Monday, December 31, 2007

Our original Great Wall plan was to go to the 3 hour distant Simatai section. In the end we opted for the closest and more touristy Badaling section, given that it's not high season. I wanted to find the #1 or #5 tourist bus which leaves from the very street our hotel is on, but I couldn't find it and we ended up on a tour bus. The price was more or less the same, and the kids went free. So no damage done.

The organisation and cleanliness of the first day gave way finally to the kind of chaotic mess that I was expecting. We were bumped from bus to bus, each one messier than the last before we finally got underway. The windows of the bus, like those of the hotel, werre cakes in dried, fine dust, and indication I suppose of how things can be here when the sky isn't as blue as it continues to be for us right now.

Most of the other tour passengers were Chinese, and our relative rareness as Westerners continues to surprise me. It took 1.5 hours or travel time to get to the Badaling section, and then out we got and started marching. We ignored the cable car option and walked to the main entrance. It was busy enough but not crazy, there were vendors aplenty but not as many as Tiananmen square, and everywhere were signs of present-day China. But the wall was magnificent.

The steepness of certain sections bordered on sheer drop but that didn't stop Sara. She hit the trail like a bargain hunter in a sale and we struggled to keep up with her. If she had her way we were going all the way to the Yellow Sea. She slept all the way there, and all the way back, but she gave the wall, and the overpriced hot chocolcate afterwards, her undivided attention.
(you can check out all our photos uploaded so far here)

It's already 2008 here in Beijing, and the jetlag has another day to run, I think, so I'm wishing you a Xinnian kuaile (Happy New Year) from a pre-dawn hotel room in Beijing.

Thanks for the comments on the previous entry. The Great Firewall of China lets me post to my blog, but not to read it (and so, not to reply directly to comments). Tomorrow we'll be staying nearby, going to the Temple of Heaven (that's right Mam - I'm going to to a church, and it's not even Sunday) and wandering slowly North to Qienmen to browse the older alleyways (hutong) of the city. We got a small taste of them yesterday when we needed a pharmacy, and I think it's going to be an interesting experience. We might even take in a show - more tomorrow.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Blue skies and jetlag

What can I say? The only reason we ventured out in -2 C instead of staying in our nice warm hotel room is that we have to try to kick the jetlag rather than just succumb. Beijing looks fantastic, even clean. I was expecting dust and smog but we have been lucky so far. The airport was a model of efficiency, and folks on the street are fun. The hawkers of various tat on the street are prepared to laugh it off when you tell them they're too expensive. And the requests for photos with the laowei kids is actually quite charming (though that might wear off).

We're going to ground for the next 18 hours or so, with a view to going to the great wall tomorrow at a reasonably early hour. Till then.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Next Stop Beijing


That's it - that's our world for the next 8 months. Two samsonsites, two rucksacks, and a little knapsack each for carry-on and day-tripping. Total weight is a little over 80 kilos. One bag won't be opened till Sydney as it contains Summer clothes. The rest are organized like data striped across a high-availability database architecture (what now?): There's a little bit of everything across all of them, so that if one, or even two of them go missing, we're still in business. Each of the four big ones is tagged with a metal Global Bag Tag - thanks Cheryl! - and the knapsacks contain books, diaries, Nintendos, playing cards and so on (many of which were gifts from friends and family).

The mood here now is unexpectedly normal. Packing for long stays is something we're used to, so we're in a familiar frame of mind, and everything feels like it should do.

We had an Irish Wake in my brother's house this evening, which we unfortuntely had to leave quite early. It was the best way to say goodbye to my family - all together and smiling. Nina and Sara's cousins tried to hide them under a bed when it was time to go, but to no avail.

This time tomorrow, we'll all be 4 hours out from Beijing. At last. Next post, Great Firewall of China permitting, will be from that city.

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Nothing Left to do but Wait

In a little over 24 hours, we'll be getting on board the first of many planes, this one to Heathrow, and then on t Beijing. Anything that we haven't done by now isn't going to get done. All that's left now is to say goodbye to family, and to wait for the Earth to make one more spin before we can get finally started.

I'm surprisingly calm (though the same cannot be said for everyone else in the family right now). As a family, we're in the eye of the storm - out of the toddler stage and not yet into the teenage years. This is what makes the timing of the trip so right. And today we're in the eye of another storm. The last few years of talking and months of preparation have been both good and bad, but never calm. The months to come will present their own challenges and rewards. But right now, time has slowed right down in the way that only seems to happen in waiting rooms and departure lounges.

I'm listening to RTE Radio 1, where they're talking about the year that has almost gone, but in my own mind it's already over. When we get on our second flight tomorrow, we'll be heading East, jetting through the time zones, shortening our evening and night by 8 hours, chasing 2008 rather than just waiting for it to come around.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sporking, and other Travel Fetishes

Behold the Spork.

Letizia just couldn't resist buying this in Maher's Outdoor shop in Cork recently (a great shop with one of the worst websites I've seen in years). I'm trying hard to understand the circumstances under which we're ever going to need one of these things. If a restaurant's hygiene is so poor that I don't want to use their cutlery, I'm even less likely to whip out my spork and actually eat their food. I'm also unconvinced that I'll be tucking into any accidental treats, Joey-from-friends-style:

In fact, I'll be amazed if our Sporks ever get any use at all (and given their similarity to the Italian word for dirty - sporco - I wonder how they get marketed there. Would you buy an eating utensil called Filth-ee (tm))?

That's not all we've picked up in Mahers. Oh no. There's a certain specialized camping fetishism that has taken hold at home. Ultra-thin towels that you can wring bone dry. No-water-needed soap, when you really need to get those hands clean. And let's not forget the thermal underwear (getting into mainstream fetishism here a bit).

PS: Ka - these parentheses were all for you ;-)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Australia: Even Their Farts Don't Smell

I love this. The search for reduced emissions can lead to some really interesting places - a kangaroo's backside being one of them. Kangaroo stomachs are not only much more efficient than those of cows (getting up to 15% more energy from the same input) but there is no methane byproduct as part of their digestion process. An enormous 15% of Australia's greenhouse emissions are produced by cattle and sheep (in New Zealand it's more like 50%!!) so this problem is serious.

The solution is obvious: eat kangaroos!(*) Apparently that idea isn't very palatable to most. Some undoubtedly don't like the idea because they find kangaroos cute (my daughters - no strangers to methane production themselves - fall into this category). Others won't touch the stuff because kangaroos are, effectively, giant rodents (the Chinese for a kangaroo translates literally as "pocket rat"). But a growing percentage of Australians consider the meat of this iconic animal to be not only tastier, but healthier, than beef.

But what if the idea caught on, and everyone started eating their national symbols. Would we see Roasted Eagle on American tables? Braised Bulldog on sale in English gourmet pubs? Frogs served in French restaurants (oh - hang on...)

But back to greenhouse gas emission - what are we going to do about Guinness drinkers...?

(*) Apparently not obvious enough for some scientists, who think the most logical approach is to put kangaroo stomachs into cows and sheep. I wonder if any of these guys were on the EJB committee (Nerd Humour - ignore at will)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Filling in the Gaps in Meaning

The brain is the great interpolator. If you give it part of the message, it will fill in the gaps based on memory and guesswork. Anyone who has ever heard a 6-year-old singing Red Hot Chili Peppers songs - i.e. anyone who has ever waited outside a toilet cubicle while my youngest daughter is performing, in both senses - will attest to the potential for humour. "Gladly, The Cross-Eyed Bear" is a famously mis-interpolated lyric, as filtered through the mind of a child hearing the devotional "Gladly the Cross I'd Bear".

The first time I went to live in Germany, I was renting a flat in the historical centre of Nuremberg. The owner was a teacher who was going to live in Africa for a while, to work on an education project there, and she left behind a great little library, mostly in German. I was trying to learn the language at the time, so I spent whatever moments of sobriety I had leafing through some of the more accessible books. Inside the cover of one, I read a quote, which thanks to my confusion between the German words Zweifeln and Zwiebeln, I took to read:

The greatest pity is this: That the stupid are so certain, and the wise are so full of onions.*

This is a philosophy that has informed my actions ever since (notwithstanding the subsequent discovery that the last work should in fact have been doubts.)

(*) The mangled quote above belongs to Bertrand Russell and I value it to the same extent that I do Billy Connelly's:

Never trust anyone who, when left alone in a room with a tea-cosy, doesn't try it on.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Language and Music

One of the themes that I've picked out for this trip, for myself at least, has been music. Why? Because where ever you go on the face of the planet, where you find people, you also find music. Like language itself, it seems to be built in to the structure of our brains. And like language, it is both universal and provincial.

After my review of I Am A Strange Loop, David French pointed me towards a very interesting book called This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin. I'm only into the 4th chapter or so, but already a couple of things have cropped up that are worth mentioning. I had heard - a long time ago - that Asian systems of music were quite different to, say, European ones. In particular, I was told, octaves were divided into finer intervals than our semitone. According to Levitin (who is not only a musician, and music producer but also a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist - don't you hate him already?) this is not so. There might be more use of temporary intermediate notes - the equivalent of a blues string bend - but the tendency to break the octave into twelve intervals is found pretty much everywhere, including Asia.

What does change is the way that scales are organized. Where children in the West learn their Do-Re-Mi scale, each with eight notes, there are 5 specific pentatonic scales (5 notes each) in the Chinese system. Scales are purely internal inventions of the human mind - they don't exist in the real world. As such they are learned - or at least partially constructed on the biological foundations of the brain's ability to understand music - and so have a strong cultural component. This is why Chinese music sounds Chinese, or Irish music sounds Irish.

So just like language, music is something we are all born to understand, even if we learn to speak it differently, depending on where we're born. I think this means that no matter how much I might find I enjoy Chinese (or any other) music, I'll probably never understand it, and so appreciate it, as fluently as a native. Though perhaps the same can be said of any inexpert listener, even of their own music.

Sardinian Singing
Another interesting insight I got from this book relates to a particular kind of singing performed in Letizia's native Sardinia. I have already heard a lot of canto a tenore and I have a few CDs of one of the most famous performers of this style, called the Tenores di Bitti. I quite like this style - though it's best enjoyed, like Italian food, in small portions. Four male voices interact with three of the singers providing close harmonies while the fourth leads. But when the harmonies work just right, our brain - masterful at interpolating frequencies that it feels should be there - put in a fifth, female pitched voice called the quintina. Tradition has it that this is the voice of the Virgin Mary, joining them in song as a reward for their precise harmonies. Even a godless man like me can't help favouring this interpretation.

Reading Ahead: Check out Shelfari

I know that Letizia uses Book Crossing as a place to keep her bookshelf online. I've tried out a few mechanisms, including Google Books and now Shelfari. I prefer the look and feel of the latter, despite my somewhat unhealthy proclivity for all things Google.

I've just added a widget to the bottom of this blog with my bookshelf - or at least those books that have to do with the trip. What's there I've read, though I'll start to add wishlist items as well soon. If you have any recommendations, please do add a comment to this entry and I'll add them to the shelf.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Do you read this blog?

If you already know about RSS and feed readers, change channel now.

If you'd like to understand how this and other blogs can tell you when there's a new post to read, so you don't waste your time coming all the way over here and find there's no new content (or worse, forget to come back and miss the news that, say, Queensland crocs have eaten our passports or altitude sickness really does affect men more than women) then watch this short, informative and entertaining explanation of RSS.

If you like the idea, then click the RSS button on the right to subscribe to this blog.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Less than a month to go

Time for a summary of the situation.

I started blogging about this trip a year ago when my bosses in DSI gave me the thumbs up to take 8 months unpaid leave. But this project has been gestating for years in the form of what-if conversations between Letizia and I. This is the effect that talking about something over and over can have. With every word, you breathe life into the project. The actions come almost as a natural consequence once the project is real enough in your mind. This is the power of words.

The dynamics of how this project came about, and even the reasons for it, are interesting enough in their own right. Letizia is, objectively speaking, nuts. When she gets it into her head that something is worth doing, she wants to drop everything and just do that thing. Luckily for me, the things that occur to her as 'good ideas' are reasonable enough to make me a willing accomplice. Luckily for her, I am stable/boring enough to insist that instead of just dropping everything else that's going on (you know, kids' education, earning a wage - that kind of mundane stuff), we try to at least put things down gently, one by one, in the hope of finding everything in one piece when we're done. I fear the day she decides that we need to go tomorrow-dammit-there-isn't-a-moment-to-spare, to the savannas of southern Africa to help save the white rhino. More that that, I fear the moment when I say why-wait-till-tomorrow! Anyway, this is the way our circus has lurched from town to town over the last 12 years, and strangely enough, it kinda works.

When we tell folks about our plans, we notice an interesting division of reaction. About half of the reactions are about how 'brave' we are, the other half is all about what a good idea it is. Interestingly, it is mostly our Italian friends and family that consider us brave, while the Irish simply approve. I'm assuming that 'brave' is a codeword for 'stupid' (a la Yes, Minister), and on many's the occasion I find myself agreeing with them. The fact is that I have very little idea why I want to do this. I have very little idea why I asked my first employer in Dublin to wait for a month before I started so I could interrail around Europe. I have very little idea why I desperately wanted to get sent to Germany by that same employer. I have very little idea why I packed in that job in '95, before I had another job to go to, in order to move to France (where by good fortune and no thanks to planning I found another job straight away).

The only little idea that I have is this: I am by my nature lazy, unimaginative and too easily lulled into a false sense of fulfillment by predictable routine. I have known this since my early twenties, and occasionally acted on it by self-administered kicks in the ass such as those mentioned above. Travel is a kick in the ass. It can be stressful - it certainly acts for me as a great way of getting uncomfortable, challenged and exposed to aspects of myself, good and bad, that I wasn't previously aware of. Some people can do this without leaving home, and I wish I had their imagination. Others can push themselves much further in their travels and I wish I had their courage. But you have to work with what you've got, and that, I suppose, is what I'm doing.