Face The Sun: Let There Be Light!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are exclusively those of its author, and are not in any way meant to reflect the opinions or policies of the US Government.

Past Travelogues.

Finland, Estonia, Petersburg

Kirovograd, Ukraine


Tirana, Albania

Macedonia & Romania

Budapest to Bucharest

Balkans and Poland.

Christiania, Copenhagen.

Northern Norway

Northern Finland


Kashgar, briefly

More to come, Inshallah, as I go through old paper travel journals.

The DC experience, archived.

July '05
June '05
December '05
October '04
More to come should interesting things happen to me. Ever.

Blatent Plagiarism

The nation's largest chain bookstore has indicated that, due to lack of consumer interest, it has stopped selling books.
--Frederick Raphael, The Glittering Prizes

I feel this is the equivalent of a surgeon, skipping through a radiology department singing, 'I don't have cancer, I don't have cancer!'
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

Mum is crying with her faced turned away from me, gulping and honking like an injured seal. And I'm rolled up in the back seat wishing the old man would stop the car and make her walk. That or buy her a fish.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

I love it when well-educated women sweaar -- the words regain their original power and meaning when delivered unexpectedly with so much poise.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

She lived with her mother, who looked like an old labrador, and an old labrador.
--Will Self, Great Apes

When I was small and would leaf through the Old Testament retold for children and illustrated in engravings by Gustave Dore, I saw the Lord God sitting on a cloud. He was an old man with eyes, nose, and a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Quality is merely the distribution aspect of Quantity.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

...In the frank brilliance of the bright sun, which, as we all know, is the friend of heroes.
--Jose Saramago, All the Names

He stuttered so badly that you could go out and buy yourself a chocolate bar while he was wrestling with an initial p or b; he would never try to bypass the obstacle by switching to a synonym, and when the explosion finally did occur, it convulsed his whole frame and sprayed the interlocutor with triumphant saliva.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

To Stand on Jericho's Walls and Face the Sun.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A poll:

I'm considering leaping back into the world of internet dating. Who doesn't love internet dating? It's glorious. A coworked pointed me in the direction of a website that services Beijing, and then tossed out a cautionary "but god knows, I wouldn't put a picture on there." I opposed: I mean, what? No picture? I mean, god knows of course nothing scandalous, but just a picture of my face? "Hey man, it's your career," he said. I called another friend for a second opinion. "Oh god no," she said. "What are you crazy? I mean, *I* wouldn't. But it's up to you."

I found all of this shocking. It's internest dating! Everyone does it these days! So I'm asking everyone -- particularly foreign service folks, but I welcome any opinions. I'm looking to re-enter the dating world, and word-of-mouth ain't cutting it. Online dating is worthless without a picture -- no one will pay you a lick of attention if there's an X drawn through the square where your face should go. Has online dating gone mainstream enough that putting a picture of my well-manicured facial hair online is nothing out of the ordinary? Or is this, for some unknown reason, too unorthodox?

Let me know your thoughts.

Labels: , ,

Posted by Dakota on 6:18 AM link |

My interest in Qinghai (and later Gansu) was largely logistical: I had some serious questions regarding the day-to-day lives of Tibetan monks.

(I recognize that going to Qinghai and Gansu rather than Tibet seems illogical, but it was necessary. Moreover, only three of the six major monasteries of Yellow Hat Tibetan Buddhism are located in Tibet. One's in Gansu, one's in Qinghai, and a third is across the border in Himalayan India).

It took me about 15 minutes at the Ta'Er monastery, on the outskirts of Tibet, to get a monk to invite me home. This was all the invitation I needed to grill him on everything I wanted to know.

So then, monk logistics:

If you're a monk, the monastery will give you an annual income based on how long you've been at the monastery and rolling under the assumption that the temple has been pulling in donations. This ranges from about 2000 kuai ($250) a year to about 4000 kuai ($500) a year. This allows you to pay for your monk cell phone, which you are not forbidden to have since Tibetan Buddhism is, shall we say, unique.

The monk I was talking to, a respectable old-timer with 14 years at the monastery, was pulling in 3500 kuai (about $430) a year. You get paid in cash, in a single lump payment once a year, every November.

If you're an irresponsible monk who isn't good at budgeting and you blow through all your monkmoney by oh-let's-say mid to late August, you aren't going to go hungry: you can always get yak butter and millet flour* -- the staples of the Tibetan diet -- from the monastery.

The monk who invited me home was 36, and had been at the monastery for 14 years, meaning that he entered when he was 12. This is not uncommon. He claimed it was his own choice, but despite that, when his head was shaved and he was given his robes, he was near tears. His parents live about 5 hours away from the monastery, in eastern Qinghai. He usually gets to see them every year or two.

Being at a monastery for 14 years will get you a pretty sweet pad. His was a multi-bedroom complex (he had 6 roommates), with a backyard where he was raising a vicious Sharpe puppy who was out for blood.

Following my in-depth interview on monk logistics, he pulled out a bag of pears, sent a younger monk to go wash a few, and then asked me some questions of his own: since you're an American, can you help me get a US visa? (No). Will knowing you make it easier to get a US visa? (No). How can I apply for a US visa? (See the website -- it's in both Chinese and English). Do monks have a better chance of getting US visas than other Chinese people? (See the website). But really, what's it going to take to get a US visa? (I'm not kidding, Mr. Monk: the best thing for you to do is see the website). Can you give me a letter to give to the Embassy for when I apply for a US visa? (Dude. No.).

*Coda: I am a person who is embarrassed by foods I dislike. I have been systematically identifying foods that I don't like and forcing myself to eat them until I do like them, so that at this point there are very few things I sincerely won't eat. I recently got over my phobia of wasabi and other horseradishes. Mustard has long since been conquered. Onions are old hat. Hard boiled eggs remain a stumbling block.

Despite embarrassment and systematic eradication, I'm going to come right out and say this: Yak butter is perhaps the single most god awful "food product" on the planet. It retains it's gamey, full-on animal flavor while having none of the pleasant properties of butter. It's full-flavor comes on top of a crumbly and waxy texture that wouldn't be good on bread if there were bread to be had, and the smell, the overpowering room-filling reek of it makes everyone and everything in Tibetan areas smell vaguely Yak-y. In addition to being a food product, it's also a medium for sculpture (monasteries keep elaborate butter sculptures of Buddhist icons for a year before cutting them up and giving them to the poor), and is burned on alters in large candles.

The Tibetans love it as "yak butter tea," which is a hunk of yak butter in a teacup with hot water poured over it so the butter melts and forms an oily skein on the top. This puddle of oil is then blown away by the person consuming it, allowing them to drink the now Yak-flavored water underneath it while lightly painting their upper lip with liquefied yak fat. When the teacup is half full, a handful of millet flour is tossed in, and is combined by hand with the liquid in the cup to form a dry, crumbly dough with little nutritional value, an intensely chalky texture, and an overwhelming flavor. This dough, called tsampa in Tibetan, is the primary staple of Tibetan cuisine, and goes a long way to explain why there are few if any Tibetan restaurants in the US.

Labels: , , , , ,

Posted by Dakota on 6:16 AM link |

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Note: is seems upon reading that this post, more so than any other, is CRAZY reminisce heavy. For that, I apologize.

Enough pontificating: Qinghaiward! Train departs from Xizhan on Saturday at 2, and I in standard fashion get to the station exactly 8 minutes before departure. I'm off to the frozen northwest, and having left myself exactly 9 minutes to pack, have forgotten hat, scarf, gloves, deodorant, notepad, and camera. Killing me.

When I was a student, I rolled into Beijing a month early to roam around China for a month before I started studying. I arrived at night, stayed at a buddy's place, and then went to the train station the next morning. My first train experience was a hard-seat 30-some hour train to Guangzhou, a grueling ride that to this day people -- self included, really -- find hard to believe I've done. (My teachers have made it clear that they would never have taken a 33 or so hour train ride in hard seat).

I didn't know how to read the tickets at that time, and so when the gate opened, all the people in the waiting area started SPRINTING for the train. I assumed they were running for seats, and that if I took my time, I'd be standing for the next 30 some hours. It turns out even in hard-seat, the seats are assigned and listed on the ticket, and that people sprint to lockdown scarce overhead rack space. Despite having assigned seats, I now find that every time I'm on a Chinese train platform, I can't help myself: I sprint.

And this time is no exception: I'm late, as usual. I sprint through the station, hit the waiting all area, figure out where I'm headed, and make a break for it.

The waiting hall: as a student, I switched from Beijing Normal University (Beijing Shifan Daxue) to Nanjing University (Nanjing Daxue) about half way through my time. I had to renew my visa, and doing so required leaving China, either to Mongolia or Hong Kong. I ended up going to Hong Kong, carrying everything with me. The train to southern China (for an onward bus connection to Hong Kong) left from Xizhan.

By that point in my life, I hadn't figured out that I'd there's nothing I'd rather have more than an almost non-existantly light backpack. I was carrying enough junk -- textbooks, clothing, and a ridiculous amount of trinkets (a mahjongg set, chinese chess set, go board and the requisite dozens of black and white stones, a beer mug from a bar we used to go to, what have you) -- to fill two huge backpacks, and was wearing one on the front and one on the back. It was heavy enough that breathing became a bit of a struggle. I remember standing in line for the ticket takers and having a guy across from me sneer out -- that foreigner has so much STUFF! And I, mortified but thinking fast, responded that a fellow student's father had just passed away, so I had his stuff too, was taking it to him in Hong Kong, don't judge, it's not all mine.

I'm not sure if that flew or not. I just remember my shoulders aching for days from those two stupid backpacks and all that stuff I neither wanted not needed.

Right o. 8 minutes to go, I fly through the waiting room, hit the platform, and fly towards car number 8. I've got a sack full of ramen noodles (Chinese ramen comes in a remarkable variety of flavors and is considerably better than US ramen) as well as some other snacks to entice my fellow travellers to chat with me. I'm in hard sleeper, my preferred class of train in China (the beds are longer than soft sleeper, and it's easier to talk to people). I make it on board just before departure, rip open a can of Thai Curry Crab flavored potato chips, and try to fire up a conversation with the woman across from me.

She doesn't speak Chinese. She's a Korean tourist, 67 years old and on her way to Lanzhou in Gansu province. Blast.

Throughout the trip, due to her inability to speak Chinese and my white skin, everyone will assume that we are together, and that I can translate for her. Neither of these things are true.

I try to entice some of the actual Chinese people to talk to me by opening up a bucket-apparatus that's full of mini-snickers bars. Everyone likes snickers. Find me someone who doesn't like snickers bars, and I'll either show you a near-death diabetic or a liar. And yet: No one wants the Snickers. Everyone wants to help the Korean lady learn very basic Chinese characters. No one cares that I'm reading the newspaper! A Chinese newspaper, no less! No one wants to discuss events of the day! This is all a complete disaster! I console myself by eating approximately 26 mini snickers, which, on top of a complete can of Thai Curry Crab potato chips (my favorite flavor!) leave me feeling really ill.

In 2000, I and my roommate to be, Mark Christopher (Ma Guifu in Chinese, a name which Chinese people found to be very turn of the century; all of them wanted to correct it to Ma Fugui, but he was having none of that) took the train from Shanghai to Urumqi in the northwestern-most province of Xinjiang. It was a 72 hour train, and it was awesome. Everyone was bored by day 2, so everyone was sharing snacks and chatting and playing cards and chess and whatnot, and it was GREAT. I was expecting that my 25 hour train to Qinghai would be similar, but the distance it seems just isn't quite far enough to cross that friendliness threshold. And not for lack of trying: there isn't anyone on that damn train who didn't get offered a snickers.

Labels: , , ,

Posted by Dakota on 4:25 AM link |
Further updates on India will have to wait: the notebook containing my notes on India is in myat-home-office. I, in the mean time, have been given a week off by my language training program to head off to anywhere-I-want China, to stay in Chinese hotels and chat up real-live Chinese people and in general put the ol' Chinese into action.

And so I'm in Qinghai, on the outskirts of Tibet, surrounded by Tibetans and other people who don't so much speak great Mandarin. It seemed to make sense: I've got questions. The monks have answers.

I bought my ticket on Saturday morning from the Beijing West Train station (Beijing Xizhan). Xizhan is, I believe, the largest train station in Beijing and serves pretty much any place that's west of Beijing, including my destination. I could've gone to any number of places more convenient than the train station itself to get the ticket, but when I was student I came into and out of Xizhan an awful lot, and I wanted to see if it was as I remember it.

It is, and it isn't. It's still huge, but it's now well signposted in both English and Chinese (the Chinese signs are bracingly specific -- "Ticket Sales, 138 meters -->"). There's an information booth that's clearly signposted as "FREE INFORMATION" to cut down on hucksters charging to tell you where the bathroom is or when the next train to Xi'an is or what have you. The information booth is even broken down into logical subsections -- train timetables, lodging in Beijing, tourist information, restaurants and nightlife. I have no recollection of any of that being there in 2000.

And then tickets sales. In 2000, I remember there being a single huge room with dozens of windows, each with a cluster of about 20 people surrounding it. There was no semblence of a line, and when you finally pushed your way to the front, people would still jam their money into the window ahead of you to break queue.

It was like the Seinfeld Soup Nazi: you had one single chance to ask for what you wanted, and if they didn't have it or you didn't understand, you'd be muscled aside and the next person would already be barking out their ticket order. More likely than not, even as you're asking for your ticket, the people on either side of you would also be shrieking out what they want, so understanding the ticket seller's response to anything you might say -- muffled through barely functioning microphones -- was pretty much impossible. You'd spend your time in line rehearsing: tomorrow night, Xi'an, hard sleeper. Tomorrow night, hard sleeper, Xi'an, and if you screwed it up, it would take you at least 10 minutes to get the ticket seller's attention again. All in all, there was only about a 50 percent chance you'd end up with what you wanted, and there sure as hell wasn't anything fast about the process.

I remember thinking that the lack of lines and general chaos when trying to purchase tickets was my least favorite thing about China, and how everything -- EVERYTHING -- would be better if they would just LINE UP.

The ticket hall is still big, but they've got metal bars in place that force people to line up. I was there at an odd hour -- about noon on a Saturday -- but there was almost no one there. There were two people in line in front of me, and while I waited, 2 people came up behind me. They waited patiently and didn't break queue. They ticket vendor was perfectly polite, and repeated the train departure time without complaint. She smiled when she gave me my change. No one pushed me, even once. No one shouted anything.

It was all a little disappointing.

This is, I suppose, the fundamental dilemma of the expat: when there are no lines and the hall is nothing but jostling and shouting, we complain about a lack of civilization. When they put in bars and people learn to line up and it all becomes so easy, we say that it's become sterile.

So then, Xizhan: in the run up to the olympics, the Chinese government is running a series of campaigns to teach people western-style politesse. They include large-character posters that say things like "I line up, because I am civilized," and "my behavior reflects on China". Rumor runs that they've made 11th of each month "Line up, Beijing! day" to emphasize standing in line instead of jostling for position. Everyone I know -- expats and Chinese folks alike -- supports this plan.

Xizhan has, I would say, undergone exactly the sort of transformation that the Chinese government is hoping for. But it made me a little nostalgic for the way the place used to be. The fact that the way the place used to be drove me absolutely batshit insane doesn't bear mentioning at all.

Labels: , , ,

Posted by Dakota on 3:48 AM link |
Current Location:
The People's Republic of China.

Stop by any time: everyone's welcome.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem to Be Born

Comments and requests for dates should be directed to email.

And here I am.

And for all you random folks out there whom I don't know, for the love of god, email me. I'm abroad, know no one, and look forward to hearing from you. I'm especially looking at YOU, whomever YOU are who's Facing The Sun all the way from Kenya. And Sweden. And Canada. And whatnot.

Books Tackled, 2006:

1. Jarhead, Anthony Swofford
2. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, Dennis Covington
3. A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
4. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, Anonymous
5. Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism, Dawn Prince-Hughes

This year's movies, in chronological order:

1. Kung Fu Hustle
2. A Wrinkle in Time
3. Pi: Faith in Chaos
4. My Big Fat Independent Movie
5. The Winter Guest
6. Voices in Wartime
7. What Dreams May Come
8. Farewell My Concubine
9. The Ring
10. Like Water for Chocolate
11. Sahara

Foreign Service Officers by day, Bloggers by day as well.

The Diplodocus
(Islamabad, Pakistan).

The Permanent Mission of Joshie
(Zagreb; Libyaward).

Prince Roy
(Chennai; Taiwanward).

Sue and not You
(Tbilisi, Georgia).

Life on the Mekong
(Vientiane, Laos).

FSO Globe Trotter
(Lahore, Pakistan).

Vice Consul: Diplomatically Transformed
(New Delhi, India).

Adventures in Good Countries

Our Man in Tirana
(Tirana, Albania).

Anne's Blog
(Kazakhstan; Greeceward).

(Bogota, Colombia).

Furnish Worldwide

Tasman's World
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

(Lome, Togo).

World Adventurers
(Seoul, Korea).

Aaron Martz

A for Adventure
(Chennai, India).

The Excellent Adventures of Nickie P
(Paris, France).

Permanently Disco
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

Consul At Arms
(Kingston, Jamaica).

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by HaloScan.com
Five Random DC bloggers. Asterix indicates recently updated.