Sunday, May 31, 2009

Throwing caution to the wind, I ride my bike.

I guess I'm a regular at Starbucks now, the night guy just told me my order before I even opened my mouth. I threw him a curve ball though and ordered a Vente instead of a Grande. It might be time to change the music though because "Autumn in New York" now seems to always be playing when I walk in the door. The tape has moved on to a classic rendition of "Black Coffee", an appropriate tune considering the locale.

My weekend was pretty full, to say the least. I spent the early part of yesterday out on foot scoping out the big park on the far side of the light rail tracks as a potential spot for bike riding. From my place it's hard to see what's in there, although there seemed to be sort of a dirt boundary road that might bear some use given that one of the bikes I brought was rigged for off road riding. I met a friend for coffee and then headed off in the direction of the park entrance. I cut across 5 Colour City and spent some time marveling at how boring and drab it looks in the daytime without the noisy bars, the drunks, the massage girls beckoning me inside and all the neon. I guess red-light districts everywhere take on a different hue in the light of day. I crossed the main road and walked up one of the scooter/bike lanes that run parallel to some of the busier streets. These are common in the bigger cities – Shanghai has an extensive network – and they provide a generally safer means for bike travel. Cars more or less stay out of them because they are slow. Unfortunately, Dalian does not have many, and this one didn't travel very far.

The park entrance looked very shabby and not at all bike worthy since it consisted of a bunch of tall stone stairs leading up into the woods. Three workers carrying rakes dissuaded me from heading up into the forest ahead of them, I could catch a little of what they were saying and I knew it was about me. So rather than continue with that little game I continued on down the road looking for a more official entrance.

Taking a left I found myself at the First Affiliated Hospital of the Dalian Medical University one of the places I visited back in February. It looked about the same today as it did back then, cars all over the sidewalk, people heading in and out. The only difference now was the occasional patient out for a stroll in their blue and white hospital pajamas. One guy, his hand and arm completely bandaged was walking along visiting with his wife.

The park remained off to my left with no clear entrance. At the next intersection I took a left and continued to search. Some large Japanese automotive parts manufacturer of a name new to me was housed in big white and blue buildings on both sides of the street. Mixed in were shabby apartment blocks, apparently housing the workers and their families. The company buildings were finally replaced with more apartment blocks most of which had beauty salons in the ground floor shops. I'd apparently stumbled into the self-improvement district

A half mile or so down the road I finally found a way in – a grand entrance lined with big privet bushes and a couple of giant stone blocks with the name of the place carved on them. There didn't appear to be an entrance fee so I headed in and climbed up the first broad paved road into the trees.

This side was pretty nice, broad lawns and big trees, a little red pagoda up amid the pines. Strollers were taking in the late morning, women walking as always with an umbrella in a quest to remain as pale as possible. Young couples sat among the trees planning the fireworks and giant red arches for their weddings. Old folks looked at me as though I was from Mars. I did a lot of mental note taking as I walked along finally deciding that despite its small size, it had some good, short but steep climbs and a general lack of cars and people. While I doubted I could spend two hours in there, I could certainly do a handful of loops and get a good workout.

Rather than go back the way I came, I headed in the direction of the entrance closest to my apartment and the vibe was just about as bad as it was with the workers I'd left behind earlier. There is something about young men sitting on benches in the woods with that "I'm not doing anything wrong" look on their face that plainly conveys the opposite. I don't know what it is about urban parks, but for some reason they have a way of making people look guilty. Maybe they are, I don't know; I just hurried along the path and took the stairs down to the street level, passing another loud young couple and a lot of trash.

My afternoon was dedicated to unpacking and re-assembling my two bicycles in preparation for the off chance that I would develop the nerve to actually ride one out on the street today. Consistent with my base level of luck, upon pumping up the tires I discovered that I had two flat tires – one per bicycle. Murphy is out to get me it seems between flat tires and lost grocery lists.

Last night I went to dinner at a colleague's house, sort of a get together for the few of us that had remained in town on this long weekend. I'm still glad I made the choice I did about sticking around as I managed to get just about everything squared away, at least those things that make my life easier to live.

My dinner date was at my colleague's apartment, in downtown Dalian by Xinhai Square, the chief tourist spot in Dalian. He and his wife who is from Sichuan Province had taken me out for some authentic food one time back in Shanghai, and I was looking forward to a full meal prepared in her style. Mr. Jiang picked me up for the drive in and we had a nice chat in Chinese about how fat Americans like big cars.

After a misstep at his complex entrance, I found my way in and up to his place. It was very nice; about the size of mine and done in Japanese style furnishings, sort of simple, Asian, modern. Being only on the 4th floor his sea view was sadly restricted and it appeared it was about to be even more doomed judging from the crane that was smack dab in the middle of it. The guests started to arrive and I realized I had not brought a gift which made me feel like a complete clod given that I was raised better than that. The fact that most of them had brought expensive liquors and wines didn't make me feel any better. Point taken, a mistake not to make a second time.

This was the first such gathering where I was in the distinct minority and I have to say it was an interesting feeling being completely unable to follow any of the conversations. We did go back and forth between Chinese and English though and I even managed to educate the crowd on the origin of the name "Sichuan". It translates as "four rivers" and was given because of the four rivers that drain the region, also forming the northern basin of the Yangtze. Everyone got a good laugh at the American giving them a lesson in Chinese geography place names.

I asked the guys who were raised here about the legend behind the boy on the bull statue out in Kai Fa Qu and no one had an idea. The hill is named after it - "Tong Niu" - and I assume it has some legendary explanation. But no one had any idea and I was a bit surprised that no one had ever had the interest to find out

Dinner was served and I was seated at the place of honor in front of a big bowl of Sichuan Chicken, my favorite dish. The chicken is fried and braised to about the consistency of jerky and then served in a big pile of those nasty little red cellophane peppers. To say that it's hot is to diminish it – blistering would be a better description. We had quite a banquet set before us and I made my way through just about every dish. Sichuan green beans served cold, shrimp in some kind of tomato puree, dried cold beef slices, beef in a hot broth steaming with mouth numbing peppercorns, a bowl of goose parts, a Hunan-style duck with its sad little head staring out of the bowl, a big pot of American potato salad which served to return your palate to normalcy between the spicy dishes, saucy Ribbon Fish, some steamed greens, beef boiled in hot pepper oil, Thai glass noodles and the most interesting dish of all, a plate of duck tongues. My friend had been warned by his wife not to seat me by the tongues, but I dug right in and they were quite interesting. About 2 inches long including the muscles that formerly allowed the duck to move it, each tongue held a tiny bone. They looked just like a pale tan version of the Catclaw seed you sometimes find in the desert in Arizona. They were quite tasty in the same way that beef tongue is.

I was sent home with the remnants of my favorite dishes and the promise of a return invitation. I told my hostess that her dishes were my "zui ai", my very favorite, and went on my way. Mr. Jiang picked me up and we had a nice chat on the way home in Chinese about our wives and how they are the bosses and how we earn our money and hand it all over to them.

This morning I dilly-dallied before finally getting up the nerve to take my bike downstairs and ride it. Fitting it in the elevator was the first challenge and avoiding getting hit by a bright red Camaro in my parking lot didn't bode well. But I got across the street and headed down the sidewalk to where I supposed the entrance to the park would be.

The sidewalks here are very broad and are used by cars, scooters, cyclists, trucks and pedestrians interchangeably. No matter how long I stay here, I don't think I will ever get used to cars inching down the walk blowing their horns for the walkers to get out of their way. This morning though I pretty much had the place all to myself. Rounding the corner on Haerbin Road I saw a little street that seemed to run parallel to the way I had just traveled and sure enough, I found a quiet empty path from my building that would allow me to skip the sidewalk ride altogether. At the far end of it, a woman sat on a crate tending to bee hives. It took a moment to settle in, but the whole block was lined with brown bee boxes and two little tents that seemed to be the living quarters for the beekeepers. Very interesting, right here one block off the main drag, behind hotel row. I stopped to take a couple of pictures and watched as sparrows darted in and out of the trees, stealing a bee or two for a morning meal.

Continuing on I found that the park entrance was a bit further down the road than I had anticipated. I had to go out in the street a couple of times to avoid workers who were replacing the bricks that make up the walk. I finally reached the entrance and turned right, heading in. A man in a police uniform sitting at a small wooden desk under an umbrella through me for a moment and I had to make a split second decision about whether to stop or not. In doing so I stopped paying attention to where I was heading and almost skewered myself on one of four yellow pipes sticking out of the road, forming a car barrier. I barely dodged one with my rear wheel but managed to stay upright. The official stared at me like I was nuts but didn't say a word.

The decision to ride in here turned out to be a good one. I looped around and around, taking the little climbs hard and getting my heart rate up there. My pulse was further quickened when I was chased by a scruffy little rat dog that belonged to one of the gardeners. It got me thinking about my stand on not having a rabies vaccination, but only for a moment. I kept the bike between me and it and I had to respect it for its tenacity – it wouldn't shut up until I was a long way down the path.

On one of my loops I made it a point to say "hello" to the official and he returned my greeting in kind.

I managed to kill a solid forty minutes in there before heading out. I retraced my path from yesterday, riding by the hospital where ironically I didn't feel terribly safe in the traffic. Too many visitors looking for parking spots and too many taxis picking people up. After exploring the parallel bike lane to its end I headed back to my building, an hour under my belt. Which didn't seem like long enough so I headed off in the other direction towards the sea. I rode by the neighborhood where quite a few of my work pals live and made a couple of loops around a new park that is down by their place. Two groups of elementary school students were being shuffled around by their minders. The boys were dressed in blue polo shirts and white shorts, the girls in pink shifts with matching hats. Circling the park I found my way out to a big pond that held a couple of sea gulls. I wondered if there would be ducks in the winter, but the water was so brown and smelled so bad that I doubt it. A Peregrine Falcon though was lazily turning circles in front of a high rise suggesting that it might be nesting up on top. I left the park and followed the road past the Karaoke restaurant with the giant goddess and cherubs on the front, stopping to take a couple of pictures.

I followed the same road for a while passing a school yard filled with middle school kids dressed in red and white uniforms. They were so noisy that they reminded me of the sound of the flocks of geese at Bosque del Apache in the winter. Some were running on the track and dozens were jumping rope

I was closing in on two hours and felt I had had a darn enjoyable outing. I took a quiet side street back and arrived unscathed. The chief learning here is that you simply have to pay attention all the time. The cars are not terribly respectful of you and you have to watch out not only for what they are about to do but also how they are going to react to what other cars are doing. Chinese drivers are always looking for an advantage, so you have to be on guard that their attempt to advance their position in not at your expense.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

My domicile

The name of the building I live in is Jun Yue Hao Ting - something, something, imperial mansion. It's neither of those last two things. As buildings go in Kai Fa Qu, it's pretty nice but "mansion" is not a word I would use to describe it.

Apartment living here is a bit different than it is over there. First of all, they're all owned by individuals, more of a co-op than a true apartment. Secondly, the builders tend to move a bunch of people in long before the building is complete in order to generate some cash flow to pay for the finishing touches. So while we're living here, the management office consists of two card tables, a phone and three folding chairs in a roughed in room the size of a dirigible hanger. I suppose someday it will be quite impressive, today it's quite unfinished.

We do have a doorman, some of the time and when he's on duty he often has the security door propped open with a chair so that he can go outside and supervise the guys finishing the rest of the building. At night though the door is generally locked and he is nowhere to be seen. There are two elevators on my side of the place, really really slow and generally kind of dirty. The other day the walls were covered with the handprints of someone who had been doing drywall work. This morning the floor was wet from who knows what. And then there's the magic formula of pushing button number 24 to go to the 24th floor but watching the numbers go by until it says "27" when you arrive.

My floor has 4 doors and I assume there are 4 families living up here. I've never seen them and it's not uncommon for out of state people to who units that they never live in. I have heard people rustling around on occasion.

Trash is an interesting challenge as there doesn't seem to be an organized way of collecting it. Maria my consultant told me to leave it in the stairwell and I tested that theory 8 days ago. It's still there. One of the ghost families put some cardboard boxes outside their door and they remained there for 2 days until finally disappearing. So right now I am testing that theory with some cardboard of my own. It's been 3 days. Wet garbage is easy - everyone just dumps it on a pile outside the front door and it disappears the same day

This is my building as seen from the park across the street. My unit is smack in the middle column, four floors from the top.

If you look up the center line until you see the one and only box hanging on the wall, that's my place and that's one of my air conditioners.

This is my Poang chair from IKEA. Sitting here in the bay window I can enjoy the view of the city and the ocean.

Living room seen from the Poang chair. Dining room beyond with Guanyin meditating on the table.

The other side of the living room with my giant television. It's tuned to BBC News just about all the time.

Shot across the dining room table to the kitchen. Beyond is the glassed in room that overlooks Jin Ma Lu, the street out front.

Didn't want you to miss an opportunity to see the giant air conditioner that provides a nice Feng Shui balance for the tiny refrigerator.

Detail of the scroll painting. Two Magpie Jays with Full Moon and Springtime Blossoms.

Guest bedroom, sign up for your stay now, the list is filling fast. Yes, the duvet is a bit small. The landlord did not understand the concept of buying up a size and chose the appropriate cover for the precise matress size. And yes, the mattress is as thin as it looks, but oddly comfortable.

Other side of the guest bedroom. Although this is a moderately large apartment, the furniture is even larger. There are no closets so you need an armoire. And they're not small.

Master bedroom from the doorway. That quilt is tough on the brain, with diagonally arrayed pockets it's hard to tell if it's straight when you make the bed.
Other direction showing giant armoire and techno desk lamp.

My attempt at peace and harmony. Vase alone with simple table in small white space.

Another shot of the kitchen. That toaster oven on the left is something, it uses lamps instead of coils and you have to use special sunglasses when using it.

Glassed in porch/laundry room annex. No room for a dryer anywhere else, so here it is. About the size of a large microwave, it works surprisingly well. The hangers you see are hanging from the clothesline system that is raised and lowered via a crank behind the dryer.

Second bathroom. Note the shower that has no enclosure whatsoever. Very common here, sometimes the shower heads are in the middle of the room.

The big brother of my Kerren Hotel washer. This one's a beast and it does a good job. Here's the door closed shot.

And here's the door open shot. I used it today for the first time and honestly I figured it out despite the labels being solely in Chinese.

View from the living room window. That temple appears to no longer be in use.

Living room window view Part 2, looking towards Dalian city which is obscured by "marine fog."

Another living room view. Those towers on the right side are beachfront.

View to the northeast towards Korea, I expect this is where the missiles will come from.

Closeup of the bridge they are building between Kai Fa Qu and Dalian city, supposed to take some of the traffic load off of the current connection and I'm sure it will until they add a million or so new cars.

View of the flying saucer from my bedroom window. They are preparing it for a mission to Mars.

Big beachfront restaurant, straight out my back window.

View of the Inn Fine Hotel, my former residence of last week from the guest bedroom. Those mountains in the background are the ones we climbed on Dragon Boat Festival Thursday.

Also from the guest bedroom towards Five Colour City which is tucked down between the tall buildings.

The Victoria Hotel at night, never ending neon lightshow, the tubes run until quite late, red - green - blue - white.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Once in a while, things actually work out

It only takes one little thing to dissolve you into a puddle of despair in this place. Every day seems to be made up of a series of sharp highs and blunt lows and not much regular life stability in between which makes it hard to manage your time and plan your activities when you never know what’s just around the corner. Of course this is true of life no matter where you live, but here because it’s so alien, the little things just seem to be more crisply in focus and capable of knocking you down right quick.

I was thinking about my eating habits at work today and recalled a time when I was not a bad practitioner of Chinese cuisine. I had this big thick cookbook, the right tools and a full set of ingredients on hand, procured on weekends at the local Asian market. Cooking Chinese is really not that tough and it doesn’t have to come out perfect to be good enough. I’d created many a meal in the past that was at least minimally worthy of the worst Chinese restaurant I’d been to. And some were even worthy of the better ones. But it’s been a while and the skill has certainly atrophied to the point where I’ve lost the understanding of the most basics. Every cuisine has them, French has cream, Italian has tomatoes and New Mexican has chiles. Mongolian I suppose has fermented mare’s milk, but that’s a story for another time. Working with those you can generally whip up something you would not be ashamed to feed a visiting Fireman. So I went off to the web to conjure up a few recipes to see just how hard it would be to get rolling again, after all I am in China and the fixings don’t require anything but a stroll to the market down the block. Frankly, there is no reason for me to be eating peanut and jelly sandwiches 5 nights a week (aside from the fact that they taste really good.)

A little bit of research and the understanding slowly crept back into my head – sugar, cornstarch, vinegar and rice wine – the cornerstones of just about every dish from this side of the International Dateline. All fine and good, but these items were not going to jump off the shelves into my basket - finding them in a store full of Chinese labels was going to take a bit of work and so I put myself to the task of making a shopping list, written in Chinese characters. What could go wrong, head to the store and wander around with a piece of paper in front of my face until you see bottles and bags with the same characters. A foolproof plan if there ever was one.

Sugar and vinegar were easy, single words and common at that. Rice wine was a bit tougher, but two co-workers helped me with that one. Cornstarch was another story and the discussion of its proper name provoked an argument between my helpers. Seems they might not call it the same thing here that they call it in Shanghai. Or Sichuan or Hunan for that matter. So I took both suggestions and wrote them down.

I had a plan, I had the means and most importantly, I had the motivation.

Mr. Jiang collected me at four and I spent the time on the ride home making plans for him to pick me up on Saturday for a dinner date in Dalian with some co-workers. I’m really getting into the swing of communicating with him and I’ll admit that it feels darn good when I formulate a complex sentence in Chinese and he tells me it’s correct. Today he also told me that he likes to work on Saturdays because he enjoys the overtime, dropping the hint that Sunday was not bad either.

After dropping off my stuff I shoved a couple of empty shopping bags in my messenger bag, grabbed my shopping list and headed down the street to the new Tesco market. I have to say, this newly opened store has really cheered me up on my shopping trips, it being clean and bright. Far better than the other two I’ve been using.

Now that the weather is nice, the sidewalks are jammed with street vendors selling fruit, ceramic Santa Claus butter dishes, ocean going container ship models built from plastic pop beads, women’s knee high stockings, Hawaiian print short shorts and today’s special, travel sized packs of Kleenex. The one food item that caught my eye was some sort of dough based treat that looked a lot like the cinnamon crispers you find at fairs in the Southwest. Kind of a pale brown ribbon. Well here the ribbon was being dispensed from a dough press and the operator was taking up the output and folding it into small piles. The interesting part though was the means by which the thing was running – a small diesel engine belching oily gray smoke through an exhaust pipe over the dough ribbon output. These kinds of distractions make navigation kind of tough, but the booming disco beat coming from the stores helps to keep you focused and moving forward.

I crossed the street and stopped to tie my shoe at the store entrance. Once done I reached in my back pocket to get my shopping list and discovered that it was gone. I mean really, how does a piece of standard sized letter paper folded in fourths fall out of your pocket on a 2 block walk? It was just another one of those little coral reefs thrown in front of my ship of progress and I was instantly depressed and angry at the same time. I had no means to go home and print a new one, I had no chance of finding the stuff without it and so my only option was to turn around and head back home, my spirit dashed once again. As I crossed the street I decided at least to watch the ground on the off chance I might stumble upon it, but I didn’t have much hope.

I paid particular attention at a couple of spots where I’d done some gymnastics to avoid an obstruction or where I had accidentally ended up on the seller side of the carpet which required a leap, but nothing was there. I kept on going with each white scrap of similar size giving me a moment’s hope.

Halfway back to my apartment, I saw a piece of paper up ahead that had some writing on it and nearing it I also saw that it had a size six hiking boot tread on it as well, but wonder of wonders it was my list. I turned around and headed back – I was in business once again.

Grocery stores in China are generally in the basements of buildings, don’t ask me why. The new Tesco though seems to occupy an interstitial space and it’s hard to find your way in without simultaneously going up and down escalators to get there. I made it a point of going in the way I’d last gone out on my last visit but somehow I ended up at a dead end requiring a ride up to another floor. It’s worth noting right now that when I subsequently left I walked right out where I came in, on the same level. I’ll figure out how they’ve managed to bend time and space some other time.

I made my way into the main entrance, grabbing a hand basket and willfully ignoring the young women who are supposed to seize my messenger bag in order to dissuade me from shoplifting. They take away your handbag, man-purse or backpack and seal it in a big blue canvas affair with one of those non-goes we use in the states to protect Banana Republic underwear. I walk past them all the time and they watch my progress hoping I’ll comply but way to daunted to yell at me.

In addition to shopping for my target items, I decided to take my time and really peruse the offerings, something I never do because shopping here puts me in a frenzy and my survival mechanism is to get in and get out as quickly as possible. But today, why not, it’s not like I have anywhere to go. An aisle dedicated to myriad Oreo based products brought to mind a show we’d watched some time back on MSNBC about the profusion of Oreo items over here, each designed to capture the interest of the Chinese consumer and to keep them buying. Here, you don’t find regular old round Oreos, you find Oreo bars, wafer cookies, sticks tubes and cudgels. I tossed a box of chocolate covered Oreo wafers into my basket. I found Chinese Ritz Crackers and the Lay’s version of Pringles, selecting Traditional and Lime flavored.

Eventually I found my way to the Aisle of All Things Bottled and using my little character list I immediately found two types of vinegar. Hot on the heels of that success I added a bottle of Sesame Oil. Rice Wine though was eluding me and I’d not yet attempted cornstarch so I wandered around until I found a couple of young women in need of an assignment and I showed them my list. Cornstarch – forget it – this store doesn’t have it. Expressing skepticism in my best Chinese, they took me over to another girl, the expert in grains and nuts. She looked at the characters and said “No.” I pointed to the second set of characters, the other name suggested by my No. 2 Work Helper, which was printed right by the first one and she said “Yes”, shuffling me off to a pile of zip lock bags full of the stuff. Sugar was easy and all that remained was Rice Wine which a fourth young woman obligingly led me to. My plan had worked, the goods were mine, and I checked out and was on my way.

Completely unrelated to this story, I wanted to add a couple of photos I took the other day following our hike up Da Hei Shan. The cab dropped us off by our favorite western restaurant – The Real Eddie’s – and we hoofed it down the alley to his place, a Philly Cheesesteak in mind. Walking along the backs of other restaurants we passed these two young women, waitresses about to go on shift, out back washing their feet and giving themselves pedicures in tubs of dishwater. I tried real hard to think about how the local restaurant reviewer in Albuquerque would handle such a thing and couldn’t come up with anything. Offended or amused, I’m not sure. Here though it was just another one of those funny little things you come across when you least expect it which is honestly, all the time.

Cong di dao shan tou - from the bottom to the top of the mountain

We had a work holiday today and it being a Thursday many people turned it into a 4 day outing. I went back and forth a couple of times about going “somewhere” before deciding that I had so much house stuff to do that it might be better to just find a way to enjoy the day without getting on a plane to an exotic locale. After all, I still had a pile of IKEA stuff to assemble, new kitchen ware to clean and put away as well as a load of laundry. The latter meant it was time to understand the washer and dryer. So staying in town was the decision.

But that didn’t mean that I had to turn myself into a domestic worker for a day, there were still places to be explored and what better day to do them. I settled on another trip to Da Hei Shan (Big Black Mountain) and enlisted a friend in the excursion.

Recall from one of my February blogs, I’d been there before in late afternoon when climbing the mountain was pretty much out of the question due to the waning light. On the way down I’d had that depressing experience of seeing those boys with the puppy, so I thought I’d try today to put a better spin on the place.

The day began with a thick chemical fog obscuring the sun and making it a bit on the cooler side. These morning hazes leave the sky a rather unappealing pale saffron color, but they do buy you a couple of hours of respite from the tropical heat. Although it’s just the end of May, it’s already turning into the seaside bamboo steamer that we know and love from the summer months.

Today’s holiday is The Dragon Boat Festival - 端午节 字面意思是龙舟节 - also called Double Fifth Festival, is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth moon of the lunar calendar. It is one of the most important Chinese festivals, following only the Autumn Moon Festival and Chinese New Year.

The origin of this summer festival centers around a scholarly government official named Chu Yuan. He was a good and respected man, but because of the misdeeds of jealous rivals he eventually fell into disfavor in the emperor's court.

Unable to regain the respect of the emperor, Chuan threw himself into the Mi Low River. Because of their admiration for Chu Yuan, the local people living adjacent to the river rushed into their boats to search for him while throwing rice into the waters to appease the river dragons. Although they were unable to find Chu Yuan, their efforts are still commemorated today during the Dragon Boat Festival.

At the center of the modern festival are the dragon boat races. Competing teams drive their colorful craft forward to the rhythm of beating drums. These exciting races were inspired by the villager's valiant attempts to rescue Chu Yuan from the Mi Lo. This tradition has remained unbroken for centuries although up here in the north, the holiday is little more than a day off of work for most of us and triple time for my pals at the coffee shop.

A very popular dish during the Dragon Boat festival is zong zi. This tasty dish consists of rice dumplings with meat, peanut, egg yolk, or other fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves. The tradition of zong zi is meant to remind us of the village fishermen scattering rice across the water of the Mi Lo in order to appease the river dragons so that they would not devour Chu Yuan.

The fifth lunar moon has more significance than just the story of Chu Yuan, many Chinese consider this time of year especially dangerous when extra efforts must be made to protect their family from illness. Families will hang various herbs, called Ay Tsao on their door for protection. The drinking of Realgar Wine is thought to remove poisons from the body. (Realgar by the way is a Chinese herbal mixture and it is added to flavor rice wine to create the festival concoction.) Hsiang Bao are also worn; these sachets contain various fragrant medicinal herbs thought to protect the wearer from illness.

I made a plan to meet my companion at Starbucks – where else – and to be on the road by about 9 or 9:30. It’s a walk of about 3 miles to the base of the mountain, mostly uphill and through the industrial districts that form the border zone between here and the next city over, Jinzhou. It’s not particularly appealing and it can take the legs out of you which is something to avoid considering that you’re about to climb a mountain. So rather than waste a bunch of energy, we decided to catch a cab to the lot at the base and to walk up from there. Faced with the prospect of trying to tell a cabbie where to go, I began the mental practice of giving him the name I knew, and that failing, telling him how to get there turn by turn. As it ended up, “Da Hei Shan” worked perfectly well and we were there in 15 minutes, only 14 kuai lighter for the ride. Arriving at the parking lot it was clear immediately why the driver knew what I was talking about – the place was mobbed with people planning to do the same festival day hike.

I paid the 20 kuai admission fee, collected our tickets and we were on our way. The stares began almost immediately, this being another one of those places that westerners simply don’t frequent. There is a new temple under construction just above the parking lot so we wandered in. The statues here were different than those I’ve seen in the past and I am wondering if this is one of those synthesized religious sites that counter the pure Buddhist presence in China. The most popular religion here in the north is an amalgam of Buddhism, Confucianism and the country-based Animist traditions. The few monks wandering around in the temple halls wore white pants and short black jackets with those traditional Asian button and loop fasteners. They also wore caps that brought to mind those worn by the holy men at the Shinto temples in Japan which got me to thinking that they might be throwing in that here as well. There is still quite a strong Japanese influence here in the north, and I suspect we were seeing some of that here.

You ascend the mountain via a narrow and deep valley in the rock. Between the vegetation and the landforms, you could easily be dropped here and think that you were in either Sabino or Nacapule Canyons back home. Short Live Oaks, or the Chinese equivalent, dominated the flora. Birds sang in the trees but there was no watching them from here. You see, Da Hei Shan has a dark secret – you climb it via hundreds of narrow stone stairs built for size 6 shoes, not big boys with size 10+ sporting lugged soles. No, you didn’t look around, you watched your feet or you end up on your face.

We passed a lot of Chinese tucked into little shady glens having a picnic or simply resting from the climb. While it was arduous, it was tempered by a nice breeze and a lot of shade. We climbed for 20 minutes or so, passing little faux pagodas by the side of the path and answering a constant barrage of “hello”, “how are you” and “nice to meet you” offered by the people we were passing. To listen to the English greetings, you might get the impression that these are the only things they pick up in English class. I always respond in English and follow up with Chinese that invariably gets them laughing.

We stopped for a family taking pictures of their little daughter and were invited to get in it. I swear my visage appears in more Chinese scrap books than I care to mention. The parents are always so grateful though and I always oblige.
Along the path some enterprising people had set up stands offering sausages, candy, ice cream and drinks – comfort food to take the sting out of the death climb ahead. It amazed me that people would lug this stuff up here merely to sell it to hikers, but such is their enterprising nature.

We hit tree line after a half hour of walking and the path changed along with the vegetation – it now went more or less straight up adding a second level of treachery. Now people started to fall behind as the going was very tough. A girl plopped down in the middle of a stair and began to exclaim, “Oh my God, Oh my God” over and over. This might not have seemed extraordinary aside from the fact that she appeared to be about 4. I had sincere doubts that she had any idea what she was saying, and our presence probably brought out the English that she must have picked up watching a western movie. Perhaps the heroine in some film, under some kind of duress had used the phrase and this munchkin had internalized it, finally finding what seemed to be an appropriate moment to give it a try. The climb was bad, but hardly “God” worthy. We got a good laugh out of it.

Midway up we came to another temple, this one quite fancy and a little more Buddhist in its representation. A guard was checking tickets at the entrance which set me to scrambling to find mine, and making me wonder how anyone could have gotten here without one. Some backcountry trail perhaps. There were four buildings around a center square and the incense smoke was thick and sweet. I went to each temple and visited with each Buddha. Off the side of the main plaza was a large Buddha done in white marble with a giant yellow cape draped around his shoulders. Surrounding him back the trees were smaller stone carvings of various monks, each sporting his own bright yellow cape. Very similar to the Hill of 100 Monks I visited back in November, only the clothing on these statues was fresh and the colors were vibrant, not sun-bleached and tattered like those at the other site.

Behind this statue was a large cubic building topped with a large golden Guanyin, looking out over the valley. We wandered off into the woods and found yet another small shrine containing three of the less strictly Buddhist statues. Two small plates had been left as offerings, one with leeks and the other with two eggs.
Finding the path out of the temple compound, we had our tickets checked again and then up and up we went, eventually reaching a switchback that housed a tiny shrine. A man stood in the shade selling red ribbons to tie to the tree – another prayer offered to a local deity. A cute little girl in a miniature prom dress climbed up on the shrine and stood there hamming it up for her adoring family.

At a small platform at the next switchback a young man tried to compel his Chow to keep walking. The poor thing’s breathing sounded like a death rattle and it was clear that it didn’t want to go on. With each pull on the leash, the dog settled further down into the sand colored dirt.

Some person with a sense of humor had at some infrequent interval scratched the number of stairs onto a rock by the side of the path – we stood at 600 and we had plenty to go.

After one last vertical set, we reached an opening and wandered along a road through the trees which led to a parking lot – looks like one can drive up here from the other side. There were quite a few more vendors up here; one even had pints of Vodka if you needed a hot afternoon buzz. And it was now hot, the shade having been left below. Off to one side was the road down, to the other a broad paved boulevard to a monument – the Reviewing of the Army Platform. I’d read about it - sometime in the deep recesses of time some local warlord had stood here to watch his army march through the narrow defile below. They met the enemy and were hacked to pieces. This big temple-like structure commemorated that event.

It was a nice change to walk along the flat saddle here at the top. Up a few stairs we found some marble statues of soldiers and horses and following the lead of the locals, we climbed up and had our pictures taken.

The view was incredible – the ocean in both directions, Kai Fa Qu, Dalian and Jinzhou spread out below. It would have been really nice had the smog not almost completely obscured the detail. Off in the distance was a steady barrage of fireworks, this being a big wedding day smack at the beginning of the big wedding season. In fact I had passed the fixings for one on my walk to Starbucks that put last Saturday’s event to shame. Twenty or more fireworks cannons, three giant red arches, more than 30 flower displays and uniformed guards shuffling the pedestrians on their way. The sounds of fireworks that would normally send an American running for a better view are completely ignored here – they are just so common.
The temple at the top of the stone platform was clearly Japanese – the decorations, carvings and paint choices were virtually identical to a couple I had seen last year in Kyoto. This place served to remind me of the history of the region and the parallel development paths between the two cultures, a shared experience that ended most violently in the 1930’s.

Heading down from the platform, we had to make a decision from a couple of choices – back down the way we came, up the next set of stairs to the summit or down the back side of the mountain on a nice, paved road. We chose number two, having not yet had our fill of climbing.

At the highest point, there are some cell phone or communications towers, listening posts I’ve been told. From our vantage point we could see another set of stairs heading up and they didn’t appear to be nearly as steep as the last set so off we went in search of the base. The initial climb on the road was tough – it was steep and getting hot. We stopped for a break at an overlook that had a nice breeze and enjoyed the view. A steady stream of Chinese offered more “hellos” as they passed, heading in both directions. Aaron stretched out and I sat watching the people. I glanced off to my right and caught a young woman who had been sitting next to me on the low wall now standing across the road taking our picture with her cell phone. She saw me seeing her and turned face and scurried off laughing. I asked her if she was taking my picture and her friend began to giggle uncontrollably, confirming my suspicion.

Having recovered 20% of our strength we started off again up the road to the stairs and reaching the base we realized a miscalculation – we’d made a bad turn somewhere and these were not the gentle stairs hugging the hillside. These were stairs that came out of a ladder factory but not daunted, we forged ahead, leaving poorly prepared Chinese in our wake. I will mention here that the Chinese do not prepare well for these kinds of outings. Most are carrying some sort of big snack like a loaf of bread along with a couple of Cokes in a plastic shopping bag. The women wear high heels and the men wear bedroom slippers with the heels tucked under their feet. None of them are wearing clothes for the effort; the women use umbrellas to keep cool and the men roll their shirts up to their arm pits.

This part of the climb was so bad that I simply concentrated on my breathing and on not falling backwards. The falling part was not made any easier by the fact that people in various states of cardiac arrest were stopping in the small pools of shade offered by the few trees that were near the stairs. This further restricted an already narrow path and caused a conflict between those of us heading up and the smart people heading down.

After a couple of short stops to gasp some air, we made it to the top. What greeted us there was more people wanting to take our picture, a couple of aborted conversations in Chinese and an interesting lesson in caste. An old man was wandering about collecting plastic water bottles – there were droves – and the guy next to me had an empty. Rather than hand it to the collector, he threw it on the ground at his feet forcing the old guy to bend over to pick it up which he did, but not without giving the guy a knowing look.

A group of four twenty something’s took turns taking pictures of themselves standing on a rock behind us and we finally snapped to what they were doing and invited them to sit between us and have another round taken.

It was time to head down and the stairs were far more enjoyable with the advantage of gravity as our friend. You couldn’t go fast, but at least you weren’t pulling yourself up with the non-existent handrail.

At the crossroads we made a decision – instead of going back down the way we came, we’d head down the nice road and come out at the other entrance to the park. From there it was a short hike on another nice flat road to the place where the taxi had dropped us off 3 hours earlier. This turned out to be a good plan marred by another miscalculation – the road was really, really steep and to get down we had to get in this shin-burning lope. I admired the switchbacks which had to be a 20% grade and thought about what an interesting challenge it would be to ride a bike up those corners. Taxis from the top and the bottom raced by blowing their horns constantly in hopes of clearing the pesky pedestrians off the road; for being a park, it was pretty chaotic. A family drove by in an SUV and a young woman in the front seat snapped pictures of us as they passed. Just a couple of Americans in their natural environment here in Safari Land Park.

Eventually we hit the bottom and wandered back towards our beginning spot through a tiny village. It looked as though most of the houses along the road were also converted into temporary restaurants, serving the visitors to the area. The women doing the cooking and cleaning were dumping the dirty water out of the windows into a gray water stream that ran along the edge of the road. The weeds seemed to appreciate the irrigation effort. Cordwood stood stacked at road in front of each tiny house, and dog was engrossed with something down a lane between two rows of homes. We passed an attractive temple but decided to save it for another time – we were done at this point.

It turned out to be a mile or so walk back to the start and we lucked out immediately – a taxi came up and I hailed it. Telling him where to take us was a bit more challenging but I got through and we were on our way. Halfway down he told me the meter would not be observed, rather we were going home for a fixed rate of twice what we’d paid on the way up. Well, it was probably a situation of him not wanting to go into town, as the money to be made was with the short trips up and down the hill. And it was almost certainly a case of him knowing he had us but for the price of an extra $2, it wasn’t worth the argument. As he dropped us off back in town I pointed to the meter and observed that it said 14 kuai. He looked at me with a stone cold stare and said “30.” I handed him a 20 and a 10 and got out, saying “goodbye” as I left.