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.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Flash back to two months ago: the Tiananmen 10K, marking the 500th day before the olympics. Blue skies, cool breeze and flags blowing around the forbidden city; perfect weather for a race, with a turnout of maybe 500 people, about a third expats.

Word is circulated: the Tiananmen 10k is actually only 9.2k; don't hold your breath waiting for that final .8 k, because it ain't coming. Casual running for fitness and liesure is something of a new concept in China, just taking hold; the vast array of clothing being worn at the start line is testament to this: standard overly-skimping running shorts are next to khaki pants and work boots, and a couple people are in jeans.

The starting line, in the center of Tiananmen: An embassy official, distinguished in both age and career, is wearing a blue number, indicating his running category: Chinese males under the age of 14. "You'll need to stand with your age group," he's told, and waved towards the 14 year olds. Upon protest, they agree that he can stay with the adult expats, but that he'll need to stand near the back, closer to the kids.

The starting gun sounds: the run circles Tiananmen and then breaks left on Chang'an towards the Museum of Military History. The race route is lined with a decent turnout of spectators, staring quizically in complete silence at the people running. I find myself clapping for myself and shouting jia you!, Chinese for "Add Gas!" to build my own enthusiasm. The spectators, generally speaking, do not respond.

Water stop: the sun is blazing in blue-sky glory and the streets are hot; they're distributing full half-liter bottles of water at approximately the halfway mark in the run. The gentleman next to me finishes the whole bottle in a single, remarkably fast gulp, and I hear him pant, groan and throw up. I sip down about a third of my bottle and then look for a place to get rid of it. The route is lined with stern-faced policemen, keeping pedestrians from entering the race route; littering seems like a bad idea. No one else seems to still have a bottle, and there are none on the ground and I see no trashcans. I see an old woman with a broom and a dustpan and I run outside the police-set boundaries to ask if I can give her my bottle. "Why didn't you just drop it?" she asks.

Forward: My GPS watch indicates that by my math (converting .8 K to miles and then subtracting from 6.2) we're one mile from the finish. I shout out this news in English and then Chinese, tagging on an ADD GAS! at the end; a few people clap, but more people are commenting on the fact that a foreigner (Laowai, the vaguely-insulting-via-over-use catch-all term for white foreigners; it does not, to my knowledge, apply to black people or Asian-Americans) was speaking Chinese. About 10 meters after I've shouted out the one-mile warning, I round the corner and find that I've already finished the race.

The Chinese do a lot of things well, but organized spectacle is something they're particularly good at. The race marks the 500th day before the Olympics, and they're using this as a warm up. The final stretch of the race route, 100 meters or so after turning the corner, is lined with what seems like hundreds of volunteers, almost entirely women, all dressed in red, screaming encouragement and waving red scarves up and down. After the deadpan silence of the race route, it's hypnotic and fantastic.

At the finish line: GPS devices are compared; someone's got one in metric, and we learn that the Tiananmen 9.2k was actually only 8.6k. My time is somewhere in the mid 40s, certainly not good, but since the race wasn't an actual distance that a race has ever been before, it doesn't matter -- there's nothing to compare to. What does matter is that I have lost the race by a full 4 minutes to my upstairs neighbor (The Engineer), and I owe him 50 kuai.

They're giving out prizes for the top ten male and female finishers in both the Chinese and expat categories -- 40 prizes in total. One of our embassy colleagues, a ball of both physical fitness and modesty ("there were only 10 entrants; I was bound to win something"), placed 9th amongst expat women, so we stick around to watch the ceremony. When we approach the stage, there's a group of women, mid forties to fifties, waving pompoms in a semi-choreographed routine for the gentlemen on stage, all of whom appear to be officials from Beijing City Government.

They finish their routine. One of the gentlemen from the stage thanks them and then makes a brief speech; it's in fast Chinese with a Beijing accent, spoken through a scratchy speaker, and I can't make out what it's about. (Loudspeakers and PA systems are my linguistic achilles heel. I struggle with them in English, head cocked to the side like a confused golden retriever, and I usually don't even try in other languages).

The cadre finishes his speech. The pompom ladies file to the side and kneel, and are replaced by a troupe of women with short shorts, bare midrifts and surprisingly large busts enveloped in fuzzy, low-cut tops made of material that resembles faux fur. Their routine basically involves jumping up and down in front of the cadres on stage, like a live-action closing to The Man Show on Fox or Spike tv or whatever channel it is that carries it. About a quarter of the way through, the pompom girls on the sidelines stop kneeling and stand up, blocking the view from the sidelines; this is met with great disapproval from the crowd of runners -- the gentlemen in particular -- waiting for prizes.

There's another speech that I again can't understand, and then the prizes are distributed. The Chinese winners' names are called out along with their times, and they're given an enormous bouquet of flowers and a sweet-looking clip-on MP3 player meant for runners. I haven't won anything, but I'm pretty excited on behalf of my colleague, because hey -- free MP3 player!

They get to the expats and start calling out times and country names. Winners are given a bouquet identical to the Chinese winners', and a box. The box, it turns out, contains a pair of shoes produced by a Chinese shoe manufacturing company, a sort of domestic Nike. There has been no attempt to size the shoes, so people are swapping halfheartedly; the questionable aerodynamics of the shoes somewhat quells enthusiasm.

We get home; I pony up my 50 kuai and we all go out for bibimbap, a delicious korean iron-bowl rice dish, with vegetables and meat and hot sauce all wrapped up in one. The day is declared a riotous success (prize shoes?!).

The point of all this: the Tiananmen 10k is a warm up, a 2 months warning bell for the grand event of the past weekend, the event for which I signed up with great enthusiasm and had been dreading ever since:

The Great Wall Marathon.

Which for me was actually The Great Wall Half Marathon. 21 kilometers, 13.1 miles, and brutal enough that I'm still sore three days later. The first three or so K went directly up hill to get to the wall, and then there were 5 k actually on the wall on steps and stairs and through towers overlooking the mountains. The remaining 12 or so K either on flat ground or winding through a moderately hilly village.

The full marathon, with over double the distance of the half actually spent on the wall (including, brutally, the last 7 kilometers) is really an event reserved only for the most hardcore of sado-masochists. I plan to run it next year.

So then, Friday at 4:15 pm: I am sprinting around my house throwing t-shirts and undergarments into a bag, about to be late for my rendezvous with a dozen or so other runners. The day of reckoning has finally arrived: we're catching a bus to the middle of nowhere three hours outside of Beijing, to spend the night in a "peasant hotel" in advance of an early morning starting gun.

I am questioning my motives in this run, even more so in light of the events at packet pick up the day before: the only other person in the office was about 6'3 with approximately point one percent body fat, a rippling wall of running ability; I'm feeling devastatingly outclassed.

I wear running shoes to the bus pick-up point: they are brand new, fresh from the post office and never worn, and I'm hoping I can break them in by jumping up and down and walking around. The ringleader of the runners, head of one of the Hash running clubs in Beijing and the fifth place finisher last year in the Great Wall Half Marathon, expresses disbelief that I'm going to run in brand new shoes ("Wow. I've heard THAT'S a good idea," he said). But my other shoes are in tatters, blown out from frisbee and my own ungraceful instep, and they kill my knees and my feet and are not an option. Nervousness increases.

Everyone's lean and fit and munching on runner-type snacks; lots of nuts and dried fruit and other food products that increase lean muscle mass and don't add fat. I run and purchase some barbequed pork with rice. I clearly don't belong with this crew.

I realize that in my rush to pack, I failed to bring my GPS watch. I intentionally left the iPod at home, but I've been training with the GPS watch and I can't conceive of running without it. I consider using this as my excuse to drop out of the race. One of the runners shows his swollen ankle and indicates that he might not run because of it. I've got a blister on my left heel which isn't nearly as serious as his swollen ankle, but I still add it to my list of reasons why I should drop out. The Engineer, the same neighbor who outpaced me in the Tiananmen 8.6K, hears my list of excuses and indicates that none of them are acceptable for not running.

On the bus: N and his girlfriend S, friends from Shenyang in Northeast China. N, self-declared as "not a runner," is running the 5K purely out of solidarity with S, who's running the full marathon. He asks if I've got a time goal for the half marathon. I indicate that my primary goal is to not die, and if I accomplish that, I'd like to run in under maybe six hours or so. I ask -- "you're running the 5K, right?" He responds: "I am. Same goal."

Countdown to D-Day: on the bus.

The training instructions on the great wall marathon website indicate that about two months prior to the race, you should be at the point where you can run for about an hour to a building with a lot of stairs, and then run the stairs for an hour, and then run home for another hour. If you do this for the two months prior to the race and then taper off, they say, it will adequately prepare you to run the wall.

Three months before the race, The Engineer and I started training: thirty to ninety minutes of running around the park, thirty to sixty minutes of stairs, sometimes on the same day. I hurt, all the time: progress was being made. The Engineer, in an effort to promote stereotypes, obtained a spreadsheet for tracking training data, and it seemed like things were going along at the pace required to finish the race.

About two months before the race, we got tired of all that running, and so we stopped.

And so I'm sitting on the bus surrounded by true athletes, all of whom are discussing their training regiments and appear to be munching on fat free whole grains, and I, having not run in two months, am wearing brand new unbroken-in shoes and looking for a place to dispose of my barbequed pork container and am generally wondering how I ever got roped into this in the first place.

We barrel towards the peasant hotel. When we call ahead to tell the owner that we're only 19 people, not the original 20, he indicates that at 50 kuai a head -- $6.25! -- he's making a KILLING off of this regardless, and he doesn't care at all how many people we are. He guides us in via cell phone, and we ditch the bus.

Peasant hotel: for fifty kuai in the middle of nowhere China, you can actually get fairly nice digs: clean beds with big blankets (the evening and morning are chilly), with breakfast and dinner thrown in. There are only two toilets and they aren't overly clean, and there's only a single shower for the 19 of us, but for 6 bucks it's hard to complain.

Dinner: we were all under the impression that dinner would be fairly spartan. But the owner of the hotel apparantly is out to make a good impression -- maybe to attract repeat business? -- so course after course after course keeps hitting the table. The night before a marathon, it's pretty much nothing that anyone wants -- fried shrimp, fried dough strips, a few cold vegetables, and few hot vegetables, some oil-laden meat dishes. We order rice and plow through a few things (like the di san xian, the three freshnesses of the earth, with potatoes and eggplant and green pepper in a brown garlic sauce), but for the most part it's an exercise in wastefulness.

The owner indicates that breakfast will be corn porridge, steamed bread rolls and soy milk. To my knowledge, not a single person even entered the dining room to touch the food; I feel very guilty about this.

The Morning Of: 6 a.m. and I'm awake and ready to go. The French gentleman I shared a room with shakes his head and questions why we do this to ourselves -- "we could be in our own beds, and in three or four hours when we wake up at a normal time we could be having some nice pancakes or something." I'm very much with him on this one.

I pin my number -- 748 -- on to my shirt. In Chinese almost every number means something, and the Chinese are deeply superstitious about it. 748 roughly means "anger is the death of wealth," or alternately "you've angered your father to the point of death." It's a terribly unlucky number. The French guy is 746 -- anger is the death of luck -- so between the two of us we're all set.

I search through my race packet for my chip timer, which goes on your shoe to track your official time. Normally you can rent or borrow a chip for a race, but for this run you HAD to purchase the Great Wall commemorative chip, for 35 bucks. It's not in my bag. I've come 3 hours to the middle of nowhere to run a race, and I have neither a wristwatch nor a chip timer; in other words, if there's no clock at the end, I'll have absolutely no means of knowing how fast I run.

I become very Zen about the whole thing. It's pre-sunrise and it's cold, but the sky is clear and there are roosters in the background. I'm not going to break any land-speed records on this run; I'm here for the experience and not having a chip is just fine. "You can probably get one from the race organizers," one of the other runners tells me, and if that's the case then great, but if not I don't really care.

Bananas. Red Bull in lieu of coffee. Halfhearted stretching, and then out of the hotel to walk the 150 meters or so to the race start gate. There are dogs and a horse and 20 or so sheep walking in the same direction as us, and there's a light breeze and no clouds and hundreds of overwhelmingly attractive runners going the same direction as us and it's a glorious day to be alive.

The Engineer, playing the role of black sheep.

The race is organized by Danes, and the majority of the runners are Europeans -- Brits and Germans and Scandinavians, some French people and a fistful of Americans. There are a handful of other Asian nations represented -- Japan and Malaysia and the Phillippines, but Chinese people appear to be the minority. (Nationality was printed on the race numbers; I'm going by what I saw).

The starting area is in a courtyard, with the wall stretching out over the hills above us, appearing to be directly uphill in all directions. I've gone from terrified to excited: I'm ready to get my race on.

No Really, uphill in all directions.

I stand in line and talk to a Dane about my chip, asking if I can buy a new one. "Maybe you'd prefer to just borrow one?" he asks, and hands me a loaner for no fee. He writes down the new chip number and my old number to switch them in the computer. I'm still zen: if it happens, great, but if not, no worries.

Waiting for the starting gun: I'm in numerologically-obsessed China, and I'm in a situation where everyone is wearing a number. This is exciting beyond words to me, and when I confide to one of my buddies -- "I'm really into the Chinese numerological aspects of this race" -- she calls me out as odd. But when I run into race number 518 -- "I want to be rich!" in Chinese -- I can't help but gush out, "your number is so LUCKY in China!" Mr. 518 is less than impressed with me, and I decide to keep future numerological insights to myself.

Despite the big-ass FINISH sign, we're actually about to begin.

Race start is divided up by categories and ability, so the fast marathoners go first. S, from our crew, is put in with the fast marathoners because of her performance in the Marine Corps Marathon in DC. She's intimidatingly fit, like a rubber band stretched to its full length. I can't help but feel a little jealousy at the people running the full marathon -- it's going to be brutal, but the bragging rights are enormous.

Marathon group 2 sets off, and then the first wave of half-marathoners lines up. I'm in wave 2, for the piercingly slow. N, who's running the 5k, wishes me luck. The first wave starts the race, and I and the French guy from the hotel, the one numbered Anger Kills Luck, line up. I'm feeling good. We smile at each other, mouth the word yes pump our fists.

I cross the starting line: 7:44 in the morning.

My standard running strategy is to sprint out of the gate, blow myself out after a mile or two, lag towards the middle and slow it WAY down for the end. This is a terrible strategy, and I recognize that it's untenable for this race. I keep my pace reasonable for the first K, on flat ground. It's on a road that's only half blocked, and trucks and buses and tractors are rumbling by on the other side. People are joking that it wouldn't be a race in China if there were no thick black smoke to inhale.

Kilometer 2: start of the uphill. I'm still feeling strong (a by-product of the bananas, no doubt), and I run for the next K or so. But it's directly uphill on a winding country road, and I realize that I can walk at the same pace I was running and not tire myself out as much. There are a fistful of spectators, and they see me walking and call out a half-hearted "jia you?" or "Add gas?" I see this not so much as encouragement as them shouting "hurry up, fatboy!" I'm tempted to respond with the Chinese for "mind your own god damn business" -- "well water should not seep into river water!" but in the end I keep it to myself. I start alternating between race-walking and jogging.

Here's the thing: I live in Beijing. Not only do I live in Beijing, but it's not my first time living in Beijing. I've been to the Wall multiple times in multiple different ways, with friends and with school and with my parents and what have you. I've got Wall fatigue. I was expecting the Great Wall Marathon to be cool, something to talk about and assuredly something to brag about to the guys in my running club in DC, but I wasn't expecting it to blow my mind.

We round the corner on the hill leading up to the wall, and the country side stretches out below us and the wall is towering above us on green hills, and the sky is deep blue with exactly two picture-perfect puffy white clouds in the distance.

It blows my mind.

Yep, mind-blowing.

I'm staring open jawed at the scenery, as is everyone else. "Do you think," the guy next to me asks, "that maybe the jagged mountains were enough to keep out the mongol hordes, but they went ahead and built the wall just because they knew it would look cool?" I'm tempted to respond with great enthusiasm about Yuan and Ming and Qing dynasty government boondoggle projects, but I'm still stinging from being called weird for loving Chinese numerology, so I keep it to myself.

The wall: the road that brings us directly uphill ends in a parking lot. There's a bathroom on the right, some fruit and trinket merchants on the left, and then a set of crumbling stairs that lead on to the wall. I grab water, intending to walk while I drink it and then start running again. No one's running, though, and it seems logical to follow their lead. From that point forward, there were a few straightaways and a few areas with not too many steps where you could run, but for the most part, all you could do was hurriedly walk; in some parts, single file was the only way forward, and in areas you had to wait in line to go forward.

We jog-walk-hustle in a pack, up stairs and down stairs, through tower after tower after tower. We pass a local, sitting on the steps holding bananas and chanting onedollaronedollaronedollar. The woman in front of me is wearing a t-shirt that says "kuai tai-tais," or "fast wives." It's a Shanghainese running club for married women; she declares herself to be the "bu kuai tai-tai," or "not fast wife."

The gentleman behind me comments that last year, his wife said that the Great Wall marathon was a lot like giving birth. Kuai tai-tai whips her head around and responds: "I've given birth twice and it's easier than this. During childbirth they give you an epidural."

It feels like we're approaching the end of the wall portion. We pass a guy -- South African, I'd guess from the accent -- who's sitting in the bushes near the wall, shouting out encouragement. It's an odd place for a spectator, and it's unclear how he got up the mountain or why he's there. There's also a Spanish TV news guy and cameraman on the wall talking about the race. I hear the word "marveilloso" as I go past, panting.

At this point, I'm starving. I ask if anyone else is hungry, and everyone, it seems, is. There are no food stops on the run, no pretzels or bananas outside of the starting area. This is unusual; normally marathons give you SOMETHING, at least some of the powerbar goo or a damn piece of fruit. I start fantasizing about fish and chips, and when I mention this to the guy next to me, he starts murmuring about Kentucky Fried Chicken, and how he's EARNED it.

We round the corner and it looks like we're getting off the wall; we're about 8 kilometers into the race, and I declare to the world that my legs feel like they're made of tofu. I've passed kuai tai-tai, so I start talking to the guy in front of me, a British student double majoring in Chinese in Spanish. He and I, previously surrounded by a pack of people, find ourselves alone on a long stretch of the wall. It's eerie. We wonder if we've taken a wrong turn, but then someone wearing a marathon number (full marathon numbers are black; the half is red) sprints by us.

The wall dumps us into the courtyard where we started. There's a crowd and they're cheering, and I am thrilled to be no longer on the wall. Through the courtyard, to the street: I grab water, walk while I drink it, and watch the British kid zoom off.

It's blazing hot, ungodly hot for a road race -- the thermometer will eventually push over 37 degrees, close to a hundred in Fahrenheit. We pass the nine K mark and continue down the road. Runners, looking tired and very, very fast, start passing us in the other direction, heading towards the finish line. The woman next to me comments that if they're already coming towards us, we must be almost done. I still haven't lost some of my speech habits from Pakistan, and immediately respond with Mash'Allah. She chuckles and responds with great enthusiasm in what sounds like great Arabic with "mf'tiq'Allah! Alhumdulilah!"

I hit the 11 k mark and announce that there's only 10k left; we eat 10ks for breakfast! And even though my legs feel gooey and I'm pretty tired of running, I think I can handle another 10 kilometers.

We leave the road and start running on a dirt trail into a village. The way is lined with kids giving high-fives and there are old women hauling baskets full of discarded water bottles. The bottles can be recycled, and the villagers are making a killing off of this race.

We're approaching the turnaround point in the race. I keep trying to do the math to figure out exactly where that's going to be -- it involves a lot of long division, and some subtracting too, and neither of those things have ever been my long suit. I come to the conclusion that at the 14.5 kilometer mark, we'll be turning around.

We're still in the villagey area when we turn left; this, I've decided, is the turn around point. We're just going to turn left again to wing around this here rice paddy and then we'll be on the straight-shot back to the finish line (and by extension, to the free sandwich that I'm so dying for). At the edge of the rice paddy the race goes to the right, not back the way we came from. We're headed further and further away from sandwiches, running on a dirt road that's studded with sharp rocks. We're also going uphill. Nothing is going my way whatsoever.

I'm with two other people in a hyper rural area of town. One guy I'm running with is 698, one of the luckiest numbers in Chinese. He's in from Seoul, just for the race. We pass a tiny old woman hauling empty water bottles, and she comments: these foreigners look so tired.

There's a girl about 20 feet ahead of us, running strong. We follow her when she turns, and it's only a little while later that we realize that we're wandering on an unmarked trail. We pause, look back at the path we've left, and see a runner zip by: we've taken a wrong turn and added a little bit of distance to our half marathon.

We backtrack to the actual path, crest a hill, and start heading back towards the village. We're still on sharp rocks, and the path is covered in goat shit. It's a sharp downhill and I'm more than happy to let the terrain do the work for me, so I start running faster.

About 8 seconds later, I trip.

I like to think of the fall as graceful, that there was a movie-esque tumble and roll, and that I quickly hopped back on to my feet in a manner befitting a cat, or a kung-fu hero. The fact that the two runners behind me sprinted up to me shouting "holy god, man, are you ok?" makes me think that it was maybe slightly less graceful than all that.

I announce that I'm fine, get to my feet and walk it off. My knees are bleeding a little bit, and they're covered in thick red mud; my shirt is equally dirty, and I'm quite proud of it all: battle wounds. The fall has somewhat killed my momentum, and even though I wasn't exactly sprinting before, I rejoice in my new-found excuse to slow down. I ask the guy next to me the all important question: "Am I covered in goat shit?" He, a non-native speaker of English, asks, "you are ok?" I try again: "I'm fine, I'm fine, but, is there... stuff all over me?" "Some... some dirt" is the best I can get out of him.

Back through the village. A group of cops are standing and chatting and one points out: that foreigner fell. The Chinese for fell down is shuai-diao, roughly "shatter-collapse." Which pretty much sums up my state of existance.

We're back to the dirt road that leads out of the village area. We're now heading back, passing slower people who still haven't hit the halfway point; I rejoice in the fact that I'm almost done.

Back to the paved road: I keep pace with a guy who's an engineer for Cathay-Pacific. Three kilometers out, the sun is blazing and there's no water but we're so close to done; and then two K left, my god almost there. And then on the right, head down and jogging determinedly for the finish line is runner number 518, of "I want to be rich" lucky number fame. His number: not lucky enough to avoid being passed by me, unlucky 748. Take THAT, 518!

The one kilometer mark: we pass the peasant hotel, the police station, a guy selling trinkets and postcards. There's a runner ahead, already finished, and she calls out "200 meters left!" I try to pick up the pace but can't. Cathay-Pacific runs ahead strong.

I enter the finishing area alone about thirty seconds behind him. The announcer is scoping numbers and calling out names and countries of finishing runners, and there are cameras and I want to put on a good show so I sprint, sprint through the archway, into the courtyard to the finish line, cross the line and am DONE.

I underestimate my speed and the size of the finishing area, and sprint into an orange cone and the unfortunate reporter standing behind it. It happens.

(The Engineer, upon hearing that I fell during that run AND that I took out a reporter and a cone, smugly proclaims that my running and endurance are just fine, but perhaps next year I should consider working on my coordination).

The finish: bottle of water, another, then a banana and a quarter of a turkey sandwich. The sandwich makes me ungodly queesy, and I sit in the shade doing nothing for a while, trying to not throw up. I sip a diet coke.

Race results are posted from time to time; my name does not appear on any of them, and I am under the assumption that my bootleg chip is the problem. I find Cathay Pacific, the gentleman I ran with and finished just behind, locate his time and add 3 minutes to it to conclude that my final time for the half marathon was two hours and 58 minutes. Under three hours: I am thrilled with this time.

The race has imported Danish doctors to attend to any medical needs, and I decide that my well-cut knees warrant a trip to go see them, a little bit because a goat-shit laced cut screams infection, but mostly because Danes are the most beautiful people on earth and maybe there's a doctor there who, upon examining me earth-encrusted knees and dirt-streaked shirt, will fall in love with the (clearly quite rugged) individual they're examining.

The Danish doctors are all middle aged chicks. It is unclear if twitterpation took place.

The Doc gives me a sponge to clean my knee, and then rubs the cut to see if there are any stones in it. "Do I need any hydrogen peroxide or disinfectant?" I ask eagerly. "This cut," she tells me matter of factly, "is very superficial." Her clear underestimation of my medical condition means that I now discount any medical knowledge that the Danes might have.

All done: My dirt streaked t-shirt following the race.

Waiting: the half marathoners from our group have all finished (including the aforementioned Ringleader (number 68, so lucky!), who placed fifth). We're killing time waiting for S, who's running the full Marathon. She's aleady long since passed the halfway point (split time on her half marathon: 2:37 minutes, a full 20 minutes faster than I ran the half), and N is rocking back and forth nervous, killing time waiting for her. The waiting goes on for what seems like an eternity: there's no telling how long it's going to take her to finish the last seven brutal kilometers, uphill on stairs on the Wall.

Waiting, more waiting, more nervousness, pacing.

The finale, sparks and all: He's already told the announcer and word has spread about what's going on. S rounds the corner. Her name and country are called and the announcer follows it up with "N has something he wants to ask you. Today is a day you won't forget, and not just because you completed the marathon."

And then she, after 5 hours and 55 minutes of brutal running in the near-hundred degree sun, finally crosses the finish line, and a medal is placed around her neck, and N moves in and hugs her and whispers something, and then he's down on one knee and holding a small box containing a gold band with a single stone, and he's asking the question, The Question, and a crowd has formed, they know what's going on, 30, 40 people all watching, and S, exhausted from the race, is rocking back and forth and looking at N and at the ring, and someone in the crowd shouts out SAY YES!

And she does. N and S: engaged at the finish line of the Great Wall Marathon. It doesn't get much better than that.

Posted by Dakota on 9:44 AM link |

Monday, May 21, 2007

With great indignity, I announced that I cannot stand -- cannot stand -- when people add an extra S into the middle of Fudgicle, making it Fudgsicle.

But just now I googled it: wrong, for all these years. Am I the only one shocked by that sneaky S? I mean, can we discuss? In related news, I remain convinced that you're all incorrect.

For the record, should anyone be wondering: I have no intention of changing my pronunciation.

Posted by Dakota on 8:20 AM link |

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A good handful of Western companies in China have gone to great lengths to add products to their sales line that specifically target the Chinese market. KFC offers original recipe and extra crispy, but they've also got a Peking Duck wrap -- a chicken finger, a whole grilled scallion and a ladle of plum sauce, wrapped in what appears to be a flour tortilla. McDonalds carries the McKorea (god only knows what it entails), and they upped the number of chicken nuggets on the dollar menu (which, at 6 kuai an item, is actually the 75 cent menu) from 4 to 5 after someone tipped them off that 4 means death in Chinese.

Potato chips come not only in barbeque and sour cream and onion, but also roasted chicken, finger-lickin' braised pork, cucumber, and fresh seafood (to name only a few -- the potato chip aisle is one of the true delights of living in China; I myself am particularly partial to Thai Curry Crab flavor, but the grilled steak flavor will do in a pinch. Seasoned China hands will tell you to avoid the smoky creamy bacon flavor, and you'd do well to heed their advice).

Starbucks, now almost as ubiquitous in Beijing as in DC, changed their product line almost none to cater to the Chinese market. They do not, for example, offer an expanded selection of tea, despite the huge preference for it. Their products are mostly the same, with a few missing (white chocolate mochae, for example) and pretty much none added.

Which makes me wonder: is the banana-java frappucino that I just had a specifically-for-China commodity? Because it was ungodly awful, and if Starbucks is rolling that one out worldwide, they're making a huge mistake.

Posted by Dakota on 9:39 PM link |

Monday, May 14, 2007

Every year on new years, Quixote asks the same questions; almost against my will, I've taken it up as my rallying cry as well: it's 2007! Where are the flying cars? Why can't we control the weather?

This morning, the China Daily featured a color-glossy insert covering All-Olympic news. Noteworthy things: Dashan, a Chinese-speaking Canadian white guy who's achieved uber-celebrity status on the mainland for his nearly flawless Beijing accent, will be acting as the Canadian Team Attache for the olympics; the hope is that Chinese people will say "Dashan's on that team and they're our friends. As opposed to the Americans."

I take comfort in the fact that Dashan is universally hated by white people in China. Most expats are unclear on exactly who he is, I think, but his name comes up constantly: "Your Chinese is great! But not as good as Dashan's!" and god forbid Canada gets mentioned in a casual conversation. "Hey, Canada! Dashan's Canadian. Did you ever see him in The Palace Artist on TV? I just bought my nephew Uncle Dashan's Storybook!"

Uncle Dashan's Storybook? Look me in the eye and tell me that's not creepy.

Aside from the big news that Dashan (whose name means Big Mountain, and in whose general direction I shake my fist) is thumbing his nose at America, the color glossy insert on Olympic news featured a two-page centerfold of an anti-aircraft gun. It seems that despite Quixote's yearly protestations, the Chinese can control the weather, and in the lead up to the olympics, they'll be doing so with "planes, rockets, and other modern artillarly."

Anti-aircraft guns loaded with silver iodide will be positioned as close as 15 kilometers from the Bird's Nest, the intimidatingly awesome Olympic Stadium in north-central Beijing. Chinese meteorologists are still nervous, and have made it clear that no one -- not even the People's Liberation Army -- can stop heavy rain.

I'm unconcerned that they haven't perfected their systen yet, and I'm also unconcerned that 15 K from the Bird's Nest is more or less my front yard. All that really matters is that if the Chinese are controlling the weather, we're that much closer to flying cars.

Posted by Dakota on 8:56 AM link |

Sunday, May 13, 2007

2002: I exited Georgetown with a bachelor's degree in worthless, and moved into an adorable rowhouse with Adelmank, nee Mageek. The rowhouse, at 2228 12th Place NW, was an overpriced unheatable shitpit, with an unresponsive landlord and an infestation of slugs in the backyard. But it had it's perks -- proximity to Ben's Chili bowl, a planter box with competing ferns named Joe and Little Steve-o, and funky neighbors, labelled college radio-esque by some, with an ugly dog and a firm belief in astrology. "Oh, you're a scorpio, that makes so much sense. I mean, a fire sign, yeah, that's why you're like, you know, roarrrrr".

But the best part of the pit on 12th place was living with Mageek. The penne alla vodka flowed like water. She forgave me when I left some chicken breasts in the fridge for a month and a half, producing a smell caustic enough to render the downstairs more or less uninhabitable. We'd go out to separate bars at night and swap stories in the mornings, and we hated our jobs with equal intensity. Life was good, except for the inability to get the house warm enough that you couldn't see your breath.

I don't know why this sticks out in my mind so much, and it might be over-emphasized in my memory, but nonetheless: Mageek had a minor obsession with a cone-shaped candle-like apparatus that you stick in your ears and set on fire. Through some mysterious chemical reaction, the pressure is somehow lowered inside the device, drawing the wax out of your ear and into the cone, for easy disposal. When I say she had a minor obsession, I mean that it came up more than once, but probably not all that often. To my knowledge, she never realized her goal of flaming-cone ear wax extraction while we were living together, but I could be wrong.

Whenever Mageek brought up the candle-powered wax extractor, I would mentally second the idea, thinking how much *I* wanted to undergo the same cleansing, if somewhat terrifying, procedure. But an opportunity never materialized; Mageek never came through on the device in question, and I wasn't so gripped that I was willing to pour energy into locating a wax-sucking cone emporium. I eventually became convinced that the whole thing was, perhaps, a figment of her imagination.

And then last week, in a market in central Taipei, I discovered that Mageek was not in fact making things up, and that for the low low price of 380 Taiwanese kuai, one could in fact have one's ears cleaned via flaming cone.

The booth was big, a square with tables all around, and two gentlemen in the middle facilitating. Upon seeing it, I immediately mentioned that I had once had a roommate who was obsessed with this procedure; my friends encouraged participation. The booth was packed, almost all the spots full of people lying with their head on a towel-covered pillow; eyes across the board were closed.. The cones were ensconsed in a metal holster apparatus that could be adjusted to the height of one's head, and the candles were ensconsed in plastic jars to catch dripping wax so it didn't fall into your ear. It was a depot for inner-ear cleansing, a veritable machine for cerumen disposal, and at 380 kuai a head, a damn cash cow.

I was scared, and I asked a few nervous questions: How long per ear? (Seven minutes). Will... will it hurt? (Exasperated eye roll. No). My upstairs neighbor, The Engineer, talked me into it, and we plunked our heads down on pilows next to each other. A cone was fitted in to my ears -- it's tight! Is it too tight? I don't know! Ack! Also beyond my grasp: the subtle Chinese for "I'm worried that the cone is too far down in my ear canal and that I'm going to go deaf or start shrieking in agony." Final conclusion: my ear cleaning profession, seasoned in his career, knew what he was doing. My eyes clamped shut.

There was no pain. I spent my seven minutes waiting for searing agony that never arrived. At the halfway point, my friends, photographing on the sidelines, ask how it is. I don't have much comment.

I flip to the other ear and the process is repeated. Towards the end I became convinced that 7 minutes had already passed, and that the candle was burning beyond the holster and the my ear was, at any moment, about to be filled with searingly hot wax. Shortly thereafter the candle was removed and all was right with the world. They slice it open in front of you, and everyone can gauk at the ear wax inside, and it's all pretty gross to look at.

I was convinced, at that point, that I had supernaturally good hearing; the market was set in a carnival-type area where you could win prizes for hitting balloons with darts, and there was traffic honking and hundred of people milling around and what not, and it all seemed much more SO after the candling, and I felt good about my 380 Taiwanese Bucks that I could've been spending on corn dogs.

But then I got home googled it. Wikipedia indicates that ear candling is the "triumph of ignorance of science." The Straight Dope says that the candles fill with what appears to be earwax regardless of whether they're burned in someone's ear or on a table. I've been swindled!

It goes without saying that I'm glad I went through with it -- I could never have looked Mageek in the eye again otherwise -- but the point here is that should you find yourself in a market in south central Taipei, choosing between ear candling and (oh let's say) more of those delicious deep-fried shrimp roll things, you're going to want the shrimp rolls.

Posted by Dakota on 10:35 AM link |

Thursday, May 10, 2007

There's something about language training that saps my will to blog. This has always been the case -- the blog entries from Urdu training are sparse at best, and while the last time I was in China was pre-blog, the emails home were still few and far between.

But I genuinely like having a blog and having the ability to look back and see what in god's name I've been doing; whenever I go back and re-read snippets, it reminds me of things I'd forgotten.

Part of the problem is that language training is a pressure cooker; it's 6 hours a day, one on one, with every day a reminder that the final exam is coming and you (yes, you) are not prepared; I live in terror of failure, despite failure being a near certainty. The actual class time dovetails with an hour for lunch and well over an hour of commuting each day. Tag a few hours of studying on top of that and there's not much time left for anything else; not only is time short, but night time generally finds me not wanting to do anything except crawl into bed.

But aside from the weak excuses of too busy and too tired, I also find myself not wanting to sit in the small office in my apartment and type for any length of time. I'm behind on emails (it's coming, Paginita, I promise; I just don't know when), and behind on admin (god knows I've been MEANING to request a replacement insurance card). There's something about the room -- its small, west-facing window looks directly into another building so there's almost no natural light -- that kills my desire to sit there and blog.

I came to the conclusion that location was the heart of the matter, that if I had the ability to blog from anywhere, I'd get on it constantly -- from coffee shops and bus stops and taxi cabs and noodle joints, and all the other places I hang out. Short snippets of Beijing life, like the bumper sticker that reads "Baby on Road," or the sign on the Hospital that reads Beijing Anus and Intestine Clinic, or a run down of my thoughts on traffic (a lack of civil engineers and the resulting poorly timed lights is largely to blame) or the "Civility Campaign" that's ongoing in the lead up to the olympics ("I yield my seat to those in need. I choose to line up, because I am civilized. I participate, thus I am happy").

Rarely a day goes by that I don't think -- that should go on the blog. But I either forget, or the office in my apartment kills the desire.

So I bought a blackberry off the internet. THIS, I thought would be the key. I can text message at a ridiculous rate -- imagine what a thumb-keyboard would do for me! And blogge means that you've only got to send an email and BAM! it's on the blog!

But China Mobile doesn't appear to offer blackberry service, despite the fact that their website (the Chinese version) claims that they do, and despite the fact that OTHER people have working, functional blackberries. Apparantly you've got to configure it outside of China and THEN bring it in, preferably in roaming. It seems that it won't start working until the next time I visit Hong Kong or go home for home leave. I read the entire internet -- over three trillion pages -- while trying to solve this problem. I have come to the conclusion that it can't be done.

Attempting to configure the blackberry was, as far as I'm concerned, about as good of a final exam for my Chinese language ability as I could want -- listening to China Mobile's auto-phone line ("press 5 for billing information"), dealing with customer service ("I've got a SIM card, but I need you to tell me about GPRS plans"), and reading page after page of China Mobile's primarily-Chinese website.

China Unicom, the other State-owned cell-phone service provider, apparantly started something of a bruhaha when it introduced a competitor to the blackberry, called the Redberry. According to a zillion different websites, service was running at 5 kuai -- 62 cents! --a month, plus a few Mao per email, a ridiculously reasonable rate. I went to inquire. The salesperson at China Unicom, somewhat flustered from the beginning of the conversation (she had that look that implies an unwillingness to believe that a foreigner might speak Chinese), was unwilling to lose face by admitting that she didn't have the beginning of an idea what I was talking about; she responded to my question about the redberry by telling me that all China Unicom phone numbers begin with 133.

So, the blackberry plan is dead to me as of now (perhaps to be revived over home leave in June). Fortunately, a quick trip to the second hand electronics store provided me with a hilariously small computer, suitable more or less only for word processing, and I'm back on the blogging horse. And I'll still be carrying around the blackberry, so if nothing else I can still use it on the fly to compose things and then toss it on the blog later. It's considerably more annoying than posting to the blog directly from the blackberry, but hopefully it'll re-kickstart Face The Sun and get the blog ball rolling once again.

Posted by Dakota on 11:37 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).

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