Thursday, March 29, 2007

Browsers Wowsers

So it's been brought to my attention recently that due to my enormous ego banner, this page isn't loading properly for some people. Safari puts the banner over top of the text, resulting in an unacceptable loss of up to 10% of my signature ego wit, and Internet Explorer moves the side bar to the bottom (on my screen anyway) thus preventing you from gazing upon my awesome likeness whilst reading about my exciting adventures. To this I propose a simple solution.

Use Firefox.

Thank you. That is all.

Parks Parks Parks - Volume 3

This week I have been laid low by a cold that has swept through the college, infecting all in its wake with snuffles and irritability (I'm extrapolating my symptoms to the general population). The weather is collaborating by providing a constant drizzle that teeters on the edge of raining but refuses to just get on with already. Though it did manage to sneak a shower in while I was at the Supermarket, so I had to ride my bike home in the rain without a coat. My cold enjoyed that. Fortunately I am flush with green tea, snacks, and DVDs so will not need to leave the warm cocoon of my apartment for the next few days.

Moving on to the final installment in my extremely limited tour of Beijing's green bits, I give you my favourite (non-licensed) place in all of Beijing:

Volume 3: Jingshan Park

This little park lies directly north of the Forbidden City, and like the Summer Palace features a large artificial hill, this time made from the excavations of the Palace moat. As pretty much the only break in central Beijing's uniform flatness, its kind of hard to miss. The thing that makes it easy to miss, is that if you're there you've probably just spent a day walking around the Forbidden city and are about ready to put your feet up and grab a lukewarm Qingdao (my first entry into the world of Wiki-ing.*) .

It is however, well worth the 2RMB admission, and a sliver of your time. For starters, you can see the tree (or at least a tree in the same place) where Chongzhen, last of the Ming Emperors, hung himself in 1644. After that, a quick climb up Jingshan hill (named, with typical aesthetic judgment, 'Coal Hill' by occupying British forces in the late 19th century) and you have some pretty sweet (if smog obscured) views over the Forbidden City and the rest of Beijing.



There's a few Buddhist pagoda's at the summit, but the Buddhas themselves were carted off to parts unknown by those pesky allied occupiers. Perhaps they thought that Buddhas were a little too sublime for Coal Hill.

Anyway, panoramic views aside, the real beauty of JinShan park, for me, was in the small wooded area behind the hill, to the North. Now perhaps it was due to the time of year (many people leave the city during Spring Festival, and there are few tourists) or maybe I was in a particularly contemplative mood that day, but coming down the side of the hill, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by birdsong (still a rarity in urban China, but that's a story for another time) and the strains of traditional opera singing accompanied by an accordion. One of my favourite things about China is the retiree culture. While our elders are watching television or playing bingo or slowly stewing in care facilities, Chinese people, sprightly well into their 70s and beyond, pass their days playing chess on street corners, gathering together in parks to sing, play instruments, or practice Tai Ji, or just squat on a doorstep and watch the world go by. It often strikes me that those eyes, peeking out from underneath the standard issue blue cap, have seen some very 'interesting times'. I don't know what they make of the cellphones and cars and fake Nike stores, but I guess they're happy to make it to an age that many of their contemporaries did not.

So I found a stone bench and sat for an hour or so in the weak, late afternoon sun, listening to an old man playing haunting melodies on an erhu. He was interrupted by the occasional inquisitive stranger, or by an elderly couple walking by, arm in arm, singing at the top of their lungs for no other reason than the sheer pleasure of it. It was an unexpected oasis of calm and serenity in the middle of an overcrowded, dirty city of 14 million souls. It was fantastic.

On my way out, I passed what has to be my favourite of the thousand or so stone lions I've seen since arriving in China. He's clearly chuffed with carrying out his solemn duty of guarding over the coats and bags of the people playing nearby (another great facet of Chinese culture, they never lose the ability/affection for play. I don't recall the name, but the people here are playing a Chinese variation of hacky sack popular with everyone from 7 year old kids to 70 year old women. Beats the hell out of Bingo or Scrabble if you ask me).


It was nice too to note that the 10m high wall, originally built to keep common folk such as these well out of the way of the idle nobility, was now serving to shield these people from the view and noise of the bustling city, and allowing them to indulge in these simple pleasures.

Woah. Contemplative might've been understating it.

* Okay, so I wrote this one too. Feel free to improve.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


So tonight I had an interesting discussion with a very authoritatively voiced man named Greg, from the Westpac Bank of Australia Credit Card Fraud Division. (Who apparently maintain office hours well into Sunday evening.)

They had contacted me earlier this month about some questionable transactions on my card, and as I hadn't told them I was coming to China, I assumed that they were merely a little concerned that Ben Shaw of 51 Sutherland Street Brunswick 3056 Melbourne was making credit card transactions in Beijing.

'Twas not so. In fact what had happened is that earlier this month, somebody had used my credit card details to register with an apparently dubious charity called the Islamic Relief Fund. Now I'm all for people being relieved of their religion, but I much prefer the 'haughty arrogant atheist' approach to anything that costs money.

Anyway, they didn't try to spend any of my credit, but they did get my credit card details from somewhere which is a little worrying. The prime suspect is the helpful online movie viewing software that my boss absolutely insisted I install when I first arrived and was naive to the potential dangers of Chinese Spyware. After a few weeks of rapidly declining performance, and the realisation that all of my shortcuts were now pointing to places elsewhere than they were supposed to, I reinstalled windows, changed all my passwords etc. Apparently I was not thorough enough.

My chief concern now is I'm one of these enigmatic 'lists' that the US government maintains, and that I won't be able to enter the US. Which would suck. I really want to see it before its gone.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Parks Parks Parks - Volume 2

Well, blogger is back on the blacklist again, hopefully not because of anything I did. Anyway, via the dark internet magic of proxies, here is:

Volume 2: The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace, or Yíhé Yuán, has been a popular hang out for Beijing's elites for almost 1000 years (if my Chinese tourism sources are to be believed which maybe they aren't) . Certainly since the 1700's its been the place to go when the cobbled shady alleyways and impenetrable walls of the Forbidden City started making the Ming Emperors and their gang feel a little hemmed in.

Basically the park consists of a large lake,
Kūn Míng Hú and a hill, Wàn Shòu Shān (Longevity Hill) that was made from the soil that was manually removed in the enlarging of the lake. Its a big hill. One imagines that it probably didn't represent longevity for the labourers who had to move the approximately 3.3 million cubic metres of soil without the aid of machinery. (Someone check my math, the lake is 2.2 square kilometres in area, and averages 1.5m deep, I'm kind of rusty)

Anyway, its a pretty park. Its component parts are supposed to be a representation of China at large, with the lake, the hill and the architecture all stand ins for their real counterparts in the places that were too far from Beijing to warrant visiting.

Upon entering, we find that, as with all major toursty things in Beijing at the moment, parts of it are being restored and are off limits. Next to the big tarp with the weird 2D representation of the building its covering, this guy guards the entrance in all his horsey dragony snakey liony deery glory.


In turn, the statue is protected by this sign:


Which seems to suggest that the railings are as important as the centuries old statues. I attempted to translate that second line of characters, and came up with something resembling 'love the fence post' which isn't any less confusing.

From the top of
Wàn Shòu Shān, there are some nice (if smog obscured) views North West from Beijing


Coming down the face of the hill, you get to see a pretty cool mishmash of buildings, windy stone paths, buddhisty things (again proving the buddhist 'more is more' density rule) and a nice tree-lined corridor.




Now, being the Summer Palace, Summer is probably a great time to visit. As it was, I was there at the tail end of winter, when the lake is, either due to freezing or draining, basically a giant, slightly noxious smelling mud flat. It does detract from the money shot a little, but here it is anyway:


And what better to sail on a non-existent lake, than an immovable stone boat?


The weirdest thing about the vast stinky mudflat, is that people were actually walking out on it, foraging for something or other. Like this guy. Either he thought there was something edible beneath that smelly mud, or he didn't get the memo that the Ming Dynasty was overthrown and the lake is quite deep enough now thanks.


In the centre of the 'lake' there is an small island with a cluster of temples and things, including the delightfully named 'Temple of Timely Rains and Extensive Moisture'. (I didn't find the temple of Foul Smelling Mud.) I was in photo fatigue by this point (as you probably are), but I got a nice shot of the bridge to the island.


And that is that. We made our way out, running the gauntlet of hawkers that yelled 'tour guide! tour guide!' on the way in, dodging them as they yelled 'taxi! taxi!' on the way out. Then I probably went and got drunk if memory serves (it does not).

And if all that hasn't given you your daily fix of waiting for images to load, there's more here.


The Summer Palace Drinking Game: Every time you see a plaque saying "this building was burnt/destroyed by Anglo-French forces in 1860", take a drink. Finish your beverage if they carted off a priceless relic in the process. You won't make it half way around.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Parks Parks Parks - Volume 1

Beijing, as a playground for succesive dynasties (whether divine, nationalistic or dictatorship of the proletariat) has its fair share of parks. I went to a few of them. Want to hear about it? With lots of pictures?


Read on.

Volume 1: Beihai Park

If you want the full history lesson you can ask Google, but basically Beihai park is where ol' Kublai Kahn used to hang out in the pre-Forbidden City days. The only thing remaining from his era is a big jade jar carved with dragons, which I couldn't really photograph because it's in a big glass case outdoors so is pretty much a reflection-fest. The center piece of the park is the Jade Islet, upon which sits a Bái tǎ (White Tower), built to impress the Dalai Lama some 350 years ago when he and China were on somewhat better terms.

Some of my photos are kind of bluey because I was screwing around with white balance settings to see what would cut through the smog most effectively. Turns out its the 'Halogen' setting.

Like this (dull original here):


That white tower you see there is the white tower.

Here it is a little closer. I guess if I was a reincarnated New World Camelid I'd find that impressive. But once you've been around a few centuries who knows? I bet you'd get sick of climbing stairs.



Anyway, it seems the most surefire way of impressing one of the innumerable incarnations of Avalokiteśvara is a simple formula of maximum buddhas per square inch.


The best thing about Beihai park though, is at the northern end of the lake, where they tone down the buddhas and start packing in the dragons. In particular the Jiǔlóng Bì or 9 dragon wall. According to local signage (and why would they lie?) this is the largest example of glazed tile art in China. I just thought it was pretty damn cool.

Here's one of the dragons in close up:


And here's the whole shebang in panaramavision. Once again you can click to embiggen but its pretty huge (and the joins are much more obvious).

9 dragons mural

If you just can't get enough Beihai goodness, or you want to see close ups of all the dragons, the full set is here.

NB: In the course of writing this post, I had cause to Google the word 'Dalai Lama', and was even foolish enough to click one of the links. Now I'm getting a 'the connection was reset' error every time I try to load Google. If you're reading this oh diligent Chinese internet police, please understand that my intent was to have a laugh at his holiness' expense, not to overthrow the legitimate government of the People's Republic. Furthermore, his holiness could stand to take some fashion tips from his predecessor, especially in the kickass moustache department.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

No Banner!?!

Well my good buddy Jason went and designed me a fantastico new banner, but as I speak HTML about as well as I speak Chinese, I'm having some trouble getting it to go in the right place (ie not behind/on top of the text). Blogger seems to want to resize it as well which is a pain.

Anyway, its late and I have class tomorrow so I'll fix it later. Until then please feel free to meditate on the sublime nothingness at the head of the page and allow its vast blankness to draw your mind into serene contemplation of the infinite.

Or something.

UPDATE: Okay so the original image, while totally radtastic,


didn't really banner up very well, so Jason did a redesign and ended up somewhere in the neighbourhood of absolutely freaking perfect.

The Chinese may not be entirely correct, but I'm pretty sure the general gist of it is there. Any suggestions for corrections welcome.

I love it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Beijing By Numbers

(Please bear in mind at all times the disclaimer from the beginning of this entry)

  1. 28 days in Beijing

  2. 7 hours from Liaoyang by bus

  3. 473 pictures taken. (Mostly indistinguishable pictures of Ming and Qing dynasty architecture and the obligatory tourist shots of Tienanmen and the Forbidden City)


  4. 100+ people per Beijing subway car at peak times (estimated by degree of crushing I received)
  5. 160 bottles of Tsingtao emptied into my gullet.

  6. 28 vodka tonics, scotch and dries, whiskey cokes or long island ice teas imbibed (see item 33).

  7. 12 Bullrushes (redbull, vodka, absinth. Not recommended for anyone ever.)

  8. 25 hangovers

  9. 3 seasons of Seinfeld viewed

  10. 40 episodes of Arrested Development (easily the best American sitcom ever made)

  11. 12 recent Hollywood Blockbusters viewed (obtained from friendly local pirates)

  12. about 6 of which were worth seeing. (I definitely recommend The Prestige and The Queen
    was okay too.)
  13. 4 books assimilated (Freaknomics, Identity and Violence, A Walk in the Woods, Coming Home Crazy all of which receive the Ben Shaw stamp of 'gee that's interesting' approval)

  14. 12+ seedy bars that I frequented

  15. 1 (or 2) classier drinking establishments that I had occasion to enjoy a drink at from time to time

  16. 30 RMB – most money paid for a 330 ml beer (see item 15)

  17. 3 RMB – least money paid for a 600 ml beer (see item 14)

  18. 3 Chinese phrases that I regularly used. They were: "san ping tsingtao" (3 bottles of tsingtao), "duo shao qian?" (how much is it?) and "yo wiener ma?" (do you have wiener?). I was somewhat dismayed to find on my return to Liaoyang that I have forgotten basically all my Chinese bar these three phrases.

  19. 50 times I heard the song 'Next Episode'

  20. at least a dozen wiener Baozi drunkenly purchased and gnawed upon.

  21. 12+ bowls of cheap but tasty niu rou mian (beef noodles) eaten at local noodlery

  22. 18 cans of Diet Doctor pepper consumed (tasty and addictive)

  23. 40 Jaozi personally infaciated on new years eve. (Yeah I made a word up. Its a verb meaning 'to stuff in your face'. I'm and English teacher, I can do that.)

  24. about a 1000 fireworks detonated in my immediate vicinity

  25. 6 AM – time that fireworks would begin in the morning

  26. 2 AM – time that fireworks might stop, if you were lucky

  27. 3 car alarms set off per firecracker (average)

  28. 90 minutes - average response time for owner of above cars to deactivate alarms

  29. 2 PM - average time I would drag myself from the couch where I slept

  30. 9 stamps I got on my Lush Cafe loyalty card (one away from a free meal! If only I'd remembered to whip it out when consuming hot dogs at 4.30am...)

  31. 42 Below

  32. 3 times I had to have the exact same introductory conversation with a drunken belligerent New Zealander who frequented Propaganda

  33. 50 RMB for all you can drink at Propaganda on a Wednesday night (see items 14, and 32)
  34. 70 times per minute that an experienced hawker at the technology markets can yell 'Sony!' right in your ear.

  35. 0 places in all of China that sell SD WiFi cards for Palm Pilots according to a self proclaimed Palm Pilot expert guy at the technology markets.

  36. 90 minutes that I managed to stay awake during the Stupor Bowl for which I got up at 5.30 am and caught a 40 min taxi ride across town. There was however a free breakfast buffet (see item 40). I also got my 15 minutes of fame on the unfortunately URL'd "That's Beijing" website.

  37. 20 KM - estimated distance I wandered through various Hutongs whilst 'exploring' (ie lost)

  38. 400 RMB spent upon discovering a foreign languages bookstore. I consider myself lucky to have gotten out that well.

  39. 3000+ people that decided to shop at Karrefour supermarket on the day before New Year. (including me and Mark).


  40. 5 kilos of estimated weight gain whilst in Beijing (see items 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 20, 21, 23, 29, 30, 33, 36)

and as a special bonus:
5 wrong numbers that called me whilst writing this post. As I don't know how to say 'sorry hombre you've got the wrong number' I just English at them until they get confused/frightened and hang up.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Beijing by Night

Having spent the last 5 months in a town who's idea of nightlife consisted of a gut busting load of dumplings, a few slugs of baiju and a trip to the local bathhouse (not really my scene), one of my first questions upon arriving in Beijing was - “where can a guy get a beer, listen to bad pop music, scare Korean girls and second hand smoke his way through a pack or two of cigarettes?”. Turns out that in Beijing – almost everywhere.

Aside from my favoured musical haunt, Wudaokou offered many watering holes with varying levels of notoriety/quality/price. Further across town there is the famous Sanlitun bar street, the place to go if you want to be hit on by Chinese girls looking for a drink from a wealthy laowai; watch the spoilt, 16 year old children of diplomats and foreign business men hook up (there's no minimum drinking age in China); buy dodgy cigars from street pedlars, or even dodger substances from pedlars just a little off the street; or pay a ridiculous amount of money to some tuxedoed gorilla to step into a gaudily neon lit, 'European' styled bar with soft porn on huge screens and drinks that cost two hours salary. Generally most people just choose to get obnoxiously drunk.

One thing that almost every bar I went to in Beijing had in common though, was their music playlist. I'm pretty sure they produce the Djs at some factory somewhere, all perfectly tuned to spec. The following is a list of songs I never wish to hear again (but I no doubt will, upon my next visit to Beijing)

Dr Dre – the Next Episode

Shakira – Hips don't lie

That one by Beyonce

Anything released by Snoop Dogg in the last 2 years

My Humps (though I never wanted to hear that song ever anyway)

House of Pain – Jump Around (and anybody who knows me well will know how it pains me to say that)

Anyway, in my local area, there were two bars of particular note – Zub and Propaganda. Zub because it had two for one cocktails on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and is owned by a New Zealander (who I didn't get to meet) so stocks that finest of intoxicants – 42 below vodka. Now this will only impress a very select audience (ie those who are from New Zealand and who have some familiarity with China/Chinese drinking customs) but this poster so amused me when I spied it above the men's urinal, that I had to 'souvenir' it. Sorry Zub.


I think its worthwhile to spell out the text here:

So we didn't invent paper

or gunpowder

whatever bro

we still kick the shit out of Baiju

GanBei Motherfucker*

And the small text at the bottom:

Sure. Baiju is great sometimes, like the time I accidentally super glued my finger to my left nut, and let's face it, it's great for removing those stubborn stains that just won't come out, but when I want to take a shot of a clear liquid I choose the spirit that won't polish the glass – cheers.

Bear in mind that this is how a major, publicly traded company in New Zealand chooses to advertise in the (world's largest) overseas market. This is the equivalent of going to France and telling them that their champagne is horse urine and they should all drink our Riesling instead, except that in this case almost a quarter of all people in the world are French.

I think its bloody fantastic.

Right next door to Zub, lies its evil twin, Propaganda aka, The Black Hole.You won’t ever find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Its the first bar I've ever been to where every patron is given a pat down and a swipe with a metal detector upon entry. The cloak room is staffed by the most stern and hard faced ayi I've seen in China, the décor is dark with neon highlights, booths full of rich Chinese kids drinking Chivas and green tea upstairs, and a grimy dancefloor downstairs, replete with 'oh what did I do last night' podiums and a raised 'browsing' area. The clientèle is an eclectic mix of Koreans, Chinese, and, for some odd reason, the single most stereotypical representatives of each and every other nation you can think of. Seriously. From Kazakh's straight out of Borat, to an overly amorous French guy who constantly tried to start arguments about the All Blacks (but backed down in the face of the Rainbow Warrior, preferring to blame that on the Americans), to a drunk and surly Irishman who demanded to know whether I was of Catholic or Protestant stock, tall West African's in oversized basketball tshirts, seedy Russians with gold chains and mesh shirts, smooth Italians with greasy hair, and of course the obligatory compliment of obnoxious Americans. Then of course there was me, and though reports are inconclusive, I'm sure there were times when I was something less than a perfect ambassador for my own nation.

I somehow managed, perhaps on the basis of a misappraisal of my wealth, to snag a VIP membership to this particular establishment. What this meant was that I was able to enter for free, purchase two drinks for one most nights, and most importantly of all, on Wednesday, I was able to drink as much as I was capable of, between the hours of 10pm and 4am, for the princely sum of 50 RMB.

Just to put that into perspective, 50 RMB, at today's exchange rates is about:

$9.40 NZ

$8.23 AUS

$6.40 US

That's right. For less than $10, you could drink all of the cheap, watered down, nasty hangover inducing liquor that you could possibly force down. It was a terrible, terrible thing.

When in the Wu, our nights would end with a trip to the fluorescent nirvana of the local 7/11, where they had managed to improve upon the timeless classic of Chinese boazi (steamed buns) by replacing the traditional fillings with a small sausage. The non-question 'yo wiener ma?' was slurred many times to the poor store clerks, who were no doubt bemoaning their fate at being assigned to a 24 hour munchie stop nestled between popular expat bars.

When in Sanlitun however, there was no better place to end the night, than a stop at the A Hole.


My liver and brain welcome my return to Liaoyang.

* for those not in the know, Gan Bei literally means 'dry glass' and is a common Chinese toast that you will come to dread. Baiju, the national poison of choice, is explained here.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

So it wasn't just me...

It really did snow hard on the weekend. Even the internet says so.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Touristing Begins

Righto. This one's going to be picture heavy, as our intrepid hero heads all of 500m from where he was staying to take a look at Peking University, built on part of the old Summer Palace (of which we shall see more later).

But first....

It snowed like crazy here on Sunday (as previously mentioned) and classes were cancelled yesterday as lots of the kids weren't able to get back to Liaoyang from wherever it is they spent the Spring Festival.

I took the opportunity to trudge out and see what the snow had done to my beloved smelly little town. The word 'snow plough' is not known around here, so when it comes down hard its basically tunnels made by feet, followed by hordes of people armed with shovels and dustpans. They seem to get the job done eventually.




Anyway, Peking University (Bei Da to the locals) . Not much to say, its pretty, there's lots of birds (which is extremely rare in the parts of China I've been in) and lots of fat half feral cats to eat them. There's a big lake upon which people like to skate. And here it is:





Like I said, picture heavy.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Day One in the Big City

But first, a brief update from Liaoyang:

Today is Shang Yuan, or the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the the Spring Festival celebrations, and commemorates some time 2000 years ago during the Han Dynasty when a bunch of villagers tricked an angry god (the Jade Emperor) out of smiting them by lighting lanterns all about their village, thus convincing him that their town was already smoten and ablaze.

For the record their crime was to kill his favourite goose.

Anyway, on this day, according to tradition, everybody hangs red lanterns, there's fireworks (of course) and people eat various festival treats. I would be doing all of this, except that today, on the cusp of spring, Liaoyang decided to treat me to the biggest dump of snow I've seen since I've been here. I had the pleasure of trudging through it this morning to buy a text book for one of my classes.

Alright - back to Beijing.

After our disappointment at the hands of James Bond, we swung by this wonderfully named establishment:


which was, alas, overpriced in one aspect, and completely lacking in the other.

In the morning I headed out to a little cafe/bar called Lush, in Wudaokou (the Wu), the area where I was staying. Now this may be hard to understand for anybody that's never left the comfort of their homeland and lived in a north eastern Chinese town for a decent stretch, but walking into a western style cafe, looking around and seeing more foreigners than you've seen in the last 5 months combined, all in the same place, drinking coffee and eating eggs and bagels and bacon (BACON!) for breakfast is kind of an overwhelming experience. After checking to make sure that it was real, I grabbed a seat at a table, ordered the biggest fry-up they had on the menu, and settled in to generally be astounded. Just when I thought the culture shock was going to kill me, a song by Trinity Roots came on the stereo. So I'm sitting in a room in the middle of China, where there are virtually no Chinese people at all, eating sausages and hashbrowns, and listening to New Zealand Reggae. It was pretty surreal.

After that mind fracturing experience, I kind of pottered around all day, got started on what was to become a serious addiction to the TV series Arrested Development, and then headed out in the evening to a club called D22. Now, in a few years hence, when the Beijing Rock n' Roll scene has exploded and conquered every corner of the world, this will be the humble place where pilgrims will travel to gaze upon the origins of it all. In hushed tones it shall be whispered "I was there man" (even though the records will prove that there were in fact only 15 people there that night and none of them were this guy). This was pretty much the speech we got from the owner anyway (I may be exaggerating slightly for effect, see yesterday's disclaimer) who assured us that the moment of ascendancy was, at the outside, mere months away. In fact, that very night, a lazy Wednesday where they were showing A Praire Home Companion to about half a dozen bored punters, I was informed that no lesser icons than the best singer/songwriter in China, and the best drummer in China (arrived only that day from New York) were in residence and were going to be having a jam later on. But first we got to experience a Flamenco band from Yunnan (China's most south western province) where, by one of those weird cultural accidents, spanish guitar is hugely popular.


The most interesting part of the evening for me (aside from the owner's amusing, and possibly true, anecdotes about owning a bar in New York in the early 80's and seeing such greats as Sonic Youth and Bad Brains 'before they were big you know?') was becoming reacquainted with one of my favourite forms of visual artistic expression: Bathroom graffiti. And, of course, here's some of the highlights:




Saturday, March 03, 2007

Beijing Beginnings

Here begins a recounting of my month in Beijing, broken down hopefully into areas of some coherency (but likely as not). There'll be a bunch of these over the next week or so, probably more diaryesque than the normal fare so if that sounds boring (it may well be) avert your browser now. There may be some pretty pictures along the way though. And you wouldn't want to miss those.

I'm telling these tales mostly from memory, partly from some scrawlings I made, so any relation to actual events or persons is purely coincidental. I may also change tense wildly and without notice. You have been warned.

So let's get started shall we?

Actually hang on a sec, I have no idea where I put my notebook when I "unpacked".

Here it is.


The day started on a slightly crappy note, learning that my friend (and previously, potential travel buddy) had had a fainting spell and had to be admitted to hospital. With that weighing on my mind I slung about 80% of my worldly goods about me and trudged out in the fresh snow to grab a taxi. I was able to negotiate the mandatory taxi conversation with minimal use of "bu ming bai" ("I have no idea what the hell you are talking about") but I'm pretty sure that when I told the guy that it was summer in New Zealand right now he either didn't understand or didn't believe me.

At the train station I bought a bus ticket to Beijing, and settled in to a grimy plastic chair to work out how I was going to know exactly when and where to board my bus. Fortunately a helpful business type fellow came and sat next to me, and with a combination of pointing, waving of tickets, and my one-word chinese utterings, we were able to establish that we were getting on the same bus, so all I had to do was follow his lead. He didn't speak a word of English, but I think the gist of the conversation he had at me was that he was in Liaoyang for a few days on business and basically couldn't wait to get the hell out of there and back to the civilised world of Beijing. His eyes certainly boggled when I told him I'd been in Liaoyang for four months and had never once been to Beijing (I think I told him that anyway). We then entered a rather amusing bout of back and forth where he tried to communicate some vital piece of information to me, with pointing, writing with his finger on my thigh, and repeating some word over and over again. I had no idea what he was talking about. Eventually I was able to work out that he was telling me to go to the bathroom before I got on the bus.

The thing about being a newbie in China (and I'm sure this is true in many places) is that you are basically an infant. Although you are toilet trained (though perhaps not in the particular regional variety) and you can walk, you can't understand what the grown-ups are talking about and when you want something you have to flail your arms around and yell until somebody works out what it is (ironically, its often a bottle). One of the great things about Chinese culture is that there will usually be some nervous student, bossy ayi, or bemused businessman willing to help you out. Sometimes this can be a pain in the ass (I once had a waiter escort me to the bathroom, wait at the door, and then walk me back to my table, just to make sure I didn't get lost/fall over/drown enroute) but it's often a lifesaver.

So I boarded the bus, armed with diet coke, jerky, bananas and rock n' roll; managed to get my stuff stowed; found my seat and got settled in for the journey. I briefly had a buddy in the neighbouring seat, who was fond of making phlegmy noises and snorting, but I guess he decided that he'd rather sit next to a real human being than the weird oversized infant with the beard. So I had two seats to myself which is a rare luxury in Chinese transport.

Especially at this time of year. A brief diversion: February is the month of the lunar new year (this year anyway) which was celebrated between from the 17th of Feb until last Saturday. During this time, and in the weeks before, literally hundreds of millions of Chinese are moving around the country, migrant workers traveling from the city factories to their remote regional homes; students heading back home for the holiday; and white collar city dwellers setting off on expensive package tours (that were booked up to a year in advance). On the highest volume day (today apparently), no less than 56.5 million people are expected to be traveling. That's like if one day the entire populations of the worlds five largest cities decided to play a game of international musical chairs (I have a dream...). Anyway, only marginally aware of this fact (I'd yet to watch the hourly broadcasts of the chaos on CCTV9, China's English language news channel) I was planning to swan into Beijing, take in the sights for a week or so, then head off on a leisurely tour of the region, wherever transport and accommodation was available. (Not to spoil the story, but that didn't happen.)

Back to the bus. I basically slept the first four hours of the journey (I warned you about the boring), waking every half an hour or so to catch glimpses of some Hong Kong action movie on the bus' TV. While I'm sure there was more than one movie screened in the four hours, they all seemed to contain the same triumvirate of Hero, Villian, and dewy eyed Herione, in various combinations of car chasing, chaste kissing or lengthy monologuing about their love/scheme/dewy eyes. One of the movies had an obviously Russian guy playing a CIA agent for comic relief. The view out of the grimy ice and mud caked window wasn't much improvement, a dull, flat, brown expanse, broken by the occasional black-smoke belching chimney or scatter of low brick dwellings and haystacks (though I've yet to see any livestock in China).

Eventually we stopped at a truckstop/roadhouse thing, identical to every other one in the entire world apart from the regional flavour of processed foods, the lettering on the coke cans, and the brand of cigarettes that all the men on the bus lit the second it ground to a halt. The fresh air was a blessing after the thick, warm air in the bus, perfumed with the scents of 50 or so people and their snack of choice. I snapped some photos of the surrounding landscape, and here are some of them for your 'wow that sure is a lot of brown' pleasure:




See? Pretty pictures.

Around 7 hours after we set out, I reached my destination, or at least the end of the bus route, somewhere in the absolutely-nowheresville outer suburbs of Beijing. A one hour taxi ride later, during which time I was reintroduced to the concept of 'rushhour', I was sitting in a restaurant with Mark and Paul (my gracious hosts) glad to be at the end of my journey. Except that after about 3 minutes of sitting I was told that we had to leave and get back into a taxi so we would make it to the cinema in time to catch the Beijing premier screening of the new 007 movie.

Which turned out to be sold out.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Dog Returns

Well, I'm back in Liaoyang. I caught a 'Sleeper' bus from Beijing today (that's a story for another time). It's as grey and dusty as I remember it being, though I had forgotten about that lingering smell of gasoline that pervades the air. The dull clap of fireworks is more or less constant (as expected) but on the upside they've festooned the town with coloured lights for New Years which is kind of pretty.

Various tales of Beijing will be told in due time for anyone who is interested (along with several billion photos)

For now I am going to feast on a dinner of Popcorn and Beer (contents of my fridge, beer excluded: Expired Cream cheese, Mustard, Gherkins, Hot Sauce).

In my absence this monstrosity seems to have materialised in my bedroom:


Current theories maintain that it is either a plywood wardrobe Tardis, or a piece of excess furniture that somebody didn't know what to do with and so decided that the laowai might like it even though he already has a closet that is too big for his five articles of clothing.

Last but not least:


I missed you baby. Now to get onto those 500 Windows Security updates that have accrued in my absence.