Isn’t China like India?

Email to one of my hosts:

The hotels you suggest seem very nice. My wife will be with me for two weeks or so and during this time it would be nice if we had access to a little kitchen. If it not possible, then we will, of course, be very happy to choose one of the hotels.

Instant reply:

I will contact the program manager about your question. I’ll get back to you soon.

Several days later my host wrote back:

I have asked the staff and they told me there are no nearby hotels which have rooms with kitchen. I am sorry for that so you have to choose from the list.

I replied:

Thanks for trying. I’ve now marked my choice of hotels.

Instant reply:

Thank you for your information. There are really apartments with kitchen, but they are poorly equipped and mainly for junior people in China, not for senior foreigners like you.

Why didn’t he say this before? Why did he say it now?

I totally understood. This conversation was not lost in translation. South of the Himalayas we do things the same way. I love travelling in Asia because of these sudden cultural resonances. Sometimes you are in a country where you cannot speak the language, you are a little overwhelmed, and then there will be a conversation like this, which makes you feel you are home.

We are now looking forward to the trip even more. Of course, still with a little anxiety because neither The Family nor I know the language at all.

A cat that catches the mouse

As part of my education on China I’m trying to read something other than history and travel books. There is a lot of modern literature, and there are movies. And there is also interesting journalism. Several years back I’d read a book Pallavi Aiyar about her time as China bureau chief for the Chennai newspaper “The Hindu”. I must read it again.

Two books which I read recently talk of China from completely different perspectives, but are strangely similar. The first is “China Road”, a book by a reporter, Rob Gifford, who travels from Shanghai to Korgaz (a border crossing to Kazakhstan) a large part of it along the old silk route. The style is the modern western travel book: a little bit of a backpacker, a little of the old orientalist adventurer, and very much the commentator from the first world. The second book is “China in Ten Words”, written by Yu Hua, a Chinese author still living in China. Again, this is a familiar voice, of an older person growing up within a culture which has changed unrecognizably within a lifetime: commenting on the changes and trying to identify the constants in the culture.

When China was going through the Cultural Revolution, India was not doing too well either. There was a shortage of food in both countries, but middle-class Indians generally thought they were better off. Now, two generations later, the question that the middle class asks is how we can do as well as China. There are hard facts behind this. In 1980 the average per capita income of a person in China was 30% less than in India; in 2013 it was 350% more. There is a throwaway discussion in Gifford’s book which says that the legitimacy of the Chinese political system depends on continuing improvements in people’s lifestyles, whereas India’s democratic system only means that non-functional governments get removed in an election, even if the alternative is no better. This is an explanation which I have read from Pallavi Aiyar too, so I wonder whether this is folk wisdom among foreign journaists in China.

Whatever.

India and China seem to have arrived at roughly similar circumstances in two completely different ways. In fact, many of the stories in these two books seem like they could have come from India. Yu Hua uses four words to anchor his discussion of modern China: disparity, grassroots, copycat and bamboozle. These are words that the Indian press could very well use to describe aspects of today’s India.

Did the cultural revolution destroy the old China? This is never stated, but implied in both books. I wonder. I was once taken to dinner by my Chinese colleagues at a restaurant built to impress. It was a space built like a hangar to hold a couple of Dreamliners. I saw two wedding dinners in progress. We were led deep into this space and into a private room for our banquet. Sometime during the dinner I asked one of my hosts about the calligraphy carved into one of the walls. There was consultation between several people before the words were translated. I was told that this was not easy to read because the characters were in an older style. It was a classical poem copied out by Mao Zedong.

A cat that catches the mouse is a good cat, no matter whether it is black or white. (Deng Xiaoping)

The Cultural Revolution certainly changed China enough that today’s nation could emerge. In some sense it was a fast track to modernity, but at the expense of one lost generation. The Indian experiment is certainly not on any kind of a fast track, but who knows where it will lead in a couple of generations? Will the Indians of the 2050s look back on the past four generations as lost? The answer may well determine the staying power of Bollywood: going by Kishore Kumar’s songs or the remakes of Amitabh Bachchan movies, the generations of the 1960s and 70s were not lost.

Goa after christmas

Sao Jacinto

I spent the end of last year in Goa and returned home on the eve of the new year. Unlike my previous trips, I stayed entirely to the south of the Zuari. When most people visit Goa at the end of the year, they want to be shuffling in the madness of Sunburn or crowding some other beach in north Goa. If you are sure that you are not a sardine, you could try to head south of the Zuari. It has beaches, and it has more.

On my last evening in Goa I went with some friends to eat in a popular fish restaurant on the south bank of Zuari estuary, near the island of Sao Jacinto. The eatery is one of the places which runs more on the freshness of the fish than on the skills of the cook. The crabs are enormous and sweet, and the less the cook does with it, the better. After selecting one you have time to drink many shots of the wonderful local cashew feni (I like mine on the rocks, with ginger and lime squeezed into it) while munching on the superb Goan sausages. Unless you are careful you can be full before the crabs arrive. Many of the more popular restaurants will have a crooner who manages to make the angriest rock sound mellow. That’s one thing that Goa has in common with the north east of India.

Fisherman's house

After dinner we walked over the causeway to the charming island of Sao Jacinto. I’ve only been there at night, so I can’t tell you whether it looks charming in daytime. Late in evening, when most of the fishermen on the village have gone to sleep, it is quiet place with a serene charm. The causeway takes you to the church square, from where you can start your walk through deserted village roads. On this occassion, after Christmas and before the new year, all the houses were lit up with fairy lights, coloured porch lights, and illuminated stars.

Fresh prawns in Vasco

Earlier in the evening I’d driven out to Vasco on a borrowed scooter to buy a load of cashews to take home. Goa is as non-urban as a continuously inhabited stretch of beaches can be. Even the town of Vasco looks pretty spread out until you get to the old Portuguese center. I spent a fruitless ten minutes looking for Bebinca. Apparently tourists had bought all the stock, and the factory was closed for the rest of the year. I got my cashews, bought various things at the two bakeries I passed, and then wandered into the fish market. The fisherwoman put us down for cheap tourists, interested only in gawking at the fish they have been eating in restaurants. She was right, we were not there to buy any fish. The moment my camera came out, she stopped talking to us and started chatting in Konkani with the owner of the next stall.

Vasco town center

The central square of Vasco is a noisy and crowded place. If you dodge a lane of traffic to stand under the trees in the middle of the oblong “square” you can forget the bustle and look at the layout. It is decidedly not Indian. It is not hard to imagine that if the surrounding buildings were spruced up and painted, and the hoardings and signboards removed, the whole area could look like a charming European plaza, only with more sun and warmth. Some time in the future I hope people put an end to the blight of multistoried shops which has begun to take over, and put the emphasis back on the remaining street-level shops. That can only happen if tourists were willing to take some time off from beach-shacks and come for a coffee, or a drink and a meal in town. The local economy is not strong enough to make the turn-around on its own.

Deciding without knowing

Eventually it always comes down to this: you decide without sufficient knowledge. The Family and I have six days in China before my meetings start. What should we see?

Since my work is in Beijing, we will have many days and weekends to explore the region around the capital, so we can leave it out of the plan for the crucial six days. Xi’an is an easy weekend hop away from Beijing, so we can leave that out of our plan as well.

We pare away the exotic Gansu, with its silk route connections and the incredible landform of Zangye. Since it is not the core of China, as we imagine it, we will visit it on a future trip. The silk route used to terminate in the old capital city of Chang’an which is modern Xi’an (as I realize in a brief “duh” moment), so we will touch that bit of history.

We subject ourselves to the tyranny of maps and flight schedules. The south, Guangzhou, Guilin, and the Li river are also sacrificed. One day we will add this to a trip through Hong Kong, but that day is not today.

Mongolia and its sea of grass has been a dream destination for me. One day The Family and I will take a train to Ulan Bator and then drive out on a road trip without roads, into a landscape without trees. Are there birds in Mongolia? That dream allows us to let Inner Mongolia and other northern parts of China slip out of this trip.

Shanghai, Ma'anshan, Huangshan

We are left with Shanghai and Anhui province. I tell myself that city people like us can handle Shanghai in a couple of days (even though we have zero Putonghua), then spend a lazy couple of days walking around Xihu in Hangzhou and visiting tea gardens and still have a two days left over for other things.

The Family and I were keen on visiting Huangshan in May, the season of azaleas. Manon also recommended this in an earlier comment on a different post. I look at the details. It seems that the bus trip from Hangzhou to Tunxi would take three and a half hours, and then you would have to get to Huangshan: not too far away, but the hours start to mount. A cable car up and down, and the bus back would eat up the rest of the day. Is it worth the dash? Or should one spend the night on the mountain and watch the sunrise before coming down. The area also has a couple of reputedly beautiful villages (Xidi and Hongcun where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was shot), which we could try to squeeze in. The bus from Tunxi takes 1 hour to Xidi and another half hour to Hongcun. Perhaps Huangshan, Xidi/Hongcun can be done in a couple of days, but a large part of it will be on buses. We discussed this with one of my Chinese colleagues, The Prosperous, who said it could be complicated if you only speak English.

Facing my wine, I did not see the dusk,
Falling blossoms have filled the folds of my clothes.
Drunk, I rise and approach the moon in the stream,
Birds are far off, people too are few.
(Li Bai)

What else can one do in two days? Ma’anshan, where Li Bai died, is not so far from Shanghai. But it is in the middle of the mining area. Wikipedia says the town “is not as polluted as other major Chinese steelmaking cities”. But I’m not so sure that 14 centuries after Li Bai drowned trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the the river, the Yangtze will be the quiet place he wrote about. We will give this a pass for now.

Other options are the villages of Zhujiajiao, Suzhou, Wuzhen, Nanxun. The pictures we see and the descriptions we read are nice. Perhaps we don’t need to plan in greater detail.

Maybe we don’t need to plan in greater detail. We will touch Shanghai and Hangzhou, and do as much travelling around parts of Anhui and Jiangsu as seems possible.

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.