Friday, March 31, 2017

The World's Poorest President

The end of March has rolled around and it has been 3 weeks in China. Maybe it is the whole "wow time flies thing" and I can say nervously that I do have my bearings. The subway is brilliant and cheap. I do find myself going for monstrous 2 and 3 hour city walks and I am never disappointed with the new and odd things that I stumble upon. The most common thing I see is people. They are everywhere. Not in a "China has 1.3 billion people everywhere" but in a people walking, exercising, dancing and simply enjoying themselves. Night time at the East Gate has become my favorite place to be after dark. The wall is lit up mystically and it is  lined with pretty parks and trails. I am usually the only foreigner around and that leads to odd looks but warm smiles. My new go to phrase is bu ke chi,  wo long de (sorry, I don't understand). The fact I say this in Chinese will illicit excited chatter and giggles.

Just a Dragon hanging out in a Qing Ling park

Maybe it is still fresh and everything is exciting and that is a great thing. The day I wake up and am not impressed with a new found temple, the city wall, the street food, the kind people or any other myriad of experiences here it will be time to leave. I will take it one year at a time but depending on how much I get out and see the country I believe this job has a 2 year shelf life. Again, one day, week, month and year at a time.

I had a decent night out with a few co-workers and locals in the tourist area of the South Gate which is creatively named  "Bar Street". If you feel the need to meet Expats, tourists or travelers and speak English then this is a good starting point.  Be prepared as this is a huge tourist area and pricing reflects that. It is common to pay 50 RMB for a beer (C$10). I still have my Mexican $1.25 for a litre of great beer rattling around in my head. Of course nothing would be complete without a Top 10 List of Bars in Xian.

A wall of imported beer in Barlandia. I had a VB from Australia and Ashai from Japan

Like any other place I have been I visit "tourislandia" once or twice or when the moment calls for it but it is never my first place of choice. As an aside, one of the main beer here is Tsingtao and calling it water is giving it to much credit. Coming it at a robust 4.8% it has a real light lager taste, Check that!. No Taste. Again with the great Beers of Mexico still rattling around in my head I have made it a project to find a better beer in this country, if one exists.

The thing is Tsingtao was a German company up until 1914. There is a good bit of information here if the history interests you. The brewery at Tsingtao was build and run by the Germans so I guess I was expecting more. Regardless it is what I have at the moment.

I have been out and about with my Canon 1300D getting use to the features and functionality.  Fully auto mode is great to take an easy photo and move on to the next one. It is when you challenge yourself to go into manual mode that you realize what a decent camera can accomplish. I have leaned the relationship between ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture and when you change one setting it effects the other 2. The Tripod of photography as it is called. The Tripod of photography, what a stupid name.

José Alberto "Pepe" Mujica Cordano who was the 40th President of Uruguay between 2010 and 2015. He was the world's poorest president. 

"I'm called 'the poorest president', but I don't feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more," he says. "This is a matter of freedom. If you don't have many possessions then you don't need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself," he says. "I may appear to be an eccentric old man... But this is a free choice."

I first read about José Alberto "Pepe" Mujica Cordano when I was wander-lusting (is that even a word?) in Uruguay in 2012. I incredibly moved and had another "ah ha" moment while on the road. I realized that my personal journey of minimalism that included the reduction of consumerism was still in need of work.

Fast forward 5 years and I have improved in my efforts. I am not inclined to move myself into complete poverty just to prove a point. What I have done fairly well is to have reduced my consumption of goods. I tend to buy used products whenever possible (again within reason. No I do not want the slightly used underwear at a discount price). I eliminate most uses of bottled water and support local economies. Do not get me wrong I am not preaching to anyone about their life choices. I still stumble into Wallmart when on the road usually for its comfort factor. I also keep myself fairly up to date with electronics for a variety of personal traveling reasons.

I am not professing to be José Alberto "Pepe" Mujica Cordano or his disciple by any means because as Springsteen has poetically professed "blind faith will get you killed". What I did find when I rediscovered this video was that I on a better path than I was 7 years ago and mindset has changed. Completely changed? I am not sure that will ever happen but my small steps along the way have proven positive in the long run.

If you can make it to Antarctica you can travel to anywhere on this planet
Five years ago while atop a glacier shirtless in Antarctica I had a moment when I realized that I can indeed go anywhere. Today I woke up and as I looked out the window of my apartment and as I watched a group of elderly do their morning exercises in the courtyard it dawned on me that I was living and working in China. Yes I have been here a while and am not just getting around to realizing I am actually here. "I am no genius with all that book learning". 

I like that feeling.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Inducing a Street Food Coma

I hammered away at Mandarin for about a month before I came here. My goal was to at the very least do some basic things without resorting to body language, mime and dancing to get my point across. Armed with this bit of confidence I heading into the abyss to do my first bit of shopping, and it was an epic fail! Nobody understood any of my Mandarin, I mean not one word. I went through various attempts at I want tea (wo yao cha) and each time I got blank stares and nervous smiles. I raised the white flag, stuck with Ni Hao (hello), xie xie, (thank you) and zai jian (good bye) and the aforementioned body language, miming and dancing. Done with a smile and you can accomplish anything in any country. There were various arrays of curious looks at the western guy wandering aimlessly but when I smiled and say hello first the usually brings help.                       

Next up a little wander around town. I found myself staring in awe and wonder. There is street food and food stalls everywhere sandwiched in between restaurants and take away shops. Unlike what can be described as a bit lacking in cleanliness in Latin America the food stalls here are spotless. Bring on the Street food. In a 2 block walk I quickly ate 2 dumplings stuffed with meat, 2 more with some type of green veggie matter that I think was seaweed and  5 skewers of bbq spiced and salted pork on a stick..well I think it was pork. I topped it off with a little bowl of spicy noodles and washed it all down with freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. I have not even scratched the surface of what is available and I was heading to the Muslim district, world famous for its food stalls.
I hit the subway after my neighborhood food coma. I printed out a map with me before Canada which was one of the smarter things I have done. There are 3 subways lines aptly named line 1, 2 and 3. There is a main station stop near my place that runs down line 1 is Tonghuamen. I wanted to head to what is considered the main tourist area and hit up the Bell Tower , Drum Tower, the south gate of the city wall and of course Muslim street (food food food).

The subway is clean, bright, fast, efficient, quiet and as modern as it gets. There are glass partitions blocking all access to the tracks with electronic doors spaced about 8 feet apart. The train pulls up perfect to the doors and both the train doors and partition doors open. No issues at all. I know Toronto has talked about this type of setup but the negative feedback shut that down. In a town of 5 million here in Xi’an it works perfectly but the Subway and tranisit system in Toronto is archaic and will never be modernized to full efficiency. Shit they can not even get the Presto Card right.  You also only pay for as far as you go like anywhere else in the world except…TORONTO. One price there no matter if it is one stop or 10.
Anyways there is enough Pinyin (Chinese English characters) and English signage plus announcements on the train are in both Mandarin and English. All good there.
The Bell Tower was built in 1383 AD during the Ming Dynasty. It was named for the huge bell that hangs there (wow surprise) that was used to tell the time. It is 36 metres high and easy enough to climb. It was damaged extensively during both WW2 and the revolution of 1949 but has been restored. It costs 35 Yuan (C$7) which includes both the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower plus the Bell tower gives you a 360 degree view of the city and hours of fun watching the insane and aggressive traffic flow from 4 different directions.

The South Gate entrance to the top of the wall is where you can ride a bike the entire distance around or should I say atop the wall, about 13 km. I am going to wait for a clear day to do it. It has been here for almost 1000 years and it is not going anywhere. Fun Fact. The city wall here is the oldest city fortress wall in the world and it is older than the Great Wall. There are also various nightly ceremonies that I will watch at some time or another while I am here. I walked around various sections of it and it is surrounded by gardens, parks and green spaces. The cherry trees are just about to bloom so that should be a site.

Main entrance to Muslim Street on a slow day
Muslim Street means food. Xi’an was the final Eastern terminus of the ancient Silk Road and thus has a huge Muslim influence in its foods and spices. There are 32 provinces in China and each has unique variations in cuisine but Xiaanxi province and particularly Xi’an rocks the food world. I had aroma sensory overload! This famous street has it all and I am bound to try everything here at least once. I will write more details about everything in a later post. I was still in overwhelmed mode when I was hitting up all these places just trying to take it all it.

 The Bell Tower, Drum Tower, Muslim Street, The City Wall and the Giant Goose Pagoda (which I have not been to yet) are suppose to be pretty special at night. Not only is this place fantastic during the day it gets even better at night. Regardless as I have mentioned it is not going anywhere and I do have time to take it all in.

Somewhere along the way I do have to go to work. I am looking forward to it because it will encourage me to get out and learn more about this great city, country and language when I am a working part of it. A working part of China, who would have thought that?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What is CHAOS

Bell tower and the daily smash up derby in progress
CHAOS Theory  loosely states that if you watch chaos long enough patterns suddenly emerge.
CHAOS: behavior so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.
CHAOS: the formless matter supposed to have existed before the creation of the universe
CHAOS in Xi'an can be explained in two words. Vehicular Traffic.

Drivers rule the roads so do not even think about the fact they should stop, they will absolutely not! Cars, buses, scooters, bikes and any assorted mode of transportation will run your butt down. For that matter people will not think twice about it either. So, how do I cross a massively busy intersection? I side up to a group of locals and do what they do. They stop, I stop. They go, I go. They run, I run faster.
Here  are some of the most interesting/odd/disgusting things I have experienced or observed in my short time here.
1. Parents will drop the pants of their child and that child will pee right there on the street. OK these kids are usually about 2 or 3 and, well they have to pee!

2.Cars honk constantly and have the right of way at all times. They will run your shit down.
3. Smog. This city is enveloped in a hazy fog that is clearly visible. Xi’an it turns out has some of the worst smog in China. It is on par with Beijing. What does this feel like? Well you emerge from the subway or your apartment and you walk into a continuous bath of second hand smoke and you can actually smell it at time. 
How good can this be for me, or anyone for that matter.  I have seen the sun one day for about 30 minutes and I have not seen any blue sky as of yet.

Smoggy view from my apartment
4. Spitting. It is mostly old dudes who hork/spit all the time. I am talking hocking up a huge lugee with the beauty of a guttural throat sound.This I will not get used to. Speaking of which I was in MacDonalds for a coffee the other day because in the land of tea I wanted coffee so leave me alone. Anyways I heard the tell tale sound of a lugee producer and thought what, where?. She was working the fryer and proceeded to hock that lugee into the deep fryer and nobody thought twice. I wonder if it crackled? Seriously,  I went to my happy place of no thinking as I took the next sip of my coffee...knowingly
5. Tiger Moms. They are everywhere and they are mean. In the middle of a busy street, hell anywhere really these Tiger Moms scream and berate their kids until they cry. I can not even imagine why. I was told that it is a tough life in China and kids need to learn early. Cultural differences smacking me right in the face.

6. Public washrooms. I was in a public washroom and an old guy was taking a dump and did not have the stall door shut. He was just squatting and grunting for the world to see and hear. Again it must go back to the 1.3 billion people here and there is no privacy anywhere so after a while who gives a "shit when you shit"
7. Technology. The use of technology here blows Canada away. It is a WeChat world and if you are not a part of it you are not anything. Public buildings use motion detectors for lighting so as to not waste electricity if nobody is in the room/hallway. Escalators do not move unless they are stepped on, again why waste electricity on a constant moving stairway when nobody is using it. Brilliant in it's concept. I use a finger scan to clock in and out of the school, and cash is rarely used. WeChat is used to pay everything so you go to the local food stall and transfer the price to their WeChat account (which is connected to their bank account). All this is being done with a QR code. Again, brilliant in its simplicity.

Know it, love it, live by it

Hello my name is Yang. I turn to look at a huge gapped tooth smile staring up at me.
My shaver decided to suddenly stop working. It has been with me for the better part of 10 years and owed me nothing. There is a Wallmart near my apartment so off I went. Sometimes finding something familiar soothes the psyche I find. I stopped for a coffee at Macdonald's and was sitting on a bench just taking it all in when a kid of about 10 sits down beside me with a big smile. In bad English he tells me his name is Yang and he is China. We go back and forth with hims speaking Mandarin and I am doing my best to toss in the few words that I know.  I tell him I want to go to Wallmart (wo yao chu Wallmart) so excitedly he jumps up to show me the way. Oddly bold for a kid I was told.
I say thanks thinking that is the end of it and leave him a big forlorn on the steps into the store. I am just staring to wander around when I hear a bright an cheery “hello” and there is Yang, big smile and all. He proceeds to just follow me around the store happy to tag along. Who was I to be rude. As it turned out he helped me find what I was looking for and was proud to do so. He just about lost his mind when we stumbled into the electronics department. We hung out for about an hour just wandering the store looking at different things and on the way out he asked if I wanted Tea (cha). We wandered to a tea house near in the plaza and he ordered 2 tea and made sure we sat on the patio which I presume was so people would see up together. There we chilled, Yang and I sipping tea on a Chinese Saturday morning in an outdoor Xi’an shopping plaza.
The one time I did not carry my little point and shoot camera with me to have picture of us chilling like thugs sipping tea on a smoggy Xi'an afternoon.

And We Are Off And Running

Most of my initial time here has been an unsteady blur of  bizarre sleeping patterns and adjusting body clock schedules. I am wide awake at 3 am for a couple hours and then as if punching a clock I fall asleep for a couple of hours. "Morning Ralph, Night Sam" situation.

I wake up around 10 and then back to sleep at 2 pm for a short 7 hour nap. Then I wake up hungry to eat boiled dumplings that I have in my freezer because it is easy. Then it is off to walk around the streets stretching my legs and realizing I have no idea what any street or shop sign says. I come back home for a nap, and repeat.

Health Document and Working Permit

Please note that everything in the health document says "normal". That's a first

The school knew exactly what to expect and gave me the “take the next few days to get some rest”. As it turns out I had a week to “get rest” and "see the sights of Xi'an", and so that is what I did. Through it all I managed to watch 35 episodes or 3 and a half season of Black Sails that I had stored and ready to go on my laptop. This is a series I would recommend to binge watch that for me ranks right up there with Homeland, Vikings, Mr. Robot, The Americans, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black. Time Well Wasted indeed.  

The school is clean, modern and the staff friendly and helpful. What more can you as for really. There is an electronic white board that publishes everything written on it online. Seriously, it pushes the whiteboard content to a website where students can review it.  I can not wait to get my hands on that bad boy. The more I bang around here the more I realize how advanced technically China is and I have not even started on WeChat, the center of the mobile app universe for all Chinese, well that and Taobao. An app where you can buy anything and it is delivered to you in 2 days or less, and I mean anything.

On the list of to do’s a cell phone and home internet. My mobile plan is 800 minutes and 2 gigs of data is $15 a month with China Unicom. My home internet is 100mb download speed with unlimited usage $34 a month with China Telecom. I suppose with 1.3 billion people services can be delivered at a reasonable rate. Canadian Telcos, you suck!!
Now the fun stuff begins. All foreign teachers are required to obtain a government physical and I could not wait to see how that was going to go. Ms. Ting is the school owner and she took me on this little adventure.  On the way to the car she opened the back door for me. I am not sure if she was uncomfortable with me in the front or if it was a “driver/client” thing but who am I to say anything. I just hung on as she was a terrible driver, which I am seeing are all drivers in China. 

I could not sleep so off to the Bell Tower I went.
Cattle, that is all I could think of as I went from room to room in a somewhat organized manner with about 20 others. First up was the taking of three vials of blood. I have given enough blood in Canada and there is that moment of “yup that was the needle” but here nothing, the needle was tiny and painless although I did take the cotton off to quickly afterwards and was dripping blood down my arm to the horror of many of my new countrymen and woman. Blood check.
Next up time to pee in a little vial. No big deal but there was no cap for the vial and I just put it in with a cluster of others on a tray. No possibility of contamination there. Pee check

Its EKG time. Half a dozen suction cups across the chest, clasps on the ankles and wrists and don’t move. Check although with odd red marks on my body

Grease up its ultrasound time. Stomach, heart, kidneys, liver and whatever other organs were peered at. Here is a towel now clean up and go. Check

 Xray. Opps your wearing a necklace. Another quick Xray. Dumb foreigner your facing the wrong way. Ok now don't move (or at least that is what I shrilly heard) and off you go.
Put your arm in this device and push the green button. Others were doing it so when in Lemmingville do as the other lemmings. Blood pressure done.

What are these numbers, those, what about those. Without thinking I said it in English and they did not even blink. I think I could have said planets of the solar system for all the technician cared. Eyes, yes you have them

The factory of abuse was not just a foreign teachers cattle call. It is for any Chinese national leaving the country for work or travel and anyone who was trying to get a government job. They had this process down and all this done for $75. What would that have cost in the States or how long would we have had to wait in Canada. Here we simply walked in, were processed and out in about an hour. All the results would be ready in 3 days.

Medical clearance gives me a resident card (my visa is for 3 months) and a resident card gives me a bank account. Just like that I am working and living in China. 

Just me and my monkees
As I have mentioned in the past, China like Mexico was never on my radar. What I have learned is that my bizarre Pisces ways of looking at the world creates great opportunities for me.  I am already looking ahead to the Darjeeling area of Northern India or Nepal as my next stop.

There is no way I could just focus only on China now. I am already here!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Shanghai Surprise

Sign over the public urinal. What are you really saying?
I live in a travel dream world.  I stare at maps, read about natural and man made wonders and wander up distant mountain trails in far away lands on vast snow capped ranges. I peruse blogs, travel sites, message boards and any website I can to glean as much information to add technicolor into my travel dream world. Then after a 19 hour flight I land in one of my far away wonderlands and I get hit square by reality and I nervously smile. OK China, lets do this.

Smack in the middle of the city
I am on the final throws of jet lag and time zone shifting and had forgotten the joy of this unwinnable battle. I was wheels up in Toronto on March 10th at 3:25 pm and landed in Shanghai on March 12th at 12:30 am. I lost March 11th 2017, it never existed in my life. If memory serves I lost January 23, 1989 when I flew to Australia plus having been to Japan twice there are a few days there as well.

Staring out the window of my new apartment into I have suddenly realized that what I am looking at is not a constant romantic fog mysteriously hugging the city but the joys of thick air pollution that envelopes the myriad of apartment building surrounding me like Silk Road Warriors here in Xian. Real honest to goodness this soupy air pollution that scratches your throat after 30 minutes. Xian is not even in the top 10 of most polluted cities in China but is on part with Beijing. One has to imagine how nasty the most polluted cities are. It’s no wonder that face-masks are an acceptable fashion statement which explains so much about us as a species.

The flight from Toronto to Shanghai was as brutal and uneventful as I knew it would be. I watched 4 movies, had 3 meals and a series of short naps. I had no idea that my boredom was about to become the Shanghai Olympics for Airport Gate Sprinting once we landed. I had 90 minutes to make my connecting flight to Xian which under normal circumstances is plenty of time. This time I used every single one of those precious minutes running full spring through immigration, up and down escalators,  jumping the queues of people at 3 different inner airport security checks. As I rounded the corner doing my best Usain Bolt to gate 206 there was a wave to hurry as the final bus was leaving. I was told by an English speaking lady on the bus to the plane that they were holding the plane for me but were just about to leave. 

They use buses to ferry passengers to and from landing and departing aircraft which was normal for airports 50 years ago. Missed connections are as common so I suspect is the stress and frustration level of most Western travelers. Unless your Mandarin is excellent and you can negotiate a new flight and are required to transport through Shanghai make sure you have 3 hours at the very least.

You can take the boy out of the West but...
A short 2.5 hour flight later I found myself in Xi'an, home of the Terra Cotta Warriors and home to me for the next year at the very least. I was sitting on a bench, well dazed on a bench, waiting for my bags at the carousal when the guy next to me says “hello”, “Can I practice my English”. I was given fair warning that this was going to be a way of life here and I had nothing to do. Our short polite conversation turned to excitement when my new Chinese friend explained to me that he memorized MartinLuther Kings “ I have a dream” speech and would I like me to here it. Here I was with 20 hours of air time, an Olympic speed record to catch my connecting flight, jet lagged waiting for my luggage in China all the while having crossed the international date line and beside me is some random guy telling me “He has a dream”.  If ever I was going to start smoking weed again this would be the exact moment for that time to happen. Mercifully my bags arrived quickly and I could not get off that bench quick enough and without apology. My Chinese MLK was fading to black but continued none the less.

I always ask for an airport pickup whenever I fly internationally because trying to find a cab when you are jet lagged, excited, nervous and vulnerable just makes sense to me. If you have traveled you know the reassuring feeling of seeing your name in big block letters and a smiling face waiting for you. This time it was arranged for me and they they were Bei Bei and Ella, two girls from the school. Bei Bei is in charge of foreign teacher recruitment and Ella is the Office Wonder Girl. Forty 45 minutes later we are opening the door to my apartment followed a quick run to the local shop that was miraculously still open at 1 am. I had a cold TsingTao in my hand looking out at new neighborhood. Home is now Apartment 711 and I am a 5 minutes walk to school.

Sipping that cold TsingTao looking out of my apartment window trying to take it all in the only thing I hear in my head is  "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have gone down the rabbit hole and it is going to be interesting to say the least.