Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Woefully Incomplete List of Little Cultural Nuances That Might Be Useful To Know in China/Tibet

- if your bus ticket has an assigned seat, it usually matters. Just sit there. If your seatmate is loudly coughing and loogying into a plastic bag, I mean, at least they've got a bag.

- sometimes, people will ask if you have ¥1 extra to make change easy. For example, if it costs ¥81 and you pay with a ¥100, they'll ask if you have 1. "Yi kuai?"

- similarly about ¥1 notes, public bathrooms usually cost ¥1. Even if there's nobody there, when you come out, someone will have appeared to collect ¥1. It's useful to have ¥1 notes handy.

- however, change is not usually a problem. The ATM gives you ¥100 bills, which are worth about $16, so even if you're buying a bottle of water, people can usually make change if you're out of small bills.

- people count on their hands in a different way. I guess it's more efficient? But I usually just don't know what number they're telling me. I have figured out that two index fingers crossed like you're warding off a vampire is "10".

- one thing they may ask you in a restaurant is if spicy food is ok. If they're asking you something and you can't tell what they mean, listen for the syllable "là" which means "spicy."

- another thing people will ask you way more often is where you're from. My Pimsleur tapes didn't include this, but I've noticed that it often includes something like "na li." You can just say "Mei guo" (or "America") and everyone will be happy. Then if you ask them where they're from, they will say "China" and look confused. Like, isn't it obvious? They'll usually tell you what city if you keep asking questions.

- A common greeting is something like "have you eaten yet?" I don't know what the polite phatic response is, so I just answer truthfully. I don't know if this makes people uncomfortable.

- In a restaurant, if there's a menu, the waiter will usually bring it over right away and then stare at you while you try to decipher it. This can be unnerving. There are a few good solutions: if there are pictures on the menu or the wall, point; if it's a place that obviously serves one thing and you know how to pronounce it, do that; point at other people's food; point at a random thing on the menu; (hard mode) ask "ní kēyī shénme tuíjiàn de?" which is close enough to "can you recommend something?" that they'll usually pick a thing for you. Then nod vigorously and say "ok" a lot.

- there will be no cold drinks with your meal. Maybe hot tea. Your options here: deal with it, drink beer, (sometimes) bring your own drink. I'm not sure when it's ok to BYO; maybe always? Whatever, just try it.

- drivers honk all the time. It's nothing personal. Unlike in the US where a honk means "get out of my way and also you are bad", here it just means "get out of my way" or "coming around the corner, look out" or "I am frustrated" or "hello I am here" or "my car is hooked to a bomb a la Speed and I have to honk every five seconds or it will explode, sorry." Still better than India.

- cross the street aggressively. Cars will not stop for you. If you're really stuck, find a local also crossing and walk right next to them.

- speaking of taking things personally, a Tibetan sticking their tongue out at you is a greeting, not an insult. On the same note, I've found Tibetans laughing at me a lot, which I think is not a greeting but is still more cordial than most people laughing at me. Also, I think I do a lot of dumb things.

- ATMs are in most cities. Some of them will work with your card. Rule of thumb: the bigger it sounds, the better. Bank of China, ICBC, or China Construction Bank: good. Anything with "rural" or "agricultural" in the name: bad.

- If someone, like a hotel person, gives you a receipt, hold on to it. Sometimes they will ask for it later. I am not sure why, or what happens if you threw it out.

- Tibetan guard dogs are super mean. But don't run from them; they will chase you down. Instead, look real imposing, throw a rock at them, or mime that you're going to throw a rock at them. I mean, that's the advice I've gotten; I think the real thing is, don't run into a Tibetan guard dog who's not chained up.

- Linkin Park seems real popular. Particularly the "Minutes to Midnight" T-shirt.

- "Supermarket" usually means "department store."

- people, especially kids, will say hello to you a ton. Unlike in some places, this will not lead to a hassling. At worst, you get a 3 line conversation: hello, where are you from, what is your name. (Disclaimer: I'm a dude, not sure what ladies experience.)

- it seems like lots of workers have some kind of meeting or assembly at the beginning of their shift. You may see them standing in formation with a boss-looking character in front. At one point, I even saw a group doing a dance. If this is what it takes, I could never be employed in China.

- in any fancy cafe, you have about a 50% chance of the music being low key singer-songwriter heartfelt acoustic covers of songs that maybe sound better in the original? Like, there's Blackbird and stuff, sure, but also Billie Jean and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

But Langmusi is super boss though.

I walked up a "Red Stone Mountain" (small mountain; 1hr walk. Still, definitely red stones.) and wandered back the stupidest way possible because I couldn't find the trail. I was just straight up blazing through bushes and shrubs and trees and sheep. What a dumb mess.

Today I rented a bicycle and rode on some hiking and horse trekking trails. Glommed on with a friendly American horse trekking group because I didn't know where I was going, and I wasn't going any faster than they were anyway. Their Tibetan guide invited me to join them for lunch in a black yak-hair tent, and then advised me to stay with them to avoid the (loud, gnarly, obnoxious, vicious) Tibetan guard dogs around. (dogs here are mean! apparently at night their job is to defend their territory from the wolves. eep!) Ended up in the Ocean of Flowers, which was like it sounded: wildflowers making the grass kinda blue-green so it looks like an ocean. Amazing and quiet. Nothing around except a couple of buzzing bugs. Ended up being a 6 hour ride when I was headed out for about two. Super difficult (high altitude + uphills + kinda creaky bike that wasn't quite big enough for me) ... another mess I might not have gotten myself into if I knew what I was in for. But so worth it!

In which, surprisingly enough, traveling with someone else's family is hard

Alternate titles: An introvert's nightmare, Friend-breaking-up is hard to do, Americans are like _this_ and Chinese are like _this_

So Langmusi (aka Lhamo, Taktsang Lhamo, Dagcang Lhamo, Lhamo Gompa, Lamo Goinba, but I will use Langmusi because it seems the most widely used) is this beautiful place about a day's travel from Chengdu, so I head there. Only problem is, there's no bus from Chengdu to Langmusi, just to Zoige (aka Ruo'ergai, but I will use Zoige because I am not a Klingon), about a half hour drive away. Zoige town, however, ... kinda sucks, so I'd rather just get to Langmusi. As in most Tibetan Chinese cities, there are a fleet of drivers who can get you there or anywhere else; as with most drivers, they charge per car so you gotta find some friends to go with you, or pay like 250 RMB to get an hour away.

There's this family that's going there too, or something; they hear I'm going to Langmusi and they lump me in with their negotiations. (unwisely, it turns out; the driver at one point looks at me and goes "50 RMB, ok?" and I say ok, because it is ok, but it turns out the right answer was "no of course not you greedy scumbag, way too much.") Anyway, there is hardcore negotiating going on, involving me, the dad of this family (I think his name is something like "Ya", even though that doesn't really sound like a name, but it's as close as I could understand it), the grandpa ("Yi"?), and their... friend I think? (surprisingly named "Shamma"?) It does not involve the mom or the ~4 year old girl. (I tried to ask their names at some point but it got lost in translation and they never volunteered them when we were going around doing names. Welp.)

God, I can already tell this post's going to be long, and short on action. I need an editor. In the meantime, I'll just explain all the constant ambiguity that accompanied this adventure, and you can read until you get bored.

Anyway, Ya and Yi and Shamma and driver figure it out, and off we go. This took about a half hour. We then go to this field on the outskirts of town while the driver goes in this building and does something? Who knows. Took another half hour maybe. The field's pretty enough; it looks like the Windows XP default desktop. We take pictures and durdle around.

Driver comes back, and off we go. This time to about half a mile down the road, when the driver pulls over and everyone gets out. Then the driver goes home. I still have no idea what happened here, but here we are, six of us, on the side of the road. Ya and his daughter walk back to the city to ... find another driver?

Then the police show up. Three of em; the one in charge looks kinda like my cousin Jordan, but a little older, maybe 40s? The next guy looks around my age and trying to do a good job. The third guy looks like he's about 22, real gawky, and possibly stoned. Anyway, older-Jordan does all the talking, and I still have no idea what's going on, but I'm guessing he's telling us not to hitchhike? And then he and middle-cop tell us to walk back to town. Stoner cop never says a word.

So we're off, back to town! Well, as we're walking off, the cops see a mostly-empty van driving to town, and they ask them to take us back, and they do. After fiddling with the back seat for a while to get it to stay in one place.

Now it's about 2 hours after we started, and I keep wondering, is Ya just lowballing everyone and the drivers are not driving us because we're not paying up? Eh. I cast my lot with Ya and friends, and at this point they're still my best bet to get to Langmusi. And, sure enough, they find another driver and we pile in, mom and kid in front, four in the backseat. I keep falling asleep on Shamma's shoulder. He's not real fussed about it.

Arrival in Langmusi. They're like "where are you going to stay?" and I don't know, of course, so they tell me to come with them and they find a decent place that costs us each 30 RMB ($5) per night. I mean, cool; I thought we were just ride share buddies but I don't mind splitting a room.

We go for dinner. This is an absurd negotiation as well which I don't really understand, but we walk in and out of a few places before ending up at a Sichuan restaurant. Ya: do you want some beer? Me: I mean, if you are. We go to a convenience store and buy 9 beers. We then find out they are pineapple-flavored after opening 4 of them (for the men, duh) and Shamma goes back to return the others and get plain beer. We then each have a pineapple beer and a plain beer, so I guess we're double fisting?

The food is fine. We order some things. Yi wants some boiled lamb. They bring out the lamb and it doesn't look as good as the photo, I guess, so he angrily sends it back. More debate. They keep asking me what I want. I'm seriously fine with anything. But the tricky thing is, sometimes it's all easier if you have a preference, but then you can't easily voice a preference after saying it doesn't matter. Whatever, we eat.

Ya: do you want to all take a walk? Me: Ok, I guess. The family walks down the street. Ya and Yi and Shamma are looking at these elaborately decorated knives in the tourist store. Ya: what do you want to do? Me: I seriously don't care. Eventually Yi still wants some lamb, so we decide he and Ya and I will go buy lamb and the rest will go home. What are we going to do with this lamb? I still have so many questions.

(by the way, we didn't double fist the beers; everyone drank the plain one and then just left the pineapple one. Seems like a waste; I mean, come on, guys, every Chinese beer tastes like water anyway.)

Ya decides to buy some more beers. Ya: do you want to try some Ergotou? Me (thinking): ugh ok I mean I'll try a taste to be a sport but really don't want to be drinking tons of shots of 56% liquor. But that is hard to convey when you share about 25% of a language.

So we have 4 beers, a little ergotou bottle, and a plastic bag with like 2 pounds of lamb. We set up a little table in our room and drink beer and ergotou and eat lamb.

And you know what? The lamb is frickin' delicious, best I've had in maybe ever (Yi was on to something!), and the ergotou is really pretty decent too. (ergotou >> baijiou in my book. wait, are they the same thing?) And we're having a good time, talking about stuff, until the next day's plans come up. They want to take me to Flower Lake. I think about the 100 debates we've had (rather, they've had, in Chinese) in the 5 hours we've been hanging out, and I can_not_ stomach another day of this. We're buddies, but we're not travel-across-the-country buddies. So I throw out excuses, like "I wanted to rent a bicycle", but Ya is having none of it. We are Traveling Companions now. And I try to think of a kind way out of it, and the best I can come up with is, "I really prefer traveling alone."

It's like someone threw cold water on the room. Yi and Shamma seem to get it; I said as much in Chinese and they're talking with Ya, but Ya is so sad. And, I mean, I'm sad too! Friend-breaking-up is really hard. But it seems there was no way we were going to remain friends but not travel together for days, and traveling with them, kind as they were, was stressful as hell.

So it goes, I guess! I'm not losing sleep about it, it was clearly the right decision, but it's hard to tell someone who's convinced that you're best buddies, that no, we were rideshare companions and then I ate dinner with y'all because it's nice of you to invite me. He's gracious about it, but fighting back tears. He says something about "no, I understand. American style." and I start wondering if, maybe, we can make a grand generalization about American and Chinese cultures based on how I like traveling alone and they wouldn't possibly even think of it.

I feel like I've got a good quote in me, something like "travel is the art of getting into uncomfortable (but not dangerous) situations that you might not have done if you'd known what you were in for." Editor, please clean that up, and then start making inspirational posters of it.

Some thoughts while bingeing 99% Invisible on a bus

The Mojave Phone Booth: a rando phone booth in the desert. This guy got obsessed with it, eventually found where it was, made a website for it, and then it got totally overrun with visitors and callers. But there must have been a sweet moment in between where it was not 100% obscure or 100% known, when this guy and some friends could call it or make trips out to it and random people around the world would call it, and it was this beautiful thing connecting people but not overrun beyond what it can handle.

Ok gentrification ok and every story about gentrification ends up with "be nice to the community, care about them, get to know them; don't move into a poor community in order to 'be the change' and hipsterize it and make it all fancy and rich." What if you move into a rich community and attempt to "be the change" to make it more diverse and interesting and welcoming? (obviously thinking about myself and Tati and Noe Valley; not that we're amazing people who could do that, but is it a reasonable goal?)

OH MY GOSH CELEBRATE MAINTAINERS. We are all about the innovation, the new thing, the "unicorns" that get a huge success in a short time, the people who launch the new feature... but what about the people who keep the old feature working? There's a famous column by Joel Spoelsky about how Netscape really shot themselves in the foot once by throwing all their code out and starting over. And yet, that's what everyone wants to do. Celebrate the people who keep the old thing running and improve it; make it work better, not just newer. Forget Steve Jobs, celebrate Alice from engineering who keeps your iPod Actually Just Working.

And this holds beyond software! Listening to an episode about Soul City, one of 13 ill-fated attempts to start a new city in the 60s, backed with federal money, because our old cities were so hosed and nobody knew what to do with them. They all failed except one that just happened to be near Houston in an oil boom. Not super surprising; you can't just plant your flag in the ground and say "new city here!" (well, plus Soul City, the only one started by black people, was hosed by plain ol' racism too, which never helps)
I think now we're seeing that we better fix what we've got instead of start a new thing, usually, mostly. And screw Tony Hsieh and his big plan to make Vegas cool; props to the million unnamed city council people and PTA board members and garbagepeople who keep our existing cities working the way they are.

Taiwan's Taipei 101, a big building featuring a huge tuned mass damper, which is usually an annoying thing you've gotta stick into your supertall building, but they decided was going to be a feature and tourist attraction. And then they made "Damper Babies", cartoon characters to get people excited (!) about this tuned mass damper. I ... want to buy some Damper Babies merch now.

I had no idea "Temescal", Oakland, was a newfangled realtor manufactured BS name like NoPa or Lower Nob Hill. Insidious, eh?

When you travel, you kinda ghettoize: Chinese travelers stay at the Chinese guesthouses, Tibetans with their Tibetan friends and family, Anglophone laowai at the places that have signs in English. (non-Anglophone foreigners? haven't met a one yet :P) This is ok, I think. I've made way more real connections with people at the Anglophone guesthouses than the Chinese ones. Language matters.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Living half on your phone

This trip has been a little unusual, because I haven't brought a computer and I just use my phone for everything. Which is neat, for a few reasons:
1. I can finally do basically everything I need on a phone. horray smartphones
2. not lugging a 3+ lb big lunk of metal
3. less dead time; even on a bus or whatever I can be reading about new places, writing these dumb blogs, playing video games, etc.

The downside is, it makes me wonder if I'm missing out on something, like paying less attention to the world around me while I stare at my phone.

But, as usual with worries like this, I'm just going to ignore it, because without any way to measure it or any bad feelings about it, I'm basically just parroting the "fear new technology for insidious reasons" meme that's been circulating for about a thousand years.

Plus, it's kinda how the world is now. A lot of our life is on our phones/computers now. You say I'm missing something in Sichuan; I say I'm missing ten minutes that I would be on the subway and I'm learning more about the city in the process. In traveling, I give up one world temporarily to experience another, but maybe I only need to give up 70% of that world and I can keep the 30% that's online. And that 30%, through blogging and discussing things as they happen, as well as looking up stuff about the places I'm going, helps me make the 70% of the time richer too.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Goodbyes in Chengdu

As I write this, a group of mostly middle-aged ladies are doing a synchronized dance with fans outside the apartment complex where I'm staying. Rock on, Chengdu.

Also, I'm staying in an apartment complex. We've stayed in Airbnbs too, but it seems like Chengdu at least (maybe all of China) might not have needed it. I booked the "24k Warm Inn" ("warm" is certainly not what I want, but the reviews were good) on Ctrip because it's near the train station, so I can leave on an early bus tomorrow. Rolled up, and ... there's an apartment complex. Much confusion later, and my terrible 10% Chinese, and this lady finds me by the apartment's security guard booth. She and her husband, it seems, have a largish apartment, so like 3 of the rooms have become the "24k Warm Inn." Hey, works for me. By the way, make sure you have phone service if you travel to China; some things are impossible without it. (Have I mentioned how great Project Fi is?)

But I digress. Had to say bye to my lovely traveling companion and wife (!) Tati this morning as she heads back to do more Facebooks. I offered to come back with her, but she said, heck no, if you can get the time off, do travel more. (have I mentioned she's great?) It's been a lot of fun traveling together, though, and I miss her already.

Also saying bye to this lovely city Chengdu tomorrow morning. It's been fun. Here's what you should do if you go to Chengdu and don't have a better guide than me:
- see the pandas, of course; this can be like a 2 hour thing
- hang out in People's Park just to see what's going on. Teahouse visit required, ear cleaning optional.
- you know eat everything of course duh - I'm sure I'll blog more about food later
- skip Wuhou Temple and go to Wenshu temple instead: more interesting, fewer crowds, more teahouse
- speaking of crowds, gosh, skip Kuan/Zhai Alleys and Jinli Street. Entirely tourist traps. They are described in ways that sound good, "neat alleys full of cool cafes and shops etc," but they are so crowded and not even interesting.
- instead, go to Xiaotong Xiang, a few streets north.of Kuan/Zhai, and have a coffee or four in a cute cafe.
- ask me for a couple of restaurant recommendations, and an Airbnb rec, if you want, I can try to give them to you in ways that you can look up and find

Feel free to stop reading here; the rest is just upcoming travel plans.
Tomorrow I'm off to a bunch of places with both Tibetan and Chinese names: Lhamo/Langmusi (via Zoige/Ruo'ergai), Labrang/Xiahe, Rebkong/Tongren, and Xining. Heading north from Sichuan into Qinghai, which sounds like the Wyoming of China. Tackin' on a few days in Gansu (the Utah of China?) on the way back, stopping in Zhangye and Lanzhou on the way back to Chengdu to fly home. I did a weird thing in that I actually cut this trip short - I had planned to come back on the 24th but I'm coming back on the 13th instead. That seems a little strange; didn't think I'd ever really want to do that, but I'm excited to get back to my life with Tati, our home, SF, and the PhD. That's a good thing, I think.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Food and coffee

When we were getting to Chengdu, our first Chinese big city, I was wondering, is this going to be like Seoul or Delhi? I think my answer is, more like Seoul. Super clean, great subway, KTV and WiFi everywhere, dense high rises but not claustrophobic.

Also like Seoul in this way: if you get a meal and a coffee, your coffee will cost more than your meal. Our breakfast of baozi and little rice dumplings that I can't remember the name of is like $2 for both of us. Then we go have coffee that costs $5 each. (This is an exceptional example; most meals cost more like $5. Still.)

(I even broke my rule of "always pay as much as possible for coffee" upon going into Eno Coffee and seeing that their only coffee options are $21, $26, and $33. USD. What! And they didn't even look like they're good at coffee. Come to think of it, I broke another rule of "of course always go into a coffee shop called Eno Coffee and then make Brian Eno puns."*)

More like Delhi weather-wise, unfortunately. I guess that's what we get for coming in July.

* "Eno Coffee: Coffee for airports"
"You'll love our strange flavor overtones"
"Eno Coffee: Sound and vision and taste"
(help me out here)

Friday, July 22, 2016

Chengdu spa day

Chengdu is super nice! We are staying at a lovely Airbnb near People's Park. People's Park, as its name suggests, is a park where people do things. They dance, do aerobics, paint calligraphy on the ground with water (this is neat), practice nunchuks (in an organized group, luckily), drink tea, whatever.

There are also guys who will clean your ears. While you're drinking tea, they wander around with a terrifying array of implements, which they will definitely stick into your ears for a small fee. So of course I tried it, and it was... fine. Sometimes it felt kinda good. It made a gross part of myself excited when he held up a used cotton ball like "here's all the icky earwax that was in there." The one word he said to me the whole time, about 15 or 20 times, was something between "washy" and "washing", to upsell me from an "ear cleaning" to a more expensive "ear washing". On his insistence, and Tati's agreement that my ears were super gross, I bought it. Who am I to argue with a guy who's got a metal poker on my eardrum?

We also got a blind massage. Apparently this is a thing: blind people are more skilled at massage because senses or something? I think they were good at it. I still don't really like massages.

Oh and pandas! All the photos are on Facebook. I think, if you try to leave Chengdu without seeing pandas, the police will first escort you to the panda reserve and force you to look at a panda. And for good reason; they're frickin' adorable. I'm solidly in the "red pandas are the best pandas" camp, even though they're totally different species, different families, and only seem to be there because they're named "panda". Still, all super cute. Tati: "how the hell do those survive in the wild?"

Plus we are eating lots of great things, but in Chengdu, that goes without saying. I'm inspired to cook more Sichuan back at home. I hear Chengdu is known as the Chinese city that's good at food and leisure. I dig it. Tati: "is this like the San Francisco of China?" Me: maybe. In that it's relaxed and West and has great food. Not the whole tech scene thing. If Chengdu is SF, then is Hong Kong like LA, and Beijing and Shanghai are each half DC and half NY?

Anyway, our trip's drawing to a close, which makes me sad. Tati has to go back in two days, so we're trying to enjoy the last of them. I'm looking at heading up to Xining, Qinghai via Lhamo/Langmusi, Xiahe/Labrang, and Tongren/Rebkong. As well as I can make plans here, y'know.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

On not being a budget traveler

I used to care more about being a budget traveler. Now I think it's pretty clear that I'm not, which leaves me with mixed feelings:

First, I don't care as much about being low-budget for cred. There's a subset of traveler who will gleefully tell you of the best bargain they ever got. (Mine might be staying at The Bunker in Verbier, Switzerland for like 10 francs a night, or maybe the $3 sleeper class overnight train across India) These travelers will also look down on you for spending any more than you absolutely have to. ("That place was good. Expensive, though," about a ¥25 ($4) lunch stop.) I was once excited to find a place in Dharamsala where I could eat some crummy rice and dal for $0.60, as opposed to the usual $2 I'd spend on a nice meal. This is kinda masturbatory, don't you think? Does that extra $1.40 you saved on lunch really matter?

Maybe that $1.40 does matter. Am I erasing the experience of the actually-just-scraping-by travelers by assuming they've all got a stash of money here or there? I assume that if you can afford a $1400 plane ticket, you can afford an extra $1.40, but that's not always true. I'm kind of inspired by folks who don't have a fallback plan or a stash of money, or the folks who work-travel-work-travel, and I'd hate to snob on them.

... unless they're imposing terribly on local people. One nice thing about traveling with some money is I can assume I'm not imposing on folks, whether it's couchsurfing hosts or hitchhikees or the Amritsar Golden Temple cooks. I'm loath to travel retailwise and just graze the surface, but I'm even more loath to cause trouble or discomfort for anyone.

... but that implies that the hitchhikers and couchsurfers are causing trouble for their hosts. As a former CS host myself, I can tell you that is 85% false. It was a little trouble, but way more fun and interesting. Often budget travel leads both traveler and host to a more interesting and fulfilling time than if you took a plane, booked a hotel, and ate at a restaurant.

To make this more fulfilling experience is really hard, though, and the difficulty increases the more different you are. Couchsurfing was fun, but I've only interacted with a few non-US/Canada/Europeans on it; it's hard to say I've been really opening my horizons. It's difficult to have fully equal relationships, especially short term, if your countries are radically different. And maybe I don't have the mental energy to keep talking with CS hosts and hitchhikees; I need to be able to retreat into my shell sometimes.

Hmm. Like I said, a bit conflicted. I hate being a yuppie and hate being a freeloader. (Plus I like some creature comforts.) This is most likely the kind of thing I should just ignore, but also hey I guess I record feelings on my blog, so here you go.

Chinese guesthouses: what to expect

We've been staying in a bunch of great places. With utmost thanks to those of you who gave us money as wedding gifts, we apologize that we haven't really splurged on any fancy places. In some towns (Yubeng, Litang) this is because there are no fancy places. In other places, this is not because we're trying to penny pinch, but because really the most important criteria for us is: are the owners/staff nice and English speaking? I feel weird making this a criterion, but being new to the language and the country, we need friendly people who we can ask all the tiny questions that keep coming up, like "how do we get to X?" or "we need to ship some things, where do we do that?" And so we're mostly going off recommendations from other travelers or internet people, and all the recommendations we get are for mid budget places - between $20-40/night. I guess fancy hotels might make sense more if you speak fluent Chinese. (But even then, a friendly face is worth way more than luxury frou frou.)

Anyway, the places we've been staying have been really solid! But there are different defaults than you might expect if you're used to the US or Europe. (Or even India.)

Every guesthouse seems to have the following:
- a bathroom with a shower that is the whole room. (There are non-bathroom rooms and dorm beds too, but we've been pulling out all the stops.) No shower curtain or anything, just you take a shower and the whole room gets wet.
- plastic slippers so that once the floor is all wet, you can go back in the bathroom and keep your feet dry.
- an electric kettle and two mugs. I'd heard about the Chinese thing about only drinking hot/warm things, but they're serious about it. This is quite handy, though, because you can boil a big thing of tap water and drink it later when it cools, and you don't have to buy quite as many bottles of water.
- WiFi. You cannot escape wifi. This is lucky.

That is all! Everything else seems up for grabs. That said, most hotels/guesthouses seem to have:
- towels. The one guesthouse that didn't have towels had instead a "disposable towel" for sale for ¥15. That was real lame.
- toothbrushes and tiny toothpaste. Isn't that the one thing you would bring with you? Eh, maybe not :P
- some other toiletries. Usually a little packet of shampoo and bath foam (not "soap" or "body wash", always "bath foam"), usually a frickin shower cap, sometimes a razor or whatever else they felt like throwing in.
- heat lamps in the bathroom. This is nice.
- electric blankets in the bed (but no heat in the room). These places must be brutal in winter.
- 2 twin beds in the average "double" room. So unromantic for a honeymoon.
- a TV. Some dumb things are universal.
- a way to do laundry. Usually you just give them your clothes and they wash them. How nice!

Sometimes guesthouses have:
- toilet paper. Sometimes you're allowed to throw it in the toilet, sometimes you're not. Sometimes they have a sign telling you "no TP in the toilet", sometimes you just gotta know.

Chinese guesthouses: what to expect

We've been staying in a bunch of great places. With utmost thanks to those of you who gave us money as wedding gifts, we apologize that we haven't really splurged on any fancy places. In some towns (Yubeng, Litang) this is because there are no fancy places. In other places, this is not because we're trying to penny pinch, but because really the most important criteria for us is: are the owners/staff nice and English speaking? I feel weird making this a criterion, but being new to the language and the country, we need friendly people who we can ask all the tiny questions that keep coming up, like "how do we get to X?" or "we need to ship some things, where do we do that?" And so we're mostly going off recommendations from other travelers or internet people, and all the recommendations we get are for mid budget places - between $20-40/night. I guess fancy hotels might make sense more if you speak fluent Chinese. (But even then, a friendly face is worth way more than luxury frou frou.)

Anyway, the places we've been staying have been really solid! But there are different defaults than you might expect if you're used to the US or Europe. (Or even India.)

Every guesthouse seems to have the following:
- a bathroom with a shower that is the whole room. (There are non-bathroom rooms and dorm beds too, but we've been pulling out all the stops.) No shower curtain or anything, just you take a shower and the whole room gets wet.
- plastic slippers so that once the floor is all wet, you can go back in the bathroom and keep your feet dry.
- an electric kettle and two mugs. I'd heard about the Chinese thing about only drinking hot/warm things, but they're serious about it. This is quite handy, though, because you can boil a big thing of tap water and drink it later when it cools, and you don't have to buy quite as many bottles of water.
- WiFi. You cannot escape wifi. This is lucky.

That is all! Everything else seems up for grabs. That said, most hotels/guesthouses seem to have:
- towels. The one guesthouse that didn't have towels had instead a "disposable towel" for sale for ¥15. That was real lame.
- toothbrushes and tiny toothpaste. Isn't that the one thing you would bring with you? Eh, maybe not :P
- some other toiletries. Usually a little packet of shampoo and bath foam (not "soap" or "body wash", always "bath foam"), usually a frickin shower cap, sometimes a razor or whatever else they felt like throwing in.
- heat lamps in the bathroom. This is nice.
- electric blankets in the bed (but no heat in the room). These places must be brutal in winter.
- 2 twin beds in the average "double" room. So unromantic for a honeymoon.
- a TV. Some dumb things are universal.
- a way to do laundry. Usually you just give them your clothes and they wash them. How nice!

Sometimes guesthouses have:
- toilet paper. Sometimes you're allowed to throw it in the toilet, sometimes you're not. Sometimes they have a sign telling you "no TP in the toilet", sometimes you just gotta know.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A wake-up call from the Van Man

About a week ago, we met this guy Jimmy on the bus from Shangri-la to Daocheng. He told of us his plans to hitchhike up to Litang and Sertar. Later texting with him, I found out he had made it to Litang at least, got a ride from a Tibetan trucker, and was staying with a Tibetan monk. He texts me "Tibetan people are great." And I go, "Yeah, I hate to generalize, but the Tibetans I've met are pretty cool." After a few van trips, I'd amend that to "... except the van drivers."

The drivers are the main system of transport between cities in the Tibetan areas around here - Shangri-la, Yubeng, Daocheng, Litang, Kangding. A lot of these routes don't have buses, or just have one bus a day, so the van drivers transport most people. They usually each own a 7-person van.

The rides aren't bad (the roads around here are actually really good, except Shangri-la to Daocheng) and some of the difficulties of dealing with the drivers are just because they hustle. They'll never drive without a full car. They'll usually add a little stool in the middle row to turn their 7-person van into an 8-person van. They drive pretty aggressively. And they will badger you mercilessly whenever you walk past a bunch of them near the bus station. "Yading? Tomorrow? Hellodoyouneedacar?"

But can't blame em, really; like I said, they're doing business in a tricky informal situation. Plus, they have a pretty sweet style, that could best be described as "50s bad boy." Lots of leather jackets, sunglasses, and jeans. And amazingly voluminous hair.

So ok, really, these guys are cool; the only complaint I really have (besides the time I managed to bargain up from ¥100 to ¥150, but that's another story) was this morning.

Last night, we arranged a ride to Kangding at 8:30am. I was very clear on this, because we repeated it about seven times, like a mantra ("Ba dien ban, dui ba?" "Dui.") along with the price (most definitely ¥120/person). Told him where we're staying, exchanged phone numbers, he'll pick us up there tomorrow.

Seven thirty AM, we get a knock on our hotel room door. Cancel that - there was no knock, just the door opens and in comes Van Man and his buddy. (Luckily, we were awake and clothed.) Dude starts rushing us, and I'm like, 8:30, like we said. And he goes "8:00!" (as if this explains why he's there at 7:30; whatever) and I gesture to our stuff spread around the room and got to use a favorite Chinese expression: "Busheng." ("Not possible!")

So we repeated "8:30" a couple of times, and recited the price again for good measure. (this time with a calculator visual aid.) Dude's left, I made sure to lock the door, and good thing, because the knob turned again at 8:15. Barges back in and we go through another couple recitations. And sure enough, we were ready and out the door at 8:28. Dude.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Some documenting of China

Because my blog had been more neat insights but y'all facebookers might be wanting to know, where are you going and what are you doing?

Kunming
We landed here. Quick stop. Tati got a migraine from a 36-hour flight extravaganza. I wandered the streets and chewed betel nut with a guy.

Lijiang
One day here. Tourist town, meaning downtown is all old fashioned things that are pretty, and nice shops.

Tiger Leaping Gorge
I already blogged about this.

Shangri-la
A couple days here resting and getting ready for the next trip. Another tourist old town, but I mean the old town is prettier than the new town. Big monastery. Nice guesthouse where they helped us plan our Yubeng trip. A barrage of tasty food; we discovered the Tibetan barley cake, or qingke bing, which is delicious.

Yubeng
Took a van to a viewpoint mini-town called Feilai si. Crashed a wedding, accidentally. ("Tati, let's check out this cookout thing!" "Dan, that looks like a private party." Too late, we sat down, welp.)
Hiked to Yubeng. 1100m elevation gain, which I learned is a lot. Spent a day recovering and hanging out in this Tibetan guy's "Team A Bar" drinking honey lemon tea. Sadly, no Mr T references. Still, Team A Bar would do well in San Francisco.
Hiked to a waterfall. Frickin gorgeous. Plus I guess we got all our sins forgiven.
Hiked out, mostly downhill. That was much easier for me. It was harder for Tati because her shoes were too small. I guided her walking backwards for part of the way. We stopped walking backwards when the trail became along the edge of a cliff.

Back to Shangri-la
Hanging out! Tati got a stomach bug, probably from something in Yubeng. I tried to acquire Imodium or Azithromycin or Pepto-Bismol from a pharmacy, and instead got Bismuth Subcarbonate, Smectite, and some plant pills that looked like skittles. It all worked marvelously, really.

Daocheng
Took a bumpy bus to here. Auf. It was the first ride I'd compare to rural India; the rest of the roads here have been pretty awesome. Daocheng is strange: looks like it was all built last year, and it probably was. About three streets, all of them full of hotels. It looks like it's a new tourism destination; they built an airport here in 2013 and now it's Disneyland. People dancing in the square in the center of town. Is this a thing that happens?

The ride to Yading
... is supposed to be an easy paved 2 hours, but due to a landslide we had to go the back way. Always be nervous when Tibetan drivers suggest going the back way. This dirt road was intense! Tati has some good videos of vans trying to pass each other on a one lane dirt road over a creek on the side of a cliff. Wow.

Yading
And then we finally made it here! Outdoor Disneyland. Beautiful mountains, but not like Yubeng: here everything is on wooden plank paths and paved roads and guardrails. On the other hand, there's not trash and mud all over the place. I have mixed feelings, really - not "mixed feelings" as in dislike, but really just kind of complicated, some like, some dislike. But then they are overwhelmed by much bigger feelings of "whoa those mountains." Doing the last of the 3 big hikes we had planned today! (In addition to Yubeng and Tiger Leaping Gorge) Well, we had wanted to do the kora, or trek around the mountain, but seeing as it is 3x as long as the hike into Yubeng, we probably couldn't make it in a day. So we're hiking to Milk Lake and 5-Color Lake and heading back down.

You may have noticed that Tati has been unlucky enough to acquire a series of minor ailments. She's quite positive about it though. I am lucky to have married someone resilient, strong, and generally awesome. And we both feel good today! So, here's to that.

Incidentally, on my phone, the Blogger app just fails to upload pictures. I can upload pictures by going to the Blogger site in mobile Chrome and doing a lot of frustrating zooming and poking and waiting, but instead perhaps just check Tati's Facebook for photos of all this.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Dan Goes To The Bathroom

(DGTTB is the name of a game that my friend Aaron made once. Unfortunately, it was renamed "Gotta Go!" before final production.)

(content note: contains graphic descriptions of gross bathrooms. this is not a sarcastic content note. I know at least one person, who is my mom, who will probably be happier not having read this.)

Today was a rough day for bathrooms.

A 10-hour bus journey from Shangri-la, Yunnan, China to Daocheng, Sichuan, China (which is only 2 hours away from Shangri-la, Sichuan, China, and that makes me want to punch someone) veered off the roads that are thick orange and the roads that are thin orange and the roads that are thick white onto the thin white (and sometimes even gray) roads. This meant that, along the way, we were treated to some of the most rural and grossest toilets I've had the pleasure to encounter.

Back up a bit: so far in China, public toilets have been fine-to-kinda-bad. They're often on the side of the road or somewhere around town, with a little "men" and "women" sign (you learn those right quick; the Men has a little window-pane with a thing below it.) They are usually pretty basic stalls - often just a few spots where you can squat and it leads into a trough. Often they smell bad. Sometimes they smell ok. Then, when you come out, you pay someone 1 yuan. (even if they were nowhere to be seen before, the Toilet Guardian will remarkably materialize.) 1 yuan is 15 US cents; it's fine. I guess this pays for upkeep of the toilet. Sometimes, especially in rural places, you don't pay someone 1 yuan.

Today we had a couple where we didn't pay anyone 1 yuan. There's not always a correlation between paying 1 yuan and a clean toilet, or not paying 1 yuan and a dirty toilet, but today there was. Exhibit 1: thick cloud of flies, trough full of poo, and even a small batch of bees in one corner. It is scary (even as a guy) peeing near bees. Exhibit 2: a small house with 4 rooms. Two were locked. One had a leaky toilet. One had nothing. Both the unlocked rooms, however, just had shit all over the floor. It looked like a murder scene, if people were full of shit instead of blood. Or like an attack from the Poop Monster from "Gotta Go!"

Anyway, we deal, we move on, we go outside and do our business behind the poop-murder-hut. Fine. Gets me wondering a few things:

1. why doesn't 1 yuan pay for cleaner toilets in general? The standard public toilet is worse than a kinda-bad gas station in the US. Should they start charging 2 yuan?

2. who employs the Toilet Guardians? Is it a private business? I can't imagine that'd be profitable, but I've seen stranger. Is it a government job? In that case, wouldn't it just make more sense to fund it with tax dollars? I can't imagine the 1-yuan-taker is collecting enough 1-yuans to pay their own salary even.

3. geez how can you deal with a poop-murder-hut on your property, I mean, man, I think I'd just burn the whole thing down if it got that bad

4. how are our toilets better in the US?
4a. I guess McDonald's has an incentive to make clean toilets; fine. It's weird that your clean toilet is subsidized by burgers, but you know, whatever.
4b. Highway rest stops etc are paid for by... partially tolls and partially federal taxes? (n.b. to all you drivers out there: your gas taxes and tolls do not fully fund our roads; keep that in mind next time you want to make some dumb argument about how cars have more right to the road than bikers)
4c. City public toilets (SF has a few but not enough) are funded by... city taxes?
I mean in each case there is someone paid to clean the toilet - but there is in China too.

Anyway, not to dump on China here; our US toilet system isn't great either. We could use more public toilets, but I'm not sure how to connect incentives to make that work.

Monday, July 11, 2016

China: Let's talk uppers and downers

Uppers:

1. Tea, of course. Always green tea, served by default with almost every meal. Usually really weak - kinda like flavored hot water.

2. Buckwheat tea. I think this isn't actually an upper, but sometimes you get it instead of green tea. Mildly sweet, bright yellow.

3. Butter tea. This tastes not so much like tea as... I don't know, like tea with butter in it. It's quite nice, nicer than you might think. But hard to drink a lot of. I suffered my first big food failure today when I went to a restaurant, very hungry, pointed at a random thing on the menu like you do, and got a big pot of butter tea. Welp.

4. Coffee. They grow coffee in Yunnan! Most of it is pulverized into Nescafe-style instant milk-and-sugared slop. I have found one good roaster, though, Xiangcheng Coffee, in Shangri-la. (maybe they are based in Xiangcheng, a city a few hours north of here? I don't know; I just know this guy at Xiangcheng coffee Shangri-la is my good coffee hookup here.) It's not world-class best of the best, but I would definitely be satisfied if I got it in a SF coffee shop.
And they sell it in these little disposable DIY-drip-coffee bags. They're awesome while traveling.

5. Frickin' Red Bull. Stuff's everywhere.

6. I mean, and then I just bought a thing that turned out to be flavored brown sugar cubes. Like 1" cubes. I don't know what you do with it, but that'd get ya hyped, I suppose.

Downers:

1. Beer. There is the standard bland watery beer (popular here is a brand called Dali) and then there is one craft brewery around here called Shangrila Beer, run by a German brewmaster who moved here. (there's another one called Bad Monkey I think but I didn't try them.) Shangrila Beer is solid; could definitely set up shop in the US and they'd do great. But here at 10,000 feet, in a place without much beer history! Neat.
All the beer lists something like ">=2.5% ABV" or ">=3.3% ABV"... which makes me think they're all real weak? Or else that's just boilerplate and they can be whatever percent they want as long as they're above 2.5 or 3.3? Can't comment on how drunk they get you. Sleep all night, party never!

2. Wine. I just had a blueberry wine. It tasted like blueberry juice. That is all I can say about wine here.

3. Liquor: the main thing is Baijiou, "white liquor", which I've heard is largely as vile as it sounds. You can buy it in a little sealed dixie-cup-sized glass for like 50 cents, and it's about 2 shots' worth. (Or in bigger bottles, whatever.) I bought a bottle for $1 but haven't had an occasion to open it yet. (seriously - it's got a beer-style bottle cap, but contains about 8oz of 84-proof liquor. I guess they assume you're drinking with friends, or just completely shameless?) Sometimes they infuse it with Maca, a root that grows around here. I tried that and it's pretty good. (n.b. I think weird liquors are good.)

4. Weed: on one of the hikes, one of the trailside snack stands was selling just straight up bags of marijuana. I mean, smelled like it anyway. Didn't try any, but I guess it grows here too :P The lady selling it was advertising "get energy for the steep part of the hike!" Err... I don't think that drug does what you think it does.

Tibetan Prayer Math

Ok, so Tibetan Buddhism. I've got a bunch of math questions. You always hear stuff like "praying in an auspicious time is worth ten times as much as praying in an inauspicious time" or "putting up these prayer flags will make prayer happen continually" or you see the prayer wheels, where one spin sends one prayer up to heaven/the world/etc.

My recent favorite is this prayer water wheel:


Spinning the wheel sends prayers to heaven... so why not make the stream do the work for us? (a smaller analog is this solar-powered desk accessory prayer wheel that just always spins.)

If Tibetan Buddhism were a game, I'd say it had balance issues. Why spend any time doing anything that's like one prayer's worth, if you could instead be building a mega-fast spinning prayer wheel? Or mass producing prayer flags? You get some crazy things where one drop of water from this river is worth 100,000 prayers or something - dang, just gulp that water and spend the rest of your time goofing off!

Not that Tibetan Buddhism is alone here. Confession in the Catholic church likewise seemed weird - it wipes away all your mortal sins, and if you die without mortal sins, you're (eventually) going to heaven. At least they closed the confess-then-suicide loophole by making suicide a mortal sin too. You just gotta accidentally die soon after a confession.
(This sacred waterfall we just hiked to had a similar sin-washing-away effect.)

And the weird thing is, people insist that it's not just a metaphor. I mean, I can't speak for Tibetan Buddhists, but the Catholics at least say, yep, that's definitely correct, if you get hit by a truck right after confession, straight to heaven. And the Buddhists have lots of very specific terms - the definition of a "Kalpa" comes to mind, but you'll find a lot of magic numbers. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalpa_(aeon)

So... all the talk about this prayer being worth 100x that prayer, that's all metaphorical, right? Like, it's a way to say "praying here is good" or "put up some prayer flags because it makes us feel good" or "go to confession", not actually about mathematical equalities, right? Or are most Buddhists and Catholics really irrational actors?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Yubeng: some useful tips

Look, this whole trip was totally great, but I've been allergic for the past 4 days so my brain is half there and it's hard to write coherent things about how great it was, so here's a little stuff my engineer brain dashed off:

You take a bus from Shangrila to Feilai si, then the next morning share a van to Xidang. There are a bunch of guys driving there, no problem there. Takes 1.5-2 hours.

From Xidang it's 9.4km to upper Yubeng. You can check the numbers on some of the power poles on the way up; the top is at about 105 and Yubeng is at about 150. It's tough - I'm a reasonably fit 30 year old guy and it was still a whole lot of uphill. Took about 6-7 hours including breaks. The top is at about 12k feet and upper Yubeng about 10.5k. If you've acclimated in Shangrila (10k), you shouldn't have altitude trouble.
The first stop, Dazhending, doesn't have food, just instant noodles. The next two stops (Bayinong and Nanzheng Col at the top) have rice and eggs, so hold out for them if you can.

Upper and Lower Yubeng are both about 1-street towns. I can't tell what's the difference from a traveler's point of view. Seems there are fine places in each. We stayed in Lobsang's Trekking Lodge in upper Yubeng and the Sacred Waterfall guest house in lower Yubeng. None of the places are fancy, but at least they're not too pricey (150RMB ~ $25 double room) and have good views and friendly owners. (Especially the Sacred Waterfall.)
You can meet goats.



Someone said it was "like life in the 1800s." Well, not quite, unless the 1800s also had a thriving tourism industry. But it's a taste. I bet the 1800s had even more mud.

Anyway, speaking of good views, the sacred waterfall hike is totally great. As it's the easiest of 3 day hikes in the region, we expected it to be kinda easy and not super exciting. Wrongo, both ways.

Dude's wearing a suit! Did he hike up in it?

Getting out, we took the Ninong trail. Way easier than the Xidang. Right before the Ninong village, you can take a shortcut down to a parking lot where some drivers are waiting. We went with one of them all the way back to Shangri-la.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Travel as the ultimate retail experience

I've been thinking a lot about what I've been calling "retail" experiences - like the kind you get at Starbucks or Target or Marriott. A retail experience has the following characteristics:

- it's pretty context-free: almost anyone can walk in and do the thing. I say "almost" because nothing's ever fully context free; you need to know what kind of business it is, be able to communicate, etc, but you don't need to be in the club or know the owner or anything.
- no relationship is formed. You can leave right after you do the thing and never speak to them again, and it's fine.
- whoever has the money is the boss. That's usually the customer. Dependability is assumed, and if you're not getting what you paid for, it's up to the proprietor to make it right. (usually this is kind of an honor code, but in extreme cases it's legal)
- perfectly informed, perfectly rational choice (a la Homo Economicus) is assumed. If you were going to Marriott but Hampton started offering a better product for cheaper, you'd know that and go to Hampton instead.

It's all a spectrum, right. Context isn't on or off, choice isn't perfectly rational or completely irrational. By saying "Starbucks is a very retail experience" I mean it's very far on the retail end.

What's a very un-retail experience? That coffeeshop where you're a regular, Couchsurfing, the local Elks Lodge, your regular weekly poker game, a martial arts studio, and arguably a realtor.

The tourism industry (both techie and not) seems focused on getting travel to be as retail as possible. Hotels, trains and buses, airline search engines, guidebooks, resorts, etc. And this is not necessarily a bad thing! If you've got two weeks and you want to go to 7 cities throughout Czech, Germany, Switzerland, and France, you're not going to build relationships with people everywhere; you're not going to thoroughly research all the local customs; hell, you're not even going to learn all the languages. I'm mostly a retail traveler, so don't read this as a slam on retail travel.

But it's interesting to think: how could we make some kinds of travel less retail? I mean, Couchsurfing is one way; Airbnb looked to be another way (though it varies from place to place); various slower tourism things like learning Spanish intensively in Mexico or learning to make pasta in Italy are others; travel within your own subculture is a fourth (like connecting with an opera fans club in Vienna or bike touring through Vietnam).

Someone's already probably theorized all of this. If so, tell me who.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Three things you cannot escape by hiking 7 hours to a remote Chinese-Tibetan village

1. Internet. Hah! By the way, there are no roads here.
2. Red Bull. I think we are even beyond Coca-Cola, but there's plenty of Red Bull around. Ew.
3. Altitude. Indeed, we ran right into it! I think we're at 12-13k feet now, and we're not terribly sick, just everything is working a little bit worse. Even like sinuses! Why does having less oxygen make your nose all stuffy?!

Edit: we're not at 12k, we're at 10,500 ft in upper Yubeng. And I don't think altitude does make your sinuses worse. I think we just both have a cold :P

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Food mysteries in China so far, and our attempts to decode them

1. Every table has a bubbling red spicy oily sauce in the center. People dip food into the center. Before we could order stuff, the waiter kept pointing to "choose your own sauce" on the menu and pointing us over to the next room, where, sure enough, there were a bunch of sauce ingredients. Then you add a tiny 3oz can of oil and you have a sauce. I guess you dip into the bubbling red stuff, then your own sauce, then eat it? But either way it is all damn hot, so much so that: 1. we had to order whatever we could find to drink, which turned out to be orange juice, and 2. I kinda had one of these capsaicin-induced out of body experiences. Afterward we were given a not-quite-sweet tapioca jello-ey thing.
Conclusion: Chongqing-style hot pot?


2. A Tibetan delicious cornbread thing, so good that we ordered it twice to take home and had it for breakfast the next day too. Kind of orange.
Conclusion: Qing ke bing - "highland barley cake."

3. A tea that looks like those things that sit on top of a cricket wicket. Tastes like graham crackers. This one we figured out: buckwheat tea.

4. This other thing, next to the steamed buns filled with red beans that were amazing, which looked like a steamed bun but with a different shape. About the size of a softball. Turns out it's just bread, which is pretty disappointing when you have to eat a softball's worth of it.

5. Very thin slices of green pepper and meat, so thin you might call them threads. So I got this app called Pleco where you can draw in Chinese characters and it will tell you that, yep, that's qing jiao rou si, definitely "green pepper meat threads."

6. Lots of mapo tofu. This wasn't much of a mystery. What's sort of mysterious is how often we both look at a picture menu, see what looks best, and welp it's mapo tofu again.

7. Another hot pot, this one more like a chicken broth? Came with slices of potato, lotus root, and cabbage, and was totally great and surprisingly filling. Oh, and then they brought out a whole fish, which was great but guys we could have made it with just the hot pot, but y'know, not complaining


8. Okay, this frickin' candy. It's black, it looks like chocolate, it's got the consistency of a compressed dried fruit, it tastes like licorice and mint and betel nut and orange and about twelve other weird flavors, and I kind of love it but then can't stand it. Oh, and it's got a rind. As if it were a fruit? Maybe it's a fruit? Help me out here.



Monday, July 04, 2016

VPN achieved!

OK, this felt really good: we finally got Tati on a VPN. Warning: what follows is a long and nerdy story, with a small payoff.

As mentioned previously, she didn't have one fully set up before we left, which left her in a catch 22: she needed VPN access to set up a VPN (like NordVPN or her company VPN). (reminder: a VPN is the thing that lets you get around the Great Firewall and see sites like Google and Facebook.)

My VPN was working, so I figured I would just set up a portable wifi hotspot and Tati could connect to that. Nope, for some unknown reason. Well, ok, I can connect to her phone and share my network via Bluetooth. Nope, for some unknown reason. Well, maybe she can just download PrivateInternetAccess (my VPN provider) and set up her own account. Nope, for some mostly-unknown reason (maybe the Great Firewall blocks privateinternetaccess.com?) Well, she can just sign in with my login/password? Nope, FSUR.

At this point we figured we were pretty SOL, but a friend offered to share some OpenVPN config files. Worth a try - all the setup is in those files, so we don't have to create an account with anyone etc. that might be Great Firewall-blocked. So... I can download the .ovpn files and send them to Tati via... what? Bluetooth? Again, NFSUR. Ok, I'll WeChat them to her. Nope, can't send files on WeChat, just pictures and stuff. Uh, I'll WhatsApp them to her. Nope again - WhatsApp even lets you send "documents" but that seems to be pdf only. Why pdfs and not .txt (or .ovpn or whatever)? Beats me.

Skype (Skype!) to the rescue. Send file with Skype. Download it on her iPhone. Uh, where the hell did it go? Let me just get into the file system -- ha, hahahahaha, sorry, nevermind. Frickin iPhones. Ok, here's what finally worked: "Save to Notes" then open the Notes app which has the text file as an attachment, then click the attachment, "open with OpenVPN."

Except it didn't work: line length too long. Oh gourd - when I got it from Dropbox, I couldn't save-as from mobile Chrome, so I just copy-pasted it into a new text file. I mean, of course that bungled something - in this case, I think it just mangled the line endings. Wait, you can't save-as in mobile? If you visit a foo.txt file, you can't save foo.txt to your computer? Well, nope. I realized, I just need wget. So, phones being what they are, I went to the Google Play store and searched for "wget", and got "webget", which is some app written by some dude that hopefully doesn't steal my bank account info. This is so much better than just giving people access to the underlying linux, right? UGH.

Ok. Copy paste URL into webget, download text file, skype it to Tati, save it into Notes on her phone, open Notes app, open attachment in OpenVPN, connect to VPN. It worked! It goddamn worked! She can communicate with the world normally again!

... long story for a short payoff. Sorry, warned ya.

Friday, July 01, 2016

China notes, part 2

Everything is bigger in China. Texas, GTFO.

A big part of the difficulty here (and anywhere you don't speak the language) is getting over embarrassment. You're going to have a million awkward interactions where someone's talking at you and you don't know what they're saying, or you need to ask just one simple thing and you don't have the word, and then you just have to both kinda sheepishly smile and walk away.

Finding good Chinglish is just too easy. If I had room in my bag, I'd have bought at least three t-shirts by now. On day 1 I took a picture of a "Fire Extubgyusber" -- which now is not even in the top 10 silliest signs I've seen.

Lijiang is an old town turned into deluxe shopping, a Carmel by the sea of China. It's extraordinarily cute. There are 10 shops repeated over and over again. You can buy, over and over again, a jade bracelet, a Pu-erh tea disk, a silver bracelet, a flower cake, general convenience store stuff, clothes, travel services, or a hand drum. Not sure why all the hand drums. Still, somehow it's pretty and not tacky. I think the stone streets and pretty old houses have something to do with it.

Frickin' Great Firewall. I was right when I said that of our 3 VPNs, at least one would work. Hang on, we're getting geeky. I have my CMU VPN, my Private Internet access.com VPN, and Tati has a NordVPN. CMU doesn't work - of course not! It only VPNs traffic to a few select IP ranges (I think that is what's going on). PIA works (but is slow, so it goes). Nord doesn't work - not sure if that's because of Nord, or because Tati didn't finish setting it up before we left, or because Facebook has its IT tentacles somewhere into Tati's phone, and they (wisely) lock some things down if you say you're going to China. Not sure what all they've locked down, but the following things don't work:
- Facebook VPN (obv)
- Nord VPN (like I said)
- Bluetooth connecting to my phone so she can share my VPN for a minute
- Connecting to my portable WiFi Hotspot.
- Seriously, why the hell does that not work.
- Anyway, we're sort of at a loss; that was kinda all the backups I had planned for her phone. Welp.