Saturday, August 16, 2008

Architecture 2010

Most of us are familiar with the humble metal shipping container. They have revolutionized how goods travel around the world. The idea is simple. Take the body of Semi-trailer and put it, fully loaded onto a ship or a train. Your cargo is protected and you don't have to spend time and money unloading it and reloading it to put it onto a ship or a train. In 2005, 200 million containers full of goods were shipped around the world.

In Central Asia, shipping containers have also revolutionized the construction industry. Shipping containers measure 8.5 feet high and 8 feet high, which is a pretty comfortable size for people to work in. They are strong, waterproof, cheap, and easy to move. As a result we've seen numerous container buildings. Sometimes people just open the doors. Other times people cut doors and windows into them, paint them, and make them into very nice living spaces.

Most commonly we see shipping containers in the markets. Most of the markets here in Osh are made up of row upon row of neatly lined up containers. They are wired with electricity and typically have inventory in the back and a sales section in the front. At night they just shut the big metal doors and put a padlock on them. These container markets are quite permanent, with decorative roofs covering the aisles between the containers. We've even seen places where the markets are two stories. You just stack containers two wide on the bottom and one wide on top and you have a half container worth of sidewalk on each side.

As I started researching this I found out that most of these containers are surplus. Apparently the shipping industry has high quality standards for their containers. As a result there are tens of thousands of containers which can't be shipped and which are expensive to recycle. And there are tens of thousands of vendors who would love a cool, secure place from which they can sell their products.

Maybe next time we build a garage we'll look into getting a few storage containers for the back yard instead.

The Worst Drivers in the World?

Whenever westerners travel to developing countries they comment on how crazy the drivers seem. Few people can forget the experience of crossing an 8 lane street in Chengdu, driving in a Rickshaw in Thailand, or racing down a mountain road in a yellow school bus in Guatemala.

I've now been to a number of countries that lay claim to the world's worst drivers and in my opinion the quiet, unassuming people of Central Asia take the prize. Never have I felt so scared to step onto a street. The drivers are so bad that we've actually planned parts of our trip around what drives will be required.

In China for example many drivers are inexperienced and unskilled but there is a form of cooperation. If I as a pedestrian walk into a Chinese street all of the traffic will flow around me. It is incredibly nerve-wracking, but you can cross a busy street in China by slowly making your way across one lane at a time. As long as you keep moving predictably you will not be hit, although as a foreigner I always tried to keep a Chinese person on the upstream side of me as an extra precaution.

In Central Asia, they will run you down without even touching the brakes.

As far as we can tell there are two rules of driving here. The first rule is to assume that no matter how unpredictably you drive, other people will stop for you. If you miss a turn just lam on the the brakes and reverse down the road, or do a U-Turn across 3 lanes of traffic without even shoulder checking. The important thing is to act like you are the only vehicle on the road. The second rule is to never slow down or attempt to avoid another driver. If somebody steps into your way just honk and keep going. If they don't move, run them down like a dog. Don't swerve. Don't slow down.

We are very scared to cross streets here. There are no pedestrian crossings and often not even traffic lights at big intersections. People drive as fast as they can, and driving after a few bottles of Vodka is still pretty acceptable. We've even seen police officers having a good piss-up at lunch time. Traffic is also highly unpredictable. People will do U turns unexpectedly and parked vehicles will suddenly reverse down the road when you thought they were safely asleep. Uncovered manholes add to the excitement since you have to watch the pavement almost as closely as the traffic. Death can come from any direction at any time and Kyrgyzstan has the traffic fatality statistics to prove it.

The Kyrgyz Medical System

As I wrote last week, I was punched in Jalalabat and injured my mouth. While my upper lip has healed up fairly nicely, my bottom lip is still very painful and it is hard for me to eat or smile.

Since we are soon heading to even poorer Tajikistan Lara and I decided we'd better get my lip checked to see if there was anything seriously wrong. In Tajikistan the biggest town we are visiting in the next 3 weeks has 4000 people and no electricity. I'm pretty confident the medical infrastructure will match the electrical grid.

We started by phoning our insurance company since we are responsible people and have got medical insurance. Our concern was that if I needed any sort of delicate oral surgery I probably wouldn't want it done in Osh. While Osh has 300,000 people and 3 universities, it is also a city that turns of the electricity every day from midnight to 7:00AM and lacks traffic lights at some amazingly big intersections. We figured our insurance company might be able to point us to some decent medical resources or maybe give us a doctor to talk to.

We went to an internet cafe to look up our insurance information and Lara called the insurance company on her cell phone. After some time on hold a friendly man talked to Lara (I'm not talking much with my mangled mouth). Unfortunately he had never even heard of Kyrgyzstan, and we realized we were pretty much on our own. Luckily while Lara was talking to the insurance company I had been looking up mouth injuries on the Internet and I was becoming more confident that my wound was something that would heal nicely given some time.

Since the insurance company was no help we looked in the Lonely Planet and found a medical clinic a few blocks from where were. The building was falling apart but there was a small booth in the lobby with a couple of nurses in it. We acted out the punch in the face thing and one of the nurses led us around the side to a doctor's office. There were two doctors in the office both of whom spoke a few words of English. They were mainly interested in how I had hurt my lip and we acted out the scene again. Our acting must have been bad because they thought that Lara had gotten drunk and punched me. We spent a minute clearing that up. Then the doctor took a quick look at my lip and wrote me a perscription on the back of a torn off computer printout.

There was no charge to see the doctors and our total waiting time was probably 30 seconds. By contrast when I had a bleeding wound in Calgary I spent 6 hours waiting in the medical clinic before somebody looked at me. My family doctor in Calgary is booking physicals for 2010.

Perscriptions in hand we set off to find our medicines. Pharmacies are everywhere here but most of them only sell condoms and aspirin. It took three tries to find the antibiotics but the $0.30 bill was more than reasonable. Three more pharmacies were needed before we found the mouth rinse, which came in a neat glass medical jar and cost another $0.50.

The standard of medical care in Kyrgyzstan is basic at best. This is not a country where you want to have anything serious go wrong with you. Yet for minor ailments I don't think you can beat a 30 second wait and a $0.80 bill for medicine.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What Were We Doing In China

A couple of people have said that I haven't really explained what we were doing in China. I realized that I've been posting lots of things I found interesting but didn't provide much of an overview, so for those who care, and for Taco and Lara 20 years from now when our memories have faded, here is a quick overview of our China Trip.

I first visited China in 2002 to go on a cave exploring trip. On that trip I was lucky enough to be on the survey trip to the deepest point in China at the time and I did some fantastic caving. I've been keen to go back to China to do more cave exploring ever since. The fact that China is an amazing place to visit didn't hurt either.

Originally our plan was to start in China and work our way overland through Central Asia. We would start in the south and then cave with Erin Lynch and Duncan Collis in Wulong and then work our way to Kashgar and into Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, because of the Olympics and associated protests the Chinese Government denied our visa request. We changed our plans and decided to go straight to Kyrgyzstan. After we'd booked our initial flights Erin in China managed to get us some invitation letters which were good enough for a 30 day Visa to go caving. We decided that the caving sounded too good to miss so we ended up adding a somewhat arbitrary China leg to our Central Asia trip.

Our China trip was in Wulong which is in south-central China. The caves we were exploring have recently been declared a world heritage site partially because of the excellent job we cavers have done of documenting all the amazing underground passages. We were put up in a farm-house in the middle of the core zone of the world heritage site and for two weeks we explored a wonderful cave called San Wang Dong (third great cave). The family who owned the farmhouse cooked meals for us and for a toilet we pooped between boards in the chicken coop.

San Wang Dong has about 40km of mapped passages. Many of these passages have branches or pitches (vertical drops) which nobody has ever been down. Our job for two weeks was to explore these side passages and add them to the map. Erin, Lara, and I formed an impromptu team that spent most of the trip exploring one small section of the cave. It was an amazing experience. To get to the exploration front we travelled about 2 hours underground to an enormous sinkhole with huge vertical walls extending to the sky above. We came into the sinkhole about 50m above the floor and 100m below the top. We then rappelled into the daylight of the sinkhole to the green and leafy bottom before continuing back underground down another bunch of ropes.

The lead that we explored was a 40m wide passage that ended in a huge vertical drop. I got the job of figuring out how to get down the shaft, which involved hanging on a rope with a power drill trying to figure out a safe way to rapel down (avoiding lose rocks, bad rub-points, and water). It was quite a challenge but eventually we found a nice path down and were able to rapel 50m into a big chamber. None of this had ever been explored before and we did 4 trips to this chamber to map all the side passages. Because of the distance from the entrance our trips averaged over 16 hours. We did a three day rotation where we would cave one day, rest one day, do an easy trip the third day, and then a "bottoming trip" the final day.

We ended up finding a new cave which we explored on our easy days so in the end we did quite a bit of caving. All in all we mapped about 2500m of previously unexplored passages and we saw some absolutely amazing and beautiful things. It was a great experience to be able to explore beautiful underground passages that no human being has ever seen, especially in such an exotic location.

Now we are back in Central Asia continuing our travels. Our caving gear was shipped back to Canada and we are going to head to Tajikistan next to hike in the Pamir Mountains and see some spectacular high-altitude scenery.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In Defense of Organized Crime

So many things happen to us in our travels that it is hard to record them all. The fist in face incident brings back some memories of a fascinating discussion we had two weeks ago.

When we got back from our caving month in China both Lara and I were ready for a few days on the beach. Of course, we are about 3000 km from the nearest ocean so we have to be flexible. We decided to go to Cholpon-Ata which is a holiday town on the north shore of lake Issy-Kol. Every summer it fills with tourists who swim in the (relatively) warm waters of the lake.

We got a lift to the lake from Abai, a restaurant owner in Bishkek. He is one of the Kyrgyz wealthy in that he has a business, a couple of apartments, and his own vehicle. Abai offered to drive us down to the lake if we paid for a tank of gas (actually a bad deal for us given how cheap buses and shared taxis are, but still not that expensive). He picked us up from our hotel in the morning and then we stopped by to pick up his friend who is a police officer.

Abai told us that after the Soviet Union collapsed his father ended up doing business in Russia. At the tail end of the 1990s his father was murdered. We didn't get details, but his was a common occurrence back then. Gangsters ruled the street and violence was everywhere.

Abai is strongly supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He says that under Putin the violence has gone away and Russia is a much safer place. Apparently most of the organized crime has now become legitimate. To him the allegations of corruption in the Putin government are unimportant, and given the widespread support Putin enjoys in Russia it would seem many agree with him. When you live in a country where you are at constant risk you are willing to forgo a bit of democracy in exchange for safety.

More interestingly, Abai is not opposed to organized crime given the right circumstances. In a place like Kyrgyszstan, where the police are corrupt, it is organized crime that protects the rights of the common people. In some cases criminals become a parallel system of government providing stability and order on the streets. For example, if somebody owed you money you could go to the local gangsters and explain the situation. The gangsters would then go to the other party and hear their side and then act as judge and jury and resolve the situation. You'd be wise not to lie to the gangsters as they'd hate to be made fools of.

By contrast, Lara and I were once went to small claims court in Canada over a vehicle that had the mileage rolled back from 430,000 km to 180,000 km. The judge was totally incompetent and didn't believe that a vehicle with 250,000 extra kilometers had a reduced value. The paperwork was so complex that we were unable to appeal the judgement in the 30 days allowed. I suspect that if we'd had a working system of gangsters in Calgary we'd probably have gotten a much quicker and fairer solution.

I'm by no way advocating replacing our courts and justice system with a bunch of criminals. But I do find it interesting how our perspective changes what we see. In a place with no police the criminals can sometimes be the good guys.

An Unexpected Greeting

A few days ago we arrived in Jalalabat in South Central Kyrgyszstan. It is a town of about 90,000 people that is widely spread out, and the only real center is a block or two of restaurants around the Bazaar.

Lara wanted to watch to Olympics on TV at our guest house but I was feeling a bit hungry so I went out to get some food. I popped into one restaurant but the only thing they had was an omlette which didn't excite me too much at 9PM. I crossed the street to a second restaurant and poked my head in the window. Two police officers were eating at a nearby table but otherwise the restuarant was pretty quiet. They were playing music however, and the last few days we've been hit by a number of "music" charges on our bills and I didn't want to pay to listen to bad rap.

I started to walk down the well-lit street ( a rarety in Kyrgyszstan) away from the restaurant. There was a large Kyrgyz man walking in the opposite direction. In one hand he held some roses. The other hand formed a fist, and with no warning he punched me in the face. Pain and surpise made a dizzying combination that dropped me to the ground. The man kept walking. Dozens of passers-by passed me by, completely ignoring what had just happened.

I got up, somewhat dizzy and immediately ran the 10 meters back to the restaurant where the police were having their meal. They wanted nothing to do with a bleeding tourist who spoke only English, but a lady who had seen the whole thing got involved and shamed them into getting up. We quickly caught up with the man who had hit me and two other police officers who were walking down the street joined the discussion. The original officers went back to their meal and the new officers marched me and my assailant to the police station a few blocks away.

My lips were mangled but none of my teeth were loose and I didn't seem to have a broken jaw. I was a bit shook up though and the whole experience felt very surreal.

At the police station it quickly became very clear that the police had no idea what to do. They had two main problems. The first of these was a logistical; nobody spoke English and I didn't speak Russian. The second problem is that in countries like Kyrgyzstan the police do not see it as their job to enforce the law.

In Canada we take it pretty much for granted that if somebody breaks the law and is caught doing it the police will at least make an attempt to punish them. Our RCMP even investigate members of the government from time to time. Of course transparency international rates Canada as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Kyrgyszstan rates near the bottom, tied with Zimbabwe. One result of this corruption is that the most flagrant law-breakers are generally government officials and well-connected people. Police officers who try to enforce the law in Kyrgyszstan won't last very long in their jobs.

The police in many countries exist only to protect the well-connected. Generally that means that police officers just sit around all day and harass people for bribes ( a constant complaint that we heard about from many people). However even the most corrupt government needs to maintain some law and order or things will degenerate to the extent where there is nothing left to plunder. It is in maintaining that law and order that there is an overlap between the police in a place like Kyrgyszstan and the police in a place like Canada.

For these reasons a local person would never have bothered to talk to the police. However, as a tourist one often receives much better treatment than the locals, especially since tourism is such a great source of money for many countries. Given that I had just been attacked by somebody who obviously didn't like foreigners I felt I would be doing a service to other tourists and to Kyrgyszstan by at least attempting to get him locked up for a while.

When we arrived at the police station the two police men who had brought me to the station wanted to leave me and my assailant together while they went off to find somebody who knew something about police work. While I am quite capable of defending myself ( I took martial arts for a couple of years) I really didn't think this was a very good idea and eventually they clued in. Nobody was the least be concerned about my injuries. After about half an hour an officer showed up who spoke some English and I was escorted to the police chief's office.

The chief explained through the English-speaking officer that if I wanted to press charges I would have to come back to testify in one or two months. If I didn't press charges they would hold the man for two weeks and make sure he was punished. This had a vaguely sinister feel about it, but given that I wouldn't be able to come back to testify there was little else I could do. The police put me in a van and drove back towards my guesthouse. I had visions of my assailant being taken into a field a shot.

With 5 officers in the van we drove to the door of the guesthouse and I said "Right Here". The officer who spoke English just smiled and nodded and they kept driving. "Stop!" I said. He nodded again. They drove on. Now *I* had visions of being taken to a field and shot. It would serve me right for helping them a criminal.. Luckily it turned out that the officers simply didn't understand that much English. They turned around and took me to my guesthouse.

The owner of the guesthouse who spoke better English explained to me again that the police would hold my assailant for 2 weeks and then they would have let him go. Given that my assailant's hand was bleeding from hitting my face and that it had happened on a crowded street this was pretty lame, but what could I do? After a few minutes the police left.

The next day Lara and I walked out to get lunch and we saw the guy who attacked me walking around with a bandage on his hand. Apparently it was too inconvenient to hold him at the police station. When I pointed him out to Lara she yelled at him and he ran the other way, obviously keen to avoid another confrontation.

Nobody I talked to about this incident was surprised, least of all over the actions of the police. In Kyrgysztan people can commit small acts of violence like this with impunity, comfortable in the knowledge that the police have no interest in this type of thing.

Despite this incident and the general air of lawlessness, I still feel pretty safe here. I believe that the attack was essentially random and probably alcohol-fueled. However, I also know that if somebody does want to harm or rob us there is little protection to be found from local law-enforcement. When you are travelling in out of the way places you are responsible for your own security. It pays to be cautious, even on well-lit streets with lots of people around.

Friday, August 8, 2008

15 Little Joys You Don't Even Know About

There are a lot of great things about Central Asia that you could only experience by being here.

1) Central Asian handshakes are great. People take your hand in both of theirs and bow slightly.

2) Fresh fruit is available everywhere. I bought a huge bucket of apricots along the side of the road two days ago. Our guesthouse has grapes growing in the garden, and our hotel yesterday had a plum tree outside it.

3) Little children run up to you and say "Hello! What you name?"

4) A random Taxi driver we met on the street invited us to have tea with his family today.

5) Whenever you hike in the mountains you see herds of beautiful horses.

6) You never get tired of seeing a little kid sitting on a donkey which is pulling a cart. Donkeys are cute. Little kids are cute. Enough said.

7) A lot of people have heard of the Calgary Flames. Apparently many Central Asians and Russians like hockey and the TV stations show the NHL Playoffs. Who would have guessed?

8) Meals are eaten with freshly baked bread which is broken into little pieces so that it can be shared.

9) When you stay in a yurt outside the tourist areas you sleep with the family. Everyone simply moves over and you all sleep in a big row.

10) Even in cities, much of the accomodation is in homestays (think B&B). You stay in the house of a nice family who cooks you breakfast. It's a great way to meet locals.

11) Things are very cheap. You can buy vodka for $1.00 a bottle and beer for $0.50. A nice dinner costs $10.00. For two people. Including drinks. Accomodation is about $15-$30 a night for two people.

12) Old men wear traditional hats and gray suits.

13) Women wear colorful headscarfs and lots of red. Many of the asian-looking women have blue eyes.

14) Central Asia is young and there are always children playing and laughing. Canada is so quiet in comparison.

15) We have never felt threatened or in danger from anyone (other than the drivers).

15 Little Things We Take For Granted

Things are very different in the developing world. Many of the things we take for granted simply don't work the same way.

1) We believe exhaust fumes are bad. In the developing world nobody bothers fixing the exhaust systems of their vehicles and most of the buses and cars you take vent exhaust right into the passenger compartment. I've gotten some horrible headaches on buses and in taxis.

2) We believe seatbelts save lives. Even though Central Asia has one of the worst accident rates in the world nobody wears seatbelts. Many vehicles don't even have any. If you do find one and put it on prepare to be questioned.

3) Our sidewalks are level. In the developing world sidewalks often have big holes in them. Or unexpected protrusions like 30cm bits of rebar.

4) Our man-holes have covers on them. Many of them are missing in Central Asia and if you aren't careful you could literally fall 2 or 3 meters down into the sewer system. The drivers simply seem to know which ones are missing so nobody feels the need to replace them.

5) Our stairs are all the same height. That way if you walk up or down a flight of stairs you know exactly what to expect from each step. In Central Asia it is common for one or two steps to be different heights from the other ones.

6) We have streetlights. In Central Asia there are no bulbs in the streetlights which means that at night the streets and sidewalks are pitch black. See #3- #5 above to get an idea of what this is like.

7) We light hallways and stairwells in hotels and other public spaces. Not so in many Central Asian hotels. You often need a flashlight just to get to your room at night. We found one great Internet place where the stairwell was inside the building and thus completely black. The second stair from the bottom had a wire running across it about 15cm above the floor to hold the railings together. It was like they were trying to kill people, but everyone we watched knew it was there and just stepped over it. Maybe Central Asians see a different spectrum of light than I do.

8) We take electricity for granted. In Central Asia power cuts are common. In the daytime we often see the sad icecream vendors watching their stock melt in the sun. At night we always have a flashlight nearby. It is common to wake up for the bathroom only to find the power out. Later, when the power comes back all the lights you accidentally left on during the blackout come back on to wake you up.

9) We take running water for granted. Often the water just stops for half a day or more. This means warm showers are hard to come by since they require a convergence or running water and power that can be alarmingly rare.

10) We put gutters on our buildings. This doesn't seem like a big deal except that when it rains all the water runs off buildings onto the sidewalks below instead of flowing nicely away. This also means that in humid places buildings are constantly dripping nasty stuff onto the sidewalk.

11) We use P traps in our plumbing. For those who don't know, a P trap is that little loop of pipe that is on all our drains. It stays full of water and it keeps sewer gases from flowing up into the bathroom. They aren't used here, which means that most bathrooms effectively have several large vents directly into the sewer. For this reason we generally prefer shared showers and toilets because our rooms don't smell like stinky toilet.

12) Our sheets match our beds. For some reason we often end up in beds with only one sheet, one blanket, and an old mattress which is bigger than both and still wrapped in plastic. There is no good way to sleep with this setup but if you ask for extra sheets everyone thinks it is very strange. Often we use our sleeping bag liners.

13) We believe that electricity can be dangerous and treat it with respect. In the developing world it is a toy to be played with. There are exposed wires everywhere and it pays to look around in the light so you don't grab a bare wire at night instead of hitting the light switch. I've seen houses wired with a coathanger thrown over the powerlines. In China the wiring was so bad in the caver house that the wires would catch fire when the kettle was plugged in. Eventually the cavers simply rewired the place themselves. Even the power company doesn't do things right. One of our caving friends saw Chinese power engineers connecting two large wires at a power station by twisting them together and wrapping duct tape around them.

14) We believe Coca-Cola and beer should be served cold. In Central Asia they are stored in fridges but most people don't plug them in. Tricky. Yesterday we had a beer in a frosty mug at a nice hotel. Great idea keeping the mugs in the freezer, except the beer had been in the sun all day.

15) We don't allow little children to play on the highway, or near the backs of donkeys, or with large knives, or in a coral full of horses, or with cows, or .... Enough said.