Tuesday, December 02, 2008

My sister's ire

My sister Suparna sent me this email below. I didn't watch much TV through the course of the weekend, relying mostly on the Internet for news updates. But this is clearly a subject that has angered many Indians.
This is what I've been feeling about the press which I wanted to share. I've sent it to TOI as an opinion piece. Probably will get trashed as cyber junk being anti press but whatever.

The incident in Bombay is heart wrenching. But what is infuriating me today is overdramatised journalism. I am not trying to undermine the plight of the victims or the survivors or even a regular person on the street viewing every object with skepticism. But TV creates instant history and impacts more people than any other media. This is a strength and at the same time a great responsibility. In our urge to fill in 24/7 channels, we are doing what must not be done, intruding. Is it important for me sitting at home to know which window on which floor a person is getting evacuated from, or which door was used by a commado team to enter? Or is this information I want to keep as far away from the terrorists inside as possible?

We all enjoy the freedom of the press, it is something to feel proud about and I won't deny that it is good to know what is going on at every second but there has to be a line drawn. Why should a police man have to tell you to not go beyond a place, or say 'I cannot divulge that information". Are we not insightful enough to realise that without wasting their time??

The second thing I want to point out is that there is anger about politicians and some ministers specifically but is that really the only problem to be addressed. I saw 'We the People' with Barkha Dutt talking about the Mumbai Tragedy. I was extremely unimpressed with the choice of panelists. They consisted in majority of Bollywood celebrities who with all due respect may be great in their field but don't know squat about policy making or social studies, ethnic studies, intelligence or any of the other pertinent issues involved in this discussion on terrorism. Hearing them talk is like having a coffee room discussion with a bunch of friends who get all their information and knowledge from television and know practically nothing about the dirt and grime of the issue. At this moment I as a citizen don't want dramatic statements from Simi Garewal or Kunal Kohli but analytical break down of the problem by social scientists, researchers, policy advisors or people who have devoted their lives to understanding these issues. Please do not fool me with meaningless banter.

I have spent the aftermath of the tragedy waiting for an analysis that was not sensationalized. Vilasrao Deshmukh taking his celebrity son to the venue? Tell me is this an issue at all? Would anyone care if his son was not a Bollywood star? Has anyone asked about the other guy walking behind him? Why are we wasting our time hearing things like this?

I just want to say that a lot of the statements that are being made by people who are clearly not experts are very extreme "Don't pay taxes", "Eradicate camps…even in China", do these people know what they are talking about? A war kills in figures that will make the Mumbai tragedy look like a road accident. Please be careful in who you quote. A right to opinion is part of our democracy but a right to discretion is a right you must exercise for a healthy attitude in the public you influence so easily.


I heard about it from my friend Reto, just as we were setting out for Greenville, SC, to spend Thanksgiving break at my friend Meha’s home. From then till now, slowly, even painstakingly, but inexorably, layer by layer, my stoicism has been stripped away. It is a common refrain in India, that we know terrorism, that we are used to it. But what happened in Bombay has shaken me to the core; and this when, thankfully, no one I know personally was affected. Only once before have I felt so destitute of hope. And that was 7 years ago. That day it took a while to fully comprehend the nature of the attacks perpetrated. The planning, the preparation, the execution, and the outcome, each only became progressively clearer as the day unfolded. Bombay followed the same pattern, except the realization was even more laborious, the horror even more prolonged.

For 60 hours Bombay burned. For 60 hours Bombay lay hostage to people bent on total destruction. 60 hours during which men, women and children were mercilessly massacred, maimed, and scarred for life. 60 hours that exposed the glaring inadequacies in the way our State handles crises. 60 hours during which heroes were born, even as other heroes laid their lives on the line…and lost them. 60 hours that exposed our media’s opportunism and lack of ethical standards.

60 hours.

Bombs go off in a matter of seconds. They are terrible, but the moment of terror is fleeting. One is confronted by the aftermath almost immediately. But in Bombay, the terror itself was never-ending. What will the aftermath of such a terror be? We are entering uncharted territory.

Yes, there will be changes. Many are warranted—a federal counter-terrorism agency, increased emphasis on intelligence, debates on ethical journalism, debates on our political system and politicians, increased international cooperation, and so on. Other changes such as increased restrictions on urban life and movement have to be resisted on principle, and perhaps only applied after rigorous debate and out of absolute necessity. But when all is said and done, these responses only address the symptoms of a malaise that runs much deeper.

Those 60 hours did not just expose us; they also exposed an enemy that is desperate and utterly pathetic. Islamic fundamentalism, based and operating out of Pakistan/Afghanistan, and likely funded from elsewhere as well. But Islamic fundamentalism does not operate in a vacuum. There are other equally desperate, equally pathetic fundamentalisms. Every religion has a fundamentalist nut-job strand. These fundamentalisms feed off each other. Godhra cannot be separated from the recent spate of blasts, or from Bombay. But fundamentalism cannot defeat fundamentalism. And perhaps even more importantly, fundamentalism is not something that needs to be defeated. It needs to be repudiated, rejected. It has no place in the world we live in today. This is a struggle of the mind and it cannot be fought just with guns.

Bombay will hold its head up, it knows no other way. But when as human beings will we?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Indian Ocean

We arrive suitably early, or late. Depends on your frame of reference really. We are late for the art gallery opening, but early for the concert. It is hard to get in, the bar isn’t even visible, and I can occasionally espy the corner of a painting. But, barring the problem with the bar, this is actually good. It gives us enough time to wind our way through the throngs, studiously avoiding anything close to a conversation. And lo, we are by the ‘stage,’ or the end of the room where all the instruments have been set out. We relax a bit, and take a look around. I have not seen so many hoity-toity Indians in one room, at least not outside India. And the chatter is immense.

The first one to thread his way through the throng is Amit Kilam. The others soon follow: Rahul Ram, Sushmit Sen and Asheem Chakravarty.

Indian Ocean.

Opening remarks by the gallery head are delivered, mostly over the continuous din, and in spite of repeated efforts to quiet people down. Even taunts of ‘arre o auntyji’on aur uncleji’on, shaant ho jao,” prove fruitless. Finally, formalities out of the way, things can begin.

The next couple of hours are pure joy. After so many years, I finally get to see them live. And it is glorious.

Saturday, May 19, 2007



Another break is upon us, this time national labor week. What the world devotes one day to, the Chinese spend one week on. Understandably. This is about the workers of the world, after all. Except that in order to get part of the week off, most Chinese work the weekend, either before or after.

I cannot complain. We are three weeks into the final module at IUP; I have been doing intensive Chinese for 37 weeks. The break is welcome. Lauren and I have decided to hit up the province of Gansu. Gansu lies about 1900 km west of Beijing, and for long marked the beginning of the frontier for successive Chinese empires. It is shaped rather oddly, with two large chunks of land lying roughly along the same latitude, connected by a thin sliver of land known as the Hexi corridor, a ‘landlocked isthmus’ of sorts. This little sliver of land is the homestretch of the famed silk route as it snakes its way between traditional China and Dunhuang, an oasis town on the western borders of Gansu. Dunhaung was the great starting-off point and culmination for caravans that fanned out in multiple directions: India in the south, central Asia and the near East further west.

Our plan, to the extent we have one, is to take the overnight train to Lanzhou, Gansu’s capital. From there we plan to take a bus to Xiahe in southern Gansu, home to the biggest Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside of Tibet. Returning to Lanzhou, we plan to take another overnight train another 800 km west to Jiayuguan, the tiny town that marks the westernmost reaches of the Great wall. From there we plan to hope on another bus and head further westward and southward to the desert oasis of Dunhuang, before flying back to Lanzhou, and catching a train back to Beijing.

Our plan, seemingly good on paper, is contingent on an intangible: we can only buy one-way tickets from Beijing to Lanzhou. All future travels are subject to the availability of tickets, which given that it is Labor week might not be easy. As a constraint on our gallivanting and to provide us with some sort of a marker for the homeward journey, we buy airline tickets from Dunhaung to Lanzhou for the following weekend.

This brings me to a bit of a digression, but it is a subject that has puzzled me: one cannot purchase round trip train tickets in China, and one can only purchase tickets 5-7 days in advance. This means one cannot plan a vacation beyond one’s departure. Things get especially uncertain during the three Chinese national holidays. I have asked a reasonable number of people now, and have yet to get a coherent response. The system is computerized yet you cannot buy a ticket for a train that doesn’t depart from the city in which you are purchasing the ticket, i.e. no return ticket or onward ticket. It is a great tool for controlling population movements, I guess. But seems awfully inefficient from any public good point of view.

As our train pulls out of Beijing West, we stretch back on our upper berth bunks. Our time is well spent since Lauren’s foresight has ensured that we are supplied with interesting little snacks for the ride, including a bottle apiece of Hoegaarden. During the journey, both of us strike up conversations with our fellow passengers, who are almost uniformly impressed at the level of our Chinese.

“Excuse me sir,” a young fellow states, as he proceeds to request some time to practice his English with me. He is 18 years old, a recent high school graduate. He has been in Beijing for about six months, devoting almost all his time to English language training in an attempt to study business and finance in Australia. He is not a fan of the Chinese Gao Kao (Lit: ‘high/tall test;’ the shortened term for the centralized Chinese school leaving exam, the results of which determine which college or university a student can enroll in), noting that it is almost impossible for him to gain admission to a decent university. Not unlike things in India I guess, though admittedly, the Indian system seems much more decentralized (and arguably better, as a result?). Amazing what a shift in perspective affords you.

His friend, a thinner, slightly more self-conscious kid, soon joins in. They are eighteen and nineteen years old, both Gansu natives, on their way home for the holidays. I ask them why Australia. Because it is feasible comes the answer. English is the language of the future, but US visas are hard to get, ergo we have Australia. They seem to have misinformed notions about the US, and no real perception of India at all. But they are not indoctrinated in CCP jargon either. One of them blandly states that in China there is no choice, everything is fixed, alluding to the system of government and its vagaries. I play dumb, ask him what does he mean. He looks over to his friend and barks out in Chinese, “how do you say CCP in English?” I say, “a mingbai le!” I understand. There are also two PhD students in computer science. I espy them reading an NIIT publication; I don’t bring it up but enjoy my own little secret grin. It is also good to challenge a stereotype that most Chinese have about India, which they have come to equate with a very advanced IT industry. I am a student of history, and I am studying their history. This is a subject of much consternation.

All this time Lauren’s been engaged in a conversation first with an elderly man who is of the Tu minority and then with another Gansu native, a neat-looking middle-aged man. The Tu man has seen Americans before, but no Indians. He is part of a large group that is on its way home after their first visit to Beijing. During her conversation, Lauren asks them why one cannot buy return train tickets or book them more than a week in advance. No coherent reason is supplied.

Our train pulls into Lanzhou a little early. We step off the train and into a light drizzle. This is not good. Lanzhou is notorious for the meager rain it gets. And on the very day we arrive, with 4 hours to kill before our bus to Xiahe, it is raining. Undeterred, though somewhat miffed (I am more miffed, Lauren is more undeterred), we head west to the bus station, purchase our tickets, grab some noodle soup (only soup and bread in my case), and decide that the best way to combat the rain is the check out the Gansu provincial museum. It turns out to be an interesting hour or so. I have in general been impressed with the curatorial work I have seen in China’s museums, but am still taken aback at this spanking new museum, in what is otherwise one of China’s poorer provinces. Everything is presented beautifully, but many displays, it is unambiguously clear, are mock-ups: the dark underbelly of China’s attempts at recreating and renovating its heritage.

The rain prevents us getting a look at the contours of Lanzhou. One difference is in the people. There is a noticeable percentage with white caps on, Hui min [peoples], China’s Muslim minority. It is only the men who wear them though. Women are harder to spot.

Back at the bus station we are herded into a minibus. Our driver is a Tibetan. “Namaste,” he says when I respond to his query regarding my origins. The first of a few tiny surprises I have in store for me in Xiahe. We travel south through the low hills. Soon the excellent highway gives way to a single lane road. After being held up by a bus that had driven into the roadside open sewer and nearly upended itself, we arrive in Xiahe in the evening around 7: tired, but glad to finally be here.


After a hiatus characterized by a sudden drying up of the well that words spring from, I am back to pick up the threads. There is little that I can offer in defense of the silence but the posts that I hope shall follow in the next few minutes and days.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Chinese Diwali?

Rather, Chinese new year. Starting around 11:30 the entire night sky is suddenly incandescent. People emerge from their homes and hutongs and all at once there are rockets, bombs, roman candles, sparklers, etc., everywhere. Awesome. The year of the Pig is here.

In front of me an old man emerges from a hutong door on Jiu Gulou Dajie. He has a long metal pole in his hands and gestures to his grandson who is slowly unpacking the little bombs that are strung together and which go off in quick succession [what the hell do you call those things? I only know their name in Hindi!]. He gestures to his grandson to use the pole, hitch the firecracker to a tree, and make it dangle like a big python. The grandson doesn’t seem all that enthused. He is self-conscious in the way most teens are, wary, even afraid of being made to look un-cool by his evidently out of the loop grand dad.

Further down the street, people are lining up bombs and rockets. Nearby, the Drum and Bell tower are brilliantly lit up. Rockets shoot up from the space between them, reminding us that the tower square has its own contingent of revelers.

Our own supply of firecrackers has already been spent. Sadly, we blew our proverbial wad a tad bit early. Now all we can do is stand back and admire. It is better this way I feel. I am reminded of Diwali back home. I miss it. The Chinese version is different I guess in that the pyrotechnics are concentrated around midnight. But it is a great feeling to be standing up, scanning the skies, ears perked (or should I rather say dulled).

Earlier in the day, we had all gathered at Eveline and Ann's for some New Year's potluck. I was drafted into making some chicken to accompany Ann's risotto. It was going rather well till I added a bit too much tomato sauce. The end result was acceptable, but the midway point had promised so much more. Jason rustled up some greens to round off the main course. We also had dumplings to ensure it felt like new years, and fruit pizza to ensure that a sense of the strange was never very far away. Wine was aplenty, and the view out their 20th floor balcony was quite spectacular.

Back in Houhai, we continue to admire the night sky. After what seems longer, but is only about an hour, the dropping mercury nudges us ever so gently towards Dong An and its warm sofas and chairs. And just as we get comfortable in walks, guess who? Cui Jian! I don’t recognize him, but others do. Strange: new years begins with the sighting of the Grand Old Man of Chinese Rock, who as Lauren has recently discovered is now exploring Reggae as well. He walks by and enters a private little room. We don’t seem him after that. I order myself some Bailey’s coffee as sink lower into the sofa...

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Guilin and Yangshuo (or There and Back Again?)-Part III


We arrive back at the Guilin railway station early in the evening. It is already quite dark. Patrick tries to get in touch with LJ, who in the absence of our host, Brad, will let us into his apartment. Brad teaches English at a local school and is on his way back from the US. LJ tells Patrick that Brad is already back. His apartment is on the campus of the Guangxi Normal University. This is where Patrick studied Chinese several years ago so he still has a sense of the place. Brad himself turns out to be a tallish man with a long flowing beard that reaches down to his chest. His hair is tied in a little ponytail. I wonder how long it has taken him to grow that beard.

We dump our stuff, loll around for a bit and then decide to head over to another friend’s place. Adam teaches English as well. I am informed that that is pretty much the only thing a foreigner can do in Guilin; it impossible to get a work visa for anything else. Adam greets us at the door. He has a long goatee and a tuft of rastafari hair that reaches well below his waist. He is wearing what looks like a Stetson and sets about introducing us around. The living room is huge. One wall is entirely taken up by three computers and a TV set with huge accompanying speakers. Two girls and one guy, all Chinese, are deeply involved playing some computer game. They give us a cursory wave. On the couch are a big Englishman and a Chinese girl. Frasier is playing on TV, and they seem rapt. Adam himself, it seems, has been tinkering on his laptop and with four little Nintendo Gameboys. At this point I am confident that this is a large communal house.

We crack open cold ones as Adam distributes the Gameboys. There are four of them and they can communicate via wireless. We select the random games option and begin competing. Before long we are all vying to outdo each other. Another friend soon arrives with his girlfriend. By now I have a better sense of this place. I realize my initial impression was entirely erroneous. Adam and Pianzi, his Chinese wife, live here. Everyone else is a guest for the evening (and perhaps every evening). The Brit also teaches English, as does the latest guest to arrive, who also has a long flowing beard. So far I have met three American men in Guilin, each with a rather long beard. Remarkable.

Patrick informs me such a scene is probably rather common at Adam’s place. He only teaches about 15 hours a week, and spends the rest of his time lazing about, playing computer games, entertaining people, and generally having a ‘good time.’ I get the sense, for a white man (or woman) it is not so hard to coast here in Guilin. Most of these guys have been here several years. Adam himself is probably the most settled and making a life out of it: married, maybe contemplating kids. And yet, all this seems entirely alien to me. Given the extremely driven and focused environment I have almost always been in, I find his lifestyle intriguing and utterly unfathomable.

I discover that the Brit, whose name I must admit I have since forgotten (I want to say Chris, though), played grade cricket in England. We discuss our own little cricketing stories. Provides an interesting side bar to an already interesting evening. As the evening progresses, we get some grub and Adam sets about his hukka. I notice other things that fascinate me. While most of us foreigners can speak decent Chinese, it is not clear how comfortable the Chinese are with English. So very soon, locals and foreigners are speaking almost exclusively amongst themselves. Also, it seems it is only the women who are involved in preparing dinner. There is a division of labor here and I wonder how it has emerged.

The following morning is even colder. The plan is to hike up some Karsts just outside the city. Brad’s bathroom is what appears to me to be a quintessential Chinese bathroom. There is a squat toilet, and the showerhead is literally on top of it. Outside, there is a constant drizzle that threatens to turn into something much worse. We realize that our hope of hiking might just remain that, a hope. LJ joins us and after a lazy but delicious lunch cooked by Brad’s aiyi (maid servant) we decide we should go bowl. Of course, after Karsts, the second thing Guilin is world renowned for are its excellent bowling lanes. It is just that we must have visited one of the more run down establishments. We play four games. Brad wins two, while Patrick and I split the other two.

We proceed to spend much of afternoon and evening walking around Guilin and occasionally stopping at bars. The city, much like Yangshuo, has been heavily touristified, especially the downtown district. Certain streets are pedestrian only. I am again reminded of Europe. As dusk approaches we decide to circumnavigate a large lake downtown. The lake itself is a recent creation, the result of linking the area’s five original lakes. The recently constructed Pagoda that towers over the lake seems to me more kitsch than cultural. Towards the rear there is a bridge section, which includes models of famous bridges from all over the world including the Golden Gate Bridge, and strangely, also the Arc de Triomphe! I am left with the nagging question: is this all Chinese? And if so, to what extent is it Chinese? The five lakes being converted to one is of course evidence of the power of the state to change the landscape.

We pick a Sichuanese restaurant for dinner. The food is nothing exceptional but we are at least no longer hungry. We hit up a German bar which we'd visited earlier and I enjoy some great German wheat beer. Other friends of Brad soon join us, and before long plans are afoot to head to a club! The club turns out to be not much of a club in the conventional sense. There is no dance floor (just as well for me), only tables, and some live karaoke by some rather talented singers. It soon transpires that one of our local friends knows the manager so we end up getting A LOT of free booze. And we are even graced by the presence for a few minutes of one of the karaoke stars.

Partying and drinking late into the night (or should I say morning), we finally stumble out of the club and decide that the time is right for some of Guilin's famed Mifen (rice noodles). So at 3am, our friend Lena leads us to a restaurant that is still open. Patrick and Brad start playing drinking games, and before they can finish their second game a woman from an adjoining table joins us. One game turns to two, two to three, and before long, she is batting her eyelids at Brad. She claims to be nongcun, but prostitute seems more likely. Her ‘pimp’ comes along and angrily asks us to leave. Patrick, completely sloshed by now, declares that we will leave on tomorrow’s train, so what’s the rush? It is left to Lena and I to try and move things along so we can leave the restaurant.

It was a fun evening, particularly because I got a flavor of life outside Beijing, though the entire day was rather unexpected. In all fairness if I had to choose, I'd still probably take the Karsts, but what can you do.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Guilin and Yangshuo (or There and Back Again?)-Part II

Moon Hill

Our room is still freezing cold. I check my cell phone. It lights up to indicate it is nine in the morning. I laze around in bed. Across the room, Patrick slowly comes to life. Neither of us is too keen to leave the comfort of our warm blankets and step on what we know is an absolutely frigid tiled floor. We lazily discuss plans for the day. Breakfast, rent bikes, cycle through the countryside, hike up some Karsts; basically wing it. Sounds good. With nothing but execution left, we drag ourselves out of our beds. We exercise the right to not shower, wash up, pack our bags and head downstairs to check out.

Leaving our bags at the reception, with my computer strapped neatly and firmly to my back, we walk onto the lane. We decide to hit up the restaurant from last night. I keep an eye out for our new friend but she is nowhere to be seen. Patrick orders an American breakfast. I order an English one. Differences include coffee versus tea, and I get baked beans on my toast. As we eat, I discover my Motorola V66 has finally given up on me. It powers on, but the screen stays blank. This is a bother, but I figure I will worry about it later.

The bikes we rent cost us 10 kuai each, though there is a 200 kuai deposit as well. Made by Giant, they are yellow, and look in decent shape. We go for a short spin, rotate through the gears to make sure they work, and test the brakes. Satisfied, we look at a map and hit the road. We pedal through the streets of Yangshuo and out into the countryside. By now the sun is out, and it is beginning to look like a great day, not that cold after all. Slowly Karsts begin to dominate the horizon, and soon the highway is threading its way through clusters of them. We pass many signs for hotels and caves. We are tempted, but we have decided to check out Moon hill, a large natural arch formation, and remain true to our destination. The countryside is very pretty, and the road is relatively flat. I am enjoying myself.

After riding for the better part of an hour, we arrive at Moon Hill. There are many old women by the entrance looking to sell water, beer, coke, whatever they can. They are surprised at our standard Chinese. We joke with them, bargain over two bottles of water, and purchase our entrance tickets.

We climb. The sky is blue; the air is fresh with the smell of nature, trees, the earth, and the only noise is the quiet rustling of leaves. After six months in Beijing, it is liberating. The reverie is occasionally shattered by blasts in the distance, probably detonations at mines in the vicinity. Industrial China is never very far away. We walk through canopies of green, pass an old woman making shoes out of reed, and arrive at a fork in the path. A moment’s indecision later we decide to explore the one that is evidently less trodden. It ends in a 6-foot high rocky outcrop that overlooks the highway below. We clamber up and admire the view. In the distance are Karsts, an open mine, a tiny village, fields, and also what appear to be military communications towers. The weather is pleasant and we are in no rush. I think about Sung dynasty literati coming here almost 1000 years ago and composing poetry over cups of tea. Ah, the lovely languid lives of the literati.

We return to the main trail. The climb soon gets steep and I huff and puff along. The base of the arch has a large relatively flat area. The views again are great, especially the one through the arch itself. The rock on the underside of the arch has stalactite like features, and is also riddled with holes. Rather distinctive. The lady selling drinks here informs us that there is path leading all the way to the top of the arch. We head off. This climb is a little trickier since it is a real trail, unlike the earlier part of the climb where steps had been cut in the rock or actually been built. As a result it is a lot more fun.

We reach the peak of Moon Hill. A tiny area but it affords absolutely breathtaking views. We loll around, find nice crags to sit on, and just take in the views. There are dozens of Karsts visible in the distance. Most have only been scaled in the past few years. We find a few bolts and screws in the rock near us; Moon Hill has been scaled too. During our time on the peak a British couple and a Chinese woman join us. But evidently they are not as moved by the view as we are, and depart shortly. We stay up there for a while.

On our way back down we decide to check out one of the caves en route. We leave the old women selling knick-knacks at the entrance behind and head towards town. Almost immediately we are confronted by the entrance to a model socialist village. Intrigued we peddle through, but besides some nice views of Moon Hill, we are not sure what is so model or socialist about the village. Particularly since it seems to be full of hotels. The cave we are interested in turns out to be an exhibition on butterflies, or so it seems from what we can tell. The entrance is 45 kuai. It serves as a sufficient deterrent.

We cycle back into town and get some grub. Patrick, staying on his Mexican theme, orders burritos. I get some spaghetti, which turns out to be surprisingly good. After our meal we return our bikes, pick up our bags from the hotel, and head to the bus station. After haggling with the conductor, which includes enquiring if the ticket price is the same for foreigners and for local Chinese, we get on board. The Mummy has just begun on the onboard TV. It keeps me reasonably interested as our bus makes its way back towards Guilin.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Guilin and Yangshuo (or There and Back Again?)-Part I

Getting to Yangshuo

Last Friday we ended our second 8-week module. And that means one week off. Having considered it as one of many options, options that included hitting up Thailand or Hainan, I finally decide to join Patrick on a little trip to Guilin and Yangshuo in southern China. Patrick spent 6 months in Guilin several years ago, so it’s a bit of a nostalgic trip for him.

After celebrating somewhat late into the night on Friday, we buy soft sleeper tickets (mostly because hard sleepers were sold out) and hop on the 4:16 T5 train.

The soft sleeper is the highest of China’s four-class railway system. There are four berths to a cabin, and the cabin has a sliding door and affords a fair amount of privacy. Unfortunately, buying tickets 3 hours before departure means Patrick and I are in different, though thankfully adjoining, cabins. The interior is quite plush. Each cabin has a large square window so the view is excellent, even if you are not sitting by the window. My companions are a youngish man, and two older men in their sixties. None are Beijingren. Conversation is not at a premium but we are also not the most garrulous of quartets. Over the course of the 22 hours we manage to discuss the price of tickets, Beijing traffic, how other parts of China don’t have as much construction, development in general, India’s IT industry, China and India (particularly their development and population), Guilin as a tourist destination, the weather, and so on. More often than not I am reminded how limited my vocabulary still is.

Over in the next cabin Patrick has a few PLA officers sitting with him. They smoke like chimneys, and he spends a lot of his time out in the hallway, on one of the pull down chairs, reading “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.”

I sleep a lot. Must be really tired from the semester, finishing grad school apps, and all that has been preying on my mind, whether I like to admit it or not. I also put in an hour on my translation for Caijing. Manage to translate the first paragraph or so. It is slow going.

Lying on my upper bunk I wade into Pamuk’s Snow. I have been laboring over it. Partly because it is rather dense at times, but also because I haven’t had the time to really sit down with it. Less than halfway through things really come to a head, and I am drawn in. I find many of the themes that Pamuk juggles also embodied in much of modern Indian literature. Struggles with modernity, the east versus the west, secularism versus religious fundamentalism, inequitable development, the chasm that separates the frontier from the heart of a country, and so on. I wonder what themes predominate in modern Chinese fiction. I am curious, is there as much of a contested understanding or approach to the west, and to notions of secularism and modernity?

We arrive in Guilin mid-afternoon. Outside the station are a slew of buses. Shouts of “Yangshuo, Yangshuo” ring the air. We are herded into a half full minibus. I refuse to put my rucksack in the hold: it has my computer and I am not letting it out of sight. We stop everywhere, as the driver and conductor search out potential passengers, attempting to fill every vacant seat. I eye my big rucksack swaying in the seat next to me. Soon enough it is the last ‘vacant’ seat. But not for long. We pick up one final passenger, and I have to nestle my rucksack on my lap. Having my computer along is an increasing source of tension. We will be trekking around Yangshou and I am not too happy about leaving it at the hotel.

As Yanghou approaches, Karsts start to dominate the landscape. They are interesting structures. Little pillars or out-thrusts of rock, rather un-mountain like. I later find out, from that most unimpeachable of sources that is Wikipedia, that “Karst topography is a three-dimensional landscape shaped by the dissolution of a soluble layer or layers of bedrock, usually carbonate rock such as limestone or dolomite.” Enlightening. Further down I find a slightly easier passage to relate to: “Mature Karst landscapes, where more bedrock has been removed than remains, may result in karst towers or haystack/eggbox landscapes. Beneath the surface, complex underground drainage systems (such as karst aquifers) and extensive caves and cavern systems may form.” This rather aptly describes the terrain we are in. I marvel at the landscape outside my window. My real chance to appreciate them will come tomorrow though.

We arrive in Yangshuo around seven in the evening and walk around. Yangshuo takes me by surprise. I was expecting a little provincial hill-station. It is all that, but also heavily commercialized. The bus-stop exit channels us into a long alley with shops and hotels on either side. Patrick has no recollection of these structures so they must be fairly new. We are harassed as we walk along, but most locals are surprised and impressed at our relatively standard Beijing Putonghua. The accent here is at times hard to decipher. We earn respect wherever we go, though somewhat undeservedly I feel.

After asking at a local tourist agency, we finally locate the Karst Hotel. A double costs us the princely sum of 25 kuai each. It is good to travel during off-season! The room is decent, has attached bath, with running hot water. Sold! We dump our stuff, take quick showers, and step out in search of food. The little alleys, impressively clean, full of restaurants and cafes, advertising mostly European and American fare, render a distinctly European small town feel to this Chinese city. Oddly the Chinese fare on the menu is more expensive than staple ‘western’ items like fish and chips, spaghetti, and even steak and chips. Patrick digs into some fajitas as I order the fish and chips. While Yangshuo doesn’t reflect Guangxi’s poverty, the five tiny pieces that claim to be fish can easily lay claim to an impoverished background. Washing this rather unsatisfactorily meal (Patrick isn’t too impressed with his fajitas either) down with the local Liqun beer, we continue our stroll.

Over dinner I have decided to buy a backpack so that I can lug my laptop around with me the next day. Not the ideal solution, but far better than leaving it at the reception tomorrow. I need the peace of mind. I find something suitable, and haggle the price down from 120 to 55 kuai. I could probably have got it for 30, but I am yet to master this art.

We find a café next to the Karst, which has free internet. We settle in for some beer and French fries. The waitresses are friendly; speak better English than their counterparts in Beijing. One of them, a pretty girl, after establishing I am Indian tells me I look like ‘that Indian’ guy from ‘that American movie.’ A couple of minutes and we are finally able to deduce the movie is Van Wilder and I am being likened to Kal Penn. I am not sure I like this. I get the sense this is lone brown man in yellow land syndrome. A variation on the “all you XXX look alike!” (Replace XXX by whatever skin color catches your fancy.) We hang out at the café late into the night, and as we leave are encouraged to return for breakfast by the same girl who made the Kal Penn comparison. She really is quite cute. I say maybe we will.

After leaving the café we continue our stroll around town. It is quite dark now, and the karsts are hardly visible. Other tourists too are rare. The river right now is more like a stream, though fairly fast moving. I am pinged by Lauren who informs me that Caijing is now looking for a fulltime translator. So that puts paid to that. Suddenly the laptop feels heavier than its already weighty seven pounds. It also gets progressively colder, and we take the executive decision to head back to the hotel.

The temperature continues to drop and our room is freezing. The 25 kuai rate does not include the AC. But once under the covers, things are not too bad. We doze off to the TV screening some premier league game.