Oct 29, 2005

Street side barbeque - 路边烤肉

A disemboweled carcass roasting on a spit at a roadside food stall in Beijing.

People flocked to the stand in droves as the pungent smoke from the flesh of the roasting beast permeated the air. Upon hearing the orders from each hungry customer, the vendor would unsheathe a heavy, razor-sharp machete and swiftly lop off a hunk of meat. After adding a final sprinkle of dried herbs and hot pepper, the customers feasted away. Nervous whimpers and barking could be heard from the room behind the stall. Somehow the other animals sensed what was in store for them in the near future.¹

¹ Story contains some embellishment

Oct 25, 2005

Beijing toilet humor - 厕所幽默

A handwritten sign posted above a squat-toilet in the restroom of a college bar in Beijing. The Chinese version has a rhyming quality to it. After reading this, you might find yourself repeating it to yourself over and over: shi, zhi qing bu yao (屎,纸请不要).

Oct 16, 2005

Beijing marathon (or: cough, gasp, gasp...wheeze) - 北京马拉松的肺气肿


Ranking as one of the foremost running competitions in the world, the Beijing marathon was held this morning. The sponsor was ANA, the Japanese national airline company. The same rebellious Chinese youths that were hurling bottles and stones at Japanese businesses and government offices a few months ago now shamelessly wore the logo of the main Japanese airline across their chests.

Along with the Boston and New York marathons, the Beijing marathon is a highlight in the world of competitive running. Well, it has to be ranked above the Ashton-Mesa Falls, Idaho Marathon, at least. A running race in China can be likened to holding an open water swimming competition in Boston Harbor or New York's East River. In the former case you get to inhale the carcinogens, in the latter, the pollution is absorbed through the skin.

With the morning sun already shrouded in a fart-brown cloud of industrial pollution, professionals and weekend-warriors gathered in Tiananmen Square. Runners were lined up by the distance they were to run: first were the world class marathoners (mostly Kenyans), then amateur marathoners, half-marathoners, 10K'ers, and 4.2K'ers. [Side note: if I'm running a 10K, which is essentially a long sprint, shouldn't I start before the half-marathoners, who are pacing themselves, so that I don't have to bob-and-weave through them?]

一个有中国特色的马拉松 (A marathon with "Chinese characteristics")

The Chinese police and military are no slouches when it comes to crowd control. This is related to the marathon because the starting area for the race was in eastern side of the square, but the police and military patrols on-hand for crowd control would let no one, registered runners included, cross the road to get into the square.

There were two crosswalks into the square. At the first crosswalk, the army patrol turned back a crowd of runners and pointed them to the second crosswalk, one hundred yards away. At the second crosswalk they were told the same thing, which is when the situation heated up. Runners started to shout at the police and military. A couple runners took advantage of the situation, hopped the security barrier and scuttled across the street, 18-year-old army private in chase. "Any minute now, a contingent of army tanks is going to appear to run us down like dogs", I thought. Group unity became the logic of the crowd, at which point around fifty runners swarmed across the street. It was too much for the security forces to deal with. They gave up chasing down the “splittist runners” and it looked like most people got across.

At the start of the race, the 200,000 or so amateur runners thronged out of the square, rounding left past the portrait of Mao's grinning mug, heading westward on one of the major throughways of Beijing, Chang An Avenue. The Soviet-designed Beijing streets are well-suited for mass running races such as this. It was relatively easy to navigate around the stragglers. An expat runner next to me stepped into a Beijing-sized pothole, skinning his knee and shin, but recovered at once with some help from friends lest he be trampled by the thousands of runners behind him. In an effort to add yet more "Chinese characteristics" to the race, the city of Beijing arranged for the five-lanes of traffic opposite the runners to be filled with idling automobiles, to better facilitate the inhalation of noxious fumes. I was quite concerned that a race held on a mid-October morning would lack the air pollution that is so common in China, but I was not disappointed.

Heavy-handed police and pollution weren't the only highlight of the race. Beijing really outdid itself again by demonstrating its characteristic chaos and disorganization. Due to poor race planning, officials allowed the lead runner, Benson Cherono, to lose track of the race course. According to ESPN:

Cherono built a solid lead about 6 miles from the end. Judges later discovered he followed a broadcast van directly into the National Olympic Sports Center, where the race was scheduled to end, instead of following the regular route. Because he was close to the vehicle, the referees "made mistakes" and did not see him, chief referee Wen Fusheng told the Xinhua News Agency said.

Due to his lead, Cherono was still awarded first place, but the organizing committee blanked out his finish time. If only the 2008 Beijing Olympics can be as well-organized as the marathon, the world is in store for some real entertainment.

Oct 13, 2005

Tibet trip: pilgrims

Sacred Buddhist sites in Tibet are full of pilgrims prostrating, chanting, murmuring, leaving offerings of money and yak butter, and swinging prayer wheels. There are Tibetan nomads, peasants, city workers, and some that may have even come back from living in China.

Pilgrims prostrating towards Jokhang temple in Lhasa, home to the most sacred shrine in Tibetan Buddhism.

Pilgrims passing the time with prayer wheels and prayer beads at Samye monastery.

Pilgrim exiting the Tomb of the 5th to 9th Panchen Lamas in Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse. As a side note, why is it called the “Tomb” and not “Tombs”, you ask? Because the Chinese desecrated and destroyed the original tombs of the Panchen Lamas in the 1960's. The current tomb with the remains salvaged from this atrocity was opened in 1989.

Pilgrims walking around the Barkhor in the early morning, before the street vendors have set up. The billowing smoke is juniper incense.

Oct 12, 2005

Tibet trip: agrarian lifestyle

Tibet, like China, is primarily agrarian. Half-breed yaks, cows, goats, and sheep are common. The occasional pure-bred yak can also be seen. Dogs are ubiquitous, especially in the countryside and in monasteries outside of Lhasa. One of the local Tibetan guides in Gyantse explained that Lhasa also had many dogs living in its monasteries until the Chinese invaded and ate most of them. [I'm not making that up]

Wandering cows eating garbage in the streets of Damxung town, near Nam-tso. In many of the small towns I saw handfuls of dairy cows wandering around foraging for trash.

A yak strolling down the main street of Damxung.

A pack of sleeping dogs at Nam-tso. I was tempted to not let them lie.

Above: A dolled-up yak atop Yumbulagang monastery. I think this is really a dzo, the yak-cow hybrid.

A man taking his cows for an early morning walk in Gyantse.

A monk mixing tsampa (roasted barley flour) with water to feed to the dogs at the Palkor Chöde Monastery, Gyantse. Did you know that during a Tibetan Sky Burial, they break up the bones of the deceased and mix it with tsampa so that the vultures and wild dogs will eat all the remains?

The dogs love it. Note how the gold-colored dog on the far left is waiting his turn. When I was observing, one of the other smaller dogs ate something one of the bigger dogs wanted for himself; the big dog took a painful bite out of the side of the smaller one. The monk then poured some cold water on the agressor.

Oct 11, 2005

Tibet trip story: the monastic ram

In Lhasa, Tibet, I was walking around the nearly-deserted Drepung Monastery late in the afternoon, trying to return to the main entrance so I could hike the one hour kora (pilgrimage circuit) before sunset. I was still deep in the interior of the monastery and it was hard to make out which building was which. The monastery complex is essentially a small city, and it's easy to get lost.

I came across two boys around 12 years old in age, one of them a monk-in-training and the other his friend, who, using a combination of Mandarin and my very limited Tibetan, helped point me in the right direction. As they guided me through the labyrinth of narrow alleys between the monastery buildings, we spotted an adult ram, about 100 pounds or so, with long, sharp horns. He was repeatedly charging at full speed into a padlocked wooden door. The young monk and his friend immediately lost interest in helping me, the foreign tourist, and began the more exciting game of Terrorize the Ram.

The monk's friend yelled several times at the ram to get its attention, but failed to distract it. Then the boy threw some small stones at it. The ram finally stopped charging at the door, turned around slowly to face us, and gave the boy an antagonistic death-stare. The ram just stood there, not moving, staring with its pointy horns aimed at the boy. The boy interpreted the ram's angry look to mean “I want to play more”. He then ran up alongside the ram and grabbed its horns like a Texas steer-wrangler. After several minutes of alternately restraining the ram's head by its horns and shaking it abruptly, the boy let go.

The previously introverted ram could take no more abuse. At this point it angrily bounded down the stairs and started to chase the three of us through the narrow corridor, Pamplona running-of-the-bulls-style. I was motivated to keep running by a strong desire not to experience a tetanus shot and stitches in the Lhasa hospital. A stab wound in the backside from two razor-sharp horns would be rather painful.

After several minutes of running, Mr. Ram stopped to rest, and it was again time for the boy to wrestle with the ram. The boy approached from the front, in front of the ram's face, and grabbed its horns. To the boy's back was the locked wooden door of another monastery building. Unlike the first horn-wrangling, this time the ram wasn't going to take the abuse without a fight. With the boy holding on to the horns, the ram charged forward and slammed the boy into the door, over and over again, with a resounding whumph sound. The boy had no choice but to hold on tightly or he'd get horned in the gut. The strength of the ram was very impressive. It wasn't as passive and weak as I had though, in fact it was overpowering the boy. After body-slamming the boy several more times, the ram rested again. The boys sprinted down the corridor past me, enticing the ram to chase after us again. This meant that I also had to run to keep up because otherwise the first person it came across would be rammed.

This cycle of antagonizing-chasing-running continued several more times. Eventually the boy held the ram by its horns so I could get by, and I was able to escape. Who ever thought monastery life could be this exciting?