Friday, March 31, 2006

Hong Kong and Kunming

Our children had this week off from school, so we searched for deals and found a great airline fare to Kunming, China from China Eastern Airlines. Furthermore, for a paltry ten dollars more, they offered a Dhaka-Hong Kong-Kunming-Dhaka ticket, with a layover in Kunming. For me, this was the proverbial offer you cannot refuse...

This was the first time I had been to Hong Kong. My impression was one of polite efficiency. When our taxi arrived at the hotel, the lobby was empty except for a concierge reading the paper and the reception clerk. But as soon as the concierge saw me, he leaped into action. I told him that I had no HK dollars to pay for the taxi; he ran to the clerk, got the change, ran out to unload our luggage from the taxi and settled with the driver - all in about 30 breathless seconds!

Money permeates everything in Hong Kong. There are huge malls and expensive cars all over; everyone is an expert salesman. But there are pleasant interludes, like the HK Zoological and Botanical Gardens, and the Star Ferry to mainland from Hong Kong Island.

On the way back we stopped in Kunming. What a pleasant surprise. Kunming, with 4 million people, is capital of China's Yunnan province. It a clean, open city, with wide avenues, parks, a pedestrian-only downtown where one can while away the entire day, and very. very pleasant weather. Developing (and Westernizing) at a breakneck speed.

The famous food of Kunming is "over-the-bridge" noodles. The story behind this dish is this: once there was a scholar and his wife. The scholar studied some ways from home. When his wife brought him lunch every day, she had to cross a bridge over a stream; along the way lunch got cold. So one day she decided to take a pot of hot broth with a layer of oil on top, and all the noodle ingredients separately. When she reached her destination, she found that that oil had kept the broth hot, and dropping the noodle ingredients into the broth made for a delicious and hot lunch for her husband.

Same principle as Japanese Shabu Shabu or Swiss Fondue - cook the ingredients in the hot broth of the soup.

We tried it. Although the story is interesting, the noodles were not too good. Oh well.

Language was a HUGE problem in Kunming. Even proper nouns had to be translated to Chinese. Luckily people were very friendly and often went out of their way to be helpful. Often the hotel clerk wrote out our destination in Chinese on a card. Then we gave this card to the taxi driver. Curiously, on several instances, when we approached Chinese couples for directions, the male sort of pushed the female forward to deal with us and then acted busy with other stuff (presumably so as not to deal with the aggravation?)

We saw very few children on the streets/shops/restaurants at Kunming. Basketball appeared to be popular both in HK and Kunming, judging from the numbers of courts and kids playing. Thanks Yao Ming!

By far, the highlight of our trip was the Stone Forest, a vast field of limestone formations about 86km east of Kunming. This place reminded me partly of Zion National Park, partly of Bryce, but it was also unique in its own way. One difference from the US: Chinese have happily written large signs in many places in the Stone Forest. Apparently they have different views over the "sanctity" of national parks. There were many local Chinese visitors, and a carnival-like atmosphere permeated the more popular spots in the "Forest". Nonetheless, it is a good place to spend a day or two exploring and climbing.

Hong Kong Skyline by night:

In Hong Kong, consumerism rules over mere mortals:

Jackie Chan sells California to Hong Kong:

This day reminded me of the recent King Kong movie:

Dazzling orchids at the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens:

Kunming's pedestrian-only center:

Stone Forest entrance:

View inside Stone Forest:

More Stone Forest:

"Sani" Tribeswoman in Stone Forest:

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Tagore Moment

We were returning home after a day in the hills of Srimongol. From the car we saw glimpses of the sun setting behind the green tea hills. We caught only a few seconds of the large orange disk as it set, but the misty green hills, the orange sun and the pink-purple sky flooded my mind with songs of Tagore. I found myself humming "Godhuli gogoney meghey dhekechhilo tara/ aamar ja kotha chhilo hoye gelo shaara" (at sunset the clouds covered the stars; all the things I wanted to say were done).

But it was a cloudless sky, so the song did not quite work. Then the perfect Tagore couplet, describing nature, came to mind: "hetha mondo modhur kanakani joley stholey, shyamal maaTir dhoratoley/hetha maThey maThey rongeen phuler aalimpon, boner pothey aadhar aalor aalingon" (here on this brown earth, bittersweet whisperings amongst earth and sea/tapestries of flowers in the fields, embraces of light and shadow on a forest path)

From where did the poet arrive at this beautiful place? He describes his origin thus: "Oi aalok maatal shorgo shobhar mohangon/ shethai chhilo kon jugey mor nimontron" (I had a long-standing invitation to stay in the heavens, flooded with starlight) But he did not stay: "Mon laglo na, tai gaaner shagor paari diye elem choley" (My heart did not want to stay there, so I crossed the ocean of songs and arrived here on this world).

Does he miss the heavens? Does he want to return? Nope. "Aamar mon laglo re, tai eikhanatei din kaTiyei, khelar chholey" (My heart is stuck here, so I am going to spend my days playing here).

Sort of Garden of Even in reverse. At this green-orange sunset moment, this song of Tagore brought the cosmic and the personal together for me. Like so many of this other works do.

(I am grateful to the late Dr. Syed Mujtaba Ali for his essay on Rabindra Sangeet
where I first understood the meaning of the song quoted.)

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Another Hartal Day

Today is another half-day hartal. I took a rickshaw to work.

I don't know what happens to these rickshawwallahs on hartal days. Finding the streets free, they go berserk and think they can pedal the rickshaws at any speed they want. Perhaps it is the exhilaration of freedom. My rickshaw almost ran into five people, two children going to school, one taxi coming at a right angle, couple of thela-garis, one van-gari, one tiny bus carrying soft drinks and several tempos with terrified people dangling from the back. I lost count of how many potholes he ran over without slowing down. No doubt I will be sore from this and my blood pressure is probably still high from the tension.

Maybe I will bike to work the next hartal.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Two in the Basket!

Today Bangla Bhai, the second high-profile terrorist suspect in Bangladesh, was captured. Together with the capture of Shaiukh Abdur Rahman last week, this makes two in the basket.

Word on the street is that tracing of mobile phones being used by the suspects played a part in their being caught.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Capture of a Terrorist Mastermind

Abdur Rahman, who is the alleged mastermind of several terrorist attacks in Bangladesh including the first ever suicide bombings in this country, was captured yesterday in Sylhet.

I remember the first time those bombs went off. I was at North South University, talking to some academic types about hands-on training for their computer science graduates when a professor walked in ash-faced and announced that over 50 bombs had gone off simultaneously (ok, many of them were really tiny, but still...) all over the country. It was August 17, exactly 3 weeks after we had returned here. And I was thinking, "Ooops...".

It would be fair to say that the nation heaved a sigh of relief at the capture.

The foreign media did not pay much attention to this capture story, although they had given quite a bit of coverage to the bombings. Go figure.