Sunday, January 20, 2008

All in a day's drive

We had a Saturday to kill so we arranged for our driver to take us on a drive, out and about. Our original plan was to go south to the port of Lushun, but I did not have my hopes up as I knew from reading that it was at one time closed to foreigners due to the presence of a submarine base. Liu went and inquired and came back with the news, which spawned a most interesting conversation between the two of us.

“I am very sorry sir, but I cannot take you to Lushun.”

“Oh, because we are lao wei, foreigners.”

“No, sir.”

“We cannot go because it is closed to foreigners?”

“No sir.”

“We cannot go?”

“Yes sir.”

And so it goes communicating across the divide. We made a back-up plan to drive around the peninsula, through Rhythm of the Sea Park and then ideally off to see a temple if one was available.

It turned out to be a very full day, from start to finish so instead of trying to keep a continuous narrative, I’m going to break it down into blocks, starting with the park and ending with the bar fight.

Rhythm of the Sea

Just outside the city, this park is often featured in Dalian tourist guides because of the various attractions it contains. There is a zoo, an aquarium and a scenic drive that takes you from one side of the city to the other. We paid, entered and stopped here and there to take some photos, bailing out of the van despite the searing cold. The pictures below give a general sense of the place – Masai princesses in bronze kneeling in the snow in front of giant plastic cacti, a nude couple of indeterminate species with the patina worn off the interesting places due to being handled, a giant sea turtle staring longingly out to see where the Red-breasted Mergansers bobbed in the waves, just off shore from the nutcase men taking a swim in the gelid water. I didn’t get a picture of those fellows because I was too busy across the street.

Up the hill, we found ourselves at the Binhai Magic Slope. Liu kicked us out of the car and demonstrated the magic. To the eye it appeared uphill but the car rolled forward. It was an interesting sensation, because your eyes said “up” buy your legs read “down.” Tourist group sized golf carts raced by at imprudent speeds with their passengers yelling and waving at us. Not sure if they were screaming for help or just a simple hello given the speed and the nature of the curves in the road.

A bit further on, three giant concrete cypress trees provided a backdrop similar to that across the sea in Monterey. Of course, none of the trees there are as large and neither are they made of concrete.

We cleared the park after a couple of hours and decided to head out towards Lushun despite the embargo and our inability to find a Starbucks.

It’s nice to get out of the cities in China because you start to get a genuine sense of the place. Most of our work is concentrated in and around the developed areas and so we really never get exposed to the rest. My trip last year to Chongming was an exception, and I still remember just how nice that was. Today would turn out to be such a day.




















The Temple

As we neared the forbidden zone I asked if it was time to turn around and Liu pretty much ignored me and continued to look for whatever it was he was seeking. He pulled up and blocked a road so that a motorcyclist was forced to offer directions if he wanted to pass. I caught “si” in the exchange, the Chinese word for “temple”, so I gathered we were heading to one. We turned off the road and headed up into a narrow valley. The roads were ice covered but had been sanded, so while not tremendously safe, they didn’t look downright frightening. I pulled on my seatbelt.

We drove among old concrete farmhouses, harassed by little farm dogs and treaded gingerly around the couple of cars we passed as we wound our way up and up into the hills until at one s-curve we could see our goal – a 75 foot tall golden Buddha across a valley and up on a ridge.

Liu pulled the van into the parking area and we piled out into the cold. A bridge with a pagoda roof crossed a small neck in a lake and led to many dozen stone stairs that led up to the statue. There was absolutely no one around. Up we went, crossing platforms with tremendous views until we reached the base of the statue. Liu bought incense sticks to light in the burner. He said his mother had told him to never visit a temple without making an offering.

A small white dog wandered out of the temple and looked at me as though he had never seen such a person. Two boys, shoveling snow, did the same. I climbed up a small set of stairs to the side of the statue’s base and arrived at the top, the place where the Buddha actually stood. Its pedestal, perhaps 20 feet in diameter was wound with red dyed linen. In the distance, a handful of Magpies clacked away while down below two feral cats growled and hissed at that same scruffy dog as he stole the scraps that had been placed out for them. From this vantage point you could see all the way down the valley to the sea and across forested hills in all directions. Snow covered everything. Aside from the wind whistling through the trees, it was completely silent and the combination of effects was wonderful.

We stayed until numbness kicked in and returned to the car. I thanked Liu for bringing us here and he responded that this was simply the entrance gate. The real show was up the road.

The temple complex was nestled on the side of the tallest hill at the end of the valley. A broad stone staircase led up to the first level and it was clear there were additional levels up beyond that. We went up and entered and milled around while Liu found a monk and asked about our visit. He purchased more incense and placed it in the burner.

There were four main buildings in the center of a large courtyard surrounded by two long side structures. The buildings on the side each held dozens of rooms, some open and some closed in which various forms of Buddha were presented. The main structures had incredibly huge Buddha along with attending saints and avatars. My favorite was one of the side rooms that held perhaps 1000 small golden Buddha, 10 or 12 inches tall and all identical.

Figuring I had visited all there was to see, I was heading out when Liu and TY told me to come with them to the last level. We entered and we faced with 3 blue-haired Buddha, each about 20 feet tall. I made the two-handed greeting to a monk inside the door. He asked TY in Chinese if I was a Christian and TY told him, “He is here to learn.” The monk invited me over to the right most Buddha and asked me to pray. I muddled my way through the ritual to his obvious disappointment and so he decided to show me the proper way – a bow, kneeling hands down, hands turned over followed by standing, repeated three times. I was so flustered that I kept messing up the steps. TY told me to relax and just follow the instruction which I finally did and apparently well enough such that I was told to repeat my supplication at the remaining two Buddha. It was a great moment and I thanked the monk on the way out for generously taking the time to help me along my path.

We gathered and headed out, each having benefited in their own way from the experience. As we went down the stairs, scraped out of the fresh snow were some Chinese characters. The translation – “It snowed.”








































Lunch

Everyone was starving and done with the car so we decided to go find lunch and agreed to visit a Sichuan place that had been visited by some of us previously. Liu dropped us at the mall (where the restaurant was located) and we thanked him and sent him on his way hopefully giving back some of his weekend.

The restaurant was mobbed but we found a table in the back of the room and settled the six of us down into a space for four. The table was about 48 inches by 18 inches and perhaps 30 inches tall. The menu formed the top under a sheet of glass. Four of us got little chairs that forced us to sit in sort of a half-scrunched up position. The remainder got little round stools. A table next to us opened and TY attempted to negotiate its use which was firmly refused – why allow us to spread out when they could cram additional paying customers into our little corner. I’ve included some select dishes below for your entertainment.

Ten or so dishes were ordered along with tea and Cokes. We each received a bowl of rice that had canned corn in it. As the food arrived, it became clear to me that it stood among the finest I had ever eaten. A few were blisteringly hot and the rest reasonable mellow. Two of them had a type of peppercorn in them that made your entire mouth go numb. Not from the spicy heat, just simply numb. We ate and sweated and conversed until the last of the food was gone.

From there, we went out into the street market where the wedding planners were selling their service packages from little tents with Beastie Boys music blasting from speakers. An odd combination to be sure. Three teenaged girls stopped us to ask if we would be interested in working as English teachers. We had a few laughs with them and headed back into the crowd. (Click on the pictures to really appreciate the names of the dishes.)




























A Memorable Taxi Ride

Having had a few hours to thaw out, dinner was now on the agenda. We decided on the Paulaner, the Bavarian Brewhaus in the basement of the Kempinski Hotel.

Heading out once again into the icebox, we told the doorman where we were heading and asked for a taxi. He laughed and said “Beer time huh?”

The cab came and we took off, and from the first moments it was clear this was going to be a great one.

Dalian is pretty dark at night and once you get off the main streets, it’s hard to gather where you’re going. This guy clearly had a route in mind and it involved many little side streets. This part of town is a little like downtown San Diego – steep streets crisscrossing the main thoroughfares. Back and forth we went, never taking a single street for more than a block or two. As we approached a red light, it was clear he was going to make a left but didn’t want to stop. So he simply threw the wheel left in advance of the intersection, drove up onto the sidewalk, along it for about 20 yards and then cut across the corner and down onto the other street. By now I had a decent sense of where we were heading and just sat back. We bombed along this street, blowing through intersection after intersection until at the next to last we were almost t-boned by another cab doing the same thing. Our front passenger nearly put both feet through the floorboards jamming on his virtual brakes. The other cab was so close that the whole encounter appeared orchestrated – neither drive slowed a whit or gave any ground. It was so terrifying it was funny.

A Bavarian Brewhaus Brawl

The Paulaner is a nice place, decent beer on tap, German food and a live band fronted by three Filipinas. All the bands in China are from the Philippines and they all have three lead singers. At least all the bands I’ve seen. They do covers of popular songs and little dance routines. On this night, the girls were decked out in shamrock green tanks tops and hot pants with gold chains around their waists.

We ordered and the Tree of Pretzels arrived accompanied by little pots of butter, liverwurst and lard. Yes, I said lard. Working our way through that and the first of the 16” glasses of beer, the music started.

Lionel Richie followed by Kenny G. Expat men danced with their “companions” up on the little floor. One or two middle-aged men were actually dancing in a line without the benefit of partners. A couple more low key numbers and then it became clear something was going on up front.

We had a brawl. A very slow motion, peaceful sort of brawl, but a brawl nonetheless. A chair was picked up but not thrown. Two men struggled in a drunken embrace but no one went down. This went on as the hotel security guys made their way forward. It was pretty comical since no one seemed to be fighting but there was still a fight going on. More security guards and more moments where the battle seemed to be about to pick up, only to slow back down. Finally, the management grabbed the guys and threw them out into the lobby. One of the young women supervisors told us they were reluctant to actually do anything as they combatants were guests of the hotel.

The band came back on and the food arrived. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, the drunks returned and sat down at the table behind us. Now this is pretty odd by most bar fight standards – you’re generally not allowed back in having caused a fracas – but apparently the rules are different here because there they were. And along came the next round of beers. One of them walked by me and gave me two thumbs up salute, for reasons unknown. The two instigators, now clearly drunk beyond reason continued to paw their pals in that way that only a true drunk can do. I figured it was only a matter of time until I got a glass in the back of the head, but it was not to be. The aggressive pair finally wandered off to their impending hangovers and their friends kept partying on. We stayed until we’d finished our 20th or so secondhand cigarette and made our way back outside, our day – ridiculous to sublime and back again – having finally wound down.

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