Sunday, May 30, 2010

Xi'an Part Two

I don’t think I will ever tire of visiting the Terracotta Warriors - they are such an inspiring sight and each time standing before them promises new discoveries. Our second day began with the intrepid Lily and her amazing wealth of knowledge about the region and its history. This time she and I had a long discussion about the cave houses common to this region. I told her that I’d actually seen some still in use during my visit to Datong last week. She said she was surprised as here in Shaanxi they are most relegated to use as storerooms or pig sties. I didn’t quite get the significance of the latter but also didn’t ask. I suppose the pigs with their sensitive skin and acute intelligence would appreciate having a home out of the sun and sporting a year-around temperature of 65 degrees. We also talked about why the home province to Xi’an – Shaanxi – has two A’s while its eastern neighbor – Shanxi – has only one. The answer didn’t go beyond the explanation for the single A version which means “West Mountains”, denoting the highly rugged terrain of that state. Double A Shaanxi uses the same character for west but the first syllable is a bit harder to track down. Its character seems to be eponymous – its definition is essentially the name. Lily in a bit of regional jingoism joked that it had two A’s because it had “Twice the Attraction.”

We wandered around the museum for a couple of hours and I took a lot less photographs than on my previous visits, again focusing only on the details like faces and braided horse tails. The day was cloudy and a bit threatening and so for once I was able to get a few shots of the whole place without sections of it being blown out by the sun coming through the overhead windows. Gwynn and I had a long talk about our trip on the previous day to the Hanyangling Museum and the army of dolly-men. In comparison to this place, we were struck with how their contrasting size and subtlety made them equally as interesting as these big guys. You might think that they would be diminished, but that was not the case – looking down on them struck you with just as much poignancy. And in one aspect even more – seeing them lying there in their little waves made them much more understandable as the product of people less driven by spectacle. The Terracotta Warriors are an artful production of skilled hands that captured the grandeur of an empire. The dolly-men seemed a more human and modest attempt by far more perceptive rulers to meet the needs of their afterlife without overwhelming their subjects or the intended viewers.

Once again I bought a book from one of the many Mr. Yang’s who sits in the gift shop signing autographs all day long. Today he was polite but reserved and clearly not in the best of moods. I can only imagine what it must be like to do that day after day. The original Mr. Yang is now too sick to continue in the role he developed and this Mr. Yang is one of a handful of cousins who fill in. The show must go on and the books must be signed.

There was a single major monastery/temple complex in Xi’an which had eluded me on previous trips. Known as Baxian An or the Temple of the Eight Immortals, it is an important Taoist site and so just a bit different than the Buddhist temples which I have visited. When we arrived the street was completely jammed with people and vehicles trying to make a way through an endless gauntlet of vendors – today was the festival day (occurring regularly on the 1st and 15th day of the Lunar month) of Lu Dongbin, the most important member of the group. The original site was said to be a famous wine shop where Lu was known to tip a few before being enlightened by a Taoist master.

The foundation of Taoism is generally attributed to Lao Tse although it is argued that its basis perhaps lies even deeper in the past than the 5th century BC when he lived. A strong argument can be made that Taoist is the one true Chinese belief extending all the way back to the shamanism that was practiced in the time before civilization took root. And Taoism in fact does have a strong relationship with the elements of the physical world – air, earth, fire, wind and water.

Today many of its beliefs and practices are subtle copies or interpretations of those in Buddhism which officially predates Taoism in China by centuries. If you were to spend an hour observing in either type of temple you’d have a hard time distinguishing which was which. The most obvious characteristic is the hair styles of the monks – Buddhists shave their heads while Taoists keep their hair uncut. The temples themselves are virtually identical but the Taoist Immortals look much more like actual people whereas Buddhas tend to maintain an appearance that harks back strongly to its roots in India. The temple guardians in the outer halls of this temple were just as frightening as the protector spirits at the entrance to the Buddhist sites.

The Eight Immortals that form the pantheon are known by the names He Xian Gu, Cao Guo Jiu, Taiquai Li, Lan Caihe, Han Xiang Zi, Zhang Guo Lao, Zhongli Quan and of course the being of the hour, Lu Dongbin. Each has their special traits and what they offer by way of worship. In Lu’s case he is known for his ability to drive off evil with his magic sword and is said to be quite a lady’s man in addition to being a drunkard. Although he is the patron of jugglers, magicians and barbers, he is usually depicted in the dress of an esteemed scholar. Ironically in real life his inability to successfully pass his civil service exam led to him becoming a disciple of Zhongli Quan and his acceptance of the path of the Tao.

Here in the 21st century, all the major ancient belief systems in China share a great deal with their companions. Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism often have the same look and feel and together they are further modified by the strong animist beliefs that predate all three. It’s said that there is no single system in China, and in my experience this appears to be true.

We’ve all seen movie scenes where the hero tries to force his car down an Asian street choked with throngs of people. Blowing the horn, waving the fist, inching forward only to be cut off by a rickshaw, we hope our hero can make it through before the bomb goes off or the bad guy escapes. We were in that scene, and it was just as scary as you’d expect it to be. We had a path perhaps one car-width wide and it was full of people. On both sides were tables of everything from pantyhose to Mangosteens to incense packs for the worshipers. We would creep along making slight headway until a scooter would shoot through and block our path. We’d start again until a cart full of cabbage would be pushed against the car. I assumed at some point that the driver would kick us out of the car and tell us to walk and after a few blocks of this he did just that. Outside the noise was disconcerting. He took us as close to the temple gate as he could and told us he’d meet us well beyond on the main street. Cutting between two stalls and walking up an alley lined with antiquity shops, we had to force our way through a crowd of beggars, many with horrible deformities. In a couple of instances we had to step over people lying on the ground, blocking the entrance gate. I found the ticket office and paid the $1 entrance fee. We went inside to another crowd, this one far more peaceful.

The first main square was full of people burning incense bundles and bowing to the three cardinal directions before kneeling and praying to whatever Immortal happened to be seated in the small hall at the center of the space. The ground was littered with packaging from the incense and Gwynn commented that we’d never see people walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, strip the plastic off of a votive and throw it on the floor. But this is China and so our rules don’t apply. The air was smoky and fragrant and a bit tough on the eyes. A long line of elderly people were queued up under the roof of the walkway that ran around the building – part of the festival involved a free lunch. Cardboard bowls of dried Ramen. I refrained from taking pictures because on this day, amid so many people demonstrating so much personal passion, it just didn’t seem right. The temple was interesting but far from beautiful; it had a well used, serviceable look. For an off the beaten path neighborhood temple, this one was old having been constructed between 900 and 1200AD during the Song Dynasty. The buildings on the site today hail mostly from a 17th century Qing reconstruction. As we turned to leave I heard a man ask Lily if I was an American and before she could answer I replied to the affirmative in Chinese. He gave me a big smile and welcomed me to China.

Getting back to the car on foot was no less scary than driving in. Each of us had the same thought in mind – what are we going to do if we get separated? And while there were a few close calls, we made it to the end intact albeit a bit rattled. Back in the car with the air conditioner running, we went across town to the Little Wild Goose Pagoda.

As always, Xiao Yan Ta as it’s known in Chinese is the perfect respite after a day out in the streets. There are rarely more than a handful of people on the grounds, its trees and garden damp the noise from the busy streets beyond the pagoda itself is such a beautiful monument that spending even a half hour there recharges even the most depleted sensory batteries. We wandered around, Lily recalling my discovery of the Hoopoe on my last visit and relating how she had told the story to some co-workers that I had sent her way. Of course they had no idea what she was talking about. Lily said that since her trip there with me and my obvious glee at finding that bird, she had done some research into what she called “bird observers” and had found that bird watching was quite a common pastime in China among the local people and visitors. She told me of an island off the cost where “Every fall hundreds of bird observers travel to see birds.” Her earnest use of the word “observer” instead of our more common term “watcher” made me smile; I didn’t try to correct her use, it was simply too endearing.

Two stone horses stand at the far end of the park and it’s become a tradition to get a photo of my guests sitting on them. Gwynn climbed up and told me to make sure that I cut her feet out of the photo lest the position be wrong and observed by my horse-riding loved ones back in the world. I took a shot and as she was climbing down a young Chinese man accompanied by his girlfriend smiled and began a pantomime that suggested that they wanted to use the horse. We were done so I waved him on. But I had misinterpreted his request – he wanted a photo of Gwynn on the horse along with his girlfriend. She climbed back up and I joked that I wanted 10 kuai for the photo. He looked at me for a second and then realized the joke.

We ended our day with Lily after another dumpling lunch – this time the less exotic ala carte version down on the 1st floor of De Fa Chang – limiting ourselves to beef and pork/walnut – the latter lightly dyed purple. We wandered through the Muslim quarter looking for gifts and found what we were looking for at one particular stall. The starting price was 380 and I talked her down to 130 before I told her I’d think about it. She was sad to see us leave but I promised (with no intention whatsoever) of returning after we’d walked around for a bit. Ten paces down the street we stopped and looked at the same item and the woman said “95” and we grabbed it. Clearly the vendor telegraph was working. This meant that we could not go back the way we had come so we took a sharp left at the narrow alley to the Grand Mosque and fought our way past the t-shirt sellers. A bit down the way I found a better version of the same gift and the woman told me “50.” Unfortunately she could not come up with a version that didn’t have some damage that she insisted she could remove. We left her there spitting on her fingers and rubbing the blemish and muttering “It come clean, 45.”

Lily dropped us at the hotel and after cleaning up we grabbed a cab and headed to Da Yan Ta, the other pagoda in town, this one being the near antithesis of its diminutive cousin across town. It’s taller and just as beautiful but instead of trees and grass, it’s surrounded by a sensory abomination known as the Tang Paradise. While it can suck the last life out of a tired tourist, it has its purpose because it’s quite photogenic after dark and part of the Paradise is a fancy food court consisting of dozens of nice restaurants. The cab ride was crazy as Xi’an rush hour traffic is choking. In fact we’d tried to find a taxi out on the street and had waited forever before walking back to the hotel and putting the doorman in charge of finding one for us. The temple grounds were as busy as ever. We walked from one end to the other passing a crowd of people lining up to enter a classical violin concert at the local theater. Not everything in China is cheap retail, even here in a place where it has been raised to impressive levels.

On Aidan’s visit we had dinner at the Pizza Hut just up the street from the hotel. I know many of my friends and beloved family members would cringe to hear this, but over here it’s just plain fun to do something as silly as that. You can eat the best regional cuisine 29 days a month, but on the 30th it’s great to go do something so touristy to us and yet adored by the Chinese. They think this is what we westerners do for a fancy dinner out and so the Pizza Huts in China are raised to the level of the fanciest American venues. It is not a joke that we had to wait behind a red velvet rope on our last time through. This time was no different – the Pizza Hut maitre‘d told me that there was a 40 minute wait for a table – in a 3-floor restaurant! We declined and walked back up the block to Papa John’s, equally as upscale but with a few less patrons. We dined in style on a 12” Hawaiian amid Chinese out on dates and a table of western college kids.

The trip back to the hotel involved a nice stroll under the trees beneath the pagoda and as luck would have it we managed to catch a bit of the nightly fountain show. It kicked off with jets of water illuminated by colored lights spraying aloft to an ear-splitting rendition of Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture. It was very simple compared to what we see in places like Las Vegas and so we went on to catch a cab before the crowd dispersed.

My package deal with the tour company included a drive to the airport so the next morning we parked ourselves outside and waited. Gwynn asked if I would be able to recognize the driver and I wasn’t so sure having only seen the back of his head these past two days. Just as I was getting nervous – 10 minutes past the planned departure time – he came walking across the parking lot and told us to stay where we were. He got the car and we left.

The airport was mobbed with people and the lines were long. We went to the VIP check-in and the agent gave me the most dreaded news in China – flight cancelled. She sent us to the ticket desk to get the situation fixed and of course it was precisely the mini-disaster that it always is. One girl working, a half-dozen people crowded around each chattering about their particular plight. I situated myself close to the center of the min-mob and waited. The guy in front of me stepped back and waved me into his spot – a shocking thing in China. I was flanked by two women and so I rested by arms on the counter, holding up our passports and my airline status card. The agent called the guy back and collected some money from him before handing him a ticket. A young woman with a big handful of US passports – clearly a local guide - squirted her way into my left side. She told Gwynn that her flight had been cancelled and implied that she should be able to step to the front. Gwynn told her that there was nothing unusual about that – all of us were in the same boat. She tried to get under my left arm so I elbowed her in the face. She resigned to waiting her turn at that point. The agent miraculously solved the problems of the two women who were hemming me in. She grabbed our passports, typed on her computer and took a small piece of paper, stamped it and wrote two e-ticket numbers on it. She handed it all back to me and went on to the next crisis. I took our scrap of paper back to the VIP counter and we got our tickets.

The lounge was our home for the next hour. The gal at the desk informed us that our flight would be delayed an additional 20 minutes just as it was closing in on boarding time but I never trust these little updates so a half hour before our original modified boarding time I went out to the gate to have a look. The sign said that our flight was boarding and sure enough, everyone was lined up. I went back and grabbed Gwynn and beat a hasty path back. There was an army officer standing at the end and I asked him if the line was for our flight. He said “no” and just as we concluded that conversation, they changed the sign to “Waiting.” This is so common here, announcements are rarely correct and updates are never forthcoming. Sometimes it pays to just get in line and go up to the desk in order to be officially rejected. This time though we went back and sat down.

When the plane arrived it was obvious what our cancellation was truly about. Normally flights between regional cities and Beijing are on the Airbus equivalent of a Boeing 737. Pulling up to the gate was the much larger Boeing 777, an international jet. The Air China planners had clearly taken a look at the flight bookings and decided to combine them. We’d sat around simply for an improved bottom line. As the time to queue approached, the Chinese made a break for it. We settled in the middle of the line and the moment we got positioned the desk agent got out his megaphone and made an unintelligible announcement. The Chinese in front of us let out a collective groan and went back to their seats. I went up and asked him when the plane would leave and the answer perplexed me – “20” was what he said and I stood there for a moment and scratched my head. A Chinese guy had the same look of confusion, so it wasn’t just my listening comprehension. It was not 12:30 and an answer of “20” didn’t make any sense. How could we be delayed until 8:00? I asked him if we would leave at 1PM, “more or less” and he said,”Yes.” That meant we would be boarding only a few minutes later than the original delay so I couldn’t quite figure out what all the complaining had been about. A couple of westerners came up to me and asked what was going on, I explained the current situation. It’s amazing how popular you become here when your fellow travelers realize you can speak the language. As I turned to go back to our place in what was left of the line, an elderly Chinese man asked me in English what was going on. I replied in Chinese out of courtesy and he looked at me as though I was speaking in Latin. I answered a second time in English and he thanked me.

The events of this morning were the perfect introduction to travel in the Middle Kingdom. Late drivers, cancelled flights, ticket counters, out of date information on the status boards, fights for position in line. I couldn’t have scripted it any better, had I tried to create a morning’s worth of entertainment. No matter, an hour and a half later we were back in Beijing and ready for round three of our grand tour of China.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Xi'an Part One

Ah Xi’an, Pearl of the Orient!

Well, that sobriquet is perhaps better applied to Shanghai or Hong Kong, but for me Xi’an will always be my pearl. It’s the ideal city in my book, home to a modest 8 million inhabitants and the center of the earliest civilized culture in China. As a history lover, Xi’an is like a theme park, with one grand attraction after another. And even though this was my third visit in 7 months, I could go three more times in the next 7 and be perfectly happy. Between the peaceful splendor of the Little Wild Goose Pagoda and the staggering majesty of the Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an has everything I like.

We arrived and were retrieved by the intrepid guide Lily – no haggling with thieving Shaanxi cab drivers this time. I planned it this way because Lily had been bugging me to visit the Hanyangling Museum which is conveniently located on the airport road into town. On my previous visits I’d always been on the far side of the county so a visit was difficult. This time we stopped and were amazed.

The Han rulers that succeeded Qinshihuang like his idea of a Terracotta army to defend them in the afterlife. But they were smart enough to see that the burden that had been placed on the Qin Dynasty by the creation of the army had had a hand in its downfall – the people supported the attacking enemies because they were fed up with the treatment they had received from Qin. The Han came up with an alternative – a tiny army of dolly-men, perfectly formed little men perhaps 30” tall and cloaked in silk robes. Instead of 8,000 unique warriors, they commissioned 8,000 tiny replicas made from molds and so far short of the diversity of Qin’s army. Not nearly so incredible, but amazing nonetheless.

The museum is a marvel – neatly crafted archeological pits to display the artifacts, seen from a glass floor 10’ above the excavations. You walk in, cover your shoes with scuff preventers and step out onto a void that reaches back more than a thousand years in time. The tomb had been robbed many times in the past, so the results are chaotic but no less engaging than their life-sized cousins on the far side of town. In many ways they are far more poignant – dozens of tiny anatomically correct naked soldiers splayed out as left by robbers looking for treasure. Like little people cast ashore from some terrible flood. Their arms are gone, having been made of wood, now rotted away. They were designed to move at the shoulder, just like marionettes. Their silk robes have also disappeared. There they lie, forever staring up at the bottom of our shoes as we gaze down upon them.

Lily explained the arrangement of the tombs – one room for the army, another for a kitchen. One held convicts, forced to build the place. Another was for officials and the last for the Eunuchs. She delicately pointed out that the Eunuch figures were not the same as the soldiers, for they were obviously missing some important parts. These parts of course had been removed to prevent “sexual relationships with the Emperor’s concubines.” A funny moment for me, listening to a very modest Chinese explaining the nature of that particular excavation. One pit had remained undisturbed by the thieves and it left an opportunity for the scientists to carefully expose the men as they stood neck deep in an eternity of dust and dirt. One particularly interesting tidbit was the number of animals depicted; thousands of tiny pigs, sheep, horses and dogs left standing in neat little rows, shoulder to shoulder and nose to tail.

We took a stroll around the Muslim quarter following the museum. I love to bring people here because this is where “regular” China ends. Between the pale women in headscarves and the young men in skullcaps, the Silk Road comes to life. Here, the Han people are not in the majority, rather an interesting mishmash of people whose lineage extends back to the first caravans that rolled off of the steppes 1200 years ago. When you spend time in the coastal megapolis, you forget that this country was once the epitome of culture in the civilized world, and home to an incredible diversity of people. A bit of that remains and there is no better was to point it out that to wander through the bazaar and down the butcher’s street. On this day, deep purple-red cow’s livers were the special.

Now I’d been told that the one tradition in Shaanxi that must be observed is the dumpling banquet. I’d done the boiled and the steamed with my daughter Aidan back in March, electing to take the easier offering as it was lunch time. This time though it was close to dinner so we chose to go for the far more exotic offering and so we dragged Lily up to the second floor of the famous dumpling restaurant, De Fa Chang.

The set meal consisted of a dozen or so boiled dumplings and 14 steamed, along with 4 fried. Or at least that’s what we thought we’d ordered. We sat for a bit and a couple of cold dishes appeared – boiled peanuts and bean sprouts, tossed salad and shreds of bean curd. We waited some more and a plate of steamed dumplings showed up which we quickly devoured. We waited some more and a plate of four fried dumpling came – two with meat and two with red bean paste. And then we waited for a really long time, beginning to wonder if we’d finished the last of the meal.

Down the aisle, a foursome of westerners who had come into the restaurant received a big stack of dumpling steamers. I began to wonder if they had received our order, and after thinking about it for perhaps 30 seconds, I decided they had. I finally marshaled the nerve to ask the waitress, in Chinese, where the heck our food was. She mumbled something which I didn’t get and disappeared, returning in 5 minutes with our stack of steamers. Inside were 10 pairs of perfectly formed little bundles of something. She struggled to explain the contents, but we figured it out – spicy chicken, fried rice, pumpkin, egg, pork with vegetables, walnut - sporting a purple shell, tomato, not spicy chicken, pork with little unidentified spheres, and seafood. It was a shame that we’d stuffed ourselves on the boiled versions because these were wonderful. We did our best to not embarrass ourselves and left only a few behind.

Every first night in Xi’an must be closed with a stroll on the city wall. The lights, the music in the parks below, the cool breeze and the deep inky darkness – nothing anywhere compares. Tonight, a full moon hung just above one of the extended arms of the Bell Tower. Cars sped by below and thousands of Fork-tailed Swifts wheeled squeaking overhead dining on insects attracted by the lights. We grabbed a cab and headed for home.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Beijing Part Three

We’d arranged a driver to take us out to the Great Wall and we went downstairs a few minutes early to see if he was there. I saw a Chinese man with one of those goofy Bluetooth earpieces and thought for a moment that it might be him but he made no sign of knowing us so we went outside to wait. The pickup time was set for 9:00 and at 8:45 my kid Gwynn asked me if that was my phone ringing in my messenger bag. It was, and when I answered it a Chinese person began talking and I got flummoxed and told him that he had the wrong number. While I can generally get things done face to face, phone conversations with strangers remain beyond my ken. I hung up and went back to waiting. Thirty seconds later it rang again and this time it was someone speaking a mixture of English and Chinese. I tried again and they told me to speak English which I did. The man on the line told me that my driver was here waiting in the lobby. I told him we were standing outside. Gwynn told me to turn around and there, 15 feet away was the doorman talking to me on the phone. He waved; I waved back and hung up.

I’d been expecting Mr. Gao but we’d ended up with Mr. Yang. Not a problem, just a shift in plans. He did have a nice car - a brand new Volkswagen Jetta that had polyester rope macramé seat covers. Something to fiddle with on the way out of town. Leaving the hotel we were instantly mired in the morning rush hour but the crush only lasted for a short while and we were on our way.

Mutianyu was our destination, a nicely restored section of wall that’s far enough out of town to keep the tourists at bay but not so far as to make the car trip unpleasant. The route takes you out along the Airport Expressway and eventually onto peaceful country roads lined with poplars. We passed a large reservoir just before arriving whose marshy far end was home to a lot of Great Egrets and cows, feeding in the grass. It took us about an hour to get there; we left Mr. Yang at the ticket office and took the steep hike up to the cable car depot where, after climbing one last set of stairs I remembered that I had to buy separate tickets for the ride up. Down stairs for a quick stop at the ticket window, back up and we took off, a car to just the two of us.

The thing that struck me immediately as we cleared the station and began our ascent was how much the woods had changed in only two months. Aidan and I were here back in mid-March on the day after a snow storm - spring was a long way off then. Today the hillsides were almost jungle like with deep green stretching as far as we could see. The car came to a halt at the upper station and we got out for our first look. Even though this is my third time on the Wall, that first when I step out onto the top of the first tower is always breathtaking. The scope and grandeur of the place is enormous, and looking at it as it stretches off into the distance makes you instantly appreciate the human scale. The thousands of workers carrying the stones up to this ridge, dropping their burden and heading back down to another load. The soldiers standing guard, the feathers on their helmets fluttering in the breeze, the candles in their lanterns flickering. Standing in place at each portal scanning the ridges in the distance for any signs of an approaching enemy. Now, it’s people in running shoes and sportswear, and the occasional American couple of which one seems to not be wearing a shirt.

In March we’d slipped and slid our way to the east along the icy path. Today we considered talking the much steeper western walk but it was simply too hot and humid. Where you go on this Wall you must return as both directions lead to dead ends. So we went off to the east and enjoyed the sights before finding the path through the woods down to the parking lot.

Rather than head back to the hotel we stopped at the 798 Art District to grab a bite to eat and to take in a few galleries. Lunch was an oven-fired pizza in a little café and the art was as it tends to be – really strange and in some cases very dark. The art scene here is a little odd, I think the creative spirit has been subjugated for so long that what is coming out now is still reacting to that pressure. While interesting, I can only take so much of it and coupled with the heat, we called it quits and went back to the hotel to regroup.

Peking duck was the dinner plan and I wanted to try that restaurant that I’d gone hunting for. I asked the young woman at the lounge desk to make a reservation but they said that were full. She and I and the other manager did a little searching and found a second one, closer to the hotel – also full. I was left with two options, the hotel duck (I hate eating in hotels) or Gou Bu Li, the restaurant in the Qianmen hutong across town by Tiananmen Square. We opted for the latter and caught a cab which brought us almost where we wanted to go. For some reason we left him on bad terms, perhaps he wanted a tip or maybe he was reacting to me telling him to just drop us when he realized we couldn’t make a left turn when we needed to. Who knows, the East is called “inscrutable” for a reason I guess.

Dinner was excellent – duck, sautéed lily roots and celery, a pot of Pu’er tea. It couldn’t have been scripted any better than it was. I took Gwynn down one of the back alleys to appreciate the neon and the tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants away from the more commercial area where we’d eaten. Many of the restaurant owners were sitting out on their stoops, beckoning us in for dinner. At a place that caught my eye on an earlier trip, I stopped and chatted with the young woman who was soliciting diners. Seeing us talking, the chef came out and joined the conversation. I told him I would come back next week and he went back inside, returning with a business card for both of us. I thanked him and we went on. It was now raining so we scuttled our plan to walk across Tiananmen and headed instead for the subway which was crowded, hot and dank, but infinitely preferable to walking.

A lot of people have asked me why I bring my dearest guests to these particular places. China is loaded with sights, and yet I use a very circumscribed plan for these trips. In my mind the way to get introduced to China is to start with the history and the people. Beijing is simply the best place in the country to walk though tiny neighborhoods, to eat interesting food and to get a good dose of the past between the Ming and Qing monuments and the most wonderful Yonghegong Lama Temple. The subway system is excellent, easy to use and cheap. And the hotel is great. Simply put, it’s the perfect great place to start.

In contrast, Xi’an represents China of a thousand years ago – the start of the Silk Road and so the blending of all the cultures that have affected this region. This is the place where you can see Chinese Muslims going about their everyday lives and visit an 800 year old mosque. You can see the two most famous pagodas in China and learn about how they were built to house the Buddhist scriptures brought from India more than 1500 years ago. You can visit the Beilin Museum and see a stone tablet announcing the arrival of the first Nestorian Christian monks in 900AD. You can walk on the city walls and you can hear Tang Dynasty music played in the parks. And then there are the Terracotta Warriors worthy of a visit to this fair city for their magnificence alone. Xi’an unites ancient China with Middle China. A second trip might involve the sophisticated glitz of Shanghai, or the mysterious minority cultures of Yunnan. But for a first trip, Beijing and Xi’an give you the experience that might make you want to come back for more.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Beijing Part Two

My kid’s plane was due to arrive at 2:50 so after a double breakfast (I do this when traveling in order to skip lunch) I went out to wander the streets. I had no plan so the moment I cleared the hotel entrance I found an empty bench in the shade and sat down. There were plenty of options but none terribly appealing as it was hotter than Hades despite being only 8:30. The sun, an unusual sight here in Beijing, was beating down on my head with an intense fury making me wish I had a ball cap. Even if it painted me as a western tourist dweeb. Lots of young women in China wear them, tucking their pony tail through the hole in the back but the only men you see are either chain smoking tattooed Eurotrash in cargo shantz or American frat boy lacrosse players here for a demonstration match. I didn’t fit either bill so I filed that thought while I sat there looking up and down the 3rd Ring Road.

One choice was to go and find Panjianyuan, the giant outdoor antiquities market. I’d been told about this place by friends and when I researched it I was surprised to find it was only a half mile south of my favorite hotel. It didn’t seem appealing today so I opted for the second choice – to go and find the Dadong Duck Restaurant. When my other daughter visited back in March we’d been skunked in our attempt to locate and secure a duck. I had a list of choices but they all presented challenges like their location at the center of a maze of hutong alleys which meant the taxi driver would take us as close as possible and then kick us out of the cab with a grunt and a gesture in a general direction. On one hike we’d passed what turned out to be a recommended restaurant but I didn’t know it at the time and at 3:00 in the afternoon it didn’t appear to be open. When I stopped here back in April on my way to Yunnan I had found another one (also recommended by friends, this is the way we build our experiential database here in China) by the name of Dog Doesn’t Care (why you may ask) which turned out to be pretty good. So for this trip I had a safe option. But last week another choice surfaced and we did some searching on Google Earth and determined its location. Not walking distance from the hotel, but an easy trek from the subway. Yet another friend had found it a couple of days prior to my arrival and pronounced it worth the effort. Of course it turned out that the Google Earth information was mostly wrong but that didn’t matter- I know knew where it was. And so I set that as my goal for the morning. As I stood up to walk to the subway station I was startled to find a guy about a foot away and closing, cradling one of those well known steel brief cases that knock-off watch dealers use. His sharp “Hello!” made me jump. He asked me if I wanted one, opening the case in one fluid motion as he closed the gap between us. I told him I already had a watch and took off.

At this time of day the streets are clogged but the subway traffic is reasonably light. The only crush is found in the transfer stations and that usually only lasts a couple of stops. I took Line 10 to Line 1 to Line 5 and got off at Dengshikou station. Knowing that I needed exit B, I went in its general direction but somehow missed a turn and ended up at A. Each station on the Beijing Subway has four exits, A-D and they correspond to the 4 corners of whatever intersection the station is close to. Depending on the direction of the line, you need to use some serious spatial thinking to end up on the right corner. I knew my choice would put me on the wrong side of the street, but I had no choice. I headed up the escalator and back into the sunlight. I’d followed the directions well because as planned I was directly across the street from the Regent Hotel. The Jinbao Palace, home to the restaurant was just up the street. Mission accomplished, I decided to walk in the opposite direction for a bit just to see what was about.

There is a well known retail scam in Beijing aimed at tourists that involves “students” with reasonable English that approach westerners, offering to take them to an art exhibition. Usually they’re trying to “raise money for school” or to “buy a bus ticket back to the provinces to visit their dying grandmother” but in reality they’re just trying to get you into a warehouse for the hard sell on paintings that come from one of the “art villages” down in the southern part of the country. I hadn’t walked a block before the first one approached me but she was too slow out of the blocks and I blew past just as she was saying “I’m a student.” The next attack came from a pair that fell into step with me and kicked off the conversation asking where I was from. I surprised the speaker by answering in Chinese but she absorbed that blow and asked if I worked in Beijing. The second shock came when I told her that I lived in Dalian, but she fended my parry with “Would you like to go to an art exhibition?” I laughed and said “no” and they drifted off to lick their wounds.

I’d stumbled into a pretty fancy shopping district judging from the storefronts – Channel, Bulgari, Burberry – but the real blast to my senses came when I turned the corner onto a pedestrian street that had nothing but watch stores. And I don’t mean Xiao’s Fake Watches Emporium; I mean Chopard, Blancpain, IWC, Tag Heuer, Omega, Cartier and Vacheron. I knew at once what Jesus felt during his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. Some of you know how I feel about timepieces, and for those who don’t let’s just say that the only thing keeping me from owning hundreds is my respect for my credit card balance. I slowly roamed from window to window, stopping occasionally to leave a greasy nose print on the glass. Each place was empty of customers, but staffed by smartly dressed Chinese clearly acting as the agents of Satan. I began to think that I should buy something simply because I could, but I resisted and beat a hasty retreat out of the den of iniquity and onto the main street. Hustling along and ignoring the beckoning “tick tick tick” siren’s cry, I passed one last store that specialized in smaller, even more exclusive brands.

I went back in the direction of the subway station passing the duck restaurant just to be sure. Now I was in the exclusive car district with a Ferrari and Maserati dealership across the street. My side had Lamborghini complete with a middle-aged Chinese couple discussing a bright blue one with the salesman. A little further on I passed the Aston-Martin dealership which offered three models. Thankfully it was closed. The last of them was offering lowly Mercedes, diminished by its distinguished peers. The last building of quality was the Beijing Branch of the Hong Kong Jockey’s club complete with a bronze thoroughbred being ridden to victory. From there it was back into the regular culture of the city.

I was approaching the same district I’d been in the previous night, this time from the west. Crossing the 2nd Ring Road I was on an even more Russian street than last night’s. Everything here was in that language and the Chinese street vendors even used it to call me over. Heading on I entered Ritan Park and wandered about looking at the now shabby Ming and Qing pavilions where emperors used to disembowel livestock as an offering to the Sun. Well, at least that’s how the sign put it. The park and the buildings were built starting in 1540 and refurbished under the direction of Zhou En Lai in the 1970’s. The place was beautiful as all Chinese parks are, but really not worth much of a visit.

I headed back to The Place and the giant LCD, turned off in the daytime. I wanted to stop at Starbucks for a coffee, but decided on their competitor – Costa – as it looked like their outdoor seating was completely in the shade. I ordered and the girl asked me if I wanted milk and I said no but I guess she knew better because she went ahead and put it in my cup. I didn’t feel like protesting so I grabbed a table and watched some toddlers wear their grandfather who had these amazing eyebrows – long and white cascading down into each eye like a miniature set of pointy bang - down to a sweaty heap by running and climbing all over everything in sight.

It’s always fascinating to wait by the exit for the international passengers to appear. First they looked dazed, and then there are always a few that don’t see one of the hundreds of signs being held by their pick-up drivers. Today one sad western man in a black Hawaiian shirt and black long board shorts wandered up and down the channel that serves to funnel people out. No one was there for him.

I’d staked out a spot on the opposite, less busy side than where I normally wait. It allowed me to read the luggage tags as people went by, a nice gauge as to what flight was unloaded and through customs. After an endless stream of CO89 (Continental from Newark), the occasional UA889 from SFO would appear. Then some crew members started to show up, but they’re hard to read because every airline uses navy blue. I was doing fine until some Chinese came up and took a spot to my left and began holding their signs in a way that prevented me from seeing who was coming along. I told them so and they moved only to be replaced by a second bunch. Figuring this was a losing battle; I just stood on my tiptoes and looked over the top of them. A big tour group of elderly people wearing blue baseball caps came along next. And when their tour guide started talking to them across the rail, all fifty of them stopped walking and completely ended all forward progress by the people behind them. A tall young man shouted “Let’s get moving people” to no effect. Eventually the blockage started to break and the people began to flow again allowing what must have been a semi-famous Chinese pop star and his entourage to pass next. A few dozen young Chinese girls started screaming and running and following him with their video cameras. They’d brought bunches of white balloons and were trying to hand them to him and his posse. He just looked straight ahead, his associates walking ten paces behind and flanking both sides. He must have been used to the treatment because he had a look of serenity mixed with disdain.

My kid showed up about 50 minutes after landing having been stuck in immigration. That used to be an easy stop but lately it seems like a lot of jumbo jets are showing up at the same time and thus creating chaos. Today the immigration service pulled a fast one and closed a bunch of lanes for foreigners, the opposite of what they normally do. One more of those inscrutable decisions that are oh so common here.

Thankfully the taxi queue was short and we were in a car within minutes. Unthankfully it was driven by yet another driver who did not know the hotel. This time I literally told him what roads to use and he listened. Sometimes they take offense when I try to help. I suppose I might too if I had some foreigner sitting in the backseat of my car telling me where to go in my own city. Or maybe I’d be grateful that they knew.

Monday, May 24, 2010

May in Beijing

Well here I am again off on an adventure. Tonight I’m sitting in the Renaissance lounge in Beijing, waiting for my eldest to arrive (tomorrow.) The main difference between this trip and the last is the temperature – it’s summertime here in Northern China and it’s pushing 90. What’s interesting is that just across the Bohai Sea where I live it’s still cold and rainy and we’re waiting for spring to arrive.

The hotel is crowded with airline people tonight. Normally they spend their layover at the JW Marriott, a much fancier hotel that is closer to the airport. But tonight they’re downscale because Hillary Clinton is in town for strategic talks with the Chinese government and her contingent of 200 took over that hotel. So tonight I have the opportunity to listen to pilots talk about routes and overtime and where they’ve spent the night. One is sitting across the room running down his wife to a female colleague, and I’m wondering where that might be heading. It can’t be good for a guy to describe his wife as an “eating machine” who can’t get up in the morning to his friends. I imagine the life of a traveling airline employee must be lonely and rife with dangerous opportunities. I imagine there are a lot of troubled marriages in River City.

I arrived and checked in amid dozens of pilots and flight attendants milling around the lobby. Fifteen minutes into my stay I had a call from the Accounts Manager who invited me for coffee as she is working on getting this hotel certified as an approved location for my company. I agreed and went up to the lounge to catch up on the news from home – I was worried about the brush fire that was consuming the forest in the south side of my town. She was late and I went to the desk girl to make sure that there had not been a communication mishap but halfway into explaining the situation she showed up and we made our introductions. She made one of those funny noises that Chinese women often make indicating that I was not what she was expecting. It wasn’t as bad as the time the girl in the lounge at another hotel broke into hysterical nervous laughter after taking my picture. We sat down and chatted and she presented me with a nice pocket sized notebook and pen as a token of the hotel’s appreciation for my business. She gave me a business card and promised to give me better room rates in the future. She left to return to a business meeting and I went back to my Thai fish cakes.

I hung around drinking club soda until the sun started to dip behind buildings and then went out for a walk deciding tonight to find a short route to a restaurant district that some friends had told me about. It was rush hour and while still hot, the desert climate of this place made it just comfortable enough for a brisk walk into an unbroken flow of Chinese heading home from work. I felt like a salmon, making my way upstream. I passed the China World complex and the CCTV building, its burned out neighbor had had some work done on it since I last walked by in April. The charred skin was removed from the south side and you could see hundreds of tiny offices each with a red wall. I wondered how much damage they’d seen and if they would have to strip the whole place down to the bones.

Walking along, I had two guys in front of me and one of them threw a used newspaper into the basket of a parked bicycle. The second guy scooped it up instantly, rolled it and swatted a tree as he walked past. He was an interesting character – shiny silver suit, fancy hairdo; clearly a guy who thinks he’s on the rise. As he passed a young woman in a purple shirt, he mumbled some pick-up lines and she steadfastly ignored him as they walked in tandem. He responded to being ignored with something along the lines of “Right, you’re not interested in me?” I considered for moment asking him where he got off talking to my girlfriend but thought the better of it. I passed them and kept on.

I was trying to get a feel for how close a certain subway station was to my intended destination and after 30 minutes of walking I found it and turned left, heading inland from the Eastern Third Ring Road. The neighborhoods changed instantly from busy, grimy working class Chinese to upscale quiet and leafy. I had only a vague idea of where to go and when I came to the first main street I took a right turn. In doing so I noticed a western couple in t-shirts and shorts who jogged to the left over to a closed street. He had a guidebook in his hand and I wondered if they might have better intelligence on this place than I did but I stuck to my plan and headed north until I saw a well known major street up ahead and knew that I was a bit too far in that direction. I took a left and another left at the next main intersection and found the street I was looking for.

Ritan Park is in the center of the Chaoyang district and is a former site of the Temple of the Sun, built in 1540 during the Ming Dynasty. It’s also the center of the embassy district and this became clear when the signs on the businesses switched to Russian. I now know that “ресторан” is their word for “restaurant”, it being boldly displayed in neon on the front of just about every building. The district reminded me quite a bit of the French Concession in Shanghai, a district full of old architecture and beautiful Plane Trees. There were quite few foreigners on the street; I picked up Spanish, Italian and of course Russian as I passed through the wakes of conversations. Walking past the North Korean embassy I wondered what was being said about them across town and my government officials tried to convince the Chinese that the Peoples Republic of Korea are the bandits that they are. I found the place I was looking for, a modern building with ten or so restaurants – Turkish, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Chinese. I wandered around the complex filing away thoughts for future visit, even discovering one with the same name as an old favorite of mine in Corrales. The Desert Rose here though is Turkish, so I doubt that there will be a green chile chimichanga on their menu. Nor those great Mason jar glasses of lemonade that they were known for. I still remember one of my first dates with My Lovely Wife when the glacial mass of ice in her jar broke loose, pouring the contents down the front of her shirt.

I headed back the way I came, this time diverting a bit to find a clear path through The Place, a fancy mall with a giant LCD screen overhead. The display shows thousands of gold coins - treasure on a sea floor patrolled by 20 foot long green fish. I stopped and bought a coffee at Starbucks and went outside to take a couple of pictures of the display and managed to clumsily trip twice as I stepped down off of a 4” curb. On my third pass I noticed the “Watch your step” sign.

It was getting dark and I wasn’t relishing the walk ahead of me so I left The Place heading back the way I came and quickly found my way to the subway station. As it turned out the couple I’d seen earlier had gone the right way, I guess I’ll learn to trust tourists in the future.

The subway was still busy even though it was 7:40 but not body to body crammed as it often is. I rode two stations down the line – you really appreciate how far you walk when you cover the same distance in a subway at a high rate of speed. Walking never seems to take much time, but when you’re riding and it takes 15 minutes, you know just how far you’ve hoofed it. I left the station, took a shortcut through the mall next door and came upstairs for a glass of wine and a little writing. An evening well spent.

Tomorrow I’ll kill a couple of hours walking around and making one of those “name signs” so that my kid will be equal parts embarrassed and impressed. I’ll catch the subway out to the airport at midday and settle in at The Only Starbucks On Earth With Table Service and wait for her plane to land and for her to show up. You have to go early, because you simply never know when an international flight will show up and you want to make sure that there is a friendly face in the throng at the door where the passengers emerge.

And then we’re off for another spin around China.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


The city of Datong is situated high on the western loess plains of Shanxi province, hard on the border with Inner Mongolia. It has played a significant role in the ancient history of China, starting first with the very beginnings of human habitation in the valley of the Yellow River. From there it was the seat of government for the Northern Wei dynasty, an empire created by a Turkic people known as the Toba who were committed Buddhists and responsible for what has become the major draw to the area - the Yungang Grottoes. Today Datong is the chief supplier of coal and electricity to the northern part of the country and because of this it’s a dirty, dusty town and not on the itinerary of many tour companies. And due to its location and its lowly status as a travel destination, there is but one flight per day leaving Beijing at 7:25AM and arriving an hour later. This meant a night in what’s quickly becoming one of my favorite cities – I’m now known by name at my favorite hotel and I’ll take just about any excuse for a dinner at The Face Bar.

Flying in you can appreciate the nature of the loess plains, a geological construct formed by blowing silt from the river valley. The land is uniformly cocoa brown, dry and from the air appears to be bereft of anything distinguishable. But a closer look brings out the details – thousands of years of terracing to make the most of the lay of the land for what agriculture can be managed. And cutting across the work of man is an equally huge spider web of sharply cut arroyos, mini-canyons slicing deeply into the soft layers that comprise the plains. From up above it appears as an argument between the systematic and the chaotic and I suppose that the scene might just be the best metaphor for China as a whole.

We landed and once the plane came down to driving speed it made a quick u-turn and faced back down the runway. Such is the nature of travel at the out fringes of civilian aviation - land, clean, leave. Five brown-uniformed plane maids walked across the tarmac to greet us as we came down the stairs. It was a short hike to the arrival gate and I say “gate” because there was only one. The airport consisted of two terminals with a doorway each – one for the inbound and one for the outbound. I’d been warned about the scrum of taxi drivers looking to be hired for the day but the crush was minor – one soft spoken middle-aged gentleman asked me if I needed a ride and I agreed; fifty kuai to the hotel. Outside we threw our gear in the trunk and I started the negotiation for the rest of the day – two sites, three people, whatever it took in terms of time. I had the number of 100 kuai per person in my mind, it’s always best to have that decided and remarkably he said “300” for the three of us.

The air smelled faintly of dried urine, no doubt due to the sulfurous coal they were burning in the two enormous power stations that were off on opposite horizons. The sky was hazy and the sun a pale lemon yellow. You could tell that the air was bearing the brunt of whatever those plants were putting out but overall the day was pleasant enough. We passed through country pancake flat in all directions. Entering town it was clear some sort of major urban renewal was going on, a big new bridge over a dried river bed that was home to a big herd of black and white cows, many road detours and car-swallowing pot holes on the main street. We arrived at the hotel planning to check in and leave our stuff rather than trusting it to the trunk of a stranger. Hotels out here on the fringe generally have a staff with a bit of English and this one was no different. The head gal at the front desk told me, “You are very early and your rooms are very dirty so why don’t you go back outside.” No problem, I told her we had plans for the day.

I cleared the price for the day a second time explaining to the driver that my Chinese wasn’t all that great and that I wanted to make sure we had an understanding. It remained the same. We left town by the same route that we’d come in on eventually heading off on another road towards what appeared to be a small range of mountains just visible through the yellow haze. This area is also home to Heng Shan, one of the five holy Taoist mountains and at its foot was our first objective, Xuankong Si – “The Temple Suspended in the Void.”

The Hanging Temple in one form or another has been suspended above the bed of the Heng River for more than 1500 years although its present incarnation hails from more recent times. Until dammed, the river would routinely destroy it and the monks would move it up a few feet higher only to see it washed away again. Today it’s perched a few hundred feet above the valley floor, held in place by nothing more than big wooden beams that have been sunk deeply into the rock.

The scenery on the drive out was remarkable – the same brown terraced plains regularly slashed by deeply eroded chasms. Ancient watchtowers dotted the sides of the river, long abandoned but still standing as though waiting for an army of ghosts to re-appear. We passed through several small villages with architecture that could be found in any desert local from Mali to Mexico. Flat roofs, mud bricks, but in this case curious entryways – a large circle framed with pillars on both sides supporting a lintel above the door. The ancient tradition in this region is to live in caves. The loess is easy to work and the homes are simple, climate controlled dwellings that require none of the resources that the area lacks. Add a child, carve a new room. Slowly, the cave homes have been abandoned in favor of more conventional dwellings but they have carried forward the original look of the cave entrance into the current adobe construction.

The road was choked with more trucks than I’ve ever seen on even the busiest of Chinese roads. Our driver never let up in his attempt to advance our position, regularly passing into oncoming traffic which in every case yielded. It set me to thinking about how I would fare in this little car at this high rate of speed in a head on collision. I double checked my seatbelt and looked for photo ops out the window. As we entered the mountains the view was not substantially different than driving up the backside of Sandia Peak back home, minus the trees. A range of banded, tilted fault block mountains winding off into the distance.

It took us about 90 minutes to get there and he dropped us at the gate before heading down into the car park. We went in and took a look across the river at the tiny temple seemingly painted on the rock. Above an enormous shelf of rock, the same brown color that seemed to permeate everything. I stood and stared for a long time, took a few photos and then was struck by the fact that it really was not all that inspiring. It seemed dwarfed by its surroundings and while it was unlike anything I’d ever seen, it was not on the scale I was expecting. Clearly the travel books had managed to depict this relic in a way that was grander than its reality. But that changed as I got closer and stood below it – it became more of a marvel that was enlarged by its details and not the fact that it appeared to be suspended in air.

It was a bit of a climb up to it and even trickier once inside. They had a proscribed path through the temple buildings because the walkways were so narrow that there simply was no allowance for two way traffic. The stairs were like those on a boat – short treads and steep with a low overhand, the only difference being worn metal plates on the treads, decorated with tiny steel stars and flowers. In several places the path was cut into the rock itself and the only thing between me and the valley below was a short mound of plastered stones that had clearly been added in recent times. It made me think about the monks that once lived here, walking between buildings along the edge of the void deep in meditative thought. At the top structure the view was impressive, looking down on the tourists and out and across the brightly tiled and highly decorated roofs of the individual buildings. Off to the right was the giant concrete face of the dam that had dried out this valley and saved the temple from those continuing indignities of being washed away. A truly giant cavern off to the side of the dam was there for the purpose of releasing water from the reservoir behind it.

Each floor held at least one room with a Buddha and in one case, statues celebrating the three beliefs of China – Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. I walked along following the path and dodging tourists and worshipers although this place is not truly recognized as working temple today. Coming down I was glad that we had arrived early, because the crush was on – the main walkways now held unbroken lines of people. We found our driver and headed off across country to our next stop, Yungang.

There are three major Buddhist carving sites in China: Longmen in the south, Mogao in the west and Yungang here in Shanxi. Mogao is the oldest and the first known set of Buddhist temples in China dating from 366AD. It was a thriving stop on the Silk Road and so one of the entry points into the Chinese empires for religion, culture and art. Yungang is the second oldest and supposedly the best preserved dating from the mid-5th century. Longmen followed when the Wei moved their political capital to Luoyang in 492AD.

The road in to the area followed the course of a desert river, devoid of water but still green along the banks. There were even more ancient watchtowers along this stretch of road, some associated with the terminus of spurs of the Great Wall. On the far side was a giant coal mine, complete with its very own company town – depressingly sooty apartment blocks towering over the trees along the river. It reminded me of the Pittsburgh of my youth. We arrived and after an argument with a policeman over us using a dirt entrance that was apparently reserved for motorbikes, we hopped out. A nervous young man approached and using what little English he had tried to convince me to rent his minibus for a ride to the entrance. I told him we’d walk, he said we were crazy, it would take an hour. We took off and headed up a newly paved path, off to the left was a huge temple complex under construction, continuing the theme that seemed to dog us all day long. Clearly the regional government is looking past coal to the future, and that future is commercial tourism.

Fifteen minutes down the path we came to a broad square ringed with retail shops. A couple of camels stood by waiting to be hired by tourist for stroll. We bought our tickets and passing through the entry gate we faced a long vertical wall of blonde sandstone holding hundreds and hundreds of caves of all sizes. We started at one end a strolled from one cave to another, each different and completely amazing. Thousands and thousands of carvings of all sizes covered every square inch of the inside of each cave. Buddha, Bodhisattvas, fairies, animals – you name it, all entwined and decorating every surface. The first three caves were fronted by some Ming Dynasty wooden structures with carved demons at the intersection of every horizontal and vertical beam. Inside were colossal Buddhas, still bearing their bright blue and gold polychrome paint. Forty to fifty feet tall, serenely looking down on us below.

At the center of the complex the caves were highly detailed and very baroque with carvings layered on carvings and painted in bright reds, yellows and blues. As we moved towards the sides, the paintings ended and the carvings became less layered. Two very large Buddha stood in their caves with windows for them to look out across the valley. At the end, one large seated statue of Sakyamuni stood smiling attended by a slightly smaller Bodhisattva. Swirling about their heads were thousands of spirits and fairies.

I had noticed that many of the larger carvings had dozens of small, neatly spaced round holes in their surfaces. We theorized about this for a bit before asking one of the young women working at an official shop and she tried her best to explain it. Mustering my very best Chinese I started to home in on the answer, ultimately aided by a young man with a bit of English and some decent Pinyin. The holes were for dowels that held carved stone that had faced the statues, now lost to time, erosion and vandalism. I have to say I came away from that conversation feeling pretty good about my Chinese investigative skills.

The evening of our first day was spent trying to find a restaurant which was surprisingly difficult given that every street in every Chinese city normally has dozens. We finally settled on a place in the middle of a mini-restaurant-row that had no English menu but pretty good food and a host of diners who spent more time staring at us than eating their food.

Day two started out rainy, never the ideal weather for wandering around on foot. We left the hotel around 9:30 and stopped first at the Nine Dragon Screen, one of the best preserved polychrome tile screens in all of China. These were built to protect palaces from invading evil spirits and since the spirits were limited to straight, forward motion, building a screen in front of your door prevented their entry. Here, 9 giant dragons set against a blue background did the guard work for the palace of a prince as announced by the presence of 4 claws on each foot. Only the Emperor had dragons with 5.

We spent the next few hours wandering around the ancient city. It was muddy, dirty and smelled of sewage but it was grand – endless alleys and streets, countless gray brick hovels housing who knows how many families. Each block had 3 or 4 communal latrines – coffin shaped doorways and no running water. Sometimes the squats were nothing more than a stone closet facing the street. I had the opportunity to chat with a lot of people as we wandered around – Datong is a friendly place and I doubt that westerners are regularly seen wandering these lanes. We eventually came out and beheld the second major construction project – a complete rebuilding of the city walls, making this place look like the next incarnation of Xi’an. The guidebook talked about the walls and you can still find them around the center of the city but all that remains is the rammed earth core – the gray brick cladding was long ago stripped away to build this warren of homes. I put two and two together on this fact when I stumbled on one last little section of wall that was still bricked. It stood next to a newly renovated section, back-filled with red brick and faced once again in dull gray.

I had a plan to find one of the guide book restaurants so we took off across town in search using the map that I’d picked up from the hotel. Part of the time we wandered through old city and part of the time on modern streets. Eventually we found our way to the district where the restaurant was located (having survived a section of old city that was populated by nasty dogs) but the street signs made no sense – the names were different than those on the map. Taking stock at one intersection and using a pattern of streets, parks and dead-ends I saw a place on the opposite side of the street and asked two young women at the front door if this was the place. It was - a Muslim run Shanxi hot pot restaurant.

Once again no menu but the waitress took me back to the prep stations and started showing me what was available. I had told her that one of my friends did not eat meat and that we would be dining only on vegetables today. So naturally the first thing I was offered was a big plate of raw fish, because you see in China, fish is not meat. I politely declined that and the bowl of bacon, settling on mushrooms, spinach and some other unidentified vegetables. It was an excellent meal made better by the challenge of finding and ordering it.

As we left I asked the two young women to pose for me and they graciously did. The guy in charge of parking the cars at the restaurant next door came over and asked about my camera and grabbing my arm suggested that I take a picture of the girl out in front of his restaurant. I did so and showed it to him and he was grateful and amazed.

We had two more stops for the day Huayan and Shanhua Si, two ancient temples. We took off in search, stopping once on a muddy street under heavy construction to chat with some Emo boy hairdressers who wanted to cut my hair. My conversation with them eventually led to us being surrounded by 20 or more onlookers, smiling and laughing at what we were talking about. One guy on a bike was not satisfied that I said we were from America, he wanted to know what state I lived in. I told the crowd New Mexico and in unison they repeated “Mexico” which I then had to correct. The guy who asked nodded solemnly.

Huayan Si was closed due to a huge, you guessed it, construction project that appeared to be celebrating Datong’s role as a Silk Road city and in the diffusion of religions into China. A brand new mosque with twin minarets topped by silver crescent moons anchored the east side. The center was home to what I am guessing will be a big retail complex surrounding a tall, columnar fountain decorated with black birds. Huayan is the overall attraction and a Nestorian Christian church was sitting off to its left. We took a walk down a muddy lane to see if there was any way in but there wasn’t. A guy supervising two other men digging a ditch struck up a conversation with me. A very strange older man – strongly mixed Caucasian and Chinese features but with a completely Caucasian skin tone stood off to one side watching and smoking. The Ditch Supervisor asked me this and that and eventually came to the point – he wanted me to give him some money, demonstrating that fact by taking a wad of bills out of his pocket and rubbing them between his fingers. I laughed and told him in Chinese that I don’t give money to my friends and that since he was my good friend, I wasn’t giving him anything. The old guy watching looked at me and in perfect English said, “Your Chinese is very good.”

The second temple, Shanhua Si is a Ming restoration of a Tang temple. It turned out to be quite beautiful not only because of the construction but because it was almost completely empty. You could feel the peace in the absence of the crowds. I wandered to the back of the complex and saw that the main doors to the biggest structure were padlocked. As I approached a little old woman sitting on a box stood up and beckoned me over. Taking keys from her pocket, she unlocked a tiny door to the right of the main entrance and waved me in. Inside was great hall with three seated Buddha protected on both sides by twenty fierce guardian Buddhas, ten or so feet tall and carved from wood. She opened the big doors to give me some light. Being alone in this place was wonderful moment for me, I strolled back and forth taking the time to appreciate each statue. I left for a bit and wandered around but wanted to have a second look so I went back and this time the place had a few more people, young Chinese with flashlights that they were shining on the darkened walls. There in the pale darkness were beautiful painted frescoes, completely invisible without the extra illumination.

The day ended at Better One Pizza, figuring what better way to have a meal after a day of wandering through the streets. We had a booth by a window, but across the room the booths along the wall all had video screens playing cartoons – Pingu the Penguin. Sort of a Chuck E. Cheese for the Chinese children.

We left the next morning via the one gate we’d not yet used at the airport. There was a problem with the computer failed during my check-in - I asked the agent if it was me or him. He laughed and claimed responsibility. As we waited an older man came up and struck up a conversation. He said he’d been a professor at Harvard and had lived in the US for 17 years. He told us how they were rebuilding the city for domestic tourism and that everyone who lived in the ancient hutongs was being moved out to new high rises by the airport. A “new city” if you will. The old parts of town would then be razed and replaced with new imitations of the old for wealthy people to buy - a district of cafes, galleries and shops, just like Xi’an that hugged the newly clad city walls. Datong of 500 years ago, re-done.

This little jaunt was fun in many ways, seeing some wonderful history as well as the past rebuilt for the future. Probably the most important thing I came away with was the friendliness of the Datong people. China always seems to be a cold place – crowded with unfriendly people who ignore you to the point of making you feel invisible. That has been my continuing experience in the cities. But when you find yourself standing in ankle deep mud at the intersection of a couple of streets under construction, chatting with young Chinese men with earrings in their lips and poufy blonde hair, you begin to realize that everywhere is not unfriendly. That on the edges of the empire, people are still interested and want to talk. And those moments redeem living in a place like this.