Jeff Warner PHOTOGRAPHIC, Golden, Colorado, USA

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

11/11/12: Kobe, Japan

We awoke to a drizzly day in the port of Kobe, and the four of us decided to head out with the Fowler family to the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens, where a gondola takes you up into the hills overlooking Kobe, where we could see the MV Explorer docked below. The Kobe region looks much like the Bay Area, with green hills rising nearly straight from the water, the temperate fall rain adding to the effect.

We ran across this container just lying on a sidewalk, and I have no idea what it was. They don't eat pickled turtle around here, do they?

The Warner and Fowler boys yucking it up outside a 7-Eleven, which are very common here on the ground floors of tall buildings.

Our first order of business was finding an ‘English-speaking’ ATM, which wasn’t as easy as you might think. Having lived in Japan, Mike and Julie guided us through town to find a place to have lunch, where Tate had the misfortune of having miso soup spilled all over him (I felt even worse for our non-English speaking waitress, who seemed positively horrified that the poor little guy got a miso shower!).

This is what the entrance to a Japanese parking lot looks like; the robotic system 'files' your car, then retrieves it when you want it.

The town of Kobe is very clean and very modern, with no hint whatsoever of any earthquake-affected structures (other than the fact that many seemed recent); apparently the Port of Kobe was literally rebuilt from the ground up after the earthquake. Mike (firmly in the lead with map in hand) then led us to the subway, which took us a few miles to the base of the hills. Fortunately the clouds parted a bit so we could see below, and we had a nice walk down through garden paths and a lush, green forest, with great views of a waterfall along the way. Although Tate is usually warm, he was uncharacteristically huddled inside his rain jacket, and occasionally complained “I smell like miso soup!” Poor kid will probably never eat the stuff again. 

The view from the top very much resembled the view from the Berkeley Hills.

Flower beds being tended to at Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens.

Construction by large monkeys in the area?

This appeared to be Kobe's official 'symbol', or perhaps it is a representation of Kobe in Japanese?

I’m sure you’ve heard how expensive it is to travel in Japan, but wow, I wasn’t prepared for it. Fortunately public transportation is relatively inexpensive, otherwise it could prove prohibitive just to get around, as even the most minimal of taxi rides starts at around $40. After catching a train back to the MV Explorer, we decided that having dinner on the ship would be the right thing to do, and, coupled with the weather, it wasn’t difficult to convince ourselves to stay in for the night. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

11/9/11: China in the Rear View

Upon departing the fantastical nighttime skyline of Shanghai, all I could do is stand on the 7th Deck of the MV Explorer and contemplate what China is today, compared to what I thought it was merely one week ago. That’s not to say that I had any radical pre-conceived notions or anything, but those of us of ‘middle age’ (I’ll let you put a face on that one!) have seen China grow from a country of widespread impoverishment to one with a rapidly-growing middle class, a country that in some ways now resembles the U.S. as it was in the late 1950’s. I might even argue that China is likely poised to undergo social changes of similar impact to what the U.S. experienced in the 1960’s, though that remains to be seen with the impending change of leadership that will occur during the next decade.

Those of us who were adults anytime from the late 70’s on probably has an indelible impression of the “Made in China” label. It became—and for many years remained—a sort of economic battle cry shouted out by both politicians and business owners alike, and over time morphed into a slogan that belied some intrinsic or unassailable assumption of inferior quality, deserved or not. We in the U.S. now simply accept the fact that many (dare I say, most) of our ‘stuff’ is made in China; examples abound, not the least of which are things like U.S. flags, etc.

I believe that over time many of our western attitudes toward this country that few have visited have changed in some positive ways, although a basic set of fundamental scare tactics continue to be employed by those who have something more to lose than your ‘average’ American. We all have something to lose in this, but perhaps the nature of what is at risk is less obvious than some would have you believe. I don’t personally think that we should be afraid that China will soon flex its military might and choose to essentially start WWIII, nor can I envision them throwing their cards in on the world financial system and demanding repayment of debts gone by. I believe that they have learned through recent experience that their economy is inextricably intertwined
—as is ours—with the world economy; what is bad for one is bad for the other. Many people might prefer us to believe that this is unacceptable, but I would have to necessarily disagree on that point. As Thomas Friedman posited in The World is Flat, globalization is a necessary and unavoidable progression, and it will occur however much we kick and scream, however much we deem it ‘unfair’ to lose jobs to foreign countries.

As far as we in the U.S. can see, long ago China started with the manufacturing of knick-knacks, and has progressed to replicating high-quality items inexpensively. Foreign investment in high-tech fabrication practically ensures that their skillsets will rapidly grow to challenge other more-developed countries, but it’s not this that should be worrisome to those interested in the long-term future of the West. It’s their commitment to raise their widespread lower classes up into the middle, their investments in national education that should truly worry Western politicians and zillionaires. It is only a matter of time before China begins to overtake Western countries in ideas; our ability to innovate at the highest levels and think ‘out of the box’ to create something new will soon be novel no more.

Agonizing over lost jobs or even lost industries is short-sighted at best, especially considering that our future generations are effectively being flushed down the toilet by failing to re-imagine our country’s public education system in this rapidly developing world. The fact that in this day and age the Supreme Court can decide to open the floodgates on private money flowing into the political system, while budget cuts to public education continue to increase at alarming rates is a repulsive paradigm that cannot be taken lightly. But, of course, ‘our kids’ will be OK, ‘we’ have the means to ensure they are well-educated. But, don’t neglect to consider that the median household income in the U.S. is a mere $31k. How many families do you know who live on so little? Increasingly, ‘our’ impending situation is not so different from countries we not long ago deemed to be ‘Third World’.

There is, however, one fundamental difference: ‘we’ seem to have forgotten how to invest in our future, and it’s been enlightening to discover that countries with relatively little to invest are keenly focused not on today, but on a decade or two down the road.

'We' should be so lucky.

11/8/11: Shanghai, China

After leaving Ghuangxi Province and arriving in Shanghai the previous night, the contrast was stark. I was now smack in the middle of a very large, very modern city, the MV Explorer having sailed here from Hong Kong with my family onboard while I was away. Hong Kong’s skyline was impressive, Shanghai’s even more so. It was a bit strange returning to the ship, as most of the crew had been relieved in Hong Kong, and there were now few faces that I knew, especially in the dining rooms, where virtually all ‘our’ crew had gone home for two months. 

Laundry rods are hanging outside practically every window of every building, everywhere in China, even highrises!

Heidi, Reade, Tate and I got out to walk Shanghai along the riverfront, and we paralleled The Bund (the former financial ‘hub’ of Asia) as we found our way to a large market, the Yu Yuan Bazaar. We left the riverfront (an area busy with tourists), and meandered into the streets of Shanghai, where I was immediately mesmerized by a very old-looking neighborhood surrounded on all sides (for miles?) by relatively new construction, mostly highrises. As I was already lagging far behind, I couldn’t stop to take much of a look, and it gnawed at me (the way missed photographic or experiential opportunities often do) as we progressed toward our destination. 

Quite literally: 'bird eggs'. Apparently you eat one for good luck; any more, and it's bad luck.

Jackfruit; unfortunately, we didn't think to try any.

These young ladies were very interested to talk to Reade and Tate, and made it a point of asking if they had girlfriends.

We made a pit stop in a Starbuck’s, then had a great Chinese lunch followed by a pomelo I’d bought on the street and stuffed into our pack. The shopping was entertaining (Angry Birds paraphernalia, anyone?), and although we had come to see the Yu Yuan Gardens, the admission price was a bit steep, considering how little time we had to spend there before this evening’s ‘on-ship’ time prior to leaving for Japan. We saw some stuff we didn’t want to eat, some we did, and a whole bunch of items in between (wigs appear to be popular here in China). The boys were hankering to go back to the MV Explorer and play ping pong, so since Heidi had to get back for clinic, I decided to meander my way back toward that ancient-looking neighborhood to the south. 

Entering this neighborhood gave me a dank glimpse of what life must have been like for many—if not most—people in China up until the rapid cycle of development began in the last decade or two. Very, very small shacks and sheds with red tile or corrugated metal roofs, central walkways between rows of buildings, the occasional community bathroom. Each little apartment (I hesitate referring them as houses) had a water basin and countertop right outside the front door, and it seemed kind of like the present-day ‘water-cooler’ back home, as people were in close quarters doing what they had to do, chatting, or not chatting, moseying in and out of their front doors. This neighborhood was clearly very, very old, though I really had no concept of just how old it was. The people there seemed to keep it quite clean despite the fact that some of the buildings were practically falling apart, and there were far more bicycles in this area than I’d seen all day. 

I’m not sure how long this enclave along Yuelai St. will last given its proximity to the ongoing redevelopment going on in Shanghai, so I guess I’ll have to check in with Google Earth occasionally to discover this little neighborhood’s fate. [31°13.376’N, 121°29.793’E]

Ever feel like a traffic cone in the streets of life?

I count seven discrete buildings here, looking at the high-res image in Lightroom.

A member of the Party.

The MV Explorer and it's rather incredible berth in Shanghai.

Anyone seen the manual for this camera? Anyone?

Monday, January 23, 2012

11/7/11: Yangshuo, China

This morning found me out again at 6am, wondering if the sun might actually ‘rise’ out of the haze. I climbed to the top of Xilang Hill at Yangshuo Park, where a pagoda at the tip of a spine of rock overlooks the business end of Yangshuo. Although the sunrise was something less than spectacular, the location gave an almost ‘aerial’ view of the hustle and bustle of daily life unfolding before me on this morning. I took the opportunity to capture some long-exposure images of street life from above, and then proceeded back down the narrow, steep, winding stairs and pathway that led to the main park. Older gentleman could be seen playing cards, people walking or sitting, middle-aged women dancing in a large group, many people eyeing me oddly, probably wondering what I was doing there. In turn, I wondered about them, and contemplated what changes they’d witnessed in this ‘little’ town over the last decades of relatively rapid development in Asia.

Yangshuo by dawn.

The highest pagoda on Xilang Hill, Yangshuo Park.



The stairway and path leading to the top of Xilang Hill, Yangshuo Park.

One of several pagodas at Xilang Hill.

The park was clean, except for this corner of it where abundant detritus was found floating in a semi-stagnant branch of the pond.


My photographic perch, the pagoda on top of Xilang Hill.

Prior to leaving I took a last opportunity to try and score a scarf I’d had my eye on for Heidi. The problem was that the two vendors who sold them seemed to have no interest in parting me from my money, a very unusual situation thus far on this voyage around the globe. Even after browsing for several minutes, no one came up to ask if I wanted to buy, and given the relatively inflated price tag compared to most other things in China, I started to think that perhaps bargaining was out of the question for this particular item in this particular venue. I finally engaged a younger female sales person, leaving the older male to remain sitting at his counter. Having run a bit low on yuan, I ended up bargaining by adding in the last several U.S. dollars I had been toting around in my wallet, ‘just in case’. The man behind the counter seemed either disenchanted or dully amused by my rather pathetic bargaining tactic, though he eyed the U.S. dollar bills with a curious gaze, almost like he’d never seen one before, inspecting them closely. I thought it odd, West Street having been such an attraction to tourists from around the globe for quite a few years, now; it was formerly a popular destination for off-the-beaten-track backpackers, but is now clearly a major attraction to the ‘new’ Chinese middle class.

West Street wares.

Sugar cane on a bike.

After having yet another ‘local hotel lunch’ on our last day on the road for this incredible trip, during the trip back home it finally occurred to me why they have beautiful limestone streets and people digging holes in cobbly gravel to laboriously extract sand. Sand being in low supply and high demand for construction concrete, the large supply of workers dictates that it makes more sense to build streets and sidewalks out of cut stone than concrete, stone being plentiful. Cheap labor leaves the high-demand sand to be used for construction.

Such an interesting world we live in!