More notes from the Middle Kingdom

I was standing infront of mount Taishan and I did not recognise it.

I realise this is my first post of the year. Happy New Year, folks.

Sitting in a Chinese restaurant all by myself, it felt a bit lonesome. All I knew then was how to order three dishes, all to do with tomato and eggs. One for lunch and another for dinner. I had to eat, didn’t I? That went for about a six months. Great progress that I didn’t make! Sometimes I would just point to an item in the menu, all written in hanzi, but it’s not a great idea. Believe me.

Sitting there by myself, I suddenly felt like a character in a Chinese Kungfu movie, a classic movie of legends of great power and ability. I wasn’t thinking of myself as the hero but I was simply thinking about some scenes that made me think they drink endless cups of wine (remember movies like drunken master?) As it turned out sometimes they do drink wine, but most of the time they drink tea in restaurants, green tea at that. And in China anything to do with drink could be tea, even water is called bai cha ‘white tea’. The way I understand it most of their green tea are herbs, boiled in water, and every one of them is supposed to be good for different parts of the body. Interesting stuffs.

Invited to a wedding, I once felt sorry for a newlywed couple who must toast every guest with a cup of Chinese white wine – a strong wine which they claim would make a mouse so brave that he would shout ‘where is the cat?’ with machette in hand and all. I didn’t realise then that one of the two bottles was filled with water. Ignorant me!

Reading Sydney Shapiro’s translation of Outlaws of the Marsh is truly interesting. It’s one of the four famous classic novels, a must read for Chinese students, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. It comes in three volumes and each chapter ends with a little ‘curtain raiser’ to the next chapter and it’s really a hard-to-put-down novel. Lot’s of fights and flights as more than a hundred innocent and unwitting people were forced to break the law and were welcomed into a fraternity of bravemen called outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh. And as they often say the ‘book is much better than the movie’ not that I have seen the movie. But it’s a great read. Sample this: ‘I was standing infront of mount Taishan and I did not recognise it.’ Classic Chinese modesty of a humble hero and an appropriate appraisal from one who realises he’s in the presence of a great man.

There are laments everywhere about the Chinese football team. That’s one of the things we share (you notice how I don’t want to quantify the things we share. I have no particular reason for that by the way). A nation of more than a billion people failing to produce the eleven to challenge the world. We share the same sobering plight but it remains to be seen when anyone’s going to really wake up and do some serious thing about it. A friend had suggested a lack of protein in the Indian diet as a possible cause of our non-performance in sports, but I am not so sure about that.

The Chinese national football team had been the butt of many jokes. I will leave you with one of my favourites:

A Japanese man asks god “when will Japan be the champions of the world in footbal” and god said “in fifty years.” He went away very sad, thinking, “I will not be able to see that happen in my own lifetime.” Next comes a Korean and asks god when the Koreans would be the champions of the world then god replied, “in one hundred years.” The Korean cried and thought, “My grandchildren would not be able to see that happen in their lifetime.” Then comes a Chinese man and asks god when the Chinese would be the champions of the world, then god cried, saying, “I would not be able to see it in my lifetime!”

A Day at the Taj Mahal

I have passed through New Delhi a few times always with a plan to visit the Taj at the back of the mind. The unforgiving heat of Delhi defeated me more than once. Summer’s not a good time to go. (I don’t know if winter’s better but I can deal with the cold better that the heat).

I find it easier to talk about the Taj Mahal than Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia among friends abroad. To the question of whether Slumdog Millionaire depicts a real life situation I usually go to the extreme and added that India’s a country of everything: the richest of the rich living side by side with the poorest of the poor. We must go to the Taj to put to rest the question ‘…but have you been there?’ once and for all. That was the determination we had last summer.

We asked around. Those in the know advised hiring a car for a day. Also, we were told of how easy it was to take a train to Agra and come back late in the afternoon. We decided to take the train. We asked if an air-conditioned compartment was available, but we were answered in the negative. So, we booked the tickets to Agra, the best available.

When the trained pulled up on the platform it was already crowded. It was a harsh decision to make whether to fight our way in or to miss the Taj again. There simply was no seat! As the train began to move we decided in a split second to endure a 3-hour ride of who-knows-what to Agra.

Big bro was used to such travelling condition and he fought his way in and made some space, if a little, for us to follow. We managed to hoist the lady to the top berth where she was to squat literally for three hours. People were still fighting to get in! After everyone with a ticket was in there was practically no space left on the whole train. After a few minutes on the train, the dreaded message from the top berth was, “I need to use the loo!” On spying the toilet we found to our horror that it was full, of people too! Two men were fighting over some space but there was no space left to throw punches. And so it was on the way to the love story in white marble.

I found myself standing in the middle of the cabin, face to face with one young fellow who introduced himself as “Puneet” and mentioned he’s a Jain. That’s my first Jain face to face, just a few inches away. Puneet smiled and was cultured and polite. This was how people make it liveable in India. They don’t complain about the present situation even if they do about the general bad condition in every aspect of life. The milling, pushing and pulling crowd didn’t seem to bother Puneet as he talked to me calm but cheerfully. He was fresh out of an engineering college and was on his way home to Gwalior, the princely city. He was curious and informative at the same time. I didn’t know too many things about the Jains or Jainism. What he told me reminded me of a scene in Notting Hill:

Keziah: No thanks, I'm a fruitarian.
Max: I didn't realize that.
William: And, ahm: what exactly is a fruitarian?
Keziah: We believe that fruits and vegetables have feeling so we think cooking is cruel. We only eat things that have actually fallen off a tree or bush - that are, in fact, dead already.
William: Right. Right. Interesting stuff. So, these carrots...
Keziah: Have been murdered, yes.
William: Murdered? Poor carrots. How beastly!

It may not be exactly the same but that’s what I was reminded and it’s along the same line. He got a job as an IT Engineer in Seoul and asked me about my experience of living outside India and his genuine curiosity and unusual modesty was easing the rather pathetic condition in which we were travelling. It was fair, I believe to have exchanged with him about my belief in the God who loved and died for me and for everybody to save us.

He assured me that most of the travellers would get down at Krishnajanmabhoomi, Mathura. That was it. I mean that was the reason why there were half a million people on that train. It was Krishna’s birthday and they wanted to visit his birthplace to offer their puja. If only we had known! And Puneet was right. Most people got down at Krishna’s temple and we were left with just enough people to occupy all the seats and spaces at a civilised distance.

The rickshaw driver was friendly and talkative. He offered to take us to other attractions around Agra but we came here for the one and only Taj. We struck a deal with him: he would take us to lunch, to the Taj, and to a bus station after the Taj. Don’t remember how much we paid him but it was worth it. He parked his rickshaw and waited for us as we joined a very long line of people queuing up to get inside.

Entry fee for one was 700 rupees, said the ticket seller. But we would not give him. We brought the EPIC card with us for that very purpose and the price was much less (I don’t remember the exact price. This double pricing system is a bit controversial. When you are at the receiving end it can be pretty upsetting but the logic behind this is that for tourists from developed nations it’s only a small amount of money. But when everyone else pays just a fraction of what you are paying for the same thing it can feel really discriminating. Well, I am just saying).

There is a pagoda near the place where we are living now and the government had been investing a lot of money developing the place for tourism. The real attraction at the centre of the park pales in comparison when you think about the likes of the Taj. But the amount of money and effort that went into building an attractive tourist place, with the second largest (or is it 3rd or what?) musical fountain in Asia thrown in is just mind blogging and admirable. Makes one wonder what would happen to a place like the Taj with the same effort. The surrounding area of the Taj looked old and unkempt and was full of dilapidated buildings; totally unattractive and dirty. How can we let such an important monument be in the middle of all the squalor and dirt, one wonders.

Everybody was frisked, X-rayed and scanned at the entrance. It was understandable. And finally, there was the Taj Mahal in all its glory! It’s awesome, truly awesome. You don’t need to praise it for there are simply not enough words to even begin to describe it. You don’t have to prepare glossy brochures of the Taj. You don’t need to advertise. You don’t need any announcement; you don’t need any guide to tell you that you are present now at the place of grandeur. You don’t have to tell people it’s beautiful. This is it, the very embodiment of grandeur! I am glad to have finally seen it.
Here's one pic after many attempts to upload

The rickshaw walla drove us to a travel agent. We thought we were going to have a nice, relaxing bus on the way home instead of the unspeakable train. But it was not to be. When we realised what we were in for it was too late. The travel agent was simply buying seats for us from another agent. When the bus arrived we were seated at the last row and were told that we had to get down at the outskirt of Delhi!

The bus stopped on the way for dinner. We ordered the food and asked the price beforehand just to make sure. Three people heard the same thing: Rupees 60 each. We ate and drank voraciously out of hunger not because it was especially scrumptious. Then came the bill, 600 Rupees each! Why do these people exist just to make your life miserable and make a living out of cheating people? It’s no wonder we often feel more unsafe in our own country. Then we arrived at the outskirt of Delhi at the unfriendly hour of 11:30pm. We didn’t even know where we were! After a few minutes walk we finally got a rickshaw which was driven by a slightly deranged person. He had no care in the world, least of all the traffic rules. Somehow, we got home.

Now, do I think it was worth the effort? First, I believe the government of India has enough dough to invest in buying new trains, upgrading the present bogeys, build more tracks and offer better service in general with a little more effort. The trains are always crowded everywhere. You have never heard of empty trains in India. So, why don’t we just buy more and make more money, me thinks. Up the price a little in exchange of better service, everybody’s happy to pay if they get the service they wanted.

Secondly, why don’t we make it easier to access a place like the Taj Mahal so that everybody can go and enjoy without any fear or hesitation. Friendly place of grandeur and wonderment means more tourists and better business for everybody. Can’t we see that? There are things I can say about restaurateurs, waiters, taxi/rickshaw drivers, tour operators and all those who offer their services to tourists and are constantly in touch with tourists: about how they should earn their living in honesty and make tourists feel safe and welcome but I am not sure if my preaching’s going to do any good.

Do I still think it’s worth all the trouble? Certainly! It’s such a place I can say I enjoyed being there and I am glad I made it after all these years. It’s even better than the picture! Minus the unnecessary hassles it was even otherworldly. This is incredible India in every sense.

More than words

Thai-Burmese border
Here comes the next Ronaldo
Karen School Children
Bangkok skyline
A Karen Church
The Golden Triangle
A butterfly
Akha beauties
An Akha Church

Briefing from the land of smiles

From the land of blocking, blogging is hardly possible. Facebook, youtube, blogs of any kind, sites with sensitive words (words you are not supposed to even think about, let alone mention them here), etc, etc are all blocked. For some of these, even proxy sites would not penetrate them. You are supposed to dig too deep to get around the great firewall for which I have no motivation nor time. That's the most obvious reason why this blog had been inactive for months now. Other reasons being busyness and laziness and writer's block (if a non-writer is permitted to have one).

H1N1 was a big concern and it scared us a little bit. But the trip's been planned and petitioned (upwards) for too long. Efforts to cancel turned out to be too mafan (that's troublesome for you), and off we went after consulting all sorts of people in the know practically from everywhere. Suvarnabhumi airport looked a little deserted at 2:20 in the am and we were rather happy about that. The visa fee had been cancelled till sometime next year and the immigration officials looked extra friendly and welcoming. After all we were among the few who dared to be in this land when every one else decides to stay out of trouble.

But what is this? Only very few people were actually wearing masks in the airport and we looked sort of out of place here with our masks on. We decided to take them off as well in the end. Airasia was giving some kind of promotional tour to some special guests. As we fly off to Chiang Mai with these special people we sat right behind the star of the group and the cameramen were all the time focusing on her moves. Nothing to make your heart skip a beat though.

I remember me six odd years ago, all impressed with the people who smiled at you and looked angelic in Bangkok, the city of angels (that's the meaning of the name). But I am now convinced people seemed to smile without actually smiling in their hearts.

Chiang Mai reminds us of home. Tin roofs, green hills, blue skies - they are all here. We begin to realise how deprived we have been. I love Thai food for one, seafood especially. Temples? Am not too big on it. Go to one, they're more or less the same. One is quite enough. Not even sure if we are going to any this time around. Let's just be here and enjoy and relax a little more before we get back to where you need to talk in tongues and hope someone outside would know how to interpret and get your message across somehow. The feeling of freedom in the air, the knowledge that you are not under the radar of anyone and the anonimity you have is sufficient to give you satisfaction and enjoyment in this land for now.

Khob kun krub and khob kun ka!

This is what one writes when he is too restless to sleep and uninspired to do any serious thinking. That's all for now. Yeah, non-sensical, isn't it?