January 31, 2011

A Confusion of Tongues

I arrived in Lijiang at night. My journey through China's beautiful Yunnan province would begin here. In the dark, the maze of alleys of the old town is quite difficult to navigate. My travel buddy Matt and I had a hard time locating our hostel. After several rounds through the cobblestone paths, we kept returning to the same central square. Matt is so fluent in the Chinese language that poems have been written about his mastery of the Middle Kingdom's mother tongue. He meandered into the darkness to ask for directions or go look for a toilet. I did not know whether he had continued onwards or would retrieve me first. After he had been gone for several minutes, I decided to look for the hostel myself. Miscommunication had separated us and our phone batteries were running low.

With the assistance of my sharp mind and befuddled expression, I was passed on from local to local until I ended up in an unmarked domicile. The madam in charge ushered me in and confirmed I was at the correct location. I called Matt to tell him that I had either found our hostel or a whorehouse. He was in a foul mood, back near the town square. The madam went to retrieve him while I stayed behind and enjoyed the company of her silent assistant. Once my friend arrived at the hostel and verified that it was not a brothel, he expressed great frustration about the fact that I had found the place first without speaking a single word of Chinese.


"Language is the dress of thought." ~ Samuel Johnson

January 25, 2011

Free As A Bird

While Chinese men were busy sneaking a peek at my magnificent instrument in the bathroom, I did some observation work myself. I noticed that my Chinese colleagues would drop their pants before they started to pee into and around the urinal. After they finished they would spend some time fumbling around, pulling up their pants, and tucking in their shirts.

"Why don't you just use your zipper? It's much faster that way." I asked, demonstrating how the zip in the front of my pant works.

"Not comfortable" one replied.
"I need to relax" said another.
"How do you poo? Do you have a zip on your backside as well!?" one mocked.

The best answer during the course of my private investigation was yet to come: "Because bird needs breath. Bird is small, but it plays the whole sky."

I had found the answer to my question, and it was profound. Thus concluded my private investigation.


"Let freedom never perish in your hands." - Joseph Addison

January 22, 2011

The Ningbo Scene

For a city with 7 million people, Ningbo or "Serene Waves" in Chinese is almost as quiet a place as one will find. The thriving coastal city does not have the frenetic pace of nearby Shanghai, even though it boasts the world's longest bridge over sea and the fifth busiest port. One of the five ports opened to the British for unrestricted trading after the First Opium War, Ningbo is now largely devoid of foreign devils. I drew enough interest to keep the crowds occupied during my weekend there.

Graceful canals, estates, and parks are contrasted with the modern day wonders of glistening towers and shopping districts. The foremost attraction is China's oldest library at Tianyi Pavilion. For centuries only a privileged few were allowed access to the private collection, but it is now open for public perusal. Built in 1561 during the Ming Dynasty, the collection peaked at 70,000 volumes with 13,000 in existence now. I visited the sparkling new Ningbo Museum of Art before heading to Laowaitan. This old waterfront district has been restored with rows and rows of buildings follow the Shikumen architectural style popular in the early 20th century, making it an ideal location to spend an evening in Ningbo.


"To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted." - Bill Bryson

January 17, 2011

The Three Gorges

The greatest letdown about China is that the womenfolk no longer wear the traditional body-hugging qipao in their daily lives. The second biggest letdown was the Three Gorges. The 200 km stretch of waterway comprised of the Qutang, Wu, and Xiling Gorges is the stuff of legend, but what I saw was far from magnificent. From the Chongqing wharf, I took a bus to the city of Wanzhou. The bus arrived woefully late, so I had to dash to my hydrofoil with not a moment to spare. The small enclosed vessel swiftly jetted off as I hopped aboard. During the six hour journey it stopped at riverside towns to pick up and drop off passengers along the way.

After the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, water levels rose and many villages and historical sites were submerged. The world's largest hydro power project was completed in 2009 at a cost of 23 billion US dollars. The government provided the 1.3 million residents who had lost their homes with new accommodation, so the gorges are dotted with high rise apartment complexes that rise bizarrely from steep cliffs. The Yangtze is the longest river in China and the third longest in the world. The river is so polluted that even a private detective will have a hard time identifying some of the objects floating past.

The monumental Three Gorges Dam project serves multiple purposes, from providing massive amounts of energy to a wider passage for cargo ships to control over a river that has claimed over a million lives due to sudden flooding. The boat I was on did not cross the Three Gorges Dam using the ship lock system that raises and lowers vessels from one level to another. The transit time for going down the five tier ship lock is four hours. Instead it docked and all the passengers rushed to a shuttle bus that took us to the nearby city of Yichang. This portion of the trip was actually the best part, providing a faraway glimpse of the world's longest dam and some spectacular scenery of the canyons from up close.


“All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.”
- Samuel Johnson

January 16, 2011

Better City, Better Life

The corporate pavilions at the 2010 Shanghai Expo were more interesting than the country ones, showcasing some advanced technology. Most of it was centered around new forms of multimedia that will immerse the user completely in a digital world. With more in depth exhibits than the national ones, the city pavilions featured detailed case studies on sustainable development. As the Chinese move in droves to cities from the countryside, the overarching theme of "Better City, Better Life" further encouraged this migration.

The grounds were excellently designed, the transportation system adequate, and the crowds spectacularily large. Both my visits were in the middle of the work week on rainy days, but I had to wait for around an hour at the airport-like security check area before entering the World's Fair. Running from May 1 to Oct 31, 2010, daily visits reached over 1 million as China's showcase to the world neared its later stages.

Other figures behind the grand gathering of the world's cultures are equally astounding:
  • 73 million visitors
  • 80,000 volunteers
  • 1 ridiculous mascot
  • 5.28 square kilometers
  • 246 participants

Shanghai Expo 2010

Beginning with the largest fireworks display in the history of mankind, it was easy to see why the Shanghai Expo cost even more than the Beijing Olympics. The largest and most expensive world exposition ever staged was spread across both sides of Shanghai's Huangpu river. One side had the country pavilions, anchored by the host nation's gigantic red inverse pyramid. On the others side of the river banks were the corporate pavilions and the city pavilions. I explored each side for one day.

Far and away, the the country pavilions was were the action was. Lineups lasted for hours, with digital signboards updating visitors on the latest waiting times. The queues were horrendously long, but part of the fun. The vast majority of visitors were Chinese. Many had purchased an Expo Passport as a souvenir. They would wait hours in lineups, hurriedly rush into a pavilion as soon as they were granted entrance, and crowd around the booth where they could get their passport stamped. Once the initial stamping stampede was over, many would spare only a momentary glance at the exhibits within the pavilion they had just lined up hours to visit before continuing on to the next country on their checklist.

I was given VIP entrance to the Canadian and Indian pavilions, saving hours of waiting. I tried the poutine at the Canadian pavilion for dinner. I did not visit any of the other pavilions of the popular nations, preferring to go off the beaten track and breeze through the smaller nations that had little to no one queueing up to visit them. Most of the workers at the pavilions were unenthusiastic, with the exception being the friendly folks manning the booths of the nations in the Pacific Islands.

January 10, 2011

Conversations with Chinese Girls - Rule Number One

On boyfriends:
Chinese Girl #1: My number one rule is no cheating.
Chinese Girl #2: That's not my number one rule.
Me: Really? Then what is?
Chinese Girl #3: No Arnab! 
Chinese Girls: [all chuckle]

January 08, 2011

Arnab's Year in Cities, 2010

I journeyed to new corners of the world in 2008, going to Central America and Africa for the first time. In 2009, I began the year exploring the two Alpha++ cities of the world in New York and London, then returned to India, before making my way to the People's Republic of China.

This year I stayed overnight in 32 different cities in 3 countries. 2010 saw me crisscross the nation during an epic 40 day trip. I attended two of the premier international events of the year in the Vancouver Winter Olympics and the Shanghai World Expo, before ending the year in style in Seoul, Korea.

In alphabetical order:
Previous years:

"What we love to do we find time to do." ~ John L. Spalding

January 06, 2011

With Glowing Hearts

For years, Vancouverites eagerly anticipated the 2010 Winter Olympics. Time passes swiftly though, and a memorable month of February came and went in what seemed like a blink of an eye. The city and the people of Vancouver hosted a marvelous Games. I was in my hometown for this once in a lifetime event, and the story could not have been written any better. For 17 days, the streets were jam packed with enthusiastic fans of all shapes, sizes, and colours. Strangers passing by high-fived each other in downtown Vancouver. During hockey games, whenever Team Canada scored a goal cheers would resonate through the downtown core like a Mexican wave.

The athletes also did not disappoint. Wayne Gretzky lit the flame to signal the start of the XXI Olympic Winter Games. Early on, Alexandre Bilodeau won Canada’s first ever gold medal on home soil. Canada owned the podium, winning the most gold medals ever captured by a single nation at a Winter Olympics. On the final day of competition, a hockey mad nation watched the final of men's ice hockey with bated breath. Overhead satellite views of cities across Canada would show almost no cars on the street. The Games had a fairy tale ending, as Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal against the United States in sudden death overtime.

The Olympic schedule happily coincided with the Chinese New Year, so I combined the national holiday with my personal vacation days. During my month off, I met my friends and family after almost one year in China. A day after the closing ceremony, I was at the airport to catch my flight back to Beijing along with members of the Chinese contingent. I flew from Vancouver to Beijing, from one Olympic city to another, both changed forever by a few special weeks.


I believe in the power that comes
From a world brought together as one
I believe together we'll fly
I believe in the power of you and I
- Olympic theme song 'I Believe'