Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Category: Travel (page 1 of 2)

It’s a Weird World After All – China’s Foreigner Theme Park

chinese pyramid (1 of 1)

It’s a Weird World After All – Roads and Kingdoms

“The white form of Christ the Redeemer, standing considerably shorter than his Brazilian counterpart, spun in slow motion atop a yellow pedestal on an orange, artificial mountain. Candy-colored gondolas bobbed gently above the Christ’s outstretched, beseeching arms. A waterslide, painted blue and rimmed with green, snaked down the side of the mountain. The scent of cumin-flavored lamb skewers hung in the air. Off in the distance I could see an ersatz Egyptian pyramid; the white and shining spire of a Western-style church; and the Guinness World Records-certified world’s largest public bathroom. Beyond the attractions, across the wide brown expanse of the Yangtze River, rose the green and hazy hills of Chongqing, dotted with white apartment buildings still under construction.

I was at an international themed Chinese amusement park, and it was exactly as weird as I’d expected it to be.”

Sometimes I still travel write! Special bonus offer – this Flickr album has all the photos I took while I visited Meixin Foreigner’s Street.

foreigner street full view (1 of 1)

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The Weirdness of Haw Par Villa – Singapore

haw par villa gate

Singapore is not a place renowned for its eccentricity, its exoticism. This gleaming, modern city where everybody is above average (or would like to be) takes great pains to be pleasant – and pleasant, as most of us are aware, is the direct enemy of the funky, exotic, and surreal.

So it is a great irony that within a city that appears to be striving to become a heavily-populated offshoot of Disney World, there resides what is one of the more freaky tourist attractions I’ve ever come across: Haw Par Villa, the vanity project of the man who gave the world Tiger Balm.

Kids love it.

Kids love it.

Haw Par Villa is a theme park in the early 20th century sense, before over-priced rides $80 entrance tickets became the standard way of things. Brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, of Burmese-Chinese descent, decided to use some of their fortune gleaned from Tiger Balm sales to construct the place, framing it as a place to teach traditional Chinese values to the good people of Singapore.

The brothers commissioned a entire park full of large, gaudily colored statues portraying Chinese legends from the Journey of the West to the Legend of the White Snake, with added portrayals of the Buddha (in various forms), huge white stupas devoted to the duo’s parents, and ponds full of ferociously reproducing water turtles.

Horse demons. For the kids, see.

Horse demons. For the kids, see.

All fine enough – and eternally overshadowed by the park’s portrayal of the Ten Courts of Hell, a remarkably graphic romp through what happens to very, very naughty boys and girls. Middle-aged, Singaporeans, I’ve been told, seem to share a collective memory of being dragged through these subterranean chambers and summarily lightly traumatized at very young ages.

Which, you can kind of understand why from looking at these pictures. As I peered at the various layers of hell and contemplated why “refusal to pay rent” is considered a much more serious crime than “inflicting physical injury,” I watched a Chinese father guide his small array of children through the exhibits.

The Volcano Full of Prostitutes. No, really, that's what it is.

The Volcano Full of Whores. No, really, that’s what it is.

“See, THIS is what happens if you lie,” he said, pointing to a portrayal of little clay people being poked to death by colorful, fanged demons with pronounced eyebrows.  The kids look worried.

In alignment with wimpy modern sensibilities, signs now warn unsuspecting parents of the impending trauma that awaits them from venturing into the Hell dioramas. The strategic problem with this is that the rest of the park is just about as baffling and potentially distressing to anyone under the age of 10 who has yet to deeply contemplate sin, mortality, and what happens when you take psychedelic drugs for extended periods.

haw par tiger car

For example: I was particularly struck by Aw Boon Haw’s tiger-themed car, which does in fact feature a molded tiger head, orange and black paint, and a horn that emits roaring sounds when pressed. It’s a 1925 Buick Californian Hardtop, in case you are one of the weirdos who keeps track of these things. This is weird, and yet, not even the weirdest thing by a long shot.

 

animal war

While I wandered, I came across this particular nightmare fodder tableaux, which portrays adorable woodland creatures warring with one another, complete with gore.

If you are the type of parent who is eager to fill your offspring in on certain harsh Darwinian realities of life, it’s hard to imagine a better pedagogical tool than this type of thing – the perfect antidote to friendly, singing animals in Disney movies that always stop short of showing the gore.

“This is the true face of existence,” one can imagine this parent telling their little child, as the two of them look stone-faced upon furry animals murdering one another. “Being adorable will not save you from terror.”

Thanks, Aw Boon Haw.

cricket elephants

Right around the corner from Adorable Rodent Mutually Assured Destruction, there was this quite frankly baffling scene.Far as I can tell, it portrays tiny elephants in Dad outfits forcing horrifyingly large crickets to kiss one another, as mean looking rat men look on and jeer.

Maybe it’s a metaphor.

crab people haw par

A major theme of Haw Par Garden’s exhibits is people who are also crabs, or perhaps crabs who are also people. They are joined by turtle men, fish ladies, and other examples of people fusing with animals in distinctly unsettling ways. I have no idea if this is a theme of Chinese literature but it’s probably going to regularly haunt my dreams.

turtle man fish woman

Haw Par Gardens is, rather sadly, declining in popularity, as modern parents conclude they’d rather not outsource teaching morals to their kids by way of distressingly graphic visual aids.I was just about the only person there on the weekday on which I visited, with a small smattering of mainland Chinese tourists wandering through the exhibits with me. It’s still free to enter the park, and it’s conveniently located off its very own Singapore Metro stop.

As for Haw Par Villa’s appropriateness for children. Of course it is appropriate for children, especially those children who are prone to dark, horrifying ruminations on the nature of existence – which is pretty much all children with an IQ higher than that possessed by a celery stalk.

Here is a man fighting a dangerous Muppet.

Here is a man fighting a dangerous Muppet.

If I had been brought here as a small child, I would have likely experienced a month of existential terror, and come out of it on the other end with nothing but fond, rosy memories and warped sensibilities.

I mean, I was taken to the Salvador Dali Museum on multiple occasions when I was very small and there’s nothing even vaguely weird about me.  Take the kids to Haw Par Villa, and do report back on the ensuing conversations.

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Some Things I Approve Of in Chiang Mai – Sausage, Khao Soi, Night Markets

khao soi accompaniments

Khao Soi

Khao soi is my favorite noodle dish in Asia, and that’s really saying quite a lot, considering the dizzying biodiversity of noodle soups in this region of the world. Thought to be of Burmese origin, the dish has been modified in Northern Thailand, and is, I think, superior to the original.

The essential deal here is a combo of spicy and richly flavored coconut milk broth flavored with a pungent curry paste, tender chicken or pork, chewy yellow noodles, and a topping of crispy deep fried noodles, sometimes substituted with fried pork skins. With a bowl of khao soi, you’re also given pickled cabbage, raw shallot, lime juice, and usually additional chili paste, which can be applied to taste.

Yes please.

Yes please.

The final result, with plenty of lime juice and supplemental chili in my case, is among the more sublime lunch specialties in the world – a perfect mix of spicy, sweet, tangy, and crunchy. I’ve found myself managing to work in two bowls of the stuff a day in khao soi country, especially as every restaurant seems to make it in a slightly different way. Chicken is usually the more common variety on offer, especially as it’s considered a Muslim-influenced dish, but I’m partial to the pork version when I can get it. Sometimes, chunks of blood are also thrown into the broth as well, especially up near Chiang Rai. You are welcome to quietly pick them out.

Hunting good khao soi is a pleasant endeavor, but I can suggest a little cafe right off the city wall with excellent khao soi. I didn’t get the name, but you’ll see it on the left if you are headed towards Arak Road Lane 5 on the main Arak Road (on the side of the city walls), right after you pass Sinharat Road Lane 2.  Here’s a Google Maps link to the approximate location.

I came upon the place after unsuccessfully hunting another khao soi joint, and was glad I gave it a whirl: deliciously flavored, thick broth, and pork chunks as well as meatballs in the soup. I believe I *maybe* paid the equivalent of $3.

chiang mai art market

Saturday Night Market

Chiang Mai is home to a number of well-known universities, and with higher education, comes hipster kids with weird aesthetics and  a burning desire for pocket money. This means that while the Saturday Night Market on Wualai Road (near the Chiang Mai Gate) does contain the usual assortment of generic Thai crapola – wooden frogs, obscene key-chains, those horrid elephant pants – there’s also a pleasing variety of interesting stuff, produced by young, local artists.

I usually come away from here with a pleasant selection of eccentric, cheap things. This time, it was a tote bag with watercolor paintings of fish on it and the word “Mackerel,” as well as a large sticker of a tiger’s head with “FUCK COMIC SANS” written on it. It’s the vastest night market I’ve ever run across in Asia, bustling along until well after 10:30 PM, and walkable for what seems like almost a mile. Tentacles of night time commerce spread off into the side streets from the main event, prompting pleasant wandering out of the heat of the day.

Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.

Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.

The Saturday Night Market also has a nice selection of food stalls, with authentic Thai specialties and not-so-authentic, as well as buskers and performances. The vibe of the event is perhaps its biggest selling point, with a particular, local energy that is quite fun to jump into as a visitor. Finally, there’s spectacular people-watching — well, if you like seeing backpackers clash with Thai hipsters, annoyed looking elderly food sellers, and befuddled looking middle-aged Aussies in singlets. And of course you like that, everyone with any taste likes that.

chiang mai sausages better

Died and found myself alighting in Pork Heaven.

 A Dizzying Array of Delicious Pork Products

chiang mai pork rinds

Thai pork rinds.

My family hails from the Southern United States, a part of the world with a deep, spiritual relationship with eating pigs. Northern Thailand shares this intense porcine affinity with Appalachia, and Chiang Mai’s food markets offer a delightful array of pork products, all at highly reasonable prices and with intense flavoring.

A particular standout is sai ua or Northern Thai sausage, produced with a combination of minced pork, curry paste, herbs, and Thai spices. The end result is a delightfully fresh and unexpected snack that is likely unlike anything you’ve tasted before, at least if you hail from the West. Sai ua is usually sold in long links, and is typically eaten plain, although some clever person needs to take this Thai hot dog concept to the slavering, food-truck besotted masses of Silicon Valley or Portland.

Yet another delightful Northern sausage product is fermented pork sausage (sai krok Isan), which is made with a combination of pork and rice – for you Louisiana people, it’s essentially Thai boudin with a tangy, funky additional kick from the fermentation process. It’s completely addictive and I find it very difficult to step away from stalls that sell it, usually packed into small balls that can easily be scooped up with a cabbage leaf and a fresh, incendiary green chili.

Also worth seeking out are meaty pork rinds, which are of course nothing more or less than deep-fried pork skin. Much of the world seems to find the idea of merrily consuming fried pig epidermis to be deeply disturbing, but both my noble Southern ancestors and the people of Northern Thailand consider them to be a marvelous delicacy, perfect with a beer or three. Not all pork rinds are created equal – some are fresher and meatier than others, while some feature a nice dusting of spicy chili – so it’s worth experimenting from Chiang Mai’s sundry meat-selling ladies. If I can, I like to toss them with some vinegar-based hot sauce, in the finest New Orleans style, but they’re quite delectable without.

Tamarind leaf salad.

Tamarind leaf salad.

Isaan Food

It’s tragic, but the Isaan food typical of Northern Thailand and adjoining regions of Laos is very little known outside of Southeast Asia. True: it’s spicy and often features ingredients that can charitably be described as eccentric, but I’m very partial to its freshness and unabashedly pungent nature. Pungent, rustic-style fish sauce, chili, pickles all sorts, fresh herbs, sticky rice, and smoky flavors are all typical of Isaan food, as well as “jungle” curries more reliant on herbs than they are on rich coconut milk and large quantities of meat.

If you’ve had and enjoyed tangy, eye-bleedingly spicy papaya salad (som tum) before, you’ve had a bit of exposure to Isaan food. In the Lao and Northern style, it’s made with more fish sauce and chili than the versions you’ll find in the South. It’s been written that Isaan food is so aggressively flavored in an effort to make residents of the traditionally poor region be content with padding their meals out primarily with sticky rice. It sounds legitimate enough, especially when one takes into account the fact that sticky rice has a habit of expanding in one’s stomach.

Pleasingly, Chiang Mai is a great, central place to sample good Isaan food in all its variety, and there’s tons of restaurants to choose from. Some places may bill themselves as Lanna or Northern Thai in lieu of Isaan, but there’s considerable overlap in style between them.

Nam phrik (Thai dip or "salsa) with tomato and eggplant.

Nam phrik (Thai dip or “salsa) with tomato and eggplant.

Considering that most Isaan restaurants are fluorescent lit mom-and-pop affairs – which is fine, but sometimes you’re perversely interested in a hint of ambiance, or at least clean tables – I was particularly impressed with the contemporary design of Tong Tem Toh, a Northern Thai restaurant located close to Chiang Mai University.

Up the almost painfully hip 11 Nimman Haeminda Soi 13, it’s popular with young Thais, and has an extensive menu of dishes that are distinctly hard to find elsewhere – though in the evening, there’s plenty of charcoal grilled meats on offer for those in your group with cowardly palates. Always be sure to emphasize that you want your food spicy when dining as a Westerner in Isaan establishments,, as Thais, usually correctly, assume that foreigners can’t hang.

I’m fascinated by the array of nam phrik (Thai “dip” or “salsa”) specialties available in the North, which are a handy answer to Mexican-style salsa bars. Here, we enjoyed a bowl of nam phrik ong, which is best described as Thai bolognese: minced pork, tomato, and smoky chili, served with fresh vegetables for dipping and scooping. It was entirely addictive and I’m learning to make it. The menu also has nam phrik num, a green Thai “salsa” made with roasted green chiles that would fit in beautifully on any given enchilada.

issan bamboo shoots

Bamboo shoots in coconut milk with pork.

We also tried fresh, herbaceous tamarind leaf salad with a fish sauce dressing and a liberal topping of pork rinds, as well as bamboo shoots cooked pork and a little bit of coconut milk and chili (which could have been a little warmer). Joining these dishes was a tasty serving of egg, rice, and pork sausage (jeen som mok kai) with peanuts and fresh garlic on the side, as well as a tasty version of sai ua with lots of pungent flavor.

Best of all was the Northern style pork belly curry, with big chunks of tender, fatty pork in a complex, smoky-tasting sauce, with peanuts and tamarind juice and a bit of coconut milk. We offset everything with little balls of sticky rice from nice woven bamboo containers, and a hefty quantity of Chang beer.

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Flying the Drone at Wat Umong in Chiang Mai

wat u mong stupa

Wat Umong is definitely my favorite temple in Chiang Mai. Set a bit outside of the center of town in a lush forest, the 700-year-old Buddhist temple attracts relatively few tourists and has a delightfully jewel-like, slightly eccentric character – commemorative stupas overgrown with greenery, a curious worship area dug into an underground tunnel, and gardens set with tiny, crumbling effigies of both the Buddha and Thailand’s venerated King.

I came here with my Phantom 2 UAV (drone) fully expecting to not be allowed to use it. Much to my surprise, when we asked a monk if it was OK to fly it near the main stupa, he shrugged and gave his assent – and in fact, kept on sweeping leaves off the ground surrounding the stupa with nothing more than a vaguely disinterested glance in its direction once or twice. Noted.

Naga statue at Wat Umong.

Naga statue at Wat Umong.

Here’s the aerial photos. The flat area above the stupa in the image is the roof of the underground tunnels, which were said to have been built by the Lanna King to help keep an absent-minded (or likely dementia afflicted) monk from wandering off. Indeed, the word “umong” translates into tunnel, naming the temple for its most curious feature. The walls of the tunnels, so it’s said, were even helpfully painted with botanical scenes to complete the illusion for the wayward monk.I haven’t the slightest idea if this is true or not, but it’s a good story – and the tunnels are a nice, cool place to poke around for a while.

wat umong
And another, with a slightly better view of the tunnels and their ventilation outlets.

wat umong straight down stupa

Wat Umong is also home to a remarkable variety of animals, from cats to dogs to chickens to ducks, all of them kept to a fat and luxurious standard. The dogs wander from place to place accepting head pats from monks and tourists, and perching themselves luxuriously on the mossy walls of the old temple structures. (Their ranks included a purebred bull terrier on my latest visit, whose origin I would love to know more about).

wat u mong chicken

There are also an unusual number of pretty, pugnacious roosters here, which squabble with one another noisily at random intervals, making for excellent photo ops. Cats and kittens emerge at random intervals from the bushes to push their foreheads against your leg and demand you stop this photography bullshit immediately. Animal lovers will be fond of Wat Umong.

Chicken and stupa.

Chicken and stupa.

It’s also popular for Westerners who are out to learn to mediate, as I figured out a bit embarrassingly late in the game while wondering about the number of silent, confused looking foreigners ambling around the grounds. I can’t say I’ve ever felt a burning desire to do so myself – I mean, you can’t use the Internet – but here’s the link if you feel so inclined.

wat u mong trinkets

My favorite part of Wat Umong is the dilapidated and wonderful garden of small Buddha and royal figurines to the right of the entrance to the tunnels. It’s a weird, jewel-box like place and makes for great photography experiments. A Thai group was filming what appeared to be a soap opera here when I visited, allowing me to view a pretty Thai woman pretending to have a hair-rending mental breakdown over a Buddha image. Then, cut. And she did it again, and again. I admire the energy of actors. for it all looked exceedingly exhausting.

Faceless stone Buddhas.

Faceless stone Buddhas.

Please do visit Wat Umong if you’re in Chiang Mai, encumbered with a drone or otherwise. It is a delightfully peaceful, eccentric little place, one that is in some respects made for a decent book and a sojourn with a friendly dog or a cat, or at least a minimally judgmental chicken. There is even a man who sells ice cream. There is not much more you can ask for in this life.

Hidden Buddha in the trees.

Hidden Buddha in the trees.

 

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An Ode to the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders in Chiang Mai

lovecraftian insect museum
I have been entranced by the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders in Chiang Mai since I first set foot in the place four years ago, drawn in by a terse Lonely Planet entry, and a large wire-frame statues of mosquitoes and dragonflies stuck to the top of the brick building it sits in.

It is not so much a museum as it is a collection: encompassing a formidable array of preserved insects, a litany of arcane and useful information on mosquitoes, shells, psychedelic paintings, and various editorial notes from the owners. It is one of the strangest and at the same time most genuinely charming attractions – or collections – I have ever come across. You must at least poke your head in if you are in the area.

kissing mosquitoes

The Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders is owned by Manop and Dr Rampa Rattanarithikul, a  now-elderly Thai couple who rank among the planet’s foremost experts on disease-carrying mosquitoes. Their careers in medical entomology have ranged across Southeast Asia to the Smithsonian in Washington DC and all the way to Osaka, where Dr. Rampa earned her PHD in the 1990s. Dr Rattanarithikul eventually published one of the seminal texts to which all who battle and study mosquitoes refers to – and she has named over half of the Smithsonian Institution’s mosquito species herself. It is rare to encounter a couple on this earth who are so singularly devoted to another organism, and at that, one of the planet’s least charismatic ones.

The museum has two floors, the first with a display describing both the benefits and the various nasty things mosquitoes do to people, including vivid images of the fell effects of elephantiasis and hemorrhagic dengue fever. A porch has a remarkable assemblage of hornets and bees nest, as well as “art” created by the incessant nibbling of ants onto wood. There are also Manop’s psychedelic, cheerily neon-colored paintings of pretty girls, his wife, and the natural world, interspersed with Christian themes. The entire effect is slightly Lovecraftian – twisting natural forms, crawling things, tentacled things, and the papery nests of flying insects – and yet, entirely affectionate in its intention. The couple love these weird and terrible things, and wish to convey this love to you.

Manop and Rampa in their youth.

Manop and Rampa in their youth.

It is to this end that Manops’s cheerily optimistic and slightly maniacal writings have been tacked up all over the place, printed out near whatever object seems to warrant it – rumination on the benefits of mosquitoes to humanity (hard as they are to see), how he and his wife met, a stone his grandmother had given him to get him to sit still for an archaic camera, and various anecdotes and musings and slightly twee poems.

When I was there the first time, Mr. Manop Rattanarithikul was wandering the museum chatting with profound animation about the stuff he and his wife had amassed. I lingered at the stag horn beetles, which I have always loved, and he eventually appeared besides me and began describing their many positive features. “You know, I’ve always wondered where I can catch one,” I said, quite sincerely – giving voice to a long time, vague childhood dream that had been helped along by a library of natural science books and a particularly vivid jigsaw puzzle.

Stick insects, sundry.

Stick insects, sundry.

“Oh, it’s easy, especially around here. You must go into the bamboo forest and shake the bamboo,” he said. “When they feel the vibration, they go Eeengh! and stiffen up, and they fall out of the bamboo and onto the ground. You can collect them that way.”

Thus began a good four years of my surreptitiously shaking bamboo plants whenever I see them. This practice did not result in any fruit for a good long while, and I attributed it to a lack of technique, quite realistically. Until I visited the Bamboo Sea in Sichuan in August, a place that is lousy with both bamboo, and as I joyously discovered, stag horn beetles. I spent a long evening collecting them from light sources and letting the immensely heavy, charming things crawl up my arms, to the shrieking bemusement of the Chinese people drinking beer at my hotel restaurant. Anyway, that day I thought of Mr. Manop Rattanarithikul, and his museum. Partially that is why I came back.

Moth and bird.

Moth and bird.

During my visit last month, Dr. Manop Rattanarithikul  was sitting in the foyer wrapping silk purses in plastic with one of her museum employees. She welcomed me warmly, only appearing a bit disappointed when I admitted I was not actually a entomologist but a journalist. I came down from the museum and we chatted briefly about Chikungunya Fever, which I told her in the spirit of chipper scientific endeavor that I had come down with in Manila last year.

She was quite interested in this, and we discussed how Chikungunya is most prevalant in areas with lots of sugar palms – perhaps the swampy aspect of the Manila suburb of Quezon City, where I was staying, explained my little brush with malignant mosquito disease.

A sampling of Manop's prose style.

A sampling of Manop’s prose style.

I felt comfortable enough to ask her why she and her husband had decided to devote their retirements to their singular, wonderful museum. “We always liked collecting things, me and my husband, and we opened the museum,” she said when I asked her about their motivations. “We didn’t really expect it would come to this.”

But so it has, and their efforts are a singular, small monument to eccentricity and to the natural world. It is, I think, a little more than just a love letter to weird things that creep and buzz and bite. More than that, being inside the museum is rather like walking into the collective consciousness of two people who have lived long and very intertwined lives: Dr. Rampa’s work and touch combining with Manop’s weird, exuberant, art and writing.

beetle on a stick

It is, one imagines, the natural result of two dedicated, single-minded old people deciding to render their innermost beings into the real world – and for this very reason, it is fascinating to a degree far beyond the rather erratic sum of its parts. It has flaws, heavens knows: it is rather small, and costs perhaps a bit too much to get inside. It could use a tank of living insects or reptiles or some sort of creature to counteract the dusty deadness of most of the other occupants. But that is not, entirely the point – the specimens themselves are less the point then the representation of two long, curious lives.

The museum, in summary, is a delightful paean to not only insects but also to all-encompassing human weirdness. May the  Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders last forever, and may you go pay it a visit if you are ever in Chiang Mai.

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Why I Hate Backpackers: An Illustrated Guide

ALWAYS WITH THE KRAMAS

ALWAYS WITH THE KRAMAS

I am regularly asked by acquaintances and friends why I hate backpackers. They are used to seeing my anti-backpacker screeds on Twitter or when they meet me at the bar, ready with my latest story about those horrible people who wear elephant-patterned pants and talk incessantly about spirituality. They conclude the obvious: I loathe backpackers and if I do not wish harm upon them, I do at least wish acute bedbugs.

Allow me to be honest: I don’t really HATE backpackers. Hate is a strong and meaningful word, a phrase that should properly be reserved for things that warrant it – such as, say, ISIS, neo-Nazis, and people who walk a bit too slowly on sidewalks. I would rescue a drowning backpacker. I would save a backpacker from feral dogs. I might give a backpacker marginally accurate driving directions. (I would not lend a backpacker money).

While I do not actually hate them, per-say, I do find them obnoxious, and that is really the root of all the effort I exert on mocking them, and why most expats I associate with share the same low opinion of their ilk.

For, picture this common scenario: you are over the age of 22 and a person of moderate aesthetic expectations residing in Southeast Asia. You spend time and money journeying to a supposedly bucolic island in the middle of nowhere, and on that glorious white sand, you find a pack of American frat-boys drinking Smirnoff Ice and hooting at one another. You are displeased. You thought you left this behind.

Someone proceeds to mock you for asking them to turn down the repetitive dubstep music. They are all doing shrooms and making out with each other and they are not even sharing their beer. Your displeasure turns to raw, vicious hatred.

The list of grievances – beyond this oft-repeated scenario – goes on. Backpackers show up at bars with acoustic guitars in the angelic hope of being scouted for “talent.” Backpackers will occasionally grow emotional for no particularly good reason and read you their poetry, which is inevitably heavily inspired by both Bukowski and that Kings of Leon song that really touched their hearts back in high school. Backpackers noisily demand that they be able to enjoy the trappings of home, from Family Guy reruns to chilled Snickers bars, wherever they noisily alight – cackling and domineering, like a flock of shitting starlings. Backpackers smell funny. Backpackers have better iPhones than you.

I could continue in this fashion, but it wouldn’t be very interesting. So, I thought I would explain with the assistance of some illustrations why I think backpackers blow, and maybe even offer some explanations for why I – and so many other expats – feel this way.  (Hint: it comes down to self-loathing, kind of).

jackals-finished

BACKPACKERS ARE THE WORLD’S LEAST OPPRESSED PEOPLE

Backpackers make for convenient targets because they are roughly the exact opposite of an oppressed group, the antipode of the world’s wretched, starving, and afraid. This makes them convenient: it’s true that making fun of disabled people, impoverished women, or the gravely mentally ill is cruel sport that is justifiably condemned by everyone with a conscience.

But backpackers are by definition among the planet’s most fortunate people. Unlike most everyone else, they are able to spend a good portion of the most productive and physically fit bits of their lives knocking around the world and doing inordinate quantities of shrooms.

Most are either attending a nice university or will soon head off to do so after gaining “life experience.” Most have nice families who care about them and wish they would get on Skype more often. Most will walk into decent jobs that appreciate how “worldly” they are after they finish contracting skin cancer in Sri Lanka.

All this makes them delightfully guilt-free targets — the Diet Coke and rice cakes of cruel humor. Mocking a backpacker does not harm them beyond the occasional bad feeling, but brings great pleasure to bitter expats undergoing existential crisis. Further, most backpackers are completely disinterested in the opinion of weird expats wearing business clothes in the first place.

Everyone (kind of) wins.

Sketch221235430

BACKPACKERS ARE HAVING WAY MORE FUN THAN US

Backpackers exist at an absolutely infuriating distance from real life, a division that often manages to annoy the piss out of locals and expatriates alike. Locals are often merely scraping by in their native country, subject to the whims of corrupt governments and poorly-planned economies. Expats usually are at least making a good faith effort at sustaining themselves in their new country (with varying degrees of success), and are subject to the usual concerns of paying their rent and soliciting paying work.

Into this situation, then, the backpacker saunters onto the stage with savings, a trust fund, or seriously poorly-advised credit decisions, and then proceeds to do nothing whatsoever but chill and eat marijuana-infused pizza.

At the same time, everyone else is selling fruit, closing real-estate deals, teaching English, driving tuk tuks, or analyzing political affairs — all pursuits a lot less fun than doing body shots off of mysterious but sexy Australians.

This can do nothing but breed a certain amount of resentment among people who are incapable of fucking off for two months to cover themselves in glow paint and drink buckets full of questionable liquor. Angry muttering ensures.

Backpackers, it’s true, do have their uses, as anyone who runs a business that caters to the drunk and stupid backpacker market will tell you. Purveyors of fine happy truffles or pizza, ladies who sell cans of Coca-Cola at Angkor Wat, the guy who does thousands of “tribal” tattoos each week: they acknowledge the economic usefulness of backpackers, but they’re probably not overwhelmed with love for them, either.

Expats aren’t often economically dependent on the backpacker market but will usually (under duress) cede one use for backpackers and their obnoxiously free-spirited ways: they are convenient if you find yourself lonely and questioning your existence at the dance club at two in the morning. And they don’t know any of your friends.

backpacker-money

BACKPACKERS ARE CHEAP BASTARDS

Despite their obviously blessed position in life, backpackers are cheap bastards. Young Breeze may reside in a mansion in Malibu during her summer holidays, but while vacationing in Vietnam, she turns into a merciless penny-pincher – arguing virulently with aged women attempting to mark up cans of Coca-Cola by 50 cents in front of tourist attractions. They will always take the cheapest bus, even it has been known for decades that said bus is run by a professional thievery cartel and occasionally plummets off of cliffs. Hotel rooms filled with cockroaches, festooned with poorly-concealed blood stains,  and set directly over a low-end strip club? No problem –  it cost $3 less than the other place.

Backpackers are regularly seen savagely chiseling people over tourist trinkets, t-shirts, and things that have very visible price tags stuck to them. Some will even attempt to bargain with the wait staff at restaurants, apparently unaware that that is not actually a thing that happens. They will occasionally attempt to whittle down the price of a $5 souvenir t-shirt while at the same time texting on their latest-model iPhone.

Backpackers are also known for walking out on hotel tabs, absconding with random items in guesthouses and restaurants, stealing the toilet paper, and attempting to “borrow” $20 from you because they just haven’t quite been able to to get their mothers to Western Union them spending money yet. (Do not lend them $20. It is a trap).

They find their cheapness to be a point of pride, and will express both awe and derision if you mention spending more than $6 on basically anything. It usually goes like this: “You spent $12 on a three-course French meal, with wine? Ugh, are you insane? I just eat canned tuna for every meal, man.”

Despite their relentless bargaining, backpackers are more than willing to spend the average annual salary of a Cambodian farmer on liquor during their adventures through Southeast Asia. Pointing out this logical inconsistency only annoys and occasionally enrages them.

You know who they are.

You know who they are.

BULLSHIT SPIRITUALISM

Backpackers are founts of bullshit spiritualism, a habit most likely directly resulted to the fact that they’re not actually worrying about making a living and thus are filled with a sense of serenity and happiness. This curious, opiate-effect of word travel is well known: many young people in Asia have informed all their friends on Facebook and thus the world that they are traveling to the Mysterious Orient to Find Themselves.

That’s fine to a point, I suppose, but the problem comes when you’re just trying to have a casual chat at the bar and someone wants to rave at you about how awesome Jack Kerouac is, or how that time they did pyschedelic drugs on the beach with roughly 15,000 students at Leeds University really saved their life man, or how they’re totally going to become a Buddhist monk next month, really.  (I also believe that the movie “Into the Wild” – the point of which everyone seems to miss – ought to be banned with extreme prejudice).

This fondness for silly manifestations of spirituality is often wildly inflicted on the locals, who are dubbed “deep” and “so beautiful” by moon-bat travelers — who seem unable to appreciate that the locals are actually just fellow human beings trying to live their lives like anyone else, instead of exotic zoo animals with funny accents.

This grows especially ridiculous in Cambodia with its attendant Khmer Rouge history, where backpackers seem to feel the need to wax lyrical about how Khmer people “smile all the time, despite all the loss they’ve suffered.”

You are expected to nod and agree with the profound depth of this statement, as you are expected to smile and nod at all statements made by a backpacker with the faintest whiff of spiritual depth.  Claiming you in fact think these observations about the solemn oneness of the universe (or whatever) are hilariously stupid will be greeted with mute incomprehension.

OH JUST A LITTLE SELF LOATHING

I freely admit that my public emissions of hatred towards backpackers are deeply rooted in self-loathing. I suspect this is not uncommon, and is part of the reason why backpackers are treated with such keen hatred by the expat community in most places.

The fact is that I often find it hard to figure out what differentiates me from them.

I mean, look: the below illustration is a typical backpacker.

awful-backpacker-not-like-me

And this is me definitely NOT being a backpacker. Somehow.

note i do not differ materially from the backpacker portrayed above

I think I’m not alone in my near-biweekly identity crisis. Most expats with functioning consciences are keenly aware of being interlopers in a foreign land, and we are also aware that in terms of both our appearance and our bank accounts, we are often rather hard to tell apart from the backpacking brethren.

Local people add to this sense of insecurity, scrutinizing us with amusement and saying “Oh, you LIVE here!” when you say something halting in the local language or express some vague knowledge of local geography.

I am often very afraid that someone in Cambodia will insist that I do NOT live here – and indeed, it has been a while since I really have. If I do not live there, where exactly do I live? Does that mean I’m just a backpacker who regularly showers and on  very rare occasions collects a paycheck?

How terrifying.

I take out this insecurity and lack of confidence in my social position on a convenient target: backpackers. Sure, I might be inept and suck at the language, but I’m not wandering around monasteries with my be-furred nipples hanging out of an Angkor Beer shirt. Nor am I haggling with an old woman over 50 cents.

I have fallen, perhaps, but they have fallen so much farther and don’t even *know* about it.

This helps me sleep at night.

This is why I hate backpackers.

 

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Chongqing: River City

chongqing from the gondola 2 (1 of 1)

Chongqing is not exactly the tourism darling of China. This immense, aggressively vertical city lies in what looks to me like a wholly impractical place – wedged between the confluence of two massive rivers, stacked into the side of regularly shifting cliffs. An industrial and financial powerhouse, Chongqing doesn’t boast pandas, ancient Chinese historical sites, or a thriving bar scene. Mostly, it has the brown and vaguely threatening expanse of the Yangtze, gigantic malls, and hot, humid, weather – as well as exceptionally lousy air.

But Chongqing, formerly known as Chungking, does stand apart as an excellent place to experience the true scale of Western China’s aspirations, and to watch a newly confident (and newly wealthy) Chinese middle-class go about their business.

Chongqing is not technically part of Sichuan. It was one of four Chinese cities that holds the status of a direct-controlled municipality (re-awarded the status in 1997), and is the only city with such a distinction in the Western portion of the country. And it is really quite outrageously large: the municipalities population stood at a mere 28,846,170 in the 2010 census, with around 6 to 7 million occupying the urbanized “city” bit.

Moody Chongqing.

Moody Chongqing.

The area has an exceedingly long history as a river trading port and as a portal to the often-treacherous passage through the Three Gorges. What was then Chungking achieved considerable international import during the second Sino-Japanese War, when Chiang Kai-shek made the city China’s provisional capital.

The city is also an important part of US WWII history: in 1942,  the Headquarters of the American Army Forces, China, Burma, and India (HQ AAF CBI) were established here, under the auspices of Maj. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell. From here, Stilwell would eventually direct US forces in the China-Burma-India theater, from his austere concrete home high on the banks of the Yangtze. You can still visit this place: more on that later.

Chongqing was hit extremely hard by Japanese aerial attacks from 1938 to 1943 – an arduous period of incendiary bomb attacks that intentionally targeted residential areas, schools, hospitals, and other areas with nothing to do with the military. Over 10,000 civilians are thought to have perished during those years but endured the constant threat of death from above with considerable resilience, gaining the city a particular reputation for heroism.

Here’s a CCTV documentary with English subtitles on the bombing of Chongqing. Don’t expect perfect impartiality, but it’s interesting.

After hostilities resumed between Communist and Nationalist forces, following the end of the war, Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang fled Chongqing in 1949, and the city grew from there into the center of both industrial wealth and rather egregious corruption that defines it in the minds of most Chinese citizens today. The city most recently hit international headlines over the dramatic and rather sordid fall from grace of municipal Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai, whose wife (as you may recall) stands accused of poisoning her former British business associate. Chongqing, perhaps unsurprisingly, retains its reputation for naughty official behavior.

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Chongqing’s People’s Square.

The primary value of Chongqing to the idiot tourist is wandering: it only boasts a few tourist sites that really deserve the name, but it’s a pleasing place to get lost, turned about, and snack intermittently on things you can’t quite name. It is a hilly city with winding roads, moldering and tall apartment buildings, and green and slightly vertical public parks. The metro is clean and good, and taxis – when you can find one – are generally quite willing to use the meter.

Other Western tourists are a distinct rarity, most only spending a night in the city before they board cruise shops bound for the now rather-diminished Three Gorges area. Those seeking the companionship of other, similarly bewildered young travelers will be disappointed (nor, should I add, did I ever see anything approximating a bar).

Chongqing river.

Chongqing river.

Chongqing prides itself on having the spiciest food in the Sichuan region, and the scent of hot chili and numbing peppercorns permeates seemingly every food product. Chongqing prefers hot pot served in a square-shape with little grids, allowing one to better separate the food.

It is also worth visiting some of Chongqing’s monolithic shopping areas, if only to get a sense of the true scale of China’s economic revolution. On a Saturday, thousands upon thousands of Chinese stroll up and down the newly-laid and relatively clean pavement of the Chongqing Guanyinqiao Walking Street shopping area across the bridge and slightly away from the city center, carrying armfuls of shopping bags, and gnawing spicy squid and mutton off of pointy wooden sticks. Children are everywhere, and the presence of multiple siblings speaks to China’s recent relaxation of the former, infamous one child policy.

Baozi for sale in Chongqing.

Baozi for sale in Chongqing.

Every Western brand imaginable is present here in force, while huge hotels catering to the aesthetics of a monied, mainland Chinese audience sprout everywhere. Food courts here are immense subterranean affairs, with hot, spice-infused air and a considerable amount of elbowing. It is non-stop financial activity, and it should surely make the Chinese powers that be feel a little more confident that they can convince their people – the most vociferous savers in the world – to start spending a little more.

The temperatures are humid, and the air is polluted – although the city, to its credit, is taking some measures to reduce the air pollution. When I was there, it was relatively cool and damp, but a fine pollution haze hung over everything, evoking the more pleasingly natural beauty of a fog over the water. A pleasant blue sky finally emerged on my last day in the city, for a while in the later afternoon.

Chongqing is not a city that inspires love, exactly. But it is a city of not inconsiderable interest to Western China-watchers. Catch the gondola across the river, wander the streets (up and down, up and down), and watch the people with interest.

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Paoma Mountain in Kangding

baoma statues 2 (1 of 1)

If you’ve visited Kangding, you’ve likely noticed the little necklace of red gondola cars heading up the cliffs that skirt town. If you are somewhat familiar with Sichuan’s exuberant seismic history and Chinese construction norms, you may have concluded no earthly force can compel you to get on said gondolas. I am here to tell you it is worth it, because they bring you to Paoma Mountain.

prayer flag sea baoma 2 (1 of 1)

At the Zhilam Hostel in Kangding, I ran into a young man from Wake Forest, North Carolina, who had recently passed the bar exam and was now knocking around China for the holidays. My father hails from North Carolina, and we happily exchanged cultural pleasantries about the correct way to cook barbecue as we headed for Paoma, and the Dentok Monastery that lies at its top.

Finding the entrance to the cable car was a remarkable pain in the ass, considering that the track itself can be easily seen from just about everywhere in Kangding. We hiked up the hill to the approximate spot where we saw the cable car hitting the bottom of the mountain, made a left, walked past a promising looking parking lot – and found ourselves on the busy highway that runs through Kangding, full of trucks honking at us.

Prayer flags in the forest at Paoma.

Prayer flags in the forest at Paoma.

Confused, we escaped into the vertical warren of Kangding’s tenament buildings, the residents staring at us with unveiled amusement. We eventually emerged on the hill exactly where we had started, and hiked up again. This time, we chanced making a left into a beer garden area ringed with international flags. Sure enough, we passed a curiously empty Tibetan museum, and there was the gondola terminus. We paid 40 RMB and boarded, thankful it wasn’t a windy or rainy day.

Monks at the Paoma monastery.

Monks at the Paoma monastery.

The entrance to the grounds around Dentok cost an additional 40 RMB, which seemed a bit silly until we realized how large and impressive the mountaintop actually was. We first went inside the monastery, which had impressively elderly stone steps, and two monks reciting sutras inside. Reasonably aged paintings of Buddhist deities lined the walls and the doors.

Chinese tourists at Paoma.

Chinese tourists at Paoma.

From the monastery, I walked down a tree-lined path that led to a barred stone Tibetan house. To my left, a path led upwards to a flat, grassy plateau. Frightened looking Chinese tourists bounced around the circular lawn on annoyed-looking Tibetan ponies. Two Chinese girls in traditional costumes begged me to take a photo with them. White statues of Himalayan goddesses looked down upon the scene.

I walked up a series of white steps to take photos of the goddesses, which were framed elegantly by a sea of well-maintained wildflowers. Up there, I met up with my North Carolina countryman again, and we walked down the hill to a little pagoda and water-works area.

baoma statues 3 (1 of 1)

 SOME NOTES ON PAOMA MOUNTAIN

Gondolas cost 40 yuan, and stop running around 5:30 PM. Be sure to enter at the beer garden, lest you suffer the fate we did, of wandering around aimlessly up and down hills while looking hopeless.

If you remain opposed to the gondola concept, it’s quite possible to walk up the mountain, a likely pleasant uphill track through pine forest and tattered prayer flags. Guidebooks will tell you that a tourist got murdered here in either 2000 or 1998, but Angela from the Khampa Cafe in Tagong scoffed at the idea of being frightened as a result.

“It was 15 years ago!” she told me, when I mentioned it. “Fifteen years! I’ve been walking up there and I haven’t been killed yet.”

Nor have I.

 

Woman at Paoma.

Woman at Paoma.

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In Defense of Kangding

kangding mountain (1 of 1)

Kangding does not exactly get a glowing reception in the major guidebooks, which describe this Chinese-Tibetan border city as “uninspiring,” maybe even “boring.” I am here to say that they are wrong, and that I am happy to defend Kangding’s honor – this pleasant little city with crisp mornings, a remarkable vegetable market, and a surging whitewater river right through the center of town.

If you want to travel in Sichuan’s Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, you must first go through Kangding. Getting to this border town, which is known as Dartesedo or Dardo to the Tibetans, requires a heavily theoretical six to nine hour bus ride –  the duration of which can lengthen shockingly when a landslide takes place or an accident stops up the narrow mountain roads.

I booked a bus ticket in Chengdu and reported at the exceedingly shovey station at 9:00 AM sharp, where I boarded the Luxury Bus (well, sort of) and headed for the mountains.

cliffs in sichuan

The trip took us through the surprisingly bucolic lowlands of Sichuan, dotted with electric green small farms and traditional white Chinese houses with black trimming. Eventually, we began our climb upwards, into ever more enormous canyons covered in bamboo and thick jungle foliage, the roadsides dotted with endless unfinished construction projects.

In the finest Chinese tradition, my seatmate appeared to have some of unpleasant respiratory disorder and spat at regular ten minute intervals into a small blue bucket in the aisle, provided for that purpose. We got on well enough until he produced an enormous hunting knife and a sausage, which he carved at meditatively around tight mountain passes, which we traversed at high speed. This made me nervous.

The Zhilam Hostel entrance in Kangding.

The Zhilam Hostel entrance in Kangding.

We finally arrived in Kangding around 6:00 PM. As soon as I got off the bus, it was glaringly apparant I had left China and entered an – as the anthropologists call it – Cultural Liminal Zone. Kangding used to be where Tibetans and Chinese would meet for trading purposes, the Chinese hauling great blocks of Pu-Erh tea and other goods up the jungle roads I had just traversed, the Tibetans bringing furs and yak meat and other high-altitude valuables to meet them.

The city remains the gateway to historical Tibet, and remains primarily Tibetan with some Han Chinese population, in a region that some say with confidence is now more Tibetan than Tibet proper.

Certainly, this Tibetan predominance was evident in the tanned and angular faces of the tall, ponytail wearing men who gathered around me as I walked out of the bus station – and all of them thought I should really hop into *their* taxi, except none of them spoke any English and damned if I knew any Tibetan. I almost never take unmetered taxis, operating under the assumption they are almost exclusively driven by cheating bastards. I could see metered taxis streaming by, but none of them were stoppping.

I called the Zhilam Hostel and begged for mercy – and conveniently, ran into a British couple who were also heading to the same place.

Allie, a London-based worker for a startup company, eventually managed to fling herself halfway into one of the taxis which had (foolishly) stopped within running distance of us. Meanwhile I shoved a phone with the Zhilam Hostel owner on the line into the bewildered looking drivers face. We got our ride.

Kangding at night.

Kangding at night.

The taxi deposited us at the base of the hill, and I soon discovered that the “uphill” location of the Zhilam Hostel was actually a very delicate understatement. In fact, it was a 15 minute upward haul to the hostel, a narrow switchbacked stretch that no taxi could be cajoled to bother with. Cursing the life choices that had led me to carry three bags (one of them wheely) through the odder stretches of China, I began the upward climb, swearing quietly to myself at regular intervals as I clacked along. The British couple, bless them, took pity on me and helped.

I arrived at the Zhilam Hospital sweating, slightly irate, and in dire need of a beer. I felt a bit better as I looked the place over, an American-owned guesthouse decorated in a traditional Tibetan style, all wood, colorful paintings, and comfortable cushions and couches. The place was full of sunburned Western backpackers, a stack of well-thumbed Lonely Planets dominating the kitchen. I had booked a dorm bed and was happy to find the dorm rooms were spacious and actually had curtains, and lacked the persistent smell of mold and despair that seems to characterize Chinese hostels.

Upstairs, I spent a pleasant evening chatting with two American rock climbers and their Australian friend, all coming down from Sichuan’s northern regions. The rock climbers had just finished a first ascent of a route in what’s termed “Asia’s Patagonia,” while the Australian was hustling down to Chengdu, after being bitten by a dog in Litang. (This was to be only the first in a series of interesting rabies conversations I engaged in in the region of Garze).

We shared a yak meat pizza, which was accidentally given to the wrong party, but we got it eventually. I can confirm that yak meat is perfectly edible, especially when it – as is ideal in Tibetan culture – has suffered from a pleasantly accidental death instead of an unsightly planned *murder*.

The pines above Kangding.

The pines above Kangding.

I woke up early the next morning in an effort to catch some AM photos of the mountains that loom over Kangding, which didn’t work out very well because it was rather overcast and depressive looking. I punted: I bid farewell to the rock climbers (headed to Chengdu) and ordered some surprisingly excellent French press coffee, plotting out the rest of my day in Kangding. First on my agenda was fixing my knockoff North Face backpack, which had cost me the princely sum of $12 in Phnom Penh a month ago. It had rewarded me by having both the straps pop off within a week, leaving me to wander around China with a red and black backpack secured to me only some straps of fabric and my own profound annoyance at the situation.

Even worse, the knockoff trade in China had diminished greatly since my last visit in 2007, with all the available backpacks costing at least $60 at shiny outdoors stores with Adidas signs all over them. I didn’t know what to do.

“You could buy a new one,” the hostel owner said, “but you can just find one of the old men with sewing machines to fix it for you.” Of course I could.

I had just forgotten that I was back in the part of the world where elderly people with extremely tiny street-based businesses will solve most of your human needs for under $5.

Sure enough, I found an elderly man with a considerably more elderly sewing machine at the base of the hill where the Zhilam Hostel sits. I handed him my backpack, showed him the damage, and looked unhappy about it, and he understood immediately, going to work with tools likely last in vogue in 1935. Within 20 minutes, he had resewn my straps and added new bolts to my loose backplate, transforming my knockoff backpack into something considerably more stalwart. I tried to hand him 100 RMB as a gesture of extreme gratitude, but he shrugged and pushed it away, delicately accepting a 10 RMB note instead.

Impressive and pointedly male yak statue in downtown Kangding.

Impressive and pointedly male yak statue in downtown Kangding.

Enjoying my newly rejuvenated backpack to an almost bizarre extent, I walked into town in search of things to put inside of it (as well as an ATM). Kangding reminded me of Reno in an odd sort of way, with its rushing river through the middle of town, sharp mountain air, and aura of slightly odd people making easy money.

Dancers heading to a Tibetan performance.

Dancers heading to a Tibetan performance.

The mountains towered up all around, from the basin in which the town sat, and I was reminded of the words of British explorer Elizabeth Kimball Kendall in her 1913 “A Wayfarer in China,” who described Kangding – known to her as Tachienlu – as lying “at the bottom of a well,” with “hardly room to stand.” Modern Chinese construction was doing its best to alleviate the canyon situation of Kangding, but the aspect of the place was still aggressively vertical – hemmed in by rock and trees and the omnipresent danger of landslide.

The town’s Peoples Square was hosting a Tibetan song and dance festival, inspired by the omnipresent Chinese love song inspired by Kangding’s mountain. I shoved my way to the front of the crowd (as is proper) and watched for a while as a boy and a girl, dressed up in a deer suit, acted out a melodrama involving the female deer being shot and eaten by other teenagers dressed up in furs. It was very exciting.

Kangding's finest construction workers.

Kangding’s finest construction workers.

I wandered down the river and found myself in the midst of Kangding’s food market, which stretches along the left side of the river for a good half-a-mile. The produce was tremendously attractive, as fancy as that found at a horrendously expensive California Whole Foods – enormous pink radishes, robust and luridly colored eggplants, and an endless variety of wild-picked mushrooms. I eventually found myself in the butchery section, where tables held the remains of yaks, made recognizable by their hanging, tufted black-and-white tails.

I planned to take the gondola up the mountain, but instead, I misplaced my passport. This led to a good two hours of ransacking the hostel in a state of slowly increasing panic, which magnified after I looked up the horrifyingly byzantine process that is getting a US passport replaced in Chengdu. Eventually, one of the young Tibetans that works at the hostel produced a penlight and discovered my passport had somehow slipped out of its sleeve – where I had put it for safe-keeping behind the front desk – and under a cabinet. whew.

The British couple, Tony and Allie, and I decided to have dinner at the Malaya Restaurant, which we found was on the 6th floor of Kangding’s most posh office building, above the omnipresent Dicos chain restaurant After accidentally heading up some distinctly murderous-looking stairs, then finding the right staircase, we emerged into a wood-paneled and pleasantly Tibetan-decorated restaurant, with waitresses in black silk and embroidered Tibetan garb, and a fine view of the Las Vegas lights of nighttime Kangding.

Yak burger.

Yak burger.

The menu was distinctly Tibetan, with everything from benign momos, to raw yak meat, to yak tongue served with Sichuan’s famous, supposedly medicinal fungus worms.

Eschewing the Tongue and Worm combo, we had beef with hot chilis, which was smoky and good. Next were stir-fried wild mushrooms, which were quite tasty but also cost 150 RMB, ensuring we didn’t repeat the experiment.

Hot stone beef at Malaya Restaurant.

Hot stone beef at Malaya Restaurant.

Last was a “yak burger,” which was actually a large steamed dish, with boiled Tibetan bread on top, yak stew in the middle, and potato on the bottom. Yak was surprisingly tender and tasty in general, and the potato did an excellent job of soaking up all those delicate yak juices.

We headed home to Zhilam, the walk uphill slightly more manageable without our luggage. The next day, we would head to Tagong to go trekking.

As for me, I’d concluded that Kangding deserves a much fairer shake than those stupid guidebooks would have you believe.

Blue sky above Kangding.

Blue sky above Kangding.

 

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Chengdu: First Impressions

motorbike lights (1 of 1)

Chengdu falls neatly into the orbit of massive, bustling Chinese cities that the West has given almost no thought to. Certainly I hadn’t, beyond a vague sense that it was in Sichuan and was where people went if they wanted to go see pandas. I was not expecting an immense, modern metropolis with a Metro system, massive designer shopping outlets, and a mall that so huge that it has an actual, simulated beach in it. Such are the wonders of modern China.

I mainly came here for the food, after a life-time spent being intrigued by the kind of peppers that make your mouth go numb and strange upon consumption. I flew in from Shanghai, catching a late afternoon plane from the immense and disturbingly empty Pudong airport.

The new Shanghai airport is like someone’s vague, poorly-expressed fever-dream of a welcoming and luxurious international airport, with gate upon gate laid out in a grey and very clean expanse, with nowhere to buy much of anything beyond a single Famly Mart convenience store, as well as some souvenir luxury food emporiums that sell little beyond very strange-looking beef jerky. Thankfully, my China Air flight was on time, which left me with only a bit of time to enjoy my ready-packaged tuna fish sushi roll.

The hostel sent someone to pick me up in Chengdu, and we drove into town – allowing me to immediately appreciate how enormous the city really is. I had a vague idea of Chengdu as being Northern and largeish, but no comprehension of its true scale: it is in fact China’s 5th largest city and has a population of 14 million. For reference, the 2012 population of New York City was 8.337 million. (Some fudging may have been done on the municipal area vs. the city proper – this link puts Chengdu at a respectable 39 on the world scale of biggest populations, between Hyderabad and Lahore).

Street crawfish in Chengdu.

Street crawfish in Chengdu.

As we drove in, I saw the curious neon expanse of the New Century Global Center, which is supposedly the largest building in the world. Coming in, I tend to believe it. That’s big enough to house 20 Sydney Opera Houses. China, as is evident to anyone paying attention, is going hell-for-leather to rack up as many world records as humanly possible.

I stayed at the Chengdu FlipFlop Hostel, which was a deceptively large place near the Chunxi Metro area of the city – near the glitzy International Finance Square mall, which has an entire wall covered in lightbulbs compelling you to buy exceedingly expensive  Louis Vuitton products.

The hostel happened to be near a nice food area, and I walked down the street watching Sichuanese promenade on a Friday night. Slightly less accustomed to a sea of foreigners than those in Shanghai, young men said “Hello!” to me as they went by on their silent electric scooters. Hot pot place after hot pot place lined the streets, as well as small BBQ places selling fish and squid and small birds on sticks.

There were also small tuk-tuks selling noodles, and numerous restaurants filled with hard-drinking and very sociable Chengdu natives. I noticed a rough collie – the Lassie-type dog – standing by a BBQ stall, shaved down with a summer cut like all the other furry dogs with owners here. There were also crawfish, which I wish I could get the chance to try.

beef fried with pretzel chengdu (1 of 1)

Eager to use a picture menu, I opted for a restaurant. Eager to try Sichuanese food in its native home, I walked into a popular looking spot and walked in. Pointing wildly at the menu while a disenchanted looking Chinese woman stared at me, I ended up with a delicious dish of stir-fried beef with Sichuan chiles, peppers, ginger, and – curiously enough – chunks of breadstick and peanut. The combination was delicious and entirely unusual, with the oil-sodden breadsticks adding a tasty, carby influence to the stir-fry.

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I also enjoyed ordering green beans with stir-fried eggplants, which is a typical sort of Sichuanese thing. There’s a photo of the restaurant sign up above, and someone could do me a favor and translate for me if they’re feeling compassionate.

 

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