American couple killed in Tajikistan

An American couple, understandably bored by their day jobs in Washington DC, take off on a rugged biking journey around the world. On a remote highway in Tajikistan, they along with two European cyclists are killed by what appear to be Islamic State sympathizers:

A grainy cellphone clip recorded by a driver shows what happened next: The men’s Daewoo sedan passes the cyclists and then makes a sharp U-turn. It doubles back, and aims directly for the bikers, ramming into them and lurching over their fallen forms. In all, four people were killed: Mr. Austin, Ms. Geoghegan and cyclists from Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Two days later, the Islamic State released a video showing five men it identified as the attackers, sitting before the ISIS flag. They face the camera and make a vow: to kill “disbelievers.”

Dramatic but rare events like these tend to vastly inflate the dangers of overseas travel in the public mind. Contrary to what you might think, despite a heavy terrorist presence across the border in northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan is generally considered safe for Western travelers. This seems ridiculous, until you consider that according to State Department data, only one US citizen died in Tajikistan – of drowning – from October 2002 to December 2017. After the latest incident, however, the State Department raised its travel advisory for Tajikistan to Level 2 (“Exercise increased caution”).

So, if you have a hankering to visit landlocked Central Asian republics, there’s no need to scratch Tajikistan from your bucket list. Just please don’t explore it on a freakin’ bike.

Two aspects of this story annoy me. First, this guy appears to have dragged his girlfriend into a dangerous lifestyle that she probably would not have otherwise chosen. According to the article:

It was in 2016 that Ms. Geoghegan told [her close friend] Ms. Kerrigan that she was planning to quit her job and bike around the world. Ms. Kerrigan could not suppress a little concern. “I said, ‘This is not the Lauren I know,’ ” she said, adding: “Jay changed the trajectory of Lauren’s life.” […]

“She was concerned for her friend, in part because of how bighearted she was and in part because she feared that Mr. Austin had a higher tolerance for danger than Ms. Geoghegan did.”

It’s one thing to throw your own life away, but roping someone else into your lethal adventure is a different universe of bad. I am reminded of Amie Huguenard, who followed Timothy Treadwell into the Alaskan wilderness, only to share his fate of being killed and eaten by a grizzly bear.

Second, I find it seriously alarming that this guy expected the rest of the world to help him and his girlfriend out of their self-imposed crises:

It was July 23, 2017 — winter in South Africa, when the sun sets at 5:30 — and they hadn’t realized how far they would need to travel on congested freeways before they could get out of Cape Town. At dusk, they found themselves with a punctured tire on the chaotic R27. There was nowhere to pitch their tent except for a ditch adjacent to the busy freeway.

In a post about why he chose to cycle — as opposed to, say, drive around the world — Mr. Austin spoke about the vulnerability of being on a bike. “With that vulnerability comes immense generosity: good folks who will recognize your helplessness and recognize that you need assistance in one form or another and offer it in spades,” he wrote.

This attitude strikes me as not only remarkably naive, but also morally questionable. Hospitality to strangers is baked into the culture in many parts of the world. For pampered Americans to take advantage of that, by deliberately putting themselves in dangerous situations from which strangers are expected to rescue them, seems selfish at best.

In the middle of the night, a security guard patrolling the grounds of a nearby nuclear plant spotted their tent. He radioed for help and arranged for a truck to drive them across the city to a campsite. Their journey was a series of tedious, and occasionally grueling, physical tests, punctuated by human kindness.

Bad decisions are often linked to philosophical confusion. It’s almost cruel to reference the first two paragraphs of this April blog post by Austin, but people need to understand that evil does exist, and it is not rare.

Foreigners banned from hotels in China?

Wade Shepard says it happens a lot:

An old blog post of a situation that seems to have gotten way worse. Hotels in China are still segregated by ethnicity and national origin. Imagine if you went to a hotel in the USA and they refused to let you stay just because you were from China?

And here is the 2012 blog post in question. Sample:

Imagine this: You travel to a new city, scour the streets looking for a good, cheap place to sleep, and when you finally find one you’re told you can’t stay just because you’re a foreigner. Now play this story out over and over again for 90% of the hotels you try to stay in and you have an idea of what it’s like to travel in China.

Technically, Chinese hotels are suppose to have a special permit before they can admit foreign guests. To get this permit they first must have the proper surveillance equipment installed — meaning a computerized registration system — and, or so it is my impression, be up to snuff and project the image of China that the government wants the outside world to see, which is to say: modern, developed, new, clean, and expensive.

These rules are nothing new, but, from my previous travels through China, I don’t remember them ever being enforced very readily. It has been my experience that one out of every two or three inns that didn’t have a foreigner’s permit would let you stay anyway. Like so, travel in this country was not that much of a hassle: when denied at one inn you’d just walk over to another until you found one that didn’t give a shit. But now this seems to be getting more difficult, for the first time in all my travels in China I was defeated when trying to find accommodation. […]

It wasn’t happening. I couldn’t stay in this inn. My foreign face and accent gave me away, and the inn would not give me a room no matter how much I pleaded. No problem, I’ll just walk on to the next one. I asked the lady at the reception desk if she knew of another cheap inn 旅馆 that I could stay at. She told me to go to a hotel 宾馆. The difference between the two is one little character, but the impact is colossal: it means the difference between spending $5 and $30.

Fact check: I cannot confirm the 90% figure, but the idea that many Chinese hotels refuse to accept foreigners is ABSOLUTELY TRUE. Exhibit A: An expat colleague and I were turned away by a hotel in the city of Wuxi in 2010 for precisely this reason. Exhibit B: In 2016, an American friend living in Shanghai’s Yangpu district was told by virtually all of the 10 or so hotels within walking distance of his university that they couldn’t accommodate his foreign friends. Again, this was in a central district of Shanghai, not some backwater town. This friend has had similar experiences in Beijing and elsewhere in China.

Now, I should make it clear that I’m not complaining at all. China is a sovereign country and has the right to subject foreign nationals to this treatment for whatever reason it wants, or for no reason at all — and it’s completely pointless to gripe about it.

Also, I can’t speak for anyone else but if I were travelling to a new city I would very happily pay $30, as opposed to $5, for the privilege of staying in an actual hotel rather than a guest inn or hostel. That’s just me though.

The comments below Shepard’s recent post, however, are fascinating as a cross-section of the types of responses that any criticism of any aspect of China inevitably elicits. Let’s take a look at some:

PERSON A: Exaggerated.

Wade Shepard: Go out of a big city and try it.

PERSON A: Simple research will point foreigners to several hotels in smaller cities. Article’s title is very misleading.

Wade Shepard: Research will lead you to tourist hotels. I’m talking about the cheap local inns. Not places you can find online. Anyway, the point is that accommodation is segregated based on nationality not whether you can find a place to stay somewhere from looking online.

Then there’s this guy, who took the opportunity to offer some insider “tips and tricks” that might be helpful to a theoretical person not named Wade Shepard:

PERSON B: The alternative is to make friends with the owner of the establishment, then walk with them down to the police dispatch to register temporary residence (24 hrs for urban areas/ 72 hrs for rural areas), perfectly acceptable if one has a residence permit and not a tourist visa. One can then give their new friend a 200 kuai hongbao as a thank you. The same can technically be done on a tourist visa provided one declares precise details of their travel schedule in advance. Mandarin skills are ultimately the key to getting anything at the local price.

Well, hokay — no problem then! Shepard’s reply is impressively patient:

Wade Shepard: Hello Connor, I had a residence permit then and I speak Mandarin. 200 kuai hongbao!?! haha I’m talking about 50 kuai per night rooms here 🙂

Then there’s this guy who appears to think that China is a market economy — totally missing the point that the foreigner registration system is imposed on hotel owners by the government:

PERSON C: Any entrepreneur, including hotel owners, should have full choice on who to serve. The customers then have the corresponding right to select which firms they support and carry their money to. That’s called a market economy.
Honestly, it’s rather embarrassing to witness Westerners trying to impose their culturally biased views about equality on other cultures. I was under the impression that modern Western culture is pretty much all about respecting the rights of others and especially those from other cultures. Well, live and learn.

And no discussion of this type would be complete without the guy who interjects his own irrelevant and misleading personal anecdote:

PERSON D: Really? I have never had a problem when travelling with a Chinese companion- maybe it’s more of a language thing.

Sadly, while the Constitution provides for freedom of speech, it does not protect us from other people’s ignorant yammering. Seriously, some people just need to STFU when those with actual knowledge and experience are trying to make a point.

UPDATE: It seems I’ve unleashed the dogs of war. I sent the link to Shepard’s post to my friend Antonio Graceffo and, well… hilarity ensued:

Top 6 Scenic and Cultural Hotspots of Nanchang

The below article from 2013 is an attempt at Lonely Planet-style travel writing following a trip to the provincial city of Nanchang, which is notable for its role in spawning China’s Communist revolution (and is therefore a key destination for “red tourism”). As the capital of one of China’s poorer provinces, it’s sort of a backwater, albeit developing fast — the city has since opened its first two metro lines — and an important manufacturing center. It’s a very likeable place with a friendly, laid-back feel despite having a population the size of Chicago. Some of the information below may be outdated by now. Enjoy.

Cradle of revolution and “Hero City” of Communist legend, Nanchang – the capital of southern China’s Jiangxi Province – is gritty, dynamic, and compelling. When not wandering its charming back streets, visitors to this fast-growing but laid-back city can discover a wealth of history, culture, and even entertainment at these popular sites:

1) Tengwang Pavilion (滕王阁)

Ascend this nine-story tower to peer at the Gan River from on high, enjoy a traditional music and dance performance, take in the colorful frescoes that decorate the interior, or get photographed sporting the golden dragon robe of a Qing Dynasty emperor.

Originally built in A.D. 653 by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty as a townhouse for his younger brother, the eponymous Prince Teng, the pavilion was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries – the current incarnation, in Song Dynasty style, was completed in 1989 – and immortalized by a famous Preface penned by the poet Wang Bo.

In the base of the pavilion you can wander around the China Imperial Edict Museum (华夏圣旨博物馆), housing a collection of – you guessed it – imperial edicts and other government paperwork from the Qing and Ming Dynasties. History buffs may find these bureaucratic relics intriguing, though adrenaline junkies should steer clear of such items as the “Official receipt issued by the Provincial Administration Commissioner and Provincial Judicial Commissioner of Anhui Donation Head Office of the Supervising Department.” Of more interest, perhaps, are a printed silk cloth and miniature books that were used for cheating on the imperial civil service exam.

Admission to the pavilion and grounds is 50 RMB.

Tengwang Pavilion (滕王阁 Téngwáng Gé), 榕门路 Róngmén Lù, ticket office hours: 7:30 AM – 6:15 PM (May 1 – Oct 7), 8:00 AM – 4:50 PM (Oct 8 – Apr 30), +86 791 8670 2036, (http://www.cntwg.com/)

2) Musical fountain at Qiushui Square (秋水广场)

Qiushui Square fountain

One of the largest such displays in Asia, this complex, fifteen-minute extravaganza of music, laser lights and elegantly gushing water is fun to watch – even if, like other spectators, you do so with a smartphone held up between the fountain and your face. In the show’s dramatic finale, water spurts as high (allegedly) as 128 meters. The free show starts at 7:50 PM, 8:30 PM, and 9:00 PM every night.

Qiushui Square (秋水广场 Qiūshuǐ Guǎngchǎng), ask around for the fountain (喷泉 pēnquán) (you can’t miss it), +86 791 8388 3496, (http://english.nc.gov.cn/tour/scenicspots/200911/t20091120_187749.htm)

3) Jiangxi Provincial Museum (江西省博物馆)

Explore the rich history and culture of this important province. The museum is divided into wings for Natural History, History, and Revolution. The Natural History wing features minerals, dinosaurs, and wildlife dioramas.

In the History wing, you can check out artifacts from Jiangxi’s many-layered past, stretching from Neolithic pottery fragments to Song Dynasty jewelry and Ming Dynasty ivory chopsticks, and learn about the region’s traditional arts, literature, industry and government (labels in Chinese and English). This wing also houses an exhibit on the Hakka ethnic minority and a jade and precious stone collection.

The Revolution wing chronicles the Communist uprising that broke out in Nanchang through a myriad of historical photos and kitschy propaganda art. Captions are in Chinese only, except for the introductory labels which have English translations.

Admission is free.

Jiangxi Provincial Museum (江西省博物馆 Jiāngxī Shěng Bówùguǎn), 新洲路99号 Xīnzhōu Lù 99 hào, Tue-Sun 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM, +86 791 8659 5424, (http://www.jxmuseum.cn/)

4) Bayi Square (八一广场)

The first shots of the Chinese Communist uprising were fired in Nanchang on August 1, 1927, occasioning Mao Zedong’s famous remark that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Led in part by future Premiere of the PRC Zhou Enlai, the revolt marked the founding of the People’s Liberation Army and the start of the decade-long “Agrarian Revolutionary War” against the Nationalist government and hated class enemies. Although the Communists were swiftly ejected from Nanchang and then decimated by Nationalist garrisons on the way to Guangzhou, the somber monument looming over Bayi Square – named after the date of the uprising (bayi means “eight one”) – celebrates their extremely short-lived “victory.”

Bayi Square (八一广场 Bāyī Guǎngchǎng), always open

5) Youmin Temple (佑民寺)

First built during the Liang Dynasty in the sixth century A.D., Youmin Temple housed the reportedly huge-tongued Zen master Mazu. Today it’s an active temple with few tourists, and you may get scolded for taking photos in the quiet, serene interior. The sprawling temple complex, decorated in bright primary colors, contains beautiful statuary, including a giant bronze Buddha.

Admission is 2 RMB.

Youmin Temple (佑民寺 Yòu Mín Sì), 民德路和苏圃路 Míndé Lù hé Sūpǔ Lù, 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM, +86 0791 8529 2203

6) Bada Shanren Meihu Scenic Spot (八大山人梅湖景区)

Cheng Yunxian Sculpture Art Gallery Nanchang

Take a taxi about 20 minutes from downtown to spend an afternoon roaming around this expanse of parks, woods, galleries and other cultural sites on the banks of the Meihu Water System.

Follow the signs to reach the Bada Shanren Memorial Hall (八大山人纪念馆), which has a gallery of classic works by the Nanchang-born painter and calligrapher of the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties. Of particular interest are the gloomy, eccentric master’s freehand “flower-and-bird” works and his literati paintings, which fuse the arts of painting, calligraphy and poetry.

On the Scenic Spot’s grounds you can also find the Cheng Yunxian Sculpture Art Gallery (程允贤雕塑艺术馆), an austere collection of sculptures of Chinese Communist leaders and heroes – including busts of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Admission is 15 RMB.

Keep strolling and you’ll find a Painting and Calligraphy Art Showroom (书画文玩展厅), outside of which is a Bansai Garden (盆景园) – I found both places completely deserted – and the somewhat eerie Jiangxi Celebrity Sculpture Park (江西名人雕塑园), featuring statues of historical figures from the province.

Admission to the Scenic Spot is free.

Bada Shanren Meihu Scenic Spot (八大山人梅湖景区 Bādà Shānrén Méi Hú Jǐngqū), +86 0791 8529 2203

Khaosan Road: a mile-long mosh pit

Khaosan Road in Bangkok, aka the “center of the backpacking universe” — actually a quarter of a mile long, though it feels longer — is a fun place to visit, if you enjoy being surrounded by approximately 2 trillion people in a loud, confined space.

A similarly pleasant experience can be had at a Chinese train station during the holiday travel rush, though unfortunately without the tattoo parlors and street hawkers offering you delicious fried scorpions.

Personally, I’d prefer to spend my time reclining:

Reclining Buddha Ayutthaya

Reclining Buddha at Wat Lokayasutharam (Phra Noon), Ayutthaya

Contemplating the Temporality of things:

Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon Ayutthaya

Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon (the Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory), Ayutthaya

Or riding a clickety-clackety old train between Bangkok and the ancient capital of Ayutthaya:

Nanchang photos

Some photos I took during a trip to Nanchang, capital of China’s Jiangxi province, and a nearby village in 2013:

Nanchang is a city of 5 million people (2.3 million in the urban districts) in southeastern China and is famous for the 1927 Nanchang Uprising, when the Communists revolted against the Nationalist government, kicking off the Chinese Civil War.

Blast from the past: China at 186 mph

Originally posted March 28, 2013

In early March, I took the bullet train from Guangzhou to Beijing. The route, which opened last December, is the longest high-speed rail line in the world. The train hurtles across the country at an average of 186 miles per hour, linking the southern megacity to the northern capital in a journey of 1,428 miles – roughly the driving distance from Boston to Miami.

The trip takes eight hours or longer (depending on the time of departure), which is far slower than flying, and my second-class ticket cost 862 RMB ($138), which is about the same as discount airfare from Guangzhou to Beijing. On the other hand, rail travel is far more comfortable than flying, and high-speed rail is, after all, awesome. I’ve taken many bullet trains to and from Shanghai, and always enjoyed them, so the chance to ride this astonishing new railway was hardly something I could resist. The only real question was how to get a seat.

Buying a train ticket in China: still Kafkaesque

For the average foreigner, booking a train ticket in China has always been a trying process. As I headed to Guangzhou South Station, I half hoped the gleaming new facility would set a good example for the future by having a straightforward and convenient system for buying tickets.

Nope. As usual, the experience was Kafkaesque. There are two options for buying a ticket at the station. Banks of self-service ticket kiosks, with Chinese and English touch-screen interfaces, allow the traveler to choose the destination, departure date and time, and class of travel. This is almost too easy. But wait! You need to swipe a Chinese ID card in order to make the purchase – those of us holding foreign passports are out of luck. On to option B: the ticket hall.

Ticket hall, Guangzhou South Station

“Bedlam” is a word that comes to mind at many of these ticket halls in China, with their infamous crowds and queues. The one at Guangzhou South Station was better than I had feared, but still stressful. Amazingly, there was no English to be seen in this ticket hall, which would be understandable at a backwater bus stop, but was harder to explain at this huge and vital station. Given the global hype about the new Guangzhou-Beijing line, did it not occur to the Ministry of Railways that some foreigners might actually want to ride the thing?

Before doing anything else, I needed to find the train schedule – but that was easier said than done. At the back of the ticket hall was an information booth with a couple of employees. I asked one of them for a schedule, and he handed me a Chinese-only brochure with a vast chart covered with microscopic text. When I asked him to help me find the trains to Beijing, he pored over the brochure for a minute, then apologized and shrugged helplessly. (The train times were there; I later found them myself, with great difficulty.)

As it turned out, it was easier simply to go back to a kiosk, punch in the preferred day(s) of departure, and look at the available times that showed up. Then I could book my ticket at one of the windows in the ticket hall.

Gigantic scale

Skylight over departure concourse, Guangzhou South Station

Infrastructure in China tends to be unsettlingly vast, so I had a familiar feeling when walking around Guangzhou South Station. Designed by a London architecture firm, the mammoth structure sprawls over some 5.2 million sq ft, with multiple floors for arrivals, departures, and metro lines. A beautiful 1,142-ft-long skylight soars over the departures concourse. The enormous size of the station seemed to be justified by the crowds, which even on a Monday afternoon were substantial. During Chinese New Year the place is probably packed, and usage will surely increase over time as the region continues to boom.

The Chinese government plans to merge Guangzhou with eight other cities in the Pearl River Delta to form a giant megalopolis which will be 26 times the size of Greater London and will contain 42 million people. Guangzhou South Station is a key transportation hub in this emerging super-city; no wonder it’s so big.

Passengers at departure concourse, Guangzhou South Station

Low-altitude flying

The trains themselves are a high-tech marvel. As a benighted American, I am used to old, slow, clattering trains on which you practically expect to see soot-covered men shoveling coal into a boiler. I can never forget the thrilling experience of riding the futuristic maglev to Pudong Airport in Shanghai, with its top speed of 268 mph and its terrifying 12-degree tilts.

The average cruising speed of the Guangzhou-Beijing bullet train, like the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train which I took a few weeks later, is about 186 mph. At Guangzhou South Station and Beijing South Station, passengers present their tickets, then descend on an escalator to an island platform, where their sleek, humming train awaits, like something out of Star Trek.

Bullet train, Beijing South Station

Boarding a bullet train, Beijing South Station

The trains are clean and comfortable, and the rides are extremely smooth. Uniformed train attendants come by wheeling drinks and snacks carts. Seats are equipped with power outlets and free Wi-Fi is supposedly offered. It’s like flying, minus the turbulence and inner ear issues.

The passengers are mostly middle-class, a high proportion of them businessmen. Peasants are not to be found on these trains – they can’t afford the tickets. Everyone seems to be glued to a smartphone, tablet, or laptop watching movies, chatting, or getting work done. As the long journey unfolds, many people doze off.

Bullet train, Beijing to Shanghai

On the Guangzhou-Beijing trip, I enjoyed watching the rugged, green subtropical landscape of Guangdong province flying by:

And here are some views from my later Beijing-Shanghai journey:

At one point, I heard a great whoomp and the landscape outside was suddenly replaced by a white blur. The blur filled the window for a few seconds, then just as suddenly disappeared, leaving me blinking at the landscape again. It had been a train going by in the opposite direction, at a relative speed of about 375 mph.

Average cruising speed

The experience of riding these trains is not always as genteel as the Jetsons-like technology and aesthetics might lead one to expect. The annoyance begins at the station, where buying tickets can be a trial of endurance. At the Beijing station, brusque restaurant staff, like street hawkers, tried to hustle me into their suspect eatery. On the trains, the attendants go about their duties with grim professionalism and rarely smile. Ceiling-mounted video screens offer such fare as a Mr. Bean episode and a trashy American reality TV show.

Previous trips on China’s bullet trains have sometimes been even rockier: noisy, wandering passengers; violent action movies turned up to infuriating volumes on the train’s speakers.

Costly and unnecessary?

These minor annoyances aside, high-speed rail is simply the best way to travel. The experience is so awesome that many Americans who ride these trains for the first time will be thinking: Why can’t we have some?

It is not clear to me that America needs high-speed rail, at least over long distances. Building a bullet train line from, say, Boston to Atlanta probably would not make a great deal of sense, for reasons which Megan McArdle at The Atlantic lays out here and here. For that matter, it’s not clear that high-speed rail makes a great deal sense for China, either; the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported to the State Council in 2010 that the country’s large-scale network may be impractical and unaffordable.

Putting aside the economic issues, what interests me is the sheer energy and ambition behind China’s high-speed rail buildup. Within five or six years, China created the largest and perhaps most advanced high-speed rail network in the world. There are probably more total miles of high-speed track in China now than in the rest of the world combined, and the government plans to double that figure by the end of 2015.

This may prove to be a disastrous misallocation of resources, or it may not. We will have to see. But by any standard, it’s impressive.