Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Strangers on a train...pt. 3

(Part 1 and Part 2).

Regular readers of this blog know that trains are my preferred mode of travel in China. I like trains because I can see something of the country, because I can get up and move around, read comfortably, use a toilet when I need to.

But mostly, because of the stories I get out of every ride.

Submitted as an example: the trip from Kaili to Kunming.

Richard and I had been stymied in our attempts to take the train from Nanjing to Guiyang and from Guiyang to Kaili. We were determined to at least take the train to Kunming. For that, we were told, we would have to go back to Guiyang -- though Kaili is on the rail line from Guiyang to Kunming and actually closer to Kunming than Guiyang, sleepers were always sold out by the time the train reached Kaili.

Except this once.

The lovely folks at the Kaili China Tourism Office, who had been among those telling us that getting sleepers from Kaili was impossible, had somehow managed to secure two berths for us, so we wouldn't have to double back to Guiyang. Nothing against Guiyang, but, you know, not the most interesting place I've ever visited.

We got to the Kaili train station, and understood why everyone had told us, it was "a little chaotic." The Kaili station is a pretty typical, old-fashioned small town station. You wait for the trains on the upper floor, which was standing room only:

EXCEPT right up at the front of the line, which was a posted "No Smoking" area, and therefore undesirable.

The train arrived. We made our way to our assigned car and presented our tickets to the conductor, a young, pretty woman (most of the conductors are young, pretty women. I am reasonably sure that this is a factor in their hiring).

Her brow furrowed. "Xiao wenti," she muttered. "Buhao yisi..."

There's a little problem. She's so embarrassed.

We have a pretty good idea where this is going...

No sleeper car. There would be berths in a few hours, so we'd have a place to sleep. "Not a problem," I said. "Just give us some place to leave our luggage, we'll go to the dining car and drink beer for a few hours."

This apparently would not do. The conductor asked if we would mine splitting up and staying in separate compartments—we could change to the same one later on the trip.

Fine by me.

I was ahead of Richard in the corridor that runs along the sleeping car, so I said I'd take the further compartment.

Walking in, my first thought was, "Boy, did I make a mistake."

My compartment mates: 3 middle-aged Chinese men.

Now, I have nothing against middle-aged Chinese men (I am pretty much in the "middle-aged" demographic myself) except for one thing, in this context: they snore. I don't know whether it's because so many of them smoke, but count on it—three middle-aged guys in a compartment, odds are overwhelming that at least one of them, and more likely two, will snore. Loudly (I have a convenient Snoring Magnitude Rating system, in which two Category 3 snorers are equivalent to one Category 5 snorer, and so on).

Well, I don't take trains in China for the good night's sleep. I smiled, shoved my bag under the lower bunk, put on my train slippers and tried to look inconspicuous.

That wasn't gonna happen.

This was a very chatty group, especially the fellow sitting across from me, a government official from Hunan. I immediately got hit with the questions: how long had I been in China, where did I learn to speak Chinese, what places had I visited, what did I think about China, etc. etc. etc. Another man joined us, a young guy with shoulder-length hair and a John Lennon T-shirt, from Wenzhou. With his accent, I had a hard time understanding him, which was too bad because he was very interested in talking to me.

The government official had traveled to the United States—either during the time of swine flu or in some capacity related to swine flu (#ChineseFail on my part). He'd been to Boston, to Washington D.C., to San Francisco, even to the Grand Canyon. Had loved the experience! And he'd learned a lot, particularly that, in his estimation, "America is much more developed and wealthy than China. It will take China thirty years to catch up!"

"Thirty years?" the young guy from Wenzhou said with a snort. "More like three hundred years! And do you know why? Because Chinese people have no freedom, that's why! Take your President Bush..."

"Heh," I said. "Yeah. I don't like him."

John Lennon T-shirt wagged his finger. "You see? You are allowed to say this. We can't say these kinds of things about our leaders. You have elections, we don't. That's why China can't catch up to America."

You'd think there would be a lot of argument about this, or fear, or something, but no. Some chuckles, some nods. And then a discussion about my iPhone: which generation is that, third or fourth? How much does it cost in America? That cheap, really? (I tried to explain that the low price for the device came with a commitment to a lengthy contract but am not sure that I managed to get my point across)

I think about 20 minutes had passed before Richard poked his head in the compartment. I gave him the recap: "Official thinks China will need thirty years to modernize, John Lennon T-shirt guy from Wenzhou thinks it will never happen because Chinese people have no freedom. And iPhones are expensive in China." He sat.

A few minutes later, the same conductor who had looked at our tickets in the first place came by. Richard turned to me: "She totally gave me the third degree just now." On certain train routes, conductors will swap your paper tickets for plastic ones (and then back again at the end of the ride), and along with that, ask for your identification and if you're a foreigner, your passport. Her interaction with Richard had gone far beyond that: she asked all kinds of questions, about how long he'd been in China, where he was traveling and why.

Now she leaned against the doorway of our compartment. She saw my hand-made Chinese notebook and asked if she could look at it (it has all kinds of vintage images of Chinese leaders taken from old Newsweeks). Where had I bought that? And my postcards, from Guizhou, could she see them? She examined each image (I hadn't filled them out yet). We decided she was not so much about the third degree as she was curious. And chatty. She was from Kunming and had a lot of ideas about the best restaurants there (she wrote them down in my notebook, with my pen, which she also thoroughly examined).

This was a happy train, overall. Even the surly dining car attendant was giggling when I returned there after hours to buy a bottle of water—there she was, giving one of the train workers, a big guy with a big shaved head, a scalp massage, and she waved in greeting along with the others, wished me a good night when I left. Maybe it's that Guizhou vibe I mentioned, that just passing through is enough to make people weirdly friendly.

While Richard dealt with the world's friendliest, most adorable attack toddler in his compartment (he was fascinated by Richard's bag and glasses), I settled down for the inevitable night of snoring.

Sure enough. The quietest man in the compartment, the guy on the upper bunk who during our conversations had mostly listened, smiled and nodded.

I'd put him at Category 4.

Early the next morning, as we approached Kunming, John Lennon T-shirt came by. "How did you sleep?" he asked me.

"Hai keyi," I replied. Okay/so-so.

A few minutes later, he returned, to give me an energy drink and a pastry.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Gear Review! (second in an occasional series)

(The PR-5, Skytrain and Tilley, on the road...oh, and my PJs)

I have one more post that I want to put up about my recent trip, another of my adventures on Chinese trains (and if anyone wonders why I love to take trains, in spite of some hassles, it's because I swear, I get a story out of every ride). But first, it's time for...GEAR REVIEW!

Some of you who know me, know that I'm slightly obsessive on the subject of luggage and bags. Okay, maybe more than "slightly." It's just, with all the travel I've done in the last few years and all the walking I do normally, I'm dealing with bags all the time, and they have a big impact on my life. Trust me, you do not want to be dragging an awkward, cheaply made bag on and off Chinese trains and through train stations.

I came to the conclusion that I wanted bags that were functional, sturdy and easy to schlep. For all of those reasons, I went with Red Oxx. I wrote about my experiences with Red Oxx in my earlier gear review. Since then I've added a few new bags (I don't have a problem, I can stop any time) and have had plenty more experience with the old ones.

(Red Oxx Skytrain)
My workhorse remains the Skytrain. It has been with me on many trips at this point and I can't see a sign of wear. I know that a lot of people are partial to wheeled luggage, and I understand why, but a soft-sided bag like this is easier to cram into tight spaces (overhead compartments, under train seats), and much easier to maneuver when trying to stow over your head, get on and off of trains and planes and up and down staircases. Just don't overload it with heavy stuff, because as sturdy as this bag is, it will support whatever you manage to cram in it.

For my second bag, I got the PR-5. This is another maximum-sized carryon, and it holds a ton of stuff. I find the outside end pockets particularly useful for stowing a pair of shoes (in one) and whatever I want quick access to (in the other). This series of bags also has a passthrough pocket, so if you are using any wheeled luggage or luggage rack, it will slide over the handle. It's actually easy to carry for a shoulder bag; the Claw shoulder strap distributes the weight surprisingly well.

(The PR-5)

I took this larger duffle because of the extreme range of climate I covered in this trip and also the possibility that I'd have to dress nicely on a few occasions. It's just a great bag. But for shorter trips when you don't need that kind of capacity, I love my PR-4. This smaller duffle fits perfectly under airplane seats, and again, the handy end pocket is a great place to put items you want to get at easily during your flight.

(the PR-4)

As mentioned in my earlier review, Red Oxx products are made in the USA and guaranteed for life. Yes, they cost more than a lot of luggage, but you will never have to buy a replacement, and you'll never find yourself dealing with a broken zipper at some inconvenient moment on the road. Their bags come in twelve nifty colors, so you can express yourself too!

Least you think all of my luggage love goes to Red Oxx, let me plug a couple of other useful bags.

First, Patagonia's Travel Tote. I have an older version of this bag that has seen many trips and much hard use and was finally showing signs of wear (for a lightweight, packable bag, these things are pretty damned sturdy). So I upgraded to their slightly revamped current model. The major improvement is longer straps so you can sling the bag over your shoulder when you don't want to use it as a backpack. This is an extremely practical, versatile bag that I'd recommend to any frequent traveler—I honestly can't imagine a more useful alternative for a travel utility bag to this.

(Patagonia Travel Tote, with backpack straps stowed)

I'm not a "purse" person nor am I into briefcases, but there are occasions when I need something to fulfill those functions—going to a meeting, a conference, what have you. For this, I chose a custom Timbuk2 Messenger bag. Like Red Oxx, Timbuk2 products are made in the US (in San Francisco), and come backed with a beefy warranty. Plus, they're cool-looking. I customized mine and had a lot of fun choosing the fabrics and features. The small Messenger is just wide enough to stuff an extra sweater and a larger digital camera (with a standard lens) — it's a tight fit, and not ideal (in fact, Timbuk2, if you're reading this, a little bit of extra width on the Small Messenger would be awesome—the Medium is just too big), but I did it. If the trip had been more about photography, I would have considered taking my Red Oxx Gator instead—its width and padded bottom make it perfect for that (as well as fitting under an airline seat). But those same qualities make it less than ideal for carrying around town to meetings or for use as a "purse/briefcase," so I went with the Timbuk2.

(Timbuk2 small messenger bag)
Two more items that have become permanent parts of my travel repertoire: a Tilley hat and an 11" Mac Air.

Tilley's are made in Canada, high-quality, functional and even look kinda cool. Plus, they come with a great warrantee and a secret pocket! I have the Cotton Airflo. Yeah, not cheap, I know. But I walk a ton, and I'm not always as good about putting sunscreen on as I should be (it gets in my eyes), and this hat is about as comfortable and practical as they come.

Finally, the Mac Air.

I write, blog and post photos when I travel, so a laptop really is pretty essential. And, yes, I'm a Mac person. I tried using a Linux-based netbook once, and while I'm sure Linux is just swell, I really didn't want to take the time to learn to use it, plus I wanted to use the same system to upload photos and keep my stuff so it was easily transferrable. Plus, Windows in China is asking for trouble, given the proliferation of viruses and spyware. For a few years, I traveled with an old 12' iBook. Kudos to that thing for sturdiness and long-life—it still works! But it's just a brick. You don't think so, at first, but after a month-long trip with constant travel, it starts absorbing the weight of the road, I'm pretty sure.

Then the new Airs came out. Wow. This is the perfect road warrior for Mac people. It uses flash memory instead of a moving hard drive, so it's sturdier. It's incredibly light. Incredibly thin. And it's a lovely piece of machinery that's a pleasure to work on.

Caveats: I got the stripped-down version, straight out of the box. It does not have a ton of memory or RAM. It does not have a CD/DVD drive. You can get models with more memory (but you have to order it that way, they are not easily upgradable) and you can order a compact exterior DVD drive if you want to have one. For me, none of this was an issue—I wanted a laptop designed for travel that I could use for writing and photos, and it does those things wonderfully well. In fact it's so nice to use that, well, I'm using it right now (light! Amazing screen! Great keyboard!).

Another small item you will want to invest in: the Air has two USB ports and one Firewire port. There's no room for anything else. That means, no Ethernet port. But you can buy a little adaptor that plugs into the USB port for your Ethernet needs. Many inexpensive Chinese hotels offer broadband access in their hotel rooms, but it's via Ethernet. I got my adaptor at an Apple store, but Amazon offers them too.

(one more thing: Mac Airs don't like Adobe Flash very much. I downloaded a simple, free program called "Click-To-Flash" — I highly recommend it).

One final item you will want if traveling to China, or to anywhere where you have reason to believe that internet security/accessibility is an issue: a VPN. Even with Witopia's excellent product and great customer service, China's Great Firewall makes internet access a huge pain in the ass at times. But I wouldn't consider traveling to China without one. When the Chinese government decides that Gmail is subversive and tries hacking into it? Yeah, I want a VPN.

Well, I think that's it for this year's long, somewhat tedious and obsessive gear review. Other travelers, please feel free to add your tips and favorites! I'm always ready to feed the obsession!

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Belated "Congratulations!"

And an embarrassing one at that, because how many times does a good friend's first book launch? Probably not more than once! Though given that the book is about three kids who trade a corn-dog for a spaceship and accidentally break the universe! I am not willing to totally rule out the possibility of some sort of time-space anomaly occurring in which the launch happens over and over again in an endless loop, except that would probably mean that I'd forget to make the announcement each time, over and over again, and that would be even more embarrassing....

Where was I?

Many congratulations to Nathan Bransford on the launch of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, a book for middle-graders that's fun for us above middle-graders too. I've had the pleasure of reading JACOB, and if you like your space adventure with a sprinkle of Douglas Adams and a twist of Roald Dahl (or you think the kids in your life will), then get your hands on a copy, before the universe breaks!

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Guizhou Pt. 4

We went to a number of villages during our stay in Guizhou, but one of the more interesting was Shiqiao, where the speciality is paper-making.

We'd actually stopped first at a cave site some distance away. "This is a good place in the summer," Mr. Ou, our driver, told us. "It stays cool in here."

There were various ramshackle structures made of wood, some holding cloudy water and grayish white fibrous tangles whose composition and potential function I could only guess at. Mr. Ou did his best to explain, but at first I wasn't getting it.

After a while I finally figured out that "shu pi" was not, like, leather something something, but tree bark, and that they were making paper.

After the cave, we made our way to Shiqiao Village. Many of the families here are engaged in paper-making, and each family makes its own. Here are a few photos of the process:

We stopped in at one of the larger operations. I found out later that this is a paper-making cooperative, created to preserve traditional Miao methods, an effort that has made this household the wealthiest in Shiqiao.

They had a storefront of sorts, shelves with stacks of handmade notebooks and sketchbooks and larger sheets of drawing paper, a graying PC and a ledger book on a small desk. Famous artists come here from the big cities to buy their paper, Mr. Ou told us.

"You can try it!" the proprietor, Mr. Wang, urged us, holding out an ink brush. He had sheets of paper laid out on a long table, where other visitors had scrawled their names and countries of origin.

"I have terrible handwriting," I warned. Which is true (I'm left-handed, for one). But I also used to do a lot of art back in elementary and junior high. It was about my best subject.

So, I wrote my name, and for some reason, using the ink brush, I was able to do it neatly, in a sort of grandiose way.

Mr. Wang loved this. So did our female host (I am assuming Mrs. Wang, but I don't actually know for certain). "Draw something!" they urged me.

Well, okay. I drew a cat.

Our hosts seemed to think that this was pretty amazing. I was just glad that I'd managed to draw a recognizable feline.

We went upstairs for lunch. Not a formal restaurant, but an area where guests and tourists could be served. I know that Guizhou is incredibly poor in terms of per capita income, and I'm sure that we didn't see anything close to the real poverty that must exist there. But I have to wonder, a little, because some things about the lifestyle here are pretty amazing. The wooden houses, for example. Basic, yes. But airy, pleasant and in their own way, beautiful.

I was heartened to see that in all the villages we visited, new houses were still constructed in this traditional architectural style—hardly any incursion of white tile disease.

Would I want to be a peasant farmer, working terraced rice paddies in my bare feet, behind a water buffalo? Not so much. And I don't want to overly romanticize a way of living that requires a lot of very hard work and doesn't have a lot of the "mod cons," the connectivity and stimulation, that I myself would not want to do without.

But the incredibly gorgeous landscape, the clean, fresh air, the festivals and celebrations...surely these are worth something on the scale of a good life. When I consider the environmental devastation in so much of China, I wonder if in the long run, the inhabitants of Guizhou will finally benefit from their poor, stunning homeland...

This paper-making household is a regular stop on the slowly developing tourist circuit. There was a group of French people who came in after us for lunch (the French, we were told, are the most numerous Western travelers in Guizhou), about ten of them, with a guide.

(Mr. Ou, our driver, and Mrs. Wang (?), papermaker and one of our hosts)

After a round of homemade wine (yum!) and a few bites of lunch (simple but delicious, one of the best meals I had), the proprietor came upstairs, beaming, carrying a mounted square of blank, handmade paper. "After lunch, you can write your name and draw the cat again?" he asked. "And we can put it on the wall!"

I agreed, a little embarrassed, and told myself I'd better go easy on the rice wine.

Submitted for your approval...my goofy cat:

In return for my efforts, Mr. Wang gave me one of their notebooks. I'm looking at it now, at the beautiful, soft paper made by hand. I'm thinking, maybe I should buy myself an ink-brush, and learn how to draw something other than a cat...

Oregon in June! And San Diego next week!

I'll be doing a few events in Oregon in early June, including the world-famous Powell's Books in Portland on June 7. I'll also be in Ashland and Klamath Falls — more details to come, but here's a link to the wonderful organization who is sponsoring my Ashland leg, the Ashland Mystery Readers Group. Events there are scheduled for June 10th and June 11th.

I'm really excited about this! I have never been to Oregon, and it's past time to remedy this situation.

For those of you in the San Diego area, as mentioned, I'll be at the fabulous Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore's 18th Birthday Bash on Saturday, May 14, along with a whole bunch of authors signing Akashic Book's latest Noir release, San Diego Noir. There are signings going on all day, and cake! Mysterious Galaxy is a fantastic indie bookstore, and those of you in the San Diego who haven't been there are missing out—what better time to visit?

(as a p.s., times, addresses, phone numbers and directions to events can be found at my website, on the calendar)

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Final count...

More on Guizhou in a bit, I promise. But for those who follow my Twitter feed, here is a final tally of the hooker cards!

First, an explanation: the Beijing hotel I stayed at is known as a "business hotel" — a popular choice for visiting businessmen. I really would recommend it, overall. Decent rooms, clean, great location, and overall, quiet.

However, with a "business hotel" apparently come certain expectations of a businessman's needs.

Numerous times a day, I would hear a little scratching noise at the door, and then a slither and a soft "plop" as business cards, shoved through the crack in the door, fell to the floor. Coming back to the room after a time out, sometimes I'd find a half dozen of them on the floor. Photo cards adverting prostitutes.

I decided to save them all and see how many I had at the end of my stay.

The grand total: Sixty, three of which are half-sized. Because paper is expensive? Because they are more discreet? Who can say?

Anyway, if anyone out there is doing a sociological study or art project involving sex work in China, let me know, and the cards are all yours...