January 19, 2010

The Rice Wall of China

Over 600 years have passed since the construction of Nanjing's city wall, but it still stands. It took 20 years and 200,000 men to build the oldest such surviving structure in China. The defense mechanism stretches for 25 kilometers around the erstwhile capital. I climbed up a set of steep stairs to get on top of the wall near the southern banks of the Yangtse River.

When the Ming Dynasty was established, Nanjing was chosen to be its capital. Construction soon began on a wall to protect it from invaders who would seek to usurp the throne. Legend has it that the wall was partially made out of rice, as an inscription plastered on the side of the fortification reads:

The history books did not record anything about what kind of ingredients used in the cement. It was told that the emperor Zhu Yuanzhang used the polished glutinous rice to build up the City Wall. But the affair still a mysterious.


“Obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

- Michael Jordan -

January 14, 2010

ARNABeard: Pogonophobia

What is the scientific term for the fear of beards?

The quizmaster paused after asking the question, confident that no one in the room would know the answer. I was attending my first ever pub quiz. In a popular Beijing watering hole packed full of expats, participants had gelled into groups of 4-10 people. I had teamed with a Malaysian, a Mauritanian, and a couple of ABC's (American Born Chinese), but we were not faring particularly well. The quiz had had a strong European flavour, and our combined ineptitude had won us a pitcher of beer.

The tides were about to turn though, as the topic had changed to beards. In a land where facial hair is rarer than diamonds, the bearer of the ARNABeard is often the center of attention. I remembered that the art of cultivating it was known as pogonotrophy. Taking the root and combining it with the word for fear, I came up with pogonophobia. After the quizmaster disclosed the answer, it was revealed that we were the only ones to guess correctly out of the dozen or so groups participating.

A murmur of approval spread through the room like stubble across my face as I explained how I came to my conclusion. I quipped that I knew 600 million people afflicted with the condition, referring to the large female Chinese demographic that feared my manly growth. Symptoms of pogonophobia include breathlessness, excessive sweating, dread, heart palpitations, panic attacks, and the inability to speak or think clearly.


Comments from assorted Chinese girls suffering from the disease:

"You so hairy."

"You looks like gorilla."

"You would look even more handsome without your beard."

"Why you not shave?"

January 12, 2010

For Your Eyes Only

I got up early Sunday morning for my second day of sightseeing in London. I met up with an ex-colleague from Vancouver who took me to the Imperial War Museum. Apart from various weapons, uniforms, vehicles, and medals belonging to the imperial warmongers, there was a special exhibit on James Bond. The focus was more on Ian Fleming, the man behind 007, than the agent himself. Historical artifacts that provided the foundation of the spy novels and movies were showcased to a steady stream of Bond aficionados.

Afterwards we boarded a double-decker bus that passed by the London Eye and dropped us off near Big Ben, the world's favourite clock tower. While on the bus a marching band passed by us for no apparent reason. We were meandering about the streets when my stomach began to rumble, so she took me to her favourite pub for a traditional Sunday roast. There is nothing like a good book following a heavy meal, and the British Library had 25 million in its collection. We browsed the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, and original manuscripts by famed authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, and Charles Dickens to name but a few. We vacated the premises when an announcement was made that the library was closing soon, and took a stroll across Abbey Road outside the Beatles' recording studio before calling it a day.


"Bond... James Bond." - James Bond

January 11, 2010

London Calling

After a summer in Paris several years ago, a winter in Europe's other great city was in order. I jetted from New York to London, arriving at Heathrow Airport and taking the fast train into the city. I put up at the pad of my roommate from Bangalore, a Britisher by the name of Joe. He prepared a traditional English breakfast called a fry up, composed of bacon, eggs, toast, beans, and a variety of condiments. Our first stop of the day was at Piccadilly Circus, whereupon I picked up my London Pass at the tourist bureau. This booklet would serve as both a guidebook and entrance ticket into London's foremost tourist attractions.

A ride up the longest escalator in the London subway system later, we emerged in Angel. The chic borough was filled with cafes, restaurants, bars, and quaint boutiques that lined the narrow back alleys. Joe's girlfriend met up with us here. She quickly took a liking to me, and we enjoyed a sip of warm mulled wine together. Dinner followed, and then a long night of bar hopping began as Joe treated me to a pint of Guinness to welcome me to his fine city.


 "What is the city but the people?"  ~ William Shakespeare

January 10, 2010

New York, New York

Buffeted by heavy winds, the plane tilted from one side to another before making a hard landing on the tarmac of Newark Airport. I picked up my luggage, saw the attractive woman who had occupied the seat beside me on the flight run into the arms of her boyfriend, and then hopped on a bus to midtown Manhattan. I had a one day layover in the Big Apple before heading off to London, so I had to make the most of my limited time in the city so great that they named it twice.

With a systematic naming scheme for streets and avenues, Manhattan was easy to navigate for a newcomer. I walked to many of the famous sites in New York City, such as Times Square, Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal, the Waldorf Astoria hotel, Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, the Public Library, the theater district, and Macy's, the world’s largest store. As it was wintertime, the ice rink in front of Rockefeller Center was filled with skaters. I got a proper sense of the scale of the world’s unofficial capital city from atop the Empire State Building, before rendezvousing with a lady I had traveled together with in Morocco at the New York Times building. We had lunch in the Hell’s Kitchen area of town, and then I collected my belongings and headed off to the airport.


“A city is the pulsating product of the human hand and mind, reflecting man's history, his struggle for freedom, creativity, genius-and his selfishness and errors.” -  Charles Abrams

January 06, 2010

Arnab's Year in Cities, 2009

My travels in 2008 were focused on parts of the world that I had not yet visited - Africa and Central America. This year I returned to some places I had called home in my past, before venturing out to a land where I would be a complete alien. 2009 was my most prolific and superlative year of globetrotting as I traveled from the world's best country to the greatest, most influential, most interesting, and most populous nations on Earth.

Not counting day trips, I stayed in 36 cities, towns, and villages in 4 countries and 2 special administrative regions spanning 3 continents:


"Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering."
- Saint Augustine -

January 03, 2010

Giant Panda

Panda bears eat early in the morning and then nap for the rest of day. Since they are vegetarians subsisting on a diet of bamboo, they have little energy to waste. I had to rise at dawn to catch them during feeding time at Chengdu's world famous Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Founded in 1987 and boasting a population of six giant pandas, now there are about 80 pandas kept in captivity here. Tourists can purchase the opportunity to take a picture with the lovable creatures, with proceeds going towards further panda protection efforts. Attendants go out into the panda pen and grab one of the bears, who sedately cling on to the fellow as they are taken to the photo shoot. With most of their natural habitat destroyed by man, the pandas at the base lead a sheltered life where they are provided with free food and health care. 

As the pandas munched on bamboo shoots, a brawl suddenly erupted between two Chinese tourists. The attention of the crowd shifted from bear to man. The two combatants fought with great tenacity and vigour, if little skill. A fresh faced security guard ran to the scene to see what the hubbub was about, before completing a full revolution and running back in the direction he came from. A few able bodied Westerners had separated the two pugilists by the time he returned with reinforcements. The men were then escorted out and everyone's attention shifted towards the pandas once more.


A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons. "Why?" asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage. The panda pauses on his way out, produces a wildlife manual, and tosses it over his shoulder. "Well, I'm a panda," he says at the door. "Look it up." The waiter turns to the relevant entry and finds an explanation:

"Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats shoots and leaves."