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How Many Chinese Does It Take To Screw In A Light Bulb?

July 21, 2011

Tags: water, order, Africa, arid region, Buddhism, camel ride, cave entrance, China, Chinese, cities, competitiveness, cultures, deforestation, desert, desert crossing, desert fort, desert - man-made, Dunhuang, earth, fertilization, France, Germany, Gobi Desert, Great Britain, How Many Chinese Does It Take To Screw In A Light Bulb?, Japan, Jewish property, joblessness, Lanzhou, leaves, light bulb - energy-saving, looting, Mogaoku, museum, Namib Desert, Nazis, Netherlands, nomad hordes, oasis, prayer, Qin dynasty, reforestation, roots, sand, sand dune buggy rides, sandstorm, soil, stress, tourism, traveler, tree planting, trees, USA, wages

This is not a joke, of course. This morning, they came to the hotel room – three of them: A woman, politely knocking and explaining the procedure (by gestures – my Chinese is bad); a man who carried the equipment; another man who screwed in the bulb nimbly and knowledgeable. The bulb was the energy-saving kind.

And all along they had fun, not bothered by efficiency or other Western values. This way, the Chinese government gives everybody a job – at extremely low wages. The Netherlands are another country that thrives on job sharing: People work less hours per week, take a cut in their salaries – and enjoy their increased free time. We, on the other hand, rather have excellent salaries (or the dream that we some day will have them) - and pay with stress, competitiveness and joblessness.

This light bulb changing took place in Dunhuang, in the Gobi Desert. Dunhuang is an ancient oasis and now a modern tourist attraction, with sand dune buggy rides (which I really can’t stand – but the males in our group think differently), camel rides (which I am not sure about) and a wonderful hotel that looks like an ancient desert fort.

In case you think Dunhuang is a little oasis like in the cartoons, it is a city of nearly 200,000 inhabitants that accommodates about a million visitors per year.

In the bathroom is a sign that reminds us that water is the “spring of life” and asks us to preserve every drop of it. Dunhuang is an oasis that is fed by a river that comes from the nearby mountains. Last months, they told us, the river was swelling above the bridge and areas were under water. Now the riverbed is stone-dry.

The Gobi Desert is – unlike the Namib Desert in Africa, about which I wrote before – a man-made desert: People cut down all the trees without reforestation. Without the deep roots and the leaves that fertilized the earth, the soil could hold no longer water. The result was sand, sand, sand – desert. And as always with deforestation, the cities and cultures that were once blossoming faltered and vanished.

Around Lanzhou, in a totally arid region, there is a huge reforestation program underway. I heard it is done this way: Every worker is getting one day per week off to plant trees and to maintain the trees. The outcome can easily be monitored: The trees live or die.

Near the Dunhuang oasis are the Mogaoku – a row of hundreds of caves cut into the rock and furnished with Buddhist shrines. This oasis that has revived travelers for thousands of years was the perfect place to pray for a safe return from the perilous desert crossings – or give thanks, on return. The caves had been built from the earliest Qin times until the thirteenth century, when nomad hordes threatened the area. So, the cave entrances were covered up by bricks and plaster and rocks – and sandstorms further made the sites unknowable.

In 1900, a monk discovered one of the caves by chance. By selling a script or a statue here and there, Western museums got wind of the treasures here, and came in several expeditions and bought up everything they could lay hands on. Thus, the old manuscripts and statues ended in the museums of Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the USA. There they have been preserved probably better than in China – nevertheless, it is a loss China deeply regrets. Other than the lootings of Jewish property by the Nazis and allied forces, these were regular transactions, and it is unlikely that the Chinese will recover the treasures.

China Ramblings

July 18, 2011

Tags: food, water, order, movement, altitude, Beijing, Brisbane/Australia, candle, candy sugar, China, China Ramblings, Chinese date, civilizations, cleanliness, cold shower, conservation, construction, defecation, duck tongue, Earth, entertainment, exercise, family, fireworks, flowers - wild, friends, Gansu Province, grass, Grasslands, green tea, horse, Internet, Lanzhou, laughter, lazy Susan, logan, Mongolia, physiology, rancid, sea cucumber, Silk Road, slaughtering, stress, sunset, temperatures, Tibet, Tibetan minority, Tibetan monasteries, toilet, transportation, tourism, work, yak, yak butter, yak meat

We are sitting somewhere between Tibet and Mongolia in a remote place – Lanzhou - and waiting for our air plane that is delayed for hours ... Of course, we are having fun anyway. Our Chinese friends put together a new trip, with only three days notice - and it turns out wonderful - perhaps even better than the originally planned Tibet trip. We are visiting places along the Silk Road. Anyway, there are so many Tibetan temples here - it feels more or less like Tibet.

Remote place – don’t think “quaint”. China is so modern now, Internet is everywhere, and even the ancient Tibetan monasteries and old-fashioned stores are equipped with every new gadget – the monk this morning had a portable speaker phone to be able to address the crowd of tourists.

One thing about China: The Chinese work very hard, most of them – and driving through the country, one can see it: Tons of construction everywhere. They transport sand and stones – they don’t build one house – they build a whole village or a part of town. Hundreds of little stores along the main roads of a town, and many are producing, not just selling.

There are so many Chinese – and the need to feed the family is pressing. But they seem less stressed than we are, and always ready to smile and laugh - or is this only a superficial impression by a visitor who cannot see behind the faces? Because they are only allowed one child, they cherish that one child. To the point of spoiling - as some observers claim. As a rule, Chinese have not yet much time for entertainment. Their lives are work and family, it seems. Except for a little fireworks on Sundays …

On our first night in Beijing, I ate duck tongue. It is not a delicatessen. It arrives on the table because Chinese people eat everything and they let go nothing to waste. The duck is slaughtered not for the tongue, rest assured. And how does it taste? Like some tiny bit of dried meat on a stick – surprise, surprise: a duck tongue has a bone – or at least something that feels and looks like a bone. I won’t eat it again.

I also ate sea cucumber soup – and that was delicious! I had first eaten it years ago in Brisbane/Australia, and I still like it.

Last night, in the area occupied by the Tibetan minority in Gansu Province, we had dinner in a large gazebo, open to the grasslands and the sunset. First a tea was served with green tea leaves, Chinese dates (which are not really dates) , a sort of dried logan, and bits of candy sugar – an auspicious beginning for a long meal that lasted for hours. A Chinese meal is shared. Everybody sits around a round table with a lazy Susan. The dishes turn round and round, and so are stories and laughter. We are traveling with friends and their family – what could be better?

The temperatures in the Grasslands are extreme: At these altitude, it is very hot during the day, rather chilly in the evening, cold at night. This morning I took a cold shower – briskly cold.

Oh, and Chinese toilets. The toilets are supposed to bring you own. Chinese toilets are holes in the grounds. They have three important advantages:

• They can be kept cleaner than a Western style toilet because one doesn’t touch anything.
• They are more physiological: The squatting position furthers defecation.
• And one gets extra exercise by being forced to squat – it keeps Chinese people nimble in their hips and strong in their legs.

One more story about food: In the grassland I walked up to a parked truck filled to capacity with yaks. They were either a smaller kind, or not yet grown, about a dozen of them, with long rugged hair. I talked to one yak – he was frightened and sniveled and it broke my heart – these beautiful animals on their way to be slaughtered.

Like many of us, I am of a divided mind: I feel with the animals – but I also want to eat. As a physician, I know that many people become depleted in vitamin B12 if they avoid meat, fish and eggs. Personally, I could never be a vegetarian because I get weak after a short time and need some meat – about once a week. At our home, we have frequently vegetarian meals – just not always. – And for the record and the truth – yes, I ate yak meat that very evening because that was what we got served, and I was hungry after a day of sightseeing.

This is the human predicament: We want to do better, but we cannot totally avoid to kill other beings for our own benefit. At least, we should face the suffering we are inflicting, keeping it to a minimum by reducing meat consumption – and say a prayer for every non-vegetarian meal we are having.

We also had the famous nomad tea with yak milk. Whenever I had read about it, the milk was described as rancid. Ours was not – it was a pure, satisfying drink. – On the other hand, we had plenty of rancid yak butter fragrance in our noses today because that is what they make candles out in the monasteries. People bring that rancid butter as a tribute, it seems, plus money.

Last thing for today: The high meadows in the Grasslands are of exquisite beauty. Their wild flowers are full of aroma, and the grass is indescribably fresh. The nomads use it for their horses and yaks – they look so proud on their sinewy horses! I am aware that we come in just as tourists, but the nomads live off the land in a gentle and conserving way – and when most civilizations will have fallen down because we have exploited our good old Earth, these and other nomad people have a chance to repopulate the Earth in a new and better way – hopefully.
Aspen eyes, by Peggy Peters

Iguazu Falls, by Xin Liu

Alexa Fleckenstein M.D. 2012, by Lolita Parker jr.

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