Photo Story – My Thailand
My Thailand -yes, one more ‘beyond’ story!- as I wrote in my previous blogs, wasn’t the Thailand you read about in the papers. It was much more; much better! After we travelled north from Bangkok to Chiang Mai by train and tricycle and were greeted by friendly chauffeurs and scary temple dragons, we were engulfed by a Thailand drenched with liveliness, religion and the color orange… (read more)
We checked in our guesthouse, left our luggage and hit the streets, finding ourselves in a street of massage shops and bars. Both rampant businesses. Both with an obvious unlimited pool of short skirt women of all ages picking their noses and long-nosed men, eager to pick up a short skirt but instead lurking around not able to make up their minds. (more…)
Let’s start by saying that we are in the year 2557. That’s about how old Buddha would have been had he still been around, which, in many ways here in Thailand, he still is. We -my family members and I- haven’t really changed a lot since we left China in the year 2014, but gosh, it does feel ages ago. (more…)
I’ve written it before: there are those moments you just need to escape Chengdu, or, as in this case, China. It just becomes too much. And that’s how we ended up in northern Thailand. But we weren’t alone. (more…)
Buckets of tears we shed, and believe me, it was a real family happening. Everyone joined in. Eyes watered and messed up mascara -not that we have mascara, but it visualizes the flow of tears so nicely- and soon enough large murky floods poured out from us that would dwarf the 3 Gorges Dam. Noses dripped like leaking taps. My son handed me a tissue -again. It was the same one I passed on to my wife just a minute ago. Tissues were shared. For the last time. The last time! “Whaaah!!!” And off we went again. (more…)
Photo Story – Baptism
My blog’s tagline explains the purpose of my blog: ‘show & tell’ about China and beyond. This photo story is then clearly a ‘beyond’. It is not taken in China -it took place in the center of The Netherlands. It is not about the Chinese: these are (Dutch) Indonesians. Nor is it about buddhism. This is a short impression of a Christian baptism that took place in a little pond in the gardens of De Hught, on a cold and very wet day… (read more)
Photo Story – Schools of Hope
Victor Hugo once said: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison“. This is surely true here, in the Land of the Yi, around Xichang. Long have the local people of the Yi ethnic minority lived in extreme poverty that lead many of previous generations into alcohol and drugs abuse, leaving deep scars in the younger generation. Here, a few determined teachers with small budgets but great hearts have started schools for the Yi children. Many students walk hours through the mountains each day to come to school, their school of hope… (read more)
There are those days you will never forget. They stay with you forever. Not that we always want to, but they do. Just take a second. While reading this, I’m sure something is popping up in your head ‘while we speak’ so to speak. And for your sake, I surely hope so. No life can possibly be so boring that it has not one moment of deep hardship or glorious fortune, not one moment of lonely obscurity or unbridled fame; not one moment that you will always remember. All that to say: today was just one of those days. (more…)
You know how big-city life and a busy job and, now I’m at it, a family, can make you feel confined; imprisoned in inevitable routines and unchangeable habits. Tired. Then it is time for an escape; time for wilderness and raw freedom. Then it’s time for the Tibetan mountains. And so I planned a 10-day trip to Sertar monastery high up in the far western mountains of Sichuan and made the necessary preparations: talking with insiders; watching the latest news; taking my altitude tables. All was fine -that is to say; as fine as can be expected in these parts- and I was ready. How little did I know… (more…)
Fireworks were shot into the sky -twice, mind you: first on Chinese New Year’s eve and again fifteen days later – and devils and other evil fled from China, to the far ends of the world. Scared. Although I wouldn’t be surprised that they were, more than anything, scared of the polluted air. And I would flee too, if I could, (more…)
(Monday 174 red) The sun is shining -though somewhat watery. The sky is blueish and the temperature is just right. The peach trees in front of our kitchen window are blossoming -spring is in the air! These are those rare days that I just can’t stop myself from running. Running my lazy winter sweat out. Loosening my stiff muscles. Pumping blood through my vessels and spring air into my lungs. Reason to rejoice, was it not that there is more in the air. More than meets the eye. It’s called pollution. (more…)
Yesterday, I twisted my ankle, if not worse.
All I know is that while cutting trees and branches in my back garden, I jumped off a wall, onto a chair. Well, that was it. Not that I haven’t done that before –from higher walls even. Of course, I blame the chair. Never jump on Chinese chairs. They are just not made for it. Anyway, I jumped onto the chair, the chair made movements I’ve never seen it do before (more…)
Portfolio – Faces of China
Oscar Wilde once wrote: “A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.” Each face is a work of art and a reflection of its history. But more specifically, it reflects how the face bearer stood -and stands- in life…. It is how we deal with these circumstances, that shapes us -and those around us!… (read more).
Shangri-La experience: Heavenly Hotels (1)
Does the name ‘Shangri-La’ ring a bell? A chain of classy and exclusive hotels, sure. And they are popping up in every self-respecting city around the world. Correct. But here in China, more then anything else, Shangri-La is a widely desired name of the town and lamasery that was the setting for James Hilton’s book ‘Lost Horizon’. The true heaven on earth in a rustic, harmonious valley of peace: Shangri-La. And who doesn’t want to live in a heavenly city? Can you imagine the economical gain this would give? Streets of gold! So, not surprisingly, there’s not just one Shangri-La in China; towns are literally tumbling over one another to prove their authenticity and change their century-old names in to, yes, Shangri-La.
I still remember my first visit to Shangri-La quite some years ago. Yes, I found my Shangri-La; the real one, if you ask them. But it isn’t so much the special destination that I most remember; it is the journey that got me there. It was winter. A very cold winter. The bus ride from Lijiang, an old town deep in remote west Yunnan, took the whole day.
A bus ride to heaven; a trip through hell. As it is written: heaven is reached only by a narrow road. And, as I soon discovered, by steep climbing roads. And wild winding roads. Narrow valleys far below and falling rocks from far above. An old bus with direct view on the road underneath through its rotten floor. Several stops were needed to re-secure the loads of bags and boxes and goats piled on its roof. An overcrowded bus with only Tibetan men. Fierce looking men. Rough and smelly. Men in over-sized coats with sleeves twice as long as their arms and knives even longer. Cowboy hats nonchalant on their thick dirty black hair that hung long over their shoulders. Their sunburned, leathery skin black and scarred. I traveled with wife and kids and for some reason we didn’t blend in well. As it was, we quickly became quite an attraction. They stared at us with curious and burning eyes and threw comments up and down the aisle causing laughs among the gang. Very funny. All armed with beer and smoking at least 2 cigarettes at the same time. The next cigarette waiting behind one ear, a beer bottle behind the other. A big ‘no smoking’ sign right above the driver was reminding us all of the good intentions of some far-away-never-present official. Must be a Han. But the sign was hard to see through the smog of smoke produced by the driver. Then what can you say?
My family was sitting in the back row, flying up from their hard seats each time the bus hit a rock or dived into a hole. Windows and door in the front were all open, letting in biting cold air that blew the smoke to the back of the bus where the windows could not be opened, choking my by now purple looking frozen kids and making my wife vomit. Changing seats was the only option. But none were available. The men were still laughing. A car passed. A black VW. A German Volkswagen. A sign of Europe and civilization. For a moment I felt relief; I was not alone in this God-forsaken land after all. If there’s a western car, there must be a western salesman somewhere. A companion. But it didn’t last. An unsolicited thought reminded me of a highlighted note in the Lonely Planet guidebook warning us for robbers and murderers in this area. Their knives seemed to grow by the minute.
But I needed seats. I mustered all the courage left in me – and believe me, not much was left: I’d much rather just jumped of the bus deep down the cliff- so, with that much courage I rehearsed silently what to say and how to say it in Chinese. I asked two men in a front row to give up their seats for my family members and pointed to the back seats for them. Their stares seemed to dissect me. Seconds past and nothing happened. It seemed hours. Mumbling behind me. They looked at each other. They looked at me. Then they looked away. Someone started cutting his nails with his dagger. More mumbling and shuffling behind me. A cough. Why can we not just disappear now? How fun, these holidays and trips! Who’s idea was this?? I vowed never to use public transport again, ever. I tried again, this time not asking them but already thanking them for giving up their seats. Why troubling them with a choice if, really, there wasn’t any. And again I pointed to the back seats and my suffering family. It was a lucky shot. But what had I to loose? I wasn’t even sure they understood Chinese, let alone my Chinese. Another smile, but then the man by the window started to move. I could hardly believe it, but he stood up -slowly as not to loose face too much- and went to the back saying something abracadabra Tibetan to his friend. The friend just stared at me. Not my friend. But, alas, one gone, only one more to go.
It boosted my confidence. Once again I thanked him ahead and this time I simply stared back. Then he too got up and moved, with groaning. Victory! I could do the dance and give the yell: Shangri-La, here we come! Instead I only smiled an unseen smile and motioned my family over. Suddenly it didn’t feel that cold anymore. Now, the bumps in the road weren’t that high and the kids could breath again. We saw a rainbow in the valley far below us where the Yangtze river made its first sharp turn before heading off into the Tiger Leaping Gorge. My action had changed the atmosphere in the bus. Tibetan abracadabra became an interesting linguistic puzzle; stares became smiles; or did I just imagined this? We continued to climb and it started to snow. I was offered a beer that I politely declined and before I knew it we arrived in a snow covered Shangri-La.
We selected an upgraded, more expensive hotel, convincing ourselves that we earned it. A 3-star hotel. Of course we deserved more than that after a day like this, but then, how much can you get for just a few yuan? Luckily, our 3-star hotel in Shangri-La had a room left. In fact, all rooms were still available. A cleaner quickly chased a goat out of the main hall and dog poop welcomed us in the hallway to our ‘suite’. Mind your steps!
No heating. Frozen beds. It took half an hour for the staff to wake up and another half hour to switch on the electricity. Now we could boil water. We dipped our feet in buckets with hot water but didn’t dare to warm ourselves by showering the rest of the night, afraid that water would freeze on us faster than we could wipe it off. We dreaded the nights but day time was miraculous.
A thick pack of fresh white snow on the gentle hills under a deep blue sky greeted us the next morning. Chicken and cows and pigs and donkeys were lazily moving around in the narrow snow muddied streets that formed a labyrinth between the wooden and mud houses and giving us a look as if they owned the place (that was Orwell’s idea). We chatted with 3 elderly who were trying hard to get a giant 24-meter high golden prayer wheel turning. It stood high on the hill, towering over the village. The wheel didn’t turn, so they did: walking around it again and again. We laid down in the snow and enjoyed the strong Tibetan winter sun. A small teahouse on the snowy dirt road opposite the hotel became our evening refuge against the cold. At least they had a coal pot in the center of the room. No chimney. The thick smoke made breathing laborious and finding your teacup a treasure hunt, but at least it was warm. The coal was kept alive and glowing by an aged and wrinkled old Tibetan lady. A prayer wheel in her hand kept turning regardless what she was doing, sending out her prayers to be picked up by the spirits of the wind. Prayers we surely needed for the remaining nights in our Shangri-La hotel.
Maybe, one day, we’ll stay in the real Shangri-La…
Going over the newly paved highways cutting through the south-eastern part of Guizhou, a poor Chinese province, like a growing spider web, constantly tunneling into mountains and flying over valleys, passing hamlets that till yesterday were only reachable on foot, you cannot but wonder how this will affect the centuries old cultures of the local minorities as the Miao, Dong, Shui and many more. …. (read more)
For a meeting I had to be in Chongqing. About 350 km south-east of Chengdu; crossing one mountain range and a lot of hills. It used to be a weekend trip. Or rather not a trip at all. Chongqing had nothing. Chongqing was nothing. Nothing but a boiling oven in the summer (one of the four, the others being Wuhan, Nanjing and Nanchang) and a cold flooded mud hole in the winter. Covered with layers of white and gray dust all year round, blown in from the too often deadly illegal mining pits in the rest of this municipality. You wonder why people live there: each season offers it’s own suffering. Just last year, much of the area was damaged by flood only to be followed by a long lasting drought that destroyed most of the crop and turned the Yangtze river into a shallow smelly sewage.
Knowing that by the end of this week the yearly migration for Chunjie (Chinese New Year holiday) will start in full force, many have decided to leave their migrant work earlier to make sure they have a seat on the train. It takes a week of lining up in shifts to actually get a hard-seat ticket, but last year has taught us: better to loose some income by leaving earlier than to loose your life in the stampede that follows later. As a result, by the time I arrived, the station was an anthill. Young couples with kids tucked away in their pockets, carrying canvas bags on their backs and heads. Old men looking confused, sucking air through their long cigarettes more frantic than ever with the next waiting behind the right ear. The masses move on rumors. When word goes around that a door will be opened on the left of the station, they all move left, when it’s on the right, the wave flows to the right. It does keep them warm, busy and hopeful.
I push my way through this crowd, have my bags scanned and am excused for the full body search. It’s so good to be a foreigner. I continue to work my way through to the end of the hall, to a narrow door with again some gatekeepers and scan machines, with the number of my train above it. Only the happy few can get through here. I’m one of them. The new smaller hall I enter is an oases of peace and quietness, especially compared with the anthill I just left behind. After a short wait, yet another set of doors are opened –this time no scanning machine, but our tickets are checked again, just to be sure- and we can move to our train. Stewardess-lookalikes with big smiles and icy cold hands (I think; I didn’t check it, but mine were freezing and I didn’t have to stand in the cold for that long) are posted in each wagon to greet us.
The windows are spotless. A cleaner is still polishing the glass when the train starts to take off. The city is quickly behind us. Tucked away in the hills are the ugly concrete boxes that house most of China’s farmers now. They all seem to have hired the same architect. Off and on you still see a traditional old mud house or what’s left of it. Small meter-high dikes slicing up the shallow valleys in thousand little plots of paddy fields guiding little canals to the now slightly flooded river in the center of the valley. An early farmer chases her 3 ducks to the pond, walking bent-over after too many years toiling in this heavy red soil. Smoke is coming from the roofs. Some snow on the round roof tiles. Cone shaped conifer trees ripped of its branches for as high as the farmers’ saws could reach and bushes of meters high bamboo are scattered over the hills and around the farm houses, giving it all a more romantic appearance than the stories of its inhabitants would reveal -especially when viewed from within my comfortably heated train wagon. We are speeding by the farmlands where time doesn’t move.
Two TV-screens in each train wagon show in detail the crimes of the Japanese. Gosh, I’m glad not to be a Japanese! They better take the plane, at least there you can choose your own movie. But why? It’s not that the government need some foreign evil to unify its Chinese subordinates and keep them quiet and their minds distracted. Most of them are too busy making money, the rest are too busy spending it, so why worry?
As it appears, each wagon has their own set of friendly young stewardesses, keeping order in their territory. Not that this is really needed and with a daily income that is already covered by one half of my ticket, they probably won’t bother anyway. But they are helpful none the less.
We arrive at a station north of Chongqing where the farm fields and old factories and nostalgic mud houses of the long worshiped working class are replaced by the villas and skyscrapers and low-tax zones of the new and admired higher class. Fast train. Fast changes. But for China not fast enough. Next year, this trip can be done in only one hour. And on my way back, the anti-Japan propaganda film is resting on the shelf and the successes of China’s national railway development are shown. Two tired looking Japanese business men sitting opposite of me are watching it with admiration and approval, but before long are sleeping soundly.
“Same as every week please: two milk, a dozen eggs and a pound of sugar.”
“Hao, here you are.”
“Xiexie, oh, can I also have a cabbage. I still need to eat diner.”
“Sure, anything else?”
“No, that was it.”
“What?? Last week it was 21 kuai….”
“Ah, yes, but that was last week…. This is today! Inflation, I’m sure you know…”
Of course you know. Everyone knows. The threat of untamed inflation is the talk of the day, as it has been for the last 14 days. Guess what the talk will be tomorrow… The first signs of the storm to come, little clouds on the horizon, ignored by most, felt by some and enjoyed by the happy few. Little as it may be, it is affecting more and more. You leave the shop not sure what to think of it. Cheated?
Increasing demand that comes with the growth of this world’s fastest growing economy -where till recently only the sky was the limit, but now that more and more of its 87 billionaires are stretching the boundaries of law by illegally flying their Lear jets, it is the land of limitless opportunities- is causing empty storehouses. Natural disasters have hit hard this year. All this have lead to shortages, resulting in an average food price hike by more than 10% over the last 2 months. The price of the most important vegetables rose 62% in 1 year and our sugar has doubled (and because my wife refuses to spend more, I’m on a decimating sugar diet). To keep the peace, Beijing needs to provide food-support for 81 million people this winter. Think of it as more than 4x the population of The Netherlands or every soul of California, Texas and Florida together in welfare. Somehow Hu needs to cough it up, this increase need by 25% compared with the average of the last 20 years.
And if that is not enough, major cities like Chengdu now need double quantities gas compared to 2004. Up to only a few years ago, Chinese would live in their homes during the cold winter months with 5 layers of shirts, sweaters and jackets wrapped around their body while keeping all windows open: to let in the outside warm air. Not without pride, the office ladies down the hall would assure me that this is healthy and I had no choice but to suffer this self-torturing lifestyle during our long winter office hours. Now, this has changed. First thing they do when entering their office -and I should have no illusion that it is mine!- is to turn on the heating. Buzzing air-cons, mobile space-heaters and electric nose warmers are sold by the thousands. No wonder the higher need for gas and coal in 2nd tire cities. But because we all know that this will not be given, we can be looking forward to romantic winter evenings around candlelight while warming our feet in the oven.
Disillusioned you walk home. Have you been cheated? Here in China you never know. You will always wonder whether your Chinese neighbors get a better deal, knowing the well practiced saying : “If everything goes wrong, you can always cheat a loawai (foreigner)” …
And so you walk home, determined not to allow this to affect your emotions by happily reminding yourself that you’ve just paid next year’s rent for your apartment: they can’t change that now!! You were not really happy with the apartment in the beginning: it was old, badly insulated, dark with blue tinted panes in the barred windows and full of mold, dust and cockroaches. But you’ve invested some kuai and managed to actually make it cozy. Now, you don’t really want to move, even if you had a chance. For moving house in Chengdu comes close to a poorly planned suicide attempt. Once -and never again!! – which, come to think of it, is also the case of a well-planned suicide. But moving house is a constant fight with the movers who will try to convince you that only 2 tables, 3 mugs and 1 tissue box fit in the truck each round and that it may take up to 12 rounds to move all your belongings. Well, not all, because they decided that your plants are not worth moving…
But even if you are foolish enough to take this fight, there will be no company ready to move you now. Nobody really knows why -and those who know will surely not tell; and those who tell will surely not be believed- but suddenly 2 weeks ago China ran out of diesel fuel. Kilometers-long lines of waiting trucks can now be seen near diesel selling stations. Even our own drivers take shifts lining up to get one tank loaded, waiting up to 3 days per tank. The unfortunate, that is: those without government relations or under-the-table money, or the honest (who usually end up as the unfortunate) may only get half a tank. Many companies simply close their doors and schools let their students come by taxi. And the government, ah well, the concern that all this may lead to social instability is less troubling than the mind boggling number of their ‘senior’ officials’ car park. They are still wondering how in the world they could have managed to buy so many millions of 4-wheel drives and Audi’s… unless it also includes ‘senior’ street sweepers. And how to stop companies from moving investments to neighboring countries. And how to re-educate the world about the true meaning of the Nobel price, and its most recent winner, who, truly!, is no more than a petty thief. A new addition to the long list of taboos and blacklisted words in China.
And so, you were walking home, only to discover that a crowd is blocking the way to your apartment block’s stairway. The party is a mob paid by the developer who has been awarded with the contract to demolish your neighborhood and prepare the way for luxurious apartments. It is a lucrative goldmine for both the contractors and the local government officials. Residents that object against it (or want to see a higher buy-out premium, that in some cases can go up to millions of RMB per person) can find themselves threatened, bullied, tortured and, more often recently, killed. In this land of unlimited opportunities, the local officials do not want to miss the boat and just the Audi from work is not enough.
You may as well join the other crowd that, rather than walking home, is running off to the States, which is still the heaven-on-earth in the eyes of most Chinese who have never heard of the decay of the Roman Empire. Pregnant Chinese ladies are flown to California by the hundreds to deliver their own USA citizen, young and fresh, after they survived a facelift of cosmetic surgery they believed will get them higher up on the ladder of the well-to-do. Who knows what they’ll do next… Chinese scientists genetically engineered a monkey that now glows in ultraviolet light… Ladies, what are you waiting for?
Those who do not need to worry about the inflation and who missed this investment strategy will send their son or daughter to study in the US. Recent research has revealed that this is mostly motivated by the parents’ pride-full need to show off, not realizing the low quality of their selected university, that in a crisis-stricken money- needed university, is eager to enroll rich foreign students, ignoring standards and requirements (except of course the money requirement) and blind for the social and cultural difficulties for the child. It is a statement, and for Chinese parents, that is enough.
In the end, we cheat ourselves more than we cheat others.
The ride is bumpy today. Temperature is -65°C. I am speeding over the Gobi desert, going west towards Urumqi. I’ll probably reach there in a few minutes. And in a few minutes more it will be far behind me. We are taking the same Silk Route as I drove 4 months ago, though now I’m at a height of nearly 10 km and I’m heading back to Holland, not to Kashgar.
Time flies and so do I. Here in the plane a young mother is constantly chasing after her little boy while father watches his third movie with the compliments of KLM. And that is about as good as it gets with KLM: they didn’t have enough bread for all, let alone a second round; no leg space; no service and the movie system got stuck have 10 minutes into the flight. KLM is truly outstanding: its prices beyond British Airways, its quality below Air Asia. And thus my direct neighbors are sleeping away their frustration but I’ve made sure I got the arm rest. An old Chinese two rows down is coughing up his phlegm from a storage that by the sound of it must be far larger than any Chinese illegal coal mine at the point of collapse, spitting full his second disposal bag with so much noise that alarmed stewardesses are storming our aisle now for the third time. Most passengers are now awake while others are still snoring away in this small world so highly elevated above the reality far below. So detached. Yet, somehow, up in these high realms, this is a community at peace and time is standing still -at least for the next 9 hours. You can’t really go anywhere; neither call the secretary to make sure you’ll be ready for the next appointment; nor check your emails. That blessing, by the way, is a curse in disguise: by the time the plane touches down on the other side, I am likely to find that my unread emails have accumulated to a 3 or 4 digits number.
But beneath us the landscape is constantly changing. Sichuan Tibetan mountains make way for the wide Qinghai grasslands that are replaced by different forms of Xinjiang deserts. Change. Over the years of living in the dusty yet thriving city of Chengdu, we have grown accustomed to the reality that yesterday’s farm fields are today’s shopping malls and that today’s mud roads will be 5 lane highways tomorrow. No use buying a map or washing your car. What you wipe clean in the morning is black and dust covered in the afternoon. The few signs of God-given seasons are always covered under layers of dust. If the air is not filled with desert sand, it will be full of smog particles from factories and construction sites.
And so, Holland became our heaven. Fresh air and four seasons. The place that never changes. Each time we return, my kids find grandpa buried under books in his study or in the bushes of his garden; grandma juggling with word puzzles or painting her chair – again; the daffodils under the chestnut tree -53 cm to the left; the cats and birds flying freely through my sister’s home and the queen as ever missing neighbor. Eating vegetarian by my aunt around their old wooden round table or enjoying a good French wine with my uncle under one of his treasured trees by his self-made arch in their garden, listening to his many tales or discussing the latest news. Over the last many years all this never seemed to change. I can still use my maps bought in the previous century. Our anchor of stability. A community at peace.
But today is different. My uncle is no more. His unexpected departing shocked us all. A world is gone, and not just his. The world as I know it no longer exists. No more wine under the tree. No more talks and tales. Only memories and an empty turning chair. His sudden death has kicked me awake. The reality of the fairytale I so much wanted to believe has taken an ugly turn. Awakened from this self-imposed deception I now see that even in Holland, between the 200-year old trees, the medieval castles and Roman roads, time moves on. The Holland I knew when we left -the Holland of 8 years ago- does not exist; the Holland that exists I do not know. And where China can never really be our home, then where now is home?
The mother is still chasing her boy now that we’re in Kazakhstan airspace – come to think of it: she chased her boy all the way from Chengdu to Kazakhstan and still didn’t get him. Why does this feel so familiar?