Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chotu, Motu, BM in Beijing: Red Sunrise

I am conflicted between going about this in a chronological manner and just posting about random events. Bill is convinced that I will never have the enthu to complete this if I start from Day 1, so he thinks I should just do random days. The dutiful spouse that I am, I shall listen to him and do short, random snippets which are more manageable. So here people, flag hoisting in Beijing (Day 2).

Day before we are supposed to leave for Xian. We woke up at the crack of dawn, actually, before the crack of dawn to see...hold your breath...the flag hoisting at Tiananmen Square. Whose brilliant idea was this, you ask? BM's of course. Because she was so totally jetlagged and couldn't sleep after 3 in the morning, she made us wake up at 4 to go see this flag thingy. By the time we got a taxi to the Square, there were already busloads of people there. There was also some military presence as to be expected in the form of a few yawning men in proper outfits standing around the flag pole. The section was roped off and us spectators have to stand about 30-40 metres away.

"You think we blend in?"

"Do you see anyone other than Han Chinese people in the crowd?"

"But still..."

"Do you see any Beijinger? They are all from the provinces"

"I am a provincial too. I am not like you cosmopolitan people from Bombay and Bangalore"

"Maybe you should go mingle with your provincial friends and see if you blend in"

"Sure" I said and left the other two and walked off by myself to join the provincials. This was Beijing in March, so it wasn't exactly warm and after a few minutes, my teeth started chattering. But still, I was right behind the rope and had an unobstructed view of the flagpole. My provincial friends were all around me, at times pushing me against the barrier that I was sure that the yawning soldier staring intently at me was going to pull out his rifle and shoot but thankfully did not happen.

Then I saw Bill pushing his way through the crowd.

"What is the idea?"

"I just thought I would come meet your provincial friends"



"Did you see who? Someone touched my hair"

"Don't be silly"

"I am serious. They touched my hair"

"If I were BM, I would say that they are all jealous of your wavy hair and want to touch it to see if its real"

"And since you are not BM..."

"I think you are imagining things...dude, here they are"

Sure enough, there were about a dozen soldiers coming out of the main gate of the Forbidden City (this is the one with the Chairman's picture that we are used to seeing in the news) and walking towards the flag pole. They marched this way and that way for a few minutes before going up to hoist the flag.

"This is what she wanted to see?"

"Jetlag. Don't blame her"

"If you say so"

The flag starts climbing up.



"What are you mumbling?"


"Quiet. Everyone is quiet"

"You don't find that strange?"

"Why would I find that strange?"

"The flag hoisting!"


"Don't you feel like singing Jana Gana Mana?"

"No, as strange as it may seem, I don't feel like singing Jana Gana Mana when I see the Chinese flag go up. Maybe those of us from certain states..."

"Says the Bong"

"Not the point"

"Agree. The point is nobody is singing national anthem or waving flag. Something is wrong"

"Nothing is wrong. They are not used to it"

"How can they not be used to it? Its their national flag being hoisted"

"Yeah, why don't you teach them to sing their national anthem?"

"Oh shut up. You are useless"

"That I am"

By this time, the flag was all the way up to where it was supposed to be.

The crowd was slowly dispersing. We looked for BM and found her posing for someone else's family album. This obviously would be a recurring theme. The way back to out hostel was uneventful except for the fact that we discovered why we lost a War.

"This long jacket these military men are wearing - it sort of looks funny on them"

"What do you mean?"

"You don't think so? Probably some Russian influence. Because the Russians have long jackets doesn't mean these people should have"

"Why not? It is winter"

"Yeah, but this is not Moscow. It is not that cold here"

"But this is a big country, you know"

"The US of A is a big country too. The point is it does not get colder than this in this country"

"Right. Up there in some of the tallest mountains in the world, it absolutely does not get colder than this"

"Oh, there"

"Yeah, there"

BM now: "Why do you think we lost the war?"

Bill being helpful: "Because we did not have long uniforms"


Poor me: "Never heard that one before"

"Its true. Its also why my mother fasts on Fridays"

"Wait, where did that come from?"

"Shastri was then PM and he said on radio that our soldiers need socks. He then requested everyone to eat one less meal on Fridays to help the troops. My mother started fasting then and even now, she fasts on Fridays"

"She knitted socks too, I am guessing"

"Of course. But we did not have long jackets. So we lost"

"Shastri wasn't PM in 62"

"He was PM and he came on radio"

"Different war with a different country"

"Perhaps. But why do you think we lost the war?"

"It must have been the long jackets only"

"Of course it was"

The rest of the way back to our hutong was spent in thoughtful silence.

Coming up next: How we got molested by cartoon characters in front of the Water Cube

Sunday, April 26, 2009

More Foreign Devils at Mogao

Bill provides some well-needed distraction - An account of visit to Mogao Grottoes outside Dunhuang. TR's account here

Mogao, on the banks of a stream behind the sand dunes close to Dunhuang has a big set of caves with paintings and sculptures of the Buddhists. Built between the fourth and tenth centuries AD, there are almost 500 caves here (At least officially, as our guide later pointed out. Included in the count are tiny crevices you can barely stick your head in, but also huge caves that can comfortably fit about a hundred people). There is much to interest tourists, whether religious Buddhists, especially from Japan, or secular visitors who would like to admire paintings of the Buddhist symbols. These paintings, comparable to the ones in Ajanta, have the usual Buddhas and Boddhisatvas, and also heavenly guards, apsaras, princes, worshippers, musicians, and dancers. Some, especially the early ones, are obviously Indian in origin, with large faces and clothing similar to Gandharan art. Others are equally clearly Chinese, with motifs from the Tang dynasty, the high point of Chinese art from the seventh century. The additional claim to fame of the Mogao caves, and why it created such a huge interest in the early twentieth century, is the treasury of scrolls and manuscripts found hidden in one of the caves by one Abbot Wang, and subsequently carted off by Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Albert von Coq, and others, in an incident which more than anything made the Chinese give them the title of Foreign Devils.

We reached there at about nine in the morning, when everything was just getting started. Our regular guide could not go inside with us. Mogao has its own set of specialist guides, who have to accompany you. In high season each of them may lead a group of twenty or more, but at this time we had one guide all to ourselves. This turned out to be someone quite formally dressed in a blazer, even in the heat, with a permanent smell of tobacco on him. Every time we got out of one of the caves and started walking to another, he would light up again. He also had a strange accent, somewhat British, and a very British sneer permanently on his lips. One of the first things he asked was "Are you religious?", and our "No, not really" got his sneer to relax a bit. Throughout the next two hours he would get ever more disdainful whenever he discussed religion. Reminded us of a very entertaining guide in Vatican seven years ago but that story, some other time.

We started off with a walk to one end of the almost mile-long set of caves. The front had been renovated and protected in the early 60's with a concrete front and steel doors on each cave, giving the place an aura of a prison or a old-school hotel, very different from what Stein and that gang would have seen. Beside us was the bed of the river that created and sustained this community, now dry because it had been diverted by irrigation works.

First stop was the cave with the largest of the Buddha statues, about 36 feet in height. Around its feet was a dark tunnel ("for going round clockwise, don't you have the same thing in India?"), and what looked like shallow steps. These turned out to be the floor from different centuries, excavated in layers. We now got interrogated about Indian religion, the differences between Hinduism Indian Buddhism, and the Chinese versions of Buddhism. We told him what little we knew, and he was very amused by Buddha being considered a reincarnation of Vishnu.

The next cave was of a large sleeping Buddha, (we told him about Ananta Shayanam Vishnu, which pleased him), surrounded by statues of worshippers from different lands (a multicultural assembly, with many skin colours, hairstyles and clothing styles represented). We were also introduced to the Buddhas other than Gautama Sakyamuni, in particular, Amitabha Buddha, guardian of Paradise (somewhere vaguely west of China). "Have you heard of Amitabha Mantra? For Chinese people it is very easy to get to Paradise, you just have to recite Amitabha, Amitabha, Amitabha... Perfect religion for lazy people!" This sounded good to us, but BM was already covering all bases by kneeling (this would be a recurring theme throughout our travels, she would be kneeling at anything remotely resembling a Buddha, and there were, oh, only about a thousand of these in the next week. This was her idea of a fitness program, we reckoned). This of course made our guide's lips curl up again.

A later cave had a large set of paintings depicting the life and times of the Buddha. "Here his mother dreams of a white elephant, and next day she gives birth from her armpit, ha ha ha!" "And then here he is meditating, and some, ah, ladies, are trying to distract him" (The, ah, ladies in question were the famed apsaras, we think). "They are drawn nude, very Indian influence, wouldn't you say?" (much head scratching followed). "And then he preaches to a big assembly of monks and tigers and lions, for a touch of realism, ha ha" "And later in life, when his mother is dying, he returns to fulfil his family responsibilities, very Chinese now, all family values". (So the primary difference between the two countries is that Indians are libertine nudists, and Chinese are family oriented people, go figure).

The next cave had a very feminine-looking Buddha. "This was built during the Tang dynasty, when the Empress was giving money, and many images were built to look like her". "Which Empress? Wu Zetian?" (Wu Zetian is famed as being the only woman who sat on the throne in the two thousand years of Chinese imperial history, as opposed to many others who preferred to be the power behind the throne while not formally taking the title). "Ah yes, you have heard of the empress Wu Zetian of course. She killed off all her family and opponents, the Bloody Empress as we call her". "And this is different how from the other emperors?" Needless to say, our man wasn't happy, but didn't say anything more. Girl power is not a big win, it seems.

Next we started on the controversial caves. First up was a smallish cave guarded by very Indian looking Dwarapalas. These Dwarapalas, threatening as they were with their swords and sticks, hadn't managed to stop one Harvard professor, the ill-famed Langdon Warner. (Before our guide could explain the Warner story to us, our Ms. Know-It-All blurted out the name and started telling us the story. This was strange as she knew very well that not only were we familiar with the story but we had just this morning re-read the TR-nama in preparation for Mogao. We both glared at her and she shut up. For a while.) By the time he turned up in the 1920's, the treasure trove of documents had disappeared to London, Delhi, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Beijing. But he had a new plan, that of taking back the murals themselves. His secret, "modern" formula for removing the murals did far more harm than the centuries of wind and sand, destroying the adjacent paintings quite effectively. The mural actually removed is now in the Sackler wing in Cambridge, MA.

The next stop was a low-slung building, not a cave, which used to be the hapless Abbot Wang's residence, and is now a museum attempting to explain what happened. The good abbot had discovered a cave-in leading to a bunch of documents, and had started selling them by ones and twos to refill his rather empty coffers. Word got around, and the officials stopped him from selling, but not before the word had reached one Aurel Stein, explorer. Stein rushed to Mogao, and talked the abbot into letting him look at the documents, and for a small amount, remove what turned out to be a "few cartloads" of ancient manuscripts. Analysed later, this turned out to be a rich treasury in several old languages, and made Stein's name. A few years later, Paul Pelliot, a French explorer and expert in Chinese history, followed. Where Stein had picked documents essentially at random, Pelliot knew his ancient China and its languages, and managed to take away the most historically significant documents. Later pickings were by other "foreign devils" such as Albert von Le Coq, Count Otani, and others, followed much later by a deputation from the Beijing national museum who managed to find only the last remaining and comparatively insignificant documents. The story was told in Chinese and English, complete with photographs and reproductions. The English translation at least was very restrained, and almost polite to all the above, all except the American Langdon Warner, who "mercilessly destroyed and stole the murals". Either overt anti-Americanism, or the fact that he actually destroyed murals. Also in the museum was reproductions of some documents, where we could identify a few Pali and Sanskrit ones among the Tibetan, Persian and other languages.

Finally, we ended up in the "library cave" itself. Small little nook in the wall, with no trace left anymore of having preserved thousands and thousands of rolled-up manuscripts for ten centuries, or the explorers and archaelogists who scraped through them a hundred years back.

Done with the grottoes, we walked back slowly to the entrance. Our guide asked us what parts of China we had seen and where we were going next. In particular, what did we think of Beijing? We tried to be neutral, saying it was a big city like any other, very developed. This started off a mini-rant. "I think we are developing too fast, destroying all that we had before. Our system of government, you know. I am sure India is developing too, but you must be preserving the character of your cities". We told him our big cities do not give off any more vibes of being Indian than Beijing does of being Chinese, it's all a case of grass being greener.

Changing the subject completely, he started quizzing us about higher education. "There's a university which holds a national exam, isn't there? Very difficult to pass, I have heard?" I got passed the conversational baton immediately, and told him about the JEE. "Yes, yes, the IIT, don't all students go immediately to the US afterwards?" I hemmed and hawed, telling him, "No, nowadays many do stay back,.." when BM and Veena helpfully butted in with "he went to the US". "Yes, I have heard, when someone passes, their parents have a grand feast for the entire village". This left me speechless, deciding to ask my parents as soon as possible why I (and the whole of Bombay) got cheated out of a feast.

We ended off with a trip to a more modern exhibition hall outside the caves, built to approximate some of the caves that are closed off to the public. The building is very flat and blends in with the surroundings, almost like a Lloyd Wright creation transplanted to the other side of the globe, but the caves are not very impressive, being similar to the ones we had seen. The last look was of the thousand-handed Buddhist goddess ("we have female Buddhas too, in India Buddha is always male, right?") Guan-Yin Boddhisatva, Goddess of Mercy, originally the Indian or Tibetan (male) Avalokiteswara.


"The year was 1967. A tall Bong and a tall Japanese sat down for lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo."

"I don't want to hear the joke"

"It is not a joke"



"Shut up"

So one shuts up. Tries to continue reading one was trying to read. Gives up, goes back online and reads the same sites again.

No, the blogosphere is pretty useless at distraction. In fact, it only fuels the obsession. Where has all the righteous indignation gone? Conspicuous by its absence. Unnecessary anger. Can't wait to get to work tomorrow. Can't wait for the 10-12 hours of peace. For me, that is.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Its obv the thought that counts

At the Summer Palace in Beijing. You will have to click and enlarge.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A short love story (for Luddo)

since he is asking for it.

Xi'an. Where it all begins. Where all roads would lead to if history were written in the East.

We were on our way into the city after seeing the terracotta army. Our guide Echo who would have made an excellent drill inspector has already informed us that this is nap time and she would not like to be disturbed. Bill happily dozes off. I look out of the window. BM starts fidgeting.


"What do you think is considered handsome in this country?"

"Come again"

"Its not a difficult question"

"I know. But why would anyone have such a query?"

"I want to know. My Chinese colleagues at work think someone is handsome, I don't think so"

"Why don't you ask Echo? Obviously I can't provide you with an answer"

"She said she wants to sleep"

"Nonsense. Echo - we..BM has a question for you"

Echo wakes up with a start and turns around. "Sure. How can I help?"

"Do you think Takeshi Kaneshiro is handsome?"

"Dude, he is not even Chinese"

"He is half Chinese" She turns to Echo. "I am trying to figure out who is considered handsome here"

"Yes, he is cute"

"Not handsome?"

"I don't think so. But I am from the South"

"What does that got to do with Takeshi Kaneshiro being handsome?"

"In the South, we prefer milky men"


"Yes, milky intellectuals. In the North, women prefer strong men with moustaches who are generous"

"Generous? You mean rich?" I couldn't help myself.

"Rich too. I prefer milky intellectuals who are rich"

"Those exist?"

"I haven't found one yet"

"If you do, let us know. We could do with a few"

"What about women? What kind of women are considered beautiful?" BM again. For some reason, she had to analyse this thing to death.

"Hmm..." Echo is thinking now.

"Do you like Gong Li?"

"No" Echo replies immediately.

BM turns to me. "She is like the Aishwarya Rai of China. Everybody casts her in movies but she cannot act"

"Gong Li is just another model / actress. She is okay but not beautiful" says Echo.

"All my colleagues love her"

"Yes, all men love her"

"That makes sense. So what kind of women are preferred in China?"

"Dude, you just asked her that"

"No, I asked who is considered beautiful. Now I am asking what kind of women are generally preferred"

"I wasn't aware you were on a groom hunt"

Echo: "It depends on what the man is looking for"


"Most men prefer stable wives who are kind and considerate and intelligent"

"I see"

"Who will take care of the house work"

"Of course"

"But if they are looking for a short love story..."

"A short love story?"

"Yes, like in the movies, then they prefer a vase"

"A what?"

"A vase. However you say it"

"Oh, like that"

Needless to say, since then, every time we encounter a vase, we feel like we should take it away and offer it to people looking for a short love story. This special Ming one for Luddo-san, may he have a lovely short love story.


Bonus: One more love story.

At the terracotta place. We were walking from Pit 1 to Pit 2. Echo is telling us about the men excavated from Pit 2. I was walking a few steps ahead of the three and could hear only parts of the conversation.

"The most well preserved exhibit is from this pit. He is exhibited outside the pit in a glass case and you can even see colours on his body"


"Yes, the kneeling archer is quite famous"

I stop dead in my tracks. Turn around. Bill is walking faster. He smiles.

"Kneeling archer. That's what she said"

"Oh. That makes sense"

BM: "What did you hear?"

"That only"

"Liar. Bill, you tell"

"The love of her life only"

"I thought that was you"

"Eeeks! No way"

"Dude, chill. I heard Newland Archer"


"So I started imagining Daniel Day Lewis with this terracotta warrior headgear"

"Man, that is cool"

"I know"

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Okay people, we are back. Lots and lots of stories. I managed to fill in 86 pages in my journal and so you shall not be spared. Though in the interests of laziness, I shall probably do only conversations. For pictures and explanations, you can pain BM.

But before we begin, random trip notes in no particular order:

1. Recurring theme #1: Reconstruction and resettlement under banner of development. People moved from city centres to somewhere relatively far away as ancient buildings are constructed in city centres. Scary the first time we encountered it but very used to it by the end of the trip. There seemed to be no discrimination between provinces in this regard.

2. I can die happy now that moi makes an appearance in at least 43 family albums across China. Thats about 25% of pictures I was asked to be in. BM is all jealous that she got asked only 62 times.

3. The further West one goes, stronger the opinions. Foreign devils and Revolutions talked about more, invasions not so much, rather, not at all.

4. Recurring theme #2: TR aka Monkey King. The holy book is called TR-nama (see picture below). BM and Bill are Peter and Paul and two more devoted followers, you shall not find.

5. Ethnic minorities aka Other nationalities. This nation comprises of a number of nationalities. Anyone who is not Han Chinese is other nationality.

6. Recurring theme #3: Over-ordering food. The amount of food we wasted could have fed the whole of the Western Regions.

7. We learnt from (the totally entertaining) China Daily that expat husbands are no longer wanted in the country. 'Normal guy' is in demand in the current economic climate.

8. While on the subject, we were also told that in Northern China, macho and generous men are preferred. In the South, milky, intellectual men are quite the rage. There's still some hope for pimping out Bill, I guess. Just need to move to Southern China.

9. BM wants to be Empress at Jiayuguan Fort - BM Zetian! Bill wants to be General. The plan is for Bill to write proposal for funding to build a fort to test security of programming languages or something. Lost on me. But I was told I will be given money to travel and build caves. Happiness.

10. Nobody asks us for food preference in airplanes. By default, they gave us food marked "Muslim". Not that we are complaining.

11. Freedom above all. Freedom to get lost in a country where you don't know a word of the language, freedom from translators and drivers. BM and Bill even did a celebratory dance on the train to celebrate new found freedom on the night train back to homebase Beijing.

12. Last day in China, our food consists of Subway sandwich, Haagen Daas scoop and a burger. Freedom indeed!

13. Recurring theme #4: Street and Subway cleaning. If you have over a billion people who need to have jobs, perhaps this is the way to do it. Clean everything every five minutes.

I am looking through my journal and there are far too many, so I shall stop here for now and do this properly over the next few days..weeks..err..months.

Oh, wait, before I go, pictures for people. More (and better ones) over at BM's as and when she posts.

For Space Bar

A hutong Cat for the Cheshire Cat

For Feanor - this counts as translation too, no?

For Luddo - BM has the engine I think

For TR - Original plan was to bury this in Chini Bagh but in the interest of time, left at hotel in Kashgar

For Anoop

For Szer

Falsie: Of course you aren't spared. BM's got a long list of pictures in your honour. Wait.

??!: You are just too difficult. I have gone through my entire set and can't find one for you unless I stretch it really far. I have delegated job to BM now.

How (not) to do your taxes

Step 0: Ensure that you have to file taxes in as many countries as possible

Step 1: Schedule vacation for two / three weeks before tax due date. Also ensure that atleast one person on the trip is from country you have to file taxes in

Step 2: Put in a reminder in your diary for the day you leave reminding yourself that you should not forget to do your taxes before you leave for holiday

Step 3: Check diary half hour before you are due to leave for airport

Step 4: Panic.

Step 5: Consider filing extension, but decide against it as you hit on bright idea - do taxes on the plane and all you have to do is to hand it over to friend who is coming with you on vacation and she can worry about filing it once she gets back into her country

Step 6: Forget to take a couple of required attachments and numbers you need to fill in form

Step 7: Needless to say, don't bother to spend your plane time doing taxes. Watch movies or go to sleep

Step 8: Last day of holiday, check diary again.

Step 9: Panic.

Step 10: Spend two hours in the morning in exotic country doing taxes

Step 11: Lament to other backpackers in the hostel as well as hostel owners about taxes. What better way to make friends?

Step 12: Realise that you do not have all the required forms

Step 13: Panic

Step 14: Bright idea again. Sign form and give it to friend. Tell her that you will send numbers and documentation once you get home, and she can fill your form with the numbers you provide

Step 15: Fly home and search for docs. It ain't there.

Step 16: Panic.

Step 17: Discover docs after a 3 hour search

Step 18: Send to friend required numbers and documents

Step 19: The funnest bit. Remind friend every other minute that she has to file your taxes as soon as possible. Tell her that you have not met a more inefficient person in your life and she better hurry up before the deadline.

Sounds like fun? Trust me, it is. Try it yourself.

PS: I know people. But first, let me do taxes alright?

PPS: BM, what are you doing reading blogs? Go do my taxes and file them asap. There is no time.