September 10, 2009

Kunming Konnection

China is one of the few places on Earth where you can go to a city that has a population of 6 million to experience the small town feeling. I also went to Kunming for the clean air, moderate temperature, and noodles. Wherever I ventured in the city, I was surprised to see people of all ages interacting with each other. In the parks, the masses were dancing in synchronization to loud music. A popular form of exercise, no one seemed to be embarrased by the moves they were pulling off. In Beijing, the youth and elders do not visibly hang out at the same venues. In Kunming, this did not seem to be an issue as the generations mixed freely. Old folks played mahjong while their grandchildren practiced their slick rollerskating moves nearby.

With a three day holiday in my first week of work at my new job, I flew to the other end of China. Kunming is in the south while Beijing translates to "North Capital". The townspeople kept a safe distance from me the first day, but by the end of my visit they had become accustomed to having the Indo-Canadian temptation walk among them. An eager set of parents brought their shy 7 year old daughter to practice her spoken English with me. A plain looking girl also came up to me excitedly and greeted me as if I knew her. Eventually I figured out that I had gone to Shilin with her on the same bus the previous day. The City of Eternal Spring was a good place to escape the hustle and bustle of Beijing for a few days, but I soon had to return to the capital to continue building my promising career.


"There is only one way in which one can endure man's inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one's own life, to exemplify man's humanity to man."
 - Alan Paton -

September 09, 2009

Jin Gang Guoji

The Prince of Peking needs a suitable residence. My Beijing pad is called Jin Gang Guoji (or Golden Harbour International in English). Located on the outer edges of the central business district (CBD), it is an abode of peace in a city of smog. The massive complex takes up a full city block, with its domed towers lit up majestically at night.

Security guards man the entrances, but the real work is done by the locked gates. The gates open with an electronic swipe card and are quite heavy. Petite Chinese ladies struggle mightily to open them as the guards watch nonchalantly. I wait patiently for several minutes while they use all their strength to push open the door. If I approach them from behind to lend a hand they are startled by my appearance. They go into a state of shock and start hyperventilating, so I have stopped providing this service.

The ARNABode of Beijing follows the traditional Chinese architectural pattern of having a central courtyard with rooms enclosing it from all sides, but on a much larger scale. Manicured gardens, an artificial lake that is occasionally filled with water, and a circular platform where old folks practice tai chi in the morning and children play in the evening are the main features of this inner sanctum. I estimate there are 5-10 thousand inhabitants living here. It is a five minute walk from my apartment to the street if I exit through the official gateway to the outside world. There are a string of convenience stores located on the bottom floor of the buildings that make up Jin Gang Guoji, and sometimes I use them as shortcuts for entry and exit. I often buy fruit, chewing gum, and phone cards to show my gratitude.

“When you're safe at home you wish you were having an adventure; when you're having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.”
- Thornton Wilder -

September 08, 2009

Visiting Macau

I was in Macau for a day, having arrived from Hong Kong via catamaran. It does not take long to realize that this is the gambling capital of Asia. Competition is fierce in the high stakes world of wealth redistribution. At the ferry terminal, buses from various casinos wait to take visitors to the pits of sin. I first went to the Venetian, the largest casino in the world, before making stops at a few others. Macau has its own currency which has a fixed exchange rate with the Hong Kong dollar. Since the HKD is accepted everywhere on the island, day trippers from Hong Kong can go directly to the casinos without the hassle of first visiting a foreign exchange.

Apart from the still developing under construction Cotai Strip of casinos, the former Portuguese colony is nowhere near as well developed as Hong Kong. It still has a homely feel to it. I wandered the streets and visited a few of the sites which were not gambling dens. The Macau Tower, a replica of Auckland's Sky Tower, has the world's longest bungee jump. While chewing on a chocolate bar at the base of the tower, I watched a few people jump from the outside of the observation deck. The Macau Grand Prix Musuem was very impressive, with cars driven by Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher on the city state's famed street circuit on display. I tried the racing simulator to experience the high speed thrills of Formula 3 car racing. The public bus had a sofa, so I finally sat down after a long day walking around town. The bus driver had to rouse me at the ferry terminal, as I had dozed off on the couch.


"The urge to gamble is so universal and its practice is so pleasurable, that I assume it must be evil." - Heywood Broun

September 07, 2009

Ancient Towns: Cuandixia

The vast majority of tourist sites in Beijing are not as old as history would dictate. Many have been reconstructed in recent times. Although the style of architecture may be old, the physical construction is new. There is very little wear and tear to indicate years of usage, so a modern day visitor might not fully appreciate the authenticity of the site. Every once in a while though, it is possible to uncover a hidden gem that appears to have been left unrestored. One such place was Cuandixia, an ancient Ming village around a hundred kilometers outside of Beijing.

Situated on a hillside, the village has not changed much in the past 500 years apart from the fact that the residents have all joined the tourist industry. Most of the homes also serve as either restaurants or guesthouses. Time moves slowly in Cuandixia. I had Chinese style pancakes at the house of an old couple. It took them almost 30 minutes to make the first one and another 15 to make the second one. After lunch I hiked around the surroundings. The Line in the Sky is a popular landmark where light shines through a gap in a ravine. I also ventured to the Fairy Pool. I waited a few moments but no Chinese beauty emerged from within, so I headed back into town. This time machine into China's past made for a pleasant day out.

"If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side and admit of being compared; when the energies of all men are searched by fear and by hope; when the historic glories of the old can be compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era? This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it."
 - Ralph Waldo Emerson -

September 01, 2009

Wangfujing Snack Street

There are many sites in and around Beijing that must be seen at least once in a lifetime, but only a handful warrant multiple visits. Apart from the Great Wall, Wangfujing Snack Street is one of the few attractions that has consistently drawn me back time and again. Wangfujing is a busy shopping district with two main areas where strange treats are sold alongside more mundane fare. Tourists mill about the rows of food stalls, many with looks of complete shock on their face when they see the delicacies awaiting them. Mysterious sea creatures and insects are top draws for the daring. Some merely gawk at others without trying any of the skewers on offer. The footpath is frequently hosed to get rid of the organic materials that have been dropped, spat out, vomited, or otherwise excreted on to the ground.

I compiled an incomplete list of items that I tried for the first time at the mother of all snack streets.

Visit 1
  • Starfish
  • Seahorse
  • Sea snake,
  • Soup made of cows inner organs
  • Stinky tofu
Visit 2
  • Scorpion
  • Snake
  • Silkworm
Visit 3
Visit 4
  • Bees
  • Dragonfly
  • Lamb testicles
  • Under the counter cat

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
James Beard