Sunday, November 28, 2010

One last late afternoon in Beijing, for the second or third time.

I arrived in Beijing early afternoon and it was pushing 3PM by the time I made it to the hotel. This was more than likely my last visit and there was one more thing I wanted to do. A tower stands on the far northeastern corner of the Forbidden City, overlooking the moat and I’d seen pictures of that spot which always struck me as pure China – mist on the water, a long stand of willows, the carmine paint and intricate roof of the imperial building. I’ve been to that spot many times before but always under a blazing afternoon sun. And while the pictures I’d seen were almost certainly taken at dawn, I figured the early winter dusk would do just fine. So I grabbed the subway and headed to Tiananmen Square.

It was Sunday and so the area around the imperial palace was heavy with tourists. And this of course meant the sharks that prey on them were out in numbers too. I wasn’t ten feet out of the station when the first one hit – “Hello, where are you from? I am an art student; would you like to accompany me to our show?” I told her in Chinese that I was from Sichuan. She huffed and turned away. I had two choices to get to the spot where I wanted to take the picture – pay 100 kuai and walk through the Forbidden City (again) or head out and walk around it. I chose the latter because first there was no point in going through again and second because I’d not been down that long street. I took a right and made my way along the south wall.

As I turned left two young men fell into my stride and struck up a conversation. “Hello, where are you from?” I knew this was yet another case of starving art students so I fell into my typical routine in Chinese. “I’m from the northeast, I’m not an American, I’m Chinese, and I’m visiting from Sichuan.” This guy took the bait for a change and carried on a conversation for a block or two. He knew I was kidding but he was having fun with it, probably a break from his normal routine of ripping off gullible tourists. Finally though he’d had enough of my subterfuge and looked at me and said “You are very difficult!” As we approached the gallery that was paying him to bring in customers he invited me in and I politely declined saying, “Zaijian.”

It turned out to be a longer walk than I expected, don’t they always? But I arrived there just as the sun was falling below the north wall. All the elements were there plus the unexpected benefit of a skim of ice on the moat, it being the end of November and all. I took many shots but the one thing that seemed to ruin each one was the pontoon boat parked in a boat shed on the west side of the water. A glaring touch of modernity in an otherwise timeless setting. I wonder now if those paid photographers before me simply edited out that annoying detail. Satisfied that I had tried my best I headed west to the opposite corner for another try. There were a lot of Chinese here with fancy cameras and lenses, apparently angling for the same thing. I took a few more pictures and decided that since I was here it might be nice to just head south and circumambulate the whole complex.

There is something special about early winter nights in Beijing. You feel like you might be walking through time. The wall here crowded the sidewalk and it was easy to get a feeling for how imposing and isolated the life of the emperor and his court must have been. To my left an unending stretch of red painted stone capped with green tile, broken once in a while by a fancy gate. To my right, the endless stretch of the hutong, home to the common people who served the needs of the court. All of that disappeared a hundred years ago only to be replaced by the bleak early years of Communism and then the Cultural Revolution. Today we have a vibrant city where it’s common to see a donkey cart tied up next to a Bentley. But on this chilly winter’s eve, the ghosts of the past held sway as I walked along.

It was dark by the time I hit Tiananmen Square and rather than taking the closest subway station I decided to walk back to the eastern side and so complete the big circle. The square was cordoned off and there were a lot of policemen milling around. I wanted to take some pictures of the lights on the government buildings but it would have meant a long roundabout walk as the shortcut diagonally across the square was blocked. I wondered why it was closed off, and later discovered that this weekend had been the beginning of the unrest in the Middle East. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing one led to the other. My plan stymied, I chose instead to stop one more time in front of the main gate and get a nighttime shot.

I spent my last night in China where I had spent so many before – sitting in the Renaissance lounge staring out the window at the bustle below. There was a lot for me to consider – my job in China was over and come early January my career would be over entirely. I thought about all the people at this hotel whom had made my time here so pleasant with cheerful greetings and personal service. I wondered if they would miss me as I had become such a figure during the course of this year. Doubtful I imagine, they see hundreds of people each month and I suppose that they’re doing nothing more than their jobs. But it was nice to feel known, especially in a country where as a westerner you often feel invisible. I thought about how intimate I’d become with Beijing over the course of my time here and how much I would miss it. It’s a wonderful thing to know a city well and to feel comfortable wandering its streets. But overall I sat there considering the end of this phase and the beginning of the next – whatever that might be. I don’t think I had any idea when I boarded that first flight to China back in 2006 that I would end up here feeling this way. Of course, I couldn’t have because I had no idea that such a life existed. I was glad to have tasted it and in many ways sorry to see it end. But not so sorry that I would trade what I was looking forward to. The next phase promised to be even better.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Day Three in Chengdu - Pandas and Pop Songs

While Sichuan has untold historic and cultural treasures, there is one stop that is a must for every visitor. You cannot fully appreciate the nature of this region until you make a trip to see the Giant Pandas. While China is a country that evokes dozens of images – The Forbidden City, red lanterns, ornate opera costumes, Terracotta Warriors – I can’t think of anything more iconic than those big black and white fur balls. And on this my last day in Chengdu and on perhaps my final trip to Sichuan, the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Base was the obvious way to spend the morning.

The word “base” evokes anything but an animal farm in English. I hear it and I think “military” as I imagine most people do. That or baseball. When my friend Ben used it as the descriptor I figured it was a subtlety of translation. But no, that is the name for whatever reason they chose it. We left my hotel after breakfast and headed across town. The weather was once again completely overcast, the little bit of sun we’d seen the day before had failed in its attempt to burn through whatever makes Chengdu skies so gray. Traffic was heavy and I was glad we were going to the closer of the two centers. One site is far out of town in the foothills and I imagine much harder to locate. Of course “find” is a relative term in China unless your destination is a tall building clearly visible for miles around. This place was said to be adjacent to a major highway on the far side of town so we thought it would be a straight shot. Plus we had Ben’s wife’s cousin along and she’d been there at least once. Well, it’s always good to have an informed member in your party because in China they are very useful for getting out of the car to ask questions.

It had been very slow going due to a combination of traffic and construction when we took what we thought to be the correct exit. We found ourselves in the middle of the biggest wholesale fruit market in Chengdu which although not our destination, was pretty interesting in its own right. Hundreds of trucks were pulling into endless rows of long corrugated steel buildings to unload their goods. The area seemed to be arranged by type of fruit, individual warehouses for apples, oranges, pears and all those other fruits known only to the Chinese. While Ben and the cousin were trying to figure out where we were, I was staring out the window wishing I could stop and buy a basket of tangerines. Individual vendors riding special three-wheeled bicycles with a big wooden platform on the front were lined up shoulder to shoulder along the curb, each bike holding a bright pyramid of fruit. I almost asked if we could stop when I went past a pile of the biggest Satsuma oranges I have ever seen but we were on a mission and so I simply enjoyed the view. When the road ran out we stopped to ask directions from a couple of fruit truck drivers. It seemed that we had done nothing worse than having taken an exit too soon. After a U-turn and a second pass by all the beautiful citrus, we were back on our way.

I’ve been to a number of zoos in China and they have varied from horribly pathetic to almost acceptable. The start of this place was not auspicious – a weedy shabby parking lot followed by a long walk down a lane along a concrete wall that was painted with now faded and chipped cartoonish depictions of Pandas. After the customary argument about who was going to pay (the cousin won) we went inside. Some people were selling panda hats and scarves on the island in the middle of the road outside the front gate.

Once inside, my worry that the place would turn out to be a dump was washed away – the grounds were beautiful. Pin neat paved paths led off from a main street into damp bamboo forests, a simulation of how these wonderful animals live in their natural habitat. The weather was cooperating in the artifice too – a faint mist had descended on us. For a moment you could almost believe you were high up in the forested foothills of the Himalayas. After a review of a decent display map we chose to head off in the direction of the juveniles and we hit the jackpot at the first enclosure we came to – a pair of big brutes passed out on a log platform while one of their pals was spread out on its back below, gorging on bamboo shoots. In a place like this you take a lot of photos of the first animals you see because you have no idea how many you’ll find down the road. As I stood there taking shot after shot a young woman tapped me on the arm and said, “excuse me” and asked,” aren’t you the person who sat across from us at the mushroom hot pot restaurant last night?” I turned around and sure enough it was the family we’d been discussing over dinner (see last blog, western woman, Chinese man and two daughters.) I laughed and said “yes” and she replied “I guess you love the Pandas as much as we do.” I agreed and they walked away smiling.

We went on to the nursery where we found a big male sitting outside no more than 10 feet away. More pictures and then inside to see actual babies – 8 or more cocker spaniel sized cubs rolling around in a human baby playpen. I tried to swap lenses on my camera but a guard cautioned me that pictures were not allowed. Ben asked why and the answer was “flash” but he was not budging even when I assured him that I did not have one. I was sorry that I could only save this moment in memory because they were so cute and special.

There was a sign out front that listed the quantity of animals on display. The total for our visit was 53 so Ben and I started to keep count as we wandered around for the next few hours. I’ve seen Pandas at our National Zoo and the zoos in San Diego and Beijing. Seeing a pair of them is special and I though seeing six of them in the capital city was extraordinary. But as our count approached 40, I began to be embarrassed by the wealth. The park was essentially empty, deserted by Chinese standards, and the animals were so close and accessible. Sometimes they were eating; sometimes they were stretched out asleep on a concrete pad or hanging in a tree. It seemed that you couldn’t look anywhere without seeing a Panda. The coup de grace though came at the farthest reaches of the park – 10 adolescents lounging around in a big treed pen waiting for the caretakers to throw them lunch. They sat together in little knots eating and visiting in whatever language they speak. It was incredible to stand there so close and be ignored by them. In the end our count came close to 50, a thorough job of seeing all of them.

Pandas down, it was off to lunch at a place called The Bookworm, a bookstore cum coffee shop cum restaurant. It was this kind of place that always made me question my burning desire to put China behind me. Ben and I sat and talked and enjoyed cup after cup of coffee and a sandwiches. A place like this is so nice that you could see yourself spending all your spare time there when not immersed in your expat work. Nice thought, but probably not a true depiction of life in these parts; here the highlights always seem so capable of making you forget about your daily life.

Dinner this night was at a local place owned by a family friend that specialized in eel and frog dishes. The food was spectacular, even the eel which I’ve never eaten outside of a sushi restaurant and even then only grudgingly because it’s far from being a favorite. While it didn’t look very pretty, it was remarkably tasty. The restaurant was a very loud and busy - more like a giant family party than a café. Friends of Sahsa’s showed up and sat with us. They had an incredibly cute and precocious early teenaged daughter with them who tried hard to entertain us. It seemed as though everyone knew everyone else and I suspect that was the case as it always is with these neighborhood joints. Next up was a frog dish which was interesting as well. I’ve had bullfrog many times in China, always chopped up and stir fried with some complement of vegetables. This time the frogs were whole and they looked a lot like little pale yellow headless people. One of those dishes that you cannot look at too long, you have to simply dive in and of course I did and they were delicious. Last dish of the evening was a steaming stew of rabbit stomachs - I guess the last part of those little fellows that I had not tried. Served with a spicy red sauce laden with red chiles, they were about the size of a quarter and they reminded me of those rubber grapes that grandmas across the land had in bowls on their dining room tables while I was growing up. The only difference was these had two holes instead of one.

The last stop on my cultural tour of Chengdu was Club Muse, a well-heeled disco in the heart of an entertainment district. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a bar and I guess that this was a nice introduction to how far they’ve come since I last went to one. Essentially a prix fixe deal, you buy a very expensive (minimum 100USD bottle of something ,we chose scotch) and grab a table (if you’re as well connected as we are) and put your cell phones in a specially designed Plexiglas stand (so you won’t miss a call) and sit back and enjoy the sights. The music was absolutely deafening and the cigarette smoke choking. If you wanted to dance you got up and did so by your table since the place had no dance floor. A drunken man across from us tried this and fell over backwards, breaking a lot of glasses and a table. Unbelievably there was a ten or twelve year old girl in that party. She would get up and dance with what I assume to be her parents. I thought about her ears and her lungs.

Every twenty minutes or so a live act would come on a tiny stage in the center of the mass of bobbing humanity, sort of a dark version of American Idol. The first was a young woman who belted out some Chinese pop tunes. The next act was a young man and woman, dressed in black leather lederhosen, who performed some strange modern dance moves to techno music. A waiter cautioned me about taking pictures, I wondered if the flash was going to bother the performers. Below me was a table full of young women, some western, dressed in traditional cheongsam and with lots of flowers in their hair. They spent their time posing for pictures and drinking champagne. After an hour or so Susu decided that she’d had enough and offered to drive me back to the hotel. I said my goodbyes to Ben and Sahsa, knowing that this was almost certainly the last time I would see them. They were so wonderful to me, taking the time to put this little journey together and showing me the most incredible hospitality. You only meet truly great people a few times in your life and I was certainly lucky to become friends with them. On the way out I managed to lose sight of Susu and ended up lost in the sea of partyers. I found a waiter and I was at and all that language study finally paid off - I knew how to shout “exit” in Chinese.

Monday morning dawned surprisingly gray. Susu picked me up and drove me to the airport. We said our goodbyes and I thanked her for a wonderful vacation. I was there early and so I had some time to wander around, recalling my last time through here on the way to Tibet. On that day I had to endure extra security – they made me take my shoes off. Today it was just a simple Chinese pat down.

The flight to Beijing took 2 hours. I sat next to a young woman working on her resume. It was in English and she was touting her language skills. The problem was that the grammar and spelling were so very bad that I almost considered helping her. But I was eavesdropping and thought the better of it. We flew on together, daydreaming and butchering my mother tongue.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Day Two in Chengdu - a bit of the past, a bit of the present and a bit of Tibet

The prospect of another late start – my traveling partners had things to do – meant that I had the time to take a more leisurely stroll down the river. I could see what appeared to be an old tower on the far bank, perhaps a half-mile away and so I set that as my destination. Crossing the road today was much easier and I was on the tree-lined promenade in no time.

True to form, the sky was almost completely opaque although the sun did peep through when the passing clouds offered a momentary break. On these rare occasions it was reflected in the lead colored river water, a reminder that it was there above all that bad air. On my previous walk I had seen what appeared to be a long skein of colorful prayer flags spanning the river in front of a gray stone bridge just up ahead. Due to a long shared history and physical proximity, there are a lot of shared cultural aspects between here and Tibet or Xinjiang as it’s officially known and so their presence would not be unexpected. As I got closer I was quickly disabused of that romantic notion as my flags turned out to be plastic triangles warning boaters of an impending dam that spanned the river up ahead. A Little Egret was perched about mid-stream scanning the water for a morning snack.

I crossed on the bridge and found my way along a paved path that ran parallel to a bar street. Unlike the prim and neat walk on the far side, this one was typical of humans in contact with lots of alcohol – food containers, empty beer bottles and the occasional splash of dried vomit no doubt induced by lethal combinations of those two items. An elderly couple was picking their way through a row of bushes, collecting discarded bottles, no doubt for recycling. Of course in China you never know if the bottles will be recycled solely for their value as glass or if they’ll be refilled with counterfeit beer, re-capped and sold again the next night.

The tower turned out to be the centerpiece of Wangjiang Park (which appropriately means “overlooking the river”). It was built in 1889 during the Qing Dynasty ostensibly as a place for students to gain luck before the Imperial Exams. Upon its completion, the architect revealed that he had in fact built it to honor Xue Tao, a Tang Dynasty poet who is said to have lived here. Her statue stands today in a small glade of bamboo off to the side of one of the paths that wind through the park. While the tower and its accompanying buildings were pretty, the real attraction was the large stands of cultivated bamboo – more than 150 varieties including some with 5 inch trunks. Some workers were busy watering the groves with a fire hose; I walked past trying to see how many unique plants I could pick out.

Susu retrieved me from the hotel around noon and we headed across town to collect Ben and Sahsa. As she wound through the traffic she made a phone call and I asked her if her car had the same direct connection Bluetooth capability as mine did. Being able to link your phone to your car and speak hands free would be a great boon in Chinese traffic in my opinion. She said “no” her car did not have “Lanya”. After a couple of clarifying questions I pulled out my phone to see if I could figure out just what that meant. My translation software did have it and it became one of those foreign language moments that make you slap your forehead. “Lanya” was literally “blue tooth” or perhaps more accurately a “blue colored tooth.” Well duh, sometimes things are as simple as they seem to be.

We arrived in Ben and Sahsa’s neighborhood and found them in a Muslim noodle shop across from their apartment block. In my two years of living here I’ve never been brave enough to walk in and eat in a place like this. While dining in local restaurants was regular fare for me, these places with no menus and little English and Chinese well beyond my ken were a bit daunting. Added to those obstacles was the fact that the food was downright scary to me, prepared on questionable surfaces with no refrigeration and with little oversight. While it’s probably true that the hidden side of my regular restaurants was no different, seeing the giant blackened boiling cauldron in the front window being fed raw materials by regular people didn’t go nearly far enough in maintaining the illusion necessary for me to be comfortable. So I avoided places like this and instead traded away the opportunity for a genuine experience in order to keep my feeling of security.

But this trip was different and I was in the company of locals. I pulled up a stool and took my seat at a low table covered with a vinyl floral tablecloth. Ben and Sahsa were already eating and I asked for the same. After a debate about exactly what “the same” was, a steaming bowl of beef noodle soup appeared before me. I was expecting a bowl of lamb soup and after much yelling and waving of arms that too appeared along with a plate of cold condiments – chile sauce, cilantro and onions. Ben ordered what would best be called a quesadilla of grilled beef and some sort of sauce which was quite delicious. The food was excellent and I was glad I’d finally stepped outside my comfort zone to try it.

We had a bunch of places picked out for today, all of which were located within Chengdu proper. Our first stop was the Temple of the Marquis Wuhou, a monument to the very famous and successful general Zhuge Liang who fought for the emperor Lu Bei during the Three Kingdoms era. A bit of a misnomer – there weren’t really three “kingdoms” - the period filled a gap between the fall of the Han Dynasty and the rise of the Jin. The history was romanticized in a very famous novel called “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” telling the tale of the Cao Wei, Shu Han and Dong Wu clans and their intrigues and struggles. Spanning the period of 220 to 280 AD it was a time of extreme hardship and destruction resulting in the death of nearly one-half of the total population. The temple grounds house both a monument to Zhuge as well as Lu Bei’s tomb. Built separately, they were merged during the Ming Dynasty (1600’s) with Zhuge receiving the better treatment due to his larger role in the history of the country. In addition to some beautiful buildings, you can wander down long alleys lined by tall walls that form large concentric rings around the emperor’s tomb. There is an incomparable bonsai forest in between the first and second ring, with trees unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Jinli Street is to the east of the temple complex and we stopped there is a small second story café for a hot cup of espresso. This district was once the main trading center for the capital city of the Shu Han bringing in merchants from all over the world. It was one of the final stops on the Silk Road as it made its way northeast to Xi’an. Like most reconstructed mercantile districts in China, this one too was making most of its money from imitation art and cheap souvenirs. But some shops still featured the rich silk brocade that this part of China has been producing for more and 2000 years.

The oldest and most famous Taoist Temple in China was our next stop. Qingyang or “green goat” is dedicated to the founder of Taoism, Lao Zi. The highlight for me was the pair of bronze goats that stood outside the main hall. One of the goats was a goat in name only. Instead of a normal conformation this one was constructed of many disparate pieces – the ears of a mouse, the nose of an ox, a tiger's claw, a rabbit's mouth, the horns of the dragon, a snake for a tail, a horse's face, the beard of a goat, a monkey's neck, a chicken's eyes, a dog's belly and a pig's thighs. Much of this odd fellow was rubbed to a shiny bright bronze as it is said that if you rub it in the place where your body hurts, you will be cured.

It was closing in on late afternoon when we found our way to the Jinsha Museum. Occupying a site discovered during a construction project in 2001, today the museum houses hundreds of thousands of artifacts from a culture that flourished here more than 3000 years ago. Chief among these are nearly 20,000 elephant tusks offered in some sort of religious ceremonies. I found it odd to think of elephants here, but apparently the region was much more tropical in the past. The main building was somewhat of a disappointment – dozens of layered pits in various states of excavation that had nothing in them. I couldn’t quite fathom why they had gone to the expense to create a venue that really had so little to offer. As we strolled through admiring the various level of terraced dirt I spent some time entertaining a group of elementary school students who found my presence there quite shocking. We gabbed back and forth in Chinese and English and they spent most of their time in hysterical fits of giggling. I had a nice conversation with their teacher who had the same camera as I did, comparing our thoughts on lenses and his goofy students.

The second half of the complex was dedicated to Shu era artifacts and was truly spectacular – a collection of gold, jade and stone artifacts worthy of any of the great museums of the world. The presentation was wonderful – darkened rooms with walls formed by hanging steel chains and the only lighting coming from above and down onto display cases filled with the most beautiful art. Thousands and thousands of pieces ranging from a collection of tiny turquoise buttons to long ceremonial jade spearheads. There were several small masks made of hammered gold that looked remarkable Mayan, the kind of similarity that always gets me thinking about how disparate cultures seem to end up in the same places artistically. The centerpiece of the show was a 6 inch wide disk of thin gold foil formed into a circle of connected birds. Truly marvelous and considered a national treasure.
After a quick stop at Metro for a couple of bottles of wine, we collected Susu’s sister and went on to dinner at a place renowned for its variety of mushrooms. Like all traditional hot pot places this one featured a roiling vat of hot chile oil in the center of the table controlled by a burner built into the brick base. The waitresses brought dozens of plates of raw mushrooms, some recognizable, others unknown to me. We boiled them in the hot oil creating what seemed like a never ending feast of spicy hot food. We spent some time discussing a group of people sitting opposite from us - a western woman, two Chinese girls and a Chinese man. Our analysis of body language, conversation and gestures didn’t lead us to any conclusions. Husband, wife and daughters or honored guest from the west – it wasn’t clear. The conversation circled back to our table with the women getting pretty noisy regarding whatever it was they were discussing. This is the funny thing about being semi-lingual – you get some of it but not all of it and when you’re 1 of 4 people you pretty much tuck yourself into your own thoughts and let them ramble on. It’s not a bad thing, and it can be fun to listen even if you have no idea what they’re talking about. But it’s always nice to have one person to bring you in. The women stopped talking and started to laugh. Ben put down his glass of wine, looked at me and told me that the ladies had decided that I was the best looking American that they had ever seen.

Our last stop of the night was the Lhasa Bar, a bit of shared culture that made up for the disappointing flags back at the river. We ordered Tibetan beers and a small barrel of Qingke, the fermented barley drink of the Himalayan Plateau. We took a seat off to the side of a stage and sat back and enjoyed the floor show. Tibetan folk singers in traditional costumes performed for us while bar patrons bought white silk khata scarves to place around the performer’s shoulders as a display of appreciation. On a balcony above us, the requisite table full of drunken men pounded beers yelled at each other and threatened to fall over the railing and down onto our table. A little boy, perhaps five, ran around the bar jumping on couches and tables. The cigarette smoke was stifling. I nursed my glass of that sweet barley nectar until Susu announced that she couldn’t stand the smoke. We packed up, downed our glasses and went out into the cool night air.