the chinese connection

Posted: April 26, 2010 in travel
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

It starts with the toilet paper.

You’ll find it has Mandarin on it once you go north of Luang Prabang. Then it spreads to the other random bits in your bathroom: the water heater. The soap. Then the food, and shortly thereafter, the vehicles — strange, olive-drab tractor-like jalopies running on single-cylinder motors that resemble generators, with belt-driven, primitive drivetrains. No seat, just a bench. Top speed is about ten miles per hour. The karaoke turns Chinese around Luang Namtha, and that’s sort of the point of no return: the border is another 2 hours North, but you’re pretty much in China… the faces and names and equipment and food and locals turn almost instantly. It’s dramatic and subtle at the same time…

Still, there’s a lot more to this than what meets my ignorant eyes… China has huge contracts with the Lao PDR to do forestry and other less-than-savory activities within their borders in exchange for ‘aid’, tons of road building equipment, and even labor. Even outside of Udomxai, you realize that basically every restaurant and guesthouse is catering to (or run by) the Chinese, and everything is written in both Lao and Mandarin, on every sign, in every restaurant, everywhere. Laos is not a particularly industrialized nation, and at 6.8 million people, it is a speck on the map in terms of labor compared to China. The hooks of the PRC reach far and wide, wider every day still — recently I read that Venezuela is shipping 460,000 barrels of crude oil to China every day, 180,000 of which are in exchange for $28 billion in loans in order to build infrastructure. If you’ve ever read ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman’ (which I would highly recommend) you know that they learned this type of economic strategy from us, notably the World Bank and companies like Halliburton and KBR… Colonialism has evolved, and China is at the front of it.

The decision was made rather suddenly to head for the border. Backtracking was afoot in any direction — it was either go back to LPB for Water Festival (expensive), try to book a flight from Chiang Mai or Vientiane (been there), or go north till I hit China, back-tracking through NW Laos. I picked North, almost arbitrarily — there are tons of areas I’ve yet to see among Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines… the list goes on, but I was getting tired of certain aspects of the tourism circuit, French Canadians notwithstanding. Plus, I already had my ill-deserved, horrendously overpriced Chinese visa in my passport. And the man who acted so nicely as my mediator in Huy Xai explained my loss to his travel agent buddies who offered to take me to the border for a mere 140,000 Kip. We stopped for lunch and the driver and his sidekick insisted on feeding me, even though I had literally no Kip left in my pocket — the generosity of Laos is almost old hat to me now but continually enlightening.

beer and communism: a short tangent

At some point while we were sitting, the sidekick asked

“Do you like Beerlao?”
Do I! The words flew out of my mouth:
“Dude, you shoulda seen me last night — I’m pretty sure LBC’s stock has doubled since I got to Laos, and that Bokeo will be a dry province until the proper supply chains can be restored and maintained..”

This was a bit of a misnomer, as the Lao Brewing Company was nationalized for a long time, and is currently still 50% owned by the PDR — they liberated it from the foreign investors back in 1975 (after what the PDR affectionately calls the – ahem – “National Liberation” of Laos) and independently operated it until 1993 or so. Eventually, foreign investors were let back in, and apparently Carlsberg owns the other half of it now (I’ve met a few Danish people who’ve told me they taste amazingly similar…)

The mission statement on BeerLao’s website is amazing:

“To move into the future with our consumers by ensuring that our brands are their preferred brands, providing them full bodies taste, total product satisfaction and identification with our products as an integral part of their success in life.”

That is just… absolutely wonderful. Maybe I should send them the story of my last night in Huy Xai, eh?

Anyway, an odd parallel to this ‘fermentation nationalization’ in China is Tsingtao, which holds about 15% of the domestic market share. It was founded privately in 1903 after Qingdao (which has an amazing history) was ceded to the Germans after they seized and occupied it. The British attacked the city in 1914 and afterwards the Japanese actually occupied it, as they were fighting alongside the Brits against ze Germans in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. It was restored to Chinese control in 1923 or so, although the Japanese occupied it once more in 1938 in their failed conquests into China. Ironically, the KMT allowed the US to use it as a naval base for the Pacific Fleet in WWII, and a base remained there until the CCP-led Red Army marched in around 1949 and again restored control to the PRC, which it has held ever since. Tsingdao had survived through all of these failed occupations and conquests, and in a similar vein to the LBC, was ‘liberated’ from its previous (at that time, Chinese) owners as such to become the sole property of the PRC — until about 1993, when, in a similar twist to LBC, private investors were let back in to purchase shares, and Anheuser-Busch (now InBev) owned 27% of it until last year, when they sold off 19% to Asahi and the rest to some random Chinese tycoon, at a profit of around $900 million. The appropriation of stock and wealth over a mere 100 years in this company is laughably convoluted and quintessentially ‘Communist’ in nature. The beer does remain very similar to the original product: a light-bodied pilsner that does taste a bit hoppy and German in character… although after nationalization, it is no longer Reinheitsgebot, as they use rice to cheapen the cost of the mash, and one of the varieties even has Spirulina as an additive, which the Germans would certainly not approve of. I’m a bit of a German beer guy myself (as the good Poobah Stan once said: “Löwenbräu changed my life!”) and I shed a tear in my beer for this wanton disregard of the Purity Law of 1516… hey, Spaten Double-Shovel it certainly is not, but we take what we can get…

north

Lunch, my last meal in Laos and fittingly benevolent in its bounty, was great: sticky rice, a river weed based muck (surprisingly delicious) with local sausage and a fish based soup… it was more than enough food for the three of us, and we climbed back into the van with full bellies, my eyes eager to make for new ground…

Land borders are always fun. I like the idea of walking from one country into another, and the van driver must have sensed this in me, as when I grabbed my bag and said “khop chai!” to him, he pointed ahead, North, and simply said “China!” with a big grin. Yes! Over there! China! Let’s do this…

At the Departure window, I got my first taste of China once more. A Laotian would never cut his place in line, let alone ignore the damn line completely and push ahead as if all others were simply subservient. In China, though, there is no such thing as a line; there are no queues, no waiting, no “after you” gestures of seniority or chivalry or politeness… no, there are just people, lots of people, and if they can reach the front of the line, pushing and shoving and squirming through, well then, they are the front of the line. This departure window was no exception, and it took me a minute to remember my Chinese manners once more, in such a contrast to my Laotian manners: push, you bastard. Just push. Reach that lanky ‘ol arm out, past all the others, force your passport in to the guy’s hand.   Me First… the cornerstone of behavior in any Chinese ‘line’.

Making it over was fun, and suddenly the contrast of SE Asia to China was in full effect. A very polite border officer in the Chinese office scrutinized my passport and entry form for quite some time, and the fake-looking pages that had been added (somewhat stitched, but literally cello tape holding the outside page borders) were very, very foreign to him, and he was quite displeased that the inner border of this cello tape ran over the top edge of my last Chinese visa. After a lot of silly questions, I threw him a curve-ball to see what would happen:

“I see your passport was issued in New Orleans, although this says you live in Wisconsin – why is that?”
“Well, New Orleans is in Wisconsin…”
“Oh. Okay. Thank you sir; enjoy your stay in China.”

I was going to fess up, but I figured perhaps we were inadvertently speaking the same language (The International Language of Semantics?), so I just let it roll… I’m sure some are shaking their heads at this joke that may have possibly threatened my entry in to China, but hey, sometimes you’ve gotta push the boundaries just to see where they really lie…

Customs was fun too: forms, but no one there to take them, just empty lanes. As I crumpled up the form and tossed it in the garbage on the way out, I thought back to the CN Embassy in BKK, with its arbitrary, capricious use of the metal detector in the lobby. Ahh, China…

Eventually I make it to the bus station in Boten, just across the border. Obviously, no one there spoke English, and when I tried to get a ticket to Mengla, it was simply not getting through… eventually I submitted to her offer for a ticket all the way to Kunming, which is quite a bit further North than I wanted to go initially but for the destination of which will quickly end this awkward exchange — she’s yelling the same sentence over and over, louder and louder, as if the volume itself will show me the light and I’ll suddenly speak Mandarin, which is what a lot of Westerners do over here with English, whom I never miss a chance to chide a bit; “Oh yeah, if you say it LOUDER, then they’ll totally be able to interpret a language that they don’t speak! Good idea, professor!”

I’m the only westerner on the bus, which doesn’t really surprise me. After about an hour, the bus stops in what I assume is Mengla, and everyone empties off. A nice Chinese woman with her husband, who had crossed the border about the same time as me, explained “one hour for dinner”. I asked if I could accompany them, though I wasn’t even hungry. She smiled wide, grabbed me by the arm, and said “Yes! Yes! Please!” and we wandered off into the city, in search of food…

I always forget to tell people I’m vegetarian over here, probably because I’m not, really. I’m just sort of picky about meat. I’m chatting with the lady, going over our recent lives: she’s been teaching in Thailand for six months and is going home to Kunming for a while. She asks where I’m heading. Usual response comes out: “I have no idea.”. She smiles. Her husband gets up to gaze at a wall full of bottles and returns to the table with two, 100ml each, filled with clear liquid. I recognize the stuff immediately: it’s baijou, basically moonshine made from rice, maybe even watered down so it reaches a ‘reasonable’ 56% alcohol. I hate this stuff; it’s technically distilled in the same manner as Lao whiskey but is inexplicably about 100 times more disgusting. He walks over smiling, and he can see the look in my eyes, the slight shake to my head, but he continues anyway: he pours the whole damn bottle into a glass, then repeats for himself, holds his up, and smiles wide. I can’t refuse — I clink glasses and we sip, and I remember the taste, that foul after-burn in my throat, the feel of the stuff. There is a reason it only costs 30 cents a bottle. Dinner comes. First round is short-ribs, breaded with a moist rice-flour. Not bad. Next plate comes out: odd, unrecognizable white blobs of fatty tissue floating in a brown broth with peanuts. “Pigs feet!” says the lady. Pretty hard to chew, and almost flavorless — why do people eat these again? I refuse nothing. It’s insulting, not just to my hosts, but to my own silly sense of immersion; if you wanna be here, than just be here: jump in, chew the damn pigs foot, drink the foul moonshine, try it just to try it.

One of the next dishes tested this mantra with full-on abandon: it was fish, but these were some sorry-looking fish, the size of which we wouldn’t use as bait to catch Northern Pike in Door County, and the thought of how far we are from a coast, combined with the memories of how ‘river’ is basically synonymous with ‘cesspool’ in China flood into my head. They are pan-fried, heads-on, and it’s a challenge to chew the little flesh clinging to their frame without taking in a mouth full of bones and fin. The lady demonstrates: first, rip the dorsal fin off with your teeth and chew. Chew the dorsal. Yep… I don’t have a lot of experience with that one. It’s pretty awful but the baijou is tempering my nerves and possibly my taste buds with the gentle stroke that a blowtorch might temper a piece of iron. I keep spitting out bones, and of course the stick-of-gum sized portion of flesh attached to them often follow, the taste of which is too foul to describe even for these crude transmissions. She tries to correct my ignorant chewing skills, and I apologize for wasting food, but hey: it’s just rather hard to eat these things. She seems impressed with my ability to use chopsticks and at one point asks if I’d like some rice, possibly enamored with the fact that I’ve eaten (well, chewed) a good portion of food that I’m clearly having trouble actually ‘eating’. Ahh, new things…

We get up and, predictably, they refuse to let me pay my share. “We host you”, she says. If only you knew, honey…

Kunming was… a place of rejuvenation for me. Some recent events, my own dark thoughts, and the typical fatigue from crossing almost a thousand kilometers in 26 hours were swept away by noodles, dumplings, brandy, new strangers-turned-friends, friendly locals and their benevolence and smiles and patience, and just the atmosphere of the place: Trees! Sunshine! 74 degrees every day! Fewer stuck-up French people roaming around! Birds in the sky! What a contrast to the grey, freezing Beijing I’d last seen two years ago… I could tell that this time, China was gonna be the witness. I’m going to love it here.

China simply doesn’t have the same tourist draw that the rest of SE Asia has… there is tons of history and countless landscapes and I consider it pretty easy to get around, but it’s not as ‘open’ or easy as one might want, and while I still felt some of that same culture-shock as I did two years ago, it’s exactly what I’m looking for after a month in a place where many visitors wind up ignoring the greater aspects of traveling and immersing in favor of sticking with each other and partying, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I recall something a nice British guy had mentioned at the posse bar back in LPB:

“The guidebook says you could easily spend a week here, but I can’t imagine how, or what you’d do..”
“Well, have you visited any of the Wats around? There’s over 30 of them; a lot of them are really amazing…”
“No…”
“Have you climbed up Phousi? It’s great to see the sunset or sunrise from there…”
“No.”
“Have you done any trekking or kayaking or biking?”
“No.”
“Have you gone over the river, or even gotten out of the Old Quarter?”
“No.”
“Well what the hell have you been doing, man?”
“Well, we went to see the waterfalls one day… and other than that I’ve just been drinking a lot with you guys.”

Obviously, I’ve done the exact same thing and am certainly no holier, but this illustrates my point, at least somewhat. It’s much harder to feel truly out of your own element in Thailand or Laos or Vietnam… there’s a small language barrier, sure, and there are troubles and trials and scams, but it’s just so easy to be there, there are so many of us there at any given time, taking the same ride, and to some degree they cater to the vices and the manufacturing of experiences that too often sum up the bulk of peoples’ trips to the region.

We have only ourselves to blame for this; we didn’t trample the place in a day, but in cycles, in generations of past tourists going home and raving about the beaches and the prices and the buckets and the oh-what-a-great-times… I don’t think it is a given to have a manufactured experience, but if there’s one place above all others where I’ve been that exemplifies it — and bear in mind that I haven’t been to many places — it’s the regions of SE Asia that breed the most sophomoric of wants in us, that cater to the Europeans who just graduated Uni, or the Israelis who just finished their IDF stint, or the Aussies who treat it as their backyard, their own little Cancun or Tijuana, or the North Americans who come because they’ve already been to Cancun and Tijuana… to all of us, all who’ve heard tale of full moon parties on the beach, and sixty-cent beers, and three-dollar hotel rooms, and tubing down rivers of beer, weed and spring rolls… We are the people who’ve manufactured this place into catering to ourselves, and the ramifications of that are transparent only to a point, and still opaque and fuzzy to me.

We are the reason that sleepy towns become party spots, that cops turn to bribes, that village boys turn into tuk tuk pushers, that girls from slums in Bangkok turn to selling their flesh on the street… and who could blame them? Is a life of taking the Euro or the Dollar not superior to poverty and toil? Is prostitution a better life than sweatshop labor? Is the cop who takes a $300 bribe from a punk 20-year old with a joint not feeding his family with it? Is the tuk tuk driver not pushing his wares so he can afford the most basic of luxuries, running water and electricity? What have we given to these places though our tourism, exactly? What is the cost of a 14% growth rate in GNP? What is the phantom nature of that 14% in the first place?

The interconnectedness of everything is impossible to see and at the same time impossible to ignore, and while I probably bring more negativity into the situation than is warranted, I feel I can’t ignore the writing on the wall…

We are the manufactured and the manufacturers. Just because you can see the cogs turn doesn’t mean you aren’t one, in that same machine…

…and there are a lot of machines out there.

China. Holy shit. I’m ready for you, China…

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