Animated Animals: Research and observation in the reservate

Besides pets, there is another group of animals where it is unavoidable that they learn how to talk: in zoos, reservates or captivity.

A visit to the famous tiger reservate is very different now. This is one of the few places where you are actually allowed to converse with animals directly, albeit at a safe distance. Since this is a place where you can ‘feed’ the animals by choosing to purchase a certain type of prey, this requires a negotiation with the tigers.

At the entrance, the sign with disclaimers is updated to contain a few new things:

  1. We try to have a wide variety of tigers with different preferences available. Guests are still allowed to feed the tigers, but it is impossible to guarantee that you can purchase the prey of your choice.
  2. We advise our guests to wear the provided noise-cancellation earphones to put all focus on the tigers. We provide noise-proof facilities wherever reasonably possible since we are unable to control everything the tigers say. Anything you hear because of not wearing earphones is your own responsibility.
  3. It is explicitly forbidden to communicate with the tigers in any way possible. Any written signs or smartphones will be collected at the entrance. Speech or text on clothing needs to be covered.
  4. Our employees communicate with tigers for general or research purposes. We welcome any suitable questions from the public which you can provide in written form to our staff.

Getting into the car, you wonder what kind of questions have been asked before. An employee gives you a little brochure with more information. Inside, the contents mention a few interesting questions:

Q: How do tigers use speech when hunting?
A: According to our observations and research, most tigers use it to intimidate their prey. They seem to understand that whispering and shouting has different effects. Since the prey cannot talk, it is a one-sided conversation.

Q: Do tigers tend to pronounce words that contain an ‘r’ better?
A: We hear that our tigers indeed tend to emphasize the ‘r’ within a word. However, if a word contains more than 1 ‘r’, they will only focus on one of them.

Q: Which type of prey do tigers prefer?
A: Among the choices that we provide (rooster, sheep, cow) we do see most tigers preferring the larger prey. However, some tigers told us they like to eat roosters because of their feathers’ texture and the fact that the little bones are easier to crack and provide a crunchier texture.

Tourists with Chinese characteristics: golden groupies

It is spring and that only means 1 thing in China: flowers. Preferably cherry blossoms. Having spent my past weekend in one of the busiest places I could find to marvel at this wonder of nature, reminded me again of this kind of tourist.

Who?
Aunties and uncles, grannies and grandpas of around 45-50 and up. They almost exclusively travel together in large groups (25-35 people) because their children are busy (unless they belong to the fanatic families) and they can see highlights of 4 places in 4 days.

Where?
Anywhere that is only slightly famous is bound to be flooded by them. Headed by a guide with a flag, umbrella or originally decorated pole, they walk around unabashedly with their caps and snapping pictures of everything they see.

Why?
It is their time to shine! They probably worked hard and took care of everyone all their lives and finally can let it all go loose on a 5-day trip to Europe or by visiting famous spots all over China. They are still healthy, but also privileged (because older) and finally will have a chance to take pictures with shawls, stones and just all the beauty they can tolerate besides them.

Thoughts?
Auntie/granny: finally you are in the famous spot. First, I need a photo with the rock that says the attraction’s name. Then I need a photo with a shawl swaying in the wind. Then I am going to take this tree branch and pull it towards me so the flowers prettily frame my face. Next, I need to push to the front so I can get a photo next to the lake. I know I need to put my one leg before the other. Or my hand on my shoulder. Or both. It is so convenient to have a group guide me to all the important places I need to see.

Uncle/grandpa: okay, now that we are here I will take a photo of my wife with the rock. And then with a shawl. And then with the flowers. And at the lake. So glad she will do all the pushing and pulling for the spot. Next, we will take a picture together at the park. Making memories is very important. When I return to the Sunday park gatherings, we can show off all the places we have been. And no need to drive or look up anything ourselves. It is great to see so many attractions in such a short time.

My thoughts?
Group travelers rank medium to high on my irritation/frustration scale. The guide always blares out information that nobody pays attention to, even though they all have their ears plugged. This means when they step on your foot or push their elbow in your stomach, they also do not hear you gasping. Furthermore, their age, especially the 65+ ones, means it is socially unacceptable to push them back. They take full advantage of their ‘elderly privileges’ to push to the front or take up all the seats. They pull and push at the scenery to make it fit their photos and talk so loud that even I need to put in effort to communicate. But mostly, it is just that there are so many of them. It is the moment you realize that China is an aging society.

Tourists with Chinese characteristics: fanatic families

For the past month I have been travelling through South- and Southeast Asia. Especially around Chinese New Year there are many Chinese people going abroad as well. On the road I saw many different kinds of Chinese tourists. These impressions include a few of the different types.

Who?
A mom, a dad, 1 or 2 kids (byebye one child policy) and often some extended family members like grandparents.

Where?
Most families obviously have a limited program. Chinese families often even more so since they focus on the main attractions.

Why?
This is probably the beginning of family life and they are just settling in. With the kids still being small they get in for free at most spots. Everyone can relax a little bit, see some different things and meet new people.

Their thoughts?
Mom: a combination of tired, worried and excited. One of the few holidays need to be spent happily with family. But it is hot, and there is so much to take care of. Luckily dad carries most of the snacks and drinks. Are the kids hungry? Are they not getting too tanned? Where is dad anyway? Will I be able to buy all the souvenirs I promised my co-workers to bring back? This bird is so pretty, I really need to take a photo of this. Our kids should really learn more about nature now that they have the chance. Which sightseeing spots have we not covered yet?

Dad: this is not entirely how I pictured life with a kid. A heavy photo camera dangles on my belly, which is also starting to accumulate some ‘baby fat’. God is it hot here. Wiping my forehead while looking for some shade. This garden is really nice and the kids are playing outside. Sitting down this suddenly feels eerily similar to any other time I go out with mom. Waiting, looking and obeying. Mom motions you to take photos of something. What will be for dinner tonight?

Kid(s): so many different things! I can jump from the tree to the stairs. I want to carve out my name in this tree! And in the stairs! And in the temple! Where is dad? I want food. Mom is so annoying taking her time. When are we going home?

Grandparent(s): I am getting too old for this. But it is really nice to see the kids play. Do they drink enough though? I can tell all my friends in the park once I return that my grandchildren already went abroad.

My thoughts?
Families rank about medium on my irritation/frustration scale. Of course it depends on the age of the kids. Babies are terrible when they cry or excrete bodily fluids. When they talk and walk, kids often do too much of both. Grandparents tend to walk too slow and skip lines since they can often get away with it. Moms often take pictures of everything all the time. Dads mostly just look sad. But for the average backpacker, Chinese families are quite avoidable. Also, it looks quite exhausting to be in a different country with a group that seems to have mixed goals. It really turns fun into a verb.

Animated Animals: It is the sound of the underground

You walk to a subway entrance and look around. People silently go in and out, some bumping into you silently or with little more than a grunt. You look around and suddenly see a bird hopping around. It hops to the elevator, seemingly waiting for someone to open it. As inconspicuous as possible you walk to the elevator and press the button. The bird and you enter.

Once inside you cannot contain your curiosity. “Excuse me, where are you going?” The bird cocks its head at you. It spreads its wings, is that how they point at stuff? “Today is the market.” As if that should clear up everything. You are just about to ask your next question when the doors open. The bird quickly and silently flies into the subway corridor.

You try to follow it while trying not to be too obvious that you are following something. The bird flies around a corner, past the security off to where the subway arrives. You quickly go through security, swipe your card and practically run downstairs. On the platform, you vaguely spot something at the far end.

The bird is in front of a door on which it knocks once with its beak. Without a sound it opens slightly, allowing the bird to hop in and you wriggle you way through as well. “Hi Mel, how are you doing?.” You suddenly hear the bird say. You look down and see a cord is attached to the door handle which is held by a mole. He looks at you with his blind eyes, slowly nodding for you two to continue.

You are in a kind of janitor room with cleaning supplies all around you. “It will be a bit of a walk, but you can grab something to eat at the market.” The bird says ahead of you. It flies through another door at the end of the room and you follow it into a dark tunnel. The dirt tunnel loops around and you can hear the subway passing far away at regular intervals. Although you seem far underground, the temperature is actually pretty warm and luckily there are no sidetracks.

Suddenly you hear sounds. Voices, sizzling, singing, music, the kinds of sounds you hear on squares throughout China. Within a few steps, the tunnel opens wide and reveals a square. One full of mainly animals, a few humans, and a lot of activities. There are cats and foxes playing mahjong, pigs and goats stuffing themselves at food stalls, turtles and fish lounging in a pond, peacocks and magpies are dancing in formations and there even seems to be some matchmaking going on between dogs looking for their loyal partners. This is a place that merits some further discovery.

Animated Animals: birds of a feather talk together

Outdoors, nothing is as easy as it once seemed. There are decibel meters everywhere. It is finally more acceptable to stare at your phone all the time, since it is safer to chat with each other digitally.

However, especially in China many pets and birds in particular serve a distinct social function. These birds of course learn to talk and twitter away quite literally, which is fine as long as they are confined. Some do escape however, which created pockets in the wild where it is allowed to talk out loud.

So after your first work day, you decide to go to such a park. It is so quiet on the streets these days, it is unsettling. At the entrance of the park, there is a large map marking spots where talking is allowed. Another sign reminds you that there are decibel meters and cameras recording, so anyone talking too loudly in any other parts will be fined.

Passing the gates, you follow the path. There are still people dancing and elderly men intensively playing chess. You hear a bunch of different sounds coming from those crowds. Apparently, people have found new ways of communicating, either with clapping in morse, which works especially well if you are trying to make a point while playing chess or dancing the flamenco.

You walk on and arrive at a fork in the road. The path leading to the talking zone, leads into a dense forest. Once you enter it, you suddenly hear something that is quite overwhelming. Everyone is talking. Conversations are being had. People and birds laugh en get merry.

There are some cameras in between the trees, and all the birds are on leashes. This spot is specifically meant to only have birds. After some talks, the others tell you all outside spots are separated as much as possible. Also, everyone needs an outdoors license to be sure only well-behaved pets are taken outdoors.

After taking a look around, you sit down next to an older man who is having an animated conversation with his parakeet. “So today’s grains where definitely not the most tasty you say?” “Nope,” the bird answers “They just come out whole. It is terrible.”

“Do you have a special diet?” You chime in. The bird tilts his head and makes a sound like a sigh. “I just have an incredibly sensitive stomach. You know how some within our bird family will just eat anything of the street? I am not like that. I have standards.” The man scratches the bird’s head. “I have a little side business in luxury bird feed now. We are crossing boundaries.”

“Crossing boundaries,” you think. Would there be any spots where these talking animals meet?

Animated Animals: what the duck?

I was traveling a few weeks ago and while climbing a mountain, I suddenly thought: “What if animals could talk? Surely it would make mountains and forests a much less quiet place.” I also just remembered seeing the headline somewhere that currently most ducks for Chinese dishes are imported from Great Britain. So combining the 2, I imagine it would end up something like this…

It is the same as with humans. If you do not talk to them, they do not learn to speak. Since animals are now able of learning human languages, there have been many new rules, especially at farms and outdoors areas. Everyone there needs to use sign language, to preserve some quietness and order. Sure, monkeys may be able to catch onto that, but that conveniently also scales back the amount of zoos.

So, one day you saw an add for a Business Development Manager at a Duck Farm. Such positions are now very unpopular, due to moral considerations. However, that makes for little competition, so you decide to give it a try.

“English is the main language for this task.” Your supervisor says. “We import most of the ducks, so we need fluent speakers. We also have a few English major students interning for us.” No wonder that the level of English suddenly became much higher in China. There are that many more opportunities to practice, although you doubt how in-depth these conversations could go.

“It is no option to let them handle everything by themselves under human supervision?” You ask. Your supervisor shakes his head. “Only some are well-educated enough to communicate with us. Being able to talk does not mean they have consciousness, and many conditions in large-scale facilities are still quite apalling. If you let ducks talk to each other, they will quickly veer off-topic and start complaining about putting on weight, dirty feathers and swollen feet. And in the end, most ducks are slaughtered of course.”

With that in mind, you start working and calling. “Donny speaking here, how can I help you.” You wonder what it looks like on the other side. Is the duck in an office? Is the phone strapped to his body? Is there a human supervising him? After exchanging some polite conversation, you discuss the quality of the newest batch, transport, logistics and some other business.

With the work part of the conversation coming to an end, you decide to delve a little bit deeper. “Donny, does it feel at all strange to be part of this?”

You hear a sigh, obviously you are not the first one asking these questions. “Well, it is certainly a limited life of course. If I could fly and feel fine, I would but our bodies simply are not built like that. In the meantime, instead of just eating all day, it is nice to get a break from that by talking to you guys.”

Truth be told, you never gave a thought about career choices for ducks. “So is it tough to learn how to do this?”

“Nah, not really. We have scripts and cards, so that is the easy part. Also for off-topic conversations, we have a lot of practice. But I imagine that our counterparts living in the wild have some more variety. Stories of the black market do trickle down here, with some of us selling inside knowledge, stuff like that. Another reason not to keep us alive for too long.”

“You can just straight up tell me that?” You ask in amazement.

Donny has a short laugh. “Well, by now it is common knowledge. You guys cannot keep us apart anyway, so there is bound to be some of us able to get away. Anyhow, my feet are hurting so I am hanging up. Looking forward to be in touch again!”

A click and he is gone. You have quite a lot to think about now and decide to go for a stroll. Perhaps that will take your mind off of things.

Hot as hell

The sun has been here longer than we have. It is also burning hot. The sun itself is, but also here on earth. Yes, of course we created this ourselves. With all the conveniences, low costs and high risks we want and take, this was bound to happen.

Everyone here already got around mostly covered when the sun shone. Large visors, long sleeves and pants, gloves, masks and hats. There are also images of other countries, basking in sunlight. Men and women in long, wide gowns. Most of us here wear pants. Seemingly the only difference would be that the sweat touches your thighs instead of the fabric in between.

Moving outside in broad daylight is becoming increasingly dangerous. The sun is literally scorching these days. The pavement is so hot that water literally instantly turns into steam and you could actually bake anything on it. That is, if it would be kept clean.

And even in these circumstances, there are more than enough people still working outside. Shuffling leaves together in the shade so that they do not start a fire. Watering the plants in the shadow or keeping an eye on the traffic from under a parasol. That is just as effective as it sounds.

It is said that several cities with extremely hot summers exist which were called ‘ovens’ before. Currently, all cities are real ovens. The concrete sucks up the heat and it permeates every structure. Steel pots and pans do not even need to be put on the gas anymore. We can just cook in them on the balcony if we wear fireproof gloves.

The well-of, rich people leave the city en mass during this time of the year. Pictures of luscious green fields, wide blue seas and bare skin flood the social media. But even outside the cities, temperatures are still at an all-time high. It makes censoring for nudity very easy, showing that much bare skin can simply lead to burns and is thus very rare.

Windows have since long been covered. It is still strange to wake up in the morning, seemingly at dusk. Before, you still had commercials where people opened their windows in the morning and let the sunlight in. Half of my stuff would directly catch on fire if you would do that in my room now.

There also used to be a buzz of insects outside when it was really hot. Old series on television would have that playing on the background to symbolize how hot it is. Apparently, if you go even hotter it turns quiet. Eerily quiet. Everyone seems to move in slow motion. The weight of the heat is instant whenever you go outside. Life is slowly turning into a real child’s play. Only move from shadow to shadow, step into the light and it is game over…

Biking Battles: Work never seemed so far away

So you accept your role as prey and see if you need to call on your other bunny friends. After putting down the foot on the pedal, you decide to go for it and join your fellow friends.

The start is a wide road, separated from the main car road. So it should be easy cruising through the sun (when it is there), however in reality it only means that you need to pay more attention to the cars trying to sneak into your biking lane. They are not even being sneaky. Acting like the predators they are (see The jungle road) they push you away while giving you the side eye to make sure you do not even touch their precious skin.

Furthermore, it is not entirely clear to you how much brain power bunnies have, but there are enough moments where it seems very low, yours included. The amount of curves you made along the road and scares you had by suddenly having scooters, cars or even buses making some or a lot of noise because of your maneuvers would make any normal person question your sanity. But adaptability is the highest means the ones lower down the pyramid have to make it, so you go along of course.

And then suddenly you have trees, shade and absolutely nothing else changes. The largest difference it makes is that you can play hide and seek with your opponents and startle innocent pedestrians. A real obstacle are the bus stops on the side. The people getting off seem like real mice crawling around, seemingly walking deliberately in front of your bike or freezing at your first sight. After toying with them for a bit, you decide to go for the last stretch.

It is a bridge. With two roads that need to be crossed, way too many traffic lights and very little patience. Whenever you see the chance, you just hop in between everything. This means paying most or your attention to where vehicles come from, not the stupid lights. You especially need to be careful when going against the (traffic) flow since everyone always seems to act as if this is a rarity. And if worse comes to worse and you need to cross the road without the traffic lights, just inch forward and try to look the drivers behind their wheels in the eye. You are one tough bunny!

You manage all that, and you will arrive at the oasis. Green everywhere, people fishing, cars slightly following the rules (since the military is watching or acting like they are) and silence. Oh and then you need to go to work. Nothing is perfect after all.

Biking battles: The jungle road

So before moving onto the long road, let us take a look at what kind of people are most often encountered on the Chinese roads. A comparison with the jungle is not strange, you have for example the predators:

  • The king of the jungle: Trucks, buses and any other vehicles which are heavy, large and intimidating. They cruise along, sometimes with people furiously shouting and/or honking but almost never stopping. They can suddenly lash out with their legs and doors, just to spite you. You know you should not challenge them too much. They have teeth and they bite. Although eating and hitting innocent people is still illegal of course…
  • Cheetahs: Very fast, lean and mean cars. Except, they belong on the Savannah or the open road. Not the clogged streets of Beijing. They roar loudly to let you know that they are dangerous, but barking dogs do not bite. Unless of course they suddenly have a precious piece of open road in front of them. Oh and you should not touch them. One scratch and you are gone.
  • Hyena’s: They are lagging behind, dealing with the leftovers. They are in great, huge numbers. Diverse, irritating and only slightly frightening. They are the ones tuktuks, scooters, bikers and even pedestrians dare to defy. When they hit, of course they hit hard. But as long as you stay out of reach…

So what about the prey?

  • Birds: You can go very fast, if you want to. You can almost manage to squeeze in between everything and anything. But just like some birds cannot fly, these birds often choose not to fly. Just carry on their daily business as they go excruciatingly slow and even slalom along the road while doing their best not to die multitasking. They do make a lot of noise however, whether they are moving or not. Would be nice if the sounds were as nice as birds’ twitter or songs.
  • Rabbits: They are quite harmless and with a growing number. They are usually a group of cyclists, some really put their foot down making noise, others are less brave and just sway from side to side. When they want to, speed is made and a lot of road covered. However, they are also quite single-minded. Just getting ahead already costs a lot of effort, so often following the rules or watching out are optional tasks.
  • Mice: When they are in a group, they have a lot of power. They can basically cross roads whenever they want, however they want. But if they move by themselves, they are the lowest on the foodchain. Literally everyone speeds past them and they are the first ones to take a hit. It also helps that they do not make it easy for themselves by being easily distracted by either eating, looking on their phone or checking their hair in the mirror.

In other words, the road to work is long, hard and dangerous. How to manage?

Biking battles: The origin

“Let me bike to work today.” Quite an innocent thought, if you might say so yourself. So you pack your stuff, glance outside to make sure it is not raining and go out.

At the bicycle parking lot of your compound you look for a while for your bike. It is black and, like most others, rusty and old so it does not stand out too much. It takes you a while to find it, because you realize the community workers moved things around again. To have a large space in the front of the lot to put nothing. Probably for a higher purpose, or to perform some rituals. Things happen for a reason right?

Nevertheless, you get on your bicycle and bike away with a speed which makes the security guard pause and stare in his morning talks. Your compound is quite old and although they often renovate the roads, the fact that people people do not care and keep walking makes sure that the road stays in the same state.

After having crossed that first hurdle, you enter the main road. Here, the real fun starts of course. The traffic lights designate the invisible race that is taking place here. Bikes, steps, unicycles and scooters are going ahead, because the buses, cars and trucks have speed and mass to compensate. You are eager to get to work, so after making sure the right lights are red, you cross in one smooth go.

It always amazes you with what kinds of vehicles people enter the road and what they take with them. Lately, carrying bikes on your tricycle or truck seems to be the new trend. And you always have the hilarious look of people on folding bikes with an electric motor on it, does that not defy the purpose of a folding bike?, or the ones who can barely sit on their steps because they are so small and lightweight.

So getting on the road is only the beginning. The road ahead is long and you need to get to work. On time preferably. What to do?