Tuesday, October 28, 2014


After five weeks away from home I began to look just a bit shaggy and feel overheated in tropical Manila so I went for a haircut at Bruno's Barbers at the Magnolia Mall.  I had expected the usual quick prison barber shearing that I've become accustomed to in the states but as I soon discovered a haircut in the Philippines can come with the works.

I got an intricate haircut with a electric clipper, a scissors and a straight razor, the hair inside and around my ears was intricately shaved, I had a hot towel draped across my face while my back, arms, and hands were massaged right down to my fingers.  Cost with tip $6 USD.  


When I was in Manila last year I found the place to be a collection of gritty, hot shanty towns with gridlocked traffic and my pocket was picked at the airport. So why am I back?

My wife has many friends here and although Manila is indeed a smog and traffic choked corrupt city the individual people that we've been visiting and who have opened their homes to us have been beyond generous and hospitable.  Mega Manila may be chaotic, overcrowded, poor and steamy but the individual people have been beyond warm and welcoming.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Flaw in My Thinking and the Possibility of Deportation

One of the foundations of our big sweep through Asia has been the ability to make it up as we go along. Have laptop and smartphone will travel, just look for agreeable fares and hotels and go to that place like a modern vagabond and plot out the next leg based on the same premise. But I almost got caught up in a major flaw in this kind of thinking, the kind that rubs governments the wrong way.

When we went to pick up our boarding passes for the flight from Xiamen to Manila on China Southern Airlines the agent noticed that we only had one way tickets to the Philippines. she asked to see a ticket to our next destination but we told her that we didn't know where we were going after a month in the Philippines.  My wife was born in Manila so the airline wasn't concerned with her but the China Southern agent had me fill out a form absolving the airline of any financial responsibility if the immigration officers in Manila decided to deny me entry and have me immediately deported. Eleanor spoke to the agent in Mandarin but she wouldn't budge.  The concept is sound, what would prevent me from entering the Philippines on a 30 day tourist visa and never leaving? In modern American lingo I'd be an undocumented immigrant. I'd be an illegal alien national and on the lam from the Pinoy la migra.

When we landed in Manila I deposited my form attesting that I hadn't visited west Africa and that I didn't have Ebola and I moved on to the immigration windows.  Eleanor spoke to the immigration officer in Tagalog and convinced them that since she's entitled to a one year Balikbayan visa I should be too.  The immigration officer agreed and I avoided having to pay for my own deportation to China.

The weather in Manila is hot and steamy.  I'm told that the best way to cool down is to enjoy a big bowl of cheese and corn ice cream.

Want Free Internet in a Chinese Airport?

Don't have a Chinese phone number?  Good luck!

I checked "around Gate 10 or 12" and found nothing.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

This Is Why I Never Buy A T-Shirt In Any Language But English

Also seen in China: 
A pimply fat teenaged girl wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed:
A perky teenaged girl of perhaps 15 wearing a shirt that screamed:
An old lady wearing a shirt that said:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

On the Rail Road Again

On the way to the Hangzhou East Railway railway station the security check in the Hangzhou Metro finally found my Swiss Army knife. Bags and luggage all get x-rayed and and sometimes inspected at Chinese subway stations but my knife had so far avoided detection on the Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing and Nanjing metros. Often the cops are bored and one behind the screen in Nanjing was sound asleep but an on the ball policewoman in Hangzhou saw my knife on the x-ray scanner and wanted to see it. She asked me something politely several times in Mandarin until I finally pointed to Eleanor. “She wants to see your knife”, Eleanor said. I dug the knife out of my suitcase and presented the contraband to the police woman. She looked at it briefly, smiled and returned it to me. Uighur terrorists bent on butchering Chinese railroad passengers are known for packing bigger blades and don't look anything like Fat White Uncle. A similar security check at the Hangzhou East Railway station either failed to detect my knife or they racially profile and just didn't care about Fat White Uncle and his puny multipurpose blades. I got a quick wanding and was turned loose to get my bags and wait for our train to Xiamen.

We took a few 2nd class high speed rail trips from Nanjing but this time we were headed south from Hangzhou to Xiamen. It's a nearly 7 hour and 540 mile journey so we sprung for an extra $16 US for 1st class tickets. Now that I've seen 2nd class and first class I know that in China 2nd class is the way to go, at least on a CRH train. The seats in 1st class are a bit wider and there's more legroom but our fellow passengers in 1st class seemed a bit more arrogant. They hogged all of the overhead luggage space above our seats leaving none for us which meant that our extra 1st class legroom had to used for some of our bags until the owner of the suitcase over my head relented 2 hours into the trip. If anything they were yelling at each other and bellowing into their cell phones even louder than their comrades in 2nd class. All of their phones were ringing, for awhile it sounded like a telemarketer office. Wall mounted screens were playing a loop of car commercials, an ad for a seafood supply company with a toll free number, shorts extolling the virtues of taking the high speed train; all with a loud soundtrack. My idea of 1st class is leans more to having my pillow plumped and clinking champagne glasses, not that I would know from actual experience.

But this time I had a clear window and could see China whiz by. What I saw were tired looking factories, cranes building gigantic apartment complexes often in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere and a forest of belching smokestacks. All of those smokestacks explain the thick smog that I've seen everywhere in our China travels that cuts visibility and most likely also cuts years off of the lives of the average Chinese citizen.

Any train trip or freeway cruise in the US would reveal that much of the housing stock in the US outside of dense cities consists of single family homes. As China has whizzed by on the high speed train during our trips I'm seeing few single family homes. There must be more single family homes somewhere, I'm seeing plenty of big Mercedes, BMWs, Audis, Land Rovers, Porsches and Cadillacs in the cities so there's plenty of money sloshing around in China for nice homes. What I saw are large clusters of apartment buildings with their windows and decks encased in steel mesh that make them resemble a sad vertical prison. Older apartment blocks often have cracked, moldy and fading facades and look like they're falling apart.  From the outside looking in at night the apartments seem dimly lit.

So China is a country of contradictions. One hand there's the new gleaming modern infrastructure. High speed trains, new bridges, subways are furiously being dug in many large Chinese cities. The stores are full of domestic and foreign food and the streets are choked with cars, trucks and electric scooters. On the other hand many of the houses and factories are falling apart, some goods are hauled with overloaded and beaten up 3 wheeled trucks. I'm surprised at all the sharply dressed women on one hand and the legions of beggars displaying their open sores, burn scars, amputations and pathetic and grotesque infirmities on the other. I'm more accustomed to American women who all too often dress like lumberjacks and American beggars; either sad drunks or able bodied young men panhandling for drug money.  Chinese beggars are hard core but supposedly often members of begging gangs.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

We Try CRH High Speed Rail

Greetings from aboard train D5116, China Railways CRH service from Chengdu to Chongqing. CRH means that this is a high speed train, we're occasionally hitting speeds close to 200 km/h, that about 120 mph and cruising at around 150 km/h (around 100 mph). But it's a Chinese train and even though we're in first class it's full of screaming, whining children and adult passengers bellowing into their cell phones and at each other at the top of their lungs. There are 2 TV screens advising people to not take off their shoes and expose their smelly feet, don't make a mess and other loud announcements from cartoon Chinese police about manners and safety.

I thought that perhaps unlike an airplane I'd be able to look out the window and peacefully watch the Sichuan countryside roll on by. No such luck, my fellow passenger have drawn the window shades so I might as well be on an airplane or on a subway. At least the seat is comfortable and there's more leg and seat room than in airline economy class but without my own headphones the din of my fellow passengers would quickly wear me down. 

Our train left from the Chengdu North railway station, a madhouse and another of the many Chinese firedrills we've experienced on this trip. The Chinese have had security problems at railways stations in the recent past with teams of Muslims separatists from their rebellious far west getting loose stabbing and slashing and many have died. We both got wanded and our bags were x-rayed but neither of us are the people they're on the lookout for. I had a Swiss Army knife in my luggage which they didn't bother bringing to anyone's attention.  The men's room was incredibly unsanitary, I wanted to wash my hands but one man hoisted his little boy up to pee into one of the sinks and an old man was submerging and washing several big bunches of grapes in the other. There was no soap available anyway.

There are people in the US that say that the Chinese are ahead of us in high speed rail technology and that we need to build such railways and catch up. In my opinion that would be a very bad idea for the US.  But the financial cost of such a project in the US would break the bank. Oh wait, our bank is supposedly already broken and we already own an existing money losing passenger rail operation: AMTRAK.

When a train line is being built in China and your house or business is in the way the dispute is not settled after a long wait and a court date. The railroad tells you that their train is coming through and you have a certain amount of time to be gone and go live somewhere else. There might be a token financial settlement but ultimately your house will be bulldozed, you will be displaced and displaced rather quickly, the train is coming through and because it's a priority prestige project by the central government it waits for no one. They don't require high cost union labor or women and minority contractors nor do they take into account minority rights or social justice or any of the other niceties that Americans consider necessities.  The work goes on at all hours, often 24/7.  The way to get Chinese style high speed rail in America is to build it the Chinese way.  Would anyone in the US stand for that?

High speed trains can make sense in China because of the population density of the place, these trains are a Chinese solution to the unique Chinese problem of moving a massive and dense population.  China is roughly the size of the continental US but their 1.3 billion people are concentrated in a swath in the Chinese coastal east. It's as if most Americans lived on the eastern seaboard to perhaps as far west as Chicago and St Louis except there are probably 5 times as many Chinese in China as Americans in the US. China has over 100 cities with a population in excess of a million, the US has 5.  The Chinese have people to move, Americans should be glad for our places with wide open spaces.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

When The Travel Bug Bites

As of this writing we've been in China for a week and change.  In that time:
  • I ripped the toenail on my left big toe
  • I nearly twisted my ankle and almost broke my Birkenstock.  Without glue and tools I will make due.
  • One of Eleanor's eyes is red and sore
  • We're both jet lagged from the 15 hour time change but we're adapting
  • I've had a bout of Chairman Mao's revenge and Eleanor has had several, perhaps enough for honorary member in the Chinese Communist Party
  • Something bit Eleanor and her arm swelled up like a sausage
  • I've got the sniffles and a sore throat, maybe from too much A/C or being packed in too tightly on trains and buses and having half of the population of the People's Republic of China sneeze on me.
Perhaps we'd better slow down and act our ages.  But I know that even when we get packed like sardines into trains and buses, get sent on wild goose chases by badly translated maps and eat things that we never want to taste again, such as Sichuan peppercorns, I know that we're having the kind of shared experiences and adventures that can't be bought and that we'll remember when health or age makes new travels and adventures too difficult or impossible.

Behind The Great Firewall/Golden Shield Project

Although I have access to the Internet at hotels in China it's not the Internet that I know back home, it's the Internet with Chinese characteristics. Before coming to China I had read that Gmail and anything Google are banned and unavailable, along with the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia and Facebook but I'm finding that Gmail is hit and miss (anything Google is mostly a miss). I found something that gets our rooted phones around the Great Firewall and I've been remoting into my PC back home for access to Gmail and Google anything else but it's still a pain in the ass and that's probably the point. Besides, remoting into a PC in another country isn't an option for Chinese citizens

While I truly enjoy sticking to the man and thumbing my nose to his Great Firewall it's ultimately wearing me down. At times my link to my PC back home slows to a crawl and I can wait 15 seconds for the screen refresh of a map to reach me here in China. But strangely enough my US phone number rings through to me here when I'm on WiFi at no cost to me and as long as I'm on WiFi I can place and receive phone calls as if I were at home. And most of the connections have been excellent.

The secret to using the Chinese Internet seems to be in staying away from anything from Google just the way the Chinese government wants me to. That means giving up Google Chrome too. Internet Explorer with Bing comes right up in Chinese and offers the option of English. Bing's local maps come up in Chinese only and can't seem to find my hotel or anywhere I want to go so Bing Maps is useless. Google's maps can find my hotel but can be wildly inaccurate.

Bing's Web searches are quick and government sanitized for my protection. Websites from the US that are Great Firewall approved are slow but they work. A Bing search for the NY Times shows links to various sections of the newspaper but clicking on them delivers a message that says, “The Page Cannot Be Displayed” and implies a connection problem, but not the censorship problem that caused it. That way the user never knows whether the problem is an undersea cable break or censorship and rather than dwell on something that can't be known most users will just go on to something else that works. This is China and you can't fight the Forbidden City Hall. The Internet can be a frustration if you insist on using it in a way that is not government approved.

So I use Gmail, read the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal and my wife uses Facebook here in China. Am I scared of a visit from the Chinese Public Security Bureau? No. Why should they waste their time on me? This isn't North Korea. I'm reading my forbidden websites in English and I know no Mandarin to tell people what I've read. I can't tell anyone what I've read even if I wanted to and in a few weeks I'll be safely out of the country so why should the Chinese fret about me? Besides, the Chinese make allowances for tourists. CNN, HBO, NHK and Newschannel Asia are forbidden for Chinese citizens in their homes but have been available to me in hotels in China.

I'm Back in China

At the supermarket I saw rolls of toilet paper for sale, the brand name is “Face”.   A popular brand of Chinese condom is called "Jissbon".  There's a brand of Chinese made cars with the name of "Riich". I know not whether those are unforced errors, cultural misunderstandings on my part or marketing genius for a unique market.

The more I come here the more I realize that I don't really understand the place. To me some of the food is strange, a distant echo to some of the Chinese food that I enjoy in the States.  The Chinese really seem to like fast food and have Chinese fast food chains, we tried several and they're dreck. Drivers are arrogant, pedestrians are determined but stupid and beat and traffic cops are either blind or don't care so I've seen some interesting near misses along with one entirely avoidable accident (hint: don't make a right turn from the center lane).  Or, as Wikitravel rightly warns about traffic safety where I am now in Chengdu, Sichuan:

Traffic can be insanely hectic and motorists as well as cyclists and other pedestrians often have a complete disregard of you, the pedestrian. Beware when crossing streets; even when the WALK sign is green, (this means nothing to them or to the Police), traffic taking a right or left turn even when they are not permitted to turn will try to run you over or honk at you to make way for them. Accidents are commonplace as are deaths. Look every direction but up. Watch out for taxi drivers, bus drivers and private car drivers who have absolutely no regard for your life. Also watch out for motorists, they are all unlicensed riding silent electric motorbikes coming at you from the left, from the right, from behind and from the front. To stay safe, it is best to walk with a crowd, preferably in the middle.

In Chengdu I watched an old lady slowly cross 6 lanes of traffic lane by lane in a pedestrian crosswalk against a red don't walk sign while pushing an even older lady in a wheelchair.  Cars, trucks and scooters whizzed by blaring their horns, each old lady didn't seem to notice, it was probably just another mundane trip to the store for them.  Those same cars, trucks and scooters would've thought nothing of whizzing by if the old ladies were crossing those 6 lanes with  green walk signal.

Everyone, especially in style conscious Beijing, seems to have an expensive cell phone China is the home office of counterfeit everything so all of the iphones I've been seeing could be knock offs, same with the fancy Samsungs.  I've seen knockoff Birkenstocks for sale here, I call them Knockinstocks. We took the Beijing and Chengdu metros all over and I kept thinking of the term, "Chinese firedrill". Everyone's packed tightly backside to navel and bellowing at each other or into their cellphones.

In Beijing I noticed much less of the the nasty Chinese habit of spitting in public than on past trips. But in Chengdu I hear that regrettably loud throat clearing followed by loud expectoration, or as I've heard it called, the Chinese national anthem, all too frequently and watch out so that my feet don't get splashed.

Eleanor has been indispensable on this trip.  The average pet dog in China understands more Mandarin than I do and I know from past solo trips here that getting anything accomplished when you can't read, write or speak is next to impossible.  Eleanor can't read but she does speak 4th grade Mandarin and that really is making the grade for us.

I had read that the central government in Beijing had a nationwide campaign to rid the country of Chinglish for the 2008 Olympics but they seem to have forgotten about Chengdu, examples such as these are everywhere.  

We'll be in China for another few weeks with more destinations in Asia to come.