Ah, the memories. I'd say the performers did a great job, in a style that is uniquely Madison. What do you think?
Oct. 9, 2014
Northern Inner Mongolia Trip, Part VI
Here are a few photos I took in the Mazhouli market. Do they give you a sense of daily life in Inner Mongolia? Do you see any similarities to your hometown?
Manzhouli is a small city, near the tripartite border between Mongolia, Russia and China.
Nearby are the vast grasslands of the Eurasian steppe.
In the city, there is a bustling market.
Some motorcycle owners sell their wares directly from their vehicles.
Others try to force their vehicles through the large crowd.
Even this far north, oranges are aplenty.
And there are a wide variety of vegetables.
You can even buy live animals, like chickens...
And of course there are plenty of dead animals for sale.
One man sells chestnuts.
Nearby, another man sells walnuts.
But in the fall, the biggest item at the market is cabbage.
Piles of cabbage.
Sometimes the leaves are sold individually.
But usually the heads are kept whole and laid out to dry.
It's cold this time of year. Scarves and winter coats are coming out.
But as long as the goods get sold...
...and the money comes in, everybody's happy.
Oct. 8 - 9, 2014
Days 83 - 84
Northern Inner Mongolia Trip, Part V
The train left on time. It was only half full, and I had two seats to myself. I knew this comfortable situation was temporary – I wouldn't step outside the confines of this train until it reached Beijing, thirty-two hours hence.
After leaving the city, we passed sprawling fields with grazing cattle and a few little towns of identical five-story apartment towers. In one of these towns, there was a Russian onion-domed building, under construction, of course. This was the land I had become accustomed to over the last two weeks. How strange it would be to return to a city of 21 million.
At our first stop, a fellow passenger greeted me by waving his ticket in my face, obviously disgruntled that I was in his seat. I've come to accept in these situations that I'm probably in the wrong. I can't read, write or speak Chinese, so I'm basically a four-year-old without any parental supervision. I apologized, grabbed my backpack and soon learned that I actually was in the right seat, but the wrong car. My ticket was for an aisle seat, so I wouldn't even be able to sleep leaning forward with my head on a table. This was a significant downgrade. Five people already occupied my new seating area. Luckily, the guys sitting across from me were friendly. We communicated using hand gestures for the rest of the trip.
After the sun had set, I tried to explain a special event that was about to take place: a total lunar eclipse, where the sun's rays would be refracted upon hitting the Earth, turning the moon red. I took out my phone and showed my new friends the Chinese character for “eclipse.” Then I showed them the character for “blood,” since this type of eclipse is known as a “blood moon” in English. One of the men immediately understood and explained it to his friends. Some people sitting near us overheard the discussion and started making comments about the eclipse. Soon everyone in our car was looking for the blood moon.
It was a cloudy night, so I was afraid we would miss the show. Then the clouds began to dissipate. A woman sitting across the aisle from me grabbed my attention, looking excited. I gazed out of her window and saw the moon, mid-eclipse. Strangely, it was streaking across the sky, as if time had accelerated. At this rate, the night would last about twenty seconds. Then I figured out the illusion: we must have been banking at angle that was shallow enough for me not to notice. In this dark and remote corner of the planet, only the moon betrayed our gradual turn.
I wanted to take a high-quality photograph of the moon during the eclipse, but now I realized that this would not be possible. It was too dark and the train was too bumpy. Instead, I joined the others in the shared experience of admiring the moon. With the unpolluted sky and the train's huge windows, this was an excellent venue for viewing the eclipse, photos or not. For the next hour, the blood moon danced back and forth across the sky, much to our amusement.
When the eclipse ended, I jotted some notes from my trip in my notebook. Many people leered over my shoulder to watch me write. I figured they were doubly curious – not only was I writing in English, but I was using my left hand. Their curiosity surprised me because I see English all the time in China. Many road signs have English words under the Chinese characters, and every sign in the subway system is written in both languages. Many people even wear shirts with English words. I have yet to see a Chinese person with an English word tattooed across his bicep, though.
At around 11 p.m., a group of men boarded my car and sat a few seats in front of me. They took out a deck of cards, popped the tops off of their beer cans (yes, they still have pop-tops here), and lit cigarettes. They shouted, drank, smoked and slammed their cards on the table for hours on end. I sat up straight in my seat, trying unsuccessfully to sleep. Eventually one of the guys in my section crawled onto the floor and went to sleep underneath the seats. I splayed my legs across three seats and finally fell into a fitful sleep, coughing every few minutes from smoke inhalation. About an hour later my friend got up from the floor and took back his seat. I did what came natural – I slithered onto the floor and passed out.
When I woke, I saw that one guy had been sitting with his knees bent, feet pressed against his butt so he wouldn't have to put them on my hip. I was grateful. I climbed back into my seat, trying to shake the fog from my head, and noticed that the outside world was foggy as well. Soon I realized that even though we were in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from Beijing, the “fog” was actually a thick cloud of pollution.
For breakfast, one of my new friends opened a package of three green boiled eggs. The guy next to him pulled out a vacuum-sealed chicken foot. He opened it and peeled its wrapping like a stick of beef jerky, then bit into the claws. He chewed it and spat the cartilage onto the floor (yes, the very floor I had been sleeping on a few minutes earlier). I was just happy he didn't offer me any. Instead, I ate a bucket of ramen noodles the size of a tub of movie theater popcorn. The chicken foot was almost certainly a healthier breakfast.
By the afternoon, we were back in “civilization.” At least once per hour, we went through a megalopolis, full of unfinished apartment towers, thirty stories tall, twenty at a time. At one point a salesman with about twenty leather belts hung over his arm walked into our car and gave a long spiel about his product. After a good ten minutes of talking, he handed one end of a belt to a potential customer. He twisted it into a helix, then played tug-of-war with the customer to demonstrate how strong this belt was. Finally, he announced the price: 10 rmb, less than $2. This indeed did look like a nice belt and I would have bought one if I didn't already have one. All told, he was in our car for about twenty minutes. He only sold a couple of belts before moving to the next car. I wondered how he could possibly make ends meet.
Later in the afternoon, an interesting character walked aboard and sat across the aisle from me. He was wearing a matching Adidas sweatshirt and sweatpants, a hat pulled low over his eyes, large-gauge earrings, a stylish watch and multiple necklaces. But most interestingly, he was carrying a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens, one of the most conspicuous lenses in that company's lineup. In a country where most people dressed plainly (standing out can be dangerous here), this guy was ultra-stylish. I asked him about the lens and he said that he shot sports. He seemed like a friendly guy, but I did get annoyed with him after a while – he was constantly on his phone, and whenever he got a text, our whole car had to listen to the sound of two silenced gunshots, followed by the cartridges clanging against the ground.
When the sun set for the second time of this train ride, I knew we were getting close to Beijing. Finally, the city's highrises, along with some hutongs, came into view. At least that's what I assumed I was looking at. The Air Quality Index was over 400 (extremely hazardous), so visibility was quite low.
The train stopped in central Beijing, I said goodbye to my companions and mixed into the throngs of people walking toward the subway. The locals didn't stare at me, and one person even said, “Excuse me” in English. Hearing that confirmed it: after spending the last two weeks in rural China, I was back in the big city.
What's next? How about reading Part VI of this series.
Nov. 9, 2014
(There is a link to the full photo set at the end of this post.)
Hangzhou is a city of 8.8 million (21 million in the metropolitan area).
Katie's team for the hat tournament was called “The Biters.”
The Other Guys.
The basketball players stopped their game to check out the ultimate game.
The post-game “spirit circle.”
The Other Guys.
Here are some photos of End of the World:
End of the World, playing at the Temple Bar in central Beijing.
Lead vocalist and guitarist Jeph Marquardt.
The exuberant crowd.
Peter on trumpet.
Rick “Gramps” Freeman on sax.
Ryan Ihle on bass and vocals.
Percussionist/vocalist Kevin Kasal.
Oct. 5 - 7, 2014
Days 80 – 82
Northern Inner Mongolia Trip, Part IV
Officially, I've been to three tripartite borders, though I've traveled in the vicinity of many more. Near the Brazil-Argentina-Paraguay border sits one of the world's most awe-inspiring waterfalls (Iguazu) and the world's second-largest power plant (Itaipu Dam). Peru, Colombia and Brazil all converge on the Amazon River, hundreds of miles from the nearest town with road access. And perhaps the strangest and most spectacular border I have ever been to is on top of Mount Roraima, where Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana all meet at an unmanned obelisk. My trip to Inner Mongolia put me within spitting distance of yet another tripartite border, that of Russia, China and Mongolia.
It was already dark when the bus dropped me off in Manzhouli, China. I walked a few blocks and found a cheap hotel, marked with a plain door and a red neon sign. I walked inside and saw what I had learned was typical of Chinese apartment buildings: dim lighting, scuffed walls, filthy floors, no decorations. My kind of place.
The hotel's front desk was on the third floor. The manager, a middle-aged man with a comb-over and a leather jacket, held a cigarette between the index and middle fingers of his right hand while clicking his ancient computer's mouse. He was playing solitaire. When he saw me walk up with my huge backpack, he took one last drag from his cigarette and stubbed it out in an ashtray, next to its brethren. To my relief, he told me that there were vacancies, and rooms were only 50 rmb. I had been prepared to spend many times that amount on this holiday weekend.
The man plugged an ancient scanner into his computer and turned it on. (Hotels are required to scan foreigners' passports in China.) I handed him my passport, then he set it on the scanner, pushed a button and watched the green wand do its magical wave. An image popped up on his screen, showing half of my picture. It was upside down. The man moved my passport a couple of inches to the left and rescanned it. The resulting image showed only the lower-right corner of my passport. It was still upside down. He repeated the move-rescan process a few more times, each time not even coming close to scanning all of my vital information. Looking confused, he lit another cigarette and started to bend my most important document backwards, as if that would fix it. I yanked my passport from him – it has to last nine more years, after all – and removed it from its RFID-blocking sheath. He scanned it a couple more times, then seemed satisfied when half of my picture and all of my name were displayed, even though the image was still upside down.
The man led me upstairs to my room, carrying a ring of keys in his left hand and a cigarette in his right. The room was small. It was also the kind of place where you don't want to touch anything. The bathroom had a toilet that actually worked, and it had a bathtub, but no running water. Whatever, at least it was cheap.
I dropped off my backpack and went for a walk around Manzhouli. The city was full of thirty-story hotels with bright, blinking lights covering their facades. I walked down the main pedestrian street, which featured a few creepy statues and dozens of shops. Outdoor speakers pulverized my ears with advertisements, half in Chinese, half in Russian. I didn't understand the announcements, but I could tell they were succinct – they looped and replayed every ten seconds, sometimes even more frequently. Large Russian babushkas darted between shops, clutching full shopping bags. But mostly the streets were filled with Chinese people, heavily bundled in the frigid nighttime air.
Eventually I found a set of train tracks and followed them to the train station. Luckily, there was a ticket booth, so I was able to buy a ticket back to Beijing from a real, live person, just like in the old days. Unfortunately, all of the sleeper cabins were sold out, so I would have to spend another thirty-two hours in a “hard seat.”
Train ticket in hand, I returned to my hotel for some peace and quiet. When I reached the third floor, the front-desk manager got my attention. He wanted to see my passport again. Reluctantly, I took it out of its sheath and handed it to him. Just like before, he scanned an upside-down image. He rotated my passport 180 degrees, shifted it to the left, then rotated it 180 degrees. The resulting image was upside down. The man jerked his head backwards and a look of astonishment crossed his eyes. He repeated the same process of rotating my passport 180 degrees – twice – and again couldn't believe that the image was still upside down. He said, “Huh?” lit a cigarette and started to bend my passport again. I grabbed it from his hands and put it on the scanner myself. This time the image was right-side up, but it was still off-center.
The man shouted for a teenaged boy who was sitting in the hallway to help him. The two of them scanned my passport over and over, moving it a millimeter at a time. At one point, they had it almost perfect, but they decided to shift it a tiny bit and accidentally moved it the wrong way. The next few scans got progressively worse, until they pulled my passport from the machine and examined it, effectively starting over. I suggested that they just take a picture of my passport with one of their cellphones, but they refused. Getting a perfect scan had become a quest.
I sat in a chair next to the desk and put my head in my hands. I had spent most of the day on buses, and all I wanted was a good night's rest. Thirty minutes and fifty scans later, they were back to a near-perfect image. The manager finally handed back my passport and said, “We'll try again tomorrow.”
The next morning, there was a giant thermos of boiling water waiting at my door, which I figured was for bathing. I filled a plastic wash basin with cold water from a communal sink, then mixed it with hot water in my bathtub and gave myself a sponge bath. On my way out of the hotel, I ran past the front desk, hoping the manager wouldn't remember to ask for my passport again. Luckily, someone else was working.
I decided to walk to the Russian border, several miles to the north. Before long, I was outside of central Manzhouli, walking past smaller houses with rows of cabbage drying outside. Soon I was passing a large empty field next to the road. A giant shopping mall was on the outskirts of the city. Nearby was an empty stadium. Looking toward the border, I noticed something strange in the distance. It looked like a giant matryoshka doll.
My eyes weren't playing tricks on me. I was actually looking at a five-story Russian doll, surrounded by smaller dolls. The plaza's circular perimeter was sprinkled with dolls about eight feet tall, painted with various world leaders, famous athletes and pop-culture characters. The place looked decades old and poorly maintained. The paint was chipping from the dolls, parts of the walkway had been ripped apart and weeds were growing between the cracks. Yet while I was there several buses pulled up and dropped off loads of tourists to walk around and take pictures.
* I later learned that this is the largest Russian matryoshka doll in the world, and it was built just eight years ago. Go figure.
As if the plaza itself weren't strange enough, giant buildings were under construction all around it. When these buildings are finished, they'll dwarf the original five-story doll. Maybe they'll compensate by building an even bigger doll over the top of it?
Next to the doll plaza was a garden of bronze sculptures, featuring Russian literary figures such as Tolstoy, and various Soviet political leaders. There was also a tribute to Russian laborers, featuring a man and a woman holding a hammer and sickle. Unfortunately and perhaps ironically, one of the facade's tiles had fallen off and broken. The sculpture garden was in an even worse state of disrepair than the doll plaza, and no one except me was walking through it.
I walked the rest of the way to the border, but there wasn't much to see. Just a gate that I wasn't allowed to cross, with a small – and probably equally garish – city on the other side. The Mongolian border was a few miles to the west, but I didn't see any gates or cities or monuments or people. Just rolling hills, covered in grass.
At the end of the day I returned to Manzhouli. I wanted to buy some dried blueberries to take back to Beijing, so I poked my head into a few shops. They all sold large bags that were filled with serving-size bags of blueberries. I've noticed that in China, food manufacturers love wrapping little items inside of bigger ones. Sometimes you have to open a package four times before it's actually open. I just wanted one big bag of blueberries that I would only have to open once, so I kept looking.
Finally, I hit the jackpot: a shop with several piles of dried blueberries, and no excess packaging. I told the owner to give me 50 rmb of his best stuff. As he was scooping the blueberries, he asked where I was from. I told him I was American and he said something I didn't understand. He tried saying it a different way but I still didn't understand. Then he took out his phone, brought up a video and asked something like, “Is this what America is really like?” The video was of a local Chinese newscast where they sent a reporter to the Mississippi River basin. They showed the reporter traveling on a river in a motorboat, and soon hundreds of fish started jumping out of the water, crisscrossing the camera's path. Several fish landed in the boat and flopped around. The whole time they were explaining what was happening in Chinese. They interviewed an overweight American man wearing a muscle shirt and a camouflage baseball hat. He explained, in a thick Southern accent, how these were invasive Asian carp and they had taken over the river system. Then he said, “You have to be careful 'round here, one of them suckers gave me a black eye.”
Even though I knew invasive species were a serious problem, I couldn't contain my laughter. The blueberry salesman put his phone away and gave me a look of concern for my safety. I answered his previous question by saying, “Yes, in America this is normal.”
(I couldn't find the exact video he showed me, which is a shame because the fact that it was told from a Chinese perspective made it really interesting. However, this video captures the essence of the situation.)
While walking home, I stopped at a few of Manzhouli's well-lit plazas to photograph the nearly-full moon rising. It dawned on me that other than Las Vegas, this was the gaudiest city I had ever visited. Normally that would be a major turn-off, yet for some reason, I actually enjoyed Manzhouli. Maybe the buildings that were far too tall, bright and concentrated for a city of this size were what did it for me. Miles of empty land surround Manzhouli, yet city planners had chosen to go vertical anyway. It was as if everyone in Manzhouli wanted to be in the middle of the action, so they crammed as much eye-popping stuff into as small an area as possible.
When I entered my hotel, my old friend the chain-smoking, passport-scanning man was working at the desk. I ran past him and he didn't say anything. Only one train and thirty-two hours now separated me from Beijing.
What's next? How about reading Part V of this series.