The Cornfield Diaries East (FAR East)

Or: "We're not in Illinois anymore, Toto"

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The Back Alleys of China

When you live in a city, alleys are generally something that you avoid — after all, guys duck into alleys if they can’t find a bathroom, and after watching years and years of “Law and Order”, we all know that bad things lurk in dark alleys, just waiting to jump out at you. 

But then you get to China.  Yes, there are still some alleys that you might want to steer clear of, but in other places, they have taken the concept of “alley” and turned it into something else entirely. 

In Beijing, the alleys are called hutongs, and they even have their own names.  Since they are rhapsodized as “quaint” and “quintessential China”, we figured that they were worth a look-see after we visited the Drum Tower.  Our guidebook was lamenting that the hutongs surrounding the Drum Tower were under a lot of pressure to be torn down in favor of glittering new buildings, so this might be our last chance!  

We entered a narrow alley, which led to another narrow alley, which led to another narrow alley . . . at least the alleys didn’t curve, but it began to remind me of one of those Labyrinth games with the marbles and the little knobs on the side that change the slant of the maze.  We noticed that every couple of turns, there was two doors marked “TOILET” — the people who live in the hutongs do not have toilets in their home, thus the community toilets. We encountered the occasional stray pup or kitty, and passed by several people who looked at us curiously (“Oh, hell, more lost tourists . . .”)  We would hear drifts of staccato television laughter wafting from windows, occasionally.  In one dead-end, we stood, considering our next direction as we were watched by an older Chinese woman.  When we looked around a corner, wondering if it was a dead-end or led to another walkway, the woman hurried in front of us, waved her arms and shook her head.  Ooops — that was her home.  We backed away with apologies and she smiled.  Later, we passed another group of people shooting the breeze on the low steps, three younger men and an old woman with grey hair in a straw hat, clogs and a navy blue smock and pants, sitting with her arms around her knees.  As we passed, the guys stopped talking to stare (“Oh, look, more lost tourists . . .”), but the old woman was absolutely delighted by us — she started clapping in glee as we walked by, with a big smile on her face.  The shops we saw were mostly of the mundane style — one guy selling plumbing pipes, another selling mats, another selling kebobs — just an average neighborhood.  I have to admit that the “romance” and the “charm” was lost on me, and I suspect that if you told the residents that their alley was “charming”, they might prefer to trade it for an in-house bathroom. Or maybe not. 

Another hutong was just a small street with lots of shops and a Confucian temple where scholars would come to sit for the Imperial exam.  To cut down on cheating, the student was locked into a cell about 1.5 m. square for three days to take the exam (there were 8,000 cells).  Some of them couldn’t take it and broke down. The ones who did pass the highest level exam would have their names inscribed on a stone tablet, as a lasting recognition of their brilliant scholarly achievement. 

Back in Shanghai, our welfare assistant, Marianne, suggested that we check out the Tianzifang, Shanghai’s “longfangs” or alleys. It’s part of the French Concession, and I missed it the last time I was wandering around down there.  Now, THIS is what I call “charming”! Small, crowded alleys, but bursting with little shops (ok, a lot of overpriced schtick, but hey, that’s what bargaining is for), tiny restaurants and cafes (some with 3 tables, max), and atmosphere galore. There are a lot of small galleries selling one-of-a-kind arts and crafts, too, with some interesting takes on glass, leather and pottery.  


The nice thing about these alleys is when you come out, you are still in the French Concession section of Shanghai, a haven of shady, tree-lined streets, beautiful architecture, charming gates and doors, and brick streets.  


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The Grand Tour, Chinese Edition

We were delighted with a visit from our daughter this past week, thus the lack of blogs — we spent time in Shanghai shopping and revisiting some of the more popular landmarks.  But one thing we did do is take a weekend trip to Beijing. 

I was all prepared to be enchanted with Beijing — Great Wall, Forbidden City, etc., etc.  And there is a lot about Beijing that is interesting and absorbing, if you give it time.  But overall — I find that I prefer Shanghai to Beijing.  The people in Shanghai are just a little more relaxed, a little more friendly, English (or, at least, a willingness to work with tourists frantically flipping through phrase books) is found more frequently.  The Metro system in Shanghai is cleaner and better marked (albeit more expensive, oh darn, $.60 instead of $.30). And while there are a LOT of people in Shanghai, they all don’t seem to be converging on the popular tourist destinations at the same time, like they do in Beijing.

We arrived on Friday morning, and had set aside time on Friday to visit the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square.  If you have never been to the Forbidden City — it is BIG.  Huge. A city within a city, to be sure. And I think we missed about 1/3 of it, but after wandering for hours, we grew a little tired of one Hall after another. One of the things that confused us at first was getting tickets just to get IN. We kept seeing tickets to “Palace Museum”, and finally realized that the Chinese government refers to the whole complex as “The Palace Museum”, not “The Forbidden City” (I mean, it’s NOT forbidden, if you can go, right?).  It was magnificent.  There are much better travel writers than I am that can wax lyrical on the many wonders of The Forbidden City, and I’ll leave them to it.  I was just marveling at the sheer number of PEOPLE that were streaming into the Forbidden CityImage.  It’s said that the main courtyard is able to hold 100,000 people in the event of a festival, the Emperor’s birthday, etc.  I had always shrugged that off as an exaggeration, but I think there were more than a few thousand packed in there early Friday afternoon.


The guards at the palace do NOT smile.  Ever.  It’s a little unnerving, and while it seems like it would have been easy to ignore them, I felt like we kept tripping over them. 

We explored the City for several hours, ending up in an “Imperial Garden” that seemed as dusty and tired as we were.  We were astonished at how the Chinese visitors seemed to completely ignore the tasteful low fences that were erected around the garden plots, and stepped right over them to wander through.  No wonder there’s no grass — it’s all been pounded into the dirt. Lots of parents would put their children over the fence to pose them by a plant or a rock.  Small wonder that the “garden” was mostly dirt, rocks and a few hardy trees.  I have to admit, I thought the emperors could do better.  (Oddly enough, the garden was the ONE place where the guards were scarce.)

After the City, we went back to our hotel to freshen up, grab some dinner, and then return to Tian’anment Square to grab some evening photos.  We could see people milling around the Square, but could find no way to actually ENTER the Square, due to the unsmiling guards.  By the time we found a spot to enter, people were milling out, and we were curtly waved off and told, “close”. They closed the square at night?  Apparently they do, right after the flag lowering ceremony at sunset. That’s like closing the Mall in D.C.  But then again, I suppose they figure they can’t be too careful, after 1989.  So we contented ourselves with evening shots of the entrance to the Forbidden City and wandered back to the hotel via Wangfujing Dajie, a long street that has been converted to a busy pedestrian mall and mentally noting potential stores to revisit. 

The next day was Great Wall Day.  We had reserved a car and driver to take us to Mutianyu, about an hour and a half away, hoping to avoid the crowds that generally flock to another portion of the wall at Badaling. Not a problem early in the morning, especially when it’s raining. *sigh*. By the time we arrived at Mutianyu, we had made up our minds that we WERE going to get wet, oh, well, and decided not to allow a little rain to detract from our visit to one of the world’s top “must see” destinations.  We did cheat a bit and took a cable car up to the wall (we reasoned that the one-hour walk, otherwise, would be muddy and slippery, not to mention steep as hell.)  And yes, it was utterly magnificent — what we could see of it.  (While on the cable car ride, Catherine tried to take a photo and realized, aghast, that she had left her memory card behind in the computer.  We loaned her ours. 🙂 )We ended up spending almost three hours walking along the Wall, which is over 2.5 kilometers long. The cable car dropped us off at Tower 14, and we walked to Tower 21, marveling at the way the Wall dipped and disappeared off into the clouds.  The rain was the misty sort, the kind that never really just falls, it just sort of surrrounds you, making every stitch of clothing you are wearing increasingly damp until you realize that the only thing the umbrella is good for is keeping the rain off your glasses, because the rest of you is drenched.  But it was warm (80’s) and capitivating:


Then we got to Tower 20.  To our surprise and amusement, there is an older Chinese guy there who appears to have the lock on a concession stand of sorts on the roof of Tower 20, which is reached by a narrow, steep metal ladder (in the rain, remember).  For a bottle of water and a can of beer, he charged 80 yuan (about $13).  Location, location, location . . . ! Best. Water. Ever.  Thus fortified, we attacked the 454 steps from Tower 20 to Tower 21.  It was grueling — steps were a bit damp and slippery, and they were STEEP — the Ming warriors who built this wall must have been giants, because the steps were sometimes as much as 12 inches tall.  We got to the bottom of Tower 21, which ended with a very narrow, even steeper staircase of about 12-15 steps, and said, “OK, that’s enough.”, and headed back.  The rain was just too much at that point. We were shocked at the number of tourists clustered around the tower near the cable car — we had gone from relatively quiet to mobbed within three hours, many were tourists who never ventured further than one tower.  We waited for the cable car, since the Alpine-like toboggan ride was suspended due to weather (THAT would be a fun ride!), and ended up making our way back down to the village through a souvenier market that resembled some sort of bedraggled tent city.  They were selling uninspired t-shirts (grey, with the words “I climbed the Great Wall” for $1, as well as numerous other knick-knacks, and after we reached the end, we heaved a sigh of relief — we had literally run the gauntlet!

ImageWe had our driver drop us off at Beijing’s Drum Tower, in time to catch a short drum performance.  The drummers were a small corps of five, seemingly teenagers.  The “drum major”, so to speak, was a tiny little thing, but she commanded the big drum with authority. 


We flew back to Shanghai the next day, after an evening of dinner and wandering around Wangfujing Dajei.  Bill waiting for us at the Foreign Language Bookstore, and, when that closed, he waiting for us outside of the clothing store.  To his amusement, he was approached by a “working woman” who seemed to think he was lacking in feminine companionship. When he tried to wave her off and explained that he was waiting for his wife, she was persistent:  “OK, you get rid of her and come back and see me later, okkkaaay?”  I do hope she didn’t wait too long . . . 

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“So many pedestrians, so little time . . . “

That seems to be the refrain of most of the drivers here in Shanghai.  I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how unnerving it is for someone new to Shanghai to be in the midst of the constant horn-honking, the willy-nilly “oh, the road’s too crowded, I’m going to drive on the street” attitude.  Curious, I was looking around on-line and found instances where pedestrians have fought back — one 70-year-old man was so enraged at the flagrant red-light running and pedestrian endangerment that he decided to take matters into his own hands, brought a supply of bricks to an intersection, and then proceeded to whinge a brick at cars who muscled their way past a red light into an intersection.  The comments on his actions were predictably split — many were applauding his actions: “Old grandpa, the citizens of China thank you!”, and another, “The old grandpa probably was in black society when he was young…very valiant.”  Others were bemoaning the lack of civility, and how the cars should simply be reported to the authorities. 

I know exactly how he felt.

One day, while crossing the street (on a green, thank you very much), a car whizzed out of nowhere to make a right hand turn at her red light.  I swear to God, that woman (and yes, it was a woman “of a certain age”) didn’t slow down. I happened to have my umbrella/parasol in my hand, folded up, when this biatch came flaming up, honking.  Instinctively, I threw my hand (holding the umbrella) out to stop the car — and yeah, maybe a put a little more force into that umbrella that a simple hand swipe might have carried.  Anyway, I wacked her car with my umbrella, yelling “AIYE!!!!!!!!!!” To hell with being a nice American. If my acting abilities had been on cue, I might have even managed tumbling to the ground — but common sense (finally) kicked in, and I moved on. 

Imagine her shock when the crazy laowai fought back. It made ME smile for the rest of day.

So many of the cars we’ve seen here are relatively new — at least half are less than 3 years old.  Car purchasing power has increased dramatically in the last ten years — in 2001, there were less than 10 million cars owned by Chinese.  In 2013, that had risen to over 120 million.  So, basically, you have over 100 million drivers who have less than 10 years of driving experience — imagine a city of drivers where at least 1/3 of them are driving like your average 16-19 year old.  I’ve been reading a book, “Country Driving” by Peter Hessler, who talks about his travels around China, and the migration of the farm workers to the factories.  He noted that many of the questions on the drivers exam has to do with honking:  “When driving through a residential neighborhood, you should a) honk like normal, b) honk more than normal, in order to alert residents, or c) avoid honking, in order to avoid disturbing residents.”  He also notes that “Drivers rarely check their rearview mirrors.  Windshield wipers are considered a distraction, as are headlights.”  In fact, in Beijing, it was against the law to use headlight until the late 1970’s, but even in Shanghai today, we often see cars (and most scooters and bikes) zipping around at night with no lights.  

Of course, it doesn’t help that the lights are timed so abysmally.  A traffic cycle is over 2 minutes long, and it gives you almost 20 seconds to cross a six lane road. Presumably, they have started cracking down on Chinese pedestrians who cross on red (fine is 5 yuan, about $.80), but in a country where in some areas policemen can invest in a camera-triggered highway speed trap, and earn 7.5% of the fines that are collected by the trap, it’s hard to take the pedestrian jay-walking seriously. 

Thank goodness the public transportation system is so good.  if I had to rent a car here, I’d be a white-knuckled mess — or in jail!

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Hangzhou — and more temples . . .

Hangzhou is a resort town about an hour away from Shanghai via the bullet train, noted for its lovely West Lake views and scenery.  Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?  Well, the city alone has 6.2 million people — the metropolitan area has 21 million (compared to Shanghai’s 23 million), so I guess it does make it “smaller”, in a relative term.  Still, my preconceptions keep getting messed with!  

The bullet train is a very pleasant ride (got up to 300 km/hour), with lots of glimpses of the counryside outside of Shanghai. (It was dark when we went to Xian, so we Imagedidn’t see much.)  Some small rice paddies, lots of very green fields with workers wearing traditional Chinese workhats, and we think we even saw some single-family-homes (I don’t think we’ve seen one since we’ve been in Shanghai.) With the large lake west of Hangzhou, (thus West Lake), a booming resort/tourist mecca has developed.  And even though it was 97 degrees and 106 heat index, about half the population of China decidedImage to choose the same day to visit Hangzhou and take in the sights.  We wandered around the lakefront, oohing and aahing at the perfection of the lakeside parks while quickly melting in the oppressive summer heat.  

Now, when I say “lakeside,” that does NOT mean “swimming”.  Oh, hell, no.  No one in their right mind would step a toe in THAT green cauldron of witches’ brew!  It is picturesque.  It is “magical” (I swear, that was one of the adjectives in the guidebook.)  It is “quaint” (yeah, some tourist book probably refers to Cleveland by the lake as “quaint”.)  

There are a series of causeways that criss-cross the lake, with pretty little moon-bridges adding some picturesque charm.  There’s boat trips you can take out to an island in the middle of the to the “Mid Lake Pavillion” where one can contemplate “Three Pools Mirroring the Moon”, which, I, alas, didn’t see much to recommend it except a few statues standing out in the water. Apparently, each statue has carefully carved holes that work perfectly the one month of the year when they have  the Mooncake Festival in the autumn — things apparently line up just right and you get funky reflections.  Well, in the middle of the summer, sorry, but they just look like partially-drowned statues, to me.   You can wander around the island, admiring the pagodas and shrines, the water lillies, the bridges, etc.  Did I mention the water lillies?  There were a LOT of water lillies . . . 

But the boat ride was pleasant (a breeze!!)  and took us to the other side of the lake. At that point, checking into our hotel seemed like a good idea, but we realized we had no way of communicating with the taxi driver.  Hmm.  So Bill pulls out his laptop as we are sitting in a gazebo next to another old pagoda site (did I mention the pagodas?  There are a LOT of pagodas . . .), fires it up, and I carefully copy the Chinese characters for the address of our hotel on a notecard.  For good measure, I also had the telephone number, so if worst came to worst, we could call and the desk could give instructions to the driver.  Usually, the hotels provide a business card, in English and Mandarin, that says, :”Please take me back to ______”, with the address and a tiny, unreadable map on the back. But since we hadn’t gotten there, yet . . . Happily, the taxi driver was able to read my Chinese (it probably looked like an illiterate kindergartener, but that’s ok), and we arrived at the Hangzhou Scholar’s Hotel.  

Ah, a fluffy bed again (did I mention that the beds at our Shanghai hotel are like cinderblocks?  I may have, once or twice…) And there was an odd scroll on our desk, with faint squares printed on it.  Next to the scroll is a calligraphy brush and a small “ink stone”


Practicing calligraphy at the Hangzhou Scholar’s Hotel

filled with water.  The scroll turns out to be a water-sensitive paper that you can practice calligraphy on — as the water dries, it disappears, and you can continue to use the scroll over and over again.  COOL!!! I had a lot of fun with that, and can now produce a reasonable facsimile of our address in Hangzhou from memory (don’t ask me to write anything else.)  Other accoutrements in the hotel room included fresh fruit, a small fan (it is hot, after all), and other little niceties.  The lobby had a large library, all in Chinese, which was intriguing, and a large table with more calligraphy brushes and water-sensitive scrolls.  When we decided we wanted to visit Lingyin Temple, the bellboy was literally running into the streets to find us a taxi.  

Lingyin Temple is actually a park (surrounded by stalls selling joss sticks, etc.) that surrounds Hangzhou’s principle Buddhist temple (first built in 328, and probably rebuilt about 15 times due to invasions, revolutions, etc.).  You pay admission to the park, but you also have to pay a separate admission to the temple — we declined the opportunity to see a 20 meter high statue of Buddha sculpted out of camphor blocks, but enjoyed walking around the grounds.  The provided map was useless — the names didn’t correspond with anything we walked by or saw, I’m not even convinced it was a map of the same temple grounds!  We had also purchased a ticket for a cable car ride up to Noth Peak, which was reputed to have scenic vistas of West Lake, but by the time we were able to locate the cable car terminus, it was closed (they obligingly gave us a refund.)  Let’s just say that at this point, I’ve seen enough Buddhas and pagodas.  

We decided to wawalk back to town (about 2-3 k.) and walked almost to the lake, and decided to grab a bus to take us to the other side of the lake (another 5 k, and yes, it was HOT). We hopped out, and soon came upon a Starbucks (THANK YOU, GOD!!!) that had iced tea.  I had to insist on the ice (“Are you sure you want ice?!” “Yes, I’m sure — LOTS of ice, please.” “Much ice?”  “As much as you can fit into the cup, yes.”  “Are you SURE?” “Yes, please!” The barristas thought that was the funniest thing they had ever heard. Apparently, older Chinese beliefs hold that cold things in the stomach are bad for you — ice cream, cold drinks, etc.  I don’t care.  I blissfully enjoyed a lovely “Shaken lemon tea” drink with boocoodles of ice.  Ahhh.  We strolled along the lakeside, found the place for the evening’s light show, and then went to find someplace to grab a quick dinner. The restaurant’s wait staff had iPads that they used to place their orders — we would point to something on the menu, they would punch it in, and then show us a bigger picture, to confirm. It was beef with peppers, with some egg drop-and-pickle-soup (with pickles?  Huh?  Okay . . .  I’ve discovered that if you tell yourself “it’s just a mushroom”, you can eat just about anything, regardless of whether or not it actually IS a mushroom.) 

After dinner, we wandered back to the light/fountain show.  I swear, China, you have GOT to get your act together on these lame-ass “dancing fountain” light shows. There is SO much potential for really dazzling effects, and basically, what they get is a few plumes of water waving around with a colored light playing across it.  

Back to the hotel, and about 30 minutes of watching “The Voice – Chinese Edition”.  Of course, I have no idea what the judges are bantering about, which makes it a little less suspenseful. At least the singers didn’t sound like they were killing a cat. 

The next morning, we set out for what we thought was our train station.  About half and hour and an abortive attempt at the metro system (Hangzhou only has one line right now, and doesn’t really have the pinyan sub-titles down like Shanghai does — we were figuring out the stops from comparing Chinese characters on a map to Chinese characters on a metro map as it was flying underground.)  After realizing that we were going the wrong way to where we thought we wanted to go, we jumped off and grabbed a taxi, showing him our ticket and exclaiming “huoche!”  We had approximately 21 minutes to make it across town to the station, get through security and get to the train. Suddenly, we realized that the train station that we had been trying to go to was actually the wrong station.  We came in on the Hangzhou main station, but our return train was out of the brand new Hangzhou East station.  Whaaaatttt . . . . ?  Our taxi driver was brilliant — one of the few times I heartily approved the indignant honking of a driver as he cleared the road of pedestrians and bikers. However, when we arrived at the brand new station, he had never been there before, and didn’t know how to get to the access ramp.  So he drops us off at the foot of the exit ramp and points up, making a little shoo-ing motion as in “Get out here and start walking.”  We hit that ramp at top speed (I quickly slowed down — did I mention it was HOT?) and made it to the terminal, and after a couple of abortive tries, made it in and through security.  The gates close 3 minutes before the train leaves.  There were 4 minutes to go when we hit that gate, flying down the steps.  We were hurrying down the platform to our car #3, when the whistle blew and Bill yells, “GET ON THE TRAIN!”  We leaped on and staggered down the rest of the cars to our first-class seats, which turned out to be a private compartment for four.  Our seats were already inhabited by two men and a little boy, and the look of resignation on their faces — almost — made me feel guilty, but the little boy was shooed out without comment and we plopped down just as the train started to move.  Apparently the man had paid for a seat, but his daughter and her little boy only had standing room tickets, so the entire way to Shanghai, the little boy played (noisily) outside our compartment while his grandfather snoozed. It seemed rude to close the door, when the little boy kept popping in to snatch snacks out of Grandpa’s bag. Oddly enough, at some point, the little boy, who had been chattering in Chinese the entire time, exclaimed loudly, “I’m HUNGRY!  I’m THIRSTY!” in perfect English. His mom shushed him in Chinese. 

Back to Shanghai . . . it almost feels like home at this point.  

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Forays into Chinese Pharmaceuticals

Before we came on this trip, we were vaccinated against everything but Avian Influenza (we assured the nurse that we would not be spending a lot of time in the country around chickens). We didn’t get a rabies shot (also recommended if we were going to be around animals). We were each issued a package of antibiotics, just in case we picked up a stomach bug, but otherwise, I packed some Advil, some Sudafed and some Pepto-Bismol, some mosquito bite ointment (which hasn’t been opened), some bandaids and some first aid cream (also unopened.) 

Bill and I both caught a cold after our trip to Xian — Bill was only sniffling for a couple of days, popped some Sudafed, went to bed early, and that was that. Once I got it, I went into my dying swan routine.  Sniff, sniff, hack, hack, so tired, so hot, fever, it’s 105 outside, more A/C, less A/C, hot shower, steam, can’t breathe, “bring me some orange juice,” blah, blah, blah. (I’m a PITA when I’m sick.)  I’ve ripped through most of the packs of Kleenex I brought (anticipating paperless bathrooms, of which I have encountered a few), and then, suddenly . . . we were out of Sudafed.  OH NO!!!  NOW WHAT?!  

Still dripping like this morning’s laundry, I ventured a short trip to the mall — surely the drug store there would carry something familiar?  Ha.  The drug store carries everything BUT drugs.  There are numerous make-up counters, all with creams guaranteeing whiter skin (a big thing, around here), a few dietary supplements (hardly any weight-loss pills/drinks/mixes, etc., curiously, not that anyone here needs them), some make-up, a a few other items — but nothing that would remotely stop my nose up.  Walgreens, it’s not. 

As I wandered dejectedly out of the drug store (think dying swan), I spied a PHARMACY a few stores down. Pharmacy — drugs, right?!  Yay!  I went in, hoping that the boxes would look the same, perhaps with little English subtitles.  Uh — no.  Not one single thing in that entire store had an English subtitle.  Apparently, copying is rampant in China, from everything from CDs to drugs,  but not in THIS store, no sirree!  Despair — dying swan . . .

A clerk in a little white coat (so medical-looking, right?  She probably has a 6th grade education and wears the coat as a uniform, but I digress) watched me peruse the aisles and becoming increasingly bewildered (as I tried to discreetly sniff into a clutched Kleenex.)  Finally, she approached me with the Chinese equivalent of “Can I help you?”  I pantomine sneezing, coughing, etc. OK, apparently I’m not going to win any Oscars for my acting. Fumble for the phrase book — “I have a cold.”  Puzzled look, until I show her the Chinese for it.  Ah!  Either I’m going to get meds or she’s going to show me where to buy a coat . . . briskly, she turns to the shelf, examines it for a moment, and chooses a box reassuringly like a box of Sudafed (but blue, not red.)  Of course, it’s all Chinese — so how much do I take, and when?  She shows me the directions (in Chinese), holds up two fingers — two tablets, got it — and then three fingers.  Every three hours?  Three times a day?  Hmm.  I figure I’ll get my W.A. to translate it for me, buy it (only 5 yuan?!?! Less than a dollar?!) and take it home. 

Alas, my W.A. is out guiding other lost souls.  I stare at the box — no, Mandarin doesn’t suddenly become comprehensible the longer you stare at it.  Mindful of all the dire warnings regarding Chinese medicines (out of date, poor supervision of contents, no FDA, etc., etc.)  I decided to do at least a little research. I turned to Google Translate, and typed in 2 pills 3 times a day.  The Chinese characters pop up, and voila!  They are the same characters that are on the box!!  Whoohoo!  The pharmaceutical names were in English, and those were recognizeable (except for the Asiatic moonseed, not sure about that, apparently Wiki thinks it’s a poison, but oh, well what the heck – would they TELL me it was a poison?  Probably not.)  Down the pills go, followed by a reasonably cool Diet Coke (the fridge in our room is a long way from “cold”.)  Half an hour later, after the drugs have kicked in, I’m feeling better — certainly up to an early evening stroll down Nanjing Road.  

Better living through chemistry — even Chinese chemistry. 🙂 

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Street Scenes, Part III

Xian was a revelation for someone expecting the equivalent of a somewhat sleepy Midwest sort of town. Xian ranks #54 in a list of world’s largest cities (Atlanta is #72).  Shanghai is in the top 10, at #5. (#1 is Tokyo, followed by Jakarta, Seoul, and Delhi). New York barely cracks the top 10 at #8.

Things that caught our fancy as we toured Xian:


  • Bill happened upon a restaurant staff getting their instructions for the day.  He was struck by the attentiveness, the orderliness and the neatness of the staff, even at 8:30 in the morning.
  • The Chinese children are so much fun to watch. In the cities, the girls are invariably beautifully dressed in what most Americans would consider “Sunday best” dresses, but here, it’s just what they wear. The little boys are usually more c
    Imageasually dressed, in shorts and t-shirts.
  • I love the unselfconsciousness of the people hanging out in the park.  Day or night, you will come across groups of people ballroom dancing, line dancing, or in the case of one intrepid soul, she brought her own boom box and just started in on her own version of Image “dancing in the streets”.  She gathered quite a crowd – not sure if “appreciative” is the right word, but let’s just say they gave her full points for moxie!
  • The sheer number of people can be overwhelming. This was just one of ten waiting rooms at the Shanghai Railway Station — each one just as full as the other.  And this isn’t the only station in town.  It was a little warm, and one of the more — uh, interesting — waysImagesome of the men have of dealing with it is simply pulling their shirt up over their bellies. Lots of men walking around with beer bellies.
  • It was surprising how abruptly we left the city behind when we went out to visit the Qianling masoleums. Lots of small plots of gardens.  We were curious as to why one plot would seem to be carved out of the earth, leaving a wall of dirt 2, 3 or even 4 feet high on perhaps two or three sides.  It was almost like terraces, but the ground was relatively flat.  Our tour guide told us that that was one way the plots were differentiated from a neighbor’s, instead of a fence. One neighbor had the lower plot, another neighbor had the upper plot.
  • We LOVED the traffic cop “fake out” along the highway.  From a distance, it appearsImage to be a police car lurking on the side of the road with its lights flashing.  As you get closer, you see that it’s a fake — a sandwich board painted to look like a police car, with real lights perched on the top. Saves on manpower, I guess!
  • Seeing the fields as we drove to Qianling was sobering.  Many, many individual plots, with grave markers interspersed haphazardly among the fields.  The occasional prayer gate over a dirt road leading to a small collection of homes.  Many of the homes looked, from a distance, to be deserteImaged, but our tour guide told us that they were indeed inhabited — just not too much electricity or running water.

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Xian and the Terracotta Warrriors

We had a three-day weekend this week, and several of us decided to go on a trip to Xian, about 1,400 km away (about 870 DSCN0994miles). To get the full travel experience, we took a sleeper train over on Thursday evening, leaving Shanghai at 10:00 pm (or 22:00, to be precise).  I wasn’t sure if I would sleep, but it turns out that the soft clackety-clack of the rails is very sleep-inducing.  Apparently the train is pretty quick — Bill woke up early and noted that the speed indicator said we were going about 245 kpm (152 mph), and we weren’t even on a bullet train. We were jarred awake at 7:10 am with very, ah, distinct music greeting us and telling us we were one hour from Xian (pronounced “she-an”)

Xian was an eye-opener.  I’ve heard of the Terracotta Warriors found in Xian in the mid-70’s, how they were found “in a field” as a farmer was digging a well.  That, plus Xian is out in the middle of nowhere, I was anticipating a smaller town, with a more village-y feel.

Uh.  No.

Xian has a population of 8 MILLION people.  It’s a huge city, with plans to get even bigger, if the building that is frantically going on is any indication.  Our tour guide is a native of Xian, and was full of information on how it has grown — but even so, when she was born in the 80’s, the town was about the size of Atlanta, so it’s never been a “village”. In fact, in China, there are over 100 towns with a population of one million or more.  I find myself constantly readjusting my view of China, which up to this pointh had been a few big towns and a lot of rice paddies.  Uh . . . no.

We stayed at the Westin (fluffy, Western-style beds, THANK YOU, GOD!!), a tub that was a religious experience, a very lovely shower and a TV that had 8 — count ’em, 8! — English langauge stations.  Bliss.  The breakfast in the mornings was wonderful — all sorts of Western goodies like bacon and waffles, along with all the Chinese standards such as fried noodles, chongee and steamed buns.  And the service was impeccable.

Our tour guide had us moving briskly from sight to sight.  We visited the City Wall, a tall, ancient wall (think miniature Great Wall) around the center of town which is a rectangle that measures  9 miles along the top ramparts.  We walked along the top for a while (about 30-40 feet wide), or, as Bill wryly put it, a la “Blazing Saddles”, “we’re walking the parapets!”  That afternoon, we visited a museum that has a well-known collection of calligraphy — many of the ancient Chinese tomes that had been inscribed in stone — as well as many stelae, tall stones that served as monuments or memorials.  It was interesting, but I’m afraid the intricacies in the development of Chinese calligraphy over the centuries was somewhat lost on me.

Saturday morning, we visited a Neolithic village that had been discovered in the 1950’s when they started to dig for a power plant.  (I feel sorry for contractors around here — it seems like every time they dig a hole in the ground, they come up with some priceless artifact that brings things to a screeching halt as everyone peruses said artifact to see if it’s something significant — or just an old pot.)  The Neolithic village showed where the huts had been built, the burial grounds, some remains, and other tools, etc.  To the untrained eye (i.e., mine), it looked like a lot of holes in the dirt.  OK, so I’ll never be an archeologist . . .

The Terracotta Warriors, on the other hand, were mind-blowing. I knew that they had become a tourist mecca in Xian, but again, my preconceived notions kept me from conceiving just how HUGE a deal this is. Our first hint was the amount of traffic outside of the entrance, and the sheer number of tour buses.  HUNDREDS of tour buses.  Our van had some sort of special pass, and we were dropped off at the door (which was nice, because the parking lot looked like Six Flags on a bad day).  We entered a huge ticket pavillion (they get about 40,000 visitors a day) and our guide quickly ducked into a building and came back, excited — “Mr. Yang isDSCN1249 here!  You must see him!”   Mr. Yang is the farmer who is credited with finding the pottery shards that led to the discovery.  Farmers had been finding shards of pottery and pieces of roof tiles in their fields in that area for hundreds of years, buut Mr. Yang is the one who found some significant pieces and brought them to the attention of the authorities — for his trouble, he was paid 30 yuan (about $5 in today’s money).  But, he also got a cushy job with the government where he sits at a large table in the air conditioning, greets visitors and autographs a guide book, and earns about $160 a month.  He still has the original hoe he used to unearth the first warrior — he uses it to plant flowers around his house.

The warriors themselves are magnificent.  An area about the size of two football fields is enclosed with a building and is part exhibition and part active archeological dig.  As they find shards, it takes anywhere from six months to four years to reassemble a life-size warrior — to date, they have about 1,000 warriors reconstructed, and estimate that there are a DSCN1264total of 6,000 that served as the honor guard to the emperor’s tomb.  Other sites, also enclosed show statues of officials, officers, acrobats, etc. — everything to make the emperor feel good in the afterlife. Can you imagine being 13 years old and starting to plan your tomb?  It took over 30 years and 700,000 workers to complete.  The emperor’s tomb is untouched at this time — there are concerns about mercury poisoning in the soil, since his tomb had a river of mercury surrounding it, to represent a river (good feng shui,  apparently.)  All the warriors were painted in life-like colors, but the colors faded and flaked off after only 15 minutes exposure to the air after unearthing. Luckily, they have some photos that were taken that show the level of detail.

Saturday evening, before dinner, Bill and I wandered over to the Wild Goose Pagoda across the street from the hotel, a six-story pagoda that was built to house Buddhist relics that were brought from India by a Buddist monk (and different, of course, from the Small Goose Pagoda and the Great Goose Pagoda.) It leans, every so slightly, and they allow us to climb to the top,DSCN1168 which has a wonderful view of Xian in all directions.  Outside the pagoda’s grounds is a huge, lovely public park filled with people flying kites, line dancing, ballroom dancing, roller skating — just generally kicking back and relaxing.  The entire south side of Xian, where we were staying, is what Bill calls “Disney China” – it’s almost brand-new after reconstruction following the building of the metro lines, with wide avenues, plazas, fountains, parks and upscale restaurants, bars and shopping areas. Theres also a huge pool (about a city block large) with dancing fountains — each evening at 9:00, there’s a show with the fountains and music and some colored lights.  We stayed through four or five songs, and then they started in with a traditional song with singing that sounded, as one of our travel-mates commented, “like they just killed the cat.”  We took that moment to beat a hasty retreat. The adjoining shopping mall (of course) had an interesting ceiling — the entire ceiling was a LED screen with a picture of an aquarium, where fish slowing swam back and forth, giving you the impression of being underwater.  Frankly, it was the only blue sky we saw in three days — grey haze seems to be the norm.

On Sunday, we paid a visit to the tomb of Empress Wu (those of you who have ever played Age of Empires II,  yes, it’s the same empress).  Apparently she was a ruthless woman who knew what she wanted and didn’t let too many people stand in her way, and kept a few young bucks around, the equivalent of male concubines, to “amuse” her up until her death at 81.  A concubine at 13 to Emperor Taizong, she was put in a nunnery after he died 10 years or so later (typical for non-child-producing concubines, and far more humane that burying them alive, which apparently was the norm with some other dynasties).  She managed to capture the attention of his son, Emperor Gaozong and by the time she was 30 or so, was his First Consort (slightly shocking, marrying her step-son). But she enjoyed power, and after he died, she became regent and never let go of the reins of power until she died. By all accounts, when she wasn’t having family members put to death and executing dissidents, she was very effective at ruling China, expanding its borders and doing much to increase the arts and learning.  Her momument has no DSCN1449inscriptions, because her son declared that “no mere words could adequately describe her greatness.”  Our tour guide commented wryly that she often felt it was a case of  “if you can’t say anything nice about someone, especially your parent, then don’t say anything at all.”  We visited the tomb of one of her granddaughters, Princess Yongtai, who was put to death at age 17 (supposedly accused of witchcraft by a close friend of the Empress), but then was posthumously given the title of Princess and buried with the rest of royal family.  Her tomb had some wonderful paintings on the walls leading to the central sarcophagus, along with an exhibit of the pottery and figurines that were buried with her.  The tombs were about 35 miles northwest of Xian in the hills, in a part of Shaanxi that was starting to look like my preconceived notions of the Chinese countryside — small homes in villages crowded together, small plots of gardens, dirt roads.  The areas around the tombs are built for tourists — paved walkways, shops (of course), small eateries, etc — but the little town itself would qualify as “sleepy”.   No traffic lights (although, in China, who pays attention to traffic lights!), which made crossing and turning from a four lane road to a four lane road an exercise in faith.

We flew back to Shanghai late Sunday evening on a flight that was, thank goodness, on time.  Ever wonder what the snacks are like on a domestic Chinese airline?  Well, let’s see — there’s a roll, reasonably fresh.  There’s a small cup of lukewarm water (remember, no ice), a package of dried peas (which tasted like dusty dried up peas might be expected to taste), a package of two small cucumbers, and a small slice of cake.

Great trip — I’m glad we had an opportunity to go!