Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dunhuang and Datong

Warning, warning: when this kind of clothing is for sale in the hotel gift shop, there may be problems with sand ahead.
My friend JE is visiting from Washington, giving me an excuse to be a tourist in different spots around China. First up was Dunhuang, in Gansu province, a stop (after Xian) on the Silk Road, and a place where cultures blend and you can sense the past. It's hard to imagine just how entrepreneurial one would have to be to cross these sand dunes on a camel, but it wasn't hard to sit on the rooftop of our hotel, the Dunhuang Silk Road Hotel, and enjoy a couple of gin and tonics and watch the sun set over those sand dunes.

One quick public service announcement: rolling down the sand dunes is not a great idea. As Bob said, I ended up not being able to develop any momentum, but I did end up with enough sand in my ears, hair, eyes, and pants pockets to start a brand new Silk Road of my own. Interestingly, we don't seem to have photo documentation of this lame-brained move, which is probably a good thing.
Dunhuang is very much a Muslim town, with dozens of halal restaurants lining the streets around the mosque.
Dunes from the rooftop bar of our hotel. Georgia O'Keefe would have liked it.
See those sand dunes behind Bob? Yep, we climbed them.
Lunch at a local farmhouse. Chinese dates on the menu, plus a chicken dish complete with head and feet. Yum.
Sand sculpture at the dunes. Ghengis, is that you?
A watchtower on the far western Great Wall. Not for climbing, though. Sigh.
After a fun weekend in Dunhuang, JE and I went to Datong, which is a bit of a Pingyao wannabe. But we did enjoy exploring the place, and seeing even more Buddhist caves, hanging monasteries, and a vista that was more green mountains and coal mines than sweeping sand dunes. Plus, vinegar.
The view from our hotel in Datong, which gives a sense of the new fake-old construction on the right, and the old-old in rubble and patched up hutong homes in front of us.
One of the hutong homes probably slated for demolition. 
The new-but-fake-old stuff is pretty, I'll grant that.
A peak into the Buddhist caves. Unlike those at Dunhuang, these caves are open to the elements and have been beaten up by coal-laden air, Japanese occupiers and Cultural Revolution thugs.
The caves at Datong.
So so many Buddhas.
Hanging out at the hanging monastery. 
Old folks take the sun in front of a temple in a Shanxi village.
My arty shot of the sun over the packed-dirt wall.
Rooftops at the hanging monastery.
And then finally, the piece de resistance: a vinegar fountain. Brilliant, pungent, foamy, and only-in-China.
After I finally got back to Beijing, I got a very cheerful cab driver, who chatted with me about the weather and apologized for having to turn off his air conditioning, since something was wrong with his car. This turned out to be quite true, since the cab died in the traffic circle just outside our apartment. I paid up and left the poor fellow peeking under his hood. By the time I ventured out again for lunch with Nora -- two beers and a Caesar salad in the 90-plus heat -- he was gone. I have to admit that while I do like looking at different places in China, I'm happy that I'll be in one spot for a while. I rewarded myself with the perfect antidote to the mafan of travel: beer, blogging, and a bath. Good times. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

What to Expect When You Visit China

As I await a visit from a first-time China visitor, I decided to put together a list of what she should expect. I realize that this may look a little grim and possibly alarmist, but it's also a good summary of life here for those who haven't experienced it directly.

1. The rights of pedestrians. It may look as though you have the right to cross the street or even walk down the sidewalk, but it's different here. While China's drivers don't want to run you over (because that could potentially land them in hot water), they also have no qualms about cutting you off, blaring their horns, and just in general acting like assholes. Let them win. This is a sanity-preserving device. I know plenty of people here who yell at cars and get all worked up when some driver nearly runs over their toes, but it's not worth it. You'll get there eventually. Bob used to say, back in the States, that my epitaph would someday read "She Had the Right of Way," but in China I let them win. Especially know that "right on red" in China means to hurdle through the intersection at breakneck speed. Don't ever assume that a pedestrian walk sign means it's safe to step off the curb.

2. How to cross the street. Never run, never swerve suddenly, and don't stop if you can help it. While drivers might be blaring their horns at you, they're also anticipating that you behave in predictable ways.

3. Never assume you can let your guard down. Cars will drive at you down the sidewalk, bikes and rickshaws will go the wrong way down a bike lane, and moving objects can come at you from all directions at all times. Pay attention, no matter how safe it seems.

4. Taking taxis. This is generally my preferred way of getting around a sprawling city of 22 million. Yes, the subway is cheap and relatively easy to figure out, but it can be insanely crowded, so crowded that I've known people who missed their stop because they couldn't fight their way to the door, and so crowded that Joanna had an iPod lifted from her pocket as she was listening to it. But taxis are a bit of an adventure and you need to have the right attitude about them. There are no seat belts in the back. This is one reason my friends with little kids sometimes hire drivers with cars that have seat belts. And it's a rare driver who speaks even a smidgen of English, so it's good to have your destination written out in Chinese. On the plus side, they are almost uniformly honest and will hand you back even 1 rmb if you overpay. They don't expect tips. They also almost uniformly drive like maniacs and you suddenly realize you're the asshole now, as your taxi driver cuts off pedestrians and flashes his brights at cars in front of them driving too slowly. Flagging down a taxi means finding one with a lit red light in he windshield. They're not supposed to do this but they will refuse a fare if they don't feel like going in that direction.

5. Lining up. Americans like to be orderly and leave some space between them and the person in front of them. If you do that in China, five people will squeeze in front of you. Pushing, banging against someone as you pass -- not the offense it would be in the US. You would do well to be a little aggressive and assertive in lines -- but not too much.

6. Noise and crowds. Chinese people are generally cheerful sorts and love crowds and noise. It doesn't bother them the way it might bother us. I've been able to find ways to avoid the worst of the crowds in some places and not get too frazzled when someone screams in my ear because they just saw a friend 50 feet away. They also love to shout into their cell phones, everywhere, all the time. The concept of, say, a "quiet car" on the train is ludicrous.

7. Toilet facilities. Some are clean and some are gag-inducing, and there's no good way to tell for sure until you go in to take a look. There are times when the squatter toilets are cleaner than the western ones. There will be times when you have no choice but to use a squatter. If you haven't done this much before I've learned (the hard way) that the trick is to squat so low it almost seems as if you're about to sit. The pee seems to go in a better stream into the hole. Also, many public toilets lack toilet paper so it's a good idea always to carry your own tissues. But many places don't have the system to allow toilet paper to be put in the bowl. There's always a bin for used toilet paper.

8. Food. If you start reading articles like, "The Ten Foods You Should Never Eat in China," you may eat nothing for two weeks. So maybe think of this as an adventure and hope for no food poisoning. Having said that, I do avoid Chinese milk and yogurt, don't eat a ton of fish, and avoid beef mainly because it's terrible overall here. I would also try not to eat huge quantities of rice (cadmium). I do buy fruits and vegetables at the local wet market where they may or may not be treated with pesticides, but I also wash them off with bottled (not tap) water. There's a famous street food called chuanr, which I don't eat since I've heard too many stories about rat meat. I do like other street food such as jian bing, which we will try.

9. Water. Don't drink the tap water. I do use it to wet my toothbrush but I don't swallow it and always finish by rinsing with bottled water. We don't even use boiled tap water for tea because there are substances that can't be boiled out.

10. Air. There are days when the US Embassy advises avoiding outdoor activities. We'll have to play this by ear, since you have such a limited time here. I think you won't do any long term harm to your lungs in a few days. It can spoil views at the Great Wall, but if we hire a driver we may be locked in. My rule is that I don't run when the air is over 150 and don't hike when it's over 500 but that's a very loose standard.

11. Smoking. There are laws about smoking but inconsistently enforced. I generally don't fight this one either unless the person is right in my face. There is smoking in restaurants, like it or not.

12. Spitting. Beijing people, especially old men, will spit a lot. They don't spit on your feet, so it's best just to ignore it.

13. Beds. Chinese beds are hard. If you know anything about the traditional kangs, you'll see that modern beds in 3 and 4-star hotels are not much different. Luckily,  our guest bed has a lovely Japanese-made mattress. When we travel, I guarantee it will be different.

14. Coffee. I never assume that a Chinese hotel will provide coffee -- or anything approximating a western breakfast like bread, cereal, eggs -- so I generally carry instant coffee with me on trip unless I'm going someplace cosmopolitan like Shanghai or Macau.

15. Alcohol. Most Chinese restaurants will offer wine, but it will be bad wine unless you're at a very fancy place. You're better off with beer, tea, or even "bai kai shui," or warm boiled water. Ordering boiled tap water might be a tad too adventurous, but all restaurants have bottled water and Coke. And baijiu, a rice liquor that I find truly un-drinkable.

16. Shopping. The basic big stores like Uniqlo have set prices but there is plenty of wiggle room in other places. I generally have a price in mind before I start. They'll start with something ridiculously high, at which point I'll say to them, in Chinese, "I live in Beijing," and smile. I find that there's no reason for them or me to get angry. It generally works just fine. I never let them grab my arm or hand me the calculator. Once you're holding a calculator, they think they have you and won't take it back. Makes it harder to walk away. Having said that, I also don't try for the most rock-bottom low prices every time. Takes too much energy.

17. Language. Don't assume anyone speaks English. It's rare. You might get some help in hotels or big tourist areas, but China is one of the few places where, even though it's taught in schools, it's hard to find lots of English speakers.

18. Niceties. Chinese people adore their little ones and you can always get a smile from them if you say "ni hao" to their babies and toddlers. They may walk down the street looking like they're pissed at the world but will be smiling at you if you smile at them.

19. Photographs. The further you are from the big cities, the more exotic you'll be to Chinese people. And in Beijing, you'll encounter lots of tourists for whom this may be their trip of a lifetime (too). And taking a picture of you standing next to them will be one of their highlights. ("Look ma! I saw the Forbidden City AND a weiguoren!") The blonder you are -- or however you may not look Chinese -- the more likely you'll be stared at. In fact, Chinese are not shy about getting in your face and staring like you have three heads.

20. Other sanitary issues. Many Chinese babies wear slit open pants so they can pee or poo immediately. Their caretakers will often have them squat in a tree box or pee into a grate. People are increasingly using diapers, but outdoor toileting is still common. It's good to be aware of little kids with their pants down.

21. This is probably connected to the fact that few people wear shoes indoors. Our apartment has pretty dark wooden floors so we wear house slippers to try not to track the world inside.

22. Ayi. Almost everyone (expats and middle class Chinese) hires an ayi (auntie) who cleans, cooks, and cares for their children. It's rare for anyone with kids to have less than a full time ayi. My ayi comes twice a week and serves as my personal organizer (even for things that don't particularly need to be organized, like my sock drawer), health advisor, Chinese teacher, cat-caretaker, and quasi mother. I like her a lot, even if she tells me when I'm getting fat.

All of this might make it seem as if I don't like this place, but I do. I hope you get to see the wonderful side of China: a bit of ancient music being played on a erhu, the sweet surprised face of a dark-eyed baby looking over his grandfather's back, the wide sweep of centuries on the Great Wall, the taste of Yunnan dishes and Sichuan dishes and Peking duck and dumplings, and especially the old folks in their Mao jackets taking in the morning sun in the hutongs.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Glance of Shanghai

As promised, a few photos from last weekend's trip. These are in no particular order because China lets me send things when it lets me send things.

Customs House on the Bund
Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower, shrouded in mist.
Saw this in the Shanghai Museum. It's a pillow. That explains the rock-hard bed in our hotel room.
The boys at the Peace Hotel.
In the Shanghai Museum. This little old woman's daughter and granddaughter parked her in a corner and left.
She needed a nap, apparently.
Amazing: we have this exact kind of grape holly in our garden in DC.

An old building in the French Concession.

Feels a little like Barcelona.

Pudong skyline at night.

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Slice of Shanghai

We're spending the weekend in Shanghai, a city I haven't seen since we visited Daniel in 2009. What I remember is feeling overwhelmed by China's noise and crowds, which was exacerbated by the August heat and air pollution.

And now I'm back. Bob has visited since, but for me, I'm taking it all in with a very different perspective. After living in Beijing for two and a half years, I sense Shanghai as a pleasant place, where the cars generally respect pedestrian crosswalks, more people speak English than in Beijing, and trees line the streets of the French Concession, where we're staying. (Pictures to come.)

It's a faster city than Beijing, with cab drivers truly racing around. It's a glitzier city, with more neon and slick high rises, few of which seem to be coated with a Beijing level of grime. It isn't Taipei -- which is truly Asia's lifestyle city -- but it's easier somehow than Beijing.

While Bob was working, I spent the morning looking at the European architecture of the French Concession, and then took a cab over to the Shanghai Museum, spending a very pleasant three hours looking at porcelain, bronze, and ancient scrolls until my head started to hurt.

I grabbed a cab, and got a chatty driver. He asked the question (in Chinese) that every single billion-plus Chinese want to know about foreigners: where are you from?

It's always a big hit to say you're a Meiguoren. It makes me feel that I've somehow accomplished something beyond the luck of my birth and the farsightedness of my ancestors.

Meiguo, Meiguo, he kept repeating.

As the conversation continued I heard him refer to Shanghai as "San Hay." So I asked him about that and he offered up a short tutorial in what Shanghainese sounds like compared to Mandarin. We also covered the basic driver-passenger small talk that's pretty universal: the weather, the traffic, a smidgen of politics. And by that I mean, he smiled and said, "Clin-ton!" The former president is still a popular figure and Nixon is even more of a rock star.

It was as pleasant a cultural experience as staring at delicate porcelain bowls decorated with the Eight Immortals. To reward myself I'm sitting in a Wagas eating a bowl of tomato soup and taking advantage of their free wifi.

Next to me a young couple sit, deep in conversation. Suddenly he starts to sob. I see he has a dozen pink roses peeking out of the opening of his backpack. Eventually she slips away, and a few minutes later he leaves too, still carrying the roses.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Yunmengshan Hiking

This week we headed southwest of Beijing to an area called Yumengshan, another park with beautiful, Avatar-like rocky outcrops and lots of green. Spring has finally arrived and even with virtually no precipitation all winter long, the hills have bloomed. Added to that was a guest hiker, Joanna, who got to see a little bit of life outside the big city before her internship begins.

Some of the braver hikers went under these boulders. I climbed some steep stairs and went around.
There was a lot of haze for much of the hike but then the blue sky showed up.
We visited one of the western Qing tombs. These fellows are not guarding the tomb; there seems to be a base nearby.

Lunchtime break with Joanna.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Dancing on a Mountaintop

If someone had ever said to me that I'd be showing some Heyrobics dance moves to a hiking group on a mountaintop north of Beijing as the polluted air creates haze in the distance....Oh, who am I kidding?

I like to dance. If I can't dance on tabletops, I'll dance on mountaintops. And hiking has given me a way to fall in love with China all over again week after week. As the frustrations and annoyances mount, I can go to places like this and think, maybe I should just stop my whining and be happy for now.

Here's a bit of this week's hiking adventure.
Wish I could take credit for this arty shot.
We didn't do any rock climbing, but we did climb. And climb.
It really was this beautiful.
I start to show my friends the dance moves.
There are some people who think I might bound off the mountain.
Still dancing.
The jumping jacks part really made people think I was going to go off the edge.
After the dance party, we start to head back. It's still beautiful.
We also met these little fellows, but no big bad wolf.
Hello from a square grotto.
The long walk back.