Sunday, May 19, 2013

Do Buy

Yes, it’s true. On Monday, April 29, Ramon and his wife Nallely and I flew from Beijing to Dubai and hung out there for a week. It’s also true that the night before we left, I lost my bank card and still hadn’t made certain reservations in Dubai that we needed in a few short hours and had my credit card blocked, but it’s true that we overcame all of that, as well.

Quick facts: Dubai’s population is about two million, only 20% of which are native Emirati. Location: southeastern coast of the Persian Gulf, north of Saudi Arabia. It’s not very big. Languages: Arabic! But most people spoke English to us. And, of course, Dubai produces between fifty thousand and seventy thousand barrels of oil each day. A few barrels short of my face's output in seventh grade, but still noteworthy.

Dubai, I think, was not my type of place. There are sweet places to go and amazing things to see there, and since this is some dude’s blog post and not a calculating persuasive argument, the following text will mostly be about those sweet places and amazing things. But I did not love Dubai. 

When we got there, we went to an architecturally old, intentionally preserved area of Dubai and to the Gold Souk. We took a few pictures as we wandered around what appeared to be Dubai's infrequently-visited “Old Town” area – the Bastakiya District, and Ramon bought a full get-up of Arab clothing in the gold market to fit in more with the locals. Was the get-up made of gold? No. Why was it in the gold market? I’ll leave that to your imagination. 

Another place we stopped by was a mosque – the Jumeriah Mosque – and it was closed to we non-Muslim visitors but tastefully constructed nonetheless. The number of mosques which I have been to this year has increased, like, 800% from the rest of my life combined. The percentage of increase for days on which I have heard the call to prayer is about seven times higher than that. Thank you, Turkey and Jumeriah Mosque.

Shopping seems to be a hit in Dubai, and while we did not shop, we did find our way to a few of the huger malls that exist within the city’s sizable limits. One was The Mall of the Emirates; it is well-known because of its size and because of the fact that it has a ski run inside it. We took a gander at the skiing but settled for Coldstone instead. The mall I hated the least was The Dubai Mall. It was even huger – obviously, because it’s the biggest mall in the world – and not only was it very new, but the décor was actually sweet. And I am not a person who usually gives a crap about décor. There was a wing designed with traditional Middle Eastern architecture, there was a huge aquarium dominating one stretch (does that count as décor?), and there were also some more artistic ceiling designs looming over shoppers and non-shoppers alike. 

Next to the mall is the Dubai Fountain. It is a big pool that shoots water up into the air in time with music and tints the projected water with colored light, and it is pretty beautiful. The pool is overlooked by the Burj Khalifa and countless other new, slick skyscrapers and buildings, and it is quite a site. I didn’t take any photos of the fountain in action, but here is one of the Burj Khalifa scraping the sky above it, along with some friendly dust particles. 

The Palm. Arguably the most ridiculous in Dubai. So ridiculous, it cannot be captured in photographs. At least, not by me. The Palm is one of three? four? man-made island complexes that were built off the coast of the city. The Palm is in the shape of…a palm tree. There is a main road that goes down the center, and then there are strips of land that jut outward into the sea that form the palm fronds. It’s huge but looks pretty normal if you don’t know that you are actually driving out onto a big, artificial, palm tree-shaped chunk of earth and concrete.

The world’s only seven-star hotel is the Burj Al-Arab. Obviously, this was our first choice for lodgings, but, it was full during the week we visited, so we stayed in some shack, the staff of which had no clue where anything was in Dubai or how to get people onto the correct tour bus. Our hotel room did have a nice shower, though. Anyway, we stopped to take a closer look at the Burj Al-Arab, and after we had a look at it, we left and never thought about it again. 

But easily the coolest thing in Dubai was the Burj Khalifa. It’s the tallest building in the world. There’s 829 meters of it. It has 163 floors. It cost $1.5 billion dollars. On a day of optimal visibility, you can see the thing from ninety-five kilometers away, which in miles is about the distance from my house in Rock Rapids, Iowa, to the cabin at Spirit Lake! I do not even know what is inside it. Shaq, maybe, and Manute Bol. The observatory and the accompanying amenities are all state-of-the-art, tastefully constructed, very attractive to the eye. We went up, of course, and it was cool, but the BK was constantly in our line of vision from ground level, so I found my awe was more when I was below than when I was up in it. It did not look real. Really. 

Oh, yeah, and: the food was awesome. Diverse. Not native to the UAE. But delicious. We had meals from Yemen, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and a Dubai supermarket, in addition to a few meals of generic (but still tasty) Middle Eastern food (falafel, French fries, etc.). 

But soon we found that there wasn’t much more to do in Dubai other than the places we visited during the first two days, which were the things listed above. Of course, there were more places to shop that we could explore, but we weren’t there to shop. Or spend money. So we ventured out for one day into the desert on a tour.

Getting to the desert was, in all actuality, a venture. We were ushered onto a bus by the tour coordinator dimwit from the hotel with a bunch of other tourists, and we confirmed that we were on the right bus. So there we happily sat with twenty other folks as the bus headed out, into the middle of nowhere. Abruptly the driver got a call and pulled over. He was speaking on and on in Arabic when suddenly a passenger turned around, looked at us accusingly, and said, “Are you three getting down from the bus? The driver is saying that he is throwing three people off the bus.” No, that was not our plan. But, the bus driver insisted, we were to get off the bus. 

Sadly, the story was merely that we’d been put on the wrong tour bus – and not that I and my spying accomplices were Western Christian infidels with a brand new death sentence – and had to switch to…a Hummer. Not as interesting as it could have been. But maybe that’s okay. Eventually we got in the Hummer and went out to this designated desert tour area where we did the following: 1) dune bashing, in a Hummer, with a weaksauce driver who seemed like he was either a complete rookie or a wee bit afraid to really let loose on the dunes 2) camel riding, where Ramon split open the crotch of his pants, I bonked heads with some dude I was sharing a camel with, and, combined, Ramon, Nallely, and I spent less than one minute on the camel 3) turban wearing; some dude just came and put one on me (I know you wish this would happen to you at your job at Travelers Insurance, Inc.) 4) belly-dancer/tanoura dance watching, the former being mediocre and blonde, and latter being excited and hearty of stomach (he literally spun in a circle – in place – for at least five minutes) 5) some other random things that people do in the desert, like handle falcons, dress up in traditional Arab clothing, sandboarding (like snowboarding – although my first attempt at explanation was “waterboarding”) down dunes, henna tattoos, and die of exposure/dehydration. 

When we grew weary of the city of Dubai and its surrounding desert, the three of us took a day-trip to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. It was much the same as Dubai: clean and rich. The dude who took us stopped at a variety of places, including a Ferrari theme park, an art shop, an expensive place to eat that had a cool beach view of the skyline, a museum dedicated to the founder of the UAE, a hotel that we weren’t allowed in, and, after the Burj Khalifa, the sickest structure we stepped foot inside: the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

I do not know what to write about the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. A fusillade of short sentences will have to do. It was really, really white; it was really, really bright. There were massive chandeliers within. There were cool pools of water without. It was giant. It was busy. It was obviously frequented by tourists, tourists like myself who wore shorts, which are generally not allowed in mosques but which seemed to not matter in the least here. It was really, really white. Really. White. Really. 

By the end of the fourth day we were in Dubai, Thursday, there was not much we hadn’t done. Had we had another day, I am not sure we could have filled it with meaningful activities. 

So, anyway, as I was saying, Dubai was not really my type of city. Yeah, I do love huge buildings and stuff that is different from my normal life, and Dubai had that. But it was very much driven by money. Everything was so nice, and it had to be so nice. Or people probably would not go there. Very slick, very clean, ultra modern; this seemed to be the culture. 

Yet, the city is in the Middle East, where the world began, where civilizations have risen and fallen, empires and people groups have flourished and then disappeared, and then reappeared. Dubai didn’t seem to fit in; the place didn’t seem to have character other than the glitter of its architecture and size of its buildings. It’s a super new city; oil was discovered there in the 1960’s, and so then the place started to take off. So it makes sense that we thought it difficult to experience Dubai’s culture. I think, actually, that we did experience its culture, but its culture is just not what I think of when I try to define the word “culture.” 

Which doesn’t make it a bad place. It is just not my kind of place. And, all this is not to say that the trip itself was not super fun. As is most often the case, the people with whom I went – Ramon, Nallely – made the experience memorable. We laughed a lot, whether it was at random dudes yelling, “My passport! My passport? My passport!” at us on the plane in Beijing before we’d even taken off, or at old ladies on the escalator who didn’t understand that stopping at the top of the escalator is a stupid idea, or at unlucky taxi drivers who happened to pick us up. And deeper talks, too, believe it or not. Always better when we’re together. 

Probably won’t go back there, but! It was the taste of the Middle East. It still beckons. There is a lot more to it than some new kid on the block. More depth, more history, more food. More, more, more. I’ll be back. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Rock Rapids, Iowa... Beijing, China.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Operation Golden Dragon, Pt. 6

The following account details experiences that, though due in no part at all to my own efforts, I believe to be possible only in the country I am currently in. Not much writing, but plenty of pictures. Just how you like it, if I recall. It should also be noted that these events are from an incredibly long time ago, in blog-time. Like, mostly last year. I don't still have the mustache pictured below, sadly.

(1) Marco Polo Bridge

November 17, 2012. A sunny Saturday. Dawner and I ventured out to the Marco Polo Bridge, which lies just inside some southwestern part of Fifth Ring Road in Beijing. Going in mostly blind, we were lead by a page of vague instructions and awful Chinese characters I’d copied down from my Lonely Planet guide book. I stepped out of my apartment at around 10 a.m., and we did not reach our destination until about 1 p.m.


Upon arriving, Dawna and I wandered around the fenced-off perimeter of some park nearby the bridge and then along an ancient-looking wall until we reached the end of it, at which point we ventured down the street on the other side of said wall, which turned out to be called Wanping Fortress. Which was where the meat of the journey began, at the Memorial Hall of the War of Resistance Against Japan.



In 1931, Japan’s military occupied a part of China called Manchuria, which is basically the northeastern part of the country. There were intermittent skirmishes during the next six years, but then in July of 1937 – beginning with an incident at the Marco Polo Bridge in Beijing - Japan unleashed the fury and invaded Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Nanjing in the following six months. They remained, whether winning or losing, until 1945, when Japan surrendered to end World War II.

The Chinese army was definitely not as effectively trained or as well-equipped, but they did form the resistance movement that the museum sought to immortalize. An extravagant, grandiose writing style did not detract from the fact that this movement did, in fact, do much to slow down the Japanese invaders during this Second Sino-Japanese war.


I recalled some of the words that Lonely Planet had used to describe this museum: “gory,” since it focused on…well…a war, and “meaningless,” since the guide book said there was no English there. However, once we gained entrance and began investigating, Dawna and I were delighted to discover excellent English coverage throughout the museum. The hall’s content wasn’t particularly gruesome, save for one room that focused on what the Japanese sometimes did while occupying. 



Most of the museum was informative, though some was uncomfortably depressing. While there, some enormous school group overtook us and eventually passed us later in the journey.


When we’d completed our Chinese resistance circuit, we moved on toward Marco Polo Bridge, along with the herd of school children. The bridge is 266 meters long and spans the Yongding River. The structure was originally put up in 1189 and then reconstructed in 1698. Its name in Chinese was Lugou, but when Marco Polo showed up and proclaimed the bridge to be amazing, folks took to calling it Marco Polo Bridge. When the Japanese and Chinese resumed fighting in 1937 at the bridge, it only became more well-known.


Facts we noticed about the bridge:
a) There were a lot of school children there.
b) There were a lot of lion statues there (423? 485? Reports vary, and neither of us can count that high).
c) The bridge is cool.
d) Photographically capturing how the bridge actually looked was difficult.


We walked the length of the bridge, taking pictures, ruining other people’s photos, dodging bikers, and making fun of stuff, and then we ventured to a scenic photo area nearby before turning back and heading for home again.



Cool museum, cool bridge, laid-back day trip, terrible travel time (roughly six hours door to door). And hanging out with Dawna was fun, too.


(2) Jinshanling Great Wall Hike

November 24, 2012. A sunny Saturday. Some student at my school, BWYA, organized a hike on the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, some 125 kilometers from Beijing. Though I figured I’d have some sort of scheduling conflict during that busy time, I signed up and went with the handful of other teachers and twenty-five or so students.



As usual, there is not much to tell about this hike. It wasn’t too cold until we stopped moving. We entered at one point, hiked about five kilometers, ate lunch, and then returned the way we’d come. The hike wasn’t hard, but it was, as always, awesome to get out into blue air and fresh skies.



The only actual happening worth noting was that while we took our sweet little time getting out to the lunch-eating location, on the way back, the unofficial leading teacher said, “Mr. Haggar, you want to take the lead on the way back? Just don’t let them get too far in front of you,” and off we went. I went at a pace that was comfortable for me, not too slow, but not booking it, and I was with some DP1 student with whom I was not well-acquainted. I don’t think he wanted to become well-acquainted, either, as he kept his headphones in to continue listening to what he said was English and German vocabulary words. If only I had a dollar for every time someone’s chosen those things over me.


Anyway, soon a couple kids passed us, and I called that other teacher’s lone instruction: “Don’t let them get too far in front of you.” So my hiking companion and I kept pace with the upstarts who’d been passing us, and soon there was a group of about six that was making amazing time on that return trip. Some of them were students I’d have expected to move quickly and efficiently, whether on a hike or during almost anything, but there were some quiet underachievers who kept the quick pace as well.


My favorite part was the nearly-vertical ascent of a long set of stairs. The fastest kids were halfway up, and I ran up the stairs to catch up (and/or throw up…it was close) with them, and then when we got to the top, we yelled down words of encouragement to those still struggling up. 

Eventually the quick six-pack reached the exit point and headed for the bus, and I sat and looked at the brown autumn landscape and congratulated other students as they finished the trek.



Then the last group – all the other teachers – arrived, and we walked down and to the bus and then returned to Wangjing. Another seemingly-casual trip to one of most famous tourist attractions in the world. Thanks, BWYA. 

(3) Hong Qi Migrant School Brick-Moving Gala

December 8, 2012. A sunny but very, very windy and very, very cold Saturday. Thirty or so students and six teachers from my school congregated at the school campus and rode a bus to Hong Qi Migrant School, fifteen or twenty minutes away. On the agenda: moving bricks. With our hands.

In Beijing there is a lot of money and lots of jobs. Folks come from the countryside to work at the jobs that are in Beijing and thus get some of the money that is in Beijing. However, quite often, these migrant workers who come from the countryside are unable to get the proper registration needed to live in Beijing. Live they do, of course, but since they do not have the proper registration, they are denied certain things. One of those things, up until this year, was access to public school education. The children of these workers must go to school, of course, so [previously] illegal schools pop up here and there and everywhere. Needless to say, the facilities, resources, and staff are incredibly lacking in most cases, since there are not stable or plentiful sources of income to pay for the schooling.

Hong Qi is one of these schools; my school (though I must point out that I have had nothing to do with HQ) has often gone over to paint or play or some such support. On the Saturday that I went, our task was to move 20,000 bricks from the entrance of the school’s property to the other end, at the back, where the bricks would be used to build a new classroom. We only had our hands and arms.

Here are some facts about that day:
a) It was awesome.
b) Dust blew everywhere, and it was extremely dry.
c) We were able to move less than half of the 20,000 bricks, despite the fact that upon arriving, Mr. Fleming and I both saw the pile of bricks and thought we’d be done in an hour.
d) Some kids showed up with no hats, or no coats, or no gloves, or sometimes a combination of these, or sometimes all three.
e) Two girls quit carrying bricks halfway through and sat in the school’s office and cried. I am not making this up; I saw the tears splash down on their coat sleeves from their downcast heads as I tried as hard as I could to cajole/not scream at them.
f) Most of the other students, whether I expected them to or not, stepped it up quite a bit and worked impressively hard.
g) The arms of every person I talked to the next day were virtually useless.
h) I yelled most of the day, mostly obnoxious encouragement, but sometimes insults at whomever was at the head of the brick-passing line.
i) The Chinese guy who was the principal of the school worked harder than all of us.

It was a cool experience, especially since there was so much the kids could take away from it. Below are some photos. The first picture is the pile of bricks when we arrived.

This was our assembly line. We encouraged behind-the-back, no-look brick-passing.

William inspecting some bricks. 

Three champs from my homeroom and one from Ramon's hauling like they've never hauled before. I was mad proud of them for not falling down and dying.

Me with a record number of bricks: fourteen. It might not seem like that much. But consider my bird arms, and then think again.

The last  picture is the pile of bricks when we departed.

(4) Pollution

January 30, 2013. Or the entire week surrounding this date: the air reached a state of pollution that I’d never seen before. It’s true that I knew the pollution was bad in Beijing prior to coming; I’d heard living here was like smoking seventy cigarettes a day (and my usual intake was only about 30, before!). And it’s true that I’d seen some pretty polluted days in Beijing prior to this infamous week. But the end of January went to the next level.

Some context (I know you’ve got time, if you’ve read this far): the Beijing Air Quality Index indicates how many particles of stuff you do not want in your lungs are in each cubic meter of air, according to the U.S. Embassy’s particle monitor in Chaoyang. The scale is below. A more extensive definition can be found at the U.S. Embassy site.

If the AQI gets to around 100, we here in Beijing are pleased. If the AQI in London reaches 100, the schools are shut down and the mayor is suddenly under scrutiny.

During the last week of January, however, the pollution level reached 750. Yes, that is not even on the chart. I heard of places nearby that reached over a thousand as well. The public schools canceled their P.E. classes (my school didn’t). Air purifiers became one of the hottest items flying off the shelves (check out the stockpile that my school purchased…and stored in my office), second only to industrial-strength face masks. The number of patients experiencing respiratory problems in the hospital rose 20-30 percent. Flights got canceled. I quit doing naked yoga on my roof.

A spectacular (read: awful) photo montage of the city’s pollution problem can be found in this photo article on The Atlantic website; it is called “China’s Toxic Skies.” Other articles that I thought were interesting:

- This page from NASA’s Earth Observatory page that contains disheartening satellite images of Beijing.
- This article from The Guardian that doesn’t speak highly of how the Chinese authorities handled or have handled the pollution problem in Beijing.
- These two informational articles from The Guardian and Time, respectively, that merely summarize the situation.

It was awful. But it’d be a lie to say the air has gotten healthier. It’s just less awful than it was that week. Here’s a picture from outside my apartment window at 7 a.m. one morning during the smog infestation.

What kind of a statement am I making by posting this as a “cultural experience,” right alongside a trip to a migrant school and to the Great Wall? Make your own judgements about that, I guess.