Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Uzbekistan and Tibet 2006

It's snowing this morning here in Beijing, if only to drive home the point that I won't be missing six weeks of winter this year like I have in the past, but I guess I knew that.

My resolve to give up smoking cigars collapsed in the face of cheap Cubans at the duty-free in Seoul. And having wagered a bottle of premium scotch that Lieberman would lose the general election, I was also glad to see the designated brand there at a steep discount. I'll pick up a bottle on my way home so that Paul and I can drink it together in March. Booze always makes the family weekends go better anyway.
My friend Huadong from work had asked me to deliver a laptop to an old friend of his here in Beijing, a transfer that went off without a hitch, so those of you who were hoping to see me in the news in handcuffs will have to live to dream another day.
I've got three more days here, then I fly on to Tashkent for two weeks in Uzbekistan before flying back to Beijing and taking the new train to Tibet. Two weeks there, then a flight to Chengdu for three days, then home via Beijing again.
Looks to be a cold but still good trip.

It really seemed like it was going to be the most straightforward thing. At the barbershop a few doors down from my hotel in Beijing there was even a sign on the wall with English translations of various services: "shampoo", "haircut" and most pertinent to me: "shave". There was even a nice barber chair just waiting for me. I pointed to "shave" on the sign, and pantomimed it as well for good measure. Again, it should have been very straightforward. The woman working prepared a bowl of steaming hot water and picked it up along with a razor, but instead of directing me to the waiting chair, she led me through a door to the back. My first hint was the smile and wink I got from the other male patron, and I was increasingly suspicious when she led me to a small room that contained only a bed that nearly filled it up. My suspicions were confirmed when she motioned for me to get undressed and lay down. I'm not quite sure where the communication broke down, but I can only speculate as to which part of me she expected to shave.
Welcome to China.
Beijing is quite the study in contrasts. Huge swathes are as modern as anything you would find in the fully developed world, and large portions of the population clearly enjoy a standard of living equivalent to the US middle class. Loads of people are clearly wealthier than I am, but poor and struggling China is also present nearly everywhere. Pretty incredibly interesting place overall.
A moment when I was particularly challenged was when I was out and about, and really needed to find a place to pee. I have always had a pretty shy bladder, getting things to flow when somebody is standing just next to me doing the same can be a bit of a challenge. In this particular case, I found a public urinal, but it was in a long narrow room that ran parallel to the sidewalk, the urinals facing out towards the busy street, and there at about chest level to most Chinese (but more like waist level to yours truly) ran a long window. I couldn't hold it, so all I could do was smile, and wave.
I'm now in Tashkent, my first trip into the ex-Soviet world. There is still clearly a post-Stalinist hangover, and the contrast with Beijing's vibrancy couldn't be greater. Either because I look Slavic enough, or because I dress poorly enough, nearly everybody on the street here assumes that I speak Russian. Not standing out like a sore thumb is another contrast to most of the travel I've done recently. In the short time I've been here, I've managed to get a raging crush on the daughter of older couple who own the B&B where I'm staying. Never mind that she's married and four months pregnant, she's an angel. The son-in-law (a lout, I'm sure) is out of town on some business trip. Luckily I've been able to carve some time out of my busy day to give her English lessons.
Connections here are painfully slow, but my dad has developed some health issues, so I'll be on-line regularly looking for updates. I hope you all are well!
There's nothing like preparing for takeoff at night... in a snowstorm.... on a small aging Russian jet... operated by an airline whose safety record precludes it from flying into the US... to make you question your own capacity for risk assessment.
And there's nothing like exchanging money with a sketchy dude under an overpass, with a plastic bag stuffed with bricks of cash , to remind you that you've left the relatively hygienic economic climes of the west. And there's absolutely nothing like the satisfaction of escaping the clutches of a predatory pack of taxi drivers (already laughing because they thought they had you gaffed and landed) by finding a minibus around the corner that would take you on the same seven-hour journey for 1/4 the price.
As is often the case, that seven hour trip, seemingly something to dread on the face of it, turned out to be a highlight because of the congenial nature of the Uzbeks. Every bit of food or drink that anybody had was shared with all eleven people on board, which made for a bit of a party.
They were all extremely curious about where I was from, and what the hell I was doing in Uzbekistan, along with every detail of my life that they could extract from me given the difficulty of having absolutely no common language. They were also very pleased with my Nano, given the amazing fact that the van's aging tape deck had a "CD in" socket that was compatible with the adaptor I had brought along. The Dixie Chicks were predictably a big hit, but so were Groove Armada and Gnarls Barkley. I was reminded of how in many ways I'm still a teenage boy when Easy E came on. There's just something juvenile about how amused I was by the sight of fur-hatted heads bobbing to "College Girls Are Easy" as we trundled down the frozen Asian steppe from Khiva to Bukhara. That was a moment when I was grateful for the language barrier.

I experienced another example of that Uzbek congeniality the next day as I wandered around Bukhara. Across from the "Ark" or main fortress of the old town, there stands a rusting monstrosity of a steel tower that rises to maybe 120 feet. Originally it was a water tower, but at one point it was converted to house a tiny restaurant at the top, but the rickety elevator has long been parked at the bottom. A swaying narrow circular staircase still climbed up the middle though, and as I stood looking at it, an older man came out and offered to let me go up it for a small fee, and also insisted that I come in for tea with him afterwards. It seems that I haven't fully realized the extent of the fear of heights I've developed in middle-age, because without a second thought I agreed.

The experience was, of course, harrowing, at least for me. The old man got a good laugh at the way I was shaking when I returned to earth. He then waved me into the decaying shack that stood next to the tower, and introduced me to the four other older men drinking tea and sitting around the large raised platform that is the traditional center of Uzbek social life. Again we really had no language in common, but I was able to figure out that they had known each other since they met in elementary school in 1943, it was also quickly apparent that they had been relishing each others company for that entire time, meeting for lunch and tea at least once a week. They had been respectively, an engineer, a doctor, and two business men, and then there was our host, who they all just referred to as "The Boss". After introducing me, he disappeared downstairs, and soon the smell of grilled onions wafted up as the others questioned me about every aspect of my life , along with again the question of what the hell I was doing in Uzbekistan, particularly in the winter. Shortly, our host reappeared with two platters of liver and onions, and stacks of flat bread, this is also when the vodka came out. We all tucked into a meal that was initiated and then frequently punctuated with healthy shots of vodka, no sipping allowed, each glass had to be thrown back with authority. Being geriatrics and all, they didn't really have a chance of drinking me under the table, but after an hour or so we were all comfortably drunk, which of course is when the conversation turned to their wives: whose was most beautiful, who had been married the most times, and lastly, who was still having sex and who wasn't. You know, your basic boy talk. When it came time for me to leave (after some group portraits) my offers to pay for the meal were met with friendly disdain. A really good time.
So, Uzbekistan has been cold but great thus far.
Oh, and a hint if you're ever changing money with a sketchy dude, the key is that your dollars stay safely tucked away until the money you're getting is counted and in your pocket. Only when you're satisfied does your cash make an appearance. If the sketchy dude protests, then
he's up to no good. That's a lesson I learned after chasing a quick-change artist through the streets of Prague fifteen years ago, convincing him to refund my money by throwing him up against a wall.

PS: My dad seems to be okay, thanks for the concern.


Char Minor

Tashkent II

There seem to be some lingering questions as to exactly how the
situation at the barbershop in Beijing resolved itself. I can assure you
that I quickly backed out of the room, and then out of the shop, finding another one a few doors down that likely offered the same "alternative" services, but where I made my intentions clear by plopping down in the barber chair. I then received one of the most painful shaves of my life. The Chinese just don't have enough facial hair to have perfected the techniques of a good shave. The Uzbeks on the other hand, are a very hirsute people (believe me even some of the babushkas...), and know how
to do the job.

"Barf Means Snow"

So, I managed to get cursed by a gypsy girl the other day, but I haven't woken up with my eyes sewn shut, and nothing has withered up and dropped off, so I'm assuming it didn't pack any real punch. That's not what the Uzbek woman who was in the share taxi with me thought though. We were sitting in Nuvoyi, waiting for the car to fill when a couple of Gypsy (a very small minority in Uzbekistan) girls approached with a tin can full of smoldering and smoking something, it was hard to say what. They were asking for money to give what seemed to be a blessing of some sort. All of the drivers were taking them up on it. I declined, apparently in some way that gave offense, because the older of the two girls fixed me with a dead-eyed stare, and began a sort of incantation. The woman in the car with me angrily told her to stop, at which point the girl, without missing a beat, just broadened the focus of her attentions to include the woman as well. This elicited an absolutely hysterical response from the Uzbek woman, who was traveling with her young son. Her hysterics finally seemed to make the girls slowly back off. The drivers were all averting their eyes, not wanting to get involved. Clearly everybody took it very seriously. Except me of course, but it will give me additional pause next time I'm preparing to fly in an aging Russian jet...

The biggest real threat in Uzbekistan primarily comes from the police, who use any excuse to stop you for a shake-down. It's apparently gotten much better than a few years ago, but you still hear war stories from other travelers. I did get stopped a couple of times in Taskent, but my wallet remained intact. Mostly they just seemed bored and wanted an excuse to talk to a foreigner. I had quite the opposite of the usual experience here in Samarkand though. I had gone out at about 9PM to see if I could get some pictures under the full moon, and ran into the cop who had earlier offered to let me climb one of the Registan's minarets for a "fee", an offer which I had declined at the time. He was amicable though, and also clearly eager to talk to a foreigner and practice his English. We chatted for a bit, and were joined by his equally friendly partner. It was freezing out, so they motioned me over to their quarters in one of the old madrassas right there on the square. Turns out they had a TV and a bottle of vodka in there, so we settled in to drink and watch the Asian Games on Uzbek TV. At this point I realized that I had a couple of my Cuban cigars in my bag, so I pulled them out, which elicited a broad smile from the original cop, Rostom (mostly golden, I think Uzbek dental work is behind the recent run-up in gold prices). We drank and smoked into the night, with me occasionally stepping outside to appreciate the Registan in the moonlight. In the end Rostom agreed that I could climb the minaret in the morning (it was to cold to do it right then) without paying the usual fee. Of course the cigar cost me more than the fee would have, but it's all in the experience.
It's a pretty sweet spot:

The door to their quarters is the small one just to the right of the big central doorway in the picture.

Uzbekistan was definitely part of the world that wasn't paying attention when JFK stopped wearing a hat, cuing nearly everybody else to give up headgear as well. The range of styles is stunning, from classic Russian fur, to jaunty little fedoras and caps, to things that look like nothing other than that the wearer has stuck his head up a small sheep's ass. As a result, my slumbering fetish (for hat's, not sheeps' ass, thank you very much) has been re-awakened. I have to admit I was briefly tempted by the Russian fur, but both the stigma and the price came into play. The stigma stimulates my ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) and pushed me towards the purchase, but the price ($300.00) ended up being the deciding factor. I have found other options though, which I may actually want to wear when I get home, we'll see. My brother XXX will never have a cold head again though, except by choice. If there's anybody I know who has the internal fortitude to withstand the ridicule that comes with wearing an absurd hat, it's him.

You know you're a geezer when being willing to share your reading glasses with the other geezers in the tea shop makes you the most popular geezer there. Ah well...
Got cursed again by a Gypsy woman in Samarkand. She was begging outside the Registan (and I'm pretty sure pinching her toddler to make him cry beforehand), and when I didn't comply, she gave me that look and started her incantations. But this time I was ready! I whipped out my thumb and fore-finger, squinted closed one eye, and began my own incantation: "I'm crushing your head, I'm crushing your head...".
It might just be wishful thinking on my part, but it seemed like she struggled to maintain her composure, and then it also seemed like she cut things a bit short.
I really enjoyed Samarkand overall, not least because I found a great old Soviet hotel that was quite cheap and atmospheric. Built in 1956, it had an air of decay, with long moody and heavily-draped halls, high-ceilinged rooms with an abundance of plaster moldings (old volutes?), privatized so the staff was friendly and helpful, and hot water twice a day. All this for just $12.00 a night, including breakfast.
After four days there, I moved on to Tashkent before flying out. I have to say that while the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kazaks are incredibly friendly and generally good-natured, the Russians (particularly in Tashkent) are some of the rudest and most bitter people I've ever met (other than those folks near the Nigerian border in Benin, I can't remember the name of the tribe off-hand). From what I gather, it seems that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, all the Russians wanted to leave Uzbekistan, so the only ones remaining are those who couldn't get out, and they're generally pissed to be there. You know me, correcting bad behavior the world over, which made for some interesting encounters, particularly with that one rude kid running an internet cafe.
The exception to the rude Russian rule was the very sweet young woman I met on the train to Tashkent. She and her mother had worked for years as translators for an NGO, so her English was excellent. She was very helpful in explaining things during the crush to get onboard. She was on her way to Taskent to look for work, after nearly every NGO in the country was forced to leave last June. That's a good example of the sort of government policy that is helping to maintain Uzbekistan's post-Soviet hangover. Torture is another. I met three French Red Cross workers in Bukhara who were visiting detention facilities. They were hesitant to talk much, but gave the impression that things are every bit as bad as you read.
Getting out of Uzbekistan turned out to be something of an ordeal (I know there those amongst you who will attribute that to the curses, but I'm to much of a staunch materialist to be with you on that one). I arrived at the airport at 10PM, made it through the various nefarious customs and passport controls with a minimum of trouble, only to arrive at the gate and learn that the flight had been delayed indefinitely due to weather. A little fog, I don't think they have the equipment at the airport for moderately-low visibility operations, but given Uzbek Air's safety record, I wasn't to upset. I WAS upset though when they said that the flight wouldn't leave until the morning, but because I had gone through passport control I couldn't go back to a hotel , and in fact, couldn't leave the gate. Long story short, the flight ended up not leaving until the next afternoon, thirteen hours late, me with no food and I didn't sleep a wink. Then of course I didn't arrive at my hotel in Beijing until 11PM, needing to catch a cab again at 6AM to get back to the airport. Needless to say I arrived here in Lhasa a bit wiped out, which was only exacerbated by the elevation (3700 meters).
I had time in Beijing for one interesting little encounter though. I was staying at a small traveler's hostel, which is not generally my first choice, but the only cheap option there. I was starving, so had the choice of a late meal in the hostel restaurant, next to the British kids playing nintendo, or forging out into the still active streets. I went out. Just across the alley there was a heavily-bundled rotund woman working over a steaming wok full of wide noodles. I ordered a plate and started to head into the small dining room behind her, but she waved for me to sit down next to her instead. I wasn't sure why, but it wasn't to cold, so I sat down and shortly her intent became clear. Every time I made a little headway on my plate, she would plop some tasty little tidbit down for me to try. For the most part I'm pretty sure it was chicken and shrimp, although I don't care to speculate about what else there might have been. Very enjoyable, and a nice cap to a difficult day. After, I popped an Ambien (my favorite pharmaceutical, if that doesn't tell you I'm getting old, I don't know what does) and went
to bed.
Tibet promises to be good, after I adjust to the elevation. Lhasa itself is nearly entirely Chinese, but the Tibetan quarter is swarming with pilgrims circling the various shrines and temples. When you join them for the stroll, each time you approach a particularly significant spot, a low hum of "ohms" rises all around you.

I'll get further out and about soon, although the paperwork promises to be challenging, this is an occupied country after all.
I hope you all are well.

Lhasa II
Staying in a relatively posh hotel here in Lhasa that has dropped into my price-range with it's winter discount, all mod-cons, including a breathless call from a young woman asking if I wanted a "massage" in my room. To avoid the sort of speculation that came with the barbershop story, I'll just state right now that I opted for the blind massage school around the corner instead.

I've just returned to Lhasa after two days in Tridrum, a completely Tibetan village up in the mountains whose claim to fame is a set of rustic hot springs. The hotel facilities were pretty rustic as well. I checked into the most obvious place first, but then promptly checked out after I got within fifteen feet of the toilets. I ended up staying in a very simple room on the bottom floor of the nunnery that was built into the hillside above the springs. The toilets were a hike away and still just a hole in the floor, but at least they were clean, and nearly open air, so the stench was limited. For $2.50 a night, the room had several beds, a single light bulb, and only two missing window panes. Oh, and no heat what-so-ever. That last fact was significant, because at 600 meters above Lhasa, it got VERY cold at night. I had bought a comforter in Lhasa, and combined that with the bedding from a couple of the cots to build myself a little cocoon where I managed to stay reasonably warm. In the mornings though, I would wake up wondering what the hell I was doing there, but as soon as I slipped into the hot water I remembered. It was pretty heavenly. Surprisingly, even after seeing my ample-ass naked, some of the locals still asked me if I was a boxer (seemingly their only English word).

I had paid a driver from Lhasa to take me up there, with sightseeing on the way, and then return to get me two days later, sightseeing again on the way back. After my first freezing night I was wondering if maybe I should have had him come back after just one day, but if I had I would have missed out on the completely bat-shit crazy local woman fixating on and stalking me that afternoon, spinning and singing and tapping on my window until I figured out how to hang up a blanket for some privacy. I also would have missed out on meeting the two Tibetan guys up from Lhasa who worked for a Belgian NGO. They were the only ones I met in the whole two days who spoke any English (theirs was quite good), and were pretty entertaining. We rustled up a six-pack and stayed out in the springs late that night. Thankfully bat-shit girl wasn't waiting at my door when I returned that time.

On the way back, we stopped at Drigung, a monastery improbably grafted onto the side of a mountain. It's famous as being the most auspicious place for burial in Central Tibet. But burial is a different thing here, the flocks of vultures around the monastery would be your first clue as to how. The dead are taken to a high point where they are ritually chopped and pounded to bits, and then fed to the vultures. Given their numbers, I'd guess that the local crows get some of the action as well. They call it "sky burial", and at least part of the rational is to serve as a reminder to the living that we are all mortal, something I can respect, "memento mori" being my words-to-live-by of late. I wouldn't have had the stomach for it anyway, but apparently after some ugly incidents with cameras, visitors are no longer allowed to witness the process.

I'm quite liking Lhasa. It's mostly a new Chinese boomtown of sorts, but it has a large Tibetan quarter that is packed with pilgrims this time of year, just like I'd been told to expect. With winter shutting down agriculture, it's the only season when most of the population has the time to indulge in pilgrimage.
Jokang temple is the main focus of that effort (with the Potola coming in a distant second). Getting there in the morning it's quite the scene as a long line snakes around waiting to get into a series of interior shrines that are cramped enough that only one person can pass through the door at a time. It was as I joined that line and then jostled with the crowd in and out of each of the small doorways that I realized the Tibetans are probably the friendliest people I've ever met traveling. Most everybody was delighted that I was joining the scrum, and smiled broadly as they elbowed past me. In fact the bent-over sweet-old-ladies were the most likely to smile, shake my hand, then push past me.
At first I was confused as to why so many people were carrying thermoses, but I quickly realized that they were filled with hot liquid yak butter that was used to fill the thousands of lamps. It's a good thing photography wasn't allowed inside, because soon I was covered with a fine sheen of the stuff, just like every other surface. It would have been a disaster for my camera.
The second most popular shrine (after the blue Buddha that's the center of the whole temple), was the one with nine Buddhas lining the walls, each with a comely girl straddling their lap in what could only be a coital embrace. Even I broke down and pulled out my wallet for that one, being a geezer and all. One of the benefits of being here in winter is that I didn't see a single other western tourist the whole time I was inside, and just a smattering of Chinese tourists.

The Potala is also pretty amazing, really more of a museum, but still a stunning building, even if it did give me a bloody nose to climb to the top.

Anyway, I'm now back in Lhasa for a day before heading out to Shigatse, and then Gyantse. Rustic shelter without heat or a hot spring nearby would be a nightmare, so I'll likely stick to larger towns for the rest of my time in Tibet. Then it's off to Chengdu for a bit before heading back to Beijing and home.
Came down with a horrid cold my last three days in Lhasa, the full gamut: fever, headache, congestion, sore throat, and (worst of all) a persistent hacking dry cough. Two trips to a pharmacy procured me some worthless Chinese herbal crap that only resulted in a second sleepless night. On my third trip, with the help of a friend, I managed to convey that I wanted "western style" medicine. This got me a bottle of thick liquid labeled entirely in Chinese except for the list of active ingredients. I googled these to see what I was getting. For one of them, fully half the first page of results were cautionary personal tales from former drug addicts. Now we're talking!
Doubled the dose, and slept like a baby for twelve hours that night.
On my second trip to the pharmacy, there was a very cute young Chinese woman working the till. I was just trying to muster the energy to put a little flirt on, when something went wrong with the order before mine. The cute young thing started bellowing across the store like an angry longshoreman. Illusions dashed, I nervously shuffled off to the other register.
Rather than being the result of a gypsy curse, I attribute my cold to the close confines of a share taxi with a coughing snorting fellow passenger. That and another two nights in an unheated room. And I suppose sharing those cigars with an aging monk in Gyantse didn't help my respiratory system either, especially at altitude. That share-taxi ride was particularly enjoyable though, because it began with me interrupting the struggle to get a pile of goat carcasses loaded onto the roof of the mini-van by just lifting them up to the driver one-by-one. Always a fine way to garner some good will, and an advantage of traveling in countries where most people are lucky to come up to my shoulder in height. The granny who owned the goats seemed to take me as her personal guardian, sitting next to me and clutching my thigh tightly with one arm, while pounding my knee with the other hand every time we went over a sketchy bridge, or were part of a particularly harrowing pass on a blind corner. It's hard to say who's more of a menace on the Tibetan roads, the speeding reckless Chinese in their cars, or the obliviously meandering Tibetans in their donkey/tractor carts. It's a bad combination, regardless. On this trip, our driver was signaled by oncoming traffic of a police roadblock ahead. For some reason this prompted him to pull over so that one of the young women in the van could hide under a pile of blankets in the back, for what reason I never fully understood.
Tibet is definitely an occupied country, and there's a palpable tension between the Chinese and the Tibetans. Back at the hot springs, two friendly locals became sullen and quickly left when three Chinese tourists entered the pool, and that share taxi ride went from amicable to chilly when we picked up a Chinese woman for the last stretch into town.
Between the cold weather and the head-cold, I spent more time in Lhasa than I would have expected, but that was fine, I quite enjoyed the Tibetan quarter of the city. Traditional Tibetan dress can be incredibly ornate, and when they adopt western clothes, the men tend to be the most Superfly/Elvis-looking motherfuckers you have ever seen. So just people-watching was enjoyable. I also early-on made the acquaintance of Tenpa and Erqa, he and she being two Tibetan students who were eager to practice their English, and who ended up being incredibly gracious hosts, especially after I got sick. The yak noodle soup they fed me each night certainly made me feel better.
I'm now enjoying the thicker air of Chengdu, a city of valet bicycle parking and occasionally aggressive sales girls. As in most places I've been in Asia, I've found that a curt "nyet" can be very effective. There's nothing like giving the impression you're Russian to erase the giant word "sucker" written across your forehead in every language.
And finally, you haven't been pampered until you've been swept into the comforting embrace of three flight attendants after developing a severe bloody nose on a Chinese airliner. I was initially skeptical of the routine where she soaked her hands in ice-water and then gently patted the back of my neck and forehead, but it seemed to finally do the trick. My sister-in-law Cindy once advised my girlfriend that ultimately the Perry boys just wanted to be mothered. I resisted the idea at the time, but I guess maybe she was right...

No comments:

Post a Comment