Monday, April 07, 2008

This Is a Call

Someone emailed me yesterday to ask whether there's an easy way to make phone calls from Cambodia to the United States. I thought other people might be interested, so here's my (edited) response:

You could bring a cell phone, but it won't work in Cambodia unless it's unlocked, so it's probably easier to just buy one once you get there. Once you have a phone (an unlocked western one or one you bought there), to get a sim card you'll need some sort of official letter from a Cambodian employer or landlord or something to show to the Mobitel people. All Cambodian phones are paid in advance, as far as I can tell. You pop the sim card into your phone, dial Mobitel and type in the number of a scratch-off pre-paid card, and you're good. Note that for a while, 3-G phones were not permitted in Cambodia due to the government's concern that they could be used for pornography. The phones themselves are now legal, but video on a cell phone is still forbidden. (Video on the internet, television, DVDs, VHS tapes, zoetropes, and flip books remain legal, to the best of my knowledge. Biggest loophole ever.)

A few times people in the U.S. called my cell phone. It was enormously expensive and there wasn't a great signal. I never tried using my phone to call outside of Cambodia -- at $2/minute, it seemed a bit silly.

Everyone who has to make an international call uses an internet phone. Every internet cafe (and there are a bunch on every block in the foreigner neighborhoods) has a bunch of internet "phone booths" in the back. Calls to the United States are two or three cents/minute. The signal isn't great, but you can more or less hear what's being said and usually you can talk too. Actually, the signal was better than I get with my T-Mobile phone in Manhattan. Sadly, the booths are typically tiny, overheated (a lot of computer equipment in a small, enclosed space), and adjacent to another booth in which a Cambodian man is screaming some things you can't understand. Still, try out a few before picking a favorite -- some are more comfortable than others, some give you cold filtered water or sell you soft drinks, and some are filled with possibly malarial mosquitos. It pays to shop around.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Asia: The Journey Home

Well, when I said "a post about my trip home is coming soon," it turns out "soon" meant "about a year." Anyway, here it is, to the best of my recollection.

I woke up early, said goodbye to my landlord, and jumped in a cab. This wasn't a hired car like the one I took to Simatai, but an actual taxi. In New York, you sit in the back of the cab and there's a plexiglass shield between the front and back seats. In Beijing, you sit next to the driver, though the back is also available, but the driver himself is enmeshed in a METAL CAGE. Really. You're sitting next to this guy, but there are bars between you. And the bars have lots of little pointy bits, which is good because if you're in a car accident, no one will doubt you when they see the scars.

I got to the airport a few hours early because I had no idea what traffic would be like. Turns out that was a good decision. At the security checkpoint, they looked at my passport and then grilled me for a bit about why I had traveled so much in Asia. Oddly, considering they're all Communists, they were most curious about what I had done in Viet Nam. "Why did you go to Hanoi?" "Uh, tourism?" "Who did you meet with while you were there?" "Um. Waiters?" "Why were you meeting with them?" "Uh, to order food?" Eventually they determined that I was not a Communist, which is odd because they are, and so permitted me to go past the checkpoint...

...and on to the next checkpoint. At this one, they had long lines of people in front of metal detectors. Then they announced that everyone flying to the United States had to go to a separate line at the end of the room. "Haha," I thought. "There's no one at the U.S. line, this'll be quick!"

No.

You know how the United States has all these ridiculous rules for flying, like you can't have more than 17 micrograms of fluid and you can't have any lighters or nail clippers or subversive materials or bombs or magazines in your carry-ons? But it's not a big deal because most U.S. airport security workers understand that the rules need to be flexible and are subject to whatever creative interpretation is necessary to avoid reaching a stupid outcome?

OK, keep that in mind while you try to envision how U.S. airport security would work if it were enforced by the Chinese military.

Yeah, so there were four soldiers in full military regalia plus assault rifles, and they had sophisticated electronics and a manual with the U.S. flight restrictions, and damned if they weren't going to enforce every single rule to the letter. They ran my carry-ons through a large machine that then displayed a pretty color image of its contents with large yellow circles around all the contraband (I don't know how it knew), and then they unpacked the bag, took out a forbidden item, scowled at me, threw it out, repacked the bag, and ran it through again to get more circles. It took eight repetitions and thirty minutes before the machine finally determined that I had been robbed of enough precious shampoo bottles and toothpaste that I could get on the plane. At least some of the things they removed from my bag were amusing to all the other Americans on line.

Worst part was they stole the singing Mao lighters that I bought in Tiananmen Square. They wouldn't even let me repack them in my checked bag. Grr.

The flight itself was uneventful. China Airways has mediocre food. And then I was back in the U.S.A., where it was bright at nighttime and I slept all day and it took me two weeks to recover from the jetlag.

One more post, a summation, will appear sometime. Won't take a year, I hope.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Beijing: The Great Wall at Simatai

This is day three of my trip to Beijing. You may want to start at day one.

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Friday, January 12th, was my last full day in China (and in Asia). I decided to spend it at the Great Wall. Near the southeastern corner of Tiananmen Square is a tourist services place, and outside it are a lot of guys who run tours to Badaling, which is a segment of the Great Wall near to Beijing and very tourist-friendly. I stopped by to get information about it--it's an hour and a half by bus, you spend two hours at the Wall, bus leaves at 8am and returns at 5pm. Simple math and a knowledge of how tours work indicated that most of the trip would be spent at jade factories, crappy tourist restaurants, and Traditional Chinese Medicine clinics (Lonely Planet says each person will be diagnosed with some condition only curable by TCM ("There's a dragon eating your liver. Buy this root.")), and in fact the guides reluctantly confirmed that there were several stops on the way to and from the Wall. Lonely Planet also warned me that Badaling was very crowded, both tourists and vendors. Not exactly what I wanted. (For more information on Badaling, see their web site, which promises that "The Great Wall which be created by the human being will be your nice mind forever!")

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That's when I made what was probably the best decision of my trip. I skipped out on the tour and asked a taxi driver to take me to Simatai, a segment of the Great Wall that's farther away and not as touristy. I ended up agreeing to pay about twice what the Badaling tour cost. My driver spoke almost no English, but my Mandarin was sufficient for "I want to go to X" and "No, that is an absurd amount of money." Well, more or less. I told him I had to go to the bank first, and he took me to their corporate office instead of a branch, but we got it all straightened out and away we went.

Or at least, away we went for five minutes until we got on the major road, at which point we sat in traffic for an hour. Beijing has horrible traffic. Eventually we made it on to the Beijing to Chengdu highway (official name: Jingcheng Expressway (get it?)). The highway was empty, we made good time.

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The driver and I talked for a while, but my vocabulary isn't good for much. We told each other where we lived, what we thought of various places, and established that we both found the Great Wall impressive and interesting. He turned on the radio and some sort of Chinese language news program came on--I didn't understand any of it. Then he said something in Mandarin, but I didn't get most of it, so he said it in English: "You Americans, very much like kill, bang! bang! bang!" and mimed shooting a machine gun. I explained that I myself did not enjoy shooting machine guns at all, as far as I know, having never shot a machine gun. He responded that I am American, and Americans like to kill Iraqis and Saddam Hussein, and said something I didn't understand about George Bush. I tried to say that most Americans were not happy about Bush or the Iraq War, and indeed a surprising percentage of Americans have never killed anyone at all, but I don't think he understood me. Or maybe he let is pass--I guess in China, you probably don't get to express too much disapproval of your government, and he might have assumed I was in a similar position. I don't know.

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Anyway, we got off the highway, drove for another half hour or so, and suddenly there was a giant wall on the mountaintops. There were also goatherds on the roads (I'm told that goats are responsible for a lot of the decay of the wall, they eat roots that are preventing erosion). Finally we reached the bottom of a mountain, and he let me out in a parking lot.

The Great Wall is really big and stretches off in lots of places, but only some of them are open as tourist attractions. Simatai is one of the nicer areas. At the bottom is a mini-town with a guest house, a few restaurants, a ticket booth (there's an admission fee for the Great Wall), and a cable car (in case you don't want to climb all the way up). I paid for admission but, heeding Mao's admonishment that he who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a real man, I eschewed the cable car. (Mao said that to motivate his fellow Communists as part of the Long March northward, but now it's a slogan used to advertise tours to Badaling. If that's not irony, I don't know what is.)

The Great Wall is actually a series of walls linked together. The first wall that was more than just a city wall dates to the 2nd century B.C.E. The Ming Dynasty, which overthrew the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty established by Genghis Khan, faced the problem of Mongolian nobles who were trying to reclaim the empire. The solution was to vastly expand the Great Wall, and it was this expansion which created the modern Great Wall (which, as Badaling's website says, "is not only the magnum opus of human being but also the soul of China!").

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In its glory days, the Wall was six thousand two hundred miles long. Its average height was twenty-five feet, and there are forty-foot watchtowers every six hundred feet. It's about ten to fifteen feet thick, with a flat top so that soldiers can run across the wall from one watchtower to the next. The wall is made of packed earth and stone blocks, and parts of the eastern walls have brick facing. Allegedly the foundation contains the ground bones of the more than one million workers who died during its construction. For the most part, the Wall follows the ridge line of mountain ranges. Because the Wall is at the top of a mountain, it's easy to see invaders coming, it's easy to shoot arrows down at them, and by the time they get there they're exhausted from having to run uphill. (Badaling's website: "The Great Wall whose length is more than a hundred thousand kilomitres is the huge Chinese dragon, is the best greatness and grandest work in the history of the whole human being.")

However, the Wall was never a very effective means of defense. Invaders quickly discovered that they could bribe sentries not to trigger the alarm (smoke signals). But the Wall did turn out to be useful--because the top of the Wall was flat, messengers and merchants could move from one end of the empire to the other very quickly. The Wall proved most useful for communications and transportation, not defense.

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Once China created a modern road system, the Wall became obsolete. Like many stone structures in the West, it was viewed by local farmers and townspeople as a convenient source of stone, and so was dismantled in many regions. The military used parts of it to build fortifications. Where it blocked roads, it was dynamited. It is only in recent decades that the Chinese have come to value the Wall, and have taken steps to protect it.

Anyway, I found myself at the bottom of a rather large mountain range with a big wall at the top of it. It was about a mile from the base to the access stairwell onto the wall, which was in a small valley where the wall was almost at sea level. From there, I could see that I would have to climb the mountain. Did I mention it was bitter cold? I searched the vendors' stalls at the bottom for some sort of scarf to augment my double-sweater-hat-coat combination, but no luck.

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Oh well. I started walking. There's a nice access path complete with badly translated warning signs ("Appreciate the Great Wall lovely view, do not forget the fire is heartless!"--it took me a while to realize they were concerned about forest fires, not just being inscrutable). About half a mile up, there were a number of Chinese women sitting and playing cards. When I passed, one of them dropped her cards and started walking next me. I asked her where she was going, and she said she was going to climb the Wall. Fair enough, I figured--she's going to try to sell me something, but at least it will be entertaining and I can practice my Mandarin.

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Another five minutes or so and I was on the Great Wall. Simatai is split by a river, and I was on the eastern part. One thing I didn't expect was all the climbing--Mao's remark was starting to burn in my memory as I walked up the approximately six hundred trillion steps. The woman who was walking with me and I were pretty quickly out of breath. Fortunately, there are watchtowers every couple hundred feet which provide a shelter from the wind and a convenient place to rest. The good thing about the climb was that very shortly I wasn't too cold--hat and gloves off, jacket open, still panting. There were also vendors along the way, some with grills, who sold hot food and soda.

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At the second watchtower, I asked the woman what she wanted to sell me. At first she said she just wanted to walk with me, but then she pulled out some sort of book of photos of the Wall. I explained that I didn't want any book, and I also turned down the postcards and t-shirts. I gave her a couple of dollars to thank her for teaching me some Mandarin, and she went back down to rejoin the card game. And that left me alone.

And I do mean alone. Simatai in the winter is the place to go if you want to see the Great Wall as it used to be--not covered in tourists. I probably passed no more than ten people in the three hours that I was on the Wall. Maybe 98% of the time, I didn't see anyone else in any direction, out to the horizons (yes, I did at one point pretend that I was watching for Mongol hordes). It was breathtaking ("The Great Wall which be created by the human being will be your nice mind forever!").

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Simatai is also the place to go if you want to see the original Wall. Unlike Badaling and other tourist sites, much of the Simatai wall has not been restored ("many places of The Great Wall have be repaired, which make it more boundless"). There are some metal stairs added in a few places to make climbing easier, and some safety rails in dangerous places, but for the most part, it's as the Ming Dynasty left it. Some parts are too decayed to traverse, and then there are paths marked to the next walkable part. Overall, it's beautiful, especially on a day like this one--cold, but clear blue skies, no one around, and the Wall snaking across mountaintops in both directions as far as the horizon. It's not surprising that locals say UNESCO granted the Great Wall World Heritage Site status after visiting Simatai ("It has become the irradiant treasure of our Chinese archaic civilization.").

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I didn't anticipate so much climbing, but I made it to the top (or at least as far as I could--the very peak is fenced off for safety reasons). The Simatai wall is about three and a half miles long. It took about two hours to get up there, maybe another hour and a half to get down. Most of this part of the Wall is very steep. The views are beautiful--one thing about climbing a mountain is that then you get to look down on valleys.

On the way down, I passed some guys who operated a zipline to the bottom. I guess this would have been a faster way to get down, but a zipline in sub-zero weather sounded pretty horrible.

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And then I was at the bottom, back in the nice, warm taxi, and headed back to Beijing. The drive back took longer than the drive out because of traffic, and we sat around listening to the radio for quite a while. I was very confused by his music choices--we went from Beijing Opera to some very strange English language song about a soccer player named Andy who was being urged to score a goal for England, I think. The bridge of the song was definitely Turkey in the Straw. I have tried unsuccessfully to find any reference to this song on Google. Dinner in a food court, then home to bed--climbing the Great Wall is exhausting.

Incidentally, the Great Wall is in fact visible from space. If you're very close to the Earth. And the weather is perfect. And you know where to look. And the sun is in the right place (casting long shadows). And you use your imagination. But in those conditions, a lot of things are visible from space. Most astronauts say they can't see it at all.

A post about my trip home is coming soon.

Beijing, Tiananmen at Sunset: Little Red Cook Book! Little Red Cook Book!

This is from the second day of my trip to Beijing. You may want to start at day one.

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That night, I decided to return to Tiananmen Square to take one last look at the various monuments, maybe watch the flag changing ceremony, and buy a few tacky souvenirs. Sure enough, the moment I emerged from the subway station, I was beset by souvenir sellers. Most of them were selling kites or postcards, but I had heard that the Square was somewhere where people go to sell copies of the Little Red Book, and that's what I wanted. It only took a minute for someone to wave a book at me, and a little bargaining and it was mine.

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The book, full title Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, is probably the best symbol of Mao's cult of personality. Once Mao was squarely in control of China in the 1950s, he began a series of agricultural reforms aimed at collectivizing Chinese farms. As it did everywhere, this led to famine, and when in 1957 Khrushchev acknowledged the failure of the Soviet Union's collectivization efforts, Mao was pressured to end collectivization. He responded with the Great Leap Forward, a five-year plan to industrialize the nation. Mao decided that steel was the key to prosperity, and so steel production would have to be doubled within a year, most of the increase to come from backyard steel furnaces. Hundreds of millions of people were forced to smelt every scrap of metal they could find--pots, farming implements, doorknobs, anything--to meet wildly unrealistic quotas. Millions of workers were diverted from harvests to iron production. The result was tons of worthless pig iron and unharvested crops rotting in the fields. The Great Leap was abandoned in 1961, by which time thirty million people had starved to death.

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Mao was severely criticized for the disaster. He responded by purging his critics and their supporters and then began a massive program to reorient society along Maoist lines. This campaign, called the Cultural Revolution, centered around the creation and mobilization of the Red Guards, composed of eleven million students and young people. The Red Guards ransacked the nation searching for signs of disloyalty to Mao and of "reactionary" tendencies. Millions of people were purged. Many artifacts and other objects of China's cultural heritage were destroyed by the Guards as they attempted to annihilate anything not "revolutionary". Mao was idolized, and posters of him and copies of his books flooded the country.

The most popular of the books was the Little Red Book. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards were known to beat or imprison anyone found not to have at least one copy on their person (most people carried at least two). Hundreds of millions of copies of the book were printed (making it the second-most-common book in the world, after the Bible). The book was studied not only in schools, but in workplaces--it was common for offices to set aside time each day for group discussion. Every piece of writing produced in China was expected to quote extensively from the book--including scientific papers.

Today Maoism (or, as China calls it, Mao Zedong Thought) remains official doctrine, but it's not emphasized (especially in terms of economic policy). It's no longer necessary to carry the Little Red Book to avoid being beaten up by the police, and most scientific journals can get through an entire volume without quoting Mao more than once or twice. But the books are still around, and so old ones are everywhere.

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Mine is not one of the Cultural Revolution survivors--it was printed in 1996. It's helpfully bilingual and has some poorly printed color photos of Mao at the front. I like.

Incidentally, when Mao was first criticized for his agricultural policy, he clamped down on dissent. But when there was protest, he responded with the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which encouraged intellectuals to openly criticize the government ("Let one hundred flowers bloom; let one hundred schools of thought contend."). In retrospect, it's unclear whether this was a deliberate trap or whether Mao truly believed what he claimed, that if intellectuals discussed the matter, they would see that socialism was the only possible way forward. Either way, once a sufficient number of intellectuals had criticized the Communist Party, Mao had them rounded up, tortured, and executed (half a million people disappeared).

Unfortunately, buying the books marked me as someone in the market for souvenirs. I had to flee from the four or five vendors who noticed and assumed that I would want more copies of the book, a kite, some postcards, a little wooden ball that made noise when thrown in the air, and all sorts of other random stuff. I ended up at the northern end of Tiananmen Square, where a large crowd had gathered.

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It was just about sundown, and the crowd was massed around a large flagpole. Each morning at sunrise, a troop of soldiers marches in and raises the flag, and they return to lower it at sunset. Lonely Planet says that the crowds are too big at sunset and the only way to see it is to go at sunrise, but they didn't bargain on it being 15 degrees Kelvin outside. I was only in the second row, and didn't have to wait long--it wasn't even that dark when the police stopped traffic on the road between the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, and twenty or so soldiers marched across the street and up to the flag.

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It's impressive to see because the soldiers are very well-trained; they march in two rows, precisely ninety centimeters apart, and each footstep is exactly seventy-five centimeters. Of course, they walk in perfect unison. The lines split up, surround the flagpole, and then a couple of guys ceremoniously lower the flag and attach it to a smaller pole. Then they return to the line and march it back into the Forbidden City. The whole thing takes maybe five minutes.

After the ceremony, I headed back to my apartment. As usual, I got into a few conversations with people who wanted to practice their English or just meet westerners. One girl asked where I lived, and when I said Cambodia, she asked if that was in Africa--this made me hopeful about the state of the United States education system.

You may want to continue to day three, where I go to the Great Wall at Simatai.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Beijing, Beihai Park: Because I don't like beef chow mein, that's why.

This is from day two of my trip to Beijing. You may want to start at day one.

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Beihai Park is a small park that used to be part of the Forbidden City. It was built in 938, but was only opened to the public in 1925. More than half the park is covered by a large artificial lake, in the center of which is Qionghua Island. The island features a pagoda with a large white dagoba on top. Beihai Park is interesting because it's the best-preserved of the gardens that were once reserved exclusively for the use of the Emperor.

I was interested in Beihai because of its connection to Gengis Khan. Born in Mongolia in the 12th century, his father (the clan leader) was murdered when he was about nine, and he emerged victorious from the subsequent power struggle. When his tribe was pacified, he turned to neighboring tribes, and by 1206 had united much of northern Asia to form the Mongol Empire. In 1211, he declared war on China's Jin dynasty, and quickly advanced to the Great Wall. Expansion of the western end of the Mongol Empire provided Genghis with access to Islamic engineers, who developed sophisticated engines that proved effective against Chinese fortifications. He sacked Beijing in 1215, though it was not until 1234 that his descendents defeated the remnants of the Jin dynasty. Genghis died in 1227, leaving behind the largest empire in the history of the world (as measured by area).

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Genghis's grandson, Kublai Khan, came to power after a protracted struggle. In 1264, he moved his capital from Mongolia to Beijing (which he called Khanbaliq), and in 1271 he established the Yuan dynasty (the first non-Han Chinese dynasty to rule China). The Yuan dynasty gave political preferences to Mongols, a move that angered Han Chinese, but they also instituted various progressive policies--they built granaries to guard against famine, expanded highways, and promoted cross-cultural exchange through their network of western contacts. It was during this period that gunpowder, printing, porcelain, playing cards, and various medicines made their way from China to Europe. Marco Polo, a Venetian who worked for Kublai for seventeen years and later wrote a book about his experiences, described Kublai's reign as benevolent, noting that he built hospitals and orphanages, distributed food to the poor, and lowered taxes during difficult times (though as a former employee, he was somewhat biased). Kublai's summer palace at Shangdu was what Marco Polo called Xanadu.

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Beihai Park was at the center of Kublai Khan's capital city and was the home for the Emperor and his court. The Yuan dynasty was short-lived (only about a century), and not much of their construction remains. The only thing in Beihai that remains from Kublai's reign is a large jade urn that was carved in 1265. It was apparently used by Kublai Khan to hold wine (the thing weighs 8000 pounds, so that's a lot of wine). Unfortunately, it was encased in glass and the sun was on it so I wasn't able to get much of a photo.

There are two other interesting things about Beihai Park. The first is that normally, there are boat rentals so you can row around the island, but in the winter, the lake freezes. Rather than lose out on revenue, the boats are stowed in a shack and the renters bring out little sled-chairs, and you can rent a sled-chair and a pitchfork and slide around.

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The second is the Bai Ta, or White Pagoda, which features a large white dagoba which rises more than one hundred feet up. I'm not sure if there's anything historically significant about it, but it's pretty.

There's also a large Buddha statue carved from a single piece of white jade that was presented to the China by Cambodia in the 19th century. The arm was damaged by the international army during the Boxer Rebellion.

That was the end of my visit to Beihai Park. The unpleasant thing about visiting parks in the winter is that they're by and large outdoors, and it was really cold. I walked to the nearest subway stop (thanks for putting a non-existent subway line on the map, Lonely Planet!) and went to lunch. Continuing the Yuan theme, I decided to have some Peking duck, which was introduced to China during the reign of the Khans.

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I went to Bianyifang, one of the most famous Peking duck restaurants in China (there are a bunch of restaurants that serve only Peking duck, and I'm pretty sure the term for them translates into "Peking roast duck house"). Bianyifang has been in business for more than a century, but I guess that's not very impressive in a city founded more than two thousand years ago. Peking duck is one of those things that Chinese people know westerners know--when random people approach me on the street, "have you tried Peking duck yet?" is always one of the questions.

To make Peking duck, a special breed of duck is used. It's force-fed in a cage and not permitted to move so that it grows extra fat (for flavor). Once dead, the duck is inflated to separate the skin from the body, the duck is scalded and roasted, and it's carved tableside and served with pancakes and scallions that you roll together with plum sauce. It's delicious, though I'm not sure I would have thought so at the time if I had known the bit about force-feeding. (I've also had Peking duck at Lee Ho Fook's in London, but there's no blog about that.)

My next stop was Tiananmen Square for sunset.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Beijing Day Two Part Two: The Forbidden City

This is from day two of Arie's trip to Beijing. You might want to start at day one.

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My next stop was the Forbidden City, which is just north of Tiananmen Square. It's called that because during the period when it was in use, 1420 to 1912, it was off limits to all but the Emperor's household and advisors.

When you're white in Beijing, you attract some notice, especially when you're not in a heavily touristed area. Fairly often, people would approach me and strike up conversations. Some were definitely scammers, especially around the tourist sites--fortunately, I knew what was going on ahead of time. A lot of young, cute female "art students" approach travelers and, after talking for a while, ask them if they would like to come see an art exhibit. It always turns out to be a high pressure sales thing. Similarly, tour operators use young people to recruit tourists for various types of tours.

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But I also met a bunch of people who seemed like they were just being friendly. While walking to the Forbidden City, two girls introduced themselves and we talked for a bit--turned out they were from Inner Mongolia (part of China, distinct from the nation of Mongolia) and were touring Beijing for a few days. That sort of thing happened fairly often--I think because almost all Chinese students have studied English, talking to westerners is an opportunity to practice. Of all the places I've traveled over the past few months, Beijing has the friendliest people.

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To get to the Forbidden City, you must first pass through Tiananmen itself (saying "Tiananmen Gate" is a little like "ATM machine" or "PIN number"--"Tiananmen" means "Gate of Heavenly Peace"). Tiananmen is a gigantic red gatehouse; the original is really old, but the current one was built in 1651. Sort of. It turns out that the government secretly rebuilt it in 1969, but didn't tell anyone until recently (they covered it in scaffolding and curtains and claimed to be renovating). In the center is a large portrait of Chairman Mao; in the Tiananmen riots in 1989, someone dared to throw ink-filled eggs at it, but the crowd seized the guy and handed him over to the police (he was imprisoned for seventeen years and tortured, and was driven insane). The texts to the sides read "Long live the People's Republic of China" and "Long live the great unity of the world's people"--like the Forbidden City itself, the phrase "long live" (literally, "ten thousand years") used to be reserved only for the emperors. The gate is surrounded by a moat; when I was there, it was iced over.

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When I first approached Tiananmen and saw Israeli flags flying around it, I thought perhaps the cold had gotten to me. Then I thought about political explanations for it, like a state visit or some new treaty (do Israel and China have any aligned strategic interests?). Then I realized it would make a funny photo. No one else seemed confused, so I figured it must not be unusual. I mean, I've never visited Beijing before. Maybe there are always Israeli flags scattered around.

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Outside Tiananmen are two large lion statues which were carved in 1420. The one on the left allegedly came to life to protect the city from invaders, and was shot in the stomach for his trouble. Skeptics claim the bullet landed there during the Boxer Rebellion.

I paid a small fee to enter Tiananmen and climb to the top. There's a bit of a museum, but the interesting thing is the view of Tiananmen Square and of the courtyard beyond the gate.

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Beyond the courtyard is the Meridian Gate, which controls access to the Forbidden City itself. The Meridian Gate has five arches; the center one could be used only by the Emperor, by the Empress only on the day of her wedding, and the three top scorers on the triennial civil exams, who were permitted to leave the City through the arch. The Meridian Gate today is where you buy tickets for the Forbidden City (in its current incarnation as a museum).

Sadly for me, the central attraction in the Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, was under repair. It was covered in scaffolding and curtains, though the government was kind enough to print a photograph of the Hall on the curtains so we knew what we were missing.

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Fortunately, I was not lacking for giant ornate history-filled structures. The Forbidden City is the world's largest palace (178 acres), comprised of eight hundred buildings with 8886 rooms. I spent several hours walking around viewing exhibits such as "the uniforms of the Imperial guard" and "the palace rooms of the Emperor's concubines". I won't go into too much detail, partly because it would get even more boring than this usually is, partly because I just don't remember much of it, and partly because some of it I still don't understand. For instance, the "Gate of Moral Standards"--what is it? what is morally standard about it? The sign explains that the name means, literally, "Gate of Correcting the Law", but that just raises further questions. But besides the confusing names, the Forbidden City is a fascinating place--it's a giant museum, with all sorts of various exhibits about life in the Imperial court. Many of the more impressively decorated rooms have been preserved exactly as they were, and the buildings themselves are in excellent shape.

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Walking around in the Forbidden City was interesting because everywhere in Southeast Asia has construction that mimics the structures in the Forbidden City. The architectural style that we think of as distinctively Chinese is based on the construction of buildings from the era when the city was built, and most of these structures are the originals from that time. After seeing replicas all over the world, it was an experience to see the original inspirations. As expected, the replicas were generally more impressive.

There were a lot of soldiers in the Forbidden City. Most of them were just standing around, presumably guarding things, but some were marching around in lines. There were also large metal vats, which were apparently kept full of water for fire-fighting. The sign notes that "Each of the Ming Dynasty vats has two iron rings, ancient, simple and natural."

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One highlight was the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the largest of the halls of the Inner Court. The Hall of Supreme Harmony was the official throne room, but the Palace of Heavenly Purity was used for the daily affairs of government and was where the Emperor met with his cabinet. A board above the throne reads "Justice and Honor".

It was really cold out, and so I was very happy to see a sign saying, "Lounge for Foreign Guests--Heating available. Rest here, no charge." It was, of course, a gift shop with a little restaurant, but it was very welcome. I read recently that there's a Starbucks in the Forbidden City, but I didn't see it--apparently due to controversy, they removed most of their signs. Actually, I may have been inside it and not noticed.

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I then walked to the northern end of the Forbidden City, which held the Imperial Garden ("Yu Hua Yuan"). It was built in 1420, during the Ming Dynasty. Many of the plants have important symbolic meanings, and several of them are centuries old. The garden is where the Qing Dynasty selected girls for the imperial harem.

Like everything else in the Forbidden City, the plants of the garden have symbolic meaning. The last emperor, Pu Yi, had his photo taken with his empress after their wedding in front of cypress trees that had become entangled to show that they wished to be together in heaven and on earth.

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The gardens also had what I understand are traditional rock sculptures, including one, called the Hill of Accumulated Elegance, that was large enough to have a built-in cave. There are signs which urge visitors not to damage the hill by climbing on it ("A single act of carelessness leads to the eternal loss of beauty").

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Moving on, I visited the Palace of Gathering Excellence (Chu Xiu Gong), built in 1420 to be the residence of the Empress and the imperial concubines. It had an exhibit on Ci Xi, a recent figure in Chinese history. At the age of 16, in 1851, she was selected to be a concubine for the Xianfeng Emperor. In 1856, she gave birth to a boy, the Xianfeng Emperor's only male heir, and so was elevated to the rank of Noble Consort, second only to the Empress. On the Xianfeng Emperor's deathbed, he directed Yi and his Empress to help his son rule, and named his eight favorite ministers as regents.

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The Empress and Ci Xi acted quickly to marginalize the regents, and were able to have them arrested (as a mark of mercy, they were permitted to commit suicide rather than face execution by "slow slicing", known in the west as death by a thousand cuts). The new Emperor was soon married off, although Ci Xi didn't approve of his wife and separated them. The Emperor began to visit prostitutes, and he caught syphilis and died. Ci Xi had her three-year-old nephew named Emperor, and continued to control the country in cooperation with the Empress until the Empress's sudden death in 1881. The new Emperor also proved unacceptable because of his interest in modernization, and Ci Xi had him exiled and ruled in his name. Ci Xi ruled China for forty-seven years, until her death in 1908. She was buried in an incredibly lavish tomb that she had had built.

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The mainstream view is that throughout her reign, Cixi was basically a tyrannical leader who had no idea how to run a country. It's possible that Cixi gets a bad rap, and wasn't as homicidal and foolish as history tends to believe. But it is clear that Cixi was not what China needed at the turn of the 20th century. While Japan was urgently modernizing in an effort to improve its position vis-à-vis Europe, Cixi's extremely conservative principles and her lack of faith in political, social, and military modernization set the stage for the dislocations and chaos that characterized the first half of the 20th century in China. Historians generally agree that her ineptitude was in part responsible for the end of the imperial system (which collapsed four years after the end of her reign).

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I figured I was more or less done with the Forbidden City at that point, and tried to wander back to the Meridian Gate. However, a bunch of soldiers suddenly walked in, closed all the doors, and stood in front of them. A crowd of slightly disturbed tourists quickly assembled, and we were told that the President of Israel had arrived and wanted to see the Forbidden City, so we had to stay out of his way. A-ha. Anyway, he would only be a little while, and we should try to be quiet. A few minutes later, he let us out and I walked out of the City. Next stop: Beihai Park.

More of day two coming soon.

Beijing Day Two: Tiananmen Square and Mao's Tomb

This is from day two of Arie's trip to Beijing. You may want to start at day one.

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I woke up early so that I could go see Mao Zedong's mausoleum before the crowds arrived. The mausoleum is in the center of Tiananmen Square, one subway stop from my apartment. The Beijing subway isn't great--it's probably the cheapest system in the world (a ride costs three yuan, about forty cents), but there are only four lines and they're widely spaced. The city is building seven more lines for the 2008 Olympics.

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Tiananmen means "Gate of Heavenly Peace" (tian = heaven, an = peace, men = gate). Unlike, say, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square is a recent creation--in the 20th century, a number of buildings were razed to create a large open area. On orders of Mao Zedong, it was expanded in 1949 to become the largest public square in the world (it's larger than certain countries (well, the Vatican)). The square is famous in America for being the site of the June 4th, 1989 incident. Pro-democracy protests involving tens of thousands of students and workers had been going on in the square since April, but after negotiations failed, the government sent in troops. On June 3rd, tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and opened fire on the protestors. It took seven hours to clear the square; the Chinese Red Cross reported about three thousand deaths. There's a famous photo of a man standing in front of a line of tanks; no one knows what happened to him, but the Chinese government says he "wasn't executed"--unlike many of the workers who led the protests. Today, the massacre is not discussed in China, and many children know nothing about it. For more detailed information, you may want to read the Wikipedia page on the incident; the Chinese government blocks access to that website from inside China.

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Mao Zedong's mausoleum is in the middle of the square. The building itself is more or less what you'd expect a mausoleum to be, squat with lots of columns; I thought it wasn't nearly as dignified as Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in Hanoi (which was built first). Outside the mausoleum were four statues, two on each side, of a bunch of young Chinese people looking very brave and Communist, all carrying shovels or plowshares or something and walking in a very determined manner.

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I was early enough that there was only a very small line, though first I had to go across the street to check my camera bag. The line moved very quickly, pausing only in front of a small stand inside the fence. The stand was selling flowers, and a lot of people were buying them. The line then went inside, and in the atrium was a large statue of Mao, and everyone with a flower leaned it against the statue along with hundreds of others (I later learned that the government has someone collect them all and return them to the stall so they can be "sold" repeatedly).

Past the statue was Mao's preserved body, encased in crystal. The team that developed the crystal coffin apparently had a very difficult task because by that point in history (1976), the Soviet Union, which had created the coffins for the other preserved communist leaders (Lenin and Ho Chi Minh), was not on friendly terms with China and so China had to develop the technology with help only from Viet Nam. The team first had a wax replica of Mao made in case they destroyed his body in the work, and some believe that the real body has long since decayed.

They certainly don't give you much time to look. The line moves quickly past the coffin, and there are armed soldiers who scold you if you stop even momentarily. It was hard to get more than a brief glimpse. Mao's body (I think) is in a crystal case at about eye level, lit by halogen lights that give his skin a bit of a yellow cast. He looks older than I expected, but that's obvious in retrospect--the portraits of him that are everywhere are of him when he was younger.

The last room in the mausoleum was surprising. I expected a few posters about Mao's life, or perhaps a plain hall, but instead there was: a gift shop. Filled with tacky crap. If you want a Mao Zedong wristwatch or bookmark, that's the place to go. I bought a few cigarette lighters with Mao's face on them; when you open them, they play some sort of patriotic song.

The mausoleum was built with material from all over China, and 700,000 people did "symbolic labor" to contribute to its construction. It later turned out that the symbolic labor was actually useless--the government bused in thousands of people to each carry a brick to a "work site", and the next busload would carry the bricks back to the original spot.

I was a little surprised that people here have such a high opinion of Mao given his history. Mao's lack of understanding of economics and agriculture combined with his contempt for human life led directly to the deaths of at least thirty million people, probably tens of millions more. But it turns out that Mao is fairly beloved in China, and there are even temples dedicated to him. The official party position is that Mao was "seventy percent right and thirty percent wrong", though they don’t talk about him much anymore.

I reclaimed my camera, found a Bank of China ATM that would give me money, bought a hat, and walked down Wangfujing Dajie (Wangfujing Avenue), a major upscale commercial area. I was struck by the prevalence of Olympics-related signs and activities (the 2008 Olympics will be hosted in Beijing). Like everything else done by governments, the Beijing Olympics are highly politicized. They have five mascots, animals drawn from all over China; one is the Tibetan Antelope (just to rub in that Tibet is part of China). In preparation for the Olympics, the government has passed laws that enable ejection of non-residents during the Games, requiring locals to stay indoors during the games, and various other suspicious things. Reporters Without Borders has called a boycott because of China's censorship-related activities relating to the Olympics.

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At the southern end of Tiananmen Square is the Qianmen ("Front Gate", same "men" as in Tiananmen, known formally as Zhengyangmen). It was once the gate to the Imperial City, which no longer exists. The first gate on the site was built in 1419, though this one is from, strangely, 1914. It's the tallest gate in the city. You can see from its construction that "gate" doesn't just mean a metal door that swings open; these guys are not playing around when it comes to gate building.

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Even in the freezing cold weather, Tiananmen Square is crowded (though I imagine it's packed in the summer). There are a lot of tourists, both domestic and foreign, and a lot of police. The Chinese government has learned their lesson; the Square is now heavily monitored by uniformed police and video cameras, and there are a significant number of plainclothes police hanging around. It's creepy. There are also a lot of people trying to sell stuff, mostly cheap Mao trinkets, kites, postcards, etc.

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Near the center of the Square is the Monument to the People's Heroes, a stone pillar more than one hundred and twenty feet high. It commemorates those who lost their lives in the 19th and 20th centuries in China's revolutions (from the First Opium War to the Communist Revolution).

Continue to Arie Goes to the Forbidden City.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Beijing Day One: You could make a filament, or a ballast keel, or self-tanning cream, or...

I spent the previous night in the Bangkok Airport Hotel (Novotel), which is very, very nice. In keeping with the general theme of my trip to Southeast Asia, the hotel lost power for a couple of hours in the evening, but they gave us free sushi and sashimi to make up for it (and it did). Great place. I woke up early and took their shuttle to Suvranabhumi Airport, passed through customs without a problem, and got on a Thai Airways flight to Beijing.

The flight was about 5 hours and passed uneventfully until the very end. I had thought there was a problem with the plane because we started descending, and yet I couldn't see Beijing out the window. We were very low, it was a clear day, and yet all I could see was grey land in all directions. Then suddenly we were almost on the ground, and I realized: That's not grey land, it's smog. There's so much crap in the air that you can barely see the ground. Sure enough, we landed with no problems in Beijing's Capital Airport.

I had made arrangements to rent a studio apartment for a few days (http://www.hw-ielts.com/apartment.htm). The guy who owns it, Kelvin, met me at the airport.

First impression: It's really, really cold. OK, I've been living in Cambodia, where it's 80 degrees every day, and I'm coming from Bangkok, the hottest capital city in the world, but Beijing isn't just temperate, it's freezing. It's well below zero when I arrive, and I had no winter clothing of any kind. Appropriately, given his name, Kelvin drives with the window open.

Second impression: There's a lot of traffic. Kelvin tells me that it's a twenty minute drive when there's no traffic, but it takes us more than an hour. The apartment is fine--a bed, a bathroom, and a door that locks. My first (and most important) mission is to locate a winter coat ASAP. Fortunately, the apartment is a few blocks from a mall, which is good, because by now it's dark and freezing out. I put on a couple of sweaters and shiver my way over.

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The mall, I think it's called the New World Center, is just like any mall in the United States--big, fancy stores, a food court, some restaurants scattered around. There's an ice skating rink on the bottom floor, and lots of people are crowded around watching the skaters. I stop to take a few pictures.

I'm the only white guy in the mall, and the only one within a several block radius, so I stick out quite a bit. This surprised me--of all the places I've been in Asia, Beijing was the one where the people seemed least accustomed to foreigners. Not at the tourist sites, of course, but in the malls and on the streets.

Anyway, back to jacket acquisition. I figure, if it's really like an American mall, there's a bargain store in the basement--and sure enough, I find a store selling big poofy winter coats for 129 yuan (about $15). Bought it and a set of gloves, and back outside.

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It's still freezing, but slightly more bearable. I stop to take a photo of the giant pig fountain outside the mall and realize that a) it's hard to take photos while wearing gloves; and b) it's too cold to take my gloves off. So there aren't many photos. Anyway, if you look at the pig fountain, you'll see that there's a small round coin down and to the right of the pig. People try to throw coins through the hole in its center, presumably for some sort of luck.

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I want to try some Peking duck (there's a famous place across the street from the mall), but I can't afford it. The ATM at the mall won't give me any money, which is vaguely worrisome. It turns out that most ATMs in Beijing aren't hooked up to international networks, and so foreigners can only use a select few. Instead I wander around the markets a little hoping to find something that looks appetizing, but none of the street food looks good. Disheartened and freezing, I get a quick bite at Pizza Hut.

I speak a little Mandarin. Not very well, and I don't have much of a vocabulary, but I can have simple conversations--ordering food, buying things in stores, etc. Most people I encounter speak English, but it's really amazing how friendly people here become when I say something in Mandarin. The waitress at Pizza Hut was very eager to help me with my pizza-ordering skills.

The language situation in China is very complex. The official language, Standard Mandarin, is the most widely-spoken language in the world (almost nine hundred million native speakers). It's spoken in most of mainland China. The Chinese language most Americans encounter is Cantonese, because most Chinese people who came to America came from non-Mandarin regions (like Hong Kong). Contrary to what I had hoped when I started learning Mandarin, the different forms of Chinese are not mutually intelligible; Mandarin and Cantonese are more akin to French and Spanish than to English and British English.

Mandarin has very few sounds. There's a very limited range of consonants and vowels, and restrictions on how they can be combined. To make communication possible, Mandarin is tonal--a syllable spoken with a rising pitch (as if it were a question) has meaning different from what it would be were it pronounced with a falling pitch. One example is the syllable "shi", which can mean, among others, "corpse", "lion", "rock", and "warrior", depending on pitch (the poem "Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den" consists entirely of the syllable "shi" pronounced with different tones, and it has a happy ending--no lions get eaten). Mandarin has five tones, while Cantonese has about nine (which is why Cantonese sounds more melodic).

Written Chinese is fascinating. The characters are thousands of years old, and have not changed much--a literate Chinese person can read something written in 200 B.C.E. with no difficulty (whereas an English speaker generally cannot understand anything written before the 13th century C.E.). Even with tones, there are many homonyms in Mandarin, but there's no ambiguity in the character system. A single word can mean many things--e.g., "wu" with a high level pitch can mean "house", "to plaster", "a witch", "filth", "a crow", "to dig a pond", "to falsely accuse", or "tungsten". This can get confusing. If someone offers you "wu", you want to ensure you're getting a house or some tungsten, not filth. But the characters for each of those meanings are different, so if they write it down, there's no ambiguity.

Cantonese is written with some of the same characters, but many are different. A Mandarin speaker cannot necessarily communicate with a Cantonese speaker by writing (although many Cantonese speakers also speak some Mandarin). By western standards they appear to be different languages, but the Chinese government maintains that they are dialects of one language, presumably to give legitimacy to its hegemonic control over so many disparate peoples.

Anyway, after the pizza I went home and went to bed. Not a very exciting day, I know, but on day two I went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Much better.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Penang Days Three and Four: Sights for Sore Feet

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This is entry three of Arie's trip to Penang. You may want to start at day one.

Sunday, January 7th was pouring, so we went to the mall. I thought it was fairly dull (even with an electronics store showing Snakes on a Plane), but apparently there are very cheap shoes there (Jimmy Choo is from a shoemaking family in Penang), and I understand some people like that sort of thing. Indian food for lunch, still pouring, back to the night market for dinner and some shopping.

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Monday, January 8th had much better weather. I started the day with a taxi to George Town's Padang, which is a large open field that the British built in most of their Malaysian towns. It was surrounded by various government buildings including City Hall, the State Assembly Building, and the Supreme Court. The first two were beautifully designed, the third covered in scaffolding.

Since the weekend was over, we figured everything would be open. But no, most stores were closed--a guy who was setting up shop (at noon) explained that nothing in Penang opens before 12:30pm. That's right, they don't work weekends and they don't work mornings. No wonder there's been so much immigration.

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We had tea at the E&O Hotel, a very old and semi-famous hotel that was recently reopened. There was a beautiful view from its garden. Somerset Maugham wrote about it extensively, and was a regular guest (as were various other famous figures). Lonely Planet told us there was a cheap and tasty lunch, but it wasn't cheap and didn't appear to be tasty, so we passed.

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I then walked to St. George's Church, the oldest church on the island and the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia. It was built in 1818 with, of course, convict labor. It was pretty, and I would have liked to go inside, but it was locked up.

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Next stop was Kuan Yin Teng, a Chinese temple--Kuan Yin is a fertility goddess (also peace, mercy, and good fortune). The temple wasn't too exciting, but there were the largest incense sticks I've ever seen burning out front.

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After that was Sri Mariamann Temple, this one Hindu (built in the southern Indian style). The top of the temple was highly decorated with various deities, apparently it's supposed to be Mount Meru (which supports the heavens in Hindu cosmology). It was built in 1883.

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Finishing my tour of religious buildings was Masjid Kapitan Keling Mosque, I think the oldest mosque in town, built in 1801. It featured a visitors' center where you could go to, for example, study a chart that demonstrates the lineage from Adam to Mohammed.

Comparing the religious buildings was interesting. The most ornate was the Hindu temple, while the mosque was the most dignified. The Chinese temple had the most activity outside it, while the church had the least--I guess there aren't many Anglicans left in Penang anymore.

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My next stop was Khoo Kongsi. The Kongsi are houses for Chinese people who share a surname (clan houses, sort of), and the Khoo clan house and temple are some of the richest and most important in Penang. They've had a building there since 1835, and today it's a museum (that gives the history of the Khoo clan, their tribulations in arriving in Penang, and the achievements of their more notable members) as well as a functioning clan house. The original roof of the temple caught fire the night it was completed (or possibly on Chinese New Year's Eve, or maybe both), and the superstitious believe it was because their ancestors were jealous--only the dead could live in a building so magnificent, apparently. It was rebuilt toned-down. Today, the museum says that "It was superstitiously believed that the clanhouse was too stately for deities."

I swung by one more religious building, the Hainan Temple (founded in 1870, dedicated to Mar Chor, the patron saint of sailors), and then on to a tour of Cheong Fatt Tze's house.

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Cheong Fatt Tze was an odd guy. He left home penniless at the age of sixteen hoping to escape having to become a farmer. He sailed to Malaysia and started working various jobs for the British colonial authorities, and between his business sense and a series of intelligent marriages to wealthy women, he became extremely wealthy and powerful. When he visited New York toward the end of his life, he was declared (by whom, I don't know) the "Rockefeller of the East", and when he died, the British government ordered that all British flags around the world be flown at half mast.

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He built eight mansions for himself in different cities, and in each one he maintained a wife and family. The Penang mansion was his favorite, and he went through quite a bit to build it. He bought the land when it was swampland (now it's downtown George Town), and in his designs attempted to create a fusion of British and Chinese influences (at a time when all other construction in the city was still Anglo-Indian). He had cast iron foundries in Scotland cast most of his railings and metal furnishings, brought in stained glass experts from, well, somewhere, and used traditional Chinese wood and gold decorations to create a series of screens and walls throughout the building. Many pictures are constructed from pot shards, smashed and then pieced together into intricate designs. The outer walls are covered in a special kind of blue paint (which apparently washes off when it rains, the tour guide was a little unclear on that).

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He put a lot of money into obeying the dictates of Feng Shui. Feng Shui, which is Mandarin for "wind and water", dictates various principles that should be followed when building to maximize energy (qi) flows through the structure. As the name suggests, the most important principles relate to the flows of wind and water through the house. Many cultures have developed ideas about harmonious placement of items, but the Chinese probably carried it to its furthest development. According to feng shui, qi is dispersed by wind, but is halted by water, and the goal is to collect qi in the home and funnel it towards the occupants. Location is the most important factor--ideally, the hill should be "on the back of a dragon" (on a hill) and facing water so that wind (and thus qi) runs through the house and then stops. Cheong Fatt Tze's mansion is built along these lines--back to a mansion, front facing the ocean, shutters designed to let wind through, and a complex system of pipes which channels rainwater throughout the house so as to maximize qi flow.

His Penang mansion, being his favorite, housed his favorite wife and son. To ensure their well-being, he put in his will that they would be given the then-highly generous sum of $250/month and that the house could not be sold while his son was alive. Of course, after a few decades of inflation, $250/month wouldn't even pay the upkeep on the house, and so it was reduced to a fairly decrepit state (and filled with squatters).

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His son died in 1989, and that's when local businessmen jumped in. They bought the house, paid off the squatters to leave, and began a massive restoration project. Cheong's relatives had stripped the house of most of its valuable goods, so they attempted to have many of the furnishings replicated in the manner in which they were originally built. For their efforts, they were rewarded with a UNESCO Heritage Conservation Award.

The tour itself is a bit long--the first half hour or so is listening to the guide tell Cheong's life story--but it's the only way to get a look inside the mansion other than to rent a room (it also operates as a very upscale guest house).

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After the tour, I ordered some tandoori street food and watched them cook it. A tandoor is a clay and brick oven developed in northern India and Pakistan that gets very, very hot (900 degrees Fahrenheit)--it can cook a chicken in five minutes. Meats are skewered and put directly into the fire. I had always wondered how they get the bread to develop those large bubbles--turns out they stick it to the side of the oven. It was delicious.

After sunset, I walked around the town some more. The temples in Chinatown and Little India were lit up nicely, and Kuan Yin Teng's giant incense was still sparking a little. I went to take a few more photos of St. George's Church and a rather suspicious guy introduced himself and explained that he had been trying to make friends with westerners for weeks, but none would talk to him--one girl even ran away when he approached. I suggested he go to a bar, and he suggested he walk with me for a while so we could talk. He said he didn't want anything from me, no money, no food, just wanted to talk to someone. I explained that I was there to take photos and it wasn't really a group activity, but maybe he could try going to a bar in the backpacker district. Then he asked me for money. Cynicism triumphs again.

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I walked back through the colonial district and up to the Victoria Memorial Clocktower--donated by a local Chinese millionaire to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, it's sixty feet high--one foot for every year of her reign up until that point (she went on to hit sixty-four--the longest-reigning British monarch).

Dinner was at a food court near Cheong Fatt Tze's house, satay (sweet and spicy, not like satay normally is) and Baba-Nyonya chicken with coconut milk and rice. The Baba-Nyonya, a.k.a. Peranakan and Straits Chinese, are the first immigrants to Malaysia from China. They were closely allied with the British, and considered themselves an ethnic and social group from more recent Chinese immigrants. Today they have almost disappeared, reabsorbed into the mainstream Chinese culture, but the food lives on.

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That's about it for my Penang trip. It's definitely one of the most interesting places I've visited so far--while all of Southeast Asia reflects a mix of Indian and Chinese cultures, Penang is unique because it's a more recent blending of cultures, and a purer one--if there were indigenous people in Penang before the British arrived, they have left no traces. Cambodia and Laos demonstrate the local societies' reactions Chinese and Indian influence over millennia, while Penang was formed from Sino-Indian contact in just over two centuries. It's a beautiful, interesting, and tasty place to visit.