Monthly Archives: July 2014

First world travel problems #637

I can’t figure out a way to ask for directions to the mosque without pretending to pray in a probably culturally inappropriate way.


Starting at the end of the Silk Road

We’re finally on the particular kind of detour for which we named this blog: the silk road. We’re starting in Xi’An, which is often described as the Eastern terminus of the silk road. It’s been an off and on capital of China since 200 BCE, an important cultural centre, and it was in the heart of the silk producing basin.

You can still feel the silk road’s reach in Xi’An, especially in the Muslim quarter. The abundance of dried fruits – apricots, raisins, dates  – turns the street markets into bazaars. There’s a smell of cumin on the air. Restaurants serve up lamb shish kebab, but no beer. Women and men are both more likely to cover their heads. Above it all the call to prayer marks time.

The dried apricots from the bazaar were excellent.

We visited Xi’an’s main mosque. It was hard to find, and didn’t look like a mosque when we got there. It looked Chinese, all pagodas and calligraphy. Islam in China is a little different than some other parts of the world (for example there are female imams) but timing is what explains how non-Muslim the architecture is. I heard a tour guide explaining that the Mosque was built when Islam had only just arrived over the silk road. Chinese converts had no conception that something could look anything other than Chinese so they did their best to represent Muslim ideas in Chinese style. Minarets were built like pagodas.

A Chinese Muslim family enjoys the shade at the Mosque.
A Chinese Muslim family enjoys the shade at the Mosque.

It’s an exciting time for us because the next months – western China, ‘stans, the Karakoram into Pakistan, with Iran to follow – are among our most anticipatedroutes. It’s a path that is at once lonely and worldly. We’ve a fair number of deserts and mountain passes to cross, just as traders moved goods and ideas between cultures in globalisation 1.0. I’ve been reading about the silk road in preparation and I’m especially excited that, per James Millward, the silk road represents the idea that: “Humanity has thrived most when connected across its far-flung habitats by exchanges of goods, ideas, arts, and people themselves”.

Some great books about China

We like to read about the places we’re traveling, especially here in China where language prevents us from asking many of the questions we’d like answered. Good books on modern China that assume the right level of prior knowledge are hard to find. But we’ve come across some great ones so we wanted to make some recommendations.

The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
Evan Osnos

Osnos worked as a journalist in China for eight years, most recently for the New Yorker. The change from old to new China, he says, has been to take the focus off of the community and move it to the individual. So, his book is told through the stories of individuals: the woman who started China’s most successful dating agency, the Taiwanese defector who became a world leading economist, the racing driver/dissident blogger. This is one of those great books that uses the colour of individual stories to talk of the sweeping changes of societies.

As the title suggests the key themes are about individuals chasing what might be called ‘the American dream’ and how that shakes out in China – clashes with censorship, bureaucracy and corruption.

If you read just one book about China, this should be it.

China in ten words
Yu Hua and Allan H. Barr

Yu Hua is a celebrated Chinese author. This book is made of ten essays, each about a word, or more correctly, a character that has meaning for the author as a marker of China. The characters range from ‘people’ and ‘leader’ to ‘bamboozle’. The essays track China’s modern history, since the cultural revolution which Yu was born into. They’re a useful framing of modern China and a good introduction.

The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
Louisa Lim

Lim tells the remarkable story of Tiananmen in modern Chinese memory, or the absence of it. Like Osnos’ work it uses the stories of individuals to make the narrative personal: the soldier that fought against the protestors, the mainland Chinese found wandering dumbstruck in a Hong Kong museum that showed what happened, the Tiananmen mothers that are still fighting for truth about their sons who were killed (in a stunning parallel to their Argentinian counterparts). This book helps make some sense of why we know about the deaths at Tiananmen in the West, but they don’t know in the country where people died. It also exposes, for the first time, the ‘sister’ Tiananmen style massacre in Chengdu.

Mao the Unkown Story
Jung Chan and John Holliday

Fiona has been reading this fulsome biography of Mao. This is whatever you call the opposite of hagiography. It’s a no holds barred character assassination from authors who would probably have actually assassinated Mao if they could. Mao would have made Machiavelli proud. He was conniving, narcissistic, and even more devoid of ideology than Frank Underwood. It’s good reading how he did it though, and this is the prose of the award winning novelist of Wild Swans.


Venezuelans spectacularly bungle Chinese national anthem

There’s something hilariously appropriate about this: the country that we found can’t get its citizens enough washing powder, couldn’t martial its military to give a decent rendition of the Chinese national anthem when the Chinese President was in town. China’s social media commentariat was not happy: “China should express vehement condemnation to Venezuelan government” one said. “I admire our leader and officials for being able to maintain their composures,” said another. That’s fair, I loled.

President Xi Jinping has been making a whistle stop tour of the Americas. He went to he BRICs summit in Brazil, where he agreed to contribute to a new international development bank, intended as a counterbalance of the neo-liberal development values of the World Bank. Then he headed on to see some of the US’s loudest critics in the region, meeting with the Venezuelans, and popping over for a cup of tea with Fidel Castro.

In Venezuela Xi signed billions of dollars of loans which Venezuela is to pay back through oil. It’s a chance for Venezuela to keep its failing economic model in motion for a little longer, and for China to extend its sphere of influence in Latin America (which is, incidentally, a new concern of Venezuela’s fierce protestors).

The terracotta warriors


Two thousand years ago Emperor Qin had his subjects fill his mausoleum with an army made of clay. He believed he’d continue as an emperor in the afterlife, so he best be prepared. The mausoleum was uncovered in 1974 and is now one of China’s most celebrated tourist attractions: the terracotta army and horses.

Like lots of the big tourist draw cards in China, it felt a little bit theme park. Entry and exit was through a maze of gift shops. Every corner brought a new opportunity to pay for a photo: dressed like a warrior, photoshopped on to a warrior, on a chariot… And, for reasons passing understanding, there was an adjacent attraction that had something to do with making fake snow.

The warriors are displayed in the pits from which they were dug. The buildings above them are big enough to double as aircraft carriers. The warriors are still below ground level so you view them down from a platform and across a concrete moat of the kind you’d use to contain a velociraptor.

The craftsmanship is stunning, especially when you consider it is from two millennia ago. There are thousands of life size soldiers, horses and officers. Each is different, from the expression on their face to the tread on their shoes. They’re ready for battle. The chariots and weapons that were made of wood have rotted away, but their horses remain.

An earnest student volunteer approached Fiona as we peered over the edge. “What do you think of the emperor who built these?” he asked in an attempt to strike up a conversation. “They’re a bit strange and an awful waste of resources,” she said. I turned away to giggle when I saw how taken aback the volunteer was. “But did you know he was the first emperor to unionise China?” he replied. Yes, we did. I circled back to hear the volunteer’s answer to the question we really wanted answered: how did the warriors go undiscovered for so long?

The emperor who had the mausoleum built wanted it left untouched. He summoned all the finest craftsmen in his empire to build the warriors and then, when he died, buried them alive to bury the secret. Effective. The next dynasty stumbled upon one of the warriors when digging an adjacent tomb. The warrior was taller than the average Chinese – 1.8m – and they were convinced it was a monster. So they smashed it up into tiny fragments. Reasonable and effective.

The site then went undisturbed until 1974 when farmers digging hit terracotta. Excavated at the height of the cultural revolution it’s remarkable that the farmers didn’t smash the warriors too as a different kind of monster representative of the ‘four olds’.


Maoville: visiting China’s last Maoist commune

The taxi delivered us into the middle of The East Is Red Square. Portraits of the original gang of four: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, marked the corners and a great big statue of Mao dominated the centre. The Mandarin we heard broadcast was, on one level, indistinguishable from announcements on the subway. But on another, propaganda sounds like propaganda in any language.

We’d come to visit Nanjiecun, China’s last surviving Maoist collective, which we called Maoville. It’s still red as can be, though the rest of China is ideologically grey at best, and more honestly whatever colour unbridled capitalism is.

Workers who live in the village get most of their dues in kind: housing, food rations, even clothing are all directly provided by the state. Socialist signs and sayings are everywhere. One, I understand, translates like this: “A drop of water only needs to be part of a great ocean to never dry up; a person can only have his greatest strength when part of a collective body.”

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The streets were wide and the showcase buildings had a kind of austere socialist beauty. But Maoville was lacking the kind of proletarian hubbub you might expect from a working commune. The signs pointed to noodle factories, but there were none that we could find. The most industry we saw was from street cleaners and the warehouse we peered into was filled with sacks. The emptiness of the scene verged on post-apocalyptic. Living in the town seems no more popular in China than the ideology it represents is in the West.

Images of Mao were everywhere, but there were signs that even this last of the communes developed in his name was tiring. Since our guidebook was printed the attendants in the supermarket have stopped wearing revolutionary guard uniforms. They sold us Chips Ahoy cookies and Sprite. Since the signage in the town was written the armed guards for the central Mao statue have forsaken their posts. A road lined with factories seemed to now only be used by kids learning Tae Kwan Doe.

We couldn’t find somewhere to eat in Maoville, so we had to make a trip to ‘real China’ for lunch. It was an easy stroll across a plaza incongruously named for one of the democratic leaders in China’s pre-Mao republic. Outside its gate we were first struck by the larger number of people around, including plenty who would sell us noodles. Later we realised it had commercial advertising where Maoville had political propaganda.

We walked back past a primary school with a pretty neat playground, and a college with a real deal running track. It was about 4pm and I wondered whether the work day had ended because groups of friends lingered on apartment stoops or crowded around small tables playing cards. I won’t call it idyllic, but there are certainly tougher places in China to live.

It was one of the most immensely frustrating times not to be able to communicate in Chinese. There were so many questions I wanted to ask: I get that you guys can idolise Marx a bit, but Stalin? Really, do you know what he did? Have you been to the big city and did you get to try KFC? Do you resent new China’s new wealth, would you like some of it for yourself? We left without answers to these questions, just a slightly faltering display of the Maoist ideal. That was certainly worth our trip, though.

Catching a bus back to the more established tourist trail, we wondered how Maoville can survive as an ideological island under its own steam. Turns out it can’t. The community has been supported by hundreds of millions of dollars of loans from Chinese banks, approved by senior members of the Communist Party, which it has seemingly no ability to pay back.

The distressing and depressing state of mental health in China

A Chinese woman about our age picked her way through the billowing crowd exiting our train from Beijing to Zhengzhou. Training as a psychologist she’d learned a reasonable dose of English, and she wanted to practice. She also wanted to know what foreigners were doing in Zhengzhou, a city not noted for its ‘scenic spot’.

When we told her we were en route to China’s last Maoist commune she was ready to diagnose us as crazy. “Why would you want to go there?” she asked, “I think you should not only read your guidebook you should talk to Chinese people.” We, and our guidebook, have an interest in modern history that is not widely shared here. She nodded with comfort when we told her our stop after that was Xi’An. “Ah yes, very pretty, very good for tourists” she said.

With the generosity that’s been characteristic of English speakers in China to date, she spent her time between trains helping us find a hotel certified to take foreigners. As our goose chase drew on we talked about her work.

She’d retrained in Germany and had been working as a psychologist for four years, though she was still completing her formal qualifications. I asked her whether it was common for Chinese to visit psychologists. “It is maybe more common now in the big cities like Shanghai,” she said, “but it is very rare in the small towns. People do not go to say ‘I have worries, I have trouble sleeping’, it is only for very serious things. I work in hospital and people I see are very wrong.”

The limits of her English on this point probably lead to understatement. China’s mental health system only treats the very, very worst and only when families can afford the treatment. There are several documented cases of schizophrenics having violent outbursts with cleavers, killing and maiming, being briefly treated and then released to the care of their families. They often harm again. Others develop hallucinations that go untreated, until they kill.

Mental health care is expensive. It generally isn’t covered by insurance and it’s rarely publicly funded. The user pays system for healthcare generally means many in the Chinese middle class save a large amount of their income in case they need treatment. There’s a concern that all this stashing under mattresses limits China’s domestic consumption which will keep its economy export dependent. But there’s also a bigger issue: poorer folk who can’t easily afford to save can’t afford proper medical treatment. When home remedies don’t help mental health issues they have to take more drastic measures. Families at the end of their tether tether mental health sufferers. They’re tied to trees for twenty years, chained to walls for thirteen, or locked in barns for twenty three.

Before she left us to take her train, I asked our Chinese psychologist friend what her parents think of her career choice. “They say it is okay,” she said “but they say people think maybe means I am crazy too.” Psychiatry is also an unpopular medical specialisation because its practitioners don’t receive the kinds of under the table payments that  surgeons and other medical specialists do. “Chinese psychiatrists are like pandas” one doctor told the New York Times “there are only a few thousand of us.”

Thirty five years ago, during the cultural revolution that modern China is as eager to ignore as the Maoist commune we visited, mental illness was considered a bourgeois self-delusion. It was treated with quotations from Mao. I suppose then, even panda psychiatrists is progress. But in the context of China’s economic miracle of the last thirty years it is an indictment on the government that it hasn’t managed to resource mental health care better.

Three important questions


First question is trivia: What is the food next to Fiona on the cart? Not the grapes nor the human flesh, the other thing. Hint, this is not some crazy Chinese thing, we eat them in New Zealand too.

Second question seeks definition: Are pajamas:

  • the clothes you wear to bed,
  • a specific style of clothing worn to bed, or
  • a specific style of clothing that happens to be commonly worn to bed in the West?

We ask because something which you might call pajamas are a dominant style of clothing here. Like these guys, stirring the pot.


Third question is a hypothetical for you, and an actual choice for us: would you rather travel by ‘sleeping bus’ – whatever that is – for twenty four hours, or in a sleeping berth in a train for thirty four hours?

Beijing tourist activity omnibus

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We had to wait for eight days to get our Kazakh visa but Beijing well and truly held our attention throughout this time. Beyond the highlights we’ve already reported (Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen, hutongs…) here’s a whistle-stop tour of our touring:

  • The Forbidden City: historically entering would cost you your life. Now it’s just $12NZD. Just off Tiananmen this massive palace complex was once the seat of imperial power. It was impressive even when teeming with other tourists.
  • The summer palace is what it says. Although it’s less palace and more palatial lake and gardens. We enjoyed escaping the heat of the city, though it was lacking what we’d have in a summer palace: water slides (Joe) calipo frost lemon of the ~1998 variety (Fiona).
  • Beijing subway: Sardines have it easy. We’ve never been as squished as we were on rush hour services. That said, the metro did make all of Beijing easily accessible and the price, 40 cents a go, cannot be beaten.
  • Panjiayuan antiques market: We arrived after most of the action was over. The vendors that remained were mostly selling what seemed to be a special kind of walnut. You wear them on a bracelet, rather than putting them in a carrot cake. It seems the bracelet is used a little like rosary beads, but why the individual walnuts demanded such close attention from their buyers we may never know. There was also a creepy guy carrying a small herd of taxidermied animals on his rickshaw.
  • Lamb hot pot: a culinary experience not to be missed. You order a bunch of thinly sliced lamb, some mushrooms and other vegetables and you cook, piece by piece, in a bubbling cauldron in the middle of your table. The cooking novelty is probably the highlight, rather than the flavour, though it’s possible we might have gotten more out of this is chaperoned by a local.
  • The Lama Temple: The most important Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet, it featured a massive carved Buddha that was made from a single piece of wood. To our mind more impressive than the reclining Buddha in Bangkok. Enthusiastic temple attendants handed out free bunches of incense that burned throughout the many shrines of the many temples and altars in the complex.
  • Cultural Revolution museum and Great Leap Forward monument: We were really looking forward to these. Sadly, they don’t exist. Recounting of Chinese history stops conspicuously about 1940.

Our favourite Chinese proverb is about dumplings


Nothing can be more delicious than Jiaozi. And nothing can be more comfortable than lying down to sleep.

This is without doubt our favourite Chinese proverb. We are big fans of both dumplings and lying down to sleep.

Jiaozi are the half moon shaped dumpling variety that is a key part of northern Chinese cuisine. They can be boiled or fried.

Today we visited an excellent Jiaozi restaurant and at our fill. Two dozen dumplings. Bao Yuan Jiaozi came highly recommended by a friend in New Zealand and an online reviewer put it like this: ask a Beijinger whether they like Bao Yuan Jiaozi, if they say no, disregard everything else they tell you about Beijing food.

We ate four kinds of dumplings:

  • Pork and coriander. A delicious classic.
  • Minced beef, tomato, onion and mushroom. Evocative of Italian cuisine and a timely reminder of how close Jiaozi really are to ravioli.
  • Peanut, preserved pork and picked chilli. The peanut was the predominant flavour, but the pork had a pleasing almost bacony taste.
  • Lotus root, zucchini and minced pork. The vegetables remained crunchy, which was excellent.

To distinguish between the different morsels that arrived piled high on a single plate, the restaurant used naturally coloured dumpling wrappers. Of these the purple coloured red cabbage flavour was the most striking.

Our dumplingathon was our last adventure with authentic northern Chinese cuisine. We’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Flour is the dominant carb. So there are egg and wheat noodles, unleavened breads in abundance, pork buns and doughnuts, and excellent dumplings. Lamb and duck are prominent meats. Both come in exceptionally good roasted varieties. Northern Chinese is probably my favourite cuisine so far, and Fiona rates it second behind Sichuan. But, we’ve yet to get our teeth into Western cuisine. That’ll be our new culinary focus in Xi’An and beyond.