Uzbekistan

Wen and I just wrapped up an eight day whirlwind tour of Uzbekistan. It was four cities, over a thousand kilometers of driving, one desert, countless mosques, madrasahs and mausoleums and more mud bricks than you can possibly imagine.

1.

We started our journey is Tashkent. This city was first rebuilt by the Czar who, after winning The Great Game, instituted his peasant eradication program by building a European-style city in the middle of the Central Asian steppes. The city – which has almost no traffic and only white cars – is full of eight lane boulevards flanked by trees, all of which radiate out from a central square.

On this square is the Hotel Uzbekistan in all its authoritarian glory – and it just happened to be where we were spending the night:

Hotel Uzbekistan

Like many things in Uzbekistan, the hotel is not all it seems to be. Despite the exterior, its interior strives to project the bland persona of a business hotel. Think Chinese machine-made furniture in anonymous colours and too much marble and fake crystal lighting.

However, if you’re in search of a drink of water (alas, tap water cannot be drunk here) like us, you might head up to the restaurant on the top floor, where you’re greeted by this sign:

Club in Hotel Uzbekistan

An internet search reveals the following hint of what might go on up there:

This hotel is typical of what you get in this part of the world but is definitely one of the better ones in the area. Interesting item is that the lift goes to the 16th floor and you walk up to the restaraunt on the 17th floor. When you get out of the lift you will be definitely accosted by several prostitutes, The 16th floor has its own brothel. Girls will be knocking on your door at all hours once they have paid the receptionist to find out where all the single male occupiers are. $50 per girl will give you a night you won’t forget in a hurry. These girls are not ugly and some are quite stunning and are very surprised when they are refused. Buy them chocolates and pink champagne and you will be their hero. I stayed here for several months whilst working in Uzbek!!!!
Food is great and there is an eyeopening floorshow with girls in see through negliges. THIS IS NOT A WIND UP I CAN ASSURE YOU as anyone who has visited/worked in this part of the world.

Needless to say, we went elsewhere for dinner.

2.

What the Czar didn’t destroy in Tashkent, an earthquake in the 1960s did, so there’s not a whole heckuva lot to see. However, there’s a beautiful mausoleum/mosque/madrasah complex that includes the oldest copy of the Koran (alas, no photos allowed):

Khast-Imom Complex

This site (the Khast-Imom complex), like every historical site in Uzbekistan, has been rebuilt. I used to be quite anti-restoration, thinking that if something was ruined, it should simply be left there for us to imagine what it might have been like.

After visiting Uzbekistan, I’m not sure I feel this way anymore. Most of these sites were literally just destroyed arches with a few tiles and collapsed domes. Now they’ve been beautifully reconstructed to almost exactly what they were at the height of their glory. If they hadn’t been remade there certainly wouldn’t be a single tourist who wasn’t an archeology major (instead, every tourist we saw was a 50-plus German or French person; we only saw six people under 40 the entire trip).

3.

As I mentioned above, things in Uzbekistan aren’t always as they seem. For one, the capital appears to be like an Eastern European city: a little shabby due to 50 plus years of Soviet occupation, but coming on strong. However, once you leave the city you realize that things are different. By the time you get to Khiva, mud brick construction is sporadically dotting the highway.

Similarly, the capital has all the trappings of a city, like, say, functioning gas stations. Once you leave the capital you pass abandoned gas station after abandoned gas station. In Bukhara and Khiva drivers were lined up fifty deep waiting for a lonely pump to open based on a rumour that there would be gas there later in the day. Entrepreneurs lined nearby streets trying to flag down cars with black market gas stored in plastic drinking water bottles.

The other major black market is for the currency, the s’um (pronounced like “sum” and “zoom”). There’s been a nasty bit of inflation since independence and since the largest bill is 1,000 (about sixty cents at the official rate), this is what USD 100 looks like; apparently the 10,000 s’um note is coming soon:

Uzbek S'Um

However, you quickly learn that the unofficial exchange rate is much, much higher. In Bukhara I was able to get 2,270 to the dollar – or about 40% more. Your introduction to this comes quickly as everyone – your hotelier, your guide, people on the street – will openly tell you that if you want to exchange dollars with them instead of the local bank, they’ll give you a better rate.

My favourite experience was getting one of our guides to help us exchange money. He led me down a set of near-forested back alleys, across a street and into a market that consisted of near-identical stalls selling a uniquely Uzbek perspective on Western fashion. The tenth or so shop turned out to be our hookup and, amongst the jeans and fur-lined jacket-wearing mannequins, they casually started pulling out stacks of elastic-banded 1,000’s to convert my money.

4.

When most people think of Uzbekistan, they think of Samarkand. It’s the most famous of the former Silk Route cities here, and it has the most massive monuments. Beyond Samarkand, I knew nothing of this country before coming here. And, before coming here, if I’d only seen Samarkand, in my naivete, I would have been satisfied.

The first place most people go is the Shaki-Zinda complex. It’s a series of mausoleums with an attached mosque. The finery of the tiling is incredible:

Shaki-Zinda Complex

The entrance makes you feel like you are walking through an Islamic cavern:

Shaki-Zinda Complex

Another major stop is the Gur Emir mausoleum, where the corpse of Amir Timur is kept. He’s a polarizing figure: he’s got a massive statue built to him in the geographic center of Tashkent; people in the provincial towns that he razed consider him a barbaric murderer.

Gur Emir Mausoleum

Next to his tomb is the tomb of a holy man. There’s an interesting tradition here where holy tombs are marked by a yak tail hung from a high post (and I am not making any of this up):

Gur Emir Mausoleum

But the real reason people come to Samarkand is to see Registan Square: two beautiful madrasahs that balance a mosque. It’s the postcard for all things Uzbek:

Registan Square

The details of the madrasahs are exquisite. The image below shows the one on the right in the photo above. The orange blobs above the arch are massive tiger lions (locals believe that they were tigers with the mane of a lion; alas they were conveniently hunted to extinction before someone did a proper drawing of one) with a face in the moon above their backs. These are unique in Islamic history as they come from a brief period when imams allowed designs that actually included visual representations of animals and – gasp- almost a human. I think the empire fell shortly after.

Registan Square

5.

If you ever find yourself in the Tashkent airport between 3 and 4 pm on a Tuesday you’ll see an interesting sight. Airports are normally a polyglot demesne, but in Uzbekistan it takes on a whole new level as the two carousel arrival area receives two flights from Seoul and one each from Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing and Bangkok. Baggage careens randomly onto one of the carousels at an arbitrary time after your flight’s arrival; the locals while away the time with flagrant disregard for the omnipresent no smoking signs.

Flying in Uzbekistan is also an interesting experience. You never have to worry about which airline you’re flying as there’s only one. Uzbekistan Airways is the only carrier that services the country and it does so via a fleet of battered Boeings and aging Iluskyins interspersed with the odd BA Avro and some things that look like they’re converted from fighting forest fires. There must have been a garage sale on some Eastern European airlines in the 1990s.

They’ve also developed their own flying techniques, most notably the ability to drift into the sky and only then fire the throttle. Avid flyers will notice that this is the anithesis of North American flying where you hurtle down the runway as fast as you can and then gradually reduce thrust once you’re in the air.

People also follow the quaint tradition of clapping upon a successful landing. However, I want to give Uzbek Air credit for it’s landings: they are single handedly the smoothest landings I’ve ever felt. You literally touch down and find yourself noting “oh look, we’re on the ground”. The pilots also don’t immediately hit the reverse thrust, so you have a few seconds to reacclimatize yourself with the Earth before you start to slow down. In fact, the pilot of our RJ 85 (yes, it is a model of plane, look it up) actually managed to slow the the plane to halt using only the brakes: no reverse thrust. It was, simply put, the best landing I have ever had. 10/10.

6.

Samarkand was followed by Bukhara – a UNESCO World Heritage site that I’d never heard of until I arrived there. It’s a shame I’d never heard of it, as it’s an ancient town that has over 500 monuments spread over a few kilometers. As you walk around the town you keep stumbling upon more and more history.

It would literally bore you to death if I were to list all the places we saw, but the highlights include the Kalon minaret and its associated mosque complex. You used to be able to climb to the top of it, but a few years back a geriatric German hurt himself (gee, maybe you shouldn’t try to climb medieval minarets in second world countries…) and then had the gall to try and sue the Uzbek government (good luck winning). In a stubbornly autocratic state this unleashed bureaucratic terror and the minaret is now closed for non-existent “renovations”:

Kalon Minaret and nearby mosques

To navigate to the complex you pass through several of the “trading domes” where merchants used to sell their wares. Now it’s mostly souvenir trinkets:

Trading Dome

On the outskirts of town you can visit the former Khan’s summer palace. It’s built in a combined European/Islamic style and shows the influence that the Czar had over his vassal states:

Roof at Sitorai-Mokhi Khosa

Here’s the roof of the room where breakfast was served:

Roof at Sitorai-Mokhi Khosa  

This palace also has one of the prettiest details I’ve seen anywhere on this trip. Many of the rooms have alcoves that use the cave design that’s so common in mihrabs (alcove in a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca); the cave is an allusion to the one where Mohammed first received his messages from God.

In the palace they’ve painted some of the alcoves white and then placed mirrors on the flat bottom of the cave elements. The effect is sublime:

Sitorai-Mokhi Khosa

7.

I’ve never been on an organized multi-day tour before, but after this one, I could be convinced to take them in otherwise hard to visit places (to get into Uzbekistan you need a visa and that requires an invitation from a travel agency).

Here are some of the characters we met on our tour:

Anastasia. Our Russian guide in Tashkent. She showed up dressed to the nines in all matching black, heels, makeup and fingernails finished purple. She in her early twenties and has a master’s in English – explaining her fluency. She’s paying back the government (her education was free) by working for them; as she battles for choice roles against the sons and daughters of ministers and prominent citizens, she’s learning how the game is played (Uzbekistan is 174th out of 180 in Transparency International’s 2009 corruption rankings. Unlike golf, a low score is bad…).

Serik. Our Kazakh driver. He speaks a creole of broken English, florid Italian and the odd bit of German. He served in the military and his favourite motion is drawing his finger across his neck. He’s full of humour, referring to an old vodka factory as a “communist mosque”. He also refers to himself as “just the driver” but he is full of interesting wisdom, like the fact that the kindly old man who seems to run our hotel in Samarkand actually is the biggest crime boss in town

XYZ. Our guide in one of the cities. A hint of bitterness came into their voice when informing us that “of course, Uzbekistan has a new king now. But don’t tell anyone I told you that!” This was a reference to Islam Karimov, the undisputed leader of Uzbekistan – and the only leader they’ve ever known.

He took office in 1990 and then, after Independence in 1991, started routinely winning 88% of the vote. Realizing that his popularity was making elections a waste of time and money, he extended his term from five to seven years. Next election is in 2014.

He shows up for all the photo ops and is so beloved for his wisdom that monuments and museums frequently contain tributes to him, like this one from the Ulugbek Observatory museum in Samarkand:

On the basis of National program of personnel training developed and carried out under the direct supervision of our President Islam Karimov the modern educational system fairly recognized by the world community is created in Uzbekistan.

8.

Our last stop was Khiva, another Silk Route trading town that I, sadly, knew nothing about prior to visiting. It’s a stunning walled city, dotted with minarets (that you can actually go up!) and palaces, mosques, madrasahs and mausoleums.

While it’s profile is beautiful, it actually appears quite grey:

Skyline

Khiva Panorama

However, Khiva is home to some of the most incredible craftspeople you will ever meet and they have tiled the walls, carved the pillars and painted the roofs of all of their monuments:

Palace

Palace

Juma Masjidi Va Minorasi  

Palace

It’s a beautiful city that we had to rush through in a day; I would have loved to have spent some more time there.

9.

Two things struck me with Uzbek society.

The first is that they are trying to practice autarky (creating an economy that is 100% self-sufficient). Unless they absolutely can’t make it, they don’t import it. This means that you can get a car, but unless you want to pay 100-150% of the price in import duty, you’re going to be getting a locally-made Daewoo or a Chevrolet (and a weird model with a model name like “Lacetti” or “Matiz” or “Nexia”). And it’s going to come in white or silver or black. Why would you want a different colour?

This also means that you can get a chocolate bar, but only one type. Ditto for cola, chips and a whole slew of other consumer products.

It also means that many services, like their airports, pretend at being modern, but since, for instance, there’s only one airline and zero competition, things don’t work as you’d expect. You’ll have time to think about this when two flights leave from the same gate within five minutes of one another (there are not that many flights from Uzbekistan…) and four hundred people need to herd through a six foot wide door to get on unmarked buses to their respective flights. This problem was solved generations ago in competitive economies but autarky means that we’ll have to wait a little longer for the solution to come to Uzbekistan.

The second thing I noticed is how conservative society is.

On our flight to Turkey they played the PG-13 movie “The Duchess”. At the briefest hint of any inappropriate behaviour (usually an amourous scene), the movie would cut away to images of Air Uzbek planes flying over mountains.

The plane also had an informational pamphlet on AIDS that included the following gems:

Q: What is the relationship between HIV/AIDS and people traveling abroad?

A: By going to another country for employment opportunities, business trip or tourism purposes; as well as being away from family in a new environment, changing lifestyles, the person is more exposed to the risk of being infected by HIV/AIDS.

and:

Virus transmission may occur in the following cases:

1. Unprotected sexual intercourse with persons of easy behavior.

This is likely a holdover from the particularly conservative branch of Islam that was/is practiced here and led to sharia being law until 1920. In Khiva, when the law was revoked, there was a festival held where women could burn their body-covering paranjas. Many women burned them and upon returning home with hair uncovered, were stoned to death by their family members.

In fact, the paranja is possibly the most suffocating device ever created to spare a woman the lustful glances of men. It’s a smock that drops down over a woman’s feet and contains decorative sleeves: her actual arms are contained within the garment. The kicker is a veil that’s a mesh of horse hair so that it’s impossible to see any part of the woman’s face:

Paranja

Here’s a too-short one modeled by Wendy:

Wendy in Paranja

10.

The food in Uzbekistan is great. They specialize in lamb shish kebabs; if you get whole meat chunks, they come deliciously coated in salt to keep the flavour in during grilling:

Shish Kebab

Here’s the ground meat alternative:
Ground Lamb Shish Kebab

The locals are also proud of their bread (and they bake it in a tandoor!). Each city has a variant on the same style of loaf; the people of Samarkand claim that there’s is so good that it will stay fresh for 100 years:

Bread

Quite a few dishes involved a stuffed surprise. This one was lamb crepes:

Crepes with Lamb

Here is a pepper stuffed with lamb and rice:

Lamb & rice-stuffed pepper

Again, the food is delicious (if you like lamb). It does take a little while to get used to the cooking style: since Uzbekistan is the world’s 3rd largest cotton exporter, everything is cooked in cottonseed oil.

11.

A few other random things I noted while traveling there:

  • Many Pakistanis come to Uzbekistan as it’s close and cheap. Mostly large groups of men. One of our guides told us that they quickly visit the sites and then go out and get truly wasted as it’s apparently rather difficult to do so back home
  • They used to have slavery in Khiva and on a truly colossal scale. When it was outlawed in 1873, they found themselves with 40K new citizens versus a population that used to only contain 30K official citizens
  • Names are impossible to pronounce here. One particularly overzealous soap opera actor has three apostrophes (!) in his last name
  • The local instruments make beautiful music. Here’s a guy demonstrating a few of them; skip ahead to 1:40 hear him play the Tor (12 strings). The Chang (75 strings) is right after: uzbek_music

Wrapping Up India

1.

We’ve spend the last few days skulking eastwards from Rajasthan towards Delhi. This has given us a chance to see all sorts of little towns that most people won’t see as they don’t have enough time. This is one of the little joys of India: the density of history is so high that there are literally hundreds of towns with something worth seeing. Compared to the great sights of India each is unremarkable, but most countries would kill to have just a couple of towns like them.

We spent a few days in Bharatpur. It initially appeared as a charmless, dusty city but in the middle of it is a massive fort. The moat now swells with plastic bottles instead of water. Once you make it past the ramparts though, things start to change.

It’s a “working” castle: many people live inside the grounds plus there are the remains of various different palaces. Impressively, there’s a park within the walls; this might not sound like much, but it’s quite the luxury for India. Getting a fresh pomegranate juice and sitting in the park was a welcome moment.

The highlight is one of the palaces that has an ancient hammam (Turkish bath) attached:

Palace

Hammam

The main reason people come to Bharatpur is to go to Keloadeo National Park. About 150 years ago the Maharajah decided that he wanted a private duck hunting area. He irrigated a 29 square kilometer plot of land and then would invite people over to slaughter animals with extreme prejudice. The British took him up in earnest; on one particularly bloody day, 39 men managed to kill over 4,000 birds (there’s a plaque to memorialize these brutal hunts).

Fortunately, it’s been a national park for over forty years now so there’s no more hunting. You can while away a pleasant day by renting bikes and exploring the park on your own. We say a wealth of wildlife: black ibises, painted storks (below), kingfishers, peacocks, cormorants, parrots, hare, giant squirrel and the ubiquitous cow (there’s not supposed to graze in the park, but hey, you know…).

Painted Storks

Conveniently, the folks at Keoladeo had jacked their prices – presumably for the Commonwealth Games. The price increase was so sudden that they didn’t even have a chance to update their flyers, which still had the 50% lower price:

Jacked prices at Keoladeo Ghana National Park

About 40 kilometers away from Bharatpur is Deeg, which is famous for its water palace. This massive complex has over 200 fountains (alas, not turned on) and many of the building still contain the original furniture (alas, photography is not allowed).

Main Palace at Deeg

The entire place is a celebration of India’s scarcest resource. Check out the maze created below for catching rainwater:

Maze for rain water

2.

India is a case study in social norms – because when you get here, you realize that so many of the things you take for granted are completely different here. To wit:

  • Spitting. Every morning the men compete with one another to see who has the greatest lung capacity and can summon forth the largest loogie. This is particularly charming when you’re lying in your hotel bed and all you can hear is the sound of nearby hawking.
  • Littering. Almost everyone throws their garbage in the street. If you pay attention you’ll notice the various different ways people dispose of their garbage: carefully pouring it on the curb for a cow to eat, tossing it off the roof or maybe just freely flinging it out the window. If, like me, you’re unlucky, someone will throw their garbage out a bus window at the exact moment you’re passing by in an open-aired tuk tuk.
  • Dress. Shorts are vulgar and a sign of disrespect, particularly if worn in a religious building. However, it is nothing to wear a sari that exposes one’s sagging stomach.
  • Pedestrian rights. In a nutshell, they don’t exist. People will drive right up into you and if you don’t get out of the way you will be hit. If you’re going to cross the road, you’re taking your life into your own hands: don’t expect anyone to try and dodge you. Caveat pedestor.
  • Personal space. Like pedestrian rights, this is non-existent. In an overpopulated country this shouldn’t be unexpected, but it takes a while to get used to people coming right up to you. More awkward is when you’re riding on the bus and the unperfumed man in the seat next to you puts his arm behind you and rotates toward you, allowing his ample stomach to sag over your leg. Did I mention that I hate being touched by people I don’t know?
  • Personal space II. Indians love music and associate it with a good time. Consequently, people play music here all the time (see Agra below). For most people this means on their cellphone. However, nobody uses headphones: they just blare their music without consideration of what anyone else. Manufacturers have caught on: the #1 feature in an ad for a popular phone is its dual stereo speakers.
  • Queueing: forget it, it’s a battle. Everyone for themselves. Sharp elbows are mandatory or you’ll still be standing in line an hour later.

Now, these are social norms and that means that they’re learned behaviour and changeable. The Indian government seems to think that a few of them might be worth trying to change: there are ads on tv to teach people that cutting in the line is bad behaviour and that some civility in driving can be nice. Moreover, in the few areas of the country that have garbage cans (e.g., Amber Fort, parts of Agra) you will see nary a piece of litter.

It will be interesting to see which ones society chooses to keep vs. change.

3.

After Bharatpur we went to Fatahpur Sikri. This tout-filled town used to be the capital of the great ruler Akbar, but it lacks a steady supply of water and was abandoned after Akbar’s death. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site with an impressive mosque and equally incredible palace.

The only thing more ‘impressive’ than the buildings is the tenacity of the touts. We arrived via a motorized rickshaw; touts actually jumped into the front seat where our driver was sitting (people are always hopping on/off the front of your rickshaw, hence this was nothing new) and persuaded him to drop us off far from our hotel. I fell for this, forgetting the basic rule of travel: never get out of the vehicle before your destination, and thus had to deal with the touts.

This was not my finest moment. I was soon swarmed by at least 8 guys all trying to sell me postcards, multiple rickshaw rides, trinkets, bangles, guides, hotel rooms, etc. And nobody would take no for an answer. After trying to walk away and telling everybody “no” at least three times, I lost it. I quickly became that guy I never wanted to be and found myself screaming expletives at the touts to get them to go away. LIke I’ve said many times in this blog, traveling in India can be hard.

After we checked into our hotel we went to Akbar’s great mosque, graced by the mighty 54 meter tall Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate).

Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate)

The touts have taken over this mosque complex – I think mainly because it does not charge an entrance fee. You have to leave your shoes outside where, if you’re a foreigner, you’ll have to pay a kid for the privilege of not having them stolen. Once inside, a tout – who insists that he is not a guide and will not, under any circumstances, accept payment – guides you around the complex; you have no choice but to accept. As you marvel at the architectural details and finery of the mosque and adjoining buildings, you’ll also get to fend off his attempts to sell you blankets, soapstone carvings and the eventual negotiation of a ‘gift’ for his services (and all the while he will tell you that you’re being rude/cheap by not buying anything/giving him more money).

Hallway

Inside Jama Masjid

Hallway in Jama Masjid

Fortunately, next door is Akbar’s tout-free palace complex. Akbar is one of history’s most fascinating rules: while a muslim, he had three wives – one Christian, one Hindu and one Muslim. He understood that it was much more efficient to subdue the Hindu population by negotiation than force and his reign was marked by prosperity and growth. This is evident from the remarkable complex he left:

Panch Mahal

Inside Jodh Bai Palace

Rumi Sultana

One of the most interesting buildings is the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences) where Akbar would speak with is advisors. He stood on an upraised plinth, each connected by a gangway to a corner where a minister would stand. He would ask a question and rotate through his advisors for answers:

Diwan-i-Khas/Hall of Private Audiences

4.

There’s not a heck of a lot to do in rural India at night, so when we’ve tired of reading, we’ve watched tv. Indian television is a 200 channel universe of soap operas, Bollywood movies, singing, dancing, Business Television (talking heads and scrolling headlines who take themselves very seriously), holy men and the odd foreign channel.

You start to realize that there are certain archetypes in the tv culture:

  • The man-child: an early twenties to mid-thirties male who wears jeans and frequently a wife beater (known here in its less pejorative term, the “sleeveless vest”). He is truculent and insolent and incredibly cool yet still able to respect his elders.
  • The urban modern: an early- to late-twenties woman who wears western clothes, works, and lives in an apartment in a major city. She represents all of India’s hopes for the future yet secretly also their fear that modernizing may require them to sell out their culture
  • The self-confident traditionalist: also an early- to late-twenties woman who only wears saris and traditional clothes. She is much more reserved and subdued than her urban modern counterpart, but do not try and run truck over her. She embodies an India unsure of what it wants, trying to balance all of the nation’s history and traditions amongst the technology and pace of the modern world
  • The dominator: mid-forties to mid-sixties men and women who play overbearing father – and more usually – mother-in-laws. Again, this is the best and worst of India. They hold the family together and ensure that traditions and heritage are passed from generation to generation. Simultaneously, they do not easily let their children grow free and learn to live for themselves.

You may notice that there are a couple of groups that aren’t too well represented here:

  • Kids: you only see them in commercials
  • Seniors: as far as tv is concerned, they might as well not exist
  • Women with kids: ditto. You should be at home raising your kids, not being on tv. Only men of this age should be on tv.

Equally interesting are the breadth of commercials (I subscribe that the best way to get a feel for what a society feels about itself is to watch its television commercials). Almost all are deludedly aspirational: people sip coffee or eat snacks in beautiful, modern apartments that look like they’re out of New York or London. Some are ridiculously macho: a beautiful woman in an evening gown signals with a handkerchief, causing a jeep to burst over a sand dune; a man gets out with a golf club and knocks a ball into a cup. And many play to your emotions by using children as pawns; perhaps that why you otherwise don’t see many on tv.

A couple of the more interesting commercials we saw were related to matrimony. Most marriages here are arranged (a Western style marriage is called a “love marriage”) and it’s near impossible for guys to meet girls. One ad we saw was for a matrimony service; think online dating where the goal from the outset is finding a wife.

Another ad started with a stunning woman staring at the camera stating unhappily and stating: “ours was an arranged marriage”. Cut to various scenes of her and her husband feigning interest for one another while obviously masking an inner indifference. However, then one day on the train they try to find each other and realize that they actually love one another! And then they go out and buy matching rings to celebrate the day they fell in love after they were already married.

Probably the strangest thing on Indian television are the channels devoted to various gurus and religious leaders. These channels are pretty basic: a guy sits on a stage and yells/dictates/sings while an audience watches or calls in. This is a very conservative society so there’s no boobs or bad words on tv, but occasionally something odd slips in via these channels. We were flipping channels and witnessed a ceremony where an overweight, naked, middle-aged guru walked up to a row of seated disciples and touched each of them on the head. These brave pilgrims sat unblinking.

Like I said, tv is a fascinating window into a country.

5.

What is that noise? Is someone throwing squirrels in a meat grinder? Has a hyena been run over by a steam roller? Oh no, it’s just 5:30 in the morning in Agra and the local sound system (they’re everywhere in some towns) has decided to crank some Hindi music at 150% of tempo.

Indian sound system

Well, sleep is blown, so let’s get up and go see the Taj Mahal.

But before the Taj, let me tell you about a couple of other stunning attractions that Agra has.

If it were in another city, the Itmad-Ud-Daulah, aka The Baby Taj, would stand on its own as a powerful tourist attraction. Due to the Taj, it gets barely any traffic. Which is a shame, as most people will miss out on the incredible detail that has gone into its construction (like the Taj, it too is a mausoleum to a lost wife):

Details at Itmad-Ud-Daulah (Baby Taj)

Itmad-Ud-Daulah (Baby Taj)

Agra Fort is another of India’s innumerable UNESCO world heritage site (no other nation has done as good a job of getting their monuments listed as India; it seems like there’s one in every city – and each is legitimately on the list). This massive fort is steeped in the complex political history of India. Aurangzeb’s father built the Taj Mahal; he overthrew his father and locked him up for the rest of his life (8 years) in a room that overlooked the Taj; Aurangazeb’s throne overlooked both his father and the Taj.

Aurangzeb's Throne

Wall of Agra Fort

Despite their individual grandeur, each of these sites is overshadowed by the Taj Mahal. Simply put, the Taj is just that much more amazing that just about any other building you’re seen. Viewed in the morning sun at a distance of 200 meters or so, it radiates like the perfect embodiment of one man’s love for his lost wife. As you get closer the immensity is replaced by the ornate detail and the subtlety of the carvings combined with marble so polished that it reflects.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Archway at Taj Mahal

Details of Taj Mahal  

Reflecting Tower at Taj Mahal Persian Calligraphy at Taj Mahal

It would be criminal to visit Delhi and not go to the Taj.

6.

Speaking of which, as we drove into Delhi everything began to make a little bit of sense.

As we’ve been traveling through this country, one the biggest mystery to me has been “what does everyone here do for work?” This has been made even more puzzling for two reasons:

  1. As we’ve driven through dozens of towns – some with populations in the millions – we’ve hardly seen any factories. Contrast this to the Factory To The World that is Southeast Asia/China where the social contract is obvious: move to a town, work in factory, remit money home and live a better life than your parents
  2. We see ads everywhere – and I mean literally everywhere: in magazines, on billboards, painted on walls – for IT, engineering and management education. My favourite ad showed two young women in leggings sitting at their laptops happily working away; nothing could have been a better embodiment of what this country oh so yearns to be. However, all of these factory-less towns have also been IT-less towns; no squat, shiny, campus-style mirrored buildings that smell of technology companies

This has compounded the disbelief I’ve had watching television here; especially when watching commercials, I haven’t been able to figure out where in India it’s supposed to be. The apartments? People in parks? Most of the scenes look as foreign from where I’ve been as Mars. Now I know that Indians have a great suspension of disbelief – witness your average Bollywood movie; sheer escapism – but this was bordering on the delusional.

But back to Delhi, as it all started to come together.

As you drive into town, you immediately notice how different it is. On the outskirts, brand new technical universities (Fully air-conditioned! 100% placement assistance!) are emerging out of the dusty plains. The tentacles of a metro (infrastructure!) reach into the hinterlands and tower over many city neighbourhoods.

The metro has brought with it easy transportation and alongside it sprout multi-storey shopping malls, giant apartment complexes and corporate offices. Those fancy, glass-enclosed, three storey testaments to technology that India so covets as its hope to becoming a superpower.

Bingo. Now this country is starting to make sense! Now I have an inkling of how it works and what it might mean.

So, what do I think? Well, I think that in India we’re witnessing the eradication of poverty and the rise of a middle class on a pretty massive scale. I also don’t think it’s happening anywhere near fast enough – and particularly not fast enough for India to become a major superpower any time in the next twenty years.

The crux of this is due to India’s focus on services and allowing China to have all the manufacturing fun. Services, on a per person level, probably bring in more income per job than manufacturing. But it comes at a cost: you need a highly trained workforce. That education is not going to come from the government alone (a high school diploma ain’t enough), so India has been building out a massive higher educational infrastructure.

However, it takes a heck of a lot longer to build a university and get it up to speed than it does to build a factory to assemble irons or lampshades. So you can’t grow as fast as your neighbour to the north. It also means that you’ve got a small part of your workforce (the service sector) fully employed and the vast majority of your workforce (the other 90+% of your workforce) vastly underemployed.

There’s a more subtle – and potentially more socially jarring – long-term consequence to this as well. People who work in services are going to want to work almost exclusively in big cities. Intellectually stimulating work tends to require intellectually stimulating play in your spare time and alas that’s typically not found in villages (for more, read Richard Florida or John Hagel). Moreover, these people are going to move to cities where there are already people like them; they’re less likely to slug it out in a ‘boring’ city (unless the pay is really, really good; not a likely prospect right now).

I think this explains why so many of India’s highly educated elites go abroad for work and show little interest in returning. It’s not that they’re not Indian patriots, rather they’re too stimulated by what they get overseas and can’t imagine going back until something similar arises in India. And once they have kids, they almost certainly won’t go back as their kids won’t give up what they’ve got.

But something similar is arising. I believe that India is going to see the rapid rise of a few incredible cities that will be more like states. They’ll go toe-to-toe in attracting the best and brightest across the world. Think Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore. Maybe not for a few more years, but barring catastrophic mismanagement (which is a possibility due to the endemic corruption here), they’ll get there.

The flip side of this is that this means huge wealth disparity in the country. India’s elites will be more comfortable and able to better to relate to people in London, New York and Tokyo than people in a rural village in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. In ten years I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like 250,000 dollar millionaires (currently about 115,000) and 400 million people living on less than $2 a day. The wealth inequality is going to make America look like a socialist country.

Is this bad for India? I honestly don’t know. It might not happen; if it happens and is left unchecked it could lead to ridiculous scenarios like secession demands by the new princely city states who want to be the new Dubai (I’m being purposely melodramatic).

It’s also definitely not irreversible. India currently has zero focus on reducing poverty in the country at either the personal or governmental level (literally: the rich don’t give to charity and there’s no national strategy or execution on improving welfare). If this changes to spread the wealth around – and this doesn’t mean higher taxes; it likely means better thought growth policies – the situation could definitely change.

It’s going to be really interesting to see how this country plays the hands it’s been dealt. Mixing metaphors, the ball’s in your court India!

Western & Northern Rajasthan

1.

This part of Rajasthan is a land of superlatives and machismo; it is the Texas of India.

Jaisal built a golden city in the desert by erecting a massive fort on top of a rock. It thrived along the Silk Road. Unsurprisingly, he called it Jaisalmer.

Jaisalmer Fort at night

Jodh responded by building an even bigger fort on top of the rock near his town. And it was known as Jodhpur. He also let the Brahmins paint their houses indigo, hence the town is now known as the Blue City.

Steep walls of Mehrangarh

Jodhpur from Mehrangarh

A few hundred kilometers away, Jai decided that he would not be outdone. He build a palace beneath a fort nestled amongst hills crisscrossed with fortified walls and then built another palace in a lake. Unsatisfied, he decided to build a whole new city – arrayed along grid lines – with a palace at its center and then painted the whole thing pink. In keeping with the theme, Jaipur is known as the pink city.

Amber Fort

Water Palace (Jal Mahal)

Tripolia Bazaar

When not erecting monuments to themselves, the kings of these different city states would attack one another over petty grievances. For instance, raiding each others’ caravans, snubbing one another’s invitations to meal and therefore laying siege to cities, etc. The usual contrivances of small principalities.

With Independence they were all forced into one state which was called Rajasthan as it is the land (stan) of kings (raj). Nowadays there are still Maharajahs, but they no longer command armies and audiences. To attack one another they use the major tool at their disposal: the audio guides to their respective forts.

When you tour the different fort/palace complexes it’s advisable to get the audio guides as there tends to be minimal signage. Each tour explodes with hyperbole about how the carvings/gates/walls/howdahs/palanquins/weapons/warriors/etc. of that palace are the most ornate/strongest/most beautiful/biggest/fiercest/etc. in the world.

There are interviews with the Maharajahs plus the CEOs and Senior Lead Researchers of various charities and foundations (people here are obsessed with rank and titles) tossing you pearls of wisdom about the pomp and prestige of the each fort.

A slightly revisionist history has been written where there are only brave warriors and the forts are unconquered (ignoring that several times the forts fell when guards were bribed). The Rajput kings are now unbeaten – but what’s left unsaid is that the Mughals coerced them into siding with them, understanding that they never needed to beat them to control them (the British then did exactly the same thing again).

Moreover, we hear about how strong and wise some of the Maharajahs were. For instance, there’s one of Jaipur’s Maharajahs who was made a brigadier general (or something similar) by the Brits in World War II. What’s not mentioned is that he was 22 years old and surely this could not have been for political purposes (I’m sure it was due to his Rajput attitude of “death before defeat” as is frequently repeated in the audio guides).

In all sincerity, the guides are great and they walk you through breathtakingly complex structures with hundreds of years of history. They could just use a little humility (for more on this theme, see the section below on the Commonwealth Games).

2.

Wendy is extremely popular in this part of India. Witness the following:

Wendy, the center of Indian attention

Wendy with kids

Wendy, the center of Indian attention

Everywhere we go, people want to have their photo taken with her. It’s cute.

Less cute is when boys want to have their photo taken with her and then paw her/try to kiss her/etc. That’s when my blood boils and we call a halt to it.

Equally less cute are the stares that she (and me, but more her than me) gets as we walk around. Hardcore leering: men stop work and stare at her. Boys on motorcycles gaze unblinkingly. When we sit in restaurants she has to turn her back to the crowd.

Sometimes if I stare back at these yokels they’ll stop but frequently they just don’t seem to care. The irony is that if I stared at their wives or daughters like that they’d probably come after me with a knife.

But it would be impossible for me to stare at their wives or sisters because they’re all practicing pardapratha – or parda (pronounced per-dah) for short. This is a tradition – imported to appease the Mughal overlords – that states that all women (and we’re talking predominantly Hindus here) should cover their face with a veil to protect them from the leering glances of men. There’s an even more conservative interpretation that insists that women should not go outside.

As a result, you see a disproportionate number of men on the street and rarely intermingled groups of women and men. In villages you never see women at all (unless they’re collecting children, searching for firewood or drawing water while men sit around smoking, chewing paan or drinking chai).

The whole damn culture is built around segregating women from (and keeping them below) men. When you visit the beautiful Meherangarh fort at Jodhpur, you learn that the beautiful carved courtyards were created entirely so that women could look out from behind a screen (jali) and not be seen by the men below.

Stone carvings at Mehrangarh

Stone carvings at Mehrangarh

Stone carvings at Mehrangarh

Ditto with a whole wing of the Amber (near Jaipur) palace where only women were allowed. The Maharajah wasn’t even allowed in and eunuchs sent messages from him to his harem and back. In fact, the only royal woman allowed out was the mother of the current Maharajah; the rest had to stay inside (I can only imagine the politics this created within his harem; the quest to have your son become designated heir must have taken on a whole new meaning…).

(More royal nonsense: in Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, when the Maharajah died, his wives were expected to walk into his funeral pyre. This tradition was finally snuffed out in 1834 or so).

Parda, a purely cultural and not at all religious tradition, has survived the decline of the Mughal empire and shows only a few signs of abating. In the cities you see younger people of both sexes intermingling, but it’s the exception, not the rule.

In fact, this conservatism has trickled into many other aspects of life here. For instance, I have not seen a single woman driving a car. I could be in Saudi Arabia.

I’ve only seen two women wearing an outfit that revealed their shoulders. Both were young women who were obviously from a city (big sunglasses and skinny jeans). I haven’t seen one woman wearing an outfit that shows her calfs. A further irony is that the men are encouraged to show more skin: Bollywood actors have made the sleeveless vest a popular look for muscular men.

An interesting aspect of this conservatism is that it’s only come about in the past few hundred years (I’ll guess its perfectly correlated with that Muslim invasion). When you visit any number of the ancient Hindu temples around the country you can’t help but be struck by the early Indian love of the full bodied, scantily clad, big breasted woman. There are statues to them everywhere.

In other temples you also witness couples carved in erotic poses from the kama sutra. And there are numerous paintings of bare breasts and shoulder in paintings depicting scenes from the Ramayana and other sacred Hindu texts; only in the more recent versions do wobbly bits get covered up.

3.

Being close to the Pakistani border, this is one of the most heavily militarized zones in the country. As you criss-cross the state you pass numerous garrisons, each proudly displaying their division’s name: Desert Foxes, Lightning Lancers, Prancing Prancers (okay, I make that last one up).

And, in case you weren’t sure about it, the enemy is Pakistan. Outside Jodhpur we drove by one military base and perched before it was the half-destroyed fuselage of a 70’s era fighter plane; the Pakistani flag is still visible on the rear wing.

In Jaisalmer, you’re constantly reminded of the nearby presence of Pakistan. The airport is run by the military and while there’s technically a commercial flight out of there, it hasn’t run in ages (although you can confound yourself trying to book it on Kingfisher Airways’ website). And given the number of military jets performing maneuvers there, the risk of a commercial jet getting too close to the border is probably just too high (especially as these nuclear enemies are only about 30 seconds away from each other by missile; Russia and the U.S. were nine minutes).

Interestingly, the flights appear to be under radio silence. We would sit on the roof of our hotel under the blazing sun, with the smell of raw sewage occasionally wafting over us (this just randomly happens in India), and watch the jets scream in to land. Once we saw a flare rocket up from the ground and the incoming plane broke right; three minutes later he came back and made the landing. I’m guessing the runway wasn’t ready and the only way to signal it, sans radio, was to fire the flare.

4.

Jaisalmer is also probably the only city I know of where you can still get a stone house build. And it’s not just any stone house either: it’s going to be sandstone carved into some of the most ornate screens and details you can imagine. These are some of the best stone masons in the world:

Stone Carving

Stone Carving

Like all things, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The downside here is that there are open sewers and the streets are lined with cows and boar (the dark spot beside the cow) to dispose of garbage:

Street Scene

5.

Wendy and I went on a one day camel safari. It would be better described as a two hour camel ride followed by a night on a charpoy (webbed bed)in the desert, but that doesn’t sound quite as romantic.

In was a great time. The sun in the Thar Desert is stupefyingly hot plus the desert is more scrub than sand dunes (they appear intermittently), so anything beyond two hours would frankly get a little repetitive. You’d feel like you were seeing the same thing over and over again. You’d want a break from the monotony of the repeating scenery. You…

More importantly, Wendy got to ride a camel; her second favourite animal after elephants. Our camels were incongruously named “Lucky” and “Babluji”; I can’t remember who had which:

Wendy on camel

The scene above shows two of the overwhelming contradictions that you find in India.

The first is that Ali, my camel driver, is able to talk on his cellphone in the middle of the desert. It’s amazing how wired this country is (and they don’t even have 3G networks yet; can’t wait to see what happens when that occurs); everyone is connected.

The second is that Ali’s nephew Salim is leading Wendy’s camel when he should really be in school.

When I think of child labour I think of Dickensian factories with little hands for little places and it all takes place behind closed doors. I know that some of that exists here, but a lot of the 12-60 million child labourers (gov’t vs. 3rd party numbers) here are doing much more mundane things. Washing cups at a juice stand. Updating inventory at a store. Carrying water or maybe just leading camels.

At first you think they’re just helping out part time but when you go back the next day and they’re still there you realize that this is their life. It’s scary how banal child labour is here.

In this charming scene straight out of the 20th century – BC, not AD that is – this son is helping his father out blacksmithing:

Kid with blacksmith dad
Okay, I pulled a cheap shot with the photo above (although I stick with my statement that the blacksmithing techniques are the same as those used 4,000 years ago). This kid is actually in his school uniform. He’s actually a symbol of one of the truly great features of India: society’s incredible drive to educate their youth. He’ll almost certainly never work as a blacksmith and hopefully won’t work outside at all.

It’s heartwarming to see the quest for education in this country. As you walk the street of any town or read any magazine you are bombarded with ads to learn how to program, to get an MBA, to become an engineer. (In fact, the most common ads seem to be for cell phone carriers, cement and advanced degree programs)

Education Ad in Jet Airways Magazine

If you’ve ever taken a subway in New York or any other North American city you’ve also been bombarded with education ads. However, they’re for online associate degrees to become nurse assistants or medical billers; they’re low value training offered by scam universities.

I can’t speak to the quality of the education being offered here (but India has some of the finest universities in the world; witness the IIT’s), but the sheer scale of it and the focus on the higher end of the value chain is awe inspiring. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like here in 20 years when the country is teeming with highly trained people trying to solve all the complex problems India – and the world – faces.

These guys have a great future:

Kids  

6.

One of the things you have to come to terms with when you travel in India is that, unless you’re buying railway or airplane tickets, there is not a single listed price in this country. And even if someone does show you that elusive listed price, it, like everything else, is negotiable.

Moreover, you are a walking ATM. Your mere presence as a tourist makes you a mark: everyone is going to try and rip you off. In fact, it’s almost perfect game theory: you’re unlikely to ever do another transaction with anyone you meet here so they’re going to try and extract the single highest price they can get from you at that very instant.

This means you should expect any of the following to happen:

  • You go to a fort. There are rickshaws outside and you ask the price back to your hotel. It is IDR 250. You offer IDR 100. You are then told how these are reserved rickshaws and therefore cost so much more. Threaten to walk away and you get it for IDR 100.
  • You call a hotel. They quote you a price that is way north of what is in your guide book. You quote the guide book. They offer you a 10% discount; now only 40% more! You reply with “I’ll pay <book price>” and they say no. You say “okay, I’ll go elsewhere” and they cave.
  • You want a driver. You go to the government tourist office and they show you how it costs x/km and you’re going to have to pay 2x that as the driver needs to come back. You quote the price you’re willing to pay (~1/2-1/3 less). The tourist officer tells you how he knows a few people who don’t work for the government and maybe they could get you a price below the government rate; you end up paying almost what you wanted

You’ll notice a common theme here as to what to do: threaten to walk away. In a country of over a billion people there are thousands of other people within arms reach who will happily sell you the same service for a lower price.

Another common experience you’ll have: people will follow you around trying to extort money from you. A common modus operandi is that you walk into a fort/palace/etc. and someone starts following you around. You say “thanks, but I don’t need a guide” and they say “oh sir, I’m not a guide; I just want to make sure you see a few things.”

At this point, you have two options:

  • Tell them you’d like to just walk around by yourself
  • Get ready to listen to sob stories: “I don’t make much money”; “My father is old and I am responsible for my family”; “I need to get a gift for my girlfriend.” It never stops

A similar approach is followed by some touts. They come up to you and start to engage you in pleasant conversation that it would be rude for you to shut down e.g., “where are you from”. This is followed up by a compliment to you: “you look like a Bollywood star”, “you take nice photos”. All of this is buttering you up for the ask: “why don’t you come by my shop”.

They’re using the law of reciprocity (doing something positive to you in order to make you feel like you’re indebted to them) in order to guilt you into their shop, etc. You’ve just got to be firm in letting them know that they can talk to you but that under absolutely no circumstances will you go in their shop/give them money/etc. It’s also fine to request you be left alone for your own privacy.

There are a lot of other tricks people use to try and get your money. At forts, the ticket issuers take extra long giving you your change, hoping that you’ll forget it and walk away; they even post signs telling you that if you don’t check your change before leaving the wicket, you’re out of luck. Not only will your admission price be 4-20X an Indian, you’ll also need to pay an additional camera fee.

If you have a driver, when you reach your destination, your driver will ask for more money saying that he miscalculated the rate (and this is after he picked a restaurant where you’d be overcharged so that he would eat for free). Drivers, in fact, are particularly stubborn: we’ve had a few who have tried to negotiate toll rates on the highways.

You’ve got to be in the mood to handle these things or you’re going to go insane.

Also, remember that none of it is personal.

We’ve had fierce negotiations over rickshaw prices (usually over $1; hey, it’s principle) where the driver is trying to make me feel like I am pulling food out of the mouths of his starving kids. Minutes later we’re in his rickshaw (usually at our price) and he’s asking us where we’re from, telling us how his family is so happy, etc.

It’s like we’ve never met before…

7.

From the above, you might gather that I don’t enjoy being in India. Not at all.

Rather, India is a place where you have to learn to balance two exactly opposite ideas in your head. You’re going to love what you see and experience. Unless you are paying a small fortune or traveling with a local, the process of getting to experience it is going to be awful. Zen, zen, zen…

Here are some snapshots of various great things we’ve seen recently. All were worth it:

Stone Carvings

Stone Carvings

Carnations for sale   

Jaigarh   

Door in Pritam Chowk

Cenotaphs

Patwa-Ki Haveli

Jain Temple

8.

Jaipur has some pretty stupid traffic, but it’s manageable:
Horrible traffic in Badi Chaupar

As you struggle to cross the road (note the local above throwing her arms up in exasperation), you can play traffic bingo by trying to count all the different forms of transports: motorcycles, bicycles, tricycles, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, cars, trucks, buses, tractors and camels:

Camel in traffic

Less fun is the traffic we faced getting to Jaipur. We had a driver for the 11 and a half, 600 km drive from Jaisalmer and we spent the last few hours of it on a three lane highway at night.

This was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. The road was choked with overstuffed trucks whose unrestrained diesel emissions cast a pallor of the apocalypse over the highway. Many of the trucks lacked rear lighting and would just suddenly appear on the road ahead. This, combined with an arbitrariness of both their lane choice and decisions as to when to switch lanes, gave me the feeling that I was in a space ship flying through an asteroid belt.

Our driver brought this sensation to life by slaloming between these trucks. Sometimes he’d tag team with another car and we’d pass on the left while our wingman took the right. You had to be careful in the left lane (the curb side; opposite side of the road here) as it contained the odd slow-moving tractor or camel cart or someone randomly entering the highway and coming up to speed, all the while hidden from view by the endless slew of trucks.

Wendy prayed to the winged goddess of alcohol to come down and kiss her lips with her sweet nectar. I thought of how I’d tell this story assuming we got through it all…

9.

Newsflash: India is hosting the Commonwealth Games (pop quiz: who hosted the last one? Answer: I have no idea. I think it might have been Edmonton or Singapore)

The games almost didn’t happen because India did such a bad job organizing them. Bridges were falling down. Roofs were collapsing. Wild dogs were fouling the unfinished athlete’s village. Some countries almost pulled out; Britain ended up putting up their athletes in a hotel.

But the games are on! And it’s a big deal here. I don’t think India has ever hosted an event this big and they’re indignant at the success of Beijing 2008 and the current Shanghai world’s fair.

The opening ceremonies were last night (when I wrote this) and today India’s 200 channel television universe is chatting incessantly about it.

In fact, the reportage is unabashedly, navel-gazingly hagiographic. Words fail to describe the ridiculousness of the “coverage”. Check out these photos of the “news”:

News Coverage of Commonwealth Games

News Coverage of Commonwealth Games

In case you can’t make that out, the sentence is “World media bows to truly shining India”. Living in the U.S. I got used to over the top new coverage (Hello CNBC!), but this is a whole new dimension approaching nationalist propaganda.

And come on India: “truly shining” countries don’t have to tell themselves that they’re “truly shining”. They just are.

10.

Obligatory food notes.

Verdict: still excellent.

Check out this tandoor platter from the kitchen at the Umaid Bhawan hotel (crazy hotel: if Liberace was an Indian hotelier, he would have built it) in Jaipur. The tandoor platter is three types of grilled chicken and two types of grilled mutton. My mouth waters at the memory:

Tandoor Platter at Umaid Bhawan

A gatta curry is a local specialty. It consists of steamed gram flour dough dumplings in spicy yoghurt gravy:

Gatta Curry

I’m also crushing on the murgh malai tikka; it’s like chicken tikka but marinated in yoghurt. This one’s from Saffron in Jaisalmer (and that’s a cucumber transmuted into a candle):

Murg Malai Tikka

They’re all outdone by the incredible kebab stand at Handi in Jaipur:

Kebab grille oustide Handi

I’m going to have to buy a tandoor when I get back to Canada…

Bangkok

1.

After this, my third trip to Bangkok, I feel like I am finally getting a sense for the city. I’d like to think that it’s because I’ve experienced enough of the place that I am one with it; it’s more likely due to the fact that this time I travelled with a map. And Bangkok is one of those cities where you definitely need a map.

A few hundred years ago the royal family built a palace in an oxbow on the eastern bank of the Chao Praya river. Two arcing, narrow canals were soon built and they technically turned the oxbow into an island, although you could never tell that from the ground.

Eagles at Royal Palace

This is old Bangkok, the realm of the mandarin, minister, monk and monarch. The government offices are located here, as is the royal palace. The oldest, most spectacular temples are found here: the temple of dawn that is Wat Arun, the leaning buddha of Wat Pho, the towering lucky buddha and the Golden Mount.

Sky over Wat Arun

Lucky buddha

Reclining Buddha

Monk at Golden Mount

Backpacker scum wander Khao San road while outside the administrative districts it’s easy to get lost in the many alleyways. [This is particularly due to the curious nature of how Bangkok seems to name its streets: thanon are streets; soi are alleyways. Sometimes the soi have their own names; other times they are numbered but named based on the main road (sukhumvit soi 10 would be off thanon sukhumvit).]

On the western bank is the forgotten side of the city, a dormitory community. To the east of old Bangkok is another ancient neighborhood, Chinatown. Each street seems to be a collection of like shops all tangentially related to a nearby block. Sort of a car repair district gives way to a series of car tire shops gives way to shops selling industrial tires as tall as you kind of vibe.

Tire signs in Chinatown

As it grew, Bangkok became crowded and unlivable and the king built a set of new canals for commerce and a series of massive roads that radiate out easterly from old Bangkok. These canals no longer transport anything and instead their foul waters rot in the blinding sun (you always know when one is nearby). The roads have become the arteries of the city (their colourful taxis the blood cells?) and a massive infrastructure campaign means that skytrains and elevated highways live on top of roads beneath which crawls the subway.

Traffic in Central

Skyscrapers have exploded around these nodes and if you could somehow place Bangkok on a balance, the entire eastern side would fall below the horizon as it is just so much more developed than the rest of the city. Moreover, more than half of these skyscrapers have been built in the past 10 years. When I visited the first time there were only a few and the partially finished concrete skeleton of the skytrain was a daily reminder of the long term effects of the 1997 currency crisis.

2.

I need to be clear that only after this visit can I say that I finally have a good line on how the city is laid out. Because I sure picked the wrong area for our hotel.

We got a really good deal on our hotel and like all good deals, it came as part of Faustian bargain. We thought it was cheap because of the Red Shirts. Instead, it was cheap because the hotel was on the main strip in Patpong.

On a rainy Friday night, getting from the skytrain to the hotel meant running a gauntlet of depravity and moral bankruptcy that would send a mormon screaming back to Utah.

hellosirdvdpingpongshowyoueatheretuktukwhatyouwantthaimassagepingpongshowmaybejustinformation?

From the Sala Daeng platform you can see dancers (hookers?) leaning out of a fifth floor window, smoking and depressingly waiting for work to being. At the bottom of the platform’s stairs you’re accosted to buy DVD that you can’t legally get anywhere; a man who speaks no English comes up to you and shoves into your face a laminated page that screams “pussy, pussy, pussy” and advertises an anatomically revolting girlie show.

Thanon Thaniya offers a brief respite. The street is lined with buildings where the bars are stacked six stories tall. The entrance to each property is lined with that bar’s girls, each of whom has too much makeup and long ago lost their original hair color. So that you don’t confuse them, each establishment requires the staff to wear a slightly different revealing outfit. Fortunately, their marks are Japanese men, so you can pass unfettered.

As you turn left on Thanon Surawong you’re back in it. Anonymous-looking forty-something Thai men walk up to you and ask “ping pong show?” or “live show?” despite having your wife by your side. When I firmly declined one tout, he had the nerve to ask me “why?”; another actually pulled on my arm and I had to resist the temptation to lay him out on the street (my most hated sensation: being touched by strangers).

In addition to the sex show touts, every shop front seems to be a restaurant, massage parlour or tailor. The proprietor of each is out front and emphatically offering their wares. Dodgy older white men sit drinking by themselves or slowly casting an eye at the young Thai men coming out of an alley of gay clubs. The other alleys are lined with a different type of massage parlour than the legit ones found on Surawong. On top of this, the sidewalk narrows as it’s covered by food carts and spillover stalls from the bustling nearby night market.

The funny thing is, this is not a bad neighbourhood. Some of the best hotels in town (like the Meridien) are here and our place was perfectly safe. There are also a couple of nice cafes (even a Starbucks) and the locals all walk around as though nothing is happening.

3.

I’m going to go out on a limb and call Bangkok the new Tokyo. While very different cities, the similarity between the two is striking. Both cities are temples to massive infrastructure projects and dotted with skyscrapers that seem to be randomly placed to anyone who is not a local. People are incredibly polite and the subways are almost entirely silent; every square inch of space on them has also been turned into marketable space.

Both cities have wooden houses interspersed around them (Bangkok many more so since it was never firebombed; Bangkok’s are also remarkably close to skyscrapers).

Wooden house

Both have a red light district (Kakbuki Cho and Patpong respectively) – and parts of Patpong look like v1.0 of Shinjuku transplants.

Thanon Thaniya

Tokyo has it’s famous Akhibara electronic district; in Bangkok’s Chinatown there’s an outdoor electronics market; on the weekend you can buy T1 cables and resistors in the streets. Each also worships the convenience store: 7 Eleven and Family Mart abound. (In fact, I think the best development index in Asia is the both the density of convenience stores and the range of goods offered; they are literally the street level beacons of progress here)

Of course, there are a lot of differences too. Thai society is too conservative to permit the chaos of Hirojuku to walk down its streets (although the ads here are a lot more provocative than when I first visited 10 years ago). And while both nations have monarchs, you won’t see pictures of the emperor plastered everywhere like pictures of the king in Bangkok.

4.

And about those pictures of the king. The Thai love their regent and while he’s just a constitutional monarch, he holds strong sway over the populace. This is important because of Thailand’s recent political troubles. Since an army coup in 2006, the legislative branch just hasn’t been the same and two prime ministers have been booted from office: one for conflict of interest – he was also a tv personality – and one due to alleged electoral fraud. The ‘alleged’ in this ‘alleged electoral fraud’ is significant as it has led to the Red Shirt protests and now a grenade a week explodes here, armed soldiers guard both government buildings and the skytrain and you must pass a metal detector to get on the subway (where they also check for bombs before you can get on at the end of the line).

Trouble is, the king is ailing. And he’s got one son (plus three daughters) who most people think is a ponce (and just by writing this I’m breaking Thai law – that’s how revered the king is – and so I’ll be posting this from India) thus creating a succession issue at the worst possible time (and you thought Queen Elizabeth II had issues…).

The net result of this is that you now see photos of the queen everywhere. When I was last here in 2006 there wasn’t a single photo of her anywhere – just the king – and now you might think she’s the head of state. I’m going to call it right now: when he passes she’s going to claim the throne and try to change the hereditary rules to permit one of her daughters to be regent.

Photos of queen

The Thais live in interesting times.

5.

A few obligatory comments on the excellent food in Thailand.

a) Make sure to eat some of the ubiquitous street food:

Street Food

If you go to the Old Siam Market, you can browse many stalls that sell all types of great food like mieng khum (lemongrass, dried shrimp, peanut, ginger, deep-fried coconut, chili, shallots and sauce wrapped in wild betel leaves) and spiced sausage. Take it to the nearby park for a picnic:

Mieng Khum from Old Siam market

Sausage from Old Siam market

b) For Thai appetizers that I’ve never seen on another menu anywhere, try Taling Pling. In addition to Mieng Khum, they also have Chaw Mung (steamed mince chicken and onion wrapped in dough), Kratong Thong (minced chicken and corn served in waffle cups), Tung Thong (deep-fried chicken and black mushroom in flour dumplings) and Kha Nom Jeeb (Thai-style dim sum where steamed minced chicken is wrapped in rice).

These guys also have the best massaman curry on the face of the planet (and I know that within a certain set those are fighting words).

c) The best Gaeng Ga Hree Gai curry ever – like a spicier version of a massaman curry – is found at Thanying.

6.

Another city, another fruit I’ve never had before. If anyone knows what this is, please add a comment (I think it’s a langsart).

You pop the fruit out of the pod; it’s sweet and has a similar texture to a lychee but less consistency. There are about five slices to the fruit; one slice has a nut in it and the rest you can eat without consequence.

New fruit

7.

And to close, a random selection of Bangkok photos and an amateur movie!

Wrapped Tree

Graf near Central

Art at BACC

Lotus Flowers

Offering

Offering bowls at Reclining Buddha  

Roofs at Wat Pho

Getting Ready for India

Wen and I were originally going to visit Nepal and then India but due to poor weather in Nepal (and poorer planning on our part), we’re only going to India for a now massive five weeks.

I love India, having been there twice in 2006. While the second trip was purely a vacation, the first one was a visit to a technology conference and highlighted their seemingly inexorable rise to a leading power in the 21st century.

In preparation for this trip, I’ve been doing a bit of reading on the country. If you want to get a sense of just what India’s rise could mean and a sense of the staggering challenges they’re going to face to realize their full potential, I highly recommend In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce. They book is about four years old now and it’s remarkable how prescient many of his predictions/comments have been.

As a tease, here are a couple of gems from the book.

On the organization of India’s economy:

Less than 10 percent of India’s dauntingly large labor force is employed in the formal economy [i.e., not farming], which Indians call the “organized sector.” That means that fewer than 40 million people, out of a total of 470 million workers, have job security in any meaningful sense. It means that only 35 million Indians pay any kind of income tax.

Of the roughly 35 million Indians with formal sector jobs … 21 million are direct employees of the government. These are the civil servants, the teachers, the postal workers, the tea makers and sweepers, the oil sector workers, the soldiers, the coal miners, and the ticket collectors of the Indian government’s lumbering network of offices, railways stations, factories, and schools.

Fewer than 1 million – that is, less than a quarter of 1 percent of India’s total pool of labor – are employed in information technology, software, back-office processing and call centers.

I found this fascinating. Despite all the wealth created by India’s massive software companies it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of employment. Moreover, there are only 7 million people employed in manufacturing in India vs. more than 100 million in China. It will be interesting to see if India can turn themselves into a private sector job machine.

Another theme in the book is how the political process is breaking down as people elect people from their caste to ensure more public sector jobs for their caste members (as you literally cannot fire a public sector worker even if they do no work). This is compounded by reputed criminals seeking election as a way of making themselves legally untouchable. The net result is widespread corruption in both the political and bureaucratic sector.

Here’s a snippet of one revealing interview with a politician:

A few months after election I visited Reddy in his office at the state secretariat in Hyderabad. I asked him what he was doing to provide irrigation to the poor farmers. A large man with an equally large mustache, Reddy was every inch the local satrap. The rooms and corridors outside his office resembled a bustling railway station with dozens of local supplicants awaiting the chance to ask a favor of their chief minister. “Every detail is being taken care of,” he replied to my question. And what are the details? I asked. “Everything is possible,” he said. What was possible? “Every little detail.” Can you provide me with some? “In time, we will fix everything,” he said. And so on. At one stage during this singularly uninformative interview, Reddy started scrambling around for a bit of paper. His secretary handed him something. “Yes,” he said, reading it. “Sir Arthur Cotton built lots of irrigation for the farmers in this area. He was British. You are British.” But what are you doing? “We are doing everything possible to ensure irrigation gets to the farmers.”

The book is full of examples like this – and, in fairness, also inspiring interviews with some remarkable officials who are building a great future for Indians (check out the section on New Delhi’s now-former mayor).

Two other interesting areas that the book explores: gender discrimination and the spending habits of New India.

Here are some stats on gender discrimination:

In large tracts of northern and western India, the so-called “gender gap” between boys and girls has sharply increased. The average ratio of births of girls to boys for India was 945 to 1,000 in 1991. By 2001 it had fallen to 927. … Gujarat has fewer than 900 girls to 1,000 boys. Punjab has below 800.

Put another way, over time, 3-4% of the Indian population may never be able to marry because there simply won’t be enough girls to marry. Given India’s size this will mean millions of sex-starved men. Moreover, the traditional solutions to this problem never really worked and are already fading. China’s got this problem too; India’s going to have to learn from it.

The spending habits are interesting as India is its own juggernaut and is going to have to decide what values it wants to promote. Will it adopt Western consumerism or create something uniquely Indian?

Alok [a successful entrepreneur] said his employees, most of whom are dressed such that they would blend in with their counterparts in San Francisco, never talk about money in cash terms. The measure their pay in EMIs, or equal monthly installments. These are monthly deductions from your bank account that continue for years, enabling you to pay off the car, motorbike, microwave, freezer, air-conditioning units, and flats you have not earned. You can even take an EMI holiday. … “Saving is the last thing on these guys’ [his employess] minds,” Alok said.

We’ve seen how this movie ends.

I can’t wait to go back to India. I recommend that everyone go there as it’s fascinating – and read In Spite of the Gods before you go to have a better sense of what is happening behind the scenes.