Reading about China

Of course we know about China from the TV and newpapers. But we also grow up reading about the Opium Wars, the Rape of Nanjing, the Long March, the invasion of Tibet, the India-China war, and the Beijing Olympics. Beyond that?

As lamentable as the obfuscations are the depths of ignorance from which foreigners approach Chinese
history.

For several years I have been trying to read through John Keay’s history of China, a magisterial book from which the quote above has been taken. I guess that by the time I work my way through it my ignorance will not be quite as deep. All I can remember now are two facts: first, that the terracotta armies of the first emperor in Xian were forgotten by the time the three kingdoms were at war, and next, that the beginning of the Ming dynasty is closer to us than it was to the time of the three kingdoms. The article on China in Wikipedia is substantially shorter, and may be enough to prepare me for the trip.

There are many guides on the web, and I Google and scan them. But I’m happy to be old-fashioned enough to want to read a book. After browsing reviews on Amazon I settle for the Lonely Planet’s massive tome on China. I plan to read it on my Kindle, and find that it is very nicely cross linked. The maps don’t seem very readable on my Kindle, so maybe I’ll have to print out a few before leaving.

Go and ask this river
Running to the east,
If I can travel further
Than a friend’s love.
(Li Bai)

A large number of books I see on Amazon are on conflicts between India and China, past and future. I agree with a Chinese friend, The Striver, that the best that aam aadmi like us could do to prevent conflict is to visit each others’ countries. It could be a beginning. Getting back to books, I should read Red Sorghum. The Family was reading it a couple of years back when Mo Yan won a Nobel prize. A decade back we saw quite a few Chinese movies, I should try to find some. Also poetry: in a gathering of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, all quoting Chinese classical poetry, I feel I’m missing something.

I’m a little jittery about the language. On my first visit to China I had learnt the numbers with a lot of effort. They have slipped away now. On a layover in Hong Kong I’d managed to pick up a little phrase book by Lonely Planet which had phrases in English, Pinyin and Chinese characters. This had turned out to be really useful. I found it lying between my French and German dictionaries.

That’s a lot of ignorance, but no obfuscation, I hope.

Preparing the mind

The first thing I need to check about China is the exchange rate. These days using a quick conversion of INR 10 to RMB 1 is good. This resonates strangely well with the idea one hears now and then: that a new-rupee which is worth INR 10 would be useful (for example, new-rupee coins might become feasible).

Numbeo has a great idea; it puts together the current cost of lots of different things. Interestingly the cost of one kilo of rice is RMB 6.60. Basic mobile tariffs are RMB 0.50 for one minute of voice call. Rice, tomatoes, beer, apples (and yes, even oranges) are priced similar to India; mobile rates, bus tickets, wine and bottled water cost a little more. It seems that China is a little costlier than India. [But see Manon’s cautionary comment below].

Hard beds on chinese trains

How should one travel in China? Google knows all. It directs me to Beijing Travel‘s website, from which I find that one can fly from Beijing to Xian in 2 hours. The flights cost around RMB 750 in the early morning or evening, but climb to RMB 1000 or above during the day. The fast train takes about 5 hours and a 2nd class seat costs RMB 516. If we plan to get away to Xian on a weekend, then flying seems to be the better option. I should cross check this.

Manon has a wonderful blog post about the nitty-gritty of travel by train in China (it is good to know that you need to arrive early to check in your baggage). There are slow night trains, which seem to be roughly like Indian trains in speed. The interiors look like Indian trains as well. I do want to travel by train at least once. With my time constraints, it looks like I can only do the Shanghai-Hangzhou stretch by train. The web site of China train guide informs me that it takes about 2 hours by the slower K train and half as long by the G or D trains. The prices are about RMB 25 (K train), RMB 50 (D train) and RMB 75 (G train).

Beijing-Shanghai bullet train: 2nd class seats

Bejing to Shanghai by bullet train may take about 5 hours zuǒyòu (I’m proud of my first word in Chinese: it means approximately), and costs RMB 555 by 2nd class seater. The price gradation is steep: 1st class seaters on the same stretch cost RMB 933, and you need to pay RMB 1748 for “Business class”! Then there are sleeper trains which take 15 hours and cost RMB 150 zuǒyòu. The “hard sleeper” interiors look like Indian 3-tier coaches. The equivalent of Indian 2-tier coaches are called “soft sleeper”. I guess the names also have something to do with the padding. Beijing-Shanghai flights seem to be comparatively cheaper, ranging from RMB 350 to 800. Flying always seems to be an option.

Fishing in the Ganga

Egret on the Ganga

As the temperature in Mumbai climbs well above 30 Celcius, I remember our last October’s trip north. We left from Delhi around 6 in the morning and took the road towards Moradabad, planning to turn north later. We came to the Ganges at Garhmukteshwar in the middle of the morning and stopped on the road bridge to look at water birds. They were there in plenty. An egret tried to fish in the shallow muddy water, quite unsuccessfully. I wonder how often it has to catch fish in order to survive.

yellowwagtail

We spent a while watching this little beauty wade through the muddy shallows, picking at invisible morsels. The Family followed it with her binoculars, me with my camera. She doesn’t need to crack the Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp to identify common birds like this. I do, but she’s easier to consult. Yellow wagtail, is her verdict, but could be a Citrine wagtail as well. Later I spend some time in study and conclude that her first guess is most likely to be correct.

dhaba

You see the zaniest of sights in Uttar Pradesh. From the bridge we saw a dhaba standing in the middle of the river: a real outlier. This was well after the monsoon, and the river had split into two streams. But around the dhaba, the water was high enough that you would find it difficult to make tea. Maybe the dhaba is accessible between December and June. If someone were to take the trouble to run it when it is under water, I wouldn’t mind wading through the water to sip a chai and take a selfie.

ganga

The strange thing about a road trip through this part of Uttar Pradesh is the small number of people you see. You know that there are lots of people around. This countryside is not empty- you pass village after village. The fields are not exactly bustling with activity, but they aren’t empty either. Between villages, the land seems empty of people. Here, in this vast expanse of land around the Ganga you can see only four people.

The land of tea and oranges

I finally proposed, and the answer is yes. The Family loves the idea of a trip to China.

Now the slog begins. We will go to Beijing, so the Forbidden City and the Great Wall are definitely on. We can’t miss Shanghai, after all one of its landmarks is named in Hindi: the Bund. We must see Xian, with its terracotta warriors from the early days of unified China, and its Chinese muslim street food.

On a first trip to China we will probably not try to cram in Xinjiang and Tibet. In any case, Tibet may involve special diffficulties for an Indian. The trouble with pragmatism is that the dream of taking the Beijing-Lhasa train remains a dream.

The rest is hard to decide on. Should we see the limestone mountains and the cormorant fishing in the Li river? The West Lake near Hangzhou sounds really nice, and there seem to be interesting villages to visit nearby. Huangshan, the yellow mountain, sounds attractive; specially since azaleas will bloom there in May. The painted hills of Zangye look beautiful, and Gansu has the added attraction of being on the old Silk route.

How expensive is flying in China? How long do trains take? Can we do all of these? With no knowledge of any Chinese language or dialect and no ability to read the script, can we travel on our own? China has been added to the list of countries for which Indian visas can be obtained electronically, and stamped on arrival. Does that mean a Chinese visa is also simple to get?

Decisions! Decisions!

I’m never sure. Are you?

2camels

The camel has a single hump;
The dromedary, two;
Or else, the other way around.
I’m never sure. Are you?

I was airlifted to Bhopal for a day. Three minutes out of the airport, on the side of a road, I saw two camels. They were content to sit under a tree as the nomadic shepherds from Rajasthan who had got them there busied themselves setting up a pen for the sheep. Watching the camels (or, possibly, Dromedaries), a poem by Ogden Nash came to mind.

DSC01621

I saw nothing else of much interest. That is a lesson not to go on unplanned trips, even if they are business trips, because I know that Bhopal has many things to see. The lake, Bharat Bhavan, the Museum of Man, the Bhimbetka caves, and Sanchi are just the tip of an iceberg, the parts that every traveller sees.

I had visited Bhopal once before, that time for a holiday. The Family and I stayed in a wonderful hotel called the Jehan Numa Palace, and had dinner in their courtyard restaurant every night. Their Shammi and Galoti kababs remain fresh in our minds. We saw the usual sights with a wonderful driver. One day we asked him what he would like us to see. It was one of the best questions we asked on that trip. He took us into parts of the town where the ghosts of the old Nawabi past linger in locked houses with ornate doors, crowded courtyards surrounded by walls with faded paintings, dazzling glass set in windows looking out of grimy facades. The area surrounds the world’s biggest industrial accident: the Union Carbide plant, which is still slowly releasing its poisons into the groundwater. I have so many photos from that day to remind us that we have only scratched the surface of Bhopal on our one holiday there. We will be back, but don’t hold your breath; the world is large and strange.

Leeches, macaques and mouse-hearts

A long long time ago I was travelling to Delhi by train. In the coupe was a small child and his mother. The grandparents had come to the station to see the their grandson off. Just before the train left the station they gave him a huge slab of chocolate. When the train was on the move, and the boy was about to start on the chocolate, the mother asked him to share it with us. You could see the shock on the kid’s face. The mother was adamant: is your heart so small, like a mouse’s? That’s exactly what I feel like when I hear about leeches: mouse-hearted.

Scouring the web about Valparai I discover good news and bad news. The bad news is that other travel bloggers complain about leeches. My heart shrinks to mouse size. The good news is that you can get quite a lot of birding done just walking around the grounds of your hotel.

There’s nothing I can do about the bad news except hope that in April Valparai is still covered in forgetful snow (metaphorically) and that the land remains dead and lilac-free. Also I can carry leech socks. The Family refuses to do anything until we have to pack, so I am left to confront my base fears alone in the dead of the night.

Birding is another matter. Radha has a long and detailed post from her visit half a decade ago. So does Anushsh Shetty. A look at the photos Anushsh has posted is heartening; it may not be too hard to spot the Malabar squirrel, the tahr and the lion-tailed Macaque. Sankara rates this as the number seven birding spot in India, ahead of Mishmi hills, Pangot, and a lot of other places. You who look to windward, tell me if you agree. [Note added later: it is a great place for birding, read about our experiences here]

This is not going to be the relaxed holiday I was dreaming about. It will be hectic: rising in the morning before the birds, chasing macaques in the afternoons, silent evenings waiting for glimpses of tahrs. No lazing in the sun with a Long Island Iced Tea and a splash in the pool afterwards. Our Grimett and Inskip will be more battered, both my cameras will be image-laden, and, as always, I will need another holiday afterwards to recover from this.

The Family says she knew this. I gnash my teeth silently. Wasn’t it Teddy Roosevelt who said “Gnash your teeth and charge your batteries”? I resolve to do that.

Cruel Month

April is what I am talking about, of course. It begins with a long weekend. Which means travel. The Family lays down the law: I have to start looking. Can we go to Corbett? No, that requires a longer vacation. What about Munnar? No, same reason. Badami? Hotels don’t look too inviting. North Bengal? Too short a trip. Assam? No.

I’m lost. The Family says Valparai. Where’s that? I look up Wikipedia. It looks like we should fly to Coimbatore and drive a hundred kms. Valparai seems to be essentially tea and coffee estates on the edge of a forest which you are not allowed to go to. Now this actually begins to look like a dream weekend getaway. Maybe we can spend three days loafing about: eating grass, going for strolls across tea gardens, and sleeping.

Edge of the forest? Bound to be some birds there. Take my camera along. The Family never travels without her binoculars and the battered Grimmett and Inskipp. Battery packs, several skeins of usb connectors, a laptop. I read further: lion-tailed macaques, great hornbill, the Nilgiri Tahr. This will be fascinating. I’m already enchanted.

But there is more on the web. valparai.com tells us “It is a place to be visited at least once in your life span, to bring out the joy and peace within you”. The 40 hairpin bends on the road to Valparai may bring out more from within me.

I keep my misgivings about food to myself. Does man live by grass alone? Could they have interesting mushrooms? Wikitravel is silent on the topic of mushrooms, but promises “lots of good bakeries with fresh eatables, biscuits, breads and other bakery products”. It’s been a long time since I had bakery products like fresh eatables. So I’m definitely looking forward to this.

There’s also a fascinating virtual tour showing what looks like snow. Can’t be, I tell myself. Valparai may be 3500 feet up, but it is in the Annamalai range. No chance of being buried in the ice and being dug up 10000 years later with wild mushrooms in my pockets.

Mundane matters will now follow. Finding a hotel, transferring money, buying tickets. But I am charged up. April is no longer the cruelest month. I will not fear a handful of dust.