A Travellerspoint blog

April 2011

Dung powered television

Wife kidnapping has a lot going for it

Leaving China for Kyrgyzstan via the Irkeshtam Pass is a spectacular journey. The poorly sealed bumpy road winds alongside a river up through fertile valleys where we observed the inhabitants starting their day. This meant witnessing many men attempting to supplement the irrigation system or reduce the dust problem. Some modestly turned away. This is a desert region that is productive only with the application of water near the villages. Everywhere else is barren with breathtaking views of the snowy mountains that back on to Everest. The pass rises to 4,500 meters (13,000’) above sea level. We were advised that this could cause altitude sickness. Near the top, Flypaper & Jeanette visited a culvert under the road to add their paltry contribution to the low precipitation. Shortly after, Flypaper mentioned she felt a bit light headed. I explained that it is a well known medical fact that sudden release of bladder pressure at high altitude results in this condition. With this comforting knowledge she had no further problems … and no-one else bothered to complain.
The exit from the big C was, as expected, a couple of hours witnessing a combination of acute paranoia and gross overstaffing by the arrogant gang that controls the country. Our passports were examined by over 30 people at 5 passport controls plus immigration and customs. The cars on the other hand were processed in a few minutes with virtually no examination. Some time was spent examining the photo backup on our laptops. I can’t imagine what they thought of my picture of the local butcher utilizing their road sign a short time earlier. Perhaps it alerted them to the possibility of yet another serving of rice soaked in mutton fat for the evening meal.

With the assistance of an interpreter / guide who was named (by hopeful parents) ‘Talent’ our entry to Kyrgyzstan was quick and easy. The only incident was the blatant theft of a ‘commodity’ from ‘Bilbo’ in full view of the occupants. Their self control was commendable. Perhaps they were influenced by the Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder.

We had heard numerous reports about our first night Kyrgyzstan accommodation at Sari Tash. A recent ‘Intrepid Travels’ program stayed here and the star of the show was seen clutching a bucket containing her head and in intestines for the following 24 hours. As it turned out, we stayed down the road with the opposition guest house. It was an ‘educational’ night in very primitive circumstances living with and as the locals. No luck with the food (which was plentiful, fresh and tasty) – we remained disgustingly chubby and as yet have not been introduced to the bucket we carry in anticipation of a enforced weight reduction program. Sari Tash is a primitive village devoid of street lights, 3,500m above sea level and without neighbours for a long, long way in any direction. The night was gloriously clear and during the long (horizontal) walk to the long (vertical) drop during the night, I witnessed the glorious northern night sky. Stars like a jeweler’s dream – large and sparkling multicoloured gems hanging in a velvet sky enveloped in utter silence. Very few people in the world have ever seen the northern sky as it used to look 7 million years ago before mankind created light pollution. Our hosts and their neighbours lead a hard and primitive existence caring for a small heard of sheep and goats, a couple of cows and a few chickens. Their entrée to the 21st century was a archaic TV made obvious by the Satellite dish next to the dried dung heap. They cared for the world’s most contented wolf whose occasional yawns were a danger to anything nearby.
Dung powered TV

Dung powered TV

Kyrgyzstan has a tough history. Virtually everyone who felt the need to ride out and do a bit of raping and pillaging has had their way with this central Asian country. In recent times they have been bullied and ravaged by their northern neighbour, Russia. Sadly it appears that the same thing is about to happen compliments of their eastern neighbour. Already China has taken every piece of scrap metal out of the country and is ripping coal and other minerals out via polluting processes here, there and everywhere. In return China is building large new highways over the Irkeshtam Pass and two other passes. Very good of them – these roads will enable even more economic rape.

On route to the second largest city, Osh, we saw thousands of donkeys valiantly productive in ways that plucked on our heartstrings. 100kg donkeys carrying 130kg fatties uphill at a brisk trot. I was regularly tempted to leap out and reverse the equation.
Kyrgyzstan is 97% mountainous. It has the largest number of goats per head of population in the world. (That fact is bound to come in handy). Many of the country people are semi nomadic. They farm the mountainous valleys during summer and scurry down to their mud brick huts in winter where the temperature only falls to around -20C.

The city of Osh is ancient, famous – and a bit disappointing since the Russians rebuilt it in their inimitable style. On arrival at our guest house we were informed that the city water had been turned off for 3 days - so that the streets could be washed. This begs comparison with our own local body management but I have no access to heart medication (and I’m on holiday). Given we hadn’t showered for a couple of days this was unwelcome news but not fatal. Of interest in Osh was the introduction to a little 4 door, 3 cylinder, 900cc, hatchback car – a Daewoo Tico. It’s surprisingly good. There’s a deluxe model that has hubcaps. The Tico is manufactured next door in Uzbekistan and sells for US$1,500. That’s equivalent to 10 donkeys. While I believe the donkeys would be a better long term investment - consider maintenance, reproduction and dung production - the Tico has created a whole new commercial enterprise. Everyone is in the Taxi business. Given everyone owns a Tico Taxi there is little trade for any of them so they either cruise around hopefully looking for a tourist or congregate in groups smoking and complaining about the lack of tourists – and water. US$1,500 is cheaper than a Chinese electric scooter. It’s impossible to live in a scooter.
10 Donkey equivilent

10 Donkey equivilent

We had long and meaningful discussions with ‘Talent’ who is frustrated by his ability to find a wife with similar ideals and interests. (I strongly advised him against such nonsense and suggested he consider their cooking and dung stacking skills). He is about to resort to the ancient and common ploy of kidnapping a girl at random in the hope that her parents will advise she accept the inevitable. This is true. A majority of marriages result from kidnapping and it seems to work well. Flypaper and Jeanette exhibited some revulsion to this system but when one considers it in depth, it has considerable merit. The greatest benefit that Talent confessed is that the ‘bride price’ for a kidnapped girl is considerably less than one chosen by romantic notions. This is pure capitalism. A dopey star-struck guy in love is easily manipulated to pay 6,000 SOM, 10 sheep, 1 cow and a horse for his chosen one. The kidnap price is well less than half that, which is a strong incentive to support this traditional system. Let’s face it; based on Western statistics, at the end of the line you’re buying a very long odds chance of eternal happiness. Taking the cheap option is at least one positive step in the long term view. (The things one learns when it’s too late). I freely gave Talent the benefit of my considerable experience in the marriage business together with my email address requesting he advise me the outcome of his efforts.

Given we travelled right across Kyrgyzstan we claim to have seen a cross-section of the country during our brief visit. I suspect this is a country you will hear more about in the future. Last year there was a brief uprising of citizens impatient for change and annoyed at the blatant rampant corruption that extends through the whole community but gets greedier higher up the tree. They burnt down 1,700 houses and lots of commercial buildings. The houses are being rebuilt by the Asian Development Bank. The Commercial stuff belongs to the corrupt contingent so will soon be reconstructed with inferior materials compliments of the peasants who always underpin every society. I believe this key central Asian country will also feature in arguments between neighbours and eventually become an important trading route between China and Europe – just as it was in the days of the ancient Silk Road. We’ll hereby coin the new name of the trade route – the Synthetic Route.

Exit from Kyrgyzstan was as easy as entry. The small team that we woke up at Customs and Immigration seemed delighted to practice their English and were unfazed by some of the new words we introduced to them. I wonder how the next travelers will respond to ‘Kiora and Kapai’.

Posted by Wheelspin 09:45 Comments (6)

Piggy goes to market

Population control through inattention

At school when I was about 14 and suffering from regular outbreaks of acne, I suddenly noticed a young lady in my class was no longer an obnoxious distraction but had become quite a pleasant distraction. I don’t recall if this change in attitude stemmed from the fact she had her teeth braces removed or because her blouse suddenly seemed to have changed shape or shrunk – probably the teeth. I consulted with my best mate as to how it could be arranged for me to sit near her on the bus (I wasn’t quite ready for a conversation). He promptly told the whole school that I was in love with her. Mortified as I was, I did learn a valuable lesson. Never tell anyone a secret. Now, here I am on the cusp of making the same mistake – but I know I can trust you. So long as this knowledge is keep well away from our political miss-managers that will be OK. Here in China, every road that has been blessed at some time with a puddle of tarseal is tolled. Transportation in China is growing at a phenomenal rate and those who must deal with the consequences have wisely decided, unlike the dazzling brains in the West, that the motor car and truck is not about to vanish any day soon. They are building roads at a rate you and I will never comprehend. Over thousands of years many civilizations have made huge alterations to the world. Roads have been laid, walls built, rivers dammed and changed course and large cities have sprung up. However, nothing preceding has even made the impact on Earth that is currently occurring in China. Our guide calls a ‘small city’ any place with about a million people. There are very few cities with less and those are being added to at a phenomenal rate. People are being moved from traditional homelands to new places and new industry is sprouting up all over. It’s mind boggling. To enable all of this requires a roading infrastructure that is likely to eventually make up almost half the paved roads in the world. Someone’s gotta pay. We’ve certainly done our bit. Daily tolls on various classes of roads range from 50 – 200 Yuan per day (NZ$10 – 40).

Roads in China span the range of smooth superhighways through to lumpy farm tracks. Sometimes one evolves into the other without warning. All are inhabited by the biggest overloaded trucks in the world … together with all types of conveyance and people doing goodness knows what including leading their pigs to service.
Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty

The Expressways are 2 – 4 lanes each way. Usually rather new and very smooth with good signage, Armco, and a center divide. You are not a successful provincial leader if you haven’t commissioned a couple of highways. This is easy enough without a Resource Management Act, guaranteed payment from tolls in a growth market and virtually unlimited practical road-making resources that include lots of long handled shovels. The posted speed limit is 120kph for cars, 100kph for trucks and 60kph for agricultural machinery. Also well signed is the instruction for cars to use the fast lane when overtaking and trucks to use the right lane closest to the edge of the highway. No-one takes any notice of the signs. Any speed will do - from walking to subsonic. The trucks prefer the fast lane and much of the passing is done on what we in NZ consider the wrong side – but you can’t be quite sure that the truck isn’t about to move over … and given their oversized load blocks their mirrors they have no idea you are about to undertake them. ‘Undertake is an appropriate word given it extends into undertaker which is potentially the next person who will take an interest in you. Often, and particularly in the South, you can expect to find families out for a stroll on the expressway, farmers taking their animals and produce to market in a motorized wheelbarrows, broken down vehicles stopped exactly in the lane where their problem developed and repair workers asleep behind a few warning rocks. You may also encounter elderly people strolling down the center lane because this is exactly where the track they have strolled for the past 70 years is – the nice men with the big machines just tidied it up a bit for them.
There are many tunnels. These provide for invisible pedestrians. I’m not sure if its potholes or pedestrians that cause the bumps in the exhaust filled back holes through inconveniently positioned mountains.
Equally disconcerting are the moments one rounds a bend to discover an enormous earth moving machine approaching in your fast land. The driver is confident who will do best in a head on collision and one should make a quick judgment in terms of deciding to test his theory – or not. (Driving direction on any road seems to be a bit arbitrary.)
A highway need not be completed before traffic uses it. Often the total (say) 300km will be under construction with multiple sections in various stages. Traffic just bounces along on the unstarted or unfinished bits and feels very grateful when a nice smooth patch is encountered for a while. The unstarted bits range from farmers fields, bare desert, old potholed provincial roads to recently built but instantly destroyed highway. The destruction of all sections is caused by the enormous overloaded trucks of which there are hundreds of thousands. Some of the toughest off-road driving I have ever encountered occurred on Chinese Expressways. On many days we will bump pass (by the skin of our teeth and with the grace of any interested god - there’s supposed to be plenty in most areas) say 30 trucks per kilometer (perhaps 6,000 + in a day) – often in thick dust that obscures the front of the truck and makes approaching traffic impossible to see. After a while one becomes philosophical but I still find it difficult to blink and ones over exercised sphincter muscle often develops cramp.

Provincial or ‘ordinary’ roads that may have served well for the past 20 years when there was limited traffic are now of no interest to the local leaders who expect to have their photo taken with the President when their new Expressway is opened. There is no maintenance of the older roads that have usually deteriorated into a series of linked potholes. I recall a stretch recently – 10km of straight road with 5,000 bends in it. It’s the best upper-body workout imaginable. Trucks are still the No 1 challenge but Taxi’s, 3 wheeled utes, put-puts, demented scooter pilots and pedestrians oblivious to all around are close challengers. The speed limit is not revealed and there are no other obvious rules except when you give up trying just go back to the correct side and follow a cyclist – or anything else that you hope is going in the same direction as you. A two-way road is usually good for 5 lanes but none of these can be guaranteed to have an orderly flow in a single direction. All alternate between seal and dirt but often it’s impossible to tell which surface one is on at any given moment. Indeed, one couldn’t care less and there isn’t time to look.

City streets are often in good condition. This is due to the fact they are protected by a layer or two of trash. Again, direction of flow and speed is optional and uncontrolled intersections are free for all. It’s very efficient. The cities in the east of China are far more challenging than those in the west where they are often new, wide and well designed with separated motorcycle / bicycle lanes. The western China cities are also much cleaner and very tidy. They put considerable effort into beautification and are quite impressive given the barren environment from which they have evolved.

The minor country roads are different again. Narrow, poorly defined and populated by all the local agricultural machinery together with the agriculture itself – plus the inevitable put-puts, bicycles, and strollers. Villages and small towns typically feature dirt roads which make them a bit messy in the rainy season. During our couple of weeks in the South and moving up through the less developed central areas it rained most days. Bilbo and HeeHaw became very grubby. It wasn’t until a farmer approached us and asked if his sow could mate with HeeHaw that I reasoned it was time for a wash. A superb car wash and inside clean can be acquired for 15 - 20 Yuan – about NZ$3 - 4. Usually there’s a male organizer who applied the water and a couple of enthusiastic women who scrub and dry. Very good value for 20 minutes entertainment. I do often wake up at night feeling sorry that the pig was deigned.
Team work

Team work

One thing that is consistent with all roads is the way the authorities deal with the issue of slowing traffic in the event of road works or something they deem to be a little more dangerous than the status quo. They accept that no-one takes any notice of signage and the majority of the population is unable to pay a fine (if you could catch them). The solution is simple. They dig a trench across the road. Speed bumps are a waste of time – the motorcyclists just remove parts of them to maintain smooth progress. The trench is typically 500mm (1’8”) wide by 150mm (6”) deep – enough to tear out the front suspension if hit at any speed above 20kph speed. These provide adequate incentive to slow down and there is never a warning they are ahead. As a result, motorists stay alert. This state of mind also helps to spot large square patches of seal removed for no obvious reason. These ‘patches’ are about 3m x 4m (10’ x 13’) and also deep enough to spoil your day. I’ve concluded that both the trenches and squares are a form of birth control. It’s simple – if mother or father dies there’s no chance for junior from that coupling. The other ‘warning’ devise used by motorists (usually large trucks) that have broken down (usually in the fast lane) is a row of large rocks placed across the lane at a carefully calculated distance that would enable a inattentive motorist to hit them, focus - and discover they have lost their steering and are about to crash into the idiot that fate decreed would organize their joint demise.

In the western desert where the roads are fabulous and often almost deserted, we have had two encounters with the law. The first was an astonishing accusation that I was speeding. As one should do, I asked through our interpreter guide for the evidence. I was told that I featured in a photograph and was directed to a car sitting well back off the road in the dust. On approach I discovered it contained 4 policemen. 2 were asleep, 1 was studying a blank laptop screen and the other was searching for my registration number on a handwritten list – it wasn’t there. The one who stopped us simply gave up and waved us on.
The next day they were a bit more organized. After a 2 hour drive through an amazing feat of road engineering that took us through a spectacular gorge that was in turn, through some rugged desert mountains we emerged on to a wonderful highway that had all the appearances and signage of a 120kph limit. Imagine our surprise to be stopped and each presented with photo’s proving we were exceeding 60kph. Me by 25% and Martin by 50%. There was no question of our speed – we were astonished that it wasn’t 100% each. (Our guide believes it was a police temporary speed trap.) After being relieved to discover none were descendents of Genghis Khan, 30 minutes of pleasant 3 way conversation and perusal of the Central Government official papers that we presented, it was decided we could proceed without horrendous fines or any other penalty. They already had a big drawer full of cash and pulling in more every couple of minutes. Out of appreciation of their wise decision I presented them with a 20c plastic Tiki to hang on the shed wall. I think they got off lightly.
Its a fake

Its a fake

As we move west into the desert and ever closer to our exit from China, there are a number of unexpected things on display. Lots of oil wells and refineries, very modern prosperous cities, astonishing intensive desert farms – their grapes. pears and apricots are superb. All grown with artesian water. We have also seen some of the worlds largest wind farms. Hundreds of fans … sitting idle. Too late to tell the well meaning energy experts – the wind is more often than not too strong. Windmills have a limited window of operation. Both too little and too much wind renders them useless. Oh well – there’s always coal in abundance.

You will have seen Asians, particularly women, prowling around with face masks. These were really popular during the swine flu epidemic (which by the way is still prevalent here in China and probably due to the fact that the majority of the population keeps a swine or two handy to the back door for garbage disposal and the well known rainy day.) There is usually good reason for wearing a mask, particularly if you are about wipe out a large part of your neighbourhood with a new disease that you probably unknowingly cultivated in your bathroom. Another good time is when the wind is blowing the Gobi desert into your noodles. The western center of China is a big dusty bowl, much of which is held in the air by cyclonic winds for a good part of the year. The men keep their mouth shut and get on with playing Mahjong. The women however wear multicoloured cotton masks that loop around their ears – I imagine enabling continual chattering while they do all the work. It was probably a negotiated settlement by the union of women; “If your want us to work we must be properly equipped to chat”. As were traversed this part of China, Flypaper & Jeanette also bought masks. As a lad I often donned a mask and considered I had been transformed into Zorro. With a wooden sword and Mothers best broom I could gallop around the back yard saving distressed damsels and disposing of all of the bad guys between arriving home from school and dinner – no problem. It’s not quite right that my life has evolved to the point where it is now the distressed who wear the masks. Flypaper had developed a continual cough that was scarring the general public into believing she was a special biological weapon sent by the New Zealand guvmint to conquer China. Given they just moving away from a socialist regime they were not keen on this idea. The first time she wore it we stopped at the road toll booth to pay our fine for driving … and the tax collector thought it was a holdup. It seems the word has spread ahead because now people seldom get excited and just give the impression of giggling amongst themselves saying, “See why we call the Westerners “big noses”.
Chinese astranaut

Chinese astranaut

Tomorrow we leave China and enter Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Given you’ve probably never heard of these countries I suspect the details I provide will be the final rounding out of your education. Unfortunately we don’t expect reliable internet service – so the information you are undoubtedly now craving may be a little slow appearing.

Posted by Wheelspin 21:41 Comments (5)

Toilet trained at last

“Can I eat your rat?”

One of my disappointments during the past 3 weeks is that, after giving in to the demand that “the Washing Machine must travel with us or the trips off”, we have not once used it. You’re probably leaping to the conclusion that we are filthy grubs virtually indistinguishable from the many open sewers we’ve examined with curious interest. ‘Curious, isn’t quite the correct word. Neither is ‘remarkable’ however the observations have generated some excited remarks. No, we are, by our standards, in reasonably respectable condition and are certainly not being obviously avoided by the local populace when strolling about their neighborhoods. Having said that, there was one guy who took a wide detour when I was examining something I picked up on the sole of my shoe. Given I was not the person who deposited the – arrrrhhh – waste material (and it was more likely to be a relative of his), I consider that an affront and a poor way to treat a guest to his country. It would have been more ambassadorial had he taken over the stick and effected the removal of the offending material. Without his help, Flypaper managed the job very well.
The lack of work by the washing machine is solely attributable to the quality of the accommodation we have enjoyed each night. Long may it last … but we’re sure it won’t. Here in China, our organizing agent arranged 3 star hotels and told us that, given our reputation and obvious status, the Chinese authorities insisted we be upgraded to 4 star. (Perhaps she didn’t say that but I’m sure she would have if I’d pressed her on the point.) Notwithstanding, we are in very nice accommodation most nights. Some would even describe it as ‘luxurious’. I simply say that it’s the standard I always promised Flypaper she deserved and would eventually enjoy if she stuck to me. When a room is heavily draped with washed garments, it’s a common saying at home to describe the area as, ‘Looking like a Chinese Laundry’. A few days ago I peeped into a Chinese Laundry and I can assure you that the description we use is unlikely to be accurate. A ‘Chinese Laundry’ has far more ‘stuff’ in it than you can imagine or produce even if you decided to decontaminate your whole wardrobe … together with all the clothing that could be gathered in your neighbourhood. Having ‘seen’ the real thing, the ‘scene’ in our 4 star hotel bathroom each evening is quite a relief. I do still find it quite disconcerting to be tangled in Flypapers unmentionables but can assure you that those working in the nearby laundry would face greater challenges.

My last blog (No 11) generated quite a full mailbox and probably alerted the Chinese authorities to my thoughts about their country. I do appreciate the comments I receive both on the blog site and by personal email. I am quite amazed when I discover from the blog ‘stats’ that my compositions have been read by over 13,000 people. (I didn’t realize there were that many with both time to waste and poor taste.) The comments regarding my discovery that the Chinese economy was capitalistic compared to our western socialistic system has triggered the deluge of comment that sadly I have no time to argue and will have to be ignored. However, one message received from an unknown analyst with the most dubious email name of ‘peecracker’ (true) commented (Quote) “You may change your mind about Chinese supremacy when you experience their washrooms”. (From that I deduce he’s American and offended by the notion China may be a threat). Well Pee, if you had read on, you would have discovered that I have found the need for relief at many Chinese toilets. I have experienced the finest, most artfully decorated and beautifully presented facilities imaginable for the purpose of basic bodily functions, through to a couple of slippery planks extended over an abyss that provided for my modesty with a single plastic sheet that would have left both tall and short people exposed to the unsavory comments of passersby – and every standard between. During the performances I have been ‘misted’ with a delightful fragrance possibly extracted from a combination of lovingly cultivate flowers and exotic herbs through to a gagging, debilitating stench that induced a wish to have my nose surgically removed and sterilized in a bath of chlorine. None of these experiences have changed my opinion that the Western word has become over governed and doomed by their desire to create a race based on the lowest common denominator. The world evolved by the survival of the strongest species and perhaps it is those who survive the toilet facilities of emerging nations that will inherit the mess created by those who consider we know better.
Slot machine with built in draft

Slot machine with built in draft

Travelers’ to China will discover the toilet paper is not perforated. While not a disaster of major proportions, the resulting ragged tear does offend my sense of order and tidiness. China is not perfect. Nor should one expect any toilet paper at all in the public facilities. You may consider that strange given China invented paper. They may have tried it and decided the new invention was worthy of better things or the early product may not have offered any advantage over traditional practice. However I think it’s fair enough – we are quite acceptable of BYO restaurants, so why not BYO toilets. Disposing of the used paper is a bit trickier. There’s no convenient flush to remove the problem and the farmers don’t appreciate it in their ‘nightsoil’ fertilizer. I suspect the used material left in the corner was evidence of another western traveler who was reluctant to put it back in their pocket for later. I tried burning but even when the damp soiled paper is supplemented with enough unused material to replicate a cremation that’s still an unsatisfactory option - and it does create quite a bit of unwanted attention from other stalls. It’s all a bit of a mystery. I’m not revealing my best solution so far.

There is one urinal that is worthy of special recognition. It and 4 others resided in a concrete structure that may have done service in a war as a bomb shelter. The resident cleaning lady who wielded one of those witches’ brooms may well have seen service in the same war as she gave me a look that would have easily won a battle or two. There was nothing remarkable about the urinal except that it was unremarkable – most inspire a comment. This provided the element of surprise. Over the years I’ve developed a procedure that I suspect is similar to other guys and only differs from one time to the next in speed - dependant on the delay experienced in finding the establishment. I fronted up to the apparatus … to be totally hosed down by the flush which I had wrongly anticipated would follow the performance. After being peed on by countless scruffy truck drivers it was fighting back! Although surprised and most likely guilty of an embarrassing exclamation, I gave as good as I received and on reflection, think I handled my end rather well.

We left Xi’an for the Wild West. Immediately we travelled across a highly cultivated plan specializing in apples and wheat into an arid barren landscape of dusty grey-brown eroded hills contoured into (literally) millions of terraces. This mammoth work over millennia was accomplished by people who lived in caves. Some still do (It looks like an enormous film set of Hobbiton in Lord Of The Rings). Most however have been moved into rather nice houses beside the road so that their traditional farms can be planted with trees. It has become apparent that contrary to popular misconception, China is seriously into sorting out global warming. Sure, they have a long, long way to go but we have seen modern non-polluting coal fired power stations (unlike New Zealand, China is mining it’s riches to create better lifestyles), and their enormous road construction projects actually save massive amounts of pollution over time. Planting huge forests is expected to transform the arid climate to make this part of China more productive and in doing so will offset the carbon footprint created by industrialization. What’s more – they don’t impose an ill-conceived guilt tax on their population.

Another nice discovery as we more into the West is an increase in recycling. There’s still plastic bags flying around like a new breed of rooster and so much rubbish lying about that one could be forgiven for thinking it’s a new form of landscape decoration. However, we see bicycles, motorbikes and trucks piled high with this material all scurrying towards the ever more common tip sites. These sites are often about the size of an airport and are self supporting in that most of the rubbish blows straight back out again or is scavenged and redistributed ready to be collected again the next day. We have also seen the worlds largest building recycler. The yard stretched from horizon to horizon – well - my horizons had been seriously reduced that day because I forgot my wedding anniversary. Like, who can remember stuff like that at home let alone when prowling around someone else’s backyard checking their whole process from garden to kitchen to toilet.
Steptoe & Son

Steptoe & Son

Enough serious credo – on to a subject on which I’m a frigin’ expert. Even those of my casual acquaintance are aware that I’ve indulged in some serious motorsport over many years. Some even accuse me of being an adrenaline junkie. Perhaps that was the case – but it’s going to be difficult to get a buzz in the future. You see, I’ve now experienced real racing and have an idea for a new class of motorsport that really keeps the heart beating and the adrenaline gland pumping. Traditional motorsport involves drivers competing on a circuitous course designed to discover who will finish first. The new discipline is likely to initially be dominated by the Chinese but I imagine from previous observation that the Egyptians will also be highly competitive. The principal differences are that 2 races are run simultaneously … on the same course … in opposite directions. Think about it. It introduces some fairly demanding elements and a whole new set of skills. The purpose of the race is to discover who will finish. (A subtle but important difference). Please don’t be derisory about this. It happens all the time here in China and we are proud of both our survival and competitive abilities. In fact, we’re winning quite a bit. My travelling companion in the other Nissan Terrano (Bilbo) was strangely proud of the fact that back at home he hadn’t broken a road rule since he married. Very commendable and not a claim I could make. By New Zealand standards our driving here would be considered total lunacy and we would be removed from society. I envisage any of the moves we make every few minutes would result in a moral panic and an outbreak of indignation deteriorating into road rage in retaliation. Here in the big C I suspect that my companion has probably broken a few Chinese rules but (by golly) he’s broken every New Zealand rule and some yet to be made. Running red lights, tooting to scatter those stupid enough to think they have sanctuary on a pedestrian crossing, cutting out the roundabout, driving the wrong way up a one-way street and seriously carving up Police vehicles is novice stuff. At home, we have dopy rules such as don’t cross the white or yellow centre lines. Ridiculous - wasteful of time & energy resources and quite restrictive. Before we were issued with our Chinese driving Licenses’ we were given an eye test. It’s really the only test required because everything else relies on this ability. It’s OK to cross the center lines if one can see there’s nothing in the way during the period on the other side. If there are other vehicles approaching the only challenge is to get back to your original side before they occupy the space you wish to traverse. If you don’t manage to get back then at the very least be sure there is enough room for 3 or even 4 abreast. Very exciting – especially for our passengers – who are sitting on the side closest to the potential impact where their unappreciated job seems to be to constantly comment on the meager distances between us and doom. Given the Chinese don’t issue licenses’ to blind people the system works well. The other commendable matter is the lack of indication. Never indicate because it tells others where you want to go and they take advantage of you. Keep them guessing. Keep all others watching and trying to figure out your next move – that gives you the advantage. Indication is OK if you use the emergency flashers – all 4 at anytime for any reason. Again – keep them guessing.
Men at work

Men at work

As we move west we notice a subtle change in the appearance of the people. Darker skinned more Arabic features and lots of Muslims. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the friendliness of the people. Everyone knows “Hello” and this welcome soon degenerates into a conversation with both sides totally oblivious to the others subject. In an agricultural market we ended up with gifts of produce that we certainly didn’t need or want – but one couldn’t refuse. Don’t think for a moment the Chinese are starving. There is food everywhere. There’s hardly an acre of land that is not cultivated and every imaginable food is produced … together with quite a bit you’ve never likely to imagine even if you regularly sniff substances. I’ve heard it said that if it has legs the Chinese will eat it. I believe that’s true and I’m sure I’ve seen teeth marks in tables and chairs. Added to the food with legs is the food that is gleaned from absolutely everything that grows through photosynthesis together with a whole class of foodstuffs that have never seen the sunlight. I often wonder with foods, who the first person was that tried it? Were they starving or simply of an inquisitive nature. Take milk for example. Who first said, “Let’s pull these things and drink the result”. Consider, the early cows were probably a lot hairier and less obliging than the current herd. Here, there is lots of tree bark eaten. Never, have I been strolling through the countryside and suddenly felt the urge to bit into a tree trunk. The range of edible fungi is also astonishing. It usually looks so revolting that the first taster would have unquestionably been blind and in many instances were also peculiar in that they wore a peg on their nose. Nevertheless, we have tried many new things and in most instances been pleasantly surprised. There are a few things my travelling companions have not been game to chew … and for that I’m thankful. Throwing up in public is so bad for ones image.
Giddy Chick

Giddy Chick

Posted by Wheelspin 05:25 Comments (4)

I’ve got the message

What’s that I hear you eating?

At my primary school our boys’ toilet was very much like some of the units I’ve been experiencing recently. Ours was perhaps a bit ‘flasher’ - a 3 sided corrugated iron wall with a length of spouting nailed on the inside as the urinal and a single ‘closet’ for those wishing to spend more time – usually smoking stolen fags. The wall must have been about 6 feet tall because I recall being able to see our teacher’s hat over the top - on the occasions he wore it. He only visited the facility during class time but there were corresponding occasions when I was standing in a corner of the corridor in recognition of an unappreciated effort and I was able to peep out the door to observe the teacher’s reason for leaving his charges. I digress. As 10 year olds we competed to see who could pee right over the top. Robert Ellis gained our admiration for succeeding and has probably gone on to greater things in life – but hardly much greater as that is a splendid accomplishment. I tended to experience quite a lot of splash back. Sorry – that may be a bit too much information but I was reminded about it as I recalled our earlier efforts as less ambitious 6 year olds in the same facility. We attempted to spit over the top and in this respect I was an honorable achiever. Our efforts were puny compared to some of the excellent expectorators’ we have seen here in China. Truly admirable quantity, splendid distance and marvelous accuracy. While desperate to compete to gain an appreciation of my own humble standard I am afraid it’s been impossible. My mouth has been quite dry. We tend to travel some distance for a couple of days, then have a day (2 nights) in the same location which is usually one with tourist ‘attractions’ that have been finely tuned to extract as much Yuan from visitors as possible. All of these days involve exposure to the highways and byways of China and all are comparable in their ability to deprive my salivary glands of fluid. On the other hand (and probably due to the very fine Chinese beer we enjoy with our meals) there is a continual desire to frequent the often provided toilets. This is a rather interesting phenomenon – don’t you think? Simultaneous deprivation and oversupply.

The principal reason for the dry mouth is the astonishing realization that the Chinese do have a lot of things right – better than the western world. Apart from the enormous petty bureaucracy that I suspect is the result of endless cheap labour needing jobs and a traditional hierarchal attitude that encourages the employment of those lower down the pecking order, the economy that we are witnessing appears to work very well. The greatest surprise is that China is a more capitalistic society than the west and conversely, our western society has become increasingly socialist. Here, for the most, effort and risk are rewarded. Mature people are all very ambitious and the majority accepts that success is worth the effort of study and work – although few know the hard physical work of their forefathers. Who can blame them?
Team work

Team work

The most interesting observation is that, while I suspect there are rules, and certainly we have seen many written in English for our benefit, the Chinese people simply take no notice. This is not civil disobedience; it’s simply the mass acceptance that if a rule is an impediment to efficiency or progress they ignore it. The road rules are an example. If the motoring populace operated to our western road rules the streets would choke and the whole economy would grind to a halt. The Chinese simply drive around every problem, fill every gap and squeeze twice as many vehicles into the width and length of available road as we would consider possible. They stop anywhere, u-turn everywhere, drive the wrong way in one way streets and treat intersections as game. It’s great. I confess, it took me a couple of days to change my mindset from that of a brow beaten, police fearing westerner to that of a nation careering headlong into the future at top speed. Their driving skills are astonishingly good when one understands and converts to the system. Their peripheral vision and distance judgment are legendary. There are a few simply accepted rules : never leave a gap unless you want someone else to fill it : only give way to vehicles bigger than yours – and then only at the very last moment : ignore bicycles, motorcycles and derivatives thereof on the basis that they understand with instinctive good sense that if they are involved in an accident they will be the worst effected : toot to advise others of your presence (it’s likely to be appreciated and even save their life because the noise of theirs and other vehicles conceals your approach) : look only ahead for your own opportunities to progress (everyone else behind is watching you) – and finally – a miss is as good as a mile, don’t sweat the close shaves.
If one drove like this at home the witnesses would either call the police to have you removed for the good of society or, before they managed that, die of indignation. That is such a pity as the Chinese system is much better.

Here’s an example of Chinese logic and efficiency. We were driving behind a taxi in a huge city jam-packed with traffic all intent on arriving first. Our destination was further up a hill that required a long battle through the streets. Our intrepid leader had a plan … we drove into a high rise private carpark past ‘no entry’ signs and careered the wrong way up the ramps to the top floor where we exited back into the traffic quite close to our destination. The taxi gave up a substantially greater fare to provide us with the best result and a fine learning experience.

Our western society is stifled and submissive to the rule of law. We have so many and encourage more to be made – especially if it is perceived to benefit us at the expense of someone or an idea / concept we don’t approve of. Every facet of our lives is governed. For some unfathomable reason we find comfort in this. Sadly it stifles progress, reduces opportunity and impedes creativity. Pause and consider any aspect of our lives and the rules / laws surrounding them. We are told it’s for our own good. Rubbish – it’s pure socialistic ideology that, like all the historic socialist societies is doomed to fail. China is prospering on the same ideology the West embraced with such success 60 years ago.

Not only have I discovered China’s great strength and philosophy but I’ve mastered chopsticks. For years I’ve questioned why a civilization that invented gunpowder could not get to grips with the fork. Today however, I stand embarrassed and humbled by my attitude. The Chinese invented the fork around 2400 BC. They’ve moved on. Consider, a fork has no advantage over a chopstick when eating slippery noodles or rice. A fork generally needs the assistance of a knife to conquer most foods. The chopsticks however, have made it acceptable to bring the bowl to ones mouth to accelerate the eating process and have introduced a range of noises to the processes. It is well known that smell enhances taste. I expect that here it has been discovered that an added audible element has further improved the experience.

Given that driving is taking a significant part of our time, I am sure you will accept that ducking and diving has become second nature. It’s overlapping into my writing as well. I would like to tell you of so many things but most will have to wait. One that won’t is our appreciation of the signage. The highways are littered with good advice for those able to read English … Fowl Wether – Slow Down … Don’t drive drunken … Don’t drming when tired … Overspeeding prohibitaion … Animals attention … Don’t enter the exit … are a few examples that spring to mind. Hotels are also a source of interesting signage that must be very mysterious to the local people using the rooms, eg, Warm tips … please don’t flush the rubbishes in the toilet, Don’t bath in bowl (over the toilet), Toilet Bowel for gests.

Following the worthless Chin & Cheek we suffered the attentions of Charlie. Charlie is a good natured man of indeterminable age who told me he had an overweight daughter aged 8, a wife who had to work to support him as guiding was poorly paid – in fact he reveled he was poorer than his 3 brothers and sister. He had an interesting sense of humour – encouraging us to break into a farmer’s house to see what they eat for lunch, suggested we gatecrash a wedding to enjoy the feast and proposed we catch an endangered Crested Ibis to discover if it tasted like Chicken, or Kiwi. After each of these ideas had been voiced he chuckled contented in the knowledge that he was entertaining his Western guests with great skill and sure that this would be reflected in the tip. On reflection and with the benefit of hindsight gained from reading my own description of poor Charlie – all his jokes were about food. He certainly didn’t look underfeed and we suspected his daughters problem was gained from their mutual enjoyment of American Fast Foods. Sadly the skills we employed him for were non existent. He was a useless guide and it was only when we eventually wrestled the Maps and GPS off him and ordered him to stop talking that we stopped getting hopelessly lost. He had an aversion to reading signposts preferring to telephone the hotel or next guide to ask directions. The problem with this stroke of genius was that he did not know where we were - which made the advice given to him rather worthless. Again we resorted to the shameful ploy of asking strangers to save us. To my everlasting humiliation we even asked a policeman for help. The saving grace was that this happened in the middle of a busy intersection and we gridlocked a whole city of 6 million people. They had their revenge however as the policeman was no more capable than Charlie and sent us the wrong way. Charlie did have a winning smile and a desire to address us collectively by our individual names recited in series – this takes time – especially when spoken in his slow drawl polished from listening to the soundtracks of old American Western movies. Flypaper thought he was endearing (like a puppy that digs up the garden and eats socks) so naturally I was keen to get rid of him.

We have finished stage 1 of our journey – Hong Kong to Xian. Apart from the frustrations of bureaucracy in Shenzhen which was typical of officialdom everywhere, it’s been great. We’ve mastered the art of ordering unknown foods from pictures in books and with one exception loved every dish. It’s likely that this would not be so had we actually known what we were eating. Our accommodation has been superb in spite of the idiosyncrasies that remind us we are in China. The tourist attractions have only been spoilt by the fact that tourists were visiting them. We learned that this is a civilization which has been doing astonishing things for over 4,000 years and were generally world leaders in most fields or most of that time. I have started to appreciate this juggernaut that is travelling out of control towards an exciting future – but I’m not frightened by it. I am frightened by the fact that the West may not learn to accept Oriental wisdom. I've got the message but I suspect our lords and masters are unlikely to experience the 'real' China as we have.

The lush mountains and plains that sustain the worlds largest industrial region now gives way to a dryer sparser environment that will bring other challenges that take us out of our new comfort zone. One thing I do know - going into these desert regions is nothing like going to the beach at low tide.
The animals came on 2 by 2

The animals came on 2 by 2

Posted by Wheelspin 06:49 Comments (9)

Oriental Art

We Westeners have a lot to learn

Much has been said about Oriental Art – and most is complementary. Since being in China, Flypaper & I have indulged in a bit of cultural exposure and have seen some really quite wonderful stuff made from all sorts of other stuff. Indeed, some was especially good and we know this because the artist told us. There is however, some extraordinary Oriental Art that seems to have previously escaped the attention of the critics – but I intend to remedy that. My qualifications are very good … few would be as critical about most stuff as me.

In a very ancient city called Zhaoqing we stayed in a hotel that was quite possibly the most modern I have ever experienced. Flypaper occasionally has a bit of a problem with recent technology but I pride myself on being only couple of years behind teenagers and possibly a little ahead of 6 year olds. In this hotel, it took me 20 minutes to figure out how the room lights worked. I never did quite get to grips with the high tech toilet. I suspect Flypaper may be better able to explain this given the long periods spent experiencing the various comforts & pleasures provided by this astonishing apparatus. Its various water jets, warming surfaces and vibratory ability were all operated from a console that would have been difficult to follow in English. I digress; the reason for mentioning this particular place was because it was here we were handed on by the wonderfully caring and softly but clearly spoken ‘Steven’ to the Chinese Olympic ‘Yapping’ champion. Guide Qin (pronounced Chin) speaks a rapid form of repetitive Chinglish and has difficulties with determining left and light – although both are usually a guess. We have grown accustomed to hearing, “Solly. Turn alound”. This is rather disconcerting in some of the driving conditions we find ourselves. Chin is accompanied by another gentleman who I christened ‘Cheek’ … they sort of go together if you follow my reasoning. Evidently Cheek knows where to go and Chin is supposedly more able to relay this knowledge to us. A fine arrangement in theory. In practice neither knows where to go and we resort to the feminine technique of asking others. This looses me considerable face. Chin has demonstrated the Oriental art of confusion. We seldom know where we are, were we’re going or even that we’ve been. On many occasions we haven’t been at all. We went from 2 days behind schedule to 1 day ahead as a result of their decision to find and use a fabulous new 250km highway (over 50% in tunnels which is rather repetitive scenery) that opened 10 days previously and does not show on any maps. In truth, I’m not sure it was open at all, but the populace started using it even though the electricians were still fitting the lights in the tunnels and the builders were still constructing the service stations. We drove 240kms on a muddy, ‘pumpy’ goat track at an average speed of 35kph to find this highway. Chins ability to talk about multiple subjects at the same time and change the information mid sentence gives us pride in the versatility of the English languages. We have 8 days to study the art that Chin has perfected.

One of the finest arts here in China is the art of jaywalking. The population is divided into 3 groups. The first are drivers who are the ones born with a 6th sense … a jaywalker detection, location and avoidence sense. The second group is riding motorcycles – usually together with their whole family or transporting an enormous load of freight. The third are the jaywalkers who seem to live in a world oblivious to the oher two. They simply walk in any direction at any time but especially focus on crossing busy highways in places we big noses would never consider was sympathetic to the notion of a long life. For example, we drivers find individuals, pairs and groups of jaywalkers in various stages of crossing 16 lane intersections seemingly without thought that they could become fertilizer (nothing is wasted here) through being compressed between an overloaded truck and a pothole. Astonishingly the drivers are the ones who dodge the pedestrians and the motorcyclists dodge everything. It’s a system that defies the principals of good sense and self preservation – but it works. An art form for sure.

I had always believed that all vehicles from wheelbarrows to supertankers were engineered to carry certain loads and exceeding the mysterious numbers written on them was certain disaster. It’s not true. The engineers have been hoodwinking us to their own cunning benefit. The Chinese have developed and gone some way towards perfecting the art of overloading. Even a quick visit to this country that is experiencing enormous development which requires every imaginable thing being moved from here to there and from there to somewhere else, will witness that, for example, a 10 ton truck can carry any weight that will sit on its tray. Often the truck will start with a bit more and gravity will determine the final load along the way but you can be assured that no-one took any notice of the tare weight numbers and the vehicle didn’t crumple and die – well, not every time. At the other end of the scale, a bicycle can carry the sort of load we would put onto the boot of a car. Sometimes the peddling carrier’s wife has to push to get the job started and often walks behind to make sure delivery contract is completed. A 600cc van can carry a football team and their management group, a bus may be licensed to carry 45 but 80 is more profitable and motorcycles do the work of a 3 ton courier van. An antiquated looking agricultural cart that is powered by a single cylinder turning a huge exposed flywheel can move any load that may be offered up to it. These are the work horse of the country and can be seen everywhere – in mid city, on the major highways, in the fields and everywhere else. They are unrestricted in every sense. There’s a 3 wheeled ‘utility’ vehicle that is also powered by a single cylinder. It looks good for about a ton but in fact, its load is only limited by the owner’s ambitions. Beneath that is the 3 wheeled motorcycle powered machine that comes in various operating specifications – taxi, ute, van, etc. Here, for some unexplainable reason, its English name is a ‘Tu-Tu’. Again, the load carrying capacity is beyond reasonable comprehension although often the hirer can be seen pushing to get it started given both the clutch and the 125 or 250cc engine is not up to the job. In all instances, when loaded, stopping these machines is a challenge.
In addition to the weight of the load is the dimension. They typically work on the 2:3 ratio but there is no accepted limit. 2 times the width of the vehicle and 3 times the height. At one end of the scale we see car transporters with loads 2 vehicles wide, 3 stories high and 20 meters long and at the other, Tu-Tu’s with a load of furniture under some bamboo crates of chickens and ducks topped with the family and their neighbours. Truly inspiring.

Another art here in China worthy of comment, at another time, is the art of driving. After 2,000km I am still but a beginner. Suffice to say at this stage, there are rules … but no-one considers them. The ever present police have no interest whatsoever until there is an accident – which is astonishingly rare given the modus operandi employed. I haven’t blinked or breathed out in the past 11 days. There are signs along the way saying. “Don’t drive tiredly” … which I presume anticipates one going to sleep. They must be kidding!

An art that I have studied from a discrete distance is the art of bargaining. Apart from the major department stores and fuel stations, the price of any product is the agreement between a willing seller and a willing buyer – pure capitalism. Rumour has it that the final ‘buy’ price should be about half the starting ‘sell’ offer, To date, Flypaper has never achieved that ratio but it’s not for the want of trying. Having some qualification in Sales and Marketing and having once studied the Psychology of Buying & Selling, I suggested to Flypaper that she try the ploy of offering to buy 2 for the price of 1. The theory was that the seller could amortize the smaller profit into a larger sale. Somehow we have ended up with a 64 beaded dolls which represent an ethnic minority who hide in a mountainous region where I do not believe they have had the benefit of my Marketing education but where they did develop the fine art of bargaining to good effect.

Another art form that I have observed and am impressed with is the art of getting the women to do all the heavy labour … and most of the light work as well. This is worthy of further detailed study. We Westerners have so much to learn.

Posted by Wheelspin 06:08 Comments (10)

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