Friday, July 25, 2008

The End of the Automobile Era

As we travel people are constantly complaining about the price of gasoline. While it has fallen recently, the price of gasoline is still at a level that most people thought impossible just a few years ago. High fuel prices have significantly raised transportation costs in Central Asia and everything from shared taxis to food is getting more expensive as a result.

While some people blame this on speculation, there can be little doubt that the demand for gasoline is growing faster than the supply. By the inevitable forces of free markets this means that gas prices will continue to rise until demand falls or until new supplies become available. There aren't many good alternatives to gasoline right now and most of the earth has been explored so there are unlikely to be any more Saudi Arabias waiting to be discovered. The alternatives, like tarsands and shale, are dirty and expensive. I think we are going to see some profound shifts in the way we live.

Surprisingly, poor countries will probably not cut their consumption much even with big price increases. The simple reason for this is that they consume very little oil per person. Poor countries often have well developed public transportation systems because most people can't afford private cars. In China for example there is a fantastic rail network between all the major cities, and nobody but the very rich would consider driving from Beijing to Xian.

In Central Asia the public transportation systems are in a shambles. However, the majority of vehicles on the road are still jammed full of passengers. Almost everyone driving between cities here tried to find other passengers at a shared taxi stand to share the cost of gas. A shared taxi with 5 people in it uses much less gas per passenger kilometer than a Prius with a single commuter, which means that relative to us, people in poor countries are using fuel *much* more efficiently.

So if consumption is going to fall significantly it will have to fall in the rich world where the roads are full of enormous vehicles driving around with only a single passenger. In the west many people think nothing of driving an SUV to the office every day. The law of supply and demand says that driving this SUV will soon become extremely painful. At which point would most of the people *you* know change their driving behavior? That is what will determine how high gas prices will go.

Would $2.00 a litre make you take the bus? If not, it probably won't convince your neighbors either and gas prices will go up. Would $4.00 a litre convince you to sign up for a ride share program? If not, it probably won't convince your potential passengers either and they'll also continue to drive. Would a $500.00 gas surcharge on airline tickets convince you to cancel your vacation in Mexico? There comes a point at which our wasteful behaviors must change because we simply cannot afford the alternative.

We are about to witness a profound shift in the way we travel. Trips like the one Lara and I are doing where we travel great distances in planes and taxis will become much more expensive. Commuting an hour to work by yourself every day will seem like an outrageous wast of money. Cars won't go away any time soon, but we'll be taking a lot more buses and sharing a lot more rides. Gas prices can quadruple at no cost to your commute if you pick up three passengers on the way to work. I think we are up to the challenge. There are 4 billion people in the developing world who are leading the way.

The Missing Center of the Middle Kingdom

Most people have never heard of Chongching. It is a city in central China. Today is has 10 million people. The population will double in the next decade. It is the fastest growing urban center in the world. (see article)

This pattern is being repeated across China. People are pouring out of the countryside to live in cities. Cities have better schools, better health care, and better jobs. If you want to start a business you'll probably do it in a city where you have access to enormous pools of both skilled and unskilled labor. Likewise, if you have little training and want a job, you'll go to a city where there are numerous factories and construction projects that will hire unskilled workers.

And if you dream of a better life you will go to a city. Cities concentrate people, which means that they concentrate talent and opportunities. Cities create more specialized (and thus higher skilled) jobs. In a small town, you can only be a general mechanic. In a city, you can specialize in restoring vintage automobiles. In mega city, you can sell your talents to the vintage automobile shop that pays the highest wages.

Cities also have the potential to be better for the environment. We simply can't have 7 billion people living on acreages in the country-side. In Chinese cities most people live in high rise apartments (many of which have amenities like swimming pools and health clubs). Apartments take up very little space and allow people to be close to work and shopping. Country living may look eco-friendly with it's green lawns and trees, but it is cities with their transit systems, central sewage treatment, and garbage collection, that are the green stars of the future.

Yet while the move to cities is a good thing in the long term the societal upheaval it is causing is enormous. Ambitious young Chinese who move to places like Chongching don't have it easy. Many of them have to work long hours for low wages in factories and other unskilled jobs. Most of them have little to offer other than their labor. It is not them who will be the highly paid specialists of the future. It is their children. The parents work so that their children can get the opportunities that they never had.

Those opportunities come at a terrible cost. A factory worker's apartment is no place to raise a small child, and unskilled laborers don't have the types of jobs that give them maternity leave. So the children are left in the countryside while the parents work. Many parents only see their kids one or two times a year. Grandpa and Grandpa raise the kids.

All through the Chinese countryside we saw the same thing. There are no young people; only children and the old. While we were caving a load of roofing tiles was dropped off and half a dozen people, all of them over 60, carried all the tiles up the hill baskets. To us it looked like some ghastly hell for retired people. I offered to help but could barely lift the load that was being carried by a a 70 year old lady half my size.

There is something tremendously sad about watching an old couple working in the fields all day with nobody to help them. And there is also something very sad about seeing all the children who will never really know the parents who are sacrificing so much. Many of the old people we see will be the last generation of their family to live in the countryside. Their children are gone already. The grandchildren will follow when the time comes for high school or university. And then the farm will be empty, and 3000 years of Chinese tradition will be but a fading memory.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hurled out of China

We are back in Bishkek. It feels so peaceful. I feel lighter when I walk down the streets. Nobody yells at me in Chinese. People are soft spoken and calm. The traffic seems impossibly mellow (it seemed insane when we arrived here the first time). Even the heat seems bearable compared to the humid horror that was Chengdu.

Yesterday afternoon our flight arrived in Urmuqi, our last stop in China. We had a pleasant experience with China Southern including a meal (yes, really). They even put us up in a hotel because our connection wasn't the next day. A bus drove us to the hotel, and we presented our vouchers and went to the first bed we had slept in for nearly a month.

Our flight was a 9:10 and the airport only 10 minutes away, so we set the alarm for 6:30 with the idea of having some breakfast and getting the airport comfortably early. It's a tiny airport with only a couple of international flights a day.

At 6:00 AM the phone rang. "You wakeup checkout", yelled somebody in Chinese. "Ok, thanks", I said. We hadn't ordered a wakeup call but they must have gotten the information from our tickets. I looked at my watch and we decided to go back to bed for another 30 minutes.

At 6:10 the phone rang again. "You checkout", yelled somebody in Chinese. Chinese people always seem to be yelling. It's just the way the language sounds to us, but at 6:10 in the morning it isn't much fun. "Yeah, yeah. We'll come."

At 6:20 the phone rang again. "You must checkout in 2 minutes" said the voice. I hung up. What the hell? "Let's just get up and get out of here, I suggested to Lara. They said we have two minutes." We were barely up when the phone rang again. We tried ignoring it for a bit and it would stop and then restart. "We're coming for god's sake", I said. Of course I could have said anything. The person at the other end spoke no real English.

At 6:25 the first person showed up at our door. He yelled something at us in Chinese. I opened the door and showed him that we weren't packed yet and that we were getting our stuff in our bags. He seemed upset and vanished. The phone was still ringing. We ignored it.

At 6:30 the door knocked again. This time there were three of them. One of them was particularly upset and gestured down the hallway. We showed her our bags and that we were nearly packed. She was unmoved. We would have to come immediately. We didn't. She yelled. The phone rang. We ignored her, and the phone.

At about 6:35 we were finally packed. We grabbed our hotel key and went to the lobby, where we presented it to the front desk to get our key deposit back. Given how upset everyone was we decided to go straight to the airport and skip breakfast. There was no hotel bus so we took a cab (cheap). We arrived at the airport at 6:50, 20 minutes before the international section even opened, and spent a bunch of time waiting in the nearly empty terminal.

When we were checked in and through customs Lara decided to take a load off her feet and have a cold (and outrageously overpriced) ice tea. She pointed at the bottle in the fridge and they opened it and poured it in a cup that was a bit too small. The woman then accompanied us back to the table. As soon as Lara had taken a sip, the woman grabbed the bottle and tried to fill Lara's cup with it. Lara tried to grab it from her, but the woman won the tussle and ran back to the counter with the remainder of Lara's tea. At this point Lara was fed up and insisted on a refun of the remaining portion of the ice-tea. The woman wouldn't give the bottle back or refund us money, but in the end she poured the last little bit of tea into a second cup.

We had a great experience in China and we loved most of the people we met. But China is also an incredibly intense country. Everything is loud and busy and crowded and hurried. It's nice to get back where life is a little bit more mellow.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Construction, construction, construction

People complain a lot about the pace of construction where I live in Calgary. Calgary is a city of 1 million people and are booming to the extent that we've had about 10 new road interchanges built in the last 3 years, and currently have about 10 big skyscrapers under construction.

This is nothing compared to what we have seen in every corner of China. The construction crane is the new national bird of China.

The town of Wulong where we stayed for a few days has about 200-300,000 people. Currently there are 15 skscrapers under construction. There is also a massive divided highway linking Wulong to the nearest bigger city of Fuling. The area Wulong is in is very mountainous so more than half of the highway will be underground. The parts that are not underground will be on huge bridges. The Chinese don't look for passes. They just draw a line with a ruler on a map and tunnel and bridge their way through. The railway to Wulong which was just completed runs underground for more than 30 of the last 50 KM. It has one tunnel which is 11 KM long.

And we think building a 100m long animal overpass in Banff national park is too expensive.

Raising Babies in China

Commenting on how other people raise their children is a dangerous game especially when you don't have your own. It's doubly dangerous when my sister is half way through a pregnancy with her first child. Still, it's interesting to see just how different children are from country to country and to attempt to do some amateur pattern matching with the child raising methods.

One thing I've seen in many countries is that parents rarely give in to a screaming child. A screaming child in China faces mockery. I've seen little kids running and then trip and fall on a concrete floor and start to cry. All the adults laugh at them and the kids shut up almost immediately. Similarly, I saw a child spill his food on the floor. He cried for a while but his grandmother ignored him completely and eventually just told him to shut up. In the West it seems that most crying children attract the attention of every adult.  I see a lot more crying in the West. I guess consolation is a pretty nice reward for crying.

Another thing I've seen a lot in places like China is that parents carry their children more. In Canada we've developed these elaborate baby carrying devices; strollers that contain more technology than many 4x4 vehicles. Parents wheel their babies around in insulated cocoons. In Guatemala, most parents carry their young children around in a blanket thrown over the shoulder. The kids seem to find it much more comforting (and stimulating) than being wrapped in blankets in a dark hole.

In China, toddlers are often carried around in wicker baskets with two shoulder straps to make a backpack. The baskets have a little seat in them but the kids are often standing up and looking around. I've seen little kids carried around for hours while mom cooks, does chores, and chats with people. They seem to love the stimulation and it keeps them from wandering around and putting forks into plugs or pulling things off the counters.

A final big difference I've seen in China has to do with toilet training. Chinese parents aren't much into the diaper thing, the theory being that keeping a kid in diapers too long just teaches them to be comfortable in poopy pants. This must then be untaught. Instead, Chinese kids have pants with a flap on the back, and they are taught at a very young age that if they need to go, they just open the flap and go. Very young children have a flap which is always open. Apparently you can teach a kid to squat at a much younger age then you can teach one to use a toilet without falling in.

This is, unfortunately, a bit gross because teaching context is difficult. I've seen kids shitting on the floor in restaurants and pissing on the sidewalks. Today at the bus station somebody was holding a pooing child over a garbage can. I'm not sure that I think this is very sanitary. Of course, I've seen Chinese men pissing on he streets too. Maybe the habit is hard to unlearn.

Last week we watched in horror as the toddler where we were staying took a dump right outside our sitting area. As we were discussing who would clean it up the family dog came along. I've seen dogs fed some delicious treats before, but apparently few of them are quite as good as a still steaming pile of warm diarrhea. The floor was spotless, but the dog became a pariah for the rest of the trip.

Chinese Traffic

Chinese traffic is pretty amazing. Chinese people are very nice in person, but in crowds they are often very pushy and aggressive. It's not uncommon to have somebody barge in front of you in a lineup or push you out of the way to get on the train. This transfers over to driving as well.

To make matters worse, the very rapid rise in wealth in China means the majority of drivers are new drivers. Most people who are driving literally couldn't afford a car a few years ago. It's amazing how many times we've seen people unable to do simple things like park a vehicle or turn it around on a dirty road. If you can imagine an entire country of aggressive 16 year old drivers you get an idea of the situation.

A typical scene reported by our friends here is as follows. The setting is a two lane road with a railway crossing. A train arrives and traffic stops. As soon as a lineup starts to form drivers figure they can jump the queue by driving into the now empty oncoming lanes. Or the ditch. Or the ditch in the oncoming lanes. A two lane highway becomes 4 lanes of one way traffic.

Exit the train. The same thing has happened on the other side of course. 4 lanes of jammed vehicles face each other. Nobody can back up because of all the vehicles behind them, so they just start driving at each other hoping somebody will move out of the way. Eventually it all sorts itself out, but it can take ages.

Then another train comes.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Free as in Beer

We are staying at our friends Erin and Duncan's place in Wulong, China.

We just ran out to get them a case of beer. 12 bottles of beer cost 45RMB ($7.00). The lady explained that once we bring back the empties we will get 21RMB back so half the cost is in the bottle. Three beers for a dollar. Not bad.

Food is a bit more expensive because prices have been going up sharply in the last year. We paid $3.00 for lunch today. It included a meat dish, two vegetable dishes, rice, and no Kumuz. It was arguably the best meal we've had on the China part of the trip.

China: where you get a huge lunch for two and 6 beers for the cost a Chai tea at Starbucks.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Random Useful Travel Tips

We are travelling for a year. One of the hardest things we had to figure out was what not to bring. The amount of fun you have while backpacking varies as the inverse of the weight of your pack.

Here are a few useful things we learned:


1) Bring one book each. Most backpacker hostels have book exchanges so you can leave your book and pick up a new one. Expect that you will end up reading some things you would never anticipate.

2) Bring and MP3 player and load it up with audiobooks. Trains, cheap hostels, and dorm rooms tend not to have good reading lights. Audiobooks work great in these places.

3) Take pictures of your home. I put some photos on my iPod and they've gone over very well when staying with people. People love to see your family and your city. They are less interested in the beautiful places you've been. You might want to make a few different slide shows for different audiences.


1) You can bring a stove and fuel bottle on airlines if they are clean and you don't tell the airline. I read the regulations and they are allowed but airlines insist they aren't. Don't tell them. See #4 below. A stove is the least important bit of camping gear. Consider eating cold food if you are camping a few days.

2) Buy an overbag for your backpack. They cost about $15.00 and keep your bag from getting damaged on the plane. They also make you look less like a backpacker so nobody will ask you if you have a stove. If you are doing some day trips you can stick all your stuff in the overbag and lock the zippers together.

3) A small combination lock is essential. At home I use one as a key chain. Here I keep it on my overbag. If I store stuff somewhere I can toss it in my overbag and lock the zippers together and not worry about it being stolen. In a crowded market I can even lock my day pack; much better than being one of those dorks that carries a backpack on their stomach.

3) Take a sleeping bag liner ($100.00). Sleeping bags are hard to clean so we sleep in a liner inside the bag. The liner is also great if the bed is questionable in a hostel. In hot weather it makes a very nice bag by itself.

4) Bring a day pack. We got a little Black Diamond bag that weighs a few hundred grams and folds up ($25.00). We use it every day and it holds all our important stuff.

6) Bring some antihistamines. If you get bitten by bugs and are itching badly an antihistamine will clear it right up.


1) Bring good socks. Socks are the best way to prevent blisters.

2) DON'T go overboard on the synthetic clothing. We brought a bunch of quick drying breathable fabrics and generally hate them. Cotton is the most comfortable thing on your skin even if it takes a while to dry.

3) Bring two sets of clothes and extra underwear. Wash one, wear the other.

4) Buy a Tilley hat. They looks stupid, but we love them.

5) Buy good trekking shoes and good sandals. The best trekking shoes are light hikers. Don't go overboard and buy some big leather boots that you'll have to haul around.

Staying Connected

1) Set up a photo website before you leave. We use Picasaweb and paid a bit of money for extra storage. That way you can upload your photos while you are travelling and not worry about them. Expect to spent a bit of time on the Internet if you do this. Uploads are often slower than downloads.

2) Don't try anything too fancy online. You'll have limited connectivity and some countries like China will block some pages (like my home page for example). I planned a fancy homepage with a map, but it was too hard to keep it up-to-date. A blog and a photo gallery are the way to go.

3) Buy a GSM phone and get SIM cards in each country. It costs us about $10.00 per country to get a local phone number and we are constantly using it to call local people we meet. Better yet, the rates to call home are often quite reasonable (generally about half the cost of a local call in Calgary).


1) Most of the discount airlines don't allow bookings through online travel agencies because they don't want to pay commissions. If you want the cheapest flights you can often save money by searching for discount airlines for each leg of your trip and buying individual tickets. The main problem with doing this is that if you miss a connection due to delays they aren't responsible. Solve this problem by stopping along the way.

2) Use the postal service and baggage companies. We shipped 50 lbs of caving gear to China rather than carry it with us. We'll ship it back to Canada when we are done. Plan your trip in stages and ship back the gear after each stage. For big packages you'll want a shipping agent like They'll ship things from airport to airport and you can pick it up there.

3) Plan your trip from hardest to easiest. You'll have a lot less patience for Visa paperwork after 4 months of travel then you will when you are fresh.

4) Scan your important documents and put them on your photo site in a private album. That way you can always get at them.

5) If you are going to Visa requiring countries, make a bunch of passport and visa photos before you go. There are plenty of web pages that tell you the specs. Lara did ours on our printer. It's very annoying to hunt down a passport photo place when nobody speaks English.

I hope some of these tips are useful.

Enjoy your travels

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Why not Esperanto?

I posted a few days ago to praise English speakers everywhere. A reader asked why my opinion was of Esperanto. For those that don't know, Esperanto was designed as an international language that would be easy to learn, pronounce, read, and write. The idea was to provide a common way to communicate.

Esperanto never took off. I think there are a couple of reasons.

Probably the main problem with Esperanto, to use the business term, is that it has no installed base. Nobody speaks Esperanto, so nobody makes movies, books, or radio shows in Esperanto. Which means that there is little reason to learn Esperanto. It's a circular argument but the logic is inescapable. The only way to really get enough people to learn Esperanto to make a difference is to force them. That's why so many Central Asians speak Russian.

Learning a language is hard, and if you are going to take the time to do it, you'll probably pick the one that lets you talk to the most people, make the most business connections, and see the most movies.

Another problem is that Esperanto can't be easy for everyone to learn. Languages fall into families. For instance, most of Central Asia speaks Turkik languages including Turkish, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Kazak, and others. These languages are closely related and it is easy for Turkish speakers to learn Kazak. Dutch and German are close, as are Spanish, Italian, and French. Spanish and French and Dutch and English are all closer to each other than they are to Russian. There is actually a fascinating field of study where the migration of people around the world can be traced through the family tree of the languages they speak.

What this means is that Esperanto must either be related to nothing, in which case it is hard for everyone to learn, or related to some existing language in which case if favors the speakers of that language. There is no way to design a language that is equally easy for both Chinese and English speakers to learn because their native languages are so different.

So despite best intentions, Esperanto is a language which is quite hard for some people to learn and which nobody speaks. It never had a chance.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Time Automotive Birth

Fashion is an incredibly strange thing. In China it is pretty cool to have English on things. Many magazines and books have English titles even though the magazine is in Chinese. Another thing you commonly see is people walking around with English T-shirts.

Lara and I went shopping for some clothes today and bought a really cool Chinese shirt. It reads:

The Culture is Living. Ught people to the speed and puruedyna mically since ever since that time automotive birth."

It was a bit expensive because we bought it from a fashion place, but well worth the extra couple of dollars. We loved it so much we each bought one. It is so random. People are trying so hard to be cool, but have no idea how to do it. So they spend extra money to buy some fancy brand on the assumption that the people running the brand wouldn't do anything to make them look stupid (bell bottoms anyone?).

In Canada people are doing the opposite of course, except with tattoos. I've seen tons of people with Chinese tattoos. Do they have any idea what these things say? Probably not, given that our friend Matt in Chengdu assures us there are web pages here that make fun of them. I guess it makes sense given that the average person in a tattoo shop doesn't know any more Chinese than I do.

Next time you see some cute 20 something walking around with Chinese characters tattooed on their arm, remember my shirt. They may think it says "cool chick", but it is just as likely to say "refrigerator chicken."

In Praise Of English Speakers Everywhere

I speak 3 languages: English, Spanish, and Dutch. English and Dutch I learned as a child. They were free. Spanish I learned on my own. Spanish is an easy language, but I worked hard to learn it. I've spent several months in Spanish lessons and studied hundreds if not thousands of hours. I have a library of Spanish books to practice with, and a collection of Spanish Language CDs and DVDs. Learning a language is one of the most difficult things we can do.

Yet when I travel around, I barely need to know any other languages. All over the world millions of motivated people are learning English. Because of their hard work, I don't have to be able to speak their language. It's really incredibly unbalanced.

Like it or not, English has become the dominant language in the world. Part of it is due to accidents of history; the United States is the dominant military and economic power in the world. But much of it is due to the structure of the language itself. English is an incredibly flexible and powerful language which has an elegant writing system. Chinese has a 50,000 character alphabet. In French a comittee has to decide which words are allowed into the language. As English speakers we were born into one of the best technologies for expressing ourselves and recording our thoughts. English is the language of science, partially because many of the subtle concepts in Science are easier to express in English. That's also why French is good for poetry, but unfortunately for the French poets have less influence in todays world than scientists.

My study of Spanish (and a less successful attempt to grasp some Kyrgyz and Chinese) has given me a great appreciation of all those who speak English as a second language. When a Chinese person is able to talk to me in English I can only imagine how hard they must have studied. When a Kyrgyz tour guide translates for me, I realize that behind the translation are thousands of hours of study and practice, and that every discussion involves stunning mental gymnastics. All over the world there are millions of people who spend their spare time in language classes trying to learn our language. So that they can talk to us.

Think about this the next time somebody talks to you in broken English. Think of the hours they've spent with dictionaries and flash cards trying to get to the point where they could communicate with you at all. Thank them for all their hard work.