Friday, September 29, 2006

The Road to Karakul Lake, Part 1

The day before my trip, I went to John's Cafe in the westernmost Xinjiang city of Kashgar to hire a driver. John's Cafe is strictly a meeting place for Western backpackers, mountaineers, and tourists of the obscure. It is run by a Han Chinese, John, who has exploited his proficiency in English, entrepreneurial saavy, and no doubt government connections, into a successful business. The restaurant tries its best to provide a menu familiar to foreigners. However, in such a remote place, one has to improvise. As an example, ketchup for the fries was essentially canned tomato paste with sugar. It gets an A for effort.

More than just food, John's Cafe arranges trips and rides to the surrounding environs. The most adventurous would hire one of John's new-ish Land Cruisers, along with a driver and assistants/porters, to go to K2's base camp. Others can hire a driver with an older Japanese sedan for a guided tour of Kashgar. I opted for something in between. I wanted to go to Karakul Lake, 200 km to the south. At that point, all I knew about the lake was the quick blurb in Lonely Planet. Apparently, it is a beautiful lake set halfway up the Pamir mountain range, about 75 km north of Afghanistan's Walkan Corridor.

I make the deal with John. In exchange for $100 U.S., I would get a driver, a co-driver, a 4wd van for two days, meals, and a night in a yurt at the lake. Having just spent 1 RMB, or 12.5 cents, on a lamb kebab, I was a little shocked at the price. Nevertheless, I rationalized the cost by thinking about all the money I saved thus far on my trip to China.

Kebab grill in Kashgar

Why John insisted on a driver and a co-driver, I still do not know. It certainly did make my experience richer, to be sure.

John tells me that the drivers will be in a van waiting for me outside my hotel at 9 a.m.

It is 9 a.m., Xinjiang time. In a cruel edict by Beijing, the powers that be decided that the entire nation would only have one time zone. That means when it's 10 p.m. in Beijing, the sun has still not set yet in Xinjiang, thousands of miles to Beijing's west. All banks, government agencies, and large stores in Kashgar go by Beijing time. However, many Uyghurs, the indigenous people of the region who speak a Turkic language, as a small but significant protest, refuse to live by Beijing time. So, when someone in Xinjiang tells you that he will meet you at 9 a.m., it could mean 6 a.m.,9 a.m., or noon.

Part of my obsessive-compulsive behavior is manifested by my mortal fear of being late for the beginning of any journey. The night before this trip, as I lay in my Soviet era hotel bed, I cursed myself for not asking John whether or not he was going by Beijing time.

For some reason, I intuited that John meant Xinjiang time, not Beijing time. Luckily, as I stepped out of my hotel's lobby, I see a bronze 4wd Delica with two middle aged Han men inside, parked across the street. I carefully navigate across the street, not wanting an unfortunate run-in with a green VW Jetta taxi cab to ruin a journey that has barely started. I make it across, ask the men in Mandarin if they were waiting for me, and climb on board with my backpack.

Typical Kashgar scene

As we wind through the streets of Kashgar, clogged with Land Cruisers, Jetta taxis, and donkey carts, I look out the window with glee. I'm going to Karakul Lake.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Please Say Never Again

In my quest to watch all the James Bond films in reverse chronological order, I come to the unofficial, bastard, 1983 film Never Say Never Again. Sean Connery starred in this movie and competed with the official 1983 James Bond flick, Roger Moore's Octopussy.

I should preface this review by stating that I am ageist when it comes to James Bond actors. Regular readers of this blog will recall that I recently gave a resounding thumbs up to 57 year old Moore in A View to A Kill. So how can I disparage 53 year old Connery in this movie? I will explain. But first, let me tell you what I liked about the movie.

The supporting cast is diverse and talented. Kudos to Barbara Carrera as the maniacally sexy Fatima Blush. From pimp slapping her patient to being shot with a pen gun, Blush exudes exoticism, cunning, and confidence. She played a very strong, evil Bond girl/woman.

Klaus Maria Brandauer (as Largo) also deserves praise. He shuns the stereotypes of past villains. He is actually humble, almost obsequious, when he enters the control room of his mega-yacht, the Flying Saucer, and says "Good morning" to his crew. In between moments of wicked calculation and megalomaniacal anger, he shows the emotions of a teenager in puppy love and the vulnerabilities of every man's confidence in himself. A one-dimensional character he is not.

Minor characters in the movie brought both realism and welcome comic relief. The character of M was played by Edward Fox. Fox' M is younger than the geriatric Robert Brown, who plays M in the official 007 films. Fox' character shows the stress, doubt, cynicism, and cover-your-ass attitude prevalent in all public servants in Western democracies. It is a much more realistic portrayal than the all knowing and jaded M portrayed by Brown.

Rowan Atkinson plays Nigel Small-Fawcett, a British diplomat stationed in Nassau. His bungling buffoonery never gets old. He steals every scene he is in.

Two cars are worth noting. First, when Bond goes to the health resort, he arrives in an old Bentley convertible, his personal car. It is an homage to the original Ian Fleming works. The other is the red Renault 5 Turbo driven by Fatima. Much maligned as Le Car in the States (google Phil Hartman's SNL ad for the Adobe, a Le Car made of clay), the Renault kicks ass in the movie.

This movie had the potential of being in the top 5 of Bond flicks, but Sean Connery ruined it. Not by his acting, but his age.

Just look at this poor man. That is either a combover or a toupee. Whatever it is, it ruined the movie for me. Not for a second did I believe he belonged in the movie. When he rode through the narrow streets of southern France in his motorcycle, I thought he was going to throw his back out. When he lifted the five pound dumbbells at the spa, I thought he was going to get a hernia. That random receptionists and fitness instructors wanted to jump the geezer's bones the instant they set their eyes on him is outrageously funny.

Sean Connery was a legendary James Bond and went on to play great roles as older patriarchs in the 1990s. But he was not cut out to play Bond in 1983, at the age of 53.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Why A View to A Kill Is Worth Watching Again

A View to A Kill is rarely on any 007 devotee's list of favorites. In this, Roger Moore's last film, there are no Astons, Lotuses, or even a semi-sporty AMC. The locales are predictable (Siberia, London, Paris) or pedestrian (San Francisco). The good Bond girl, Stacey Sutton (played by Tanya Roberts), is less desirable than a plate of limp pasta from Olive Garden. So why should anyone watch it? Here are six reasons.

1. Snowboarding. When James Bond uses wreckage from a Soviet snowmobile as a snowboard, it is more than clever. This is the first time the concept of snowboarding has been conveyed to a worldwide audience. This was 1985, people. Walter Mondale just had his ass kicked less than a year before this. The Challenger tragedy was still a year away.
2. Christopher Walken. Hands down the most interesting Bond villain in the last 21 years. He plays a East German born test tube baby-turned-French billionaire industrialist Max Zorin. Of course, he does not even try to have an accent. That's because he's Chris Walken.
3. Grace Jones. Undergraduate Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies classes can discuss this character alone for semesters. Is she a tragic Greek hero(ine)? Or just a racist caricature? We can debate this, ad nauseum. All I have to say is seeing her and Roger Moore getting it on was creepy.
4. Duran Duran. Their song, A View to A Kill, is hands down the best James Bond song ever. For a good laugh, rent the DVD and watch the video in the bonus section. The cheese factor and amount of styling mousse used are exceptional.
5. Roger Moore's age. He was 57 when he made the movie. 57! Though he may be a little wrinkled, he pulled it off. Absolutely commendable performance for an AARP member.
6. Rented hot tub. In the movie, James Bond does the dirty deed with a KGB agent in a rented hot tub. In San Francisco. In 1985. That, my friends, is the most dangerous stunt in the entire movie.


Monday, September 25, 2006

Borat v. Nazarbayev

With Borat the movie coming out, the Kazakh government is stepping up its efforts to discredit the infamous journalist. Nursultan Nazabayev, Kazakhstan's longest reigning (and only) president, accuses Borat of ruining the image of his great country and people. Below is a head to head comparison of the two gents. You decide who has done more of a disservice to Kazakhstan.

Name: Nursultan Nazarbayev
Age: 66
Occupation: "Democratically" "elected" President of Kazakhstan
Noted family member: Daughter Dariga, head of state run news agency
Worst faux pas/controversy: (tied) stashing $1 billion U.S. in Swiss accounts, disqualifying electoral opponents, muzzling the press
Stance on Israel: "Warm" relations (according to embassy website)
Stance on women's rights: Wants daughter Dariga to follow him as President of Kazakhstan
Hobby: Crushing dissent


Name: Borat Sagdiyev
Age: "23 years, I have hair on my pubis."
Occupation: Journalist
Noted family member: Sister Natalya, prostitute, awarded by Almaty Chamber of Commerce "best sex in mouth"
Worst faux pas/controversy: Telling Americans: "We support your war of terror."
Stance on Israel: Asked martial arts instructor advice on defending against the "Jew claw"
Stance on women's rights: "The chain of importance": "God, man, horse, woman, then rat,...."
Hobby: Sexy time with wife and plough


Niihau, My Nemesis

After checking into my room in Kalaheo, an old paniolo town in southern Kauai, I decide to take a drive up to the Waimea Canyon. It's close to sunset, but I want to scope out the windy roads so that I will be more familiar with the area tomorrow, when I officially explore Waimea Canyon.

After I am sufficiently familiar with the roads, I head back down for dinner. As I descend Waimea Canyon Road, I see before me, on the horizon, my nemesis, the island of Ni'ihau.

I am obsessive-compulsive. After being lucky enough to have traveled to Oahu and Maui, I set myself the goal of stepping foot on every inhabited Hawaiian island. (Hence, my current trip to Kauai.) I have just one left. It is Niihau. It sits, taunting me, knowing that my chances of getting there are about 50:1.

The Forbidden Isle was purchased by the Robinson family in 1864 for $10,000 in gold. It continues to be owned and operated by the family. It is home to 160 employees, all Native Hawaiians. Life is simple and very sheltered. Hawaiian is the lengua franca. Few visitors are allowed. And therein lies the problem. Unless you are a cop, elected local official, or Naval personnel, the only way of getting an invitation onto the island is via helicopter tour ($250) or as a member of a safari team ($1,500 per person). I do not want to spend more than a hundred bucks to get there and I highly doubt I can pass the physical agility test to be one of Kauai's finest (Niihau is under Kauai Police Department's jurisdiction). So how the hell am I supposed to get there?

I grab a big juicy Barefoot Burger and fries in Waimea. Dinner! I get back in my car with the food in a brown paper bag and drive west, to the secluded beach abutting the naval radar station. I sit on the white sand, attacking the burger and fries, with Niihau straight ahead of me. As I eat, I am distracted by the calm water and take in the dry, warm breeze with a deep sigh that signals the onset of nirvanic relaxation. But then, I focus on Niihau again. I sit. And I think. I sit. And I plot. I sit. Nothing.

After my meal, I stand up, brush the sand off my shorts and legs, and head back to my room. I spend the following days enjoying the rest of Kauai. Samura Saimin (twice). The Na Pali coast. Hanalei. Kilauea. The Fish Express in Lihue. Niihau is quickly forgotten.

I take an interisland flight from Lihue to Kahului. I am in a brand new but flimsy feeling Bombardier. As we approach Maui, I see Kaho'olawe, the once inhabited island. Instantly, like a Pavlovian dog, I am reminded of my frustrating inability to reach Niihau.

I sit. And I think. Maybe I can rent a rubber dinghy and arrive on Niihau's shores under cover of darkness, a la Schwarzenegger and Rae Dawn Chong in the 1985 epic, Commando. Maybe I can....

I sit. And I think. I sit. And I plot.


Sunday, September 24, 2006

F1 According to the Neophyte

Disclaimer: When I say, neophyte, I mean it. I just started following F1 this season. In order to learn the background, I watched DVD summaries of the 2003-2005 seasons. Slowly, but surely, I'm learning all the personalities/egos, rules, what the engineers do, and the nuances of all the tracks/venues.

To state the obvious, this season has been about Alonso, Schumi, and Kimi.

For me all season, in addition to learning and enjoying the races, I have been trying to decide whom to root for. This is actually a two-part question because I have to choose not only a team, but a driver as well. This has been a nearly impossible task and the result surprised me.

Renault: Alonso is a fabulously talented young driver who has, for the most part, driven consistently well, lap after lap. His Renault engine's meltdown at Monza was an aberration, but the timing could not have been worse. He seems like a nice guy and may have been a little too honest and open about his feelings about Schumi, but he lacks personality. Maybe something got lost in translation. I also don't feel right rooting for the reigning world champion for fear of being accused of being a Johnny-come-lately or a fair-weather fan.

I don't know enough about Fisichella to form an opinion.

Ferrari: Schumi, without question, is the best driver out there. But with the Monaco fiasco and his prior history of winning at all costs, I can't support this guy. I think Ferrari is akin to the New York Yankees. With its famed history, pennants, and Fort Knox sized payroll, you either love them or hate them. I don't hate them. But I don't love them either.

I feel bad for Massa. He has to play the supporting role, much like his predecessor, the amiable Rubens Barrichello. They will forever be the Scotty Pippens to Schumi as Michael Jordan.

McLaren: Though I am not on the official bandwagon, I have been rooting for Kimi for almost the entire season. Had he not had that temperamental McLaren to deal with, he would firmly be in 3rd place right now. With him going to Ferrari, I am at a loss again. I understand his reason for going to the "Dark Side". He joined Ferrari for the same reasons Giambi, A-Rod, et al joined the Yankees. But with him donning Ferrari red next season, I have to look elsewhere for someone to root.

Juan Pablo Montoya is a royal jackass. His actions on and off the track are classless. I think the idea of a Formula 1 driver, a la Ali G in Talladega Nights, schooling Nascar Bubbas is fantastic. But having JPM be the representative could not have been worse thought out. Rather than earning the respect of Nascar fans, JPM will just alienate them and confirm their dislike and suspicions about F1. If he shows poorly in the first few seasons, F1 will never have a chance of gaining a foothold in the States for at least another decade.

Robert Kubica. This new kid on the block has what it takes to be a future world champion. Although I am saddened that he had to take the place of Villeneuve, he has reinvigorated his BMW Sauber team. He seems genuine, honest, realistic, hard working, and sincere. His third place finish at Monza was more than respectable. And I can see him on the podium consistently for many years to come. I don't think it was a fluke. So if I had to choose one driver to root for, it would be Kubica.

As for this season, I want Alonso to win, but I think Schumi will steal it from him in Suzuka.


Saturday, September 23, 2006

Pablo and the petroglyphs

On a recent trip to Maui, I decided to take the ferry to Lanai for a one-day jaunt. Tackling the Munro Trail in a 4x4 was my goal. Lonely Planet suggested an outfit that rented sturdy Land Rovers. A phone call quickly revealed that the company went kaput. Plan B was the local Dollar Rent-A-Car. It had dozens of Wranglers for rent but the price was ludricrous. Once the man behind the counter saw that I was not dressed for a round at Koele or the Challenge at Manele, he whispered to me, "We have something that will fit your budget."

It was a white mid-80s Jeep Cherokee, covered in red mud. None of the door locks worked. The automatic transmission hesitated for three seconds before engaging. But I got my ride. "This is for locals and contractors who don't care about what they drive." I was stoked.

As I wait for my license and credit card information to be entered into the rental counter's computer, I look through a 3-ring binder of photos. It is a grim warning to all potential renters about off-roading on Lanai. There are literally dozens of photographs of YJ and TJ Wrangler rentals, every one of them wrecked or stuck-in-the-mud in the most awkward, gravity-defying, and unbelieveable manner. This is going to be fun, and scary.

Of course, as I leave the rental office with the car key, the same man hollers to me, "Sorry, but because of last night's rain, the Munro Trail is off limits." F*&k!

I decide to take the Cherokee down to Shipwreck Beach, on the northeast side. The island is not that big and I arrive at the trailhead in five minutes. I step out of the Jeep and start walking. I am so pissed off about the Munro Trail, I do not realize I am walking south instead of north. I walk for miles in the muggy heat, realizing I'm lost, but stubbornly refusing to turn around. Finally, I hear a truck approaching from behind me.

An old, toothless, jolly man is at the wheel of a rusted Ford Ranger. He stops and asks me where I'm going. When I tell him, he offers to turn his truck around and drop me off at my destination. I hop on board. He's in four wheel drive low and perpetually in first gear. Ruts, mud, and impassable terrain mean nothing to him. His name is Pablo. He looks about 80, but decades under the sun may have prematurely aged him. Before the island became a resort for the uber-rich, it produced most of the world's pineapples. Filipinos like Pablo made up the agricultural work force. Now, he and his wife camp weeks at a time next to the beach and live on fish from the sea and meager provisions. His accent is strong and I only understand two-thirds of what he says. He drops me off with a smile and thanks me for the company. He has not had contact with anyone besides his wife for a long, long time.

I arrive at Shipwreck Beach. The most well known shipwreck here is of a rusted Liberty Ship from World War II. I walk to the base of what had been a lighthouse. Directly inland from the base, I walk less than a hundred yards to find the best kept secret of this island-- petroglyphs. Hundreds of years ago, native Hawaiians carved images of themselves, turtles, dogs, chickens, and whatever else piqued their interest.

The images are simple, beautiful, and extraordinary. My disappointment about the Munro Trail quickly disappears. Pablo and the petroglyphs made my day.

Here is a great resource for car rentals and off-road trails on Lanai.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Traversing the Road of Bones

The Kolyma "Highway", or the Road of Bones, links the Russian Far East cities of Magadan (next to the Sea of Okhotsk) with Yakutsk (next to the Lena River). The word "highway" is in parentheses because it is more like a (dotted) line on the map than an actual, contiguous, roadway. In this, the most remote of roads, bridges are often washed out and the road disappears with the spring thaw. The most ideal time of the year to travel on this road is in the winter, when the rivers have frozen sufficiently and bulldozers and tractors are on duty to clear paths and pull errant vehicles stuck in ditches and ravines.

I first heard about the Road of Bones in Jeffrey Tayler's "Siberian Dawn". In that book, Tayler traveled from Magadan to Poland, an 8,000 mile journey, by land. He made the journey between Magadan and Yakutsk by hitching a ride from a truck driver.

I saw what the Road of Bones looked like for the first time in Long Way Round, a documentary which showed Ewan McGregor, his best mate Charley Boorman, and cameraman extraordinaire Claudio von Planta ride around the world in BMW R1150GS's. It is called the Road of Bones because of the thousands of gulag prisoners under the Stalin era who died building this road.

After much research, I have come to the conclusion that unless you are equipped with brand new, modified motorcycles, 4x4s, and a support crew with a sat-phone, the best way to go is to hitch a ride with a truck driver. Just make sure you don't get a ride from the driver of the truck pictured above.

For more information, see "Siberian BAM Guide" by Yates and Zvegintzov.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

McLaren F1: Back to the Future

A dozen years ago, Gordon Murray came up with the ultimate supercar. That a car built in the age of 14.4 modems, brick sized cell phones, and Pentium 3 computers can whip any 2006 model street car (aside from the Bugatti Veyron) is sheer madness.

First, the obligatory numbers. Naught to 60 in 3.2 seconds. It has a BMW 6.1 liter V12 with 627 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque. Top speed is 231 mph. It took 6,000 man hours to hand assemble one of these puppies. Much of the time was spent hand cutting, curing, and gluing the 5,000 pieces of carbon fiber for the car. The power to weight ratio for the F1 is 4 lb/hp. Compare that to 4.6 lb/hp for the Enzo. You get the idea.

Everything about the car was about building the fastest, most comfortable, and most reliable machine known to man. Turbochargers and superchargers were poo-poo'ed because they increased the chance of mechanical problems. The perfect balance was needed so the driver's position in this three-seater was moved to front and center, a la an open wheeled racer. Front and rear overhangs were minimized. The engine, occupant, and fuel were placed as close to the center of gravity as possible.

But these numbers and nuggets of design trivia are meaningless. To really understand this car, I urge you to find the old Top Gear episode in which our friendly presenter Tiff Needell test drove an F1. The look on his face said it all-- sheer automotive nirvana.

Had Doc and Marty McFly had one of these McLaren F1's instead of the DeLorean, they would not have needed the flux capacitor to go back to the future.


Idi Amin, Tommy Chong, and the Citroen SM

From a cannibalistic despot to the even-more-evil glass pipe vender/felon, the SM has a number of iconoclastic admirers. Both Amin and Chong owned the Serie Maserati. Why? It is too late to interview Amin. Chong probably does not remember any of the 70s. My guess is they just wanted to be different.

You cannot get any more different than an SM. It married a tempermental Maserati V6 (the V8 was too long for the snout and sent too much power to the FWD platform) with the overtly and ostentatiously sophisticated Citroen self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension system. The system, which is filled with nitrogen and mineral oil, is such an integral part of the car it is even connected to the six headlamps in order to dampen bumps. This high performance GT's one-spoke steering wheel only takes two short revolutions to go from lock to lock. A simple hiccup on the expressway could lead to disastrous consequences. A more different car one could not find.

But what really sets the SM apart is its exterior styling. From the top, it looks like a teardrop. From the rear quarter vantage point, it looks like a Gaul-ish Honda Insight. And from the front, the headlights seem to say, in English, French, and Italian, "Get the f*&k out of my way."

I have only seen one SM outside of museums. It is usually parked on the street in quaint little downtown Martinez, a few miles from home. It is a daily driver. The paint is faded; the tires are dull; and evidence of decades of parallel parking can be seen throughout the body work. God knows the tens of thousands of dollars the owner has spent just keeping it running. The driver is probably not an exiled member of the Amin family or Tommy Chong. But he owns an SM for the same reason. He wants to be different.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Mr. Wolf's NSX

Reliable. Efficient. Fast. These words not only describe the NSX, but also its most famous fictional owner, Pulp Fiction's Mr. Wolf. The Japanese engineers who brought us the bulletproof, plebian Civic came up with a mid-engined supercar that can compete with Italian and American legends. Though some bemoan the displacement-lacking V6, its balance, poise, and light weight more than make up for the relative dearth in torque and horsepower.

The design is so timeless and ahead of its time the only significant revision throughout its 15 year model run was a switch from pop-up headlights (which were de rigeur in the 1980s era of Ferraris, Trans Ams, and yes, even the Mitsubishi Starion) to regular integrated headlights (which the new Corvette thoughtfully plagiarized).

Word is the next generation NSX will have the SuperHandling all-wheel drive set-up of the current RL and a Formula 1 derived V10. Though the second generation NSX will be faster and more sophisticated than its forerunner, the original NSX shall always remain peerless.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

My plans for this blog

Once I figure out how to post and make the page look nice aesthetically and organizationally, I will have the following topics:

1. Thought of the day.
2. Favorite cars.
3. Travel rants.
4. 007 commentaries.
5. Geography 101.