China The Great

So, far we’ve traveled from the sleek megalopolis of Hong Kong,
through the exponential bleary eyed industrial giant Guangzhou and
moved through the hills and fields and vast countryside of Southern
China where every inch of space is jam packed with farms or new
buildings. We have been in constant motion since we arrived, as it
seems most of its inhabitants are as well. China is a strange place to
talk about because it is somewhere in between what we would expect
from our early industrial age in the late 19th century and the early
20th century and yet it lands somehow in the here and now moving at an
untenable pace towards a future ripped from a an early 90’s Science
Fiction novel.

In the streets, people drive like they just found keys on their
sidewalk, tried a few cars and drove away never looking back. They
drive as if they haven’t the slightest idea that there is such a thing
as danger. Yet, in the city, in the countryside, in China, danger
lurks far and near. I get the sense that every trip’s survival is
given up to the gods or pure luck. And from my western perspective
their approach to buildings and architecture does not stray far from
their driving sensibilities, where functionality towers over fine
tuned controls or a sense for aesthetic appeal.

In the architecture of the cities that we have ventured there seems
not a hint of attention to detail or deliberate care taken towards
location, function or form. New buildings scream up out of piles of
rubble surrounded by shacks or rough hewn houses that hold together
just long enough to finish the enormities that bury them in shadows as
time goes on. It often seems, not only that they build or make
something because they can but also because someone told them it would
be good.

Cut across the countryside as we did on the road heading to Jiuzhaigou
National Park and at every turn there are buildings that seem merely
functional and semi-durable at best. China’s push to bring its peasant
class to wealth and prosperity is evident everywhere we have been yet
so lies the consequences of the rampant pace and drive of the
development.

On the road to Jiuzhaigou National Park we passed town after town
under major upgrading or building vast sprawls of new buildings and
infrastructure. The road follows river after river through the
mountain, perhaps the same river, and all along spaced at what seemed
like every ½ kilometer we would come upon vast spans of rock quarrying
and sorting. Quarry and cement factories spring up not just along the
river but in the river. They move mountains, carve them up and divvy
them out. This part for brick, this for road, this for farmland. There
seems to be no controls, no rules, and no regulation. As we passed up
higher into the ravines of the mountains, the water would go clearer
with little to no quarrying going on, only to find that they were
streaming out f the bellies of the great water-power turbine stations
all along, where clean water goes in and warm water comes out.

Stupefying beyond belief everywhere the growth is seemingly limitless.
China’s resources are vast but the effects are visible to the naked
eye, to our lungs, our skin, our bellies. Towns are buried in hues of
either dirt and smoke, pollution, or a combination thereof. Brick
crawl out of the crags in mountains and valleys,from town to town,
thrown up easing ready access to building materials. In the west, they
literally build a brick factory and then pour out bricks and throw up
vast rectangular structures. Rectangular windows, flat roofs with zero
drainage, large tiles are spread across their facades like icing.
Buildings sit awaiting companion buildings’ completion, aging,
greying, sucking in the deep residues of pollution all easily absorbed
into the shoddy workmanship and roughly finished materials. It is as
if an entire country said “It works, who cares what it looks like?”

This attitude permeates the landscape and the culture, a nonchalance,
or lack of concern beyond their familiar ties seems the most obvious
difference between the western culture we grew up in and the child of
the Communist Cultural Revolution that China has become. It is almost
as if generations of people, and we are talking billions of people
here, lost their sense of pride for their work and decided that they
would be OK with just getting it done, getting it done as fast and
with whatever means possible. You see it in their skyscrapers, their
new bridges, their “Ancient Chinese Town” revivals, everything feels
halfhearted. It as if the United States all walked into Walmart and
outfitted our entire nation. Looking back at the USA from here, it
seems we are all too close to falling over the edge there ourselves.
We see how quickly a culture is subsumed in the move and push to move
forward. It’s as if we’re witnessing the Industrial Revolution for the
first time ourselves. Forget your history books children! Want
excitement, want to learn about how a country leaps into the 21st
century, take a train or bus trip through China.

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You mean you’re not from around here? You don’t say…

We haven't really said much about what it feels like to travel around in lands where we're mostly illiterate and probably come across as more deaf mute than anything with all of our pointing, grunts, waving and facial movements that we use to get our ideas across. 

Singapore, was more of a slight introduction to Asia, with it's clean lines, new buildings, ordely systems and missing old people, but where is the chaos and the brash shouting and lack of concern for who was first and who's turn it is anyway? Where's that vibe of foreign that rings so true in small places in the states like NYC's Chinatown.

Oh, here it is, Welcome to Bangkok, Thailand. Sawadi Kup/Ka! This is where that familiar surliness you've been waiting for comes out from yours truly. 

Actually we got a good dose the chaotic feeling in Hong Kong, where our connection to Singapore was so close that we were shuttled through the staff security checks and through immigration just so we could make our connection, but that was even laden with tones of organization that were latent from western values. (Which I have to say, we could learn something from back in the states about their ability to do this. I mean people were actually waiting for us and had a list of the passengers that needed to rush over there. That has never happened in the states, it always equals a missed flight.) 

Savvy travelers that we are, using the “if you walk to the empty line far away technique you'll move faster” logic, we quickly saw where our cultural ideas could be stripped away. The queue we chose for immigration for our tourist visa, while short, was the longest wait, as one person belabored over each passport and traveler. Our line seemed laden with United Arab Emirates, who because of their Arabic wrap and dress, and passport origin, were drilled a barrage of unknown questions. Once they were proven non-threats, they were allowed passage. 

Once through, we walked to several information booths, finally inking out information from one of the last, where we purchased tickets to an airport express bus that carried us to the city rather quickly (about 20 minutes) for a mere 150 Baht each (about $5  US each). Getting to the hotel from the bus station was pretty much a breeze or at least the haze of traveling memories leads me to believe it was.

Once, settled into our most expensive hotel room yet, we relaxed a bit and then headed right back out into the heat to find a day market and find some food. After about a 45 minute trip across town on Bangkok's surprisingly quick and efficient train system (BTS) we found the Sunday market that held forth every item one could ever need. House furnishings, clothing, kitchen ware, food, fresh veggies, fresh meat, shoes, all the antiques and knickknacks one could ever dream of. 

We wondered around the market in a travelers haze leftover from flying in from Singapore early in the morning and the Bangkok heat and after deciding that our bargaining skills left something to be desired we settled on a hawker stand directly across from the market, where Tracie ordered sensible cold noodle dish and I mistakenly ordered a bowl of hot broth soup with noodles and pork and apparently some delightful stomach bacteria, which left me toilet bound most of the night.

From there we took a stab at exploring Bangkok with zero knowledge of bangkok and ended out by the railroad tracks, dehydrated and tired. I took some of my first photos there under and from the overpass of a roadway interchanged (show below) and from there we hopped a free bus (no one else paid, so why should we?) back to a train stop and back to out hotel.
 

After a brief nap we headed over to a night market a minute walk from our hotel, and Tracie ate a fresh mortar ground papaya salad and I got some fresh grilled prawns. All accompanied with little air-poofed baggies of spicy sauces. Sorry no-photos, we were exhausted.

After chugging the local guaranteed hangover beer, Chang, I popped some Imodium and we headed off the next day for an “8hr” bus trip to Isaan Province to a town called Yasathorn in Northeastern Thailand, where our Sustainability Study Trip began. Sure, 8 hours, after zipping over to the bus station from train and taxi, we arrived and asked for a train to Yasathorn, blank stare number one, moved onto another booth, “ahhh…Ya-So-TORN…follow man…”. We were lead to one of hundreds of windows with Bold Thai writing everywhere, no English (welcome to Asia finally), where the woman scribbled the cost down and handed us two fledgling pieces of paper with thai print all over and a time circled. We said,”…when is is leaving?” blank stare. Hand motion to watch. “NOW…GO…THERE (pointing towards the gates)”. Of course, we had just used up almost our last Thai baht, we had 40 left, about a 1.20 USD, and then commence our scramble to find an ATM. After, more hand motions, we found an ATM and scrambled to get money out of it and back to the gates in time. Let's stop right here….

Note: Fellow travelers, nothing points you out as a potential sucker more than rushing around. Hesitate at all times from looking hurried or rushed. Keep a calm air about you and things will work out.

…Yea, you'd think that would prevail from my kitchen job back home, but nope, we scrambled, and when we asked where the Yasathorn bus was…a guy motioned us over and examined our ticket…he then took our bags and loaded them onto a bus that had UBON as the final destination. I said “…YA-SO-TORN?” He said, “…yes…ya-so-torn…sit here (pointing to rows of chairs)”. And so we waited…
and waited. We watched him, for the next hour and a half, try and fill his bus to wherever. We had been swindled off the direct express bus to a long local bus, but we wouldn't figure that out until our next bus trip, that was so much smoother.

For 11 hours, once we got going, we were tormented with uncertainty and this liquid syrupy sugary thai pop music, until finally, the guy who shall forever be known as the prototypical Thai bus attendant type, motioned us to get off. We were nearly 4 hours late. It was dark and in some small town in a land where few spoke English.

We tried a phonebooth to call Jo Jondai, the farmer that was going to lead our Sustainability Study Trip. It didn't like the amount we put in…we hand motioned for someone to change our bill to some change and tried more money. No dice. We spied another booth a block away. No dice.

This booth was in front of a beauty supply store where a transgendered lady, who happened to speak a little English, let us use his cell phone to call Jo.  A little bit later after a nice chat with the lady and a young girl, who walked Tracie over to the local radio station they ran, where she introduced a song, Jo walked up and anxiety melted away. There are some people that have something about them that relaxes you and makes you feel welcome and at home. Jo Jandai is that kind of man. We shuttled off into the night in the back of a pickup he had talked into taking us out to Bahn See Than, in the province of Isaan, where his family farm was and our trip was to meet and begin.

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Getting Away From Here to Get Perspective on Here

It is more than a few times of late that it’s come across my mind that we’re going traveling to get perspective on the way we live here and beyond seeking other ways of appreciating life, we also will stumble upon how much we miss and undervalue while we’re here.

That said, I know we don’t have to leave the country, the state or even our Borough to find other avenues of getting perspective. In fact, I often find that New York and the Tri-Boros are in and of themselves a unique local, perhaps unmatched by any other city in the word for having millions of nooks and crannies where one can get exactly that perspective without leaving home. However, we are still stateside and that construct of being in a free and democratic society overlays everything, permeates everything. I suspect changes everything.

Some days, like today, we take a different path to get somewhere we’re very familiar with and we see new things and our mind starts to have ideas it has never had before. That is what I hope our travels will do, but amplifying it even more in that we don’t have that comfortable return trip or place to land. Everything is new, and when everything is new. We just seem to pay more attention.

Why is that?

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