I’ve wanted to go to Japan, basically, forever. I think growing up in America in the 90s, there was this universal sense that Japan was simply ahead, in technology, innovation, education… it seemed like a place where success was boundless, advancement ever-present. Around the age of ten, I discovered sushi, and then I was basically in love — in America, Japanese food is still really quite un-bastardized or homogenized, the way one often finds in other Asian cuisine, and bowls of Udon, whole plates of sashimi would disappear in front of me. My fascination of the place never left — discovering anime, then reading Shogun, then other random history books like Army of the Rising Sun. Bicycles were certainly part of the love affair, as I got to sell and fondle many 3Renshos and Nagasawas and such in my tenure in a quaint little shop where the owner had been a major importer of Japanese goods for over a decade. Takashi Miike movies and other splinters of absurd cinema may have had an adverse effect on others, but to me they spoke of a place almost within its own reality — what the hell, Japan?! Seriously. I need to know.

So now, of course, it’s almost embarrassing to think of what kept me away for so long. I was very close to coming here in 2008, back when I was stuck in Beijing during spring festival, but looking at how far a dollar went simply kept me away. Then last year, I was in Korea, a mere $100 ferry ride away from Kansai, but again, China and Mongolia won out in my head: simple math. $30/day vs $70/day. Stretch it.

In 2008, the exchange rate was around 120 JPY to $1. Last year it hovered around 95. Yesterday, I believe it was 83. Our dollar really needs to get its shit together.

Still there’s no denying one’s own desires. In the great words of Tracey Morgan: “Live every week like it’s Shark Week…”

first impressions: ignorance and bliss

I flew into Kansai airport in the afternoon and basically immediately started fucking up. With no yen in my pocket, I cleared customs with nary a problem, even as the labrador lapped at my heels and circled around my feet, led by a man with white gloves and perfect posture. I stuck my card into the ATM in the baggage claim and struck out: nope, no money for you. Had I previously read that most ATMs in Japan are not friendly to foreign cards, I may have been more prepared for this, but as it happens, my last day in Korea I had mistakenly punched one too many zeros into an ATM to get the bus fare I needed and wound up with 200,000 Won in my pocket, which I immediately changed into greenback… so in my own twisted way, my previous fuck-up had in fact created a perfectly viable Plan B for the Japanese bank card incident: just buy some yen. I decided to change only half of the money at first, as I assumed $80 worth of Yen was enough to last me until I could figure out the ATMs here, and it’s always good to have some USD in your pocket, even if it’s backed by nothing but the Fed’s hot air, and horrendously artificially deflated, and the bills are sort of sticky…

I walked outside to the bus queue to find… well, no buses at all. The man at the ticket counter explained that the buses were shut down for the day due to snow, an odd reason, as there was literally no snow in sight. “Train”, he said.

I waltzed in and asked for a ticket to Osaka Station. The woman was happy to sell me a subway ticket, at a cost of 1,420 yen, about a 1/4 of what was in my pocket. “damn, that is a hell of a lot of money for a subway ticket” was in my head as I absent-mindedly thanked her in Korean. Japanese is my third dialect in 30 days, and in my brain it’s just a damn mess right now. She didn’t seem to mind.

My new friend Sho took me to dinner that night, at a place that greatly resembled a Perkins in terms of decor, though obviously not in fare. I had a bowl of rice with strips of tamago and a large pile of raw toro, presumably the scraps from making sashimi, with a side of udon. It was about 900 yen, $11 or so, which somehow put my mind at ease, as if to say, “well hell, that ain’t so bad…” because a bowl of rice with egg, sashimi tuna and a side of udon is probably about $15 in California. Perhaps my fears were un-warranted, I thought.

We spoke of traveling. Sho had spent two years studying in Vancouver and was dying to get back to North America. A long discussion ensued on the ramifications of working and living in Japan vs Canada. He was very curious about the midwest… I asked him what the snowfall was to shut down all the buses. “About 3cm,” he said, adding “most in 10 years in Osaka!”. I smiled and did some quick math. “Well, we’ve probably gotten about 100cm so far this year…” He dropped his sticks.

After dinner, we headed for an onsen, a public hot spring, something I was really looking forward to. I crammed my shoes in the locker and thought back to Korea and its jimjilbangs, basically bath houses, eager to get clean and soak in a hot tub for a while. It was in the locker room that I noticed an interesting sign, with several poorly drawn cartoons, that said something along the lines of “Those the tattoos are not for the entry”. hmmmm….

“Hey man, does this say that people with tattoos can’t come in?”
“Mmm… you have?”
“Uhh yeah….”
“Really? a lot?”
“Well.. just three…”
“Where?”
I pointed to my ribs and then my legs, wondering how the locations could possibly affect the odds of them being seen, given that you go into the spring butt-naked.
“hmm… I think… here…”

He went and asked a guy who was piling towels in a bin. I saw him point to his side and his legs, and the expression on the towel herder’s face was a mix of uncertainty and modest refusal, pursed lips and an a slight smile as he shook his head.

“No, we can’t come in…”

I like that he said “we” when clearly it was only I who couldn’t come in. “I’m sorry…” I started to stammer, as if I had done something wrong. We got a refund and headed back for the car, a tiny little cereal box of a Honda that I believe was called the Fresh. “yeah… sorry… didn’t really think of that…” We spoke of tattoos, and Yakuza and other taboos, and customs, and manners, and about a dozen other talking points that I was 90% ignorant of. Apparently I had a lot to learn.

On the way back to his house, we stopped for snacks. I found myself noting and chewing on prices, sort of like Michael Douglas in Falling Down. I’d say most food items are just slightly more expensive than in the US, although given the food, it’s a little intimidating… onigiri, which is basically a ball of rice, goes for about 120 yen. That’s three cents of rice for a buck-fifty. This does not keep me from eating them every day. Really, the major expense here is transportation, though I’ll save my thoughts on that for another transmission…

red lights and strange sights

Getting lost in new places is pretty much my favorite thing ever. As long as you don’t have, say, a train to catch, or a heavy pack, it’s sort of like my equivalent of a guided tour, minus the guide of course… indeed, an aimless tour. A walkabout. I was in southern Osaka, near Tennoji station, meandering around Osaka Tower, an eiffel-tower like structure (there are many Eiffel Tower clones in Japan) that is bordered by shopping and restaurants and clubs and all sorts of other places I can’t afford to go in. Belly full of oden and green tea, I put on the ear goggles, turned up the dubstep mix, and set myself out to find the hotel without the use of a map or compass, using only landmarks and memory. People always ask me how I travel so cheap, and this is sort of a dirty little secret… just get lost instead of doing anything that a normal tourist would consider. Not all the time, but sometimes. Go ahead, try it. It’s fun. And free. And you’ll probably see a lot of stuff you didn’t know existed…

I figured with a fake eiffel tower and a half-dozen railways that I had staked out, the mission would be over in just six or eight tracks. This was not the case. Osaka is, for the most part, built on a grid, but many of the streets were apparently designed by mice, and thus, they dead-end, and fork, and swirl, and some simply go off into nowhere. This is not the case downtown, where everything was likely designed by lasers and robots, but this neighborhood is old and weird. The conversation before moving there went something like this:

“Hey Sho, how come all the cheap hostels are in this one neighborhood?”
“Oh… it’s… kind of dirty.” (This is a very relative term in Japan)
“How so?”
“You know, homeless people, casinos, street markets, bars… and… things.” Things. Right.
“Cool.”

So there I was, and I knew I was heading south based on the sun, and it seemed like I was at about the right longitude, but nothing was familiar. The streets got narrower. Graffiti appeared, not an incredibly rare thing here but nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in, say, any other country. I took a left after the roofed market, no longer really concerned with the hotel at all, just wandering. ‘Chase and Status’ was playing, a track called ‘Eastern Jam’ which is really good, bright samples, but dirty and glitchy and creepy, the kind of beat that makes you slow down so you can walk in step to it. And then I saw them.

It was a woman. Well, two of them, actually, one dressed up, full of make-up and hairspray, sitting on a mat, on a platform, surrounded be space heaters. Her face was… blank. Just completely expressionless. Except for the occasional blink, she could have been a doll. Then, in front of her, an older lady, almost decrepit by contrast, sitting on a stool, smiling wide, gesturing me over. what… the… fuck…

It had stopped me dead in my tracks. I looked a little closer. The place was a storefront, with a lit sign above and red neon lining the window, or what would have been a window: the whole front of the building was open. This is in Osaka in February, around 30 degrees. Except for the lack of glass and the addition of an old lady, the entire scene was really shockingly similar to what you’d see in Amsterdam. I was in a red-light district.

More questions were presented than answered by this realization.

Why the lack of glass? An inviting atmosphere? Good lord, why the old lady? Is a pimp required to somehow not cross over the line of modesty in selling yourself? An old lady pimp?  With a creepy smile? What’s her cut? I simply didn’t know how to react. The contrast to the modesty that Sho and I had talked at such length about was stark, and yet, not… yes, they were clearly selling themselves, but in such a… bashful, almost sheepish way. I guess it fit right in. I kept walking. The old ladies kept smiling and waving me over, surely thinking I had wound up here on purpose. The storefronts were everywhere, and there sure seemed to be a lot of them open for 4pm on a Saturday. The inhabitants looked cold. Most of the mats were of the ‘Hello Kitty’ variety. The outfits on the girls ranged from traditional wear, to more modern, provocative fare (though nothing like what you’d see in Amsterdam). Then there was this one woman. She wasn’t dressed like the others… oh no… can that be…

Yep. A full wedding gown, with the veil and all. On a mat. With an old lady in front of her, the same creepy smile as the rest, gesturing me over. This was too much… I couldn’t help but laugh, though in my head there was another dialog going on….

Now, for a country with the second lowest birth rate in the world (estimates have it going up, which is good, as it was declining for almost 20 years), in a place where they make robotic infants, this was really something to behold… your very own wedding night, without the whole hassle of actually having a marriage. I wondered how anyone could desire such a thing, but supply and demand would dictate that there must be a market for it. About seventy dirty jokes popped in to my head in the span of fifteen seconds.

The ATM could wait: I needed facts. And a beer. I eventually found myself out of the neighborhood and back near a market I recognized. I grabbed a Kirin out of a vending machine with the last 130 yen in my pocket (okay, this has maybe happened once or twice before) and hopped on Google. Turns out this is pretty well documented and discussed, and both Wiki and even the damn WSJ even have posts on this specific neighborhood (favorite random point: all those signs are advertising the “Tobitashinchi Ryori Kumiai”, the name of the “cooking association” that oversees the area). I’ve never paid for sex (or “company” or “cooking lessons”) but I don’t really have a moral high ground about it… if it’s safe and it’s regulated enough to go on like this, let the girl don the wedding dress.  She probably makes more in a night than I make in a week.  Who’s really using whom here?

Anyway, the beer, and my pockets, were empty, my head full of thought. New missions.  More to come…

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I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to finding flights.

Often, I’ll see small patterns emerge from airline to airline, like the price “wave” that occurs as you near the departure date — a sudden increase in cost, then a lull, starting about 5 weeks out and hitting bottom about 10 days out.  These can be unpredictable and sometimes ass-backwards, and as I took something like sixteen flights last year, I probably spent more time than I should have finding most of them… but these days, I find myself trying to search a little smarter, and spending a little time learning the trends has wound up saving me a lot of time staring at prices.

Recently, another of my favorite blogs, Chart Porn, graced my inbox with a nice piece on flight pricing and decoding the seemingly arbitrary way in which it changes day to day. Chart Porn is pretty aptly named; it basically showcases online examples of data, with more of a focus on the design aspect than on the data itself, but with so much data out there, the posts from day to day can range quite a bit, making it a particularly fun blog to be signed up for — you never know what you might learn.

hmm... to buy, or wait?

Anyway, this post includes some great information and tools to help us understand what’s really going on with flight pricing… and, as we might have suspected, it’s at least a little arbitrary. This WSJ Article is an eye-opener into how airlines will change ticket prices throughout the days of the week to promote deals, or, just as often, to match their competitors. It’s interesting to note that a 7% difference in price from Friday to Saturday is, in fact, quite a lot. This farecompare page has a collection of articles that are even more in depth, offering some insights into individual airlines and their respective behavioral patterns.

This got me thinking a bit, about how I use the sites I use, and when. I usually scan the same three or four sites together to look for flights, although sometimes I’ll buy from the airline directly even after finding a deal, as they’ll commonly give you more leeway and flexibility than if you buy from an agent, which can make a small price hike worth it.   Still, for starters, it’s nice to check the major airfare search engines first… so where to start?

1) Kayak
Still the king, in my opinion, though it has some faults to work through. I really like that you can search for a week spread at a time, which will give you an idea of what day of the week to shoot for in your particular journey — and contrary to what we were all taught, it’s often not Wednesday at all. Also, the interface is really lovely for doing matrix-searches — in addition to searching within a whole week, you can specify multiple airports for To and From by simple adding commas between airport codes — so instead of having to search once for LAX to ICN, once for SFO to ICN, and once for SAN to ICN, you can simply enter LAX,SFO,SAN to ICN and see a complete search for

options: you have some

each. You can do this for both the To and From airports in the same search, so if you’re apathetic about your point of departure and relative destination (as I often am), it can save you a ton of time. I give it bonus points for accuracy too, as I’ve rarely hit dead-ends on the deals it finds, which can be common (and horrendously annoying) in the big-box search engines.

And for brownie points, they also have this incredibly bad-ass tool, which will let you literally search the entire earth for flights in a map view, and lets you narrow destinations based on price, temperature, duration, date of travel, etc… so if you REALLY want to do the whole “put on a blindfold and throw the dart at the wall” thing, it might be right up your alley… though I really don’t recommend throwing a dart at your monitor.  If you do, at least videotape the results and email it to me…

2) Skyscanner

This one can be a mixed bag too, although I’ve found some really stellar deals on it, particularly around Asia. It’s also a really fun one to use, as it lets you search entire countries at once, as well as scanning whole months, or even a whole year. It is the only site (that even remotely works, anyway) that I’ve found that will give you this option, to be absolutely as vague as possible in your search. The flip side to this feature is that the wider your search is, the less scrutinizing it seems to be in regards to cost, which would at least partly explain why I’ve had good luck with it in Asia, in smaller countries with fewer international airports. In any case, it’s a fun tool, and one that has saved me a lot of dough in getting from country to country.

3) Graphical Madman Award: Hipmunk

This one seems to show VERY similar results to Kayak, but the interface is, in a word, brilliant. Instead of little boxes showing each flight’s vital stats, you get a lovely graph that indicates each flight by its take-off and landing duration, sorted however you like, including an option called “Agony”, a matrix of price, duration and stop-overs. It also has a nifty “tabbed” system, that lets you have multiple searches open in one window/tab, and shows each search in individual tabs within the site, freeing up your browser’s tabs (and, presumably, your machine’s processing/memory consumption). Very handy if your parameters (dates, destinations) are pretty concrete anyway, and you just want to see everything in a clearer light.

4) Price is Right Showcase Award: Travelzoo

This site basically showcases airline-direct specials, as well as cruise, hotel, and all-inclusive deals (although I can’t really comment on the latter offers). I generally scan it every few weeks to get an idea of the deals that are available, and since for flights, they’re usually airline-direct, the round-trip deals can be amazing: Asia for >$800, Costa Rica for $200ish, New Zealand for $860 — stuff like that. Highly recommended for finding R/T deals that the bigger search engines won’t show you.

5) Eyebrow-Raising-to-Savings Ratio Award: ASAPtickets

These guys are sort of like the red-headed cousins of the guys who run Travelzoo, if those cousins wound up skipping school, joining the mafia, and opening a travel agency in an alley around the corner. Sometimes they can find great deals, though, so they’re worth mentioning. Basically, the site shows all-inclusive prices for R/T or one-way tickets, based on deals that are sometimes pretty specific and sometimes strict in terms of exact dates. You have to call them first (there is no option to book online) and give them your parameters, then they’ll call or email you back with the skinny on what they can do. I’ve never purchased through them before, but one of my traveling friends swears by them, and the prices I’ve heard her quote are usually ridiculously low… so if you’re in a pinch, need the ticket for a departure that’s less than a week out, or just have some extra time, give them a shout and see what they say. Also, of the three times I’ve called them, the name of the guy on the other end of the line is usually something like “Boris” or “Mario”, although they usually sound Latin rather than Eastern European. Who knows…

6) Honorable Mention: Orbitz

Okay, so everyone already knows about Orbitz, and Kayak searches it for you when you use it, but I have a crush on them, so I’m dropping their name anyway. I used to use Priceline almost exclusively for domestic flights, but in the last year I had some major customer service woes with them, one of which almost culminated in me throwing a Molotov Cocktail at a Days Inn in Alameda, so for now they’re on my shit-list…

Orbitz has some pretty nice features to it, the best of which is a service called Courtesy Cancel. Basically, if you want to cancel a flight you’ve purchased within 24-hours of buying it, you press a button on their website, and bam, you just canceled your flight, with no penalty. This is not available on all flights they sell, but I’ve done it twice before, and if you buy a ticket, then find a better deal (on a different flight) the next day, this feature is priceless. Also, if you book a flight and the price goes down on that exact flight, they refund you the difference, automatically. This has saved me probably $300 since I almost burned down that hotel in Alameda.

Alright then! Now you too can spend hours of your time scouring the internet, taking notes, and daydreaming… happy hunting, and please post any tips I might have missed!

I flew in to Taipei around 7:30 and hit the cheapest hostel in town, a surprisingly nice place on the east end of the city called The Meeting Place. The first night lent itself to finding food and taking in the atmosphere, similar to China at first glance but drastically different as soon as you interact with humans here. The first major clue was just outside the airport, after buying a bus ticket into the city. I walked out expecting a mob of people to climb over each other at the first sign of the bus, but instead found a perfect, polite queue to the sign indicating the stop for the #1813 to Taipei Main Station. I was flabbergasted. I kept half-expecting a riot to break out for seats at the arrival of the bus, and I am not lying when I say I was preparing for war at the sight of the bus, shouldering the pack, getting ready to spread the elbows and start pushing like BJ Raji, but it never happened — we just boarded, neatly, in order, and after the seats were full, the next person in line simply stopped, and the crowd behind us began waiting patiently for the next bus.

Now, I’m sure this may not seem very interesting or unique to most people, but to anyone who’s been to China before… well, that shit is fucking incredible. It looks like I’m stereotyping here (and I am), but that would simply never happen in a queue for a bus in China — there would be yelling and climbing and crawling and mob rule and 40 people refusing to leave the aisle after the bus was full, and really, for good reason, or at least justifiable reason. A few days after, I met a guy who’s been living in China for two years, and after mentioning this observation, he smiled with his eyes wide and explained to me that his pictures in Taiwan had almost exclusively been of people standing in line. "I just can’t get over it", he said. "I really can’t believe it… it’s just mind blowing. Totally different attitude." Even the subway queues are more civilized than the ones in Korea, and that’s saying something, as Koreans are really very courteous people. This is a base observation, but it was the starting point…

Taiwan is not China. It never has been. I was expecting this to be less transparent, somehow, but this place is 60+ years ahead of China in a lot of ways… writing this, my thoughts drift back to a bookstore in Beijing back in 2008, when I picked up a Lonely Planet China. There was an odd crease in the binding, and when I turned to it, I found that the section on Taiwan had been ripped out. I picked up another. Same thing, across the whole row of books… they must really not like the LP’s description of Taiwan. Asking students about it later, they were all pretty much in agreement: "Taiwan is China’s biggest island", I remember one saying. "Umm… that’s… not true at all…", I thought. This is really on the minor side of conditioning there, though — I didn’t find a single person my own age in Beijing who knew about what happened in Tienanmen in ’88, and I met quite a few older people who insisted to me that China dropped the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. That’s simply what they were taught.

Of course, on the surface, you’d almost think the progress was the other way around. I remember reading a few years ago that something like 60% of the construction equipment on earth is in China, with over half of that in Shanghai… and after being there, it’s a pretty believable figure. There is simply very little there that’s over ten years old… here, you can feel the boom has already passed, that the wave broke long ago and rolled back. Besides the Taipei 101, there are only two other buildings over 50 stories in the entire country, both of them built in the mid-90’s, though this may be more to do with the frequent earthquakes (I have been woken up by two since I got here, and there are tremors almost daily). Around Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung (the three biggest cities), everything smells like old concrete and rust, which is oddly comforting to me. Besides the occasional mall or commercial building, it’s rare to see new construction. In this sense, the whole place seems closer to Oakland than it does to Kunming…

clubbing: an exercise in alcohol, hormones, and lower mathematics

Night two. A hosteler has invited me to a club with another Swedish guy, says it will be a good time. We head out around 10:30 and subway it to Taipei City Hall, and I get my first view of the 101, dreary and gloomy behind the rain and fog. The club is just a few blocks from it, a basement joint called Babe 18. The cover is $500 NT (about $17) and the club itself is an all-you-can-drink venue — apparently a common thing around here. We grab a drink and sort of meander around… the place is small and just starting to fill up, and the vibe is pretty mellow. We start chatting with random folks around the bar, all very friendly, and besides the three of us, there are maybe only two or three other westerners in the joint.

I’ve honestly never really been clubbing before. I mean, I’ve gone to plenty of places that charge a cover and serve drinks and have a dance floor, and that’s usually great, but when I think’clubbing’, I think of a slightly different scene, a bit more dress-up perhaps, people wanting to be seen, but more than that, a perception of exclusivity, nowhere to sit, a volume level and spacial allotment akin to the engine room of a merchant marine vessel, lines and cordons and shit like that. This place is on the edge of that perception, and I find myself in an anxious comfort of the element for a few minutes…

As it gets later and the place fills up, the lens shifts a bit, perhaps the worse for wear, particularly as the verb "dancing" seems to be gradually become interpreted more and more basely and urgently, denigrating into "hump everything female at random". You know how occasionally, you’ll be on the dance floor, and you’ll spot a group of women, and they’re just dancing with each other, and they’re not just sort of ignoring the guys, but totally ignoring every guy in the joint? I suppose I’ve always interpreted this as transparent code for "Hey look guys, we’re just here to have a good time and cut loose, please don’t fuck this up by humping our legs at random."

Well, these groups are disappearing at an amazing rate as the men are getting drunker and more aggressive, and suddenly there are perhaps four men to every woman, and sure, not all of them are acting like total dicks, but every time I think I see something bad, it’s followed by something much worse. Guys are literally pulling each other off of the women they seem to be hell-bent on dancing with, even pointing fingers, and generally acting less and less like dancing partners and more and more like horny sociopaths. Maybe I’m being dramatic here, maybe I just don’t get it, maybe I’m jaded… but from where I was standing, I couldn’t help but think most of these guys fit into at least the seventh circle, some all the way to the ninth.

I watch and chat with other random people, not particularly enthused but in the melee I’m witnessing but pretty fascinated by it, almost like I’m watching a PBS documentary or something. At some point the Swede walks up with a puzzled look on his face and says "What? You don’t like dancing? You should talk to some girls…" as if these two things are somehow related to one another, when in fact they seem more and more to be mutually exclusive. "Yeah, I’ll do that…"

Around 3am or so, I decide the scene just isn’t really for me, finish my drink and walk out, trying to dissect it a bit more as I do so. A lot of these guys are, in the most true sense of the word, wasted , almost as if they’re trying to drink as much as possible to justify the cover price, something not unfamiliar to me but that seems different, much funnier somehow, in the context of a meat-market. I notice a sign on the wall on my way out that says something along the lines of ‘people who vomit inside club will have to pay $200 NT clean-up fee’, which instantly strikes me as a small price to pay. It must happen a lot.

I see the guys the next morning, drinking my coffee at the hostel. After berating me for leaving early, they tell me their story of the rest of the night, a real head-shaker, about how they left the club with the girls they were dancing with "but they wouldn’t take us home". Imagine that, dancing with a person doesn’t guarantee you sex with them! What a world… "Yeah, I was trying really hard, talking with her outside the club," the Swede says, and I can’t help noticing how "trying really hard to convince her to sleep with me" is neatly packaged the next morning as simply "trying really hard". I chew on my toast and smile, wondering if there’s ever been a study done showing how MTV has effectively set back gender relations by 250 years or so.

not my scene not my problem

Two nights later, I’m walking to a different club, almost begrudgingly, with a fresh crowd of new faces. We had gone for dinner earlier, and cause for celebration has translated into an urge for dancing. Most of them live in Taipei and almost all are Taiwanese born. She senses my disdain. "It’s… not really my speed", I explain. "Maybe I’ll come for a quick drink…"

This joint is called Carnegies and it’s supposedly famous, although it’s hard to see why. There isn’t really a dancefloor at all, but the place is big, spread out, with lots of tables, and a huge bar with enormous brass poles installed across the length of it. It is horrendously expensive, by any standard, and the girls are still 20-somethings, but the median age of the men has increased quite a bit — most of the guys are in their 40s. For the size, it is much too well-lit. We chat for a while, about meat-markets, and Egypt, and traveling, and the variance in attitude towards beer by the Germans and the Belgians, a topic I am almost embarrassingly conversant on. Then we talk some more. I wind up having a fantastic time, actually.

I wake up around noon, feeling a tad groggy but overall pretty solid – indeed, overpriced beer is a good way to keep the poor from drinking too much. I wash my face, run a brush over my teeth with a paste that seems to have been made with green tea and maybe anise. I walk back to be guestroom, or what seems to be a guestroom, I can’t really tell… she’s still asleep, curled up in the comforter, eyes closed and stoic behind waves of black hair… and I cannot possibly describe how beautiful she is. Absolutely gorgeous, just incredible, natural, no make-up or glitter, no haze, no false pretense or atmospheric tinge to discolor or distort the image, just her, still fully dressed, like me, on a dinky pull-out bed with a comforter sized and styled for a child, peaceful and indifferent… my heart pounds faster, short flashes that only exist in an impossible future running through my synapses. I can feel my brow furrowing, not by my own accord, and then the synapses relapse, that sugary substance that normally flows quickly changing to caustic sap… yes, the fact is sharply, horribly clear, and the fact is that I’m never going to see her again, no matter how much we both want to, that the future is as linear as the past, and the reality of the whole thing crashes into the beauty in front of me and shatters on the floor of my gums, leaving a dark stain that tastes like rust… I look away with lazy eyes. My hands are clenching into fists and I don’t know why, like picking a scab until it bleeds and then wondering to yourself how you could ever think that might have helped. I feel a slight peace but something else is trying to break in, something irrational and vague and eager.

She kisses me goodbye and tells me she doesn’t want to see me go and I tell her I feel the same way and we’re both completely telling the truth and it seems to be intended to make each other feel better but it’s clearly doing just the opposite. I hold her tightly, one last time, then walk away, feeling her stare… my eyes are closed and I’m breathing deeply, my steps slow and deliberate and almost cautious. I make the first turn and realize that I have absolutely no idea where I am and immediately decide that it doesn’t matter in the slightest. I notice that my steps are getting faster and faster, almost like I’m being chased by some phantom or something…

Somewhere along the line, I seem to have lost my Eligible Man-About-Town badge and was instead given a Hopeless Romantic purple-heart. Sometimes life holds you close and whispers into your ear that you’re special. Other times it just pukes in your lap. You’d think it’d be easier to laugh at the former and cry at the latter, but sometimes it’s exactly the opposite…

kickstart

Posted: January 20, 2011 in travel
Tags: , , , , , ,

Hola, amigos. I know it’s been a while since I rapped at ya, but as my writing hasn’t been quite ‘riviting’ lately I sort of let the whole stupid blog thing slip away… until now…

fragments: six months in a hundred and sixty seconds

Death in June. I’m sitting in a bar in Shanghai, chatting with a fifty-something British man who’s been teaching here for four years. We’re talking about our respective recent travels, and girls, and gristly bits, and random nefarious goings-on around the world. He’s quite smart and open, in an oddly sullen way. "I used to be like you," he says, ashing his cigarette on the floor, "back when I was young, dumb and full of cum. Now I’m just old, dumb and full of cum…" I smile. He drains the last of his Hoegaarden and looks up. "Here, lemme getcha a beer…"

Nine weeks later, I’m six weeks into a twelve week gig, averaging somewhere around 62 hours a week, not counting side work. I’m tired but the numbers are adding up in my head in interesting ways, like: "twelve times fifteen… times six-point-eight… divide by eighty… yep, I made enough for 20 hours of Laotian massage today…". Head-strong.

‘Cross season hits. I’m gluing tubulars at an astounding rate, going through cans of cement in the manner a truck driver in the 1970s might go through Dexamyl.

Halloween. I’m wandering around Chico, California with two other fellow humans. We’re pointing and laughing and staring and drooling and telling jokes that no one understands.

November comes. Loneliness, neurosis and uncertainty, like some evil dream that’s lost it’s luster. My smoking and drinking seem to have reached a level that makes Keith Richards look like Jack LaLane.

Thanksgiving eve. I’m doing shots of Fernet with friends on the Embarcadero, on a bike ride around the city to visit the friendliest bartenders in SF. The sun is shining on my face as I close my eyes and exhale. John owns the joint and he’s pretty happy today. "Get to close tomorrow, get to have a day off! Haven’t waxed the floor in this place since last year," he says, pouring that black, herbal foolishness into the glasses. "…pretty excited about that floor… here, this round’s on me…" We drink to the floor.

Twelve hours later, I’m walking out of Whiskey Thieves, alone. It’s bartime and I’m restless and bored and it smells like piss in the Tenderloin, like it always does. I come across a tweaker on his hands and knees, eyes wide, searching for something on the ground.

"what’s up man?"
"dude…. I… I just dropped like six hits of acid…."
I nod for a moment. "far out, man."
"no… NO…. you don’t understand", he says, waving his open palm up and down in spastic motion with each sylabil, "I just DROPPED six hits of acid! like, on the sidewalk, man!"
"oh. that sucks…"

In a bizarre turn of events, I buy some 4-Lokos with the last $20 in my pocket and chill with the crackheads and tweakers all night. I learn some things, namely, what 4-Loko is like (or was like — apparently they’ve pulled it off the shelves?) and that it is more valuable than crack to the crackheads, who all offer me their crack in exchange for one. Ever look in the shopping cart of a bum? Not so bad, right? Ever look in the shopping cart of a speed freak? It’s scary as hell, and that’s coming from a veteran trashspotter…

December first. I’m canceling a flight I’m supposed to be on in three hours with tears in my eyes. My brain is an idiot, and if I’ve been working for the last eighteen weeks, my bank account sure doesn’t seem to reflect it.

Hanukkah dinner. I’m making grapefruit Negronis in a palatial house in the Oakland Hills that smells like expensive shampoo. Someone asks if I know how to make Liquid Cocaines. I do. I’m rocking the shaker back and forth, my thoughts drifting back to Thanksgiving and that guy named Tim with three teeth left in his jaw and a cart full of garbage. The latkes are superb.

I’ve found myself twisting up and down hills every day, perhaps sweeter for the larceny of time. I’m burning through the Piedmont cemetery in the big ring of a thirty-pound, five-inch travel 29er, a ludicrous bike completely out of it’s element, more akin to a motocross machine than a bicycle. My eyes are red behind euro-trash shades, slamming to drone metal, an album from Boris called Pink that still blows my mind every time I listen to it. The opening scene to Gummo pops into my head. I’m smiling.

I’m having a geek session in Albany, learning about Arduino boards with a man who lived and worked with my father half a lifetime ago.

I’m in San Diego at an entomology conference, calm, sober as a Turk and wearing a tailored shirt. I get the feeling most of the people here will never leave school until they stop being paid to do so, not a bad thing in and of itself but certainly not phronetic education. A professor asks where I go to school. "I haven’t been in school since 2004", I say, not defining the nature of why. "So you’re a flunk-out, huh?" Interesting response… I’m tempted to react badly to this seemingly caustic remark but smile as I respond instead. "Well, since 2004 I’ve been to something like twenty-two countries, co-founded a business that is still successful, and not acquired a single dime of debt. Yes. I’m a flunk-out." He turns out to be a pretty nice guy.

New Years Eve. I’m back in Madison on a whim, going from spit-roasting a goat to a quiet bourbon to a farewell to Magnus to a few dance parties, then prancing to the A-bar. Ruthless efficiency, followed by huevos rancheros.

Two days later: a plane to catch. Seoul. A city of neon and barbecue and androgynous mens shoes.

I seem to whirlwind through cities sometimes. No greater monster than reason. I’m today. He’s yesterday.

tomorrow

Let’s shift gears a bit. Lets get weird and do weird stuff. Lets start dialogs and ask questions. Lets find cool bands and DJs and throat-singers and music geeks and sample them for all they’re worth. Lets stop just writing one-night-stories and start writing whatever the hell we feel like. Lets chew the gristle with the fat, lets make the waste into confit. Lets find interesting people and grill them, savor their responses off the skewer… or hey, for that matter, lets get literal and find interesting cooks and steal their recipes. LETS BAKE COOKIES! Lets find more new stuff and try it. Lets live off of pennies but be rich, lets sneak in the back door, lets hit on the bouncer to get in, lets try harder. Lets stop looking at work as the means to do what we want and instead just do what we want, hell, lets make the work what we want in the first place. Lets share more. Lets wing it.

Lets live…

Mongolia was on the list already. One morning, I woke up and decided it was at the top.

On paper, Mongolia is baffling interesting. For being the 17th largest country by land-mass on the planet, Mongolia has only 2.6 million or so inhabitants, making it the least densely populated country (with a population over 57,000 — up yours, Greenland) on earth. For every human, there are ten horses… and for every horse, there are roughly four heads of livestock. Land is public outside of Ulaan Baatar and perhaps one or two other cities. If you look at the country on Google Earth, you see… nothing. Lots and lots of nothing. This, I’ll admit, was a big draw for me: I love China, truly enjoy the place… but no matter where you go… well, there are just so many people everywhere. I dreamt that night of peaceful desert, and spotless lakes, and nomads serving tea, and dirt, sand, grass, rocks, birds… I dreamed of nothing.

So I bought a train ticket. Well, that’s not quite right… I looked online and found that the international, Beijing->Ulaan Baatar leg of the Trans Siberian is $200 — an astronomical figure for a train ride here, even if it is international, 1,600+ km and 30 hours. After reading up on it a lot more, I found that if you just get a train to Erlian, the Chinese border town, cross overland, and buy a ticket from Zamin Uud on the Mongolian side to Ulaan Baatar, you can do the same journey for about $33 — it just takes an extra day, and a hell of a lot more legwork.

northern exposure

In Erlian, I found that most people would rather just pay the extra $170. A nice pair of Polish people, however, were clearly on my page: they jumped ship in Erlian as well, and we found ourselves the only westerners out in the rain at 8:23 pm. An interesting note is that they use the same trains across the borders, but as Mongolia and Russia use a different gauge of rail, they actually change out the bogies (wheels) on each carriage — a process I have yet to witness but am sure is quite incredible in terms of arbitrary labor.

We find that the train station has no tickets for the connection, and that the bus station inexplicably closes before 9pm — very odd for a border town. The priorities shift suddenly: the border can wait. We require food and drink. We find a decent hotel room and get to work. The next morning, we awake at some ungodly hour and hike to the border. My Mandarin is still too shaky to realize what the taxi drivers are trying to tell us: the border doesn’t open until 8am. Still, one taxi driver is more than happy to take us there at 6:20 am, a gesture we immediately regret. I go for a walk to kill time and meet a very nice Mongolian truck mechanic who shares some of his rancid coffee with me as I shoot pictures of what is certainly the filthiest workshop I’ve ever seen. We chat.

Eventually, the border opens and we find new challenges – namely, that the land border is inexplicably not cross-able by foot, but that you must cross it in a vehicle. Madness. We eventually find a jeep driver (with an already full jeep — ever fit 7 people in a Wrangler? It’s not pretty) who allows us to tag along for 50 yuan each, which makes it easily the most expensive 800m you can traverse in Asia. 30 minutes later, we’re in Mongolia, at a border town called Zamin Uud. We hit the train station to check on tickets to various destinations (nearly all tourists head straight for UB, as most of the tourism infrastructure is based there), but the earliest trains are at 6pm and the Poles are strapped for time in a bad way — their entire trip is only 11 days, and the Mongol leg is only planned to be 2 days total before getting back to Beijing. The major transportation system in Mongolia, after trains and buses, is Jeeps: guys who rent themselves out by the kilometer or by the day to act as taxis, for anywhere from one to 3,000km. Obviously, it’s rather expensive, particularly for foreigners… I’m kind of sitting it out, chatting with a random Mongolian guy who apparently likes the Chicago Bulls quite a lot, when eventually Jack walks up and says, “so we found a guy who will take us in to the desert and to a small village for 500 yuan. You wanna come?” I think it over. “Does that include the stay overnight?” “No, he’ll take us back here this afternoon…” I am perplexed at this plan, but at $20, I can’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon in a shitty border town. Sure, I was three weeks behind on correspondence and writing, but hey — new country. Sitting can wait, right?

“My Jeep”, he said, while pointing to a red, right-hand-drive Mazda MX-5. Not exactly the vehicle that comes to mind when you think of desert travel, and in a parking lot full of Russian jeeps, it looked rather pithy. We piled in and hit the road, or rather, the path, as obviously, nothing is paved. In less than three minutes we were completely in the middle of nothing, just nothing in sight in every direction. We get our first taste of the place, and it’s simply incredible… I can hardly describe it. If you try to focus on the vanishing point between the landscape and the skyline, a funny thing happens: the whole world shifts forward a bit, the skyline and the land sort of pushing against each other in this bizarre vertigo-like trick. It was new to me. I call over to Jack:

“Dude, are you seeing what I’m seeing here? The shifting when you focus on the vanishing point?”
“Yes. I am seeing that.”
“Was there ketamine in those cookies we ate this morning or something?”
“What is ketamine?”
“It’s a cat tranqui— …you know what, never mind”

You don’t need drugs to hallucinate, you just need some Mongolia. It’s okay, don’t be scared… you can dabble in desert. You can be a weekend warrior on skyline. We amused ourselves endlessly, randomly having the driver stop at picturesque places, like the odd brick shacks, bands of horses, ridges and watering holes. For three people who’ve just come from Beijing, the contrast couldn’t be starker: Nothing. I’m liking it.

how not to behave around a camel

After drifting about the desert for a few hours and learning the finer points of how to truly mistreat a Mazda MX5, we stopped at a ger (Yurt). The ger is the key to the whole nomadic life: it is incredibly simple, can be assembled or disassembled in less than six man-hours, and is solid protection from the elements. In a place where the temperature ranges from -40f to 110f, the only way to keep your family and your livestock alive is to keep moving, find new ground for grazing, and protect the animals from the cold. This is done by moving with the seasons, rainfall, and grazing patterns. Outside of the cities, Mongolia is public land: if you can get there, you can live there (Is Greenland like this? Does anyone care?). The whole traditional aspect of it is immensely interesting to me, as gers these days will often sport solar panels, flat-screens and LED lamps, but the song remains the same in its basic outline…

We arrive to the sight of three dogs, about seven camels and perhaps a dozen sheep and goats. The patriarch of the family greets us: he is perhaps forty-five, with streaks of silver in his jet black hair, a huge smile and firm features. He greets me with a smile and a word I am so used to hearing, it has practically replaced ‘hello’: “Tall!” I correct him on the pronunciation of my name: “No, no — it’s TooTall.”

Our driver doesn’t speak English either, so we pantomime it out: age, where we’re from, the usual. He says “Camels!” at one point and grabs a saddle. We glance at each other. “Cool! Camels!” As we walk up, I realize the scale — I’ve never actually seen a camel in the flesh. They are somehow much bigger and less graceful than I imagined… one is kind of mawing on some grass, smacking its lips together and hacking a bit. I am instantly fascinated. I sort of sneak up in front of it, trying to get a picture of it’s jaws, its ugly maw, munching stringy green snot-like nastiness, when bam: it pukes on me. Well, it sort of coughs up some digested food, and as I’m down-wind of it (and the wind in Mongolia is quite something) the matter basically atomizes and hits me from head to toe in tiny, almost neon green bits of putrid horror.

The smell of it is… indescribable. I think the closest thing I can compare it to is choudofu (in Mandarin, it literally translates to “stinky tofu”), a fermented bean curd product in China that is unmistakable in its stench… you can smell it a block away, or from the tenth floor of your apartment building, if you happen to have the terrible misfortune of living in a place with a choudofu vendor out front (I am certain that at least a few choudofu vendors wind up being homicide victims each year). It smells, as my friend Keith so eloquently and accurately once put it, “like a rotten foot that has just been pulled out of an asshole”. That is about what camel vomit smells like, if you marinade the foot in bile first, and perhaps let it ferment in a camel’s maw instead of in a clay pot. It is really, truly that bad.

I did what any reasonable person would do: stripped down and tried to shake the stuff off my clothes. The patriarch had other plans, though… namely, bringing the camel up behind me, still up-wind, and letting it cough up a bit more of its previous meal on my now naked chest. He thought it was hilarious. So did the Mongols and the Poles, but then I had an oddly comforting thought that was almost instantly shameful: a Mazda MX5 is a rather tight space for two Poles, a Mongolian and a Yank who smells like a bile-cured rotten foot that has just been pulled from an asshole. I notice that the patriarch has a chunk of vomit the size of a fist on his shoulder. He doesn’t seem to mind.

Eventually, we saddle the vile creature and take turns riding it. The patriarch has a ton of fun getting the camel to run at full clip, cackling and smiling like a madman as he watches each of us clutch the front hump for dear life, attempting to not get bounced off the damn thing. Camels bounce a lot when they run. It hurts in all the wrong places. This is of course in addition to the puking and spitting and farting and generally disobedient nature they have. I’m quite confused… if there are ten horses to every human here, why do people ride these? We get our fill of the camel rather quickly and walk about the compound, greeting the family and passing out cookies that are hopefully ketamine-free.

After another few hours wandering around the desert, we wound up back in Zamin Uud with mild sunburns, sore bums and an overheating Mazda. We walked to the train station — I needed tickets to Ulaan Baatar, and apparently the Poles were heading back to Beijing. They were on a very tight schedule, but still… Mongolia for an afternoon? After two days of travel and $90 worth of visas? That is silly. You are silly, Poles. Anyway, after looking at the schedules, I determine there are two trains leaving that night for UB. I stand in what I assume is the line, for quite a while, before sort of muttering “what the hell is with this line?” which garners a response from a forty-something Mongolian guy (we will call him Niceguy) near me:

“There is no line. No tickets.”
“Oh. So… why are we all standing here?”
“Waiting.”
“I see. When is the next train?”
“I think there are two tomorrow… one at 9am and another at 7pm or so…”

I walk up to the window and ask for tickets for the 9am train. The woman behind the glass gives me a look of true scorn and mutters something in Mongolian.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Mongolian. Does anyone here speak English?”
Niceguy replies for her. “She says if you want a ticket for the 9am train, you have to come here before 9am tomorrow and buy it. I’d think you should be here much earlier than that…”
I take stock of Niceguy. He’s wearing a Yamaha motorcycle jacket and thick boots. His only bag is a tiny duffel. He looks to be in his mid-forties, streaks of grey, soft features but a square brow. His English is impeccable.
“Thanks for helping… why would they not sell me a ticket for a train that runs tomorrow?”
He rolls his eyes. His mannerisms are oddly Western. “They can be a pain in the ass….”
“What are you thinking of doing?”, I ask.
He smiles. “Not sure. Might keep trying to get a ticket for tonight’s train… or maybe just sneak on. There are people downstairs, they sell tickets for sold-out trains… though they charge a lot more.”
“Scalpers?”
“Is that what you call them?”
“Yeah. What do they charge?”
“Well, you are a foreigner… so maybe double-price? It’d be about 20,000.”

During this short exchange, another Mongolian wedged his way between me and the ticket counter. After some short words, the lady behind the glass started printing a ticket for him.. and then another. And another. And another. The guy reeked of sweat and keeps dangling a set of keys while waiting. One is a car key with a Cadillac emblem on it. I glance at Niceguy.

“Hey, maybe this guy’s a scalper, eh?”
He doesn’t even look up. “No, not him.”

I wait another seven minutes or so for Cadillac guy to finish buying his inordinate number of tickets, then wedge myself back to the window in front of a young woman who smiles at me when I explain “this will only take a second”.

“I’d like a ticket for tomorrow’s 9am train.” Niceguy interperates for her, smiling. She yells back the same bit about coming back in the morning, again translated. I’m losing patience and my temper is wearing.
“Bullshit. There is no such thing as a train that you do not sell tickets for until the morning it leaves. I am not leaving this window until you sell me a train ticket — I don’t care if it’s for tomorrow’s 9am, tomorrow’s 7pm, the next day’s train — I am not leaving without a ticket.”

Niceguy explains it all to her, almost laughing as he does so. She gives me a look that says “Fuck off, white boy” which I briskly return with my freshly minted “Hey. Lady. Do not fuck with those who’ve recently been puked on by camels” look. She sighs and starts punching at her keyboard angrily. The crowd around me seems to have scattered… perhaps an unintended consequence of my look of scorn, though more than likely due to my scornful odor.

“Dude, I can’t thank you enough for helping me with this…”
“It’s no problem… hopefully you get a ticket.” His manner is incredibly calm; the whole time, he’s just leaning on the counter beside me, hands folded, eyes easy. About six minutes go by, during which she takes a few phone calls, sends at least two text messages and takes my passport, though not in that order. I mutter “Shit, I thought we had some lazy fuckers in American transportation offices…” which garners a hardy laugh from Niceguy, random chuckles from around the room, and absolutely nothing from the woman behind the counter. A few more minutes go by.

Eventually she hands me a ticket and takes 8,600 Tugrik from me (about $6). I am shocked by the price but even more shocked by what is on the ticket. Niceguy grabs it from me and says,

“Okay… here… tomorrow, 5:35pm…”
“Ummm… that says 5/28. That’s today.”
A confused look of non-belief strikes his face. “What the fuck? I’ve been trying to get this ticket all day…” His response garners a crowd. A lot of people look pissed off. Yes, apparently, there are tickets left. A swarm of people start pounding on the glass and yelling. I seem to have gotten a golden ticket…
“Wow, you are really lucky!”, Niceguy says.
“Dude, I only have this because of you — here, take it. I’ll keep trying to get one for tomorrow morning. Seriously, you deserve this more than me… help me get a 9am ticket and we’ll go get a beer.”
“No, no… it’s okay. I might just rabbit.”
“…Rabbit? Like the animal?”
“Yeah, sneak on to the train.”
“Where will you sit?”
This question is answered with a huge smile. Niceguy knows something I don’t know, and he doesn’t want to tell me. I’ll learn soon enough.
“C’mon, man, let me buy you a beer — we’ve got two hours to kill. I’ll help you sneak on.”
“No, it’s okay — my family is here, I want to stay with them. We will be fine.”
I catch his name, but like most of the names in Mongolia, it is incredibly hard to pronounce and I don’t manage to write it down properly. It sort of sounded like “Tsogorick”. I like Niceguy more.

The Poles were downstairs in the restaurant when I tell them the tale; they explain they got the same “no tickets, come tomorrow” spiel from the ticket lady. I tell them to give it a shot — it’s worth trying. I still can’t believe they’re leaving Mongolia after 6 hours, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. I meet a pair of Israelis named Ben and Gaia, and another Mongolian guy, having lunch. The Israelis have tickets on the same train, but their Mongolian companion is also planning on Rabbiting with his family. It looks like they met at the border. The Mongolian introduces himself as Turshinbayar and is perhaps mid-thirties, incredibly fit, and wearing army fatigues and a drab t-shirt. He explains that he just got back from a tour in Afghanistan. He has a strong posture, scars on his face, what looks to be defensive knife wounds on his left arm, and a huge smile. His English is very, very good. He asks where I’m from, and when I tell him, he points to his own chest and says “Ranger! Army Ranger!”

Now, I’ve met some Rangers in my life, worked for one for a few years, and let me tell you.. they are a proud bunch, with good reason, and you don’t throw that word around without meaning it. The training course in Fort Benning, GA is very, very hard to get in to, and over half of all applicants don’t make it past the first two weeks — of the three phases, only 20% will succeed in all three on the first try. Students are limited to 2,200 calories per day, which seems just fine until you strap on a 70-90lb pack and do a 320 mile patrol for 20 hours every day for 61 days. It is common for students to lose 20-35 pounds during the three phases. Graduates liken the physical toll and stress to several years of aging. The ultimate goal for many is Jump School, the training grounds for Airborne, basically the most elite outfit in the US Army (not all Rangers are Airborne, but nearly all Airborne are Rangers). You have to be incredibly smart, incredibly fit, unbelievably disciplined and a little nuts to even think of signing up for Ranger school, and it really is the pinnacle of training in the Army — there is a reason USSOC uses the 75th and the 82nd as first responders.

I sort of check him, politely, with silly trick questions. “You trained in Virginia?”
“No, Fort Benning, in Georgia, then Florida for three weeks” (swamp week — I’ve heard some serious horror stories from one friend on this.)
“With the 82nd?”
“No, the 75th. Always with the 75th…”
Story checks out. Holy shit, there are US-trained Mongolian Rangers out there?
“How the hell did you get in to Ranger school!?”
“Exchange program. Six months of intensive English, with other training, then some applicants are admitted to Ranger school.”
“How many Mongolians were in your class?”
“Just me. Two others applied but didn’t make it.”
Wow. I might be having lunch with the best-trained, most elite soldier in the Mongolian Army. We chat some more about the training program and his time in the States. Military service is compulsory in Mongolia, like in the IDF, but the Israelis don’t seem interested in our conversation. To each their own, I suppose.
“What was your post in Afghanistan?”
“I was stationed with MTAP, training the AFA (Afghan National Army). Probably going back in July to help again…”

Some people join the army and mow the lawn. Some people join the army and do everything possible to advance to the furthest, hardest, most elite levels of training and conditioning, at great physical and mental toil and unbelievable personal cost. There is a massive difference between these people, and the latter deserve the utmost respect in my opinion. I do my best to show him that respect. We part ways a bit later, so I can stock up on instant coffee and cup-ramen. “See you on the train…”

The Train: how to fit five hundred pounds of shit in to a five pound bag

I have been in some crowded trains before. Once, in Vietnam, just after Tet, I took one from Hue to Nha Trang that had 11 people in 4 bunks. We shared hard-boiled eggs and jackfruit chips, and slept squashed next to each other with stoic solidarity.

That train, in contrast, was pure opulence. Cigars and champagne couldn’t have widened the gap.

It was probably only four to five people to every seat, but the amount of stuff that each person was carrying just put it over the top… Apparently, every person in Mongolia has a side-business in importing from China. The $170 premium from the direct Beijing -> Ulaan Baatar train isn’t buying you simplicity, it is buying you out of the train that the locals use. Each person was transporting much, much more than they could carry. Boxes upon boxes, suitcases, burlap sacks, jugs, jerry cans, bundles, cases of beer and cigarettes, crates so heavy that they required the buddy system. The platform was madness: people throwing boxes over the heads of others, sometimes missing. Lots of yelling, sweating, pushing and shoving. The car, when I finally made it on, was a full-scale riot: people were throwing punches. Children were crying. I’d never seen anything like this… just a complete disregard for others. “Move, I need to get my shit on-board” seemed to be the mantra. It was actually disheartening… I eventually made it to my seat, or what I thought was my seat, only to witness the insanity from a stationary position. People were literally walking over each other. The only things missing were whips and livestock. I seemed to have discovered the tenth circle of hell. Boxes and crates and bags covered every square inch of luggage-rack, then the bunks below them, then the floor… it was nearly impossible to move. My thoughts drifted to George Carlin’s opening act from his stand-up in ’86… sorry I’m late, folks… I was just looking for a place to put my stuff…

I had a cheap, third-class ticket… perhaps the Israelis were basking in relative civility, I wondered. Eventually the train starts moving. An obese man with acidic mannerisms and a crooked truckers hat wedged in to the spot on my right; on my left was a man with an acrid odor, three gold teeth and the worst breath I have ever smelled… maybe he was a big choudofu guy. Across from us sat a family of five. I passed out breath mints (thankfully, it is incredibly rude to refuse anything offered to you in Mongolia). No use. Six minutes went by that felt like 60. I spotted a young Asian guy with a backpack in the aisle, no doubt looking for a place to put his stuff, his seat likely occupied by two or three other rabbits. He looked shocked and a little scared. I tried to place his features. Japanese? Nepalese? He certainly wasn’t Mongolian, and his dreadlocks made him look even more out of place. I stood up and called out, “Hey man, I saw some room on a luggage rack a few bunks over if you wanna try and drop that sack…” He looked at me with earnest gratitude. “Thank you!”

A few more minutes passed before I simply had to get up… the smell and confinement was making me anxious. In the hall I came upon dreadlocks again. “No room?”, I asked with a cocked smile. “Yeah… I have some friends in car number five.” We made our way to the end of the carriage. I offered him a cigarette. We smoked.
“Where are you from?”, I asked.
“Hohhot, in China.” Inner Mongolian, then. Many different bloods in Northern China.
“I’m Nich. Nice to meet you.”
“I am Baysaa (pronounced ‘bei-sah’). When you come to China… you stay with me. At my home.”
His English was rough, my Mandarin is terrible. It is shockingly easy to make friends in a strange land — just treat them as you would want to be treated. Do not throw boxes of shit over their heads, maybe try to help them out — stuff like that.
“Okay.”
The cigarettes were done.
“Here… we go to car five… my friends.”

I was oddly relieved and equally shocked to see that every car was as crowded as our own… just.. shit… everywhere. Everyone was cramped. Nearly no smiles in those four cars we traversed. Eventually we make it to car five and I meet his friends: a Mongolian guy, an absolute monster of a Mongolian, in a neatly pressed pink oxford, and several other younger Inner Mongolians. They all spoke Mandarin and Mongolian, interspersed. He introduced me and must have explained how I tried to help him or something, because two of his friends who were flanking the monster got up and gestured me to sit next to him. The Boss Of It All, perhaps? We made our introductions… so many consonants. The monster’s name is Tuliga. Baysaa produces a sack and hands us all iced tea. We sit in mildly awkward silence for a while, and then Baysaa grabs a pen and paper and we start communicating through drawing. Mostly jokes about odors and the superiority of airplanes to trains. He draws a map of the US and asks me to point out home. I trace out the Great Lakes and place a star for him to see. He nods. I draw out a half-decent map of China and ask him to do the same. He adds Mongolia to it, places a dashed line across, and puts a star to Hohhot (I knew where it was already but wanted to reciprocate the interest in kind). We nod.

More awkward silence. Baysaa plays with several cell phones, swapping out SIM cards for a while. I notice that the background photo on one of the phones is Tuliga, shirtless, looking mean as hell. I point and put on my questioning brow. “Wrestler. Champion.” I bet he is! I look at Tuliga. He nods with a smile of pure smugness. A man walks past with a box full of decks of cards. Tuliga buys one. Maybe he knows Rummy 500, I wonder. I point to the cards with an inquisitive look on my face. “Texas!” Smiles. “Lets play”, I say, making a ‘dealing cards’ gesture.

No matchsticks… hmmm… what to use for chips? I still have some of my friend Mike’s stickers left (I put a lot of stickers on stuff). I hold up one of his ‘prole’ stickers (of which I have 18 left) and say “yi kuai” (one yuan), then a Crime Ridden Cycle sticker (of which I have four left) and say “wu kuai” (five yuan). 20 yuan a game seems about right for an amateur hold-em tournament between a wrestler and a clueless foreigner. Tuliga deals.

I don’t gamble often, but I know when to fold. Tuglia does not share this fastidious trait. I win the first game in six hands. The next game lasts about eight. On one hand, I make an over-the-top bet after the flop, on a high pair, and glance at him. We’re both smiling. “You call?” He smiles wide and says, clear as day, “HI NICE TO MEET YOU HOW ARE YOU I’M FINE OKAY BYE BYE!” We both burst out laughing. He calls, most likely on a straight draw, but I sweat it out and pick up a full house on the river. I’m trying to let him win a few pots, but it’s hard… he’s a bit too head-strong in his calls, and his bets are totally transparent. After five games I’m up four to one. He pulls a wad of cash out of his pocket. “No, no, no, bu yo, bu yo,” I say… I can’t take his money. He smiles and puts the wad back in his pocket. Then he gets up and waves me along.

We hit the dining car. It is about as crowded as any other car, completely awash in cigarette smoke, and every table is covered with beers, all the same brand, Hite, a Korean swill that is possibly the worst beer in Korea, which would place it high in the running for worst beer world-wide. I think about the fact that my backpack is seven cars away… George hits me again: …And when you leave your stuff, you gotta lock it up! Wouldn’t want someone to come along and TAKE your stuff. They always want the goooood stuff, ya’know? Nobody’s interested in you third-grade geography papers… Hey, I’m rolling with a champion wrestler and the only Ranger-Trained solider in Mongolia — I think I’ll be okay, right?

A table scatters at our entrance. Was the wrestler enough to guarantee us seating in an over-packed dining car? No matter… we sit, and Baysaa translates for Tuliga: “He’s asking if you drink vodka.” I think about the bottle of Jameson I have sitting back in car one. “Umm.. sure. Love it. Can’t get enough.” Tuliga looks me in the eyes and says something I can’t understand in Mongolian, and then Mandarin I do understand: “yi-ga, liang-ga, san-ga…” and waves his hand in dismissive smugness. Apparently this man likes his vodka. They don’t seem to have his preferred brand, though, so we stick to beer. Plates of food start coming. Meat. Rice. Salads. Fried eggs. Dumplings. Potatoes. The appetite of a wrestler is not to be underestimated. We eat our fill and chat in broken language and pantomimes.

Hours pass. We hang out and chat, drink a few more beers. The ticket lady passes after each stop, flanked by two police lackeys. Each time they pass, they make a mark on my ticket. By the fifth hour, the ticket is almost unreadable from all the scribbles on it… but each time they pass, they simply sell tickets to those who don’t have them (almost the polar-opposite of the lady behind the glass at the ticket office). Tuliga buys one in the dining car. This is the system, this is what Niceguy was smiling about: you don’t need a ticket to get on the train, you just need to get on the train… and 75% of those in my sight seem to have done exactly that.

Almost ever cast member from my day besides the Poles and the putrid Camel are somewhere on the train — indeed, rabbiting seems the status-quo. Smiles seem to emerge throughout the cabins… children start playing again. Card games break out. Laughter is even audible. Walking is hard, but as sitting is harder, many random souls wander the cabins — I run in to Niceguy, Turshinbayar, the clinically insane neurologist chick from New York, and many others on our wandering, bi-directional linear paths, half-searching for comfort, half-evading the sleep we all so desperately crave. Eventually, I make my way back to my ‘designated’ seat, wedge myself into a corner, lean my head against a round piece of steel, some supporting rod for another bunk, and try to close my eyes. It is cramped and hot and the smell is not getting any better.

I awake not long after to the family across from me trying to pantomime what I gather is a request for me to lie down half-cocked against the cabin wall, with my upper back and head on a cardboard box of what I can only assume is bathroom tile. They gesture with their hands that I am to sleep next to the gold-toothed choudofu guy. No dice — I’ll walk, thanks. They seem to be insistent , though, and choudofu guy is smiling, patting the tiny sliver of space on the bunk next to him bordered by rock-hard cardboard. I vaguely recall saying something through my half-sleep that resembled “Fuck that, there is no way I am snuggling up next to you, dude” but I can’t be sure. Okay, sure, my chest probably smells as bad as your breath, but I can’t do it… The family laughs and starts pointing towards the luggage rack, above two (occupied) bunks. “You’re joking. Why can’t I just sit down like I was? That piece of steel was a perfectly adequate pillow…” I can’t tell if they are attempting to test my comfort threshold or my patience. Maybe both?

The luggage rack is being occupied by two more boxes of tiles, five jugs of ominous white goo, and several bags, my backpack among them. We start shuffling them, playing Tetris on the other luggage racks about the car, searching for the cubic space to accommodate all our collective shit. Somewhere, George is laughing pretty damn hard. In China, I have to sleep in the top bunk when I book hard sleepers (hard sleeper: most aptly named ticket class ever) as I am roughly 25cm taller than the bunks are long, and the height of the top bunk allows my tibiae and feet to dangle without interfering with the flow of traffic through the aisles. The top bunk is the cheapest bunk for good reason: closest to the lights, furthest from the ground, and only 40cm or so of space between the bunk and the ceiling. There is no top bunk on Mongolian trains, just a luggage rack, and I am not exaggerating when I call it just that: a rack. I am shaking my head at the prospect of a night’s sleep on this barren, ridiculous surface, when my head starts churning up ideas: “hmmm… I think we’re inventing a new ticket class here. Super Hard Sleeper? Luggage Class? Trans-Mongolian Last Resort? Chodofu class? What the hell do we call it?”

Eventually we clear it off and after exchanging some very forced smiles with the crowd that has come to see what all the hubbub is about, I shimmy my lanky ass on top, a real challenge as there is only perhaps 30cm of space between the rack and the ceiling of the cab. The entire car erupts in laughter and applause at the witness of this feat of struggled contortion, and it’s hard to blame them: it must look absolutely ridiculous. The crowd seems enthralled with the fact that my legs and feet really do hang off the end of the rack by those 25cm I mentioned; it seems my height reaches its pinnacle of ludicrousness when positioned horizontally, particularly on the luggage rack of a packed Trans Mongolian train. I stretch out, feeling my sore back supported by chromed steel bars, punctuated with 5cm gaps of nothing. “Mongol Massage Sleeper… Steely Dan Sleeper… are you reelin’ in the yeeee-eeeears… stowin’ away the tiiiiii-iiiime…” My brain will not shut up. I pop a 5mg Xanex and try to close my eyes. A few minutes pass, at which point I feel an odd, cold feeling on the soles of my feet, accompanied by a psssssht…psssssssht sound. I cock my head forward. An older woman is spraying my feet with aerosol deodorant, a task she can barely accomplish standing on her tip-toes with her arm fully stretched. The group cracks up again.

“Oh, sure, like your feet smell any better! You’re all just jealous that I got this sweet bunk… suckers…”

…And that’s how I learned to stop bugging out and accept the nature of my situation: stretched out like some Spanish Inquisition suspect on the luggage rack of a horrendously crowded train in Mongolia, reeking of camel vomit but with feet as fresh as daisies, head pressed against my make-shift pillow of jacket and oxford, full of mutton and Hite I won playing poker with a wrestler, and smiling… just smiling…

You’ve been telling me you’re a genius since you were seventeen…
In all the years I’ve known you, I still don’t know what you mean…
The weekends at the college didn’t turn out like you planned…
The things that pass for knowledge, I just can’t understand…

holy shit! this night happened a month ago! although, to be fair, I just spent ten days in the Gobi desert, and they don’t exactly have a lot of internet there… so here comes Operation Transmission Overload. ready.. GO!

visa run number one: follow the music, baby

A bittersweet feature of my Chinese visa is that it only allows 30-day entries, which is a sick joke given the size of China and the cost of the damn visa. I marked “60-day entries” on the form back in BKK, but when I complained after getting my passport back, the woman behind the glass made a rather “that’s what you get” gesture of dismissiveness that was clearly not negotiable. I blame… the Expo.

Anyway, I had originally planned on only doing a chunk of southern China, but I’ve got a real crush on the place… so visa runs are in order, or buying another visa, maybe through an agent with more guanxi than I, who can make something happen… but the thought of giving another $130 to the PRC to circumvent the need for visa runs makes me clench my jaws in agonized frustration. Well, if the Chinese government and the damn Expo are going to force a pedantic trip upon me every month, so be it — let’s get out of here, lets find a cheap ticket, lets see some new ground.

I picked South Korea for my first, partly for its ease of access but mostly because I’ve got friends there I’d like to see — Mo is there, as well my friend Mandie. The former is a fitting reason to show up unannounced; as I met him on his visa run, so he shall meet me on mine. I emailed the latter to let her know I’d be wandering through her country, which prompted the news that I was inadvertently flying into Seoul the day before the Seoul World DJ Festival — I just keep falling in to these things, I swear. I went the World Electronic Music Festival up in Ontario for a few years, so I’m somewhat acclimated to the use of the word ‘World’ in electronic music fest lingo: generally it pertains not to the size of the event but rather the invitation of worldwide DJs, which is somewhat of a misnomer if you ask me.

I flew in on a Friday to yet find more culture-contrast-shock. In my first seconds off the bus from the airport to Hongde, I went to cross the street and yielded to a black sedan turning right in front of me, a sedan which in China would have been halfway though my torso if I had kept walking. I was sort of spacing out and glancing around for a few seconds when I heard a short honk to my left. I was absolutely shocked: the bastard was actually yielding to me. He must have wondered what I was laughing at… I guess it was minor in retrospect, but that would simply never happen in urban China, and I was happily shocked by the courtesy.

The contrast continued of course: the place is clean, very clean for a city of 10 million+ people. The rivers run clear. The streets are not covered with garbage, and when someone pulls the last cigarette from their pack, they don’t just simply drop the empty pack on the ground, which is the standard operandi in China. People stand in lines instead of barging through them. The streetlights exist not just to add a bit of color to the streets, but to actually act as mediators of motor and pedestrian traffic. Actually, on that note, it’s safe to a degree even we would laugh at in over-regulated America. The buses have seatbelts. The subway system is constantly awash with videos of cuddly, anthropomorphic teddy bears, in hats and uniforms, explaining the dangers of improper subway etiquette. In fact, everything seems to be explained by uniformed anthropomorphic teddy bears and cats and raccoons here, like the speed limit signs, and the lane merging signs, and especially the “No tobacco to Minors” signs (aren’t these supposed to be designed for the adults?) . When you walk in to a building, there is generally a device at the front door to place your umbrella into a bag so as not to let it drip about on the floor inside. Icy stares are replaced by bowing. Barging is replaced by yielding. Spitting seems to be replaced by doughnuts (they love doughnuts here). If you seem to be having trouble, using a subway ticketing machine, or talking with a taxi driver, or staring at a map, there is a 96% chance that a native will walk up and try to aid you… which is roughly a 95.8% higher chance than in Beijing.

A typical first night in any new country: make some friends. Make some food. Make some drinks. Maybe go out for a while, try to find some trouble. The owner of the hostel that Mandie recommended, Min, is without a doubt the nicest hostel owner I have ever met… it felt more like couchsurfing than hosteling. We were chilling outside for a bit just after I got in, he was nursing a hangover, I was introducing him to the wonders of Coldcut, using their BBC Essential Mix from ’08, kind of warming up to the idea of the festival, when he slaps his hands on his legs and says, “Okay. Tonight, lets barbecue up on the roof. Okay?” He has this great way of proposing, asking, and confirming every idea with that word. It is pretty special. “Sure, man. What should I make?” “I’ll make… meat. You make salad? Okay?”

“Okay.”

Here, I was introduced to another contrast: the cost of food, and therefore living. In China, there is no produce (except for perhaps Avocados, and certain citrus fruits) that cost over $1.30/kilo — in most cases, four or so kilos of vegetables will set you back about $3.50, making it certainly the cheapest place to cook I’ve yet to find on earth, which is great, as I love to cook four kilos of vegetables at a time. In Seoul, though, there was nothing I could find that was under $3/kilo, and many things, like citrus, ran up to $5/kilo… there was certainly some sticker-shock involved in this. Getting enough to make a decent salad was about 25,000 won — around $22 ($22 is a roasted duck feast with sides and drinks for three people in Beijing). So I figured I’d stretch it a bit, in true summertime barbecue fashion: pasta salad. Always an excellent source of filler, and a good way to add a pound of food and a bunch of carbs to that salad for a buck. It took me a few shops to find some fusilli, and the tag indicated it was 4,500 won/500 grams, about $4.30. This was turning in to the most expensive pasta salad ever made, and I hadn’t even gotten the ingredients for the garlic lemon vinaigrette reduction yet. Yes, after China, everything will give you sticker shock, and sure, the Western elements of a pasta salad are certain to come at a price in Asia, but damn…

The barbecue was a smashing success, so to speak. Soju, Korea’s version of rice wine, is a dangerous thing — it is as mild or milder to the taste buds as sake, but at 20% alcohol or so, it sneaks up on you fast. I woke up feeling pretty good, though, and after meeting up with Mandie, we went for brunch. After buying a subway ticket for 1,500 won, I subconsciously muttered to myself “hmm… a dollar-forty… well, that’s only nine times as expensive as in China..” Shut up, brain. My pockets were still empty from the previous night’s happenings when we walked in to the brunch joint, and I see the prices: 16,000 won or so for the average plate. I hate thinking about money, let alone talking about it. It sucks to be stingy, and you gotta splurge sometimes, but when you’re traveling, watching your savings account trickle down and tick away, like minutes on the clock before you have to wake up and rejoin reality again, the whole game is to pinch pennies, stretch the money, to figure out how nickels add up and exploit every possible means of being a cheap bastard. I sort of whisper to John, “Dude, I’m from the Midwest — I can’t pay $14 for a plate of bacon and eggs. Well, I guess I can, but there better be a world-class pint of Bloody with a Guinness chaser sitting next to it… ” He smiles at this. “Yeah. I know. It’s gonna be an expensive weekend.”

The food was delicious, truly, wonderfully delicious, with avocado in the eggs, and bacon in the pancakes, and olives in the Camembert… and the price turned out to be a non-issue, as I had no money to pay for it anyway. Mandie treated me, and I tried my damnedest to feed her a sufficient amount of bourbon and other sundries later that night to reimburse her. This is the last I will speak on the costs of Korea, as anything past these two introductory anecdotes would be beating a (very expensive, pure-bread, bejeweled, prize-winning, amazingly well groomed) dead horse: Korea is not China.

the festvus

After a day of venturing out, eating, finding Mo, shopping (the girls), failed shopping turned pint-swigging (the boys), stocking up on supplies, other miscellany, and a few more pints, we finally made it to the festival. We managed to recruit a pretty great crew, too: three people turned in to five, which turned in to nine. I managed to smuggle in a good deal of bourbon by stuffing somewhat crushed water-bottles full of it in to my pants (whiskey out of my pants: inherently better than regular whiskey) and as the only other cocktails available were five-packs of Jäger Bombs, this was a wise smuggle indeed.

I take it all back about the ‘World’ misnomer: this festival was, by any standard, absolutely world-class. I didn’t recognize more than three names on the bill, but holy shit, Korea has a hell of a music scene! The house stage was killer. The main stage was almost always stellar. The rogue stage was generally cool, until they played some metal that made everyone walk away shaking their heads… but the hip hop stage… wow. The hip hop stage was absolutely awesome, all night long. Turns out there’s a real hip hop scene in Korea! The MCs were solid, and the flow of some of these guys would turn a lot of heads in the States. The DJs were even better; the sunrise dance set by some Korean guy I’ve still yet to learn the moniker of was probably the best dance hip-hop set I have ever witnessed. Early in the night, a very interesting set by a band called EE included a full five-piece group, a DJ, three vocalists, and, after the third track, a nearly naked man, sporting tighty-whities and nothing else, covered in something resembling antiquing powder and lots of face paint, just simply going nuts… after about ten minutes of his rolling about and frolicking, he ran up to the front of the stage to puke on the front row. Then he grabbed one of the monitors and started humping it. The band was not the least bit surprised by this. Go figure.

Other random highlights include Vandalism, a UK DJ who just plain kicked ass and was accompanied on-stage by a very tall blond woman in leather and aviators who looked like she needed a whip, and about a dozen other DJs of surprisingly high caliber. I must say, for an 18-hour event, this was one of the best parties I’ve ever seen… it was just fantastic. The only bad set I witnessed the whole night was from a German DJ called Dirty Disco Youth (not to be confused with Dirty Disco Kidz, who rock steady) who’s set stumbled and faltered, a major disappointment after the awesomeness of Vandalism. To top it off, he looked like an anorexic, snuffly Carrot Top. I walked away from the stage after 20 minutes of awkward, half-dance-able mediocrity, shaking my head, only to have the next track be — I am not making this up — the final track that Vandalism played. Many confused looks bounced around. A lot of people walked away. Maybe he was just playing an MP3 off his Macbook or something. Kids today, I swear…

They kicked us out at about 8:30 am, after a set by Freemasons, another UK DJ who was mostly playing old-school UK drum & bass and dancy trance stuff, shifting to a lot of female-vocalist mid-tempo dance. He was swigging a bottle of Patron Anejo and looked like he was ready to keep playing all day, but I suppose all parties must end at some point… he grabbed the mic at the end and said “Tha road is closin’ in thirty minutes, so if yer not stayin’, ya need ta git tha fuck aout”, which was not heeded at all, until the PA was cut, at which point it was heeded with groans and slow shuffles towards the gate. Needless to say, we were in the same boat: not ready to leave. Too pumped to stop dancing, too wired to sit down, too famished to keep drinking but too thirsty to stop. Where’s the damn after-party?

We drowned our sorrows in the Soju we left outside the gate. After a very interesting van ride back into the heart of the city, nine wired, half-drunk party people in face-paint descended on the streets of Seoul to a lot of odd looks. Showers. A nap or two. Tacos. The nice German student in the hostel got a real earful on just how bad he screwed up on not coming with us… the anecdotes and rave reviews went around. Shortly thereafter, the crew split: almost all were English teachers, who had to teach on Monday, and Mo had his internship to attend to. Nine became three in a matter of minutes. Min, Jerah, Mo and I went picnicking near the river, and after telling ourselves all day “tonight we’re gonna chill, no partying, no drinking, seriously” we get back to the hostel, only to have the German look at us and say, “So. Wanna go out tonight?”

Well… yes. Yes, we do. Screw Monday — there’s no morning-after like the-morning-after-the-morning-after. Cue the music and the soju and the barbecue…

Or at least, it has been.

Currently, though, I’m riding on the KTX, the fastest train in South Korea (not to be confused with a KTV, which is a Chinese Karaoke joint — also fun), being ferried from Busan back to Seoul at what the screen in front of me claims is 286 kilometers per hour. Countryside and cities whiz past my window, whole mountains filling my frame for just seconds before they disappear behind my view, my train, my path. An odd allegory of my life as of late.. no, my relative silence hasn’t been due to isolation, or lack of access, or writers block, but simply a inabillity to just sit the hell down and focus, put a pen to a pad and spill some ink. The last few weeks have been an amazing, colorful blur, a whirlwind through cities, music festivals and concerts, bars and rooftops, parks and riversides…

In Bokeo, they called me Doc. In Guangzhou, they called me TooTall. In Sabuk, a man in the bus station insisted I was the reincarnation of Adonis. In Kunming, I met a real live saint, and we did some sinning together. In Guilin, an Israeli and I coaxed the chef at our hostel in to letting us use the kitchen to make some Arabic food. When asked what we were making, he kept calling it Israeli (apparently this is a common thing in the region? kind of like how Serbs speak Serbian and Bosnians speak Bosnian?) so I kept calling it Lebanese so as to fuck with him a bit, even though we both knew it was simply Arabic. In Yangshuo, I was cursed and shadow-punched for about a minute by an irate shopkeeper because I didn’t buy his teacup. In Shanghai, I helped a fellow Lebanese guy commit minor currency fraud (exchanging money here requires an amount of paperwork tantamount to US immigration or bankruptcy). In Taebaek, I smoked my last American Spirit. It Beijing, they took away my last Bic lighter. Everywhere I go, I try. Everywhere I go, I meet strangers. They become friends. And then I leave them. Leaving each place is hard. Looking back is almost impossible.

Sometimes I run on auto-pilot.

Wake up in a bed. Wake up on a mat. Wake up in a train station. Hunch under a shower head seemingly designed to only rinse my celiac plexus. Hunch over a sink that barely reaches my thigh. Brush teeth. Make instant coffee. Eat some jiaozi. Eat some ramen. Take this bus. Sleep on that train. Catch this flight. Fill out that form. Stand in this line. Get to the front of the line, learn that the lady behind the glass has no interest in speaking English, or possibly just has something against tall lanky white boys. Okay, stand in that line. Much better. Argue with the taxi drivers. Rush to an airport. Push past the others. Sorry sir, your flight has been canceled. Here, have a meal voucher. Shrug. Read. Talk. Smile. Pinch pennies. Splurge. Try to plan more. No, wait, try to plan less. Rely on serendipity and benevolence. Rely on brain. Rely on Visa card. Troubleshoot the cell phone re-charge card. Troubleshoot the railway card. Troubleshoot a toilet. Troubleshoot WinXP in Mandarin. Hey look, the Blue Screen of Death is still in English! Neat!

Rock out to Sharon Jones on a walk. Slam to the Black Keys on the bus. Bob my head to Squarepusher on a hike. Flow with Slum Village on a bike ride. Chill to Tino’s Breaks Volume Five around a picnic table. OH SHIT! DANCE PARTY! Cue the Daft Punk and some Lindstrøm! Sip some Yanjing. Gambei some Jim Beam. Talk to every random stranger that will give me the time of day. Try to hear a story or two. Try to find some common ground, through pantomimes and gestures and broken language and photos. Maybe take some mental notes on how horrible my pronunciation of "píjiǔ" or "hěnhǎo chī" is. Work on the numbers again (‘four’ is still tricky for me — it’s like "ssiiiihiiua" but in one syllable). Try not to think too hard. Don’t rush but don’t loiter either. One week at a time…

Shanghai

If you’ve seen anything at all about Shanghai recently, it has probably centered around the Expo. I am admittedly still somewhat ignorant of the happenings, save for what I’ve read in the Times (which is miraculously no longer blocked in China) and what I’ve heard from folks living here. I know that in 7 days, I was already sick of hearing about it, and feeling odd urges to smash and tear those stupid Haibao statues and posters that are seemingly always within sight. I know that a riot almost broke out at the ‘soft opening’ the weekend I arrived, but only from the mouth of a man who witnessed it (problems get swept under the rug pretty fast here). I know that it is a fantastic universal source of blame for anything and everything that has been going wrong… and in China, things often go wrong.

I like Shanghai. For as Westernized as it is, it’s still completely China, but with 1% to 2% of the population being ex-pats (and 1% of 20 million is a fair number of people), you can find virtually any scene, any kind of music, any food, any sport, anything you want. The whole place is dense and cosmopolitan and wild and surprisingly clean and shockingly friendly… nearly every ex-pat I met in my week there, almost every single one, offered advice, or help on finding work, or a place to crash, or the skinny on a show I might like, or something. I was shocked at the camaraderie of the ex-pats there; when you think of a community, you generally don’t think of 200,000+ random foreigners in one of the densest, most populated cities in the world, but that is exactly what it is — a community. It was really striking. In seven days, I went to shows and clubs and restaurants and wine bars and dinner parties and jazz clubs, and even got put on the guest-list to see an absurdest piece of French theater by a fellow Madisonian. Doors opened. People welcomed me. It was great, and I miss them all. I would totally live there given the opportunity. But for now… well, there’s really only one mantra, and it is one I’m not very good at following: keep moving.

My first night in Shanghai, I met Mo, the Lebanese guy who I aided in exchanging some Won to Yuan. He’s knee-deep in an internship in South Korea at a robotics institute, and was in Shanghai on his visa run. On the walk back from the bank, while we were chatting about bloodlines and such, trying to figure out exactly what degree of cousins we are (as Lebanese, with no evidence whatsoever, we’re almost certainly cousins), he mentioned he should have used his Venezuelan passport. "You’re Venezuelan?" "Well, my mother was born there… my Grandfather went over for business, long ago. You know how we are — we are everywhere…" and in a comic stroke of like-mindedness, four seconds later we turned to each other and exclaimed, in stereo, "Wherever the money is!" And it’s true…

sore thumb syndrome

I stand out sometimes. I’m sure my height is a factor, but I’d like to think there’s something more to it than that… in any case, especially as someone who struggles with the most basic phrases of the language, I certainly look like I don’t particularly belong here. There are plenty of foreign faces of all races, religions and creeds in China, and in Shanghai, where as I mentioned, 1% of a dense city is made up of them, I rarely get a second glance… but in other areas, I can illicit a whole galaxy of stares, glares, smiles, comments, small talk, laughs, points and gestures. The kids are the best, because they’re so honest about it: there’s no shame in their staring and pointing, and no ill will either. They will commonly run to their parental unit and hug their leg, burying their faces into the clothing, or sometimes the exact opposite: a huge grin, accompanied by a wonderful "HALLOOOO!" which would melt even the iciest heart. Sometimes they try to hug me, which is only funny because the parents’ are never particularly happy about it, though by the time they grab the kid off my leg, even they are hard pressed to repress that natural urge to smile. Surely they were kids once, albeit in a different China altogether.

The Icy Glare of Death is the worst, though… I still have a hard time with it sometimes, though I’m getting used to it, and manufacturing methods of good natured yet half-cynical diffusion can be fun. Sometimes, when the stare is really bad, and all I wanna do is lock eyes with the sidewalk, or maybe run, I’ll just put on this real shit-eating grin, one that takes up my whole face, even the eyes smiling, cock my head slightly, and go "Ni hao maaaa!" (Hey how’s it going are you good?!) to break (or possibly ignite) the deafening awkwardness. This rarely brings about a response, although sometimes it works brilliantly, and the tables turn one-eighty: their eyes suddenly find something, anything else to stare at, and if they happen to be walking, the walk becomes a flustered, hurried gait. Regrettably, though, I have yet to have a single one tell me how they’re doing. Stay tuned.

One week in Beijing: art world, music scene… what does that tell you?

My arrival in Beijing coincided with Labor day, which I was honestly surprised to learn the existence of in China. This was a mixed blessing. My ignorance led to the only form of transportation being a 16-hour overnight bus (inexplicably more expensive than the 12-hour train ride — I blame the expo), but in return, we were greeted with a plethora of things to do over the weekend: two music festivals, the Beijing Modern Art Fair, and a gaggle of after-parties and concerts, most of which I never made it to.

After re-acclimating to Beijing, we went hunting for the Beijing MIDI festival, just Northwest of Yuanmingyan park. MIDI started in 1997 and bills itself as a rock festival, although it stretches the limits of this to the extreme — four stages (plus a rouge tent), playing almost every music genre that could be equated to ‘Rock’. Ever see a Hong Kong metal band play opposite a Finnish power-pop all-girl trio? Or an over-the-hill British punk group belting opposite a Hard-House Mash-Up DJ? Or a solo folk performer strum 50 yards away from a group of psy-trance raver chicks? I have… and it was pretty awesome.

I have been to some festivals in my time, but this one was certainly one of the most diverse crowds I’ve ever seen. All the usual trimmings of a festival were there: ink, dreads, Jagermeister, an unconscionable number of Che Guevara t-shirts, tents, flags, beer and skin, but the mix between the stages was really something special… I was sad to not see anything resembling hip hop (dub-step doesn’t seem to exist here yet, either), but at least the DJ stage was always pumping something good. At one point I walked past a crowd, and I heard through the shuffle "have you seen so-and-so?" and the answer was something like "yeah, over at the main stage, listening to that hippie shit". Hard not to smile at that stuff.

I didn’t make it to the other festival going on that weekend, Strawberry, because I wanted to see the art fair instead. It was huge and very well organized but inexplicably only ran for 3 days, only 2 of which were open to the general public. I’m pretty glad I went though; every gallery and studio in Beijing was representing, plus a few hundred others. It was held at the Beijing Agricultural Exposition Center, an ironic venue considering a lot of the subject matter, and one could have easilly spent much longer there than we did — the scope of it was simply massive. It was like cruising all of Dashanji 798 and then some, in 5 hours, and after a day of schmoozing around and taking a ridiculous number of photos, we went for Thai food…

The rest of my stay in Beijing was soaked up by visiting with old friends and new ones, researching teaching certifications, taking notes on Korea, sitting in the sunshine, reading a lot, and generally keeping my mind going in 30 or so different directions. I feel I am constantly at a fork, but the fork seems to have five to ten paths to choose from at any given time. As a graduate of the ‘Don’t Think’ school of traveling, I am always at odds with how to go about making a real, actual plan… and if I were counting, I think for this trip I’d be on plan number 60 or so. Hard to focus, hard to choose, sometimes hard to feel like I’m not losing my mind, my edge…

Fight Apathy…

…or, don’t. Whatever.

Trip Report: Korea. Coming soon. Seriously, I’m sitting down. Soon.

cheers,

~nich