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Vagabond Journey Travel Stories and World Culture

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The Central Station Of The New Silk Road Comes To Life
http://www.vagabondjourney.com/travelogue/wp-content/uploads/hallstatt-austria-china.jpg What Happens in China’s Western Replica Towns
How China’s Lanzhou New Area Is Moving Mountains For A New City

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Military Show Kinmen

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What the … the big concrete stage in the town square that I’m staying in was suddenly painted and all done up. Bright red characters were now standing proud on its pillars and above on its masthead. 

I had just walked by this thing at noon on my way to the Seven Eleven for some noodles and a beer break. It looked like something that should have been referred to in the past tense. The paint was all chipped off, there was a blanket of dust and dirt and crap over its stage area, there was piles of garbage everywhere. It looked exactly as it had since I showed up here a couple of weeks ago. 

But by evening the scene was different. In the few hours that passed they had painted the thing, cleaned everything up, and hung a big red banner that had China on it on the back wall. 

Although it’s claims are losing steam, the Republic of China still tries to position itself as the legitimate government of all of China. 

Then the military trucks started showing up, and the soldiers started pouring out. They were carrying cute little seats which they aligned in nice rows and sat upon. Soon, there was over a hundred if them, sitting on their cute little chairs in neat rows. 

They were mostly conscripts, drafted for two years of service like all men of the ROC since they took up shop on Taiwan in 1949. 

But what is interesting here is that these kids will be the last of Taiwan’s conscripts. The practice is set to end next year. 

Kinmen was once packed full of soldiers. It was the front line of an active war and the frontline of a 20 year cold war. But now most of the troops have been withdrawn. The realization is that if the PRC was going to attack that nothing the ROC could do on Kinmen could stop them, so why bother funding a huge military presence here? 

But the soldiers still have a presence here. You can see them daily jogging down the roads, eating in restaurants, walking around towns. They are mostly kids — 18 years old or so. They tend to be laid back, and are sometimes good for conversations. Nobody seems to be worried about war. 

But these soldiers and the military apperatus is a very deeply ingrained part of Kinmen’s legacy. It would almost be kind of sad if the soldiers were withdrawn completely. 

The show soon began. Some young women in short skirts started singing karaoke. They had some skits that appeared to be comedy, some bands, and a girl who kept playing the flute… 

It was the typical entertainment for soldiers anywhere in the world. Kind of like the old USO stuff you’d see in a movie. I’m not sure where this tradition emerged from, but I imagine it’s not going to be around much longer. 

There was just something really archaic about it all: conscripts, an old concrete stage in a town square, local-quality entertainment. Everybody — soldiers and townspeople — totally digging it. 

It make me feel oddly nostalgic. 

Oddly nostalgic for a time that I’ve ever really lived. 

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Spider Fight

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There is a rather large spider that has been living in the curtain of my bathroom since I’ve arrived in Xia Bao on Greater Kinmen Island. He just sits there, looking spidery. He never really bothered anyone so I let him be. World travel means living with spiders

There was always another, smaller spider of the same species that would be running around somewhere in the bathroom as well. This one ran out towards the feet of my wife and two year old daughter last night. They screamed. 

For some reason they were not aware that we were living with spiders I have no idea how, they’re everywhere. 

Well this morning we woke to find the little spider dead. He was wound up in a death curl on the top of the toilet. Hovering above him was the big spider. It was clear that the little spider tried to climb up on the big spider’s curtain and paid the price. 

What can we learn from this?

The obvious, I guess. The biggest spider gets the curtain. Might is right. 

Everything in nature knows this. Except us. 

We grow up teaching ourselves that the world is founded on being good and sharing and fairness. We teacg our kids to have this continuous scale that they weigh everything on to see if they are getting the same as everyone else. 

We convince ourselves that the world is fair and then get disillusioned when we realize that it’s not, as though there is something wrong with the world. The world is fine.

So many people make themselves miserable with should bes. 

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Really. I did that shit.

Until today, I maintained a policy of allowing her free access to use her electronic devices in whatever way she wished for as long as she wished. There is no censorship here, no parental controls. My mother used to take shit that she deemed inappropriate away from me when I was a kid. I still remember how that feels.

But a very real problem was starting to develop.

I originally envisioned my daughter using communication devices to more deeply engage her world — to find out about the places that she travels to, to connected with other people, to learn about . . . well, anything. That’s how I use these things, and I didn’t really take into account that she would use them differently.

Petra, who is now almost eight, would sit on her tablet for hours and hours  — indefinitely until another force acted upon her — completely engrossed in this Harry Potter, elves and dumble dwarfs and midgets shit.

I understand that I am not going to approve of the media that my kids consume — that’s a given of the human species — and if this was the end of it then I wouldn’t have much of a point. I could only sigh and lament the fact that my kid was choosing to waste time in her life with low brow fantasy.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

It was almost like she was addicted to the stuff. While she was on her tablet she would be fine. But as soon as she was off it she’d complain about everything being boring. “It’s so boring . . .” This went on for a long time, and the complaints would be to the point that they’d make everyone else slightly more miserable. It was as if the stimulation of the world paled in comparison to the stimulatory fix that she was getting from what she was doing on her tablet.

She was losing interest in engaging the world around her.

She was just expecting to sit back and be entertained in whatever situation she was in.

She wasn’t learning how to take what was in front of her, dive in, and make something of it.

I believe she was missing an important lesson of childhood.

***

I grew up in the countryside between Rochester and Buffalo, New York. There was really nothing to do out there. It was boring, for real. But I don’t ever remember being bored. There was always something to mess with, something to make up, something to try to build — and this was shit that we had to devise ourselves from the ground up. We had a big field to work with, and that was about it. We were driven to create something out of fear of being bored.

Boredom is perhaps the ultimate driver of creativity.

There is a reason why throughout human history there were two types of people who regularly created great things: rich people and poor people. The working and middle classes . . . not so much.

There is a real value to boredom. The human mind just can’t handle it, and its natural defense against it is to create something.

How my daughter was utilizing her tablet was killing that creativity urge by buffing out the boredom reaction.

So I tried something new — all modern parenting is an exercise in experimentation — and on day one her tablet ended up being replaced by a pen. Yes, a random pen she found laying around somewhere. She found herself so bored that she turned that pen into a gun, a marching baton, a  . . .

It reminded me of my childhood.

***

(Did I just tell a version of my father’s “Appreciate what you have, kid, because when I was your age all I had to play with was a wooden block” story?)

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Living With Spiders

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We live with spiders here on Kinmen. 

Or anywhere else that we live in the tropics for that matter. 

They are huge — sometimes the size of a human hand. 

But they don’t mess with me so I leave them alone. They crawl all over our walls but seem to know where the line is drawn and they don’t cross it. 

Getting used to giant spiders is one of the required skills of travel. They are everywhere. To try to get rid of them all the time is to add another chore onto the day. It’s really not necessary. 

I can remember trying to tell tourists this at the lodge I once worked at in the jungles of Guatemala many years ago. I would hear them scream and then the pitter patter if their little feet as they come running towards me. 

“Just leave them alone,” I would tell them. “They won’t hurt you.”

They would never believe me so I would have to show them. 

I’d stomp into their room and grab the giant spider with my bare hand, carry it outside, and chuck it. 

It was a tough guy act performed just to see the looks on their faces. 

Then one time I was clearing out a giant spider for some Spanish girls. It bit down hard on one of my fingers.

So much for that tough guy thing. 

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Whenever I’m in Jincheng and need some food I try to head over to this dumpling joint by the bus station. The first time I stumbled in there was in 2012. I made friends with the lady who runs the place and she let me help her make dumplings. The place is always packed. The food here actually has flavor — an oddity in China

When I first showed up on Kinmen this time around, I went over to that restaurant and found that it was missing its sign and the front of it was all fucked up — probably happened in some typhoon or other. 

“Have they closed down?”

The place looked like a shack. But upon opening time the door was open and the owner was in there making dumplings. In a matter of moments the place was just as packed as it’s always been. 

They didn’t close down, they just never bothered to fix their sign. They simply had no real reason to: they had their clientele, they maxed out their potential, they shipped tons of dumplings whether they had a sign or not. 

There is something to learn from this. It is those who are unestablished, who are shipping an inferior product who need the fancy signs. Marketing is a little more than a sad attempt at compensating for inadequate quality. If you need a sign, go back to the drawing board. If you are good people will know it. 

Let your product speak for itself. 

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How To Keep Birds Out Of A Garden

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In the small village I am staying in on Greater Kinmen Island there is a centrally located park that is kind of the center of recreational life. Old people stroll and young children play there. This is East Asia, so there are also vegetable gardens. 

In these vegetable gardens are carrots and leafy greens and stakes and ropes to keep plants growing upwards. 

And a dead bird hanging from a noose. 

I stood around in proximity to it waiting for some unsuspecting local to walk by. I caught a woman on her evening stroll. 

“Excuse me. I have a question. Why is there a dead bird in the garden?” I asked. 

She chuckled in the way that says don’t ask me that embarrassing question before responding, “It’s to keep other birds from coming.”

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The Best Beach In China

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Over the past twelve years I’ve been up and down the coastline of China. I know the country’s beaches. They are usually massive mudflats, industrial spewage sites, land reclamation areas, luxury condo lots, or face-kini clad, garbage strewn, bride laden recreational zones. In all scenarios they are not really places that you want to be. 

The Chinese are bad at beaches — real bad. 

So I was not expecting much in regards to beaches when I came to Kinmen island for the first time in 2012. While not administered by Beijing it’s basically the same culture. 

I walked around a few of the beaches on the sides of the island that faced towards mainland China and I was not surprised to find then chock full of garbage. 

No worries. Beaches were not what I came here for. 

But then when off walking on the other side of Greater Kinmen — the side that faces away from China — I came upon something truly special: a massive, wide, beautiful, and empty beach. It stretched for miles and miles uninterrupted. There were only a few fishermen raking clams. It was a site that’s becoming so rarer and rarer. 

The beach was not only not ruined by people but had all the perfect natural conditions: roughly 300 meters wide or so, depending on the tide, with the soft sand extending far out into more or less clean(ish) blue water. 

I go back to this beach whenever I come back to Kinmen. Now that I’m staying here for a while I come with my wife and kids regularly. 

There are now some temporary vendor tents, and a nice size crowd comes down just before evening to go for a stroll in the surf after the sun ceases being so hot. It’s a nightly local hangout in the summertime. Kids run around everywhere. There are benches and picnic tables set up where you can sit back, crack open a cold beer, and watch the ships pass by on the rolling waves in the distance. 

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Juguang Tower

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I go here from time to time – I believe once per Kinmen visit. It’s a done up old military tower. Now it’s full of photos and explanations of some of the basics of Kinmen culture and PR Chinese tourists, who are now being shipped in by the boatload. 

What I find interesting is that the incredible view you can get from here is of the sparkling new central business district of … Xiamen. 


Xiamen and Kinmen make up the frontline of the division between Communist China (mainland China) and nationalist China (Taiwan). There is only around 1.5 kilometers of water separating them, so you can easily see one from the other. 

On the mainland China side they built up this massive central business district that’s packed full of dozens of skyscrapers to contrast with the small traditional villages that you find on Kinmen. The PRC’s plan is to develop something called the Cross-Straits Economic Zone, and the have their half all built and ready to go. Kinmen is the other half. 

What we see from the shores of Kinmen when we look out at mainland China is perhaps a carrot dangling from a stick: look at all the nice development and wealth you could have if only you were a part of us. 

Propaganda by the city, perhaps. 

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As Opposed To What?

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The Beishan Broadcast Wall

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It is what it says it is. A wall of large speakers. A wall of large speakers faced directly at the People’s Republic of China. 

Its purpose?

To bombard the people of Communist China with propaganda. 

The propaganda of the Republic of China — the government that is currently the almost unanimously unrecognized defacto ruler of Taiwan, Kinmen, and Matsu. 

After the civil war between the nationalists and communists simmered down to a protracted stalemate, a two decades long propaganda war ensued. This was a cold war that consisted of each side shelling the other with bombs loaded with propaganda leaflets on alternating days, the erection of giant signs on coastlines facing the adversary, and, yes, broadcast walls.

Remember, ROC controlled Kinmen and Xiamen of the PRC are separated by a mere kilometer and a half of water. So you can set up a wall of speakers and turn it up so loud that the other side can hear it. 

I’m not sure exactly what the ROC actually broadcasted from this wall. Probably songs, slogans, speeches, diatribes about how they are the legitimate government of China, how cool it is to be free enough to use Facebook… 

… not literally, but basically that was the message. 

***

I rode my motorcycle out to the Beishan Broadcast Wall yesterday evening. It was the second time that I went searching for it. I could have just asked directions and gone straight there, but hunting for a giant wall of speakers sounded slightly more exhilarating…or perhaps ludicrous us a better way to put it. 

I turned down a wooded road that cut out to the coast and there it was, rising up about three stories from the apex of a seaside cliff, still standing above the surf, still starring straight at Xiamen. 

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