Saturday, July 29, 2006

More or Laos

This video features less white noise and more rooster calls, bus honks, SaBaDis, kids rolling tires, bathing, and some screams of introduction.

Spin this fools!

I have to say that I find the the politics and media in America absolutely surreal .

Republicans muscled the first minimum wage increase in a decade through the House of Representatives early Saturday after pairing it with a cut in inheritance taxes on multimillion-dollar estates.

Combining the two issues provoked protests from Democrats and was sure to cause problems in the Senate, where the minimum wage initiative was likely to die at the hands of Democrats opposed to the costly estate tax cuts.


Still, Republican leaders saw combining the wage and tax issues as their best chance for getting permanent cuts to the estate tax, a top Republican priority fueled by intense lobbying by farmers, small business owners and super-wealthy families such as the Waltons, heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune.

I really like that last sentence. It's golden.

Read the article here.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The life of a career English teacher

I feel like I might be becoming just such a beast.

No chance actually, but oh, how I teach and teach.

Got to JinJu (check it out on the google map
here) last Thursday night after 24 hours on the high seas. I was the only westerner on the boat, and I got upgraded from "first class" - which is the lowest class actually - to "suite class". Turned out that the only difference between "suite" and "first" class is that there are only two beds instead of four... but the status! I met a couple of Korean students who have been studying in Beijing for a couple of years now and spent most of the trip with them. Not the isolation at sea I was half expecting.

Now I find myself right back in the thick of teaching english again. Not the old "sleep in till 9:00 or 10:00 o'clock, spend two hours drinking tea and reading, go for a bicycle through the rice paddies, and roll into work at 330 in the afternoon to prepare for a 5:00 class" kind of teaching though. Not this time. This time it's a summer camp, and so tomorrow morning I'll be up at 6:45 to lead exercises for about 250 elementary students, and I should finish up the teaching day around 9:00 in the evening. It's a pretty good set up though. I've got twelve 11 and 12 year students with whom I can pretty much converse with. They are diligent and quiet and cute and I have them all day. The cirriculum is set up fairly well. I've most of this stuff before, so most of my prep is quick. There's not too much to tell really.

I've included some pictures from BeiJing, The Great Wall and the Forbidden City below. My camera is kind of broken right now, so I don't know if you can expect any original photos of this fine country any time soon. I'll try to get it fixed though.

I was forbidden to enter the city because it closed at 5:00 in the evening.

HuTong alley way in the dead centre of BeiJing.

The SiMaTai section of the Great Wall is very steep and mostly unrestored.

It was a pretty cloudy/foggy day.
This is my friend Patrick whom I mentioned in a previous post.

Monday, July 17, 2006


My first time dealing with this YouTube site. I wanted to post a good video from Laos, but it was too big.
This one is a little grainy, lacks commentary, and has annoying wind noise.

And yet, I post.

This is Tiger Leaping Gorge as seen in mid June.

As well, if you like watching videos of total fools, or if you've ever driven a motorcycle in Taiwan, then this video is a must see. See Taipei from the seat of a Kawasaki Ninja.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

I like...

Sitting back in the saddle day after day, I have to say that taking in the horizon ahead is more than enough to keep one content. Don't think too much, better just enjoy the moment as it is. But travelling around with no timeline or concerns about money, and with no real sense of direction beyond a vague imaginary line you've drawn on that big map in your head seems to lead one to some serious existential questions. After months of not considering "the big picture" - and the innumerable ways that it could play out - thoughts of the future will suddenly take precedence over everything else.

It might be all that you think about 24/7 for a day or two. Maybe a week. Brett will confirm this for me.

What to do, and what's the point of doing that anyway?

So far I've approached the problem with a fairly simple formula. I've regularly asked myself, "What do I like?" and then I try to model the next few weeks around the answer.

Wow this is really wandering here... I'll get to the point.

You know I like yaks, but here in BeiJing be none. I like biking. I like Asia. I like boats.

And so here it is. I'm in BeiJing now, but on Wednesday I will be taking an international ferry to Korea. From the port in Incheon I will bus to a small city in the south called JinJu to teach english for 4 weeks. Should be nice. You know, I'll have a schedule. I've heard those build character or something.

Getting the Korean work visa is a story in itself... After TWO HOURS in the at times spectacularly badly designed BeiJing subway system, I popped out near the Korean Embassy. Close enough anyway. Inside, I confidently handed all the paperwork that my employers sent me, only to have it all handed back to me not five minutes later.

"I'm sorry, we only process visas for those people holding X or F visas."

Hmm, and I have a... whatnow? oh right, I have an L visa.

Although I had all the paperwork necessary, the Korean embassy here in BeiJing has arbitrarily decided that they will only deal with foreigners who already have a working relationship with the Chinese authorities by way of business or study.

I complained, and then complained some more. This situation really leaves me somewhere up the proverbial creek, because a guy has to get a work visa before he enters a country. My only option would be a trip to Tokyo, where it's said you can pick up the visa in two working days.

Tokyo is no BeiJing. It costs money to live there. A bed in a Youth Hostel starts at 50 dollars a night I've heard. It's a "third most expensive city in the world" kind of place.

Anyone who has ever dealt with beaurocrats can almost imagine my situation. Only those who have dealt with the people working the front counters in foreign embassies can truly understand. The people manning the front counter have no power; they are merely the puppets of the those behind the scenes. Sure they speak fluent Korean, but we know that they aren't real Koreans.

With this in mind I demanded to speak to a real Korean. The visa counsellor. Eventually I was given a requisition form on which I wrote my complaint. I finished the letter by writing PLEASE.

Amazingly enough, I was told that I could see the man as soon as he finished up whatever he was busy with. Two hours later I was still staring at the wall. During this time though, I came up with a strategy to deal with him. I was working in Taiwan for a long time, so I have a relationship with them...

Taiwan is a part of China, isn't it?

Yup, I decided to play it dirty. I figured this was sure to stump him.

It did.

What I thought would be something like boxing a brick wall turned out to be a fairly relaxed "personal interview" in which my qualities (I have more than one you know) were carefully assessed. I explained my work history, and argued that it would be ridiculous for me to fly to Tokyo to deal with the same folks over there. He was a friendly guy who actually entertained my logic. We also spoke of the fact that Canada and Korea were allies, and I pointed out that while Korea grants 30 day visa free entry to most western nations, it offered Canadians 180 days.

Clearly Korea and Canada are the best of friends. Bosom buddies I bet.

So in the end everything seems like everything is going to work out just peachy.

BeiJing has been all right so far. I'm not a fan of big cities (and at 14 million BeiJing certainly qualifies), but this one's got history... somewhere. I think I saw some, but they were selling something in front of it, so it was hard to make out. Tomorrow though I'm heading to a quiet section of the Great Wall with Patrick so I'm excited about that.

Pat is a friend of mine I met in Taiwan. He's been a student at the BeiJing University of Language and Culture for the past semester. Before that he illegally drove a motorcycle over 10000 km through the farthest reaches of western China. Before that he was my roomate in TW for a short stint. Next month he plans to go to Mongolia and, I quote, "buy a horse." He's an aspiring journalist, and if he ever posts his writing and pics on a blog like I've been telling him to do, I'll post the link.

Next posting from Korea I guess.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Everything I've written below is true. Photographic evidence is included.

To properly tell this story I need to start a day earlier. I had just ridden over the fourth consecutive pass of the day when the thunder storm that had been chasing me for the past hour caught me. I was tired. It started pouring as I put on my soft shell, covered my rear panniers with my rain coat, and opened my umbrella to protect my front bags. I continued slowly downhill in this awkward fashion, noting that lightning was striking the ground nearby, and I was on the biggest chunk of metal for miles. Then I saw a little shack right off the road, with a little curl of smoke promising a warm and dry break. A 10 year old boy beckoned for me to come in, and I happily did so.

Inside it was clear that the ten year old was in charge, as there were only a seven year old and a three year old besides. I sat down and asked where MaMa and BaBa were, to which they just gestured out into the wet hills. The boy stoked the fire and put on some tea.

When the rain slowed up, we all went outside to check out my bike. They were particularly interested in my blue umbrella, which I quickly learned the Tibetan name for as they discussed it's merits. Nyigdugs.

Then came a whispering session in which my nyigdugs was often mentioned. Soon after the oldest boy told me that he had to go fetch water, and could he borrow my nyigdugs? Well, it was still raining a little, and I'm no man to let a little guy get more wet than needed, so I lent it to him. I went inside and sipped my warm tea. He sauntered in a few minutes later. He looks at me. I look at him. He casually stokes the fire. And the umbrella? Following this question came an elaborate pantomime, the meaning of which seemed to be that a gail force wind had ripped the umbrella out of his hands and blown the umbrella into oblivion. I pointed out that there wasn't a breath of wind, but this only lea
d to a repeat of the prior performance. I implored him to go get my umbrella. I begged. Eventually he started ignoring me.

I have often found myself in situations similar to this while teaching english. My angry face is apparently not very convincing. I appealed to sympathy, pointing out that I had no home and that if it rained, I would get very cold and wet. Nothing. A motorcycle with two grown men stopped soon after. Now I've won, I thought. I explained the situation to them. They spoke with the kid, and he gave them the same explanation. I told them that he was a liar, and please get me my umbrella back. They looked at me. I looked at them. They drove off without a word.

I searched in some of the obvious places for a minute or two, and then left the little bastards in their hut.

So it goes.

I rode on for another ten km, and knowing that the next town was over 70 km down the road, started looking for a place to camp. I passed by a small group of herders on the side of the road. In all there were about eight black yak hair tents. I noticed that these folks, like the past few groups, did not seem very friendly.

I rode on another 2 km and found the perfect campsite. It was perfect because it was a depression, well off the road, hidden from all view. I set up my tent in the last minutes of light and went to bed
soon after.

I woke up to a "woah" (it's like "hey" I think). "Woah" I replied. The zipper zipped. This is not unusual. Most people in China have no concept of privacy (this reminds me of my third night in China when I found that hotel managers literally hold all the keys, and will open your door without knocking to deliver hot water while you are watching T.V. in your underwear). Anyway, I was not alarmed, and I opened the inner door though I had not been awake half a minute. The man outside my tent looked at me and my tent and gestured that I should come with him and have some food.

This is also not unusual. Almost every herder I pass invites me into have a tea or some food. Thoughts of butter tea and tsampa filled my head. I was still dazed from sleep, but I agreed to go with him. I dressed and grabbed the bag that I keep all my most valuable possessions in (my money, camera, mp3 player etc... I just may be a "flashpacker").

Above is a picture I took of my new friend, whipping rocks at straggling yaks we managed to herd back to the camp.

We went in his tent and he quickly poured me some butter tea and prepared the tsampa. To make a good bowl of tsampa, follow these instructions.

1.) Fill a bowl about two-thirds with barley flour.
2.) Add a good sized chuck of yak butter.
3.) Cover the flour with butter tea.
4.) Add sugar to taste.
5.) Mix with your hands, forming golf ball sized chunks to pop into your mouth.

After the third bowl of butter tea, and a bowl of curd to follow the tsampa, a friend arrived. He could speak much better Chinese than my first friend, and so we got into an indepth discussion about the finer things in life. Herding and biking.

Friend #2 invited me back to his tent. Inside, I met a young boy. He reminded me of someone... My nyigdugs! It was the ringleader from yesterday.

"Who is he?" I asked friend #2.

"My son."

Oh shit.

"I've met you before," I said to the kid.

He grinned.

That's friend #2 on the left.

And his son in a cowboy hat. Who would suspect him?

Half an hour later I was heading back to my tent. I took some fine pictures of their camp through the fog. I struggled for a few minutes to find my campsite, but I soon found it. Everything looked cool on the home front until I went around behind my tent.

My bicycle was gone.

The loudest expletives that this part of the Tibetan Plateau has ever witnessed followed over the next few minutes. I found that my panniers were also gone. More expletives followed as I remembered that my portable harddrive, which holds every picture I have taken over the past four months, was in one of my panniers.

I should say that I locked my bicycle to my tent through a nylon loop.

The lock was smashed.

At least, I thought, he hadn't ripped my tent.

Eventually I lay down on the wet grass and yak shit to think about what I should do. At this point I own a tent, a sleeping mat, a sleeping bag, my leatherman, and a piece of bread. They also left me my three books, which was nice. Of course I still had my money which, along with the fact that I know hitch hiking is dead easy here, were my only consolations.

What to do?

I remembered that while I chatted with friend #2, friend #1 slipped out. I assumed he went to tend to the yaks. About 20 minutes later I went outside to take more pictures of yaks, and I saw friend #1 return on a motorcycle. I had my culprit. No one could have just stumbled across my campsite.

I summed up my assets: I had pictures of my two friends. I had three really heavy books. I had an awful lot of money. I had my leatherman?

Unsure that the police would be of any help - and beside they were at least five hours away - I decided to employ a diplomatic measure common in this day and age.

I'm speaking about bribery of course.

Don't get me wrong. I was scared. I decided that I should stay on the road away from the camp, and that I should not get really angry or make accusations. These guys carry twelve inch blades on their hips you realize.

This plan quickly fell through once I got close to the camp. I found friend #2 talking to a new man on the side of the road and immediately launched into some of the most fluent and emotionally charged Chinese I've ever used. It went something like:

"We've got a big problem. All my things are gone! My bicycle is stolen! I know you know who did it! I know who did it! Where's your friend? Tell him that if he returns my things, I will give him 500 yuan. My things are very important! You have one hour. I will wait on the road. If you don't return my things, I will call the police. Many many police will come. Many many! One hour!"

I didn't give him a chance to respond. They looked quite stunned. I turned around and dragged my things to a spot with a good view of the camp a couple hundred meters away. I sat down and opened Thoreau... I believe he was writing about the virtues of the savage.

I was quite confident at first. I set my alarm for one hour. This confidence faded after half an hour.

I should say that 500 yuan is a ridiculous sum of money in Chinese terms. I would guess that it is nearly a months salary for a peasant. It is about 60 American dollars.

Two motorcycles came roaring out of the camp. I thought they were doing a runner, but they turned in my direction. They pulled up and gestured for me to jump on.

Not on your life.

They insisted. Friend #2 said they would get my stuff, and that I should jump on. I told them that I was scared of them. I would walk. They took off up the road and I slowly followed. I walked about 2 km up the road, and finally saw one bike cruising across the plain towards the road. Friend #2 pulled up with all of my bags strapped on the back of his motorbike. My bicycle remained missing. He took off again and I continued up the road, looking a little strange I'm sure, barely managing to carry all of my bags. I really felt like I was in a bad movie.

I crested a hill and sat down to wait. A car load of Chinese tourists stopped to take some pictures of the view, and a passing monk strolled by and stopped to stare at me. The movie got worse. Everyone watched quietly. What the hell was this hapless foreigner up to?

I saw Friend #1 riding my bicycle across the plain towards us. "Oh shit," I thought, "these tourists are going to blow the trade". Friend #1 saw the crowd and veered off. There being a lot of witnesses, I got up and started after him. "Is it fun!?" I yelled. Seeing the situation, he thought better and turned back towards us.

Soon after I had my bicycle.

Everyone continued to stare. With the 500 yuan I had prepared still in my pocket, I started putting my panniers on my bicycle. My sweet sweet bicycle.

More staring. I finished. I looked around. The friends rode off, and a minute later so did the car load of tourists. Only the monk remained. We smiled at each other.

I decided that if I took off, they might get angry and follow me. I rode back towards the camp. They were waiting on the side of the road. I was being very cool about the whole thing since the yelling. We were almost like friends again. We all stood quietly.

"Do you still need money?"

"Only a little" replied friend #2.

I think they were relieved that I hadn't ratted on them. I gave them 50 yuan and went on my way.

I couldn't stop smiling for the rest of the day.

So it went.

If you're interested in reading a somewhat similar, though surely better and more tragic story, check out this telling by the famed Brit 2wheels, a.k.a. Edward Genochio. "Mongolian horsemen stole my bicycle"


I found myself climbing over a 5000 meter pass the other day, and going down the otherside wasn't what I expected. It was rolling rolling rolling all day long, and has been for the last four days riding. I guess I've made it onto the Tibetan Platue, though I can't be certain. It's all pasture land and peaks as far as the eye can see.

The piece of geography above lasted for half a day. I spent alot of time lying off the side of the road watching that sky.

Looked a bit like this from that perspective.

I did come down to around 4000 meters once and found myself in some southern Albertan coulees, excect these ones were green. Almost made me want to go home. As they say, the grass is always greener on the... oh.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

just don't get political...

Sometimes I think that there is little difference between the state controlled media in China and the corporate controlled media in America. CNN is often the mouthpiece of the government as CCTV is here.

This points out the difference though - Steven Colbert speaks at the Whitehouse Correspondents Dinner.

This could never happen in China.

I guess that the fact that this can happen is the only hope.