Tag Archives: ASIA

Travel Writing and China: The Giant Dragon of Henan and More

dragon 2By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Kevin Dolgin, the author upon whose book this column embroiders, is fond of both dragons and statues. So, in a veritable explosion of inspiration, we Googled up “statue + dragon”, and found a story from the Xinjua News Agency. It’s complete with pictures, including one that looks like an aerial photo, but must be an artist’s rendering.

In the middle of China, in Henan Province, there’s a mountain called Shizu, with a long backboney ridge and an expanse of national forest around it. The entrepreneurial Zulong Company set out to build a 13-mile-long dragon along the crest of the mountain, pretty much like the Great Wall, actually, only this structure would have a 100-foot-high dragon head at one end and additional tourist attractions like museums and shops inside its body. The symbolic purpose would be to celebrate the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic.

The article reads:

Some 5.6 million pieces of white marble and gilded bronze are to form the dragon’s scales as a move that is “symbolic of the country’s 56 ethnic groups.” Display rooms offering themes of filial piety and patriotism are to be set up in the dragon’s hollow body. For a fee, people will be able to have their names and messages inscribed on the scales, and companies can advertise on the dragon’s head.

What an audacious concept! The company got as far as constructing half a mile of the body, plus a large portion of the head, when the press and the public got wind of it and started to raise hell. Bitter controversy ensued, with the opposing sides saying the same things opposing parties everywhere always say. One faction claims it’s a waste of money and bad for the environment; the other says tourists will come, and local residents will be employed. The builder says the government promised to support the project. But the government apparently changed its mind. (“One thing to keep in mind in China: never become obsessive about finding the answer to seeming illogical behavior. There’s so much of it that you could go crazy.” – Kevin Dolgin)

Okay, now the plot thickens. From a very official-looking web page simply titled “Tour,” we learn that Shizu Mountain and its surroundings constitute on official beauty spot, with a recreational park for “tourism and sightseeing, holidaying, and patriotism education.” But not, apparently, a giant dragon. What has been done or will be done with the parts of the dragon already built is a mystery. There is, however and incidentally, another dragon project mentioned on the page, this one in Puyang City, called the “Restoration Project of the ruins of the First Dragon in China.” It concerns the construction of a dragon theme park to include a sage’s musum, a sage’s temple, an ancient school, and best of all, a mythical paradise.

But there’s more on the Shizu Dragon elsewhere: a report by Jeffrey Hays called “Facts and Details” says, “The project was halted in 2007 for lack of a permit.” Such a shame, after all that work and expense, and besides, the trees were already cut down.

At “Eat, Run, Read,” Mollie shares her impressions of a book called Lost on Planet China: On Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation by J. Maarten Troost, with some interesting excerpts from Troost, and a yummy noodle recipe thrown in. In “Rumbles on the Rim of China’s Empire,” Edward Wong, who has written extensively on Asia for The New York Times, talks about the Xinjiang autonomous region and its troubles, some of which stem from the immigration of many former Henan residents (who might have been able to stay home, if the 13-mile dragon project had survived bureaucratic entanglements). There’s a marvelous-sounding book called Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China, that includes centuries worth of travel writing by Chinese authors, and can apparently be downloaded online for free.

Kevin has been to China, specifically to Grand Epoch City, which is the subject of one of his most entertaining dispatches in The Third Tower Up From the Road. The titular tower is part of the Great Wall, and what it’s up the road from is Huanghuacheng, in a section of the Wall that was only recently opened for public consumption, and it’s not the part that tourists usually visit. This tale is also dragon-related — not the long slinky fiery type of dragon, but the lady Kevin and his friend had to pay, so they could climb her ladder.

Do you have an example of the mystery and illogic of China? Send it in!

photo courtesy of gwydionwilliams , used under this Creative Commons license

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Of Taxis and Tuk-Tuks

Tuk-tuks By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

From the scholarly streets of one of England’s venerable university towns comes the story of the tuk-tuk proposal, as related by Jack Grove in the Cambridge Evening News. Grove, on closer scrutiny, appears to be one of those eclectic-minded journalists who writes about everything. He provides some helpful background to raise our tuk-tuk awareness:

¦ Tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled motorised rickshaw, is named after the spluttering noise emitted from its engine.
¦ They’re very popular in the Indian sub-continent and Far East, particularly in busy cities such as Mumbai, Bangkok and Delhi.
¦ Models proposed for Cambridge would carry a driver and two passengers, would have seatbelts and a maximum speed of 35mph.

These little vehicles, which seem more appropriate to a circus ring than a city street, are cute, but are they safe? A tuk-tuk can roll over, and it’s eggshell-frail, so there is little protection for passengers in the event of collision with, say, a bus. The safety issues are pointed out by the taxicab companies, whose motives are purely altruistic and community-minded.

Thus far, only one entrepreneur has applied for a tuk-tuk license in Cambridge, but worried clingers to the status quo have warned the public that once you let one fleet of tuk-tuks loose on the streets, others will soon follow. And they’re probably right.

The proponents say that tuk-tuks could help alleviate the congestion in the ancient streets, even if all they do is carry around guided tour parties, which is about as far as the idea extends, for the moment at least. They say we have the technology to improve on the Thai or Indian tuk-tuk designs, and with a speed limit of 30 mph they should be safe. Besides, your average tuk-tuk gets 150 miles per gallon of fuel. Which is always a plus.

In The Third Tower Up From the Road, Kevin documents his surprise to find that in Manila, the tuk-tuk is an unknown species. Instead, you find vehicles that are kind of like bicycles with sidecars, some with the same rickety motors, others just with pedals. The passenger compartment is covered on top and open on the sides.

However, he does go on to say a few well-chosen words about Filipino taxi drivers. You might also want to check out his review of the tuk-tuk drivers of Thailand.

In other international taxi-related news, we note that Seoul, Korea, has a fleet of 120 taxis for the exclusive use of foreign visitors, with English- or Japanese-speaking drivers, that can be reserved by phone. In Myanmar, you can still catch a cab that’s so rusted out, the road can be seen through the floor. In the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the government has given up on trying to regulate taxis, much to the detriment of tourist transportation. In Colombia, travelers are warned not to get into a taxi that already has two occupants, and advised to let the driver see that you are memorizing the number on the side before getting in.

China is about to acquire 1,000 London-style taxis, which will be manufactured in Hangzhou. In the Shanghai Daily, Dong Zhen and Ni Yinbin report that Shanghai installation of special rooftop lights in all of the city’s 40,000 taxis. A taxi must signal availability, and then make itself available to any passenger who wants to ride, rather than being picky on the basis of whatever criteria taxi drivers tend to be picky on the basis of. Shanghai also now offers a hotline that travelers who speak English, Japanese, French or German can call for help in communicating with taxi drivers. And Laura Bashraheel reports from Saudi Arabia on the sad and very expensive plight of foreigners and, more importantly, of Saudi women, since neither class of people are allowed to drive. Taxis are not a satisfactory solution.

At TechCrunch, Jose Antonio Gallego Vazquez gives advice specific to Madrid, Spain, while at Associated Content, Jeffrey Hanes offers five handy foreign-taxi-savvy tips, and Jose Soares offers several more. General rules everywhere include: carry plenty of small-denomination money so you don’t encounter a situation where a driver claims he is unable to make change. And always, always check for stray belongings before exiting a car, which is so much easier than trying to track them down after your taxi has driven away.

Sicilian photo courtesy of geoftheref, used under this Creative Commons license; Thai photo courtesy of Marshall Astor – Food Pornographer , used under this Creative Commons license; Cuban photo courtesy of exfordy, used under this Creative Commons license

Cambodia, Not Swimming: Angkor

preah khan

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Today, we consider a piece by the maestro himself, Kevin Dolgin, whose lovely “One Dollar Cow: Angkor, Cambodia” can be found at McSweeney’s.

Here’s the convoluted reason why. Poking around in cyberspace, we encountered a helpful web page where Susan Breslow Sardone, longtime Romantic Travel Guide for About.com, recommends destinations based on a traveler’s zodiac sign.

Now, it happens that Mr. Dolgin is a Gemini, a type of person described here as having a “quicksilver mind” which needs plenty of stimulation in the form of novelty and action. The compiler of astrological trip-ticks assures us that the ideal Gemini destination is … “a great city.” Several possibilities are mentioned, all in the United States, two of them being Las Vegas and San Francisco.

Both these cities have been delineated by Mr. Dolgin in his essay “The West,” which appears in Kevin’s new book, The Third Tower Up from the Road. And while they are undoubtedly both great cities, neither one is what you might call exotic. So, onward to the jungles of Cambodia, and the remains of an urban center the size of Los Angeles.

First, we learn that Angkor means “city.” In the record business this is known as an eponymous title. And why not? Many groups throughout history have called themselves names that meant, in their tongues, “people” or “humans,” so why shouldn’t a city be called “City?” Especially when it surrounds a temple that turns out to be the largest building ever constructed in the service of religion. This edifice, Angkor Wat, is a marvel of the stonemason’s art, every millimeter of it covered with intricate carvings guaranteed to blow your mind.

But if you think this is Angkor’s only temple, think again – about Preah Khan, a former Buddhist monastery which Kevin describes thusly:

It is a vast network of passages crossing each other in a complex pattern that stretches the imagination by its very conception.

And, Preah Khan has been left alone, not scraped bare by archaeologists. So it’s all overgrown with vines, and pleasantly spooky. Pre Rup, a temple featuring pyramidal spires, is also recommended. It was here that the author was offered the one-dollar cow, and also here that his friend recalled and recounted a mystical encounter, in another time and another land, with another cow. “I’ll never forget that,” the author says, and neither will we.

Happy Birthday, Kevin!

SOURCE: “One Dollar Cow: Angkor, Cambodia”

photo courtesy of nimbu , used under this Creative Commons license