Saturday, August 28, 2004

Great wall - a spectacle not be missed

I did write about my china experience but felt I didn’t do justice with ‘Great Wall’ that deserved special mention. This regret was resolved when I read an article by 80-year-old woman in Emirates flight magazine. It made me write this.

First, Emirates offer free Beijing for ticket to Dubai- Shanghai, so do ask for free add on if you are on business trip to Shanghai. Once you are in Beijing, you must keep one day exclusively for Great wall.

One misconception I must clear. Since my childhood I was taught about Great Wall is the only man made monument visible from moon with naked eyes. This is no true –but now in understand that due to materials used it is not even visible from earth orbit. However it can be imaged through radar imaging. Anyway, it doesn’t take any importance of its opulence and magnificence of this grandeur engineering project mankind has ever undertaken.

Can a wall barely height of 8 meters and width of 6 meters be such spectacle? Yes it does, when you add length of 5,000 kms. running through five provinces of China and crowned by 25,000 towers. The beauty of this wall is that it run parallel to all valleys, ridges and mountain strips, so from any point it looks like winding dragon as much as your visible expanse can let you do so. Just to add bit of temporal element to it, it took nearly 2000 years to have this in present form. Though construction started in 7th century BC, by third century BC parts of wall were joined and each dynasty expanded its dimensions. What we see today is the form built during 1350-1650 during Ming Dynasty.

From Beijing, you must board bus early so as to be before noontime at Great wall. The travel is just about 70km but tourist bus takes to few other spots before you reach a place named Badaling. It doesn’t take long to get a glimpse of this wall from all directions. Base of the Badaling is transformed into very tourist friendly way. You can opt for cable car to go up or those with athletic heart and feet can do so on foot. But there is always opportunity to test your lungpower once you get down from cable car. You can reach top of Badaling that involves steep angles of wall steps. But as you do that, a mere glance sideways make you stop for breathtaking view of mountain range there by letting you gasp that precious breath which you were so desperately seeking. As you go around, it seems like the whole world has descended on this. Every nationality, race is there with fair mix of rural china visitors. No wonder nearly 80 million people have visited this place and add to that nearly 300 heads of state.

Climbing down appears relaxing but not that easy. After few walks, I decided to take sliding car that takes you through Bear zoo and lots of Eatable and Souvenir shops. Mao Tse Tung had said you would not be great man if you have not climbed Great Wall. I have become great man but I want you too become one!!!

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Lebanon- a perfect holiday destination

Having been to Nice, Limmasol, Athens, Alexandria, I had fairly good idea of what to expect in Beirut being another Mediterranean city. The sunny weather, azure foaming sea, breeze and moderate temperature was guaranteed but beyond that I was not sure what to expect when I arrived from Damascus by road.

I took a Volvo taxi – cost US$65.00 from Damascus to Beirut. As you cross the border, you are immediately greeted by hoards of advertising boards something which is conspicuous by its absence in Syria. As you speed through road flanked by newly constructed villas with signboards of “bar &rest”, one feels tinge of Goa. The red soil is in abundance but coconut trees are missing. The road to Beirut goes through few mountains and one encounters sudden change in climate with dew soaked dark clouds breezing past you making surrounding lush green with temp dipping below 10 degree. But as you are ready to savor the beauty of this hilly resort, the descend starts and you start reaching towards sea level. This is Lebanon, a country full of mountains nestled along the sea coast. If one wants, one can do skiing in the mountain and swimming in Mediterranean same day.

With a population of just 4 million, every inch of space is occupied by residential complex. With property at premium, most residential areas are expensive. I stayed at Marriott—a name signifies opulence in most places but here it was nothing more than crowded apartment away from beach. One can see sea only from balcony. But that’s understandable in any tourist place.

One thing a tourist mustn’t miss is the downtown in Beirut and sure I didn’t. This place completely transformed from ravage of civil war is now houses parliament building, restaurants, cafes, bars and boutique shops under fabulously designed gothic architecture buildings. All lanes studded with stone cobbled street to give Parisian look. The place bathed with golden light to emphasis European aesthetics. There is a square where all lanes converge. The place starts humming with people from 9.00 pm and reaches crescendo past wee hours. When we left the place at midnight, people were hovering to spot the eating place. Nearly everyone was tourist here and many of them from Arab countries. It was unique to see scantily dressed Lebanese woman accompanying Arab woman in abaya. If there is a cross over place between east and west, it is Beirut.

One can see in Beirut abundance of food, wine, weather, music and woman and every Lebanese is proud of that lineage. Practically every person speaks three languages- English, French and Arabic. Muslim and Christian are conspicuous by their dress code but blend well in milieu of this vibrant place. This is one place you can do what you want, wear what you want and yet not being noticed by anyone.

The country is striving hard to stand back which was demolished by 15 years of civil war and now their sight is on regaining that rightful place of “Paris of the East”. They are aware that they have lot to catch up with Dubai who has usurped all the glory of Beirut. But are aware of their possessing unique jewel that Dubai’s wealth can’t match: that is weather. The trip down south – place named Saida made me aware of Muslim influence of Lebanon. The Israel border was hardly 50 km and if I had time, I would have loved to travel to the most volatile place in the region. Hezbollah- Palestine and Israel. I also made a visit to Tripoli – in north. There is nothing much to choose between any cities. All one can see is mountain on one side and sea on other. But mountains don’t have that lush green carpets what Cannes has. No wonder Cannes is a sought after place for world’s rich and famous.

One cannot conclude writing about Beirut without comments about their woman. They are passionate about their looks, figure and it is visible across the age group. I had heard similar raves about Venezuelan women but Lebanon is not all that far behind. It amazed me to see their passion for chiseled body and looks. But was also chided by my Lebanese friend on the ‘artificial element’ to it. It could be so but sure it brings a boon for cosmetologists and beauty care products.

My return was from Beirut airport which is good but not classy. All in all, Beirut is a perfect holiday destination not far from India if you are looking for good sea food, wine, water and skiing. A bit of French and Arabic will help to feel at home.

Damascus: Nice people at wrong place

Damascus brings contrasting images of “police state” to “oldest capital on earth”. so when I was approaching Damascus, I was curious to see how things turn out in my two days stay.

Ariel view of barren, dusty flat terrain made me wonder if Damascus would really be different than Cairo or Riyadh even though temperature is almost 10 degree lower in peak summer. Immigration check up made me sure that I am indeed in a police state. Average 3-4 police ensuring “no Israel stamp” on my passport and opening my medical samples just to make sure that I am no drug courier made me wonder about things in store for my next two days in Damascus.

Initial impression make Damascus look similar to smaller cities in India with hardly any high rise modern buildings. Most of apartments resemble nothing more than concrete blocks. Russian made taxis look similar to our Premier Padmini. Staying in Sheraton Damascus reminded me of Govt. run centaur hotels in India. Most of the fittings are old, local television brand with hardly any function keys on remote control. Reading a newspaper is drab and boring with most of articles devoted to either Israel bashing or pro-ruling policies. But one thing is refreshing and striking: That is people: They are gracious smiling people, handsome with fair skin to match Europeans and reddish tinge to blend with Asians. Perhaps European genes and abundant sun make them look fair but not bland.

As I move in streets, bazaars in daytime- scene is chaotic- with people, automobiles struggling to buy space. However closer observation makes you wonder whether you are really in arab domain. There is no sign of being in arab land except arabic language. All people wear trouser and shirts instead of Arab robe with many females at work place. Older generation of woman wear colorful scarves while younger ones with fashionable highlighted hair with jeans. FM playing rock music and alcohol being available in hotel that even has a disco. .

Damascus has two sprawling hills –overlooking the city. One is beyond the access to common public. This is the place of residence of ruler. All one can see is top of the hill covered by long trees with entrance blocked by security guards. The other hill is for all common people. The night view of Damascus from top is as refreshing as seeing San Francisco city from Hill. The only difference is absence of skyscrapers but green colored minarets of mosques make up the loss. It seems that every tourist descends on this hill at night time. Iraqi, Saudi number plates are abundant.

Despite all the criticism of no political freedom, Syria government has assiduously worked in socialist model. The government spends heavily on Education, Healthcare and Housing. Common man seems satisfied with fulfillment of his basic needs. One hardly sees any slum or beggars. Damascus has fine restaurants serving Lebanese and Arab food with teeming visitors from arab world. Beirut is hardly 3 hour drive from Damascus so traffic is heavy on this road. Be prepared to give some time for immigration. But leaving Damascus is so much relieving after an experience in arrival section at airport. As I enter Lebanon, I am greeted by flowing breeze though same mountainous terrain which I had left Syria. I wonder if it was reflection of my mindset which heaved a sigh of relief coming out of clutches of police state!!

Monday, August 16, 2004

I love you India

I forever like you
I care for your health
I have concern for your future
I hope and pray that you are safe
I do wish you to bestow happiness all around
I wish you add to the fortune that you have inherited
I love you far too much

I love you India

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

China : Travel and Economy

I was visiting china after almost 6 years. First visit to Shanghai in 98 shattered the image of China- a city of bicycles, poverty and communist propaganda. Mind-boggling Statistical figures 1998: US $ GDP 924 Billion, GDP /capita: US $ 750 to 2004: US$GDP 1.4 Trillion, GDP /capita: US $1,090 made me more curious to be ready for second trip to Shanghai.

A mere glance at these figures shows that in 1998, China was ahead of India by just US $200 per capita and now it has raced ahead !!!. As an Indian, it is easy to get disappointed but being perennial optimist, I feel there lays enormous potential for India. When we look at fabulous growth of Singapore and Dubai, they look like a block in Shanghai city. Shanghai with population of 20 million, Chongching with 30 Million is workhorse of China economy. In India, we complain when cities cross 10 million.

In first few days, I heard an interesting story about Chinese entrepreneurial spirit. When Chinese economy in 90’s exploded, International travelers not being very familiar with Chinese Currency, fake currency notes became a brisk business. As Chinese Bankers realized the danger – this was followed by huge boom of currency scanning machines which could detect fake notes – but this industry in no time was overtaken by Fake machines!! Sounds a bit of exaggeration but there lay ingenuity of Chinese ability to produce anything at short notice. Not just Hollywood movie CD at US $ 1piece but pirating car designs of Honda and Toyota .From fake notes to bigger things. China seems like factory for the rest of the world. It is evident from the fact that worlds shipping lines are all jamming China Sea and containers are in short supply even in a country like Japan. Now all this crazy manufacturing is taking toll. China never realized the huge infrastructure that was planned is now appearing to be woefully short. Electric power is first casualty. No office is allowed to use AC after 7.00pm. Factories have been asked to shut for a week in a month.

From Shanghai to Beijing is transformation of character of city. From a Shanghai which looks like missiles standing all over to another one to Beijing with open spaces, well laid blocks and green belt. Beijing is not claustrophobic as Shanghai. But Shanghai was breathtaking in its pristine days with night view that will pale even Manhattan and Hong Kong. Now with power cut, Shanghai at night is not electrifying as it used to be.

I wonder how this sudden change of economic gear took place. Was it pre-planned move by Chinese authorities to embrace capitalism after years of social reforms practiced by Mao Tse Tung or was it just fright of seeing behemoth of USSR getting disintegrated by it’s own social, economic contradictions. Whatever it is: China which overzealously practiced communism started opening doors to capitalism and when they did open, they didn’t do it grudgingly. By then, Govt ensured that social reform became a pre-requisite to capital reforms. One can see this across the breadth of China. Controlling population with one child policy, land reforms with all property is owned by Govt and given only on lease, literacy rate with 90 % plus ensured that capitalism does not create social chasm. But only time will tell if this would be so.

Either case India is in enviable situation of seeing pros and cons of jumping into economic bandwagon. Can we wipe out social class divide that is prevalent in Bihar, UP? Bombay represents Shanghai and Delhi Beijing. But can our federal structure and legislation let Bombay grow in manner of Shanghai?

My impression of Chinese woman was germane from character of The Good Earth- classic story of the honest farmer Wang Lung and his selfless wife O-Lan. In Good Earth, O Lan was a woman for whom husband, family meant everything and her limits of joy was bound only by unbounded enthusiasm for caring towards everyone around her. In my tour to Great wall, I was hobbling with my peeled skin on my foot which was rubbing against new bought Chinese slippers. This lady in a tour bus – which I had not even noticed comes running with two band-aids and offering it to me. On lunch table with German, Japanese and Indian, she takes charge and start filling up the bowls. She cannot communicate but her eyes beam with confidence and impress her 9 year old son to learn English. In the entire melee, quiet and diminutive husband who works in Kazakhstan in oil field is mute spectator. It was as if Dining Table and Kitchen brings her very best in herself in serving her family and guests. It seems that this family come from Northern China and visiting Beijing first time. However across the table were a group of youngsters wearing colored hair with flashy shoes, clothes and howling on cell phone. Contrasting behavior between generations born in economic boom against rural china was evident.

Tian En Man square is as huge and expansive as shown in pictures. Standing on the erect podium under backdrop of huge portrait of Mao, one can feel the enormous might of Chinese army as they parade through the gates. But such fear gets slowly dispelled as one sees in artistic kites in all shapes being flown. Kite flying is benign compared to India’s. What if India was to introduce competitive spirit of kite flying to them and we get their ingenuity of making kites in spectrum of designs. Great Wall of China can only be compared with Pyramids. Both make a stamp of human endeavor stretched to limits. But I feel great wall is more pleasing to eye amidst backdrop of lush green mountain range than rough desert of giza pyramids
It is so difficult to encompass China in mere words. By 2008, when china hosts Olympics – they sure will present a modern face of china to the rest of the world. But it would be interesting to see if rural china would still have replica of Wang Lung and O Lan.