In the Shadow of the Taj Mahal

–AGRA

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan must have really loved his third wife. If it’s not obvious from the jewels dangling from the woman’s body in almost every portrait, then maybe it’s the fact that he built the world’s finest and best known mausoleum for her: the Taj Mahal.

The wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to the their 14th child. So maybe in addition to being a symbol of Shah Jahan’s love for and grief at the loss of his wife, it was a way of saying “good job” for all the hard work.

Assumptions aside, the Taj Mahal is a true gem in the world of architecture. Constructed of pure white marble and straddling the banks of the Yamuna River, it graces the otherwise under-developed, over-touristed landscape of the surrounding city Agra. Against cloudless blue skies, one’s imagination could easily picture the main onion-shaped dome and building, it’s lofty white façade and intricate inlaid carvings, floating off into the sky. It’s really no wonder that it’s a wonder of the world.

I’m sure when Shah Jahan set out to build this memorial for his beloved he didn’t have global notoriety – at least not in terms of the tourist hordes it would attract — in mind, but I was glad he and his army of artisans did such a fine job. Otherwise standing in line at 5:30 in the morning to be the first ones into the mausoleum complex would have been a tiring, lackluster experience. The final product –four minarets framing the immaculately white tomb and its surrounding gardens – didn’t fail to impress.

Entering the grounds from the east, the Taj Mahal was hidden behind large walls and a grand entrance gate. Walking up to the gate, the great white wonder came into view, a bit blurry due to the misty morning air that gradually cleared as I walked through. As one of the first batch of tourists, my first few photos were void of other camera totting, silly hat wearing visitors.

The main stretch leading up to the Taj Mahal was lined with an array of neatly trimmed shrubs and beautiful fountains that magnified its splendor. Each step brought the marble complex closer until I was finally directly in front of it. To enter the main tomb, I had to take off my shoes or wear odd booty coverings over my sneakers. I opted for the former. The marble floors felt cool and smooth on my feet, almost slippery as a thin layer of quickly evaporating morning dew gleamed on the white surface. It was kind of like walking on water.

I walked around the tomb to get away from the sun, rising quickly and heating up the ground, and admire the elaborate carvings and calligraphy. Small flowers pocked the stone, each carefully painted as columns of calligraphy rose to dome’s peak. Standing in the great mausoleum’s shadow, I felt tiny, yet inspired. One guy had this whole thing built for one woman. Wow.

Shah Jahan also rests in the tomb. He was eventually overthrown by his son, who wanted to stop his father’s squandering on grandiose tombs, and locked up in Agra’s Red Fort, just north of the Taj Mahal on the same river. From his cell, Shah Jahan could have still had a view of his precious monument and, in a way, a connection to his wife.

The Taj Mahal was the second wonder of the world I’ve seen. In 2009 I stood in similar awe and disbelief in the shadow of the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall’s “wonder” status comes from its impressive location (on the top of high ridges and not-so-gently rolling hills) and length (almost 4,000 miles across China’s northern half).

True, the Taj Mahal lacks the wall’s scale, but it was no less great. The Great Wall was built as a defensive structure that ultimately failed its purpose: keeping the Mongols out. The Taj Mahal was built out of loss, in memoriam, for love — and every smooth marble brick and detailed calligraphy carving was a testament to that purpose.



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New Delhi’s Old City

NEW DELHI

India’s capital has two faces: the modern, up-and-coming sexy side of malls, fancy buildings and new roads and the compact streets and cramped quarters of the old city. Temples dot the cityscape. My travel friend, Brian, and I had set aside two days to explore the city before heading off into the rest of India.

Since both of us live in Beijing, we get enough of the hyper-modern city scene we spent most of the time walking around the overcrowded, underdeveloped old city. Our first stop was Old Delhi’s Red Fort, the former residence of whatever Mughal emperor was in power. The red sandstone walls, a hallmark of Mughal architecture, basked under the warming afternoon sun as I too began to bake (India was a lot hotter than I’d imagined, but I was prepared: SPF 80 sunblock).

After the fort we took a rickshaw tour of the old city. Our guide would slow down and point to buildings along the way while attempting to pedal through a heavy traffic of other rickshaws, tuk tuks and cows. Packs of half-dead dogs chilled in whatever shade they could find, or sat wherever they felt.

In the old city our guide took us through a spice market, the zesty herbs irritating my nose in growing intensity as we walked several floors up.

Then it was off to the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India with a seating/kneeling/bowing capacity of 20,000. Before entering the holy site we had to remove our shoes.

A number of things stood out after the first day of real touristing.

First off, New Delhi wasn’t nearly as crowded as I’d been warned. There was no people mountain, people sea, the kind of hordes I’ve gotten used to after living in Beijing for three years. On the subway, I was crammed into each car like a pale sardine. There was room to breathe, to move my arms.

Indian society is still largely conservative. Even in the newer parts of the city, women still wear saris and other traditional garb. Adverts still used sex to spur consumer interest, but it wasn’t as in your face as it is in America, or even in Beijing where its starting to take off.

Cows wandered the streets, sometimes in large groups, freely and without being led around. This wasn’t surprising — we’ve all heard about Hinduism’s high reverence for the beasts. But I what I wasn’t expecting was the number of stray dogs roaming the streets. The strays were everywhere, literally everywhere. In alleys, in hotels, in train stations, in shady little street food restaurants, in the middle of the street, in the shade, in the sun, in temples and shrines, in parks, everywhere.

New Delhi was a perfect microcosm of the country and a great trial run to see if I’d be able to make it through the rest of the trip. After New Delhi, it was three weeks of trains, tuk tuks and cabs around the northern part of the country. Three weeks of adventure.

Tuk tuk filled streets

Stray dog tanning in front of the Red Fort

Interior chamber of Red Fort

Painted wall etchings inside the Red Fort

Rickshawing through the old city

Guiding and driving: my rickshaw man for the old city

Mmmmmmm. Masala.

Young worshippers at the Jama Masjid

The Jama Masjid

Group photo with the white guys, our first of the trip

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Namaste!

Growing up, one of my favorite Disney movies was “The Jungle Book”. I mean, what’s not to like about a boy raised deep in the jungles of India by a fun-loving group of animals that sing and dance? In recent years, I’ve taken to Bollywood films, movies produced in India’s entertainment capital Bombay. The films are known for their epic stories, deep character development and spontaneous dance sequences. In short, they’re fantastic.

But the films only teased my fascination with India in the same way that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or just about any kungfu film did with China. It made sense then that the next time the travel bug bit, my finger was clicking on the “Book Now” button for a roundtrip flight to India.

My itinerary, a three-week trip from March to April with my friend Brian Peach, included the heart of India before swinging out into the country’s western frontier near Pakistan. Of course I’d see the Taj Mahal, but I’d also visit the sacred Ganges River with stops at numerous temples and towns. Then I’d head into Rajasthan, the land of kings and a state known for its beautiful cities and diverse landscape.

Map source: wikipedia

From college courses and my general interest in Asia, I knew the basics about India’s ancient past and its many religions. I knew the food would be spicy, that the nation’s population of close to 1.2 billion could be unnerving, and that there wasn’t really going to be a menagerie of jungle bears and cats prancing about. But that last part was ok – at least there would be cows roaming freely in the streets and maybe a few monkeys here and there.

What I didn’t know was how deeply I’d fall for the country, its people and its culture.

India was incredible, a true attack on the senses that left me mind-boggled and amazed.

The narrow streets of the old cities teemed with an odd concoction of people and animals, colors and culture. Traffic, dominated by the tiny half-cab, half-rickshaw called a tuk-tuk, moved slowly, allowing me to take in the scenery before suddenly whirring off at faster-than-necessary speeds. Back alleys provided a peek into the past, with shops and storefronts selling roughly what I imagined they sold for the past hundred years or so. The air had the rich smell of spices: masala, cinnamon, an assortment of peppers and multi-colored other things.

Hindu women rushed about wearing bright colored traditional saris while carrying baskets on their heads. Well-mustachioed Sikh men had turbans atop their heads. Muslim women kept their faces covered. Despite the heat – average temperatures hovered in the 90s for most of my trip – everyone wore slacks or dresses. Shorts, particularly at holy sites, are considered inappropriate since they allow the knees to poke out. Unnecessary exposure of body parts is frowned upon.

Kids vied for my attention, shouting “One photo please”, always with the polite “please” on the end. After each photo, they’d rush to my side to look at my camera screen before screaming, shouting and running off. A few adults also wanted their photos taken.

Everyone I talked to greeted me with “namaste”, a customary Indian welcome.

Half-dead stray dogs found refuge in any shade they could as cows ambled about in search of food and an occasional scratch on the chin. Cows, considered sacred in the Hindu religion, can come and go as they please – or sit in the middle of the street blocking traffic, which happened on a number of occasions.

The food was an explosion of flavors I’d never tried before. The dishes –usually a curry, rice with vegetables and buttered pita bread called nan — were spicy as expected, which had worried me given my strict stomach, but sat better than most zesty Chinese dishes. There were a few inconveniences, but most bathrooms were easy to find or have someone point out directions to.

And this was just in New Delhi, my first stop. The rest of the country offered even more experiences.

One thing that remained unchanged across India was the people’s interest in me. Their questions followed almost the same pattern in each region: Where are you from?; What’s your name?; and then either “Do you like India?” or “Are you married?” It was comically similar to what most people asked me during my travels in China, sans questions about my salary.

Something about the way the Indians asked and talked, and badgered me about finding a wife sounded more genuine. It wasn’t feigned interest for the sake of being polite but actual curiosity, followed by amazement when I told them I was from New York City (it’s just easier to tell foreigners that than trying to explain where my hometown Tamaqua is).

Their response was always: “New York City, America are great places.” My response was the same too: “Yes, they are. But India is a great place too. And I really love it here. Now can you point me in the direction of a bathroom?”

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Hainan for the Holiday

Migratory birds seem to have it all figured out: in the winter it gets cold, so they pack up and fly south to warmer climates. Unlike my feathered friends, when the cold sets in, my winter jacket comes out and I begin a four-month stint of brooding and whining about Beijing temperatures.

Last year, after seeing a flock of birds heading in more equatorial directions, I too decided to follow that animal instinct, flying south to Hainan, China’s tropical island province. It was my Christmas present to myself, a nice gift basket of beaches, sunshine, clear skies, palm trees and good food.

Hainan, which sits across from Vietnam, has historically been a backwater for the Chinese mainland, reserved for the likes of exiles. Today, the island is undergoing a rapid transformation from uninhabitable and remote to posh and hospitable. In the past few years, as part of the Chinese government’s initiative to turn Hainan into the “Hawaii of the Orient”, money has poured in for massive construction projects on everything from resorts and hotels to infrastructure and other accommodations.

I flew into Sanya, the southernmost city on China’s southernmost province, with lofty expectations of spending Christmas sitting on one of the city’s pristine palm tree-lined beaches while getting some sun under smog-less skies. Fresh seafood would be on the menu each day, and I’d finally get to see those monkeys of south China I’d always heard about.

What I got was slightly different.

It was kind of like asking Santa for an iPhone 4, but getting an iPhone 3GS instead: the picture quality isn’t as good, it’s a little less fun and way less cool, but it’s still an iPhone, and not the same prehistoric era cell phone your parents probably use.

Sanya had beaches, but they were trash-ridden and small. The skies were void of smog, but a light sea mist blanketed the bay in a trippy, wobbly haze. For most of my stay, the sun was hidden behind a heavy overcast. Clearly, those birds that had been flying south weren’t heading to Hainan. But the seafood was delicious, and the monkeys were, well, monkeys.

What saved the trip from turning into a complete holiday flop was the Christmas Eve party at my hostel. The crowd was predominantly Chinese, but the hostel’s main lounge area had been tricked out in Christmas decorations, lights and a proper amount of alcohol to fuel the festivities into the wee hours. Christmas music by Enya – not my first choice for holiday melodies, but hey, twas the season – and a recording of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer that skipped and repeated the words “had a very shiny” played as we all sang and drank the night away.

At midnight, someone produced a cake from behind the hostel bar and everyone began singing “Happy Birthday”. I looked around to see who the singing was for. When I asked “Whose birthday?” one of my newfound Chinese friends pointed to the sky and said “God”. I had to laugh. Close, I thought. At least he knew the religious basis for Christmas — despite the overwhelming commercialization of the holiday in China, even by Western standards — and hadn’t thought that the holiday marked the birth of Our Lord Lady Gaga or the Prince of Peace Prize Barack Obama.

As I’d expected, it really was one of the hostel guest’s birthdays. The Chinese guy had been joking around.

On Christmas day, I took a train from Sanya to Bo’ao, for their pristine beaches. Again, disappointment.

I was able to find friendship in a tiny old man from Harbin who was also seeking refuge in Hainan from the cold climate of the north. He offered to show me around, asking questions about America (“Does America have dumplings?”) and myself (“Are you married?) with follow ups (“Why aren’t you married?”) and commentary (“Harbin is so cold.”).

Then he asked a question that touched a nerve: Why wasn’t I spending Christmas with my family? It was instant homesickness made worse by the sand being blown in my face from the steady ocean breeze that had picked up. I told him I’d be going back to the States for Spring Festival, when everyone else in China made their own pilgrimage home. Still, I realized that instead of sitting on this beach, even if the weather had been more favorable, I should have been home enjoying a Christmas feast with friends and family. Next year, no holidays with Chinese characteristics in Beijing – just home.

And more importantly, I won’t follow those birds unless they’re heading to the West.


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Business, Baijiu and ‘Brandon the Great’

This is the final post about a recent business trip I took to northeast Hebei province

I was sitting on a bench by the Bohai Sea in northeast China, half conscious and rubbing my head in a futile effort to relieve a throbbing headache. Pain also resonated from my stomach, and I had that funny feeling in my throat, the kind you get just before you’re about to throw up. A large statue of one of China’s emperors stood nearby, shooting me a disapproving look that said: “Know your limits Brandon.”

How I’d wound up on this bench next to this judgmental statue was a mystery, but I knew the culprit of my memory lapse and head trauma immediately: baijiu.

Baijiu, China’s equivalent of Russian vodka or Irish whiskey, is this wonderful Chinese white liquor that shares more similarities with gasoline than anything you would ever willing drink. And yet drink baijiu I had. A lot of it.

This story begins three days prior. I’d been “invited” (read, told) to join several other foreigners at Beijing Review for a short tour of Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing municipality. The provincial government wanted to promote a few up and coming high-tech innovation zones and eco-friendly cities.

Before embarking, my boss had briefed our group on Beijing Review’s expectations – she also added that there would be no drinking on this trip.

No drinking? On a business trip?

Past experience from being toted around on these government tours has taught me two things: much of what I see and hear is either a lie or heavily diluted truths; and after a hard day’s touring, everyone is treated to a massive feast with lots of alcohol. Drinking is as much a part of Chinese culture as the Great Wall or chopsticks. Any meal for esteemed guests, especially foreigners, comes with a smorgasbord of delicacies and enough alcohol – be it wine, beer or baijiu – to knock out China’s few remaining pandas.

The ridiculousness of my boss’ statement faded before it really set in. She would have had more luck stopping the sun from rising than preventing us from drinking.

And I was right.

At each stop, local officials brought out their best bottles of baijiu. My reputation as a baijiu drinker grew with each toast.

When drinking China’s sacred white wine, I’ve mostly stuck with cheaper brands from the man 711 minimarts across Beijing. They taste like battery acid, but they get the job done at an affordable price. The baijiu at each feast came in orb-shaped bottles of aqua blue and ceramic white. While maintaining its kick as it slip down my throat, this baijiu had less of an explosive, eroding effect on my stomach. I liked this top-shelf baijiu, about as much as you can like something you know is shaving years off your life with each swig.

When we reached Luanzhou, a city three hours east of Beijing, one of my Chinese colleagues let slip that I enjoyed drinking baijiu. I was doomed.

At lunch the following day, I became the toasting target of every government official in the banquet room. Toasts were incessant, followed by shouts of “ganbei!” (bottoms up). Finishing my glass each time would yield cheers and a refill. Not finishing meant just a refill. Either way, I was losing it.

In between glasses, I would scarf down noodles or rice, anything to absorb the baijiu that was quickly filling my stomach. I also tried to sneak in a few bottles of water.

One of the local Party officials had taken a liking to me, constantly giving me the thumbs up every time a toast was proposed. I tried to avoid looking in his direction, knowing that eye contact would result in a raised glass and another ganbei. Noticing my evasive glances around the room, he rose from his chair and stumbled over to me.

“Beijing Review, number one magazine,” he said. “You are number one foreigner. Great drinker. Great man. Ganbei!”

We drank, turning our cups upside to prove they were empty. He looked at me again, or tried to look at me, with glazed eyes and a wobble that suggested he was on the verge of collapse.

“Great man. Brandon the Great!”

That was the last time I saw him. The official stumbled toward his seat, then changed course, heading instead for the door, and was gone.

My interpreter was also very drunk. He looked at me and said, “I want to throw up.”

By this point, I’d switched into Chinese mode, speaking the language and refilling other people’s glasses. I told him throwing up was not allowed. There was more toasting to do. Slowly, I began working my way around the table, at the encouragement of one of the Party officials, toasting all 11 of the remaining guests. After completing my circuit, I headed straight to the bathroom.

Then it was time to go. Everyone was ushered outside where hands were shaken, business cards exchanged and promises to revisit made. I got in our tour van and passed out.

Or blacked out, because the next fully conscious memory I had was sitting on the bench by the statue. We had arrived in Qinhuangdao, near the coast of the Bohai Sea. The statue was of Qin Shihuang, China’s first emperor. Apparently before making our way to the sea, we’d taken a quick tour of a small park. I didn’t remember that part.

For the rest of the trip I stuck with tea and an occasional beer. Brandon the Great would have to wait to reign another day.

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Beidaihe: Silicon Valley of North China

This is the seventh post about a recent business trip I took to northeast Hebei province

Near Qinhuangdao in the northeastern tip of the province, the beaches and streets of Beidaihe provide everything that can be expected of a small, coastal town: sand, water and seafood restaurants aplenty. Walks along the sandy shores give visitors the chance to breathe in fresh air — or at least a breeze that’s slightly less industrially tainted.

Beidaihe, if the provincial government’s blueprint unfolds as planned, will one day also be the Silicon Valley of North China.

An information technology park is taking shape that will employ 5,000 engineers, computer programmers and project managers when it opens in 2014. The info tech park will create computer programs, cartoons and movies as part of China’s effort to mass produce culture and broaden its soft power influence. And like Zhongguancun in Beijing, Beidaihe will one day be home to international clients and companies.

More so than the tech park, Beidaihe is known as being China’s premiere beach resort, for the average tourist and Party officials.

Buildings around the town mimic European architectural designs, a result of that continent’s influence throughout Beidaihe’s history. And like any beach town, merchants desperately try to peddle the usual beach souvenirs: seashell necklaces, decorated turtle shells, crab claws, pieces of carved driftwood, and the occasional polished rock. Robocop-looking security cameras (see slideshow) graced each corner. A few statues of tourists portrayed the Chinese cliche of foreigners: fat, bearded, balding slobs who are often too tired to walk around and need constant breaks.

At the Beidaihe Olympic Park, we saw statues of former commissioners of the Olympic committee, the most prominent of which was a Spaniard with an unusually large nose. A few of the Chinese in our group laughed, touching the large bronze nose and saying “da bizi”, which means big nose and is a commonly used phrase for foreigners.

One of my Chinese colleagues asked if most people in the West had big noses like his. I said “Of course not, but some of us do,” getting a few laughs from the other Chinese. I chuckled too, but not at the big nosed Spaniard. I was imagining everyone’s reaction if I’d pointed at the Yao Ming stone engraving nearby and asked if a certain part of Yao’s male anatomy was small like other Chinese guys or if that was just a silly stereotype from the West.

Instead, I held my tongue and kept that little quip to myself.

I’ve come to just shrug off these quasi-racist jabs the Chinese throw at foreigners every now and then. For them, it’s a cultural thing, done in good fun or because of a certain ignorance of Western ways. But I do like to throw a few jabs of my own every now and then. Just for fun.

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Shanhaiguan: Into the Sea

This is the sixth post about a recent business trip I took to northeast Hebei province

Sizeable stretches of the Great Wall work their way through Hebei, with notable sections like Jinshanling and Simatai drawing large crowds of tourists. While these ranges in the ancient wall provide stunning views of the ancient structure as it works its way over rolling mountains, an equally great section of the wall can be found in Shanhaiguan, just north of Qinhuangdao.

The Shanhaiguan section is the wall’s easternmost reach — it’s beginning, or end – where is meets the sea. Coined Old Dragon’s Head (laolongtou), the wall looks like a dragon drinking from or about to dive into the sea. The original wall is long gone, destroyed during China’s tumultuous history in the earlier half of the twentieth century, but reconstruction efforts in the 1980s have returned Old Dragon’s Head to its former glory. A few of the original stones were used in the reconstruction – the remaining stones were carted off by locals to be used in building their own homes.

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