Pictures of Things: Beijing Smog

beijing china

A view from our 26th floor apartment in central Beijing. Readings from the US Embassy reported as ‘beyond-index’ at over 800, a measure of ambient respirable particulates in the air. Visibility was well under a kilometer.


Some Rambling Thoughts on the Unassuming Passport

passport, travel

Thin, unassuming, a small book of varying colors – what the modern passport lacks in physical grandeur it more than compensates for with indispensability. There are few things more precious to travelers – recreational, professional, refugee or other – than the passport, a piece of official documentation which sometimes confers upon its bearer the diplomatic heft of a home country (or simply entitles return to a country of origin). It is the most basic symbol of international travel, a universal totem of personal identity and nationality and a near-absolute customs requirement, but the passport as we know it is barely a century old, seeing widespread implementation throughout Europe and the United States from the late 19th century through the pre-war decades of the 20th century as national governments struggled to deal with massive population shifts.

Although the modern passport is a relatively new invention, the evolutionary history of entry, exit, and ‘safe conduct’ documentation is quite long, and the most distant phylogenetic forebears of our coveted stamp books date to at least biblical times. Until the late Middle Ages paper ‘pass ports’ were typically issued by a king or caliph or other such luminous monarch as a letter of protection, a way to provide messengers and other courtiers with safe passage through foreign territory, and they were quite uncommon. In fact, for the majority of human history, people wandered about the globe without need of official, internationally recognized identification. One could almost say without the burden, hindrance, of a passport.

As the modern nation state began to emerge from medieval feudalism, the use of international forms of identification became more commonplace, and then, the French Revolution. Prior to upheaval, in France as in much of Europe, peasants and serfs were required to possess documentation for internal movement. Ordinary workers faced a daunting proposition if they wished to relocate – acquiring the appropriate paperwork through legitimate channels was quite difficult. For this reason, identification requirements were often understood as oppressive measures designed to restrict movement of lower class people, and were thus abandoned in 1792. Revolutionary zeal quickly gave way to a reconsideration of liberal travel rules when it was discovered that royalists, moderates, and other members of the aristocracy were escaping abroad.

By the 20th century the passport was still largely considered a bizarre requirement, disparaged by upper-class travelers angered at having to prove identity at borders. Today however, the story is much different. Two cataclysmic world wars, and a variety of American military misadventures generated millions of displaced peoples and thus the need for large international agencies to deal with and administer to the needs of refugee populations; coupled with Cold War paranoia, the 1900s saw steady increases in the types and sophistication of tools by which nations catalogued and monitored their citizens. By the end of the 2oth century passports and visas had become the global standard for anybody wishing to cross a national boundary. The terrorist attacks on September 11th intensified the militarization and securitization of sovereign borders, and now, in our present day the passport has evolved into a RFID equipped, smart-carded, security apparatus, less an exotic collectible and more an absolute necessity if you’d like to, you know, move around the planet.

Confronting the history of the passport reveals a paradoxical relationship between our favorite document and the freedom of movement: as travel and communications technologies and infrastructure have rendered broad swathes of the globe more open and accessible, the same forces have simultaneously given rise to a network of sovereign borders with increasingly stringent requirements for entry and exit. In short: the passport has evolved alongside the nation-state not at all as a mechanism to facilitate a truly open world, but as a way to monitor and control populations and the movement of people across borders. Many nations are now using biometric data, such as digitized facial features, and storing this data on ‘ePassports’.

Our adventurous predecessors, setting out for Baghdad, or the Levant, for the far east or the New World were in many ways freer to exercise an inalienable right to movement than we are today. This of course doesn’t address implications of class or status, and early travelers faced a much, much rougher journey then (how many passengers still die of scurvy aboard ships these days?), yet it is still interesting, and in many ways alarming, to consider that the metaphorical walls are rising all over the world as nations continue to react to global forces like terrorism, immigration, and economic pressures. There are also some bright spots: the Schengen area provides almost 500 million Europeans with the freedom to travel visa and passport free through 19 countries (and more planned in the future).

We may be heading for a one-world dystopian police state, one in which the passport and new forms of wireless, networked, biometric identification and monitoring will evolve into ever more coercive governmental tools. We might not be. The securitization and garrisoning of borders seen over the last decade may ease, especially as national budgets continue to be squeezed. All or none of this may happen, but one thing is for certain: I still enjoy my passport, with its stamps, and yes its security features, and its worn cover, and that dumb picture of me as an 19 year old heading off to Europe for the first time.

Pictures of Things: 100 Floors

hong kong, skyscraperLooking east across Kowloon from the Sky100 observation deck in the International Commerce Center (ICC) in Hong Kong. A singularly vertical city (it has more buildings above 35m, 100m, and 150m than any other), Hong Kong is a place where even apartments and flats are built to massive scales.

hong kong, skyscraper, tall buildingA couple enjoys a breathtaking panoramic view of Victoria Harbor from the 100th floor of the ICC. Victoria Harbor is home to one of the busiest ports on earth, carrying manufactured goods from China to the rest of the world.

Chops’ Tips: TOKYO


View of Tokyo Skytree

We only had the pleasure of visiting Japan for 4 days over New Years, and as fleeting as our time was, I have to say, I’m in loooooooove! Since living in China, I’ve gotten a little jaded by all the pollution, loogie ridden sidewalks, and the daily regime of riding my bike in and out of crazy traffic like I’m in a game of Frogger. So it was nice to escape to a place where there are blue skies for days, people who adhere to traffic laws, and cutting in line could get you a swift kick in the face (see photo below)

Subway Sign

Subway Sign

Tokyo DO’s:

1.) As I overhead a girl in a bathroom say, “I have a love affair with Japanese toilets.”

Enjoy the allure of the Japanese toilet with all its bells and whistles

2.) Meander through the narrow streets, parks and temples of Old Tokyo

3.) Eat sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market

4.) Catch a view of the never ending city up in the Tokyo Skytree

5.) Spot the array of fashion subcultures over in Harajuku

6.) Catch a sumo wrestling tournament (which btw are only held during odd months)

7.) Hop a fast train and get out of the city to a neighboring town


Tokyo TIPS:

1.) Make sure your socks match –  a lot of places, including the two hostels we stayed with, required you to remove your shoes once entering.

2.) The streets don’t have names – Its quite confusing at first but how it’s designed is major streets have names and the rest are defined by numbered blocks. Within the blocks, houses and buildings are assigned numbers but not necessarily in numerical order. They are assigned numbers based on when the building was built. So building 3 might be beside building 8 (happy hunting!). Typically street addresses are posted on telephone poles, which you can look for at the end of the street. In case you get lost, there are usually detailed street maps by subway exits.

3.) Make sure you don’t go broke – I am sure we just ran into some bad luck, but the night before we departed we were low on cash and not sure we would have enough to get back through the subway and onto the Narita Express. We tried every ATM in all the convenience stores but they only serviced Japanese debit cards. Luckily we had enough but it would have been a real bummer had we not!

4.) Get your subway on!  For 1000 yen (roughly $12 USD) you can get an unlimited subway pass good for one day on all Tokyo Metro Lines. This is nice if you have planned a day of sightseeing all over the city.

Konnichiwa friends!!



What foods to try?


Japanese Pancake


This is a Japanese style pancake made from sliced cabbage, and a flour/egg based pancake mix. Some additional ingredients you can add are mushrooms, pork, onions, squid, shrimp, scallops, etc. Its served to you raw and it’s up to you to cook it – which is part of the fun!

Follow these steps:

1. Rub oil over the griddle

2. Mix all the ingredients together and pour onto the griddle

3. Cook until golden brown on one side, then flip and cook on the other side

4. Its served with Okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, nori-seaweed or fish flakes


This dish is very similar to Okonomiyaki except that consistency of the finished product is not solid. You eat it straight off the grill using a special tiny spatulas. This is another D.I.Y. meal.



Follow these steps:

1. Stir the ingredients in the bowl

2. Pour a small amount of batter onto the griddle and create a hole in the middle so that is looks like a donut

3. Pour some more batter into the middle of the hole and stir lightly

4. Pour the remaining batter over top and stir again. Let it cook for a few more minutes, then eat straight from the griddle!!

Mochi Ice Cream

This is a Japanese dessert made from mochi (pounded sticky rice) and filled with ice cream. They are quite tasty and can be found in various flavors. I was able to find them in the convenience store’s freezer section.Yummers!

Mochi Ice Cream

Mochi Ice Cream

Surviving Winter


So this is how Tibetans survive the darkened boredom of bitter, unrelenting winters. I watched a 70-80 year old man harvesting a couple towering plants growing in downtown Kangding, Sichuan Province, China. I am sure these shrub like weeds are used for a variety of purposes, its edible seeds, making rope, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from large yak populations, or as ground cover for erosion prevention.

First Impressions: Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo Japan Travel Photography

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by new surroundings. Stepping into a Tokyo subway station is like stumbling off an elevator onto a casino floor. A sudden flood of lights and sounds and signage. Mostly foreign, all insistent. Exposure to such an intense sensory environment also initiates a kind of flight or fight response: what do I do? where do I go? I’m already lost! And let the panic roll. This is of course due to unfamiliarity. With a bit of time and repetition, the station noises would fade out, relevant information would take center stage, and things would start making sense (although this fact does very little to help first time visitors in places as intimidating as Tokyo).

It’s also an understandable human tendency to draw conclusions and make potentially crude generalizations, a habit that most likely (see what I did?) has a biological explanation. But, generalize I must. As mentioned, Tokyo is well lit. It is a very bright place. It is also covered in signs of every conceivable type. Instructional, directional, advertorial, informational, prohibitional – Tokyo is probably the diagrammatic, public-posting capitol of the planet.

Tokyo is a procedural city, lacking any visible hint of the ad hoc atmosphere found in places like, say, Beijing¹. Traffic is organized, the sidewalk is conspicuously divided into pedestrian and bicycle halves. Trains and subway cars are clearly and redundantly marked with points of entry and egress – everyone observes this information and acts accordingly. Cellphone use is prohibited on the subway – everyone also observes this. Lines form and function smoothly. People do not jaywalk, or litter really, turning vehicles do not try and out maneuver pedestrians with right-of-way. I assume all of this is the result of both legal and cultural expectations.

Judging by the train ride from the airport and views from the 350m tall Tembo Deck of the Tokyo Skytree, the city appears almost infinite. A horizon to horizon sprawl ending only at the edge of Tokyo Bay. This is obviously hyperbole, but, the fact remains that Tokyo is a massive place (the largest metropolitan area in the world actually, with 31 million people) making it all the more strange that it isn’t actually very tall. Unlike Hong Kong or Singapore that stretch out vertically in breathtaking ways, it is a horizontal city. Its buildings do no blot out the sun and divide the streets and sidewalks into the shaded bottoms of concrete canyons. These two things: the lack of a coherent, high-rise “center” and the sheer vast expanse of it all lend Tokyo a kind of vagueness, a nondescript quality reminiscent of an urban version of the Siberian wilderness, and enhance the intimidation one feels upon first arrival.

These observations are obviously and admittedly based on a fleeting 24 hours of experience. Following some more sightseeing and rambling exploration some of this will most likely be rendered obsolete and at least partially incorrect. An opinion that will probably not change though: Tokyo is the most orderly, clean, polite city I’ve ever been in.

¹ Beijing can be a Kafkan nightmare of procedure and legal formality, but traffic law, sanitation, statutory law, vending – both food and merchandise, and a variety of other behaviors and activities conducted in the public realm are decidedly a-procedural, one of the many reasons I enjoy China so much.

Movement as Human Right

Travel as a Human Right

Whether most of us realize it or not, we’re part of a privileged global demographic. We possess enough freedom, enough opportunity, and most importantly, enough money, to travel recreationally; we travel because we can, and because we enjoy it. Those of us who read and write and document the experience of travel are most likely educated, relatively affluent, and are almost certainly from a country with few restrictions on movement or political affiliation. For millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of people around the world, movement and travel is not a happy concatenation of exploratory pleasures and mild inconveniences. For the vast majority of human beings travel is frequently an act of desperation, a last resort in the face of war, natural disaster, economic hardship, oppression, resource depletion, gentrification, on up to things as horrifying as genocide. It is also not easy for most people, who are typically confronted with a variety of structural and social obstacles rendering attempts at relocation a dangerous and exploitative experience. Think Palestinian refugees, migrant Chinese laborers, American farm workers, or one of the tens of millions of garment workers in India or Bangladesh who have joined the rural to urban migration.

Its likely that few among the mobile class even think much about freedom of movement issues beyond the airport security queue. We get visas (and are therefore legal residents or visitors), we spend money, or we’re expatriate workers. We are walking, talking, money-spending resources and therefore we are mostly spared the hassles of travel and movement. It isn’t always a story of laissez faire journeying;  at times politically open, industrialized nations and regions have leaned on governmental authority and the administrative reach of the state to restrict the ability of individuals to move freely both inter- and intra-nationally. In 1950 the United States government, under the Subversive Activities Control Act, made it illegal for members of the communist party to seek or obtain a passport. The Jim Crow south incorporated a brutal system of vagrancy laws, debt entrapment, and prison labor to proscribe the movement of blacks. An argument could be made that the documentation costs associated with international travel are themselves itself a kind of de facto barrier to exit or entry for people below a certain economic threshold.

Despite these and other examples there is, in fact, a long history of positive affirmation of the right to travel, or the ‘right to movement,’ in the western legal tradition, reaching back at least as far as the Magna Carta, Article 42 of which states:

“It shall be lawful in future for anyone (excepting always those imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the kingdom, and natives of any country at war with us, and merchants, who shall be treated as if above provided) to leave our kingdom and to return, safe and secure by land and water, except for a short period in time of war, on grounds of public policy- reserving always the allegiance due to us.”

Now, there are certainly caveats, but, BUT the freedom of movement, to leave ones country, indeed to set out by land or sea (no Cheap-O Air or yet), was granted and affirmed. And the Subversive Activities Control Act? Fourteen years after it was passed, in Aptheker v. Secretary of State, the United States Supreme Court ruled Section 6 of the act, the section limiting travel, unconstitutional, finding that it violated fundamental liberties guaranteed by the fifth amendment. Other documents have since categorized movement as a fundamental right. From Article 13 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

And from Article 4 of the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility reads:

“Every African intellectual shall enjoy the freedom of movement within his o her country and freedom to travel outside and re-enter the country without let hindrance or harassment. No administrative or any other action shall directly or indirectly restrict this freedom on account of a person’s intellectual opinions beliefs or activity.”

The European Union, and this is true, declared in April of 2010 that travel and tourism are fundamental human rights. Unwilling to stop at declaring such activities basic rights, the EU then introduced a plan whereby program-eligible recipients would be granted a 30% subsidy for travel costs allowing people to visit places they otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. A pilot will run until 2013 after which it will become official. Typical Euros.

While the rights to movement and travel both within and without a home country have been written into the canon of various international organizations they certainly aren’t static. Restriction regimes are always changing, and, in a post 9/11 world with the specter of transnational terrorism driving the increasing militarization of borders, its going to get more difficult (at least in the foreseeable future) for everyone, for us, the mobile class, and especially for those who lack even modest resources. This is an important debate especially suited to those of us who travel frequently. The rise of the security state, the seemingly absurd truth that capital can migrate freely (and indeed is pulled as often as pushed) while people are often trapped by emigration or immigration policies, the causes and consequences of human migration, our own responsibilities related to these issues – all of these are things we should can and should talk about, more often than we do.


Build a Bike, See a City

china, chengdu, travel, photography, bicycle

I bought a bike in Chengdu, China in October and it got me thinking about modes of city-seeing. And here’s my pitch:

A perennial topic of discussion among the books, blogs, and conversations of travelers is the best way to see a city, or the best way to experience both familiar and unfamiliar urban environments. Although ‘walk cities,’ seems to be an article of faith, taken as gospel, and despite the fact that per-ambulatory strolls are high on my list of enjoyable activities, I’d like to put forward an argument that the bicycle represents the method par excellence for taking in a city, whether new or familiar.

As the argument goes, walking permits the traveler to really soak in the nuances of a city, to discover by virtue of meandering pace the dives and shops, tiny eateries and curios from which ‘real’ character emerges. Walking paints a detailed portrait while other, faster, forms of transportation render abstract blurs punctuated by random detail. This argument is true to a certain extent: walking does offer the most intimate way to understand small parts of cities, to take in individual neighborhoods, but the methodology breaks down if you want to understand larger swaths of a city, its environs, and how larger structures interact with each other.

Bicycles provide an optimal mix of speed, control, access, and most importantly, independence. Put simply, bicycles provide a great deal of freedom and the ability to traverse long distances while simultaneously observing surroundings. On a bicycle one can understand far better the rhythms of a city, how major avenues interact with discrete neighborhoods, the spatial and temporal relationships between exurban, suburban, and interurban regions. To bike around and outside of a city is to develop an understanding of its almost organismic nature. Armed with a bicycle, the range of potential activities for any given period of time is also increased without serious loss of interaction between yourself and the surrounding city. Proximity is a function of time, not of space.

So, have I settled the debate? Nope, both forms have obvious merits, as buses, camels, rickshaws, elephants, running, and hot-air ballooning most likely do as well, but I do hope I’ve at minimum made a believable case for the bike.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Brief Trip to the Edge of Tibet

Some things you can find out about Kangding County, China from the internet. It is home to Kangding, a ‘quaint’ Chinese town of 100,00 people and the capital of communistically named Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The internet will tell you that Kangding was for centuries an important trading town to which underpaid coolie laborers lugged massive loads of brick tea up and up and up from Chengdu, 200 kilometers to the north-northeast, to trade for Tibetan wool. A search for Kangding County will lead to Zhilam Hostel (which is probably the best hostel in Kangding, and highly recommended by this author), and to lists of mountains, elevations, regional ethnic histories, and available activities.

What the internet can’t communicate effectively  is the sheer mindblowing geographical vastness of the place. I can tell you (right here, via the internet) that  transportation is often contingent upon weather and road conditions, but its impossible to know if you’ll end up snagging a ride with any local drivers so brave/foolish/spiritually assured they’re willing to simultaneously pass multiple vehicles uphill around curves in unlit, unpaved tunnels. One of my drivers possessed enough ambition to barrel past a line of trucks in the outside lane on a curve above a 200 meter precipice – in whiteout fog conditions. The internet can tell you that Kangding County is at the extreme eastern edge of what is customarily considered Tibet, at the foot of the Himalayas and the true Tibetan Plateau. But it would hard for me to fully explain what its like to stare out at an ocean of grass and rivers and young peaks that tower over their middle-aged American counterparts and feel pleasantly, justifiably unimportant. It is positively Stegnerian in its unbroken emptiness, if you’ll permit my application of an Amero-centric adjective to an ethnic and geographical area entirely different from the Western United States.

I encourage you to seize upon any opportunity you might have to visit the Tibet regions of Southwest China. I barely touched the edge, escaping just a few bus rides from the megacity provincial capitol of Chengdu and it was spectacular. An 8-12 hour bus ride from Chengdu (depending on traffic delays) gets you to Kangding and from there the opportunities for backcountry, off-the-grid, yak derived foodstuffs, giant mountain adventuring multiply to seemingly infinite dimensions. TaGong, DanBa, Litang – theres a long list of places you can head to from Kangding, all worthwhile, all small, tucked into the phenomenal landscapes beside rivers. Homestays with nomadic herders are popular, as is hiking, and for the truly hardcore there are plenty of peaks available for bagging. Just go and wander around for a few weeks if you get the chance, and remember, from Kangding west it only gets better.