"China Standard" Hotel Rooms

Between the two of us, we’ve travelled in China for a total of a few months by now, and have seen enough Chinese budget/midrange hotel rooms to know that they are, for the most part, almost identical–what we call “China Standard” and a useful way for us to describe the level of lodging quality elsewhere in the world (“well, it’s almost China Standard…”). Available in smaller towns and cities for somewhere around 120 RMB, or USD 18, or in bigger cities for somewhat more, these rooms offer a level of comfort and amenities that would be wildly luxurious in many other countries–but in perhaps the most drab, tattered and boring way possible.

That the rooms are so similar across the entire country is something of a mystery–I think that there must be some sort of standard kit, either very significant suppliers that supply each and every hotel or nationwide standards that require certain items for a hotel to be classified as two- or three-star (the level of hotels of which I am writing). Anyway, some elements of a China Standard hotel room.

Lobby. Chinese hotel lobbies always seem to have world clocks (of course not set properly), and a board showing room rates. Note that you almost never pay the posted rack rates in a Chinese hotel–substantial discounts of sometimes more than 50% are given even without asking.

Inside the room. This room has cleaner carpets than most–the floor is generally the worst part of a Chinese hotel room. Note the headboards bolted to the wall as well as the chairs, with a tea service. On the other side of the room is hot water, which is always available and refilled (for making tea). Except in the largest/most crowded cities, where space is at a premium, there’s always plenty of room for luggage.

The mattress is the second worst thing in a Chinese hotel room–often rock hard. On the other hand, the sheets and plush white duvets–almost always this exact pattern–are almost luxurious. Derek often asks for a second duvet to cushion the rock hard mattress. We’ve often heard stories of Chinese hotel rooms having dirty sheets, but encountered this for the very first and only time just this past week in Tibet (in a hotel owned and managed by Tibetans), and assume that many of the horror stories are from years past, when standards were lower.

That the floor is usually filthy doesn’t matter much because you are usually given some sort of footwear. Here, plastic, but usually paper disposable.

Bedside controls for lights, relatively uncommon in other parts of the world, are another feature of “China Standard.”

Bathrooms are well amenitized. Have you thought it annoying that you have to pack a toothbrush when going for a weekend trip (though almost every other basic toiletry is covered by hotels)? In China, and we predict soon all over the world as Chinese tourists start taking over, disposable toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste come standard.

We didn’t picture perhaps the most important parts of a China Standard room. China Standard rooms always have air conditioning and hot water aplenty, even in some of the most remote parts of the country (heating is more of a problem)–items that are often missing at hotels at similar prices in other parts of the world. Nearly all have a television with various flavors of CCTV, Chinese state television, one in English.

Chinglish in a Shigatse Supermarket

Reeling from a bad morning at Tashilhunpo Monastery (see post of 2010.06.02–who knew we were so sensitive?), we found ourselves with many free hours in Shigatse and not much to do. The Old Town was pretty much deserted because people were out of town for local holiday picnics, and we weren’t about to pay more admissions for more second-rate sights. And so we thought that we might as well enjoy a day in Anytown, China, which is what most of Shigatse looks like, and headed to a local mall. The mall itself was pretty crummy, the Lenovo shop even locking up their WiFi when they realized that we were using it, but it did have quite a nice supermarket.

“Mr. Bond coffee — American pattern — >> I’m young..I’m coffee”

When we saw the cans of Mr. Bond coffee (not bad, by the way), we thought that we might as well spend a half hour looking through the grocery store for awkward or nonsensical English. Here’s what we found:

“Almond — used to flavor extracts, liqueurs and orgeat syrup. T’ — els of apricot and peach pits have a similar flavor — same toxic effect (destroyed by heating) as b — hios. Pistachios are available blanched o — sliced, chopped, candied, smoked, i — nd in many flavors. Toasting Pis” It seems like they were trying to be helpful by cutting and pasting an encyclopedia entry or something?

“THEUNITEDSTATES – MSLP – THE NEW TASTE & EUROPEAN TASTE”

“CHONQING STRANGE-TASTE HORSEBEANS”

“May the breeze bring you The tenderness and warmth from me Far from each other we may be. Yet still you are here, At the bottom of my heart.” Rather poetic for a bag of pistachios.

“Choiceness raw material Produced meticulous”

This one isn’t really even about bad English–just that the product itself is so odd, that they shouldn’t have bothered to translate. Would any English speaker really buy this for their child?

This cleanser removes horniness.

No doubt others have remarked on this, but “jissbon” is a popular brand of condoms in China.

“MOTH KILLER – mothproof toothpaste”

“Old Chengdu. Sichuan special products. The hands tear the serial products of beef of “liuyanggou” is chosen the adult yak’s crua meat of the prairie of Ruoergai of Abab state carefully. (Only accounts for 3% of the whole yak’s body) complement with several dozen natural plant seasoning, pass several dozen modern craft refined. It is mouth feel unique, aromatic and strong, and pleasant impression is long.” I personally don’t want my yak jerky to leave a long impression in my mouth.

Islam in China

This is a post similar to others I have written broadly summarizing certain aspects of Islam in various countries/regions we have traveled in (see post of 2008.08.16 on Indonesia, 2008.11.14 on the Balkans and 2009.03.06 on India).

No-one would consider China a Muslim country, and it is not.  At no point in history was China majority Muslim nor was it ever ruled by a Muslim power (although it came close during Mongol rule, since more westerly Mongol rulers converted to Islam).  There are, however, almost 20 million Muslims in China–a number that may be small in relation to China’s population of over a billion but is still larger than the Muslim populations of countries such as Syria, Malaysia or Senegal or the total number of Muslims in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman combined.

China has 55 official ethnic minorities, ten of which are predominantly Muslim.  Below, some photos showing the diversity of Muslim history and experience in China.

Ruined mosque, Quanzhou, Fujian Province.  This Iranian-style mosque ruin on the south coast of China marks a city which was, in the 13th century during the time of Marco Polo, a great and important port for Persian and Arab traders known as Zeitoun.  One can imagine an era when Persian and Arab sailors did substantial business in the region, setting up local operations and perhaps even converting some locals.

The 13th century Quanzhou ship is a particularly tangible relic from the city’s era as an international port. See this link.

Huaisheng Mosque, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.  The Great Mosque of Guangzhou is said to be the oldest mosque in China, established by no less than an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, who traveled east to spread Islam.  The mosque was rebuilt in the 14th and 17th centuries and is, like many other Chinese mosques and unlike the Quanzhou mosque, in Chinese rather than Arab or Persian style–it looks like a Buddhist temple.

Yunnan Province is said to have developed its significant Muslim population during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, after Emperor Kublai Khan appointed a Muslim governor (whose family originally hailed from Bukhara). The most famous Yunnanese Muslim is probably Zhang He, the great 15th century eunuch navigator who one author recently argued traveled all the way to the Americas before Columbus. Zhang He definitely sailed his huge ships as far as East Africa and is said to be in part responsible for outposts of Chinese Muslims in Southeast Asia. The Muslim population of Yunnan currently numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Mosque, Dali. Again, in the style of a Chinese temple, but note the Arabic calligraphy on the doors, in gold.

Minaret, Dali

Some Dali Muslims. Almost half of Chinese Muslims, including those in Yunnan, are classified under the geographically dispersed Hui minority group. While all Hui are Muslim, Hui people fit in, in most respects (linguistic and cultural), with the local majority, be it Han in Guangzhou or Xian, or Bai in Dali.

Great Mosque, Xian, Shaanxi Province.  While Islam landed on the south Chinese coast with seaborne trade, it came to Xian through the overland Silk Road.  As the longtime imperial capital, Xian was not only the ultimate destination for Xuanzang, who brought the sacred Buddhist texts from India, an accomplishment commemorated by Xian’s great Big Wild Goose Pagoda, but the city also became a center of Chinese Islam, primarily in the city’s Muslim Quarter.

Yet further east, the Turkic Uyghurs of Xinjiang make up the greatest of China’s distinct Muslim minority groups. See my post of 2008.07.23 for more thoughts on the Uyghurs and the other Muslim ethnic groups of Xinjiang.

Inside the Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar

A Tajik woman, another of China’s Muslim ethnic minorities living in Xinjiang

Mosque, Lhasa, Tibet.  We were told by one local that this mosque was over 1000 years old, and only one of three mosques in the old part of Lhasa.  Although the Muslim presence in Tibet goes back hundreds of years, our small sample revealed that most of the city’s current Muslim inhabitants were recent immigrants, just like the Han Chinese who have flocked to the city.  However, instead of settling down with the Han in the more modern part of Lhasa, it seems that the Muslims (mainly from Gansu Province) prefer to live with the Tibetans in the city’s historical core.

Muslim man in Lhasa

There are certain ethnic groups in the world that have the advantage of having a great and popular culinary tradition to draw on, when emigrating and trying to make a buck.  Chinese people in the U.S., it seems, have often resorted to opening a restaurant; Egyptians and Turks are proliferating halal/shawarma/doner shops around the world; and in Tibet most of the new Han restaurants are owned by Sichuanese.  The usually Hui Muslim noodle shop can similarly be found in almost any city in China (and thankfully so, since they sell some of my favorite kinds of food).  Easily identifiable by their “Islamic” exterior–lots of green, strings of Arabic and pictures of sites such as Mecca or the Taj Mahal–friendly immigrants, many from Gansu Province, cook up delicious fresh made noodles all over China. Here, a Hui man making noodles in Yangshuo, Guangxi Province.

Inside a noodle shop, Lhatse, Tibet

A man selling nan in Shanghai

Drug Use around the World

There are certain human phenomena that are often described as unhealthy or unnatural yet are so universal as to be undeniably a part of the human experience, within the set of behaviors that describes us as homo sapiens, at a naturalistic level. As much as some anthropologists may have tried in the last century to find counterexamples, to prove things an aspect of particular cultures rather than of us as a species, traveling far and wide identifies many things that are indeed universal, are patterns that arise over and over again, across cultures thousands of miles apart, of vastly different traditions. One example of such a human phenomenon is drug use.

We have encountered drugs of one kind or another in almost all the countries we have visited–even in the relatively abstemious Muslim world–and it is fascinating to see how cultures have incorporated or tamed the human impulse to chemically alter our consciousness. In this post, I thought I would go over some of the substances we have come across, along with some thoughts on each.

Tea

Pouring tea, Mauritania

Tea is what triggered the idea for this particular post. While East Asians may now drink tea largely as a water substitute, and many in the West as a sort of warm, calming drink, tea still features prominently in Chinese medicine and the pharmaceutical properties of tea were promoted heavily when tea was first imported into the West at great cost. The caffeine content of tea is, of course, relatively modest, especially compared to coffee (see below), but that tea is still used for its caffeine content–to keep us alert and social–is undeniable. The most street drug-like use of tea we have encountered was in Mauritania. The tea culture of Mauritania (similar to that of northern Mali and Morocco) is one of the most unusual we have seen. Mauritanians take huge amounts of Chinese green tea (“the vert de chine,” as it is called) and boil it down over a fire, to produce a highly concentrated form of tea sweetened with a great deal of sugar. Given that it is customary to drink at least three (albeit small) glasses at each sitting, the caffeine and sugar jolt is no less than jarring; a few days into Mauritania we realized that it was the bumps of tea that were preventing us from having solid nights of sleep. While waiting for our Iron Ore Train (see post of 12.31.08), one youth stayed up almost the whole night boiling tea, and trying to nudge his friends awake to join him for more hits. Tea drinking is so essential, so ubiquitous to Mauritanian culture that men will often travel with the essential equipment to make tea, including a fuel canister in the case of the Iron Ore Train. (Men also often travel with a whisk, for mixing milk with water, see post of 08.12.21.)

Qat

An addict on the streets of Harar, Ethiopia

Generally speaking, most of the “traditional” drugs we have seen around the world seem to cause few apparent significant social disruptions, of the kind that we associate with street drugs in the western world such as crystal meth, heroin and cocaine. Perhaps the greatest exception to this rule is qat. Chewed from Yemen to Kenya, and in some expatriate communities elsewhere, the stimulant and hallucinogen is famously harvested around the walled city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. The ladies selling the leaves in the market may seem jolly and friendly, not like the deadly drug pushers of Hollywood movies, but the ill effects of the drug can be readily seen in the numerous men who lay in the gutters in and around Harar, teeth rotten or missing and mouths foaming with green leaf, unable to control their addiction to the drug. We saw one man using a mortar and pestle to ground the drug, because his teeth had all rotted away, and another fighting with a goat for scraps of leaves on the ground of the local market. Seeing the addicts of Harar certainly made me think through the possibly horrible outcomes of greater drug legalization, at least in a society without proper education, addiction prevention and rehabilitation of addicts.

Coca

Nearly every traveler to the Andes chews a few coca leaves or sips some mate de coca, not only for the novelty and the experience of traditional culture, but also to combat altitude sickness. And, perhaps disappointingly, the tourist discovers that a small quantity of coca leaves seems to have little effect at all, on altitude sickness or anything else. To a liberal South American, coca is also a battle cry, an example of modern first world cultures misusing a traditional product (by chemically creating a deadly concentrate from a relatively harmless plant) and then imposing their own resulting social problems on third world economies (or so the coca growers, perhaps in part dependent on first world addicts for income, may argue). Of all the drugs on this list, coca is perhaps the most controversial, a drug whose social and political profiles vary extremely widely with geography and whose economic profile has the power to move nations. (Opium/Heroin has a similar geopolitical dimension.)

Betel nut

For sale at a convenience store, Yap, Federal States of Micronesia

Traveling in Micronesia, or the coastal edges of Asia (particularly Taiwan and India), one encounters betel nut all the time; locals’ mouths seem to be constantly stuffed with one and the streets red with dried spit. Like many other “traditional” drugs, it all seems harmless enough, but the lime with which the active substance is released from the nut does substantial harm to the user’s teeth, which alone seems objectionable. Betel nut does serve to demonstrate the social nature of drug use. Just like the elaborate ritual of making Mauritanian tea, betel nut chewing requires a certain set of ingredients and tools (lime, a leaf, the nut itself, something to crack the nut with and often tobacco), of which at a given point in time a person may lack one or two elements. By getting together to prepare the drug, people bond–much like the occasionally flirty act of asking for or offering a light for a cigarette. One long-time expat in Yap told us that preparing a fix of betel nut together can act as the equivalent of breaking bread, a joint activity that tells its participants (and those witnessing) that all is well and square between them.

Kola nuts

When we first saw kola nuts in Mali, we couldn’t even recognize them. Only later did we learn that this was the kola of Coca-Cola fame, and similar to cacao, tea and coffee in its pharmacological properties. For the tourist in West Africa, especially the Dogon Country (see posts of 08.12.16), kola nuts serve as a sort of alternative currency, a way of currying favor with at-times grumpy locals without outright cash bribery. We were amazed at how responsive people were to the simple gift–which probably reveals not avarice on the part of the old men but the symbolic significance of the gift, perhaps not dissimilar from the act of sharing a betel nut.

And, finally, the big three, which I will touch on only briefly, since you, dear reader, are no doubt extremely familiar with them:

Tobacco

Lighting up in Zhaoxing, Guizhou, China

Smoking the sheesha, Buraimi, Oman

Cigarettes may be dying out in America, with the imposition of high taxes and laws eradicating them from nearly all public places, but they are alive and well in many parts of the world. But, perhaps more interesting than cigarettes are the various more exotic forms of tobacco consumption, including beautiful tiny pipes found in the deserts of Mauritania, the sheesha or hookah found all over the Muslim world, the Chinese pipes featured above and fragrant clove kretek in the Indonesian isles. The sheesha is not only “traditional,” but a very popular and trendy social activity among the young in the more fashionable parts of the Levant (such as hip cafes in Beirut, Damascus and Amman) as well as New York’s Lower East Side (where a hookah can cost upwards of USD 30). If it tastes like apple, how could it possibly be bad for you?

Coffee

Coffee-husk tea, served to us by the Hamer tribe of the Omo, Ethiopia

Coffee Shop, Hanoi, Vietnam

Coffee has perhaps the largest number of addicts in the world, if alcohol is more often used to disastrous effect. And traveling with something of an addict myself (Derek always travels with packets of 3-in-1, dissolvable in room temperature water), I’m well aware of individuals’ need for a coffee fix. Morocco, where we are now, has perhaps the highest public coffee consumption we’ve seen outside of the American workplace (where, in a most sinister fashion, coffee is the only beverage offered to employees for free). Ethiopia, the home of coffee, fittingly has the most developed brewing ritual. One legend apparently has it that coffee was first brewed by an Ethiopian monk, who had met a goatherd that followed his goats in trying the berries, and came to discover their energy-giving power. The monk, believing the fruit to be evil, threw the fruit in the fire. Upon smelling the delicious roast, he was tempted to try it himself, and eventually grew to appreciate the drink’s ability to focus and prolong his prayers!

Alcohol

British woman enjoying a cocktail

An ever-common site–drunk Asian businessmen, Hong Kong

A very wise Touareg explained to us in Timbuktu that the Islamic prohibition against alcohol was something for man’s own good. “It doesn’t affect or harm God if you drink–it isn’t personally important to him–he just says you shouldn’t drink for your own benefit.” Indeed, many of the rules of Islam and other religions can be explained this way, that they are designed to create a harmonious and peaceful society, rather than to delineate what constitutes a sort of cosmic evil, or sin.

The absence of alcohol is perhaps one of the greatest easily noticeable differences between the Muslim world and the West or Far East. By avoiding alcohol, the Muslim world certainly avoids some of the greatest social ills of other, alcohol-laden parts of the world. Almost all cities in the Muslim world feel incredibly safe, especially at night, relative to American or European cities, largely because they are free of drunks whose erratic behavior can result in conflict and violence. In the major East Asian cities after sundown, drunken office workers are a common sight; in the West, so much of adult social life revolves around bars and inebriation. I will never forget the first “festival” we attended in the Arab world, and how family-friendly it was, largely due to the absence of alcohol. On the other hand, I also understand the role of alcohol as social lubrication, in places such as East Asia where workplace relations can otherwise be very hierarchical and tense, or in the promotion of the mixing of genders (or single-sex pairings, in the case of homosexuals), that most natural human activity. Is trying to ban alcohol from adult social life perhaps as futile and senseless as banning other natural behaviors, such as sexuality? But, of course, many parts of the Muslim world also attempt this, to greater or lesser success.

Secondary Cuisines

Traveling through the world, one gets to taste some terrific (and some not-so-terrific) food. Considering the wide availability of many of the same ingredients all over the world, it’s astonishing how much cuisines vary, from East to Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia to India, India to Iran, Iran to the Levant to Turkey, Turkey to Europe. The food, and the types and availability of restaurants, tell you a great deal about a place–the level of economic development, historical trading patterns and contacts, maybe even the character of a people. This post is, however, limited to one small category of food, which I call “secondary cuisines.”

A secondary cuisine is a cuisine once removed. Not Italian food as served in Italy, for example, but American Italian food. Not Chinese food as served in China, but Korean Chinese food. Not Indian food as served in India, but British Indian food. Secondary cuisines have interesting histories. Sometimes, they are just adaptations of an immigrant class, perhaps modified for broader consumption in the country of immigration. Other times, they are local visions of what a foreign cuisine is, or attempts to create such cuisines without proper training or ingredients. However they originate, some secondary cuisines develop lives of their own, perhaps not exceeding in quality and variety the primary cuisine, but differentiating itself sufficiently that even the primary cuisine would not serve as a substitute for someone looking for that particular secondary cuisine dish. An American tourist could easily be disappointed by pizza the way it is served in Italy, and I have heard from many who prefer American Chinese food over food in China. There have even been cases of transplantation of secondary cuisine dishes into the country of the primary cuisine, whether for consumption by locals or foreigners. Lest this sound rather abstract, let us move on to concrete examples.

The country in which the widest range of secondary cuisines exists is probably the United States, a country of immigrants. Chief among these is probably American Chinese food. Ever since Chinese workers first arrived in the United States in the 19th century, they have been cooking food (as Chinese emigrants do all over the world–see below), and a unique cuisine developed. The greatest concentration of American Chinese food restaurants is probably in San Francisco, the oldest Chinese community in the United States, where restaurants have big signs advertising that most American Chinese dish, Chop Suey. But not far behind are restaurants in big cities all over the U.S., and even in rural areas–Chinese food is omnipresent. Other dishes of American Chinese cuisine include such classics as General Tso’s and Sesame Chicken, and an entire range of American Chinese food is often available in cheap buffet or fast food restaurants in strip malls across America. I read that General Tso’s Chicken, originally a Taiwanese-American invention, has made it back to Taiwan–but I have not seen it on a menu in the Mainland… yet.

There are numerous other American-XXX cuisines. After American Chinese food, American Italian probably comes a close second. Indeed, Italian food served outside of Italy is often not an adaptation of Italian food from Italy, but of American Italian food. Whether served at Pizza Hut or numerous smaller local restaurants, American-style pizza is perhaps the single most popular food in the world. Pizza by the slice being sold in Venice looked and tasted suspiciously like New York pizza, leaving me to wonder whether pizza-by-the-slice is an American invention that has traveled back to Italy, together with the recipe for American pizza. American Japanese food also exists, to a small extent, in the form of newly invented sushi. I’ve read that the California, Philadelphia and Alaska rolls have all, to some extent, traveled across the Pacific to be served in sushi restaurants in Japan. Similarly, a cut of rib grilled for Korean barbeque is known even in Korea as “L.A. Galbi,” after its place of innovation, and I know of a pho restaurant in Saigon that imports “rooster sauce” (Sriracha Sauce), a tomato and chili condiment made by Vietnamese Americans and ubiquitous in Vietnamese restaurants in the United States.

America may be home to the the largest number of secondary cuisines, but the country responsible for seeding the largest number of secondary cuisines is, no doubt, China. “Chinese” food is among the most varied in the world (it is probably silly to call it a single cuisine, although of course regional differences are largely lost when exported to other countries), and among the most adopted in the world, not only by Chinese emigrant communities but by non-Chinese locals. We have eaten (some sort of) Chinese food in the U.S. (of course), Europe, Korea, Southeast Asia, India, the Levant, Mali and Madagascar.

Of secondary Chinese cuisines, the two most distinctive, from my perspective, are Korean Chinese food and Indian Chinese food. I am not sure how Korean Chinese food originated, but I believe it was created by Chinese immigrants to Korea (from Shandong Province?) who opened restaurants and modified existing Chinese dishes to suit local palates. Now, it forms a cuisine on its own, its dishes recognizably Chinese but prepared in a distinct style. Every Korean child’s favorite food is Jiajiangmyeon, similar to but different from the Beijing-style noodles, and anybody could tell Korean-style Sweet and Sour apart from its Chinese original. Given the lack of a significant Chinese population in India or Sri Lanka, I am inclined to think that Indian Chinese food is a local creation, a vision of Chinese food by (evidently skilled) South Asian cooks. I am told that some of the dishes, such as Chili Chicken, Chicken Manchurian, etc., are available in Indian restaurants in New York. In Madras we went to the restaurant that supposedly invented Chicken 55, another popular (and delicious) Indian Chinese dish. There are numerous other secondary Chinese cuisines–we were unsurprised to find at a restaurant in Sofia Bulgaria an entire page of Chinese dishes, some more recognizably Chinese in inspiration than others. I should also note that Chinese is often a premium cuisine in many parts of the world, surprising to big city Americans to whom some kind of Chinese food is available at highly competitive prices.

Western food has also been adapted. All over Asia there is some variant of adapted western food, such as pizza with corn as a topping (or thousand island dressing in lieu of tomato sauce, as is available at Pizza Hut Hong Kong), “hamburger steak” made of ground meat and various cream soups. The most well-developed, almost sophisticated version, however, is Japanese western. The Japanese adopted certain western dishes from their interactions with the Portuguese in the 16th century and with the British in the 19th, and some of the dishes have grown quite popular, served not only in Japanese restaurants in Japan but all over the world, including especially Korea. Foremost among the dishes of this cuisine are curry and katsu, both foods I grew up with and love. It was fairly late in my life when I recognized that my love of chicken fried steak and wiener schnitzel (and other similar dishes–every country seems to have its own) came down to their resemblance to Japanese katsu.

When I was recently in Milan, I had to try the local milanesa, the namesake of the breaded meat dish in all parts of the Italian- and Spanish-speaking worlds.