle.

 We had a good discussion, nonetheless, of Hurricane Nargis, Hurricane Katrina, life in China and the States, and an earthquake he had experienced as a boy. He told me he was training to be a missionary monk, in explanation of his efforts to learn English. The monk told me he came from a town near the famed ruins of Mrauk U, in the far western province of Arakan that borders Bangladesh. He also joked that the darker-skinned monk who sat on my other flank had come from Africa. If anything, my clearest impression of these young monks was just how normal they were, no different really than any inquisitive young men would be, whether in China or Europe or the US. There was little mysticism or abstraction in their words or actions--they seemed quite grounded in the practicalities of the life they had chosen and the sacrifices or benefits that life path might bring.

In parting, the young monk gave me some advice: go to the back corner of the Shwedagon and search for markings among the marble paving stones. Wait there until the sun falls, and you will see light refracting through the largest diamond at the pagoda's apex. The color of that light changes as you move from position, to position: yellow-gold to bluish-green.

Kiera had waited patiently for my conversation with the monks to finish, and we strolled around the vast base of the pagoda and its many spires as we waited for dusk to fall upon the sacred ensemble. We came upon intricate carvings of teak, Buddhas reclining in the shade, golden Buddhas being bathed in water, vast bells, mythical beasts to represent the eight days of the Buddhist week, and paintings representing events in the life of Buddha or the history of the pagoda. The sun fell, and spotlights enveloped the golden spire in an inferno of ruddy hue. As everything became dark beyond the pagoda, the contrast of its blazing warmth was magnificent. Finally, we sought out the semi-secret markings and hopped from spot to spot to see the light glowed first topaz then teal through the bulk of a 76 carat diamond some 300 feet above us. The other 4351 diamonds surrounding it were blind and dumb against the night sky... perhaps in awe of their brother.

As we descended the hill, one of Buddhism's great landmarks at our back, I wondered how to describe the place to my friends and family. The blog posting I conjured in my mind just couldn't do it justice. Three hundred feet of gold plate, precious gems, and above all the untold hours of artistry and care made this the heart of Myanmar--never mind in the bandit villas and never-dimming lights of the general's new capital upon the barren plains at Nay Pyi Daw--the true heart of Myanmar.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Rat Soup (In China)

I seem to recall that some sort of field rat is considered a delicacy in the tourist playground that is Guilin, in southern China. I've never had the pleasure of eating it, so I can't be sure whether this is just tourist trappings or a rather minor example of the Cantonese tendency to eat, well... everything.

Unfortunately, last night Kiera and I came quite a bit closer to inadvertently dining upon rat than we had intended.

The scene: Eating in one of our favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants across the street from our apartment. The time is late, perhaps 9 pm. Kiera works late some nights, so we eat late. All the other customers have cleared out. The family that runs the place is cleaning up; some of the older members are relaxing at another table to chat until their last two customers finish. Our food is a vast pot of stewed chicken, potato, and other veggies. The preponderance of cumin betrays the origins of the dish as coming from the Turkic western frontiers of China. A rat falls from the ceiling onto the table directly behind Kiera.

Kiera naturally stands and screams. Not the full-throated wail of a horror movie vixen, but a frantic warble that also somehow communicates her embarrassment to be making such a commotion. She also jigs about as if she's caught the tarantella. The rat scurries as fast as its little legs will take it, back towards the back of the restaurant. The staff saw us, and the rat, but they didn't seem very bothered by it--mostly just amused at our reaction to the unwelcome intruder from above.

The rat had fallen from a crevice (an unused light well, perhaps?) that ran around the edge of the restaurant's ceiling. We'd seen it scurry by earlier that evening, but hadn't worried too much. As long as it wasn't near the food, I was willing to be sanguine about the whole experience. In countries like China (not to mention in Myanmar and Africa and other places I've traveled to) you just have to accept that such critters are everywhere... or spend all your time cloistered in decadent 5-star hotels. We were even joking that at least the rat hadn't jumped into our pot of food, when it did in fact jump. Just not into the pot.

So, I still haven't had rat. But I've certainly come a bit closer to that culinary milestone. I was thinking that in the US, such an event would get a restaurant shut down permanently. In China, owner and patron alike just shrug and get along with their everyday concerns. I'm a bit torn as to which is the better reaction.

My Burmese Days (1): Yangon, Not Rangoon

The British had a liking for renaming the distant corners of the world that they ruled. Local names in obscure languages often didn't sit well on a public-schooled tongues of officers and government workers, much less upon the palates of the Irish, Scottish, or Cockney laborers and seamen doing the dirty work wherever Her Majesties shadow fell upon the globe. They had difficulty enough with standard English, much less towns like Pyay whose names changed pronunciation depending on which Burmese who happened to be speaking with. Thus there were the city of Rangoon (Yangon), the Irrawaddy River (Ayeyarwaddy), Prome (Pyay), Moulmein (Mawlamyine), The Mergui Archipelago (Myeik), and Burma itself (named after the majority Bamar ethnicity) where the ancient kingdoms of Myanma once stood. The names thus composed still evoked exotic destinations, but without spraining the average British tongue in the process.

The names have been changed back in recent years. Like regimes everywhere in the recently decolonized developing world, de-anglicization was a good opportunity to wave the bloody flag of nationalism. Historical names brought pride to the average Burmese--the colonial overlords were well and truly gone. I sympathize much more now that I know the names do have a historical basis and weren't just cooked up by the junta. But unfortunately for Myanmar, names are not the only historical trend that has returned to the living. Myanma of old was a place where cruel, war-like kings forced serfs to build grand monuments to themselves and the gods. These lords have seemingly returned to flesh, dressed in camo rather than golden raiments, but just as capricious and cruel of temperament, just as unwilling to consider the fate of their peasants as they lavish themselves with proceeds from sales of Myanmar's wealth of resources. This is the aspect of Myanmar for which it is famous today: an isolated totalitarian state ruled by a military junta who have used conscript labor to build infrastructure for themselves and live in luxury as the rest of the country molders in abject poverty. There is more complexity to the story, of course, but the basic idea is correct. Myanmar is a totalitarian, impoverished pariah of a country.

* * *

Day 1

Arriving at Mingaladon Airport in the northern suburbs of Yangon, there was nothing particularly shocking for us to see. A modern airport with all the conveniences. The security apparatus and immigration control procedures gave us no hint of the draconian regime. Even the touts waiting outside seemed relaxed and diffident about the newest batch of tourists to arrive. Our fellow foreign arrivals seemed largely of the elderly, wealthy persuasion. I had expected to see more backpackers--this being one of the last frontiers of travel--but I suppose the necessity of flying in and out of the country (as well as the general higher cost of travel) keeps most of the shoestring budget types out. Other parts of SE Asia (and China) can be traveled on as little as $10 - $14 a day. We averaged more like $25 a day per person, in country.

Our hotel sent a van to pick us up--free service and much appreciated after the ordeal at Bangkok Airport--and we sped away. The appearance of Myanmar was much like the Philippines: low-rise architecture of impermanent mien, palms and banyans sprouting like weeds, decrepit architecture, the occasional grand, rotting colonial edifice. We spotted the great Shwedagon Pagoda rising high above the city like a vast golden bell set to rest upon a molding tablecloth. Its alien architecture was the most clear signal to our sleep-fogged brains that we had arrived in Myanmar, a place like no other.

Exchanging money is the first of many hurdles for the traveler who reaches Myanmar. Dollars are accepted, as are Euros. Yuan might be accepted, at least in some parts of the country--business with China and Chinese tourism are one of Myanmar's few relatively open windows on the world. The first catch is that none of this exchange is done under official auspices. The official dollar exchange rate for kyat (sounds like the word chat spoken in the Cockney form of English) is about 6 kyat per dollar. The black market exchange rate is more like 1,000 kyat per dollar. Thus, no one exchanges at banks or the airport. The second catch is that only pristine new dollar bills will be accepted. A microscopic tear or wear or fold upon the dollar will render it worthless as far as the Burmese are concerned. Larger bills (100s preferred) get a better exchange rate. I exchanged some money at the hotel and some money with street changers (not a mistake I intend to repeat in future).

Errands attended to (and nap had--I hadn't slept for more than a couple hours in the previous 24 spent traveling from China), we headed down to the center of town: the Sule Pagoda. Squatting upon a roundabout amongst the dressed up colonial buildings, the newer constructions of glass and steel, and innumerable hawkers, the Sule Pagoda is a gleaming bell of gold and incense. Salary men on their way home from work, children just off school, and housewives stopping by to take a hiatus from their shopping errands all congregate in that patch of serenity. A little boy and his father washed an image of Buddha (and what appeared to be Buddha's pet dragon-lion-monster). In Myanmar, Buddhism is not just the facade of millennial culture dressed up for tourism and giggles--as it generally is in mainland China. Buddhism is a way of life, and we could see that common people both rich and poor made a space for worship, meditation, and solemn contemplation. Even young people who sat along the cool marble courtyard facing the inner spire of gold were subdued, giving way to the spiritual impulse. For our part, Kiera and I shed our shoes and socks and strolled a circuit through the worshipers. I could see that while religion is a more common and serious duty in Burmese life than it is in China, there are some great similarities in its incarnation. First, the love of gaudy baubles. Diamonds and gold encrusted the upper surfaces of the pagoda. The Buddha images had been (recently, I guess) adorned with halos of scintillating, multihued neon electrified and set to dance and shimmer like the lights of Las Vegas. Second, the commercialization of hallowed ground. Temples, pagodas, and other religious shrines were often preceded by government tourist toll booths as well as hawkers. Thirdly, the overlay of Buddhism onto older regional pantheons. But more on that later.

Outside the pagoda, with the sun's last light withering into tropical gloom, we decided on our first meal in Myanmar. An elderly Burmese woman with haunting blue eyes had advised us that the street side woks of biryani (Indian fried rice) were a good choice, and certainly cheaper than some of the nicer restaurants touted in guide books. The biryani stalls, unfortunately, were tapped out. Clearly the hoi polloi also favored this form of dinner. Perhaps that was fortune, however. I had other plans for our valentine's/spring festival dinner in Myanmar.

It was in the upper stories of the well-to-do--and romantically dimmed--restaurant, Monsoon, that I proposed to Kiera. She was dutifully scribing the names of our dishes in her pocket notebook. She handed the booklet over to me so that I could advise on spelling. I did so, and then wrote my proposal and handed in back. The answer was affirmative. A good note on which to end our first day of adventures in Myanmar.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Tidings, on Return from Myanmar

First: Kiera and I are both safe and sound, returned to the urban hubbub of Nanjing. We were not shot or imprisoned by the infamous junta; we did not fall ill with malaria or break-bone fever; we were not bitten by any of Myanmar's many venomous snakes.


Our trip was not without obstacles, trials, and tribulations. This was Kiera's first trip abroad from China, and she certainly got a taste of the challenges as well as the rewards that easily make travel one of the most worthwhile pursuits in life. In fact, the first problem hit us before we even got to Myanmar. Having booked three sets of flights (Nanjing to Guanzhou, Guanzhou to Bangkok, Bangkok to Yangon), we arrived at 1:00 AM in Suvarnabhumi airport (Bangkok) for a night of uneasy snoozing. Our flight for Yangon was set to take off at 8 AM that same morning. What we learned, upon waking around 5:30 AM, was that our budget carrier (Air Asia) did not have an agreement for in-airport transit. With only a couple hours til our flight, we learned that Kiera would have to apply for and successfully receive a visa-on-arrival for Thailand, and only then could we make our way through immigration control, customs, get our tickets, back through security, and run for our gate of departure. Guts churning, fearing for this trip we had already spent so much time and money preparing for, we raced through each hazard as quickly as we could. The short of it is that God, airport security, and fellow travelers all had mercy on us. We made it to our gate with only a few minutes to spare.

Yangon is one of those romantic destinations that have nothing to do with sunsets on sandy beaches, hip clubs, royal hotels, or any other lap of luxury you could care to name. Yangon is old-school romance: the smells of curries, voracious plant life, and sun-baked spoilage; crumbling colonial architecture succumbing to vines; giant banyan trees festooned with hanging shrines to the Nats (pre-Buddhist Burmese deities); golden bell-curved pagodas towering over a ground-hugging cityscape of old British manors, Chinese temples, Indian mosques, tenements, bamboo huts. Arguably, even the great democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi--imprisoned within her home upon the shores of an urban lake--only adds to the romance of that city. A genuine damsel in distress guarded by thuggish warlords! Yangon, in shorter and less baroque description, is the romance of a world less globalized, less sanitized, less homogenized. And we arrived on February 14th: Valentines Day as well as Chinese New Years Day by the lunar calendar. The stars had aligned.

So, on February 14th, 2010, I asked Liang Li Li (Kiera Liang is her chosen English name) to marry me. She said yes.

How's that for heart-stopping news? I assure you, it was heart-stopping for us, too. Are we really that old, to have stumbled upon this particular milestone? Kiera lamented--even as she smiled and cried tears of joy--that she was no longer a young girl. I feel the same way, but at least if we are to give in to that human condition of aging until we become dust, we will have good company for the durance.

The rest of the story may seem anti-climactic following this *big* news. However, I will soon post the stories of our adventures in depth. Myanmar is a beautiful, if isolated, country that will remain an important and memorable one for both Kiera and myself.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Myanmar's Eve

Also Chinese New Year's Eve, and Valentine's Eve. Quite a conjunction of events, don't you say? And when Kiera and I finally arrive in the former capital city of Yangon, on the Irrawaddy Delta, we'll have missed their 'Union Day' celebrations by a mere two days. Supposedly some of the events will be ongoing. But that's getting ahead of the story.

Three flights--Nanjing to Guangzhou (formerly Canton), Guangzhou to Bangkok, Bangkok to Yangon (formerly Rangoon)--and two days are the cost of getting to Myanmar (former Burma). And what could be worth such costs? A country, isolated under a despised and despotic government, where magic realism is reality. This the guidebooks assure us. Boulders perch in peril upon holy peaks, encrusted in gold dust brought by countless pilgrims. A plain studded with over 4,000 temples, emerging from the fields in various states of dishabille. And, well, beaches. A beach without any sunburned tourists studding its modest brown sands or guzzling the juice of its blowsy palm trees. Myanmar is a good place to find such beaches. Kiera hasn't yet in her life met the ocean; I was introduced with its rough play at the age of three; I feel well able to make the necessary introductions. Most importantly, Myanmar has--so it is said--many kindly, curious people. Sanctions on the luxurious lifestyles of their military junta shouldn't be allowed to cut contact between the country's common people and the world.

So here's hoping for a good Chinese New Year and Valentine's spent in a remote and fascinating corner of the world. I'll let you know how it went.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mongolian Adventures (6): Swans and Horses

August 5th:

We said 'Bayartai' (goodbye) to the children of the nomads. As a parting gift, I left them with some Disney stickers I had bought for the purpose of distributing just so. That seemed to break the ice a bit, so one young boy decided to practice his English with me. I showed him my notebook with its sketches of ruined monasteries, dunes, wastelands, and the sour mare's milk contraption I'd shared the ger with that previous night. Amusingly, the boy told me his tow-headed little sister was really a Russian, and her name was "Jenny". His father was less amused with the jest. As it turns out, many Mongolian children have blond hair which gradually darkens to hickory as they get older. I suppose this is a remnant strain of Caucasian blood from the days when the horde raided Russia and Europe, bringing back concubines for the Khans.

The grasses were again green and thick by this point in our journey. But as the day progressed, the land around us stretched itself, shrugging up mountains from the rolling hillsides. Pine forests hugged the southward faces of the higher slopes. Yaks and yak-cow hybrids grazed the lower meadows.

We stopped for lunch on a steep hillside overlooking a broad valley, and the river winding through it. A couple Kazakh men had arranged a ger at the roadside, with a golden eagle and bows to entice any tourists who happened along. Although later we did try the bows (I didn't do too badly with mine--thank you Camp Au Sable!), for the moment we were more interested in our bowls of stir-fry with pasta. So was a hungry goat who wandered away from his herd and across the asphalt to join us. More welcome to join us in our prandial gorging, an orange butterfly. The goat was discouraged after we shoved him away from our food a few times. The butterfly, meanwhile, alighted on a cup of our heavily-sugared tea. Tea had become something of an indulgence, with our small traveling group devouring box after box of the stuff each day.

That afternoon we journeyed half the length of a broad valley. Ragged upthrusts of volcanic stone bespoke a violent past for serene valley. Our encampment sat on an embankment; the stream below wound through a gorge engraved into the valley floor. A pair of swans swam circles in stately grace within its rocky parenthesis. Periodically, yaks nudged the side of our ger, calling us outside to play. 

August 6th:

Mongolian horses are half-wild, so our Mongolian horsemen tell us just before we jump up into the saddle. They look it--with their shaggy hair, angry eyes, and the way the Mongolian horses will buck their heads rapidly up and down when tethered as if they are headbanging at a rock concert.

Our quest is for the Orkhon Khukhree, a waterfall somewhere in the valley not far from our encampment. The guide then lets me (or more specifically, my horse) guide the way. I don't know the way, and my horse seems more intent on finding himself a nice grassy lunch. My companions, however, are having even more trouble with their half-wild mounts.

Eagles, vultures, falcons and hawks have spotted prey, somewhere ahead of us. The usual description is to say that these raptors "circle", but when these hungry birds form a certain density, what they really become is a cyclone. The waterfall is somewhere beneath them, and we dismount accordingly. Forsaking the waterfall for a moment, however, we search for the fount of these carrion birds and find a cow, its ribs picked clean.

The Orkhon Khukhree waterfall was formed--like the valley itself--by volcanic action. A pit falls in the middle of an otherwise flat valley floor, then trails off downstream in the shape of a comma. The water thunders down over the edge of this hole. Forest grows thick within the rift. We descend via a treacherous crack in the rift's wall, dodging a never ending stream of ascending tourists wearing their florescent tour-caps. When the noon-day tumult of tourists depart, we have the thundering falls, the icy pool beneath it, and the tranquil forest to ourselves. I sketch the mossy forest floor as the sun sketches ruddy fire onto my skin.

After leaving the waterfall, I was ready to nurse my badly sun-burned arms in the cool depths of our ger; our guide had one last surprise in store for us, however. Upstream from the waterfall, a small waterfall (more properly a rapids) sent spray up towards the blue Mongolian skies. What was our purpose in being here? we wondered. The guide pointed to the falls and told us to look more carefully.

Then I saw it. A dark shape darting amid the falling water. And another. And downstream my eyes suddenly perceived differences of depth amongst what had previously seemed nothing but stony shallows. Fish were jumping upstream. Taimen, perhaps?

Later, I found my island of solitude further away from camp. Upstream. I explored an ancient sandbar with rocky margins. A pine tree, scarred from fire or lightning, stood sentinel. Although I wasn't really very far from camp, I could feel the silence and tranquility of nature. But then nature called with its forceful urgency, reminding me that tranquility is just a title we bestow upon it out of nostalgia or misconception. I had a choice. Did I wish to return to the encampment with its smelly outhouse--nothing but a hut placed over a pit of piss and shit, a few boards and a gap between them functioning as the commode? Or should I find a more natural solution? I have to come clean, the main argument in my mind against the latter was the issue of how to come clean. Leaves are never satisfactory. But there is this pristine, crystal clear stream....

* * *

I looked around me and saw none to see; clothes were lain upon the bleached river boulders; I jumped into icy waters that scoured my skin. I've never felt cleaner in my life than when I emerged from that Mongolian creek.

Later, returning to camp, I would tell my companions that the waters were warm enough to swim in. Was that mischief on my part?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mongolian Adventures (5): Origins of Indiana Jones, Dinosaur Eggs, Lycanthropic Bovines

August 3rd:

We left the Khongoryn Els (the great dune sea) behind us.

Onwards to the site of Roy Chapman Andrews's dinosaur excavations. There, the saxual (not sexual) trees can be be seen growing from the nobbly landscape, hunched and bunched like withered crones gossiping at market. Our guide and driver must have grown weary of us by this point, as Zoola merely pointed vaguely in the general direction of an escarpment of livid sandstone on the horizon. 'There', she said, 'You'll find the dinosaurs. Maybe 1 or 2 kilometers. Dinner and hot showers will be ready when you come back."

Oh, but we three remaining travelers (one of the Danish girls had to fly back from Dalanzagad due to her inner-ear problems and the bumpiness of our journey into the Gobi) swear... we SWEAR that the round trip that day was at least 10 kilometers! Straight into a biting gale of sand! Uphill both ways! Without feet!

Okay, well maybe the last part is an exaggeration on my part. I did have some problems with my shoes, however. My shoes, which I had bought a couple years earlier in Chongqing (China), finally gave up the ghost that day. I had already had the sole's attachment reinforced with stitching, but the stitching gave way. Rocks and sand migrated deep under my feet as I trudged across a rolling, barren expanse of gravel towards the cliffs which never seemed to get much closer. I watched as poofs of sand spurted from the newly-gaping mouths of my shoes, each forward stride producing an arc of sand or gravel. Not good.

We did eventually reach those eroded, blazing cliffs where Roy Chapman Andrews--often cited as the inspiration for the movie character, Indiana Jones--withdrew the bones and eggs of a mighty dinosaur trove. The Protoceratops (a smaller and less viciously-horned version of the famous Triceratops) was one of the main finds of this particular dig. Of particular importance was a Velociraptor and Protoceratops found locked in deadly combat, the the Protoceratops's beak-like mouth locked on the Velociraptor's leg and the raptor digging his claws into the Protoceratops's underbelly. This particular specimen is the one of the great prizes at the contemporary Mongolian Museum of Natural History in UB which I saw later in the trip.

But for now we were in the wasteland realm of dinosaurs, not polished halls of learning. This was the desolate region that Andrews, explorer extraordinaire, fought through pirates, bandits, an angry and wounded whale, typhoons, wild dogs, illness and "mad lama priests" to reach. The aforementioned calamities conspired at his death, but merely managed to kill off ten of his expedition members. Of course his contemporaries claimed that the man was given to tall tales: "The water that was up to our ankles was always up to Roy's neck". Tales of great height or not, the man certainly provided plenty of fodder for the modern-day tale of an adventurer/archaeologist.

August 4th:

We headed north from the burial grounds of the 'terrible lizards' of yore. The lands grew greener by the mile as our van chugged along. Before we had reached the proper steppe, however, we stopped to explore the vast ruins of a once-great monastery city, Ongiin Khiid. A long-since dessicated riverbed separates the two parts of this complex. One side housed the master monks and a series of temples upon the rocky slopes of a ridge, the other, flatter side housed their disciples. Neither is much more than a chest-high labyrinth of foundations and walls--like the remains of the far more ancient Greek city of Mycenae--sprouting from the dusty ground. A couple stupas and one small rebuilt temple are all that remain. The temple is merely two rooms about two stories high, containing the usual assortment of Tibetan Buddhist relics and a few photographs of the Dalai Lama. I believe the holy fellow may have even visited the place, sometime in the 90's. The monastery was razed and the monks slaughtered in Mongolia's communist purge of 1937. Apparently the communists promised the monks they would be allowed life if they brought a herd of cows as a tribute... but of course they weren't spared. Our guide, Zolaa's grandfather was a monk (evidently not the celibate sort, at least during some portion of his life) who perished at that time. Apparently he hid the family treasures before he died, but the family has only be able to retrieve a part of those valuables.

Later, we saw a double rainbow cast over a herd of horses and and yaks upon the steppe.

We made several stops at nomad encampments not able to give us succor (often the city-dwelling cousins of nomad families come back out to visit and enjoy the fresh steppe air and traditional lifestyle). Eventually, towards evening, we found one that could. A gaggle of children played upon the threshold of our ger. More ominously for my ability to sleep well that night, a stench of sour milk permeated the air of our ger. The famous Mongolian fermented mare's milk, or airag, was being fermented in a large leather sack suspended at the foot of my bed. A wooden frame carries the weight of this bag; a wooden paddle is thrust into its depths. Every so often, the nomads came within the ger and thumped the paddle down into the sudsy fermented milk. Apparently it is considered good luck to give the bag a few thumps every time one enters a ger that has an airag bag (called a khokhuur). The tradition is a practical one, as the concoction needs to be thumped at least 1,000 times before it is considered fit to drink. And if it is extremely sour to whiff, the drink is tongue-curdling to taste. I fell to sleep, lulled by the fizzing of the fermented mares milk and (I kid you not) the cows howling at the full moon that rose above our ger. Were-cows?