China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Mao = Gary Busey?

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In the interim we had the Mao years, which, politically speaking, were kind of like being strapped in the passenger seat of a stolen Lexus at 3:00 a.m. with your good friend Gary Busey at the wheel huffing paint and sucking down his third bottle of Goldschläger.

This is an exhortation to please read Jottings from the Granite Studio, the blog of Jeremiah Jenne, who is the academic dean and teaches Chinese history at IES Beijing, the study-abroad program I attended last fall.

Today was a gloriously sunny day in Santa Cruz, California. We took the dogs down to the beach to get a run in and then stopped for ice cream down at Marianne’s. That is also an exhortation to try out the combination of Horchata and Mexican Chocolate ice cream. The two together must be divine inspiration.


Written by Will

May 29th, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Chengdu is Construction Crazy

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China has some of the strangest development patterns in the world. The inner city is always the most desirable place to live. The migrant poor live in exurbs. Suburban tract homes are reserved as second or third homes for millionaires.

Driving through Chengdu a while ago on the way to the airport, I saw it all. There were miles of cranes. New apartment buildings not two years old that already looked shabby. The ubiquitous white tile. Ads for European style villas. Walls topped with shards of glass and cameras protected barren concrete apartments. (why?) The apparently new campus of the Southwest University for Nationalities stood alone. (the university was quite a sight – every building identical, all in red brick) On one corner of the campus, a field of yellow bok choy grew behind a small hut. Had this been the lone example in China were the local government had been unable to appropriate the land? Had eminent domain failed? The city has paved vast new roads, empty on either side, the sidewalks lined with perfectly groomed trees painted white around the base to show that they have already been trimmed. Even in this no-man’s land, special sidewalk tiles for the blind have been laid.

The development seemed to get more intense the closer we got to the airport. The temporary walls surrounding construction projects were lined with a continuously repeating poster of the airport of the future: gleaming new terminals, the roofs undulating naturalistically as the ocean waves so very far away from this inland city. The only terminal thus completed was packed with businessmen and the rising upper middle class. A few foreigners stood idly gawking at the bustle. As our plane took off, smoky haze slowly obscured my view.

I’ve seen many similar developments in Beijing – the subway lines that extend to yet-to-be-developed areas, the construction, the strange frontier where urban and rural collide. But Beijing seems almost mature and developed compared to what I saw in Chengdu. Beijing is only one side of the story; there is always somewhere else in China that is undergoing a more fantastic rebirth of construction. Nature no longer exists; it’s as if China is one big construction lot.

Written by Will

April 21st, 2011 at 8:30 am

Xinjiang and Uyghur Politics

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Travelling through Sichuan made me realize I still had old copy lying around from previous travels that I had never published. The next couple of posts will be those. Here’s the first. Reflections on Chengdu and Emei Shan will follow.

In Xinjiang, cultural politics mixes with oil politics. Every time the Chinese government squashes Uyghur expressions of independence or solidarity, the West reacts with outrage. ‘The people of Xinjiang (and by extension, Tibet) must have rights of self-determination,’ they shout. The West fails to recognize China’s priorities. China’s desire to foist a nationalist identity on Uyghurs and create a unified China is a secondary concern; it only exists so that they can extract as much oil as they can from Xinjiang.

Karamay is Xinjiang’s oil capital. 15 years ago, it was a patch of the Gobi Desert. Now it is a city of 290,000. It has cost billions of yuan to build – a river was even diverted from the mountains to make it livable. Just recently, a billion yuan was spent to build a major park downtown, featuring a spectacular water and laser light show at night.

Surrounding Karamay for a hundred kilometers are oil fields. You can drive along the highway next to the Taklamakan Desert and never stop seeing them; oil derricks stretch beyond the horizon. It was the first oil field discovered and tapped in post-revolutionary China, and the fourth largest, after those in the Northeast and in the East China Sea. 6.3 million tons of oil flows out of Karamay every year. In the US, you would expect an endeavor like this to be built by private enterprise. But this of course is China, and the Karamay oilfield is owned by the state-run China Petroleum.

Karamay isn’t just one of China’s biggest oilfields – it’s also a major conduit for oil and natural gas to and from Kazakhstan and the rest of the Central Asian “stans”. In this regard, the pipeline is the most important resource in Xinjiang. Even if all the oil dried up today, the city would still exist because of this connection. China could actually be drilling more oil in Karamay, but it’s harder and deeper to get to. They don’t need to spend the capital to invest in more expensive technologies, however, because the oil in Kazakhstan is simply cheaper.

Xinjiang is known for its “one white, two blacks”: cotton, coal, and oil. Of lesser geopolitical importance is its “one red”: tomatoes exported to Italy. Although the vast wind fields, solar power plants and hydropower dams are impressive, they are not as significant, because they are only used to supply energy to Xinjiang itself. Oil and coal, however, power the rest of China.

Too many China scholars view China’s insistence on the territorial integrity of Xinjiang as culturally or historically based, as if the Chinese would “lose face” if the barbarians in the West seceded and overturned their tributary relationship. This is mistaken. Opposition to Uyghur independence is not primarily a matter of nationalism, the unification of all minzu (nationalities or ethnicities) under common citizenship, and certainly not about pride. It’s all about oil.

Written by Will

March 25th, 2011 at 10:58 pm

Happy Spring Festival!

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Celebrating the Spring Festival and Chinese New Year in Beijing has blown me away. The fireworks. The spectacle. The food. It’s nearly overwhelming. For the past five days, Beijing has been constantly rumbling with the sound of fireworks. New Year’s Eve, the city felt like a warzone. Every storefront was closed, so it was dark. China is just dirty and poor enough in some areas that you could almost imagine it to be a war-torn country. One of my friends remarked, “I’ve become so desensitized to the noise. If someone WERE to attack China, New Year’s would be the best time to do it. No one would pay any attention.”

It’s been a lot of fun, but I think I’m ready to get back into my normal routine and schedule now.

Written by Will

February 5th, 2011 at 7:06 pm

“I’m Seeing My Grandsons for the First Time”

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It was a rather interesting flight from Beijing to SF yesterday. First, we were stuck on the tarmac for three hours because Beijing was too windy. Yes, too windy. I was seated in between a woman from Shanghai, and another from rural Hubei province. The conversation was quite interesting, given the regional pronunciation differences. Mandarin speakers from Shanghai change every zh and sh sound (the sound in jump and ship respectively) into simple z and s consonant sounds. This can be confusing, since Mandarin makes ample use of all four sounds, and the tonal nature of the language and relatively small number of consonant-vowel combinations (far fewer than in English) mean that more words are saddled onto half as many sounds.

The woman on my right had a very strong rural accent, even more difficult to piece together than the Shanghai accent. She didn’t know how to write pinyin or English to fill out her customs and entry form, so I helped to fill it out for her. She was seeing her two grandsons (4, and 8 years old) for the first time. Her son had left in 1994. She told me he played badminton. I assume professionally, but I’m not sure what money can be made from that in the US (in China, badminton sponsorships are commonplace). One of the questions on the entry form asked for an estimate of the value of all things on her person. I asked, “100 kuai, 200 kuai?” 200 kuai. All she had with her was $30 worth of clothing and a piece of paper with her son’s address and phone number. We were separated into two different lines during the customs process – I hope customs was able to get in touch with her son.

Traveling halfway around the world is a strange experience – your night becomes day and day becomes night. Added to that was my lack of sleep for the past two days; I couldn’t tell which way was up. Strange then, that I went to bed in San Francisco only to naturally wake up at 7 AM. I heard a rather strange sound for Saturday at 7: chants and songs. Outside was a line of marchers stretching down for half a mile. I decided it was a good day for a morning run; I was also curious about the marchers. It turned out to be for the Coronation of the Virgin Mary – they were walking from here to the Mission, on a 9-hour march.

Running on the path next to Colma Creek, I realized why running suddenly seemed so much easier: my lungs were no longer wheezing from the pollution. I took a loop around town, running from El Camino to Orange Park, walking to Ponderosa, and then running the rest of the way to Orange Library, through Alta Loma back to El Camino. The run got me thinking about some of the differences between here and what I would have seen on the same run in Beijing. Here is what surprised me, in no particular order:

  • Dogs higher than a foot.
  • Asian-looking people who don’t respond to me in Mandarin.
  • Parks that are empty at 7:30. Also, no old people practicing Taiqi, playing classical instruments, crooning into a microphone, or line-dancing to pop songs.
  • Public art installations at Orange Park. A couple new ones including two giant insect wings painted blue and a strange sheet of steel.
  • Birds on electric wires.
  • Canadian geese resting on a grassy field.
  • Empty streets.
  • Quiet.
  • Suburbia that is not reserved for the wealthy and wasn’t built within the last year.
  • People with tans.

Written by Will

December 11th, 2010 at 12:33 pm

The Sound of… Bicycling through Austrian Vineyards

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But as we wandered past rooster pens and over loamy soil at the Konrad Family farm, I began to believe him. Sure enough, by 11 that morning, as the thermometer was breeching 90 degrees, we were tucked into the Konrad Family’s cool, intimate grotto, drinking a savory gelber muskateller 2009 served by Gabriella, a quiet Austrian whose English was limited to ‘yes,” “no” and “more?”.

Uh… more?


Written by Will

October 16th, 2010 at 11:08 pm

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In Gansu Province

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Greetings from Xiahe!
Apologies for not commenting on this two week trip I’ve been on until now – I’ve had very little internet access.
We arrived in Lanzhou, Gansu Province yesterday morning after an overnight train from Dunhuang, site of the Mogao Grottoes (more on that in a later post). One Kundeji (KFC) meal later, we boarded the bus to Xiahe, a Tibetan town famous for its monastery. The four hour drive involved a Higer bus (not generally known for their suspensions) hurtling down country switchbacks sitting a thousand feet high on top of terraced mountains. Beautiful scenery, but not conducive to a well functioning duzi, or stomach (fun fact – the Chinese version of diarrhea is laduzi, or spicy intestines. yum!).
Xiahe, and the Labrang Monastery are beautiful. The Monastery itself dates back several centuries, and the current Dalai Lama studied there before fleeing the country. Just as we were leaving, some of the monks began chanting and praying in a courtyard away. I didn’t take any photos out of respect, but the sound was calming.
This morning we hiked around the grasslands up above Xiahe. The air was thin and hiking was difficult, but the view of a wide grassy plain and in the distance an almost vertical cliff rising several thousand feet was stunning.
Pictures will definitely go up after the trip is over.
~ Will
UPDATE: Pictures posted

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Written by Will

September 26th, 2010 at 1:21 am

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Greetings from Beijing Capital International Airport, the shiniest gleaming mass of marble I've ever seen. Pictures from the local neighborhood (Haidian) and Beiwai (Beijing Foreign Studies University) soon to follow.


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Written by Will

August 20th, 2010 at 8:43 am

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