grey marbles

Wednesday,  November 10, 2010

From city to castle and back again

I took a bus to Varazdin and another to the Trakoscan castle. The bus wound its way through small villages and vineyards and I gazed out the window at the passing scene. Yesterday, after leaving Bianca, I walked through the Trg Petira Preradovica to the Trg Marsala Tita (pausing at Vincek for an ice cream) en route to the Museum Mimara. As I passed the Croatian National Theater I could hear a tenor practicing scales from an open window atop the building. The walk reminded me of St. Petersburg, and I was suddenly nostalgic for that city and the Hermitage. In my mind, I vowed to return.

The Mimara was modest but engaging, and I spent the rest of the suddenly rainy afternoon there amongst the art.

Trakoscan castle proved to be a complete surprise. The bus left me at its base and I stared up at it perched on a hill lording over the valley below. I could only compare it to castles I had seen in Japan, and the approach up a stone path through the forest grounds reminded me of a similar approach to Matsuyama-jo, the highest castle in Japan.

I made my way through the rooms and exhibits before returning to the base of the hill. A small lake rested in the shadow of the castle and I began circumambulating it before realizing the path was longer than I had anticipated. From everywhere were amazing views of the castle, perfectly reflected in the still water.

Back in Zagreb, I made arrangements to meet with Ana, a friend of a friend from New York. We met on the steps leading to Dolac. She told me that usually they would take out-of-town guests to Japanese food. I asked her what our other options were. She suggested a member's club that served home-cooked meals. She told me it was favorite haunt of our mutual friend when she lived in Zagreb, and I readily agreed to try it.

She told me it was ostensibly a club for writers. I asked if she was a member and she said no, her father was. I asked if he was a writer. No, she told me. He deals yachts.

The restaurant had the cozy feel of someone's living room. We feasted on squid ink risotto and aprivate label wine made by the club. To start, I had a sald of some of the best arugula I have ever tasted with cherry tomatoes. One of Ana's friends stopped by for a glass of wine and they set upon revising my itinerary. Ana called various friends for advice and when she asked one to compare Hvar with Rab told her it was like comparing champagne and caviar to dirt. I immediately dropped one place for the other.

Eight minutes to 11, the waitress handed us the bill. They were trying to close up, but we ordered dessert and ate quickly. At 11 everyone was ushered to the door. Ana asked if I'd like a drink, and she took me to a small bar on the corner of Tkalciceva and Skalinska for rakija, a local brandy.

A large group was standing outside drinking and she greeted them as we approached. You know everyone, I exclaimed. It's a small city, she replied. Her friends had been to a jazz concert, part of Zagreb's jazz festival. The night before, Ana had gone to hear Evgeny Kissen. I told her I had thought of trzing to get tickets but the rain kept me from walking to the theater. She said I should have called her. One nice thing about Zagreb being a small town, she told me, is that if you know someone, they can usually get one in for free. One of her friends was in charge of selling CDs at the concert, she arrived with the shipments.

Ana ordered the rakija, explaining the different types that were available. The one we had was infused with a plant that, if eaten in too-large quantities could kill. We toasted each other's health with our glasses raised, and then toasted again to sharing another meal somewhere in the world.

Posted by eku at 4:26 PM |

Tuesday,  November 9, 2010

Zagreb II

I rose early and walked to the Cathedral. A mass was underway and so I took my leave, walking north from the square to Mirogoj cemetery. Designed by Herman Bolle in 1876, the majestic walls boast cuploas that shade a beautiful interior arcade. The effect is imposing rom the outside, but serene once you enter the grounds. I wandered the tree-lined paths as workers used leaf blowers to clear the promenade.

Back in the upper town, I followed the guidebook past the stone arch (now a shrine after a fire burned the church that once stood there, leaving only a portrait of the madonna and child) and into the Markov Trg. Flanked by the country's parliament and presidental palace, the centerpiece is St. Mark's Church, with its tiled roof depicting the medieval coat of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia on the left, and the emblem of Zagreb on the right.

The church was closed and so I wandered a side lane to the Mestrovic Atelier, the former home of the Croatian artist and now a musuem of his work. A docent poinsted out various works, noting to a Spanish visitor one in particular as a study for a statue in Split. Throughout the morning, we would leapfrog each other, each of us with the Lonely Planet in hand. She followed me to the Museum of Naive Art, and then I saw her exiting the Galerija Klovicevi Dvori, where I had paused to view exhibits of Greek art, the paintings of Robert Auer, and a survey of the avant-garde collective known as Biafra.

At the Lotrscak Tower, I finally introduced myself. Bianca was from Barcelona. She had just graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering, 'Planes,' she explained, and was debating what to do next. She had an internship in Split, but her professor was away for the weekend and so she took the opportunity to see some of the country. She was returning that afternoon.

The tower offered commanding views of the town and I circumambulated the small walkwaz to gather it all in. Every day at noon a canon is fired from it and the attendant invited us to return the next day to witness it. Legend has it that a canon was fired at the Turks during one of their occupations across the river. The ball struck at a rooster and that act so demoralized the Turks that they never attacked.

Bianca took her leave of the tower first. She had little time left and a lot to see. As we parted I told her that Split was my final destination before returning home and that perhaps we would run into each other again. She paused as if contemplating an idea, then thought better of it. She smiled and descended to the street.

Posted by eku at 4:02 PM |

Monday,  November 8, 2010

Zagreb I

I arrived in Zagreb in mid-afternoon. The tourist office was closed; a hand-written sign indicated they would return in 10 minutes. I stepped outside the modest airport. A bus driver briskly stowed my bag under his bus and sold me a ticket to town. I was on my way.

From the main bus station I took a tram to the center of town. I stepped out into the bustling Trg Josipa Jelacica and climbed the steps from the square to Dolac market. It had closed, but a few merchants were idly packing up their tables for the night. The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary loomed over the scene.

Continuing up Opatovina I ran into my guesthouse owner's daughter. She was just returning from walking their dog, Otto. She showed me my warm room and disappeared with my passport, calling out 'Five minutes!' as she bounded up the stairs.

I showered nad changed and set out to wander the streets. I stood a long time in the square, watching the trams pause to let their passengers board and alight and I was happy with the scene before me. A light rain had fallen, and the streets shone with reflected light. Later, Ana would cast a disparaging remark on the square, lamenting its tree-lined past. 'Now it looks like they just poured concrete over it all' but at that moment I was full of the life around me and I was content.

Posted by eku at 3:57 PM |

Thursday,  October 1, 2009

Recapturing Uzbekistan

I am in Bokhara, having arrived from Termiz. It took a day to reach the latter city, poised as it is on the edge of Uzbekistan, and it took another day to get out. I hitched a ride with a fishmonger on the way down from Samarkand. When I entered the van, I thought it smelled of fish. My suspicions were confirmed when we stopped in a small town deep in the arid mountains. A cardboard fish sign hung before the door of a shop. The woman got out of the van and opened the back, pulling aside a plastic tarp to reveal a few large fish and buckets of small ones. We paused as the fish were unloaded and sold.

120 kilometers north of Termiz the road forked at a police checkpoint. The van was heading east; I was headed south. I paid for the part of the way I was taken and they left me with the police manning the station. I waited for a car accepting passengers.

Forty-five minutes later an empty tourist bus appeared. They were heading to the four-star Hotel Meridien in Termiz and agreed to take me and another passenger. We had the bus to ourselves as it gingerly made its way through the rest of the mountain roads before emerging onto the verdant plains, teeming with cotton.

While there, I saw one of the few Buddhist temple ruins remaining in the country, and peeked over the Amu Darya into Afghanistan from a gazebo at the Mausoleum of Al-Hakim al-Termizi. My driver had accompanied me to the mausoleum and I asked him if it was ok to take a photo. He peered over his shoulder and quickly nodded. That afternoon I ran into Khasan and Faisil, the two drivers of the van I rode in. Khasan introduced me to his wife and children while Faisil sat behind the wheel of a much nicer van than the one we rode in. I sat with Khasan's parents for a while under a tree by a vacant lot and then took my leave.

That night, as I ate shashlik in an outdoor eatery, a man approached me. He shook my hand and greeted me with great familiarity, but I didn't recognize him. He motioned for me to eat, but seemed disappointed when he left. An hour later, I rememebered him from the tourist bus. I felt terrible for not greeting him with greater warmth, and the emotion lingered with me as I finished dinner and walked back to my hotel.

The hotel I stayed in was a run-down affair. The door had no lock and the windows were broken and without latches. When I asked about a key to the room, the woman explained that there was no key, that she was always there in the lobby watching over the place. I looked at her girth and the television that was permanently tuned to a Russian film before her and understood.

Leaving Termiz I was stopped at a police checkpoint and called out of the share taxi (I had waited three hours in the parking lot for the taxi to reach critical mass; there were few people leaving Termiz, it appeared). The police officer checked my registration papers. The hotel in Samarkand had forgotten to include the date I left and it appeared that there were a few days unaccounted for. Termiz being a sensitive area, the officer wanted to know where I was those few days.

I tried to explain that I had spent four nights in Samarkand, but was having little luck. I pulled out my iPhone to check the date in order to better map out my schedule and he asked to see it. He wanted to hear some music. I showed him a Bjork video and he waved me on my way.

I arrived in Uzbekistan the night of the 21st, at 11:15. By the time I cleared customs and collected my bags it was the next day. In Urumqi I had walked from one terminal to another, through a parking lot, to make my connection. Even then, I had to wait for the terminal to open. In Tashkent, a driver met at the airport and drove me through the quiet streets of the capital to my guesthouse. There, Gulnara greeted me and showed me my room. She took my passport and bade me to rest. I would have breakfast in the morning.

The next morning I ate and ran errands, first to the train station to buy a ticket to Samarkand and then to the apartment of the travel agent who arranged me letter of invitation. Near the train station, I was stopped by the police in the metro. He asked to see my passport and asked where I was staying. I showed him and told him the name of my guesthouse. I had tried to take a photo of the ticket kiosks, just outside the metro. The policeman handed me back my documents and told me not to take photos. I apologized and he smiled.

I waked up the Sharat Rashidova, past the adminstration buildings of the Mustaqillik Maydoni, admiring the shaded broad yet not too broad avenues of the capital and the laid back atmosphere of a not-too populous city. Near the Panorama theater I stopped for lunch and then asked if there was a bus I could take to the Khast Imom, the official religious center of Uzbekistan. I was told it was close. Just street, street, street, and I was there. It wasn't quite so easy. I found it with the help of a few more individuals.

I toured the 16th century medressas and, with the help of a student at the Islamic Institute, found the small museum housing the 7th century Osman Quran, said to be the world's oldest. Inside the musuem, women recited the Quran in small alcoves amongst many other historical books and manuscripts.

Coming back from the Khast Imom, I wandered the back streets of the old city. I heard music and turned a corner to see two horn players and a man with a tambourine before an open door. One horn was as long as the man was tall and then again by half. A man told me they were welcoming a baby into the home. A black Mercedes crept down the narrow street, a videographer stood before it filming its approach. A man emerged with the baby; his wife carried roses. They entered, walking over a golden carpet while their mother threw flower petals. The musicians gathered in the courtyard of the house and began to play as a woman danced. A man noded to me, inviting me to enter, but I demurred.

Back on the main street, I paid a woman 200 sum to allow me to climb a circular staircase on the exterior of a round building to its roof. There I had views over the Chorsu bazaar and out to the Khast Imom. Schoolgirls hung out and tossed paper airplanes into the wind. One girl stood alone and I wondered about her until a man appeared and they stood close together. Walking down I saw more couples crouched in small alcoves.

In the bazaar I bought a mellon and brought it back to the house. I invited a group of Japanese tourists to join me. They brought beer and Japanese snacks. We chatted and ate on a raised platform, over a low table. One woman said the mellon was like a vegetable: not sweet. She told me of a man in the market who sold slices of the sweetest mellon you've tasted for 200 sum a slice. I resolved to find him the next morning.

I was up at six a.m. I showered and ate breakfast and then shouldered my pack. I was bound for Samarkand. I walked through the bazaar looking for the man with the mellon. Running out of time and about to despair, I caught sight of him in a corner of the area reserved for mellon sellers. I bought a slice and greedily ate the fruit. It was delicious. I wanted to linger but couldn't. I wanted another slice, but had not the time. If he understood Englsh I would have made him know that I would return in two weeks time to plant myself before him, eating slice after slice until I could eat no more. I ran to the metro to catch my train.

I rode to Samarkand facing the past. When I arrived, I took a bus to the center of town where the Registan and Dogbitskaya streets intersect and walked to my guesthose in the Old Jewish Quarter. En route, I walked past the Registan itself and the medressas that flanked the square. It was an awesome sight, but I was surprised to find it beside a major street, with a spate of modern buildings and shops along the other side.

I checked into my third floor room with its view of the Registan. I showered and changed and resolved to have a closer look. I walked over to the 15th and 16th century medressas and amired their restored facades. Inside, the small rooms have been given over to tourist shops. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking north up the pedestrian Tashkent, lined with shops that seem too large to house the limited stock on display. I peered into the massive Bibi-Khanym Mosque, its front gate restored to its 33m height, but the interior left partially in ruins, and then further north to the beautiful mausoleums of the Shah-i-Zinda, built around the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed.

That night, I was awoken when my bed was shaken by a tremor. I listened to the night for the sound of possible destruction, but all was quiet. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.

The next morning I noticed that the minaret to the right of the Ulugbek medressa was slightly slanted. I'm sure it was before, but the tremor in the night made me especially aware. I walked over as dawn was breaking and made an offering to a guard to let me climb the minaret for its views of the Registan. A Swiss tourist told me it was amazing; the Italian woman before me was unimpressed. Still, it was amazing to be able to stand above the Registan and gaze down at it from above.

I spent the rest of my time touring other mosques and medressas in Samarkand, taking the time to visit the Afrosiab museum (with its one room of fragments of a beautiful ancient wall painting) for a glimpse into Samarkand's past and paying my respects to the Tomb of the Old Testament Prophet Daniel, walking around his 18m long sarcophagus three times. Further along the road I was awed at the remains of Ulugbek's Observatory, a giant curved track marks what's left of his 30m astrolab, built in the 1420s.

In Bokhara I have been wandering the dusty alleys and streets in search of the past. From the top of the Ark's battlements (Bukhara's oldest structure, being occupied from the 5th century until 1920, when it was bombed by the Red Army), I looked down upon the square where English officers were once beheadded, casualties of the Great Game, and in other squares I've stared up at the exquisite 47m tall Kalon Minaret, its 14 different ornamental bands erected in 1127. The town has been preserved to a point at which it feels devoid of local life. Instead, tourists make the rounds, bargaining in the various bazaars and photographing the monuments. It makes me wonder how this area would have developed had the Soviets not become so involved in the Central Asia, but then I realized that that is also part of what makes these towns and cities interesting.

I wasn't sure what to expect of these ancient cities (having done no research before I left), but I had romantic notions in my mind. Their names alone are mystical. And by night, in the back streets and under the light of a waxing moon, their mystery is almost regained.

Posted by eku at 3:09 AM | Comments (2)

Sunday,  September 20, 2009

A Beijing wedding

I leave for Uzbekistan in under eight hours. I feel unprepared. This morning military aircraft flew over the hutongs in preparation for the October 1st celebrations, some trailing colors behind them. On the rooftops locals pointed and took photographs. One man with a red armband pointed behind me. Look, he said! There'll be more coming.

Last night I met with friends for dinner at a duck restaurant down the street. It was the newest incarnation of Da Dong. A kitchen stadium welcomes guests who can see the ducks being roasted by chefs over open flames. If you order the special duck you're able to walk up and choose your own duck. We shut down the restaurant.

I skipped the afterdinner char to come back and finish doing laundry. I debated whether to begin packing but decided I was too tired to try. I went to bed.

The night before I had attended my friend's wedding. The months of planning had come to a head.

The morning began slowly. I went and bought breakfast for the bride and groom. Hair and makeup arrived at the house and the bride began her preparations. The groom gave me envelopes of money with which to pay the vendors. I checked the list and familiarized myself with the delivery schedule.

The photograper arrived and we hung out in the calm before the storm. Around eleven thirty a van arrived and we packed last minute items into it to bring to the site of the wedding, a temple in a nearby hutong that was in the midst of a conversion to a hotel and event space. The wedding would be their second event after the first stage of renovation.

We arrived at the temple at noon to find the narrow alley leading up to the temple packed with delivery trucks and workers. The gates had not been opened and nothing could be unloaded. We quickly found the manager who unlocked the gates. Trucks began pulling in and unloading. They were told not to drive over the patches of grass even though we had been given permission and instead did worse dragging small carts over the land. Permission to pull the trucks forward was re-granted.

Deliveries began to come in earnest. Tables and chairs were being unloaded while flowers were stacked in the front courtyard. My cell phone rang; the drinks delivery had arrived. I distributed my envelopes of money, lightening my load. The caterer arrived as did the roast pig. The guzhen player arrived, the band, the wedding cake.

The wedding began to take shape. The registration table was assembled as well as the alter. Chairs were lined up in front of the alter. The alter was dressed. In the temple the dinner tables were prepared so that they could quickly take the place of the ceremony space while the guests were in the forward courtyard having cocktails.

Guests started to arrive. Ushers kept them in the forward courtyard as we undertook the finishing touches. Light refreshments were served. A red cloth was signed.

A woman played the guzhen as guests sat. I learned later she was working on an album that was to come out the next year. She was vivacious and spoke with wide eyes about her instrument and her plans for the future. One of the bride's cousins is the vice-dean of a music conservatory in Vietnam. He played the flute during the ceremony and the guzhen player expressed admiration at his command of the instrument.

Once the guests were seated, the guzhen player began a classic Chinese song; a favorite of the groom's father. The groom entered, eight men bearing symbolic gifts to the bride's family. They placed their gifts on the altar table and took their seats. The Family followed, first immediate family followed by aunts and uncles. The bride's father introduced his family; the groom's father his, then the groom requested permission to marry the bride. The bride's father accepted the request and the bride entered.

The parents lit candles, then the families burned incense to the ancestors, and then the bride's family decked her out in jewelry. Once prepared, she turned and exchanged rings with the groom. Chairs were prepared and a tea ceremony was performed with the family members assembled by the altar. They then began a processional into the front coutyard where drinks were served.

The wedding was beautiful, a mixture of Vietnamese and Chinese traditions. The bride wore an ao dai; the groom was dressed in a Mongolian-inspired jacket. After circulating through the crowd, the bride disappeared into the back to change. Guests mingled.

In the back, there was a crisis with her hair. She had wanted it down originally, but it didn't work and so she tried putting it up. Her sisters tried consulting, confusing the hairdresser. When I went in to check on her, the bride asked me to translate. I thought she looked great. They took some orchids out of an arrangement and put it in her hair. She looked fabulous.

The chairs from the ceremony had been cleared from the courtyards and dinner tables were in place. The groom's brother-in-law seated the guests. Appetizers were served. The bride finished her preparations, and then the couple were announced. They welcomed their guests and sat at their table amongst family. The parents were thrilled. The groom's mother thanked me for helping them prepare. The bride's brother presented a slideshow, set to music written by their parents and by Ennio Morricone. Dinner service began, a series of Thai dishes catered local Beijing restaurant. The band played, a mix of jazz and European tunes, on a bass, guitar, and accordion.

The couple left to toast each table, slowly making their way around the courtyard. The tables welcomed them, each in their own way. The bride and groom then sat to eat what they could before toasts began.

The fathers each welcomed the guests. The bride's father told of how he was already a Wong, having chosen that surname as the name under which he wrote music. He had brought a CD with him, and the bride's brother joked that they would be on sale in the back after the wedding. The groom's father ended his toast with a poem, which he delivered with great exuberance. I gave a toast, the groom's sister gave a toast. Toasts followed by colleagues and friends. The evening kept passing, too quickly.

The cake was brought out, and after a few words from the bride and groom, it was cut and served. The cake was delicious. Dinner had been delicious. The wine was delicious, my glass seemed never to empty.

The party moved inside one of the temples. It was a smaller party; the older guests having left after dinner. The first dance was announced. Then the floor was open. We danced until two in the cavernous space. One of the photographers produced cigars left over from the bachelor party. He offered me one and we walked to the back courtyard to celebrate as the Cure and Modern English played in the temple. I couldn't not dance. I had to dance. I went back in. Outside, it began to pour.

After the last guest had left, we collected what we could and packed up one last van to take us back to the house. It was three in the morning. The bride wanted a cheeseburger; the groom and I walked to MacDonald's and brought back sacks of food. We sat and ate and talked of how well the wedding had gone, of how wonderful it had all been. The after wedding brunch would be in a few hours, but until then the bride and groom could rest.

Posted by eku at 11:53 PM | Comments (6)

Wednesday,  September 16, 2009

Back to Beijing

I picked up my Uzbekistan visa yesterday from the consulate in Beijing. Having secured a letter of invitation, it was surprisingly simple. I dropped my passport off on Tuesday, and was told to come back the next day after 9am to pick it up. The woman's Chinese was beautifully accented.

Driving back from the embassy, the taxi driver caught my accent and asked me where I was from. When he learned I could speak English, his eyes lit up and he thrust a hand into the glove compartment. He dug a cassette tape from out of its depths and popped it into his deck. An English song came out of the speakers and he turned it up. "Michael learns to rock!" he said, using the Chinese phonetic translation of the name. He told me he loved the album and played it now and again in his cab. Last year, two westerners wanted to buy the tape from him, but he refused. The next song came on. "This is a happy song," he said in Chinese, and turned the music up even louder.

Since returning to Beijing, I've been caught up in errands: wedding errands for my friends and Uzbekistan travel arrangement errands for myself. I was up late Monday chatting with my friends and going over what they need done before their ceremony.They filled me in on the various events they had planned for their out-of-town guests.

That night I met Tini's family, as we all congregated at a Vietnamese restaurant nearby. The night was clear and cool and we sat in an unenclosed upstairs patio. The owner of the restaurant was supplying the wine for the wedding; he doubles as an importer of foreign wines, and we ordered a bottle to share. The atmosphere was convivial and we ate and drank into the night.

Tuesday morning I was up early to get to the embassy; that afternoon I went with Ed to a local photo-framing place to lay out their wedding program. They had a copy of InDesign and a computer they were willing to let us borrow. It was fun trying to figure out the menus in Chinese, and I was thankful that I had so many command keystrokes memorized.

I bought my tickets on Tuesday through C-Trip, making various calls and receiving SMS after SMS in confirmation. There was difficulty getting a flight back to Beijing from Tashkent on the international carrier taking me to Uzbekistan, and I had to find a local carrier to get me from Urumqi back to Beijing on the 9th. I have a two hour window to clear customs and re-check myself in. I'm hoping that baggage claim for international arrivals from Uzbekistan is as efficient as that for domestic flights.

Yesterday, my friends had arranged a group trip to an unrenovated section of the Great Wall. We drove an hour or so out of town and then through a village marked with tourist fishing villages and hotels. We arrived at the hotel and set about making plans for the day. We split into two groups: one to hike an easier path and another to tackle the harder path. We all returned for lunch about the same time. We ate bowls of noodles and plates of dumplings along a long family table while people recounted their adventures. Three from the difficult party had gone onwards and we waited for their return.

When they eventually returned they spoke of the edge to which they had come and the slightly dicey areas they encountered. The hotel owners offered to let them shower and they disappeared into the compound. A haze that had hovered around the mountains the entire day began to descend, and the far ridges began slowly to fade.

Posted by eku at 10:31 PM |

Tuesday,  September 15, 2009

A few days around Lanzhou

I'm back in Beijing, after catching an afternoon flight yesterday from Lanzhou. I spent a few days in and around the capital of Gansu after leaving my parents in Jiayuguan. They were en route to Xian and Guilin; I was trying to pack in a few more sights before returning to the country capital to help my friends with wedding errands.

I took the overnight train to Lanzhou, climbing into the top bunk in a hard sleeper cabin. I went to bed shortly after we left the station and woke an hour before arriving. It was probably the best night's sleep I had had since arriving in China.

In Lanzhou I walked across the square from the station to my hotel. It was early yet and none of the rooms in my price range were free. I debated what to do. On the one hand, I wanted to rest a day in Lanzhou; on the other I didn't want to waste time. I asked the travel desk how best to reach Xia He. The woman told me to go to the South bus station and not to waste time; there were few buses that left in the morning.

I took a taxi across town, chatting with the driver as we went. Situated in a valley carved by the Yellow River, the city has grown long and narrow along its banks. The driver dropped me at the station and studiously gave me my change. He cautioned me to take a large bus; it was safer.

At the station, an attendant told me the bus was leaving in half an hour and asked me where I was from. I told her and she said she needed a copy of my passport and visa. She directed me to a copy center across the street. I made my copies and raced back to the station. I handed the copies to her and she passed me a ticket. I boarded the bus and we were soon off.

There were but four of us departing the city. At the city limits a man with a basket of drinks boarded the bus and immediately got off. It wasn't worth him to try to sell us anything. We drove along the highway for a while and then turned onto smaller roads. At one village a man got on with a bunch of other passengers and began to tell the ticket seller what to do. We drove on, picking up passengers as they hailed the bus, finally leaving them all off near Linxia.

I fell into conversation with the passengers near me. When we reached the small Tibetan village of Xia He they suggested we find a hotel together. One of them had been before many years ago, but was taking his friend from Xinjiang to check it out. We found a respectable hotel and went to check in, but they couldn't take foreigners. They directed me to the Overseas Tibetan Hotel up the street.

Xia He is noted as the leading Tibetan monastery town outside of Lhasa. The Labrang Monastery is situated on the far side of town, which at its peak housed nearly 4000 monks. The days I visited, the monastery seemed ghostly.

After a bowl of noodles I walked to the monastery and began by circumnaviating the monastery, joining a line of pilgrims as we spun the over 1000 prayer wheels along the way. I met a Chinese woman traveling alone and we fell into walking with each other. After making the 3km walk around the complex, we went inside and took a tour of the main buildings of worship and study. She told me she had trouble understanding the monk's Tibetan-accented Chinese.

After the tour we climbed a nearby hill for an overview of the area. The sun had begun to set and the evening was getting cold. We walked back to town and explored some of the back alleys, stumbling upon a mosque that was teeming with children. My friend pulled out her camera and immediately the children went nuts. A man in a white skullcap threatened to beat them with a stick and they dutifully quieted down and lined up. A girl came out and gave them treats, sharing some with us.

For dinner we had soup noodles in a simple restaurant, and then I walked my friend back to her hotel. She had booked it without consulting a map and discovered when she arrived that it was far down an unlit street and then down an alleyway. She asked me if I would be ok getting back to my hotel; I assured her I would.

The next day I had planned to stay in the area, but a light rain began to fall. I decided that hiking around the grasslands would be no fun in the rain and so caught a bus to Linxia and then back to Lanzhou. I took a cab from the bus station to my hotel, and the cab driver asked me where I was from and then if I was married. He had married at 26 and already had a one-year-old. He was from Tien Shui, as was his wife. He had met her in the city where he had come to work. He said there were many people from Tien Shui, which was an area also noted for its sights. He told me eventually he wanted to go back to his village; already he had thought that his five years in the city were long.

At the hotel he wished me well and kept the small change from the fare. I had promised my Xia He friend that I would eat some of Lanzhou's famous noodles when I returned; she had rushed through the city and had missed out. I checked into the hotel and asked where I might find good noodles. The desk attendants fought over different restaurants and then one assured me that one across the street was among the best in town. I threw her a look but she seemed confident. I went and ordered a piping hot bowl.

The next morning I decided to sleep in. I had asked the travel desk how to reach Bingling Si, a set of Buddhist grottoes located on a bend in the river some 75km southwest of Lanzhou. He told me to go to the West bus station, but to leave early, around seven. At seven forty-five, I crawled out of bed and debated trying to make the trip. It seemed too late to try, then decided I had to try.

I took the 137 bus to the west station a instructed and found myself in a huge intersection. I asked where the station was for buses to Liujiaxia and was told different things depending on who I asked. One told me to go back a few stops and one told me to go forward. I hopped another city bus and went forward, asking a man on the bus where to catch the bus to Liujiaxia. He sighed then told me to take the bus forward and that he would tell me where to get off. There I could hail a passing bus as it left the city. He told me I would see the name of the destination writ large and I could just wave it down. I thanked the man and memorized the Chinese characters.

At the turnoff I watched the passing buses carefully, but none approached bearing my destination. I resolved to wait until 10 and then there wouldn't be time enough for the trip. just past nine thirty I saw it. A bus called Liujiaxia. It barely slowed for me to hop on as it rounded the bend.

The ride to Liujiaxia was uneventful. The bus wound its way through mountains and valleys and an hour or so later we were there. The bus let me off at a small storefront where tour to the caves originated. There were no other tourists and the woman tried to convince me to hire a car for the almost four-hour round trip to the caves for 200RMB. The fast boat would be 95RMB per person but needed at least five passengers. I said I would wait.

A few minutes later another bus arrived and four Chinese passengers got off. They were also looking to tour the area but had yet to determine what they were to do. I stepped out and let them suss out their options. They called me back in. They too had decided upon Bingling Si. One of them had bargained a van down to 300RMB for the five of us, from an original 500RMB price. The woman at the shop made a phone call and we were soon on our way.

The bus wound its way through valleys and up over passes. The road went from serviceable to bad, and near the grottoes gave way over to mud. The driver stopped on a mountainside and said we'd have to walk the rest of the way. We hopped out into the mud. Turning a corner, we saw the Yellow River and a stone forest of mountain behind. I caught my breath. One of my fellow passengers said it was more beautiful than she had imagined and I had to concur.

We walked down to the grottoes and toured the valley walls, first one side, and then across a bridge to the other. The large buddha that is the star was under renovation and the stairs leading up to grottoes beside the statue were closed for renovation. We were short on time and had to rush.

Back at the road leading up to the van we were told to wait. Workers had set charges to blow out some rocks up ahead. We said we were pressed for time and a man told us not to worry as an exposion rained rock up ahead. We walked on.

The van sped us back towards town. A rain had begun to fall, but the driver sped on with confidence around the winding mountain roads.

Back in Liujiaxia we caught the bus after the last bus back to Lanzhou. It was the overtime bus as they called it. One of my companions bought bags of dumplings which she shared with us for the ride. The large comfortable bus quickly made its way back towards the city, the sounds of the window wipers putting me to sleep in my seat.

Posted by eku at 4:38 AM |

Wednesday,  September 9, 2009

In and around Jiayuguan

It's raining in Jiayuguan. The day started overcast with the threat of rain, and by afternoon drops began to fall. It's not raining hard, but the overcast skies spread a pall over this city of broad avenues and relatively few people. This morning we awoke to music being played from within the public square. We're staying in a hotel right across from it and yesterday afternoon some intrepid individuals were out flying kites. In my sleep-addled mind, I thought I was hearing a morning call to prayer until I realized the tone was wrong. Across the park, schoolchildren seemed to be performing martial arts in tune to the music.

We arrived by train from Dunhuang, a short four and a half-hour jaunt. Two days before, the skies were blue and clear and my mother and I rode camels around the high desert dunes of Mingsha Shan. It was her first time on a camel and she rode like a pro. Ahead of us, two women from nearby rode with a one-year old child. He kept saying the word for "horse" while his mother repeated the words for "camel" all along the ride.

At the crest of one dune, I climbed a set of wooden stairs to the top of another, higher dune for its views of the surrounding desert and the oasis of Dunhuang, just a few kilometers away (from the town itself you can see the dunes rising above). The wind threw sand against my back, which stung me where my skin was exposed. I slid back down on a bamboo sled, where a man asked me if I wanted to ride an ATV. My phone buzzed. It was the women with us who wanted to hurry to catch the sunset by the Cresent Lake.

We rode our camels back down the dunes and around the base of Mingsha Shan. Our camels parked in a camel parking lot, and we walked a short distance to the lake, nestled as it was between the dunes. A pagoda had been erected, cradled in the arms of the lake. Tourists walked about, their feet shrouded in bright orange booties to keep the sand from their shoes. My mother and I had declined the covers, and we're still pouring sand from out of our shoes.

Our first full day in Dunhuang, we hired the taxi driver who picked us up at the train station for a full day's tour around the western attractions in the area. Mr. Li was gracious and suggested he pick us up at 7am to drive to Ya Dan, a geological park noted for its wind-blown rock formations (and featured in Zhang Yimou's Hero, among other films).

At the appointed hour we piled into his taxi and set out into the desert. Soon we left the city behind; desert spread out as far as the eye could see. Mr. Li told us there were animals out in the desert: wild camels, scorpions, snakes, and golden sheep. He had never seen a wild camel, but had seen the sheep.

In the middle of nowhere a gate appeared and we bought tickets for the Han Great Wall and the Yumen Guan, the northern city tower that guarded the silk road. We continued driving into the desert, along a straight sealed road. Some two hours after leaving the city we arrived at Ya Dan. We were the only ones there. The staff ushered us into a room to watch an explanatory video while they waited for other visitors. A small bus arrived, and we were all invited to board a tour bus to take us into the park.

We descended into a basin, pausing at formations that looked like a lion with a person's head, a peacock, and the Sphnix. Along the way, we passed formations resembling a Mongolian Yurt and a turtle. At the end of the road, we stopped at a set of formations known as a fleet of ships heading out the sea before returning to the park entrance.

On the bus, a woman asked my mother if she hadn't brought a camera. She pointed to me and told her that her son had a camera. The woman was surprised. She had thought I was a westerner.

We hopped back into the taxi and went back into the desert. At one point the driver pulled off the road and drove us towards nothing until the ruins of the Han Great Wall appeared before us. A small fence had been erected around one better-preserved area and a tower. We walked along the fence until it ended and found a piece all but buried in the sand. We walked along the straw and mud remains and felt ourselves transported in time.

Another taxi waited along with ours and when we left, they drove in the opposite direction. Mr. Li said they were heading towards Ya Dan, taking the desert road. We drove a little further on a sealed road and then paused at the Yumen Guan before heading towards the southern gate.

A sudden spot of green broke through the monotonous desert and we soon found ourselves in a small grape valley. Mr. Li told us that all the inhabitants of the village were very well off, keeping a house in the village and one in the city. They lived in the village only during the grape growing and harvesting months and did very well for themselves.

Just downhill from the Yang Guan we paused in another grape valley for lunch. We ate under a trellis, where the grapes grew right above our heads. For appetisers and dessert we had but to reach up to pluck their ripe fruit.

Outside the Yang Guan, a newly built garrison town housed a small museum devoted to the construction of the towers and the forts. An efficient guide quickly explaned all the exhibits and then lead us outside the garrison to buses waiting to take us up to the ruins of the tower. The view of the surrounding area was sweeping, and we spent as much time taking in the surroundings as the tower itself.

We drove back towards town and stopped at the western thousand Buddha caves. They were closed, but a Singaporean tour group had arrived just before us and their guide managed to convince the gatekeeper to let us in. We toured the ruins of a few caves before they closed. The gatekeeper said that there once were more caves here than at the famous Mogaoku, but that they had been damaged by the river. The sand was softer here, he said.

The next day we drove out to the Mogao caves. A sign at the front gate said that an additional 12 caves could be seen for 10Y each. I said I was interested and was lead to an office by the ticket gate. An official told me that of the 12 only 8 were available to visit. I asked how much it would be to see them all. He did some calculations and told me it would be 1500Y. I told him I'd think about it.

A guide met us at the front gate and gave us headsets the better to hear her with. She lead us through 10 or so caves, and we spent as much time admiring the ones we did see as wondering what lay behind the many locked doors that hid the other caves. The guide told me that 62 caves were officially opened. A computer told the guides what caves to show on each tour, though some of the major caves were on every tour. She told me the most expensive cave was around 500Y. It was the cave I most wanted to see.

Dunhuang was a pleasant town and I didn't mind spending so much time there. It has a laid-back atmosphere, but it's a town on the move. New pedestrian malls are under construction and the area by the river is being turned into an attraction in and of itself. It's already seen a bit of development thanks to Japanese interests in the area and the fame of the Mogao caves; I'm curious how it will look in another five years.

Posted by eku at 3:41 AM |

Friday,  September 4, 2009

Hello Xinjiang. Goodbye.

We didn't stay long in Xinjiang, just a week spread over two cities; not enough time to explore the largest of China's provinces (it comprises 16% of the country's landmass). There's a saying that you don't know how large China is until you've been to Xinjiang; you don't know how large Xinjiang is until you've travelled to Kashgar.

We arrived by plane, flying over large swaths of the country. From our window we could see mountains and rivers, deserts and plains. The capital city of Urumqi was our destination, a city noted as being the farthest city from the ocean in the world (and far as it is from Beijing, you could feel the presence of the capital in the soldiers stationed there after the unrest in July).

We took a cab to our hotel and settled in. I was given a note at the front desk. Unfolding it, I discovered that Teresa had arrived from Taiwan by way of Hong Kong and invited me to a drink (she had been living in Moscow and is the friend with whom I stayed while I was there). She was in a nearby pub, soaking up the atmosphere. I called her and arranged to meet her for dinner.

My parents and I then went to the nearby Hongshan park, I to climb the mountain steps up to a hilltop pagoda overlooking the city, my parents to ride the bus to the top. The views over the city were expansive, and I was surprised at the reach of this inland city.

For dinner, Teresa and I went to a nearby nightmarket, where all the stalls were orderly numbered, each third stall selling much the same: skewers of meat or seafood, noodles in hot pot, whole roasted lamb. We chose a stall and had a seat, feasting on skewers of mushroom and meat, a whole roasted fish, and a hot pot of noodles. The spices on all the dishes were the same, and while tasty, each portion of our meal began to run into each other. For dessert we ordered sliced melon from a vendor who wound his way through the crowd, a platter perched upon his shoulder.

The next day my parents and I took a bus Tien Chi, the heavenly lake. The bus was late, and had to pick up a group of elderly tourists. When we arrived, there were arguments to be had, and after everyone had settled, the guide asked us all to try to put our differences behind us and enjoy our trip. She then told the oft-told joke equating using the restroom with singing a song that seems to be a staple of Chinese tour groups.

The lake was serene in a way that the surroundings were not as groups of tourists flocked to the platforms built along its shore. In the distance, snow-capped mountains must have watched over the transformation for eons, as the pristine alpine scenery became increasingly made accessible, and the wanderers who had come in search of pure waters went from a trickle to busloads.

That said, the number of tourists in Urumqi are far fewer than in years past, much to the dismay of the tour operators and local economy. The effects of the decrease in tourism are felt even more in the desert oasis of Turpan, where we went next.

Our bus left the cooler climes of Urumqi to head into the Turpan basin, where at its lowest point it is 154 meters below sea level. Just outside Urumqi we passed large wind farms, the white blades of the windmills visible for miles. As we began to descend, the temperature rose until the bus became uncomfortably warm. We arrived at our hotel mid-day, the sun hot on our backs, and we welcomed the air conditioning in our room.

The town is noted for its grapes and trellises are everywhere. One pedestrian mall is entirely covered with them, the ripe grapes hang temptingly from above. There's a fine for picking them, however, a cost more dear than the less than fifty cents US it costs to buy a kilo. I bought one kilo then another. The grapes were the best I had tasted. If it were possible to overdose on them, I would have.

For lunch we had the local rice specialty, and then I braved the afternoon sun to visit Sugong Ta, an Afghan style minaret built in 1777 by the local ruler. A seemingly recently-renovated mosque sits beside it. The minaret was once open to tourists, but has since been closed for conservation.

My ticket also offered admission to the nearby governor's mansion and so I gamely climbed a small hill to look in. A woman appeared from nowhere to tell me that the basement lights were motion and sound activated. I thanked her and she disappeared.

At the entrance to the basement I paused. The steps lead into darkness. I clapped my hands. I whistled. I took a step. The darkness remained, and I considered turning back then took another step. With a whoosh the lights came on and a fake fire blew at the curved rafters. Behind me hung a portrait of the former governor. Ahead of me lay a long dim corridor, lit again only at the other end.

I inched my way forward, half-expecting the woman to jump out at me, an Asian Large Marge at once warning of her own presence as she lead me further into the horror of it all. I began to whistle tunelessly. At the end of the corridor, another long dark hall lead to the left. I walked faster, careful not to lose my step. There, another hall lead to the left, but at the end of that I could see a series of steps leading to the light. I all but skipped skyward.

The next day we toured the ancient cities of Jiaohe and Gaocheng, with stops in the grape valley and the ancient cemetery near Gaocheng. The grape valley had been turned into a Chinese tourism attraction the likes of Knotts Valley Farms, though without the rides or the shows. The low number of tourists didn't do much to encourage them. Our driver told us over lunch that usually in high season the roads would be jammed and the small grape-trellis covered restaurants would be packed. That day we saw a handful of cars. The restaurants stood mostly still.

Along the way we also toured the karez, an underground irrigation system that had first been developed and dug 2000 years ago. The engineering to bring the water down from the snow-covered mountains was astounding, even more so for the fact that it had been developed so long ago, using gravity as the only source of power. It's a feat to be compared with the Great Wall, though it's less given to the imagination for it all being underground.

At the Asitana graves, an attendant followed me around the hot plains down into the opened tombs to turn on the lights and make sure I took no photos. The first tomb held two mummies, the second some beautiful paintings of birds, and the third portraits of the deceased. I thanked the attendant when I left. He nodded to me from under the towel he placed upon his head.

At the Gaocheng ancient city, I took a covered donkey cart into the middle of the city to tour the ruins of a large temple there. I had planned to walk but the sun was hot and the children who drove the cart were insistent. Along the way we picked up a Korean tourist who gave in to the comforts of the cart.

We walked back out, sweating through our shirts. Back at the entrance I bought two bottles of iced tea. I drank one in minutes; I gave the other to the driver. Heading back to town he offered to turn on the air conditioning. I told him he could if he wanted, but I didn't need it. He said I was the first tourist he had come across to refuse the a/c. He braved the heat with me.

Driving up towards the main road, he pointed to a large swath of land. He said many more graves lay underneath. Efforts were being made at conservation before opening them up to the public.

Passing the Flaming Mountains we paused for photos. I couldn't resist a photo of the entrance: The Monkey King perched upon a gate announcing the mountains. The gate couldn't keep the mountains in, however. We drove further and I took photos from the cab. Nearer to the city, I saw oil wells and the driver said that Turpan was rich in oil, but only that area was open to exploration. He said the largest reserve was right in the middle of the city, near our hotel, and under the central square.

We left Turpan the next day, climbing back up out of the depression and into the cooler climes of Urumqi. A storm threatened. We stayed in Urumqi another day and I went to the Xinjiang Musuem. We had attempted to go before we left for Turpan but were ushered out midway through our visit so they could clean. We surmised an official was on his or her way but could never confirm it.

I spent some time with the mummies, one a brethern to the ones I had seen in Asitana, then left and toured the city. The day before I had walked to the People's Square and attempted to take a photo of the obelisque that stands there, its facade inscribed with the Arabic script used by the Uyghers, and was told by a soldier that it was forbidden. It wasn't until then that I saw the transport vehicles and soldiers stationed around the square. I had wondered why it had seemed so bare.

I decided to get a haircut. I asked the barber to cut it short. He left it a little long. I asked him again. Was I sure I wanted it that short? I was sure. It might be better a little longer at the top? It's a style of fashion. No, I wanted it short. He cut a small portion and asked me if I was sure. I was sure. He proceeded, but he didn't seem happy about it.

We left Urumqi by train, boarding our sleeper car at 11:48 for the 10 hour journey. Another man joined us, who seemed to be known by everyone working on the train. He told us he worked for the railroad and we later learned he worked for the police responsible for railway tourism in Xinjiang.

Everyone either seemed to know him or want to know him. One woman made him a cup of tea. With us he was sociable and jovial; with his colleagues he was serious. He asked us if we knew how they had dug the karez so straight between the wells, and then explained that they had placed mirrors in the shafts. As long as the digger could see his light reflected in the morror he must be moving straight. He told us that Turpan in the local language meant "hot place," and indeed it was. He told us he was Han Chinese; his father had come to Xinjiang with the army and stayed.

He sat with us a time and then they found him another berth. We travelled on through the desert. At Hami, I bought some of the namesake mellon and lugged it back to our compartment for the sake of saying I had bought them in Hami. Three mellons for a little over two US dollars. I gave one to our train car's attendant and looked forward to eating the others at our hotel in Dunhuang.

We arrived at Liuyuan near 10pm. My parents had decided to stay the night. We walked to a hotel recommended by the railway attendants, but it was booked. We decided to take a share taxi for 130km ride to Dunhuang.

We drove on towards midnight and the distant oasis. An almost full moon tried to light our surroundings. A single star or planet shone nearby. The night was cool and the road was near empty. Piles of mellons dotted the sides of the road. The desert spread out around us. Then trees appeared and the lights of a town. Emptiness gave way to blocks of buildings and neon signs. We had arrived.

Posted by eku at 4:21 AM |

Monday,  August 24, 2009

Beijing days

I arrived in good time from Seoul. The flight was half-full and short; it was about an hour and a half. We were up in the air, a meal was served, and we were beginning our descent.

At the airport the health inspection area was as expansive as customs, a marked improvement over the folding tables at Incheon, though somewhat more imposing. The process went more smoothly however. An attendant took my health questionnaire and waved me through.

I took the train into the city. The outskirts zipped by the window. An Ikea passed on the horizon. New apartments rose in rows like corn.

Once in the city I took the subway to Hepingmen station and walked. The streets were familiar from the year before. I had biked down to the area to check out where we had stayed all those years before.

I was surprised to find my parents at the hotel. I had assumed they would be out all day. I suggested we go to Beihai as the sun was shining and the temperatures were moderate. Later, Ed would tell me we were lucky with the weather. The day of our arrivals signaled a break in the hot Beijing summer. He told me the reason so many people were out that Saturday was because it was the first relatively cool day in some time.

I called Ed for a restaurant recommendation and he suggested a Yunnanese place in HoHai. We took a cab to the area and then walked around the lake looking for the No Name restaurant. At a bar with the same lack of a name a girl offered to show us the restaurant. She lead us down a hutong and we were soon eating a tasty Yunnanese meal

Beihai wasn't as crowded as I thought it might be, though the lake itself was covered with boats. We wound our way along the Eastern banks and then around the small island atop which sits a gleaming white stupa.

We wandered south along the edge of the Forbidden Palace and made our way to the National Theater. We inquired about tickets to a Shanghainese opera but my mother decided against it as the prices on the remaining tickets were high.

By this time I was exhausted. We walked back to the hotel. My parents went to eat dinner; I crashed.

The next day we split up. My parents had decided to see some places I'd already been and so I went to visit Ed and his fiancee Tini. I took the subway to their house and was soon seated at their dining room table, offering to stuff wedding invitations into envelopes.

It was great seeing them and we marvelled that a year had already passed since I was last in Beijing. Ww talked about the wedding and all the planning that goes into it. We talked about the clothes they were having made and Ed mentioned that a tailor was coming by that afternoon if I wanted anything made. We talked about logistics and how their guests would get around and we all agreed I would help if they had cell phones so their guests could contact them at any time if need be.

At noon we met up with one of Tini's friends and his mom for dim sum at reportedly the best place in Beijing. They were visiting from San Francisco and Abu Dhabi, respectively. Ed mentioned that the after wedding brunch would be held there. Tini's friend said that they had brought him to the restaurant that was catering the wedding the night before. He would be unable to make the wedding and I joked that he was getting the dry run of everything. He said that he'd have to just remember what each meal was as the time approached.

I tried calling my mom after dim sum but couldn't reach her and so I joined Tini and Ed as they met with their videographer. I still couldn't reach my parents and so I went back to Ed's place and helped him make updates to his wedding website.

Still unable to reach my parents I decided to go back to the hotel to wait for them. It turned out that I had copied their number incorrectly. They had had quite an adventure as they had meant to go to one park and ended up in another. Taking the bus back had taken over an hour and a half and they were exhausted. We had a quiet dinner at the hotel and turned in.

Yesterday we went to the Temple of Heaven after walking through the renovated shopping area by our hotel. Newly built Chinese-style buildings are being erected for the likes of Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo. A fake cable car runs along the pedestrian avenue.

The temple was much as I remembered it though the grounds were far more expansive. We entered through the western gate and ended up seeing the sights in reverse. The temple itself was the main attraction and then there was a smaller building with a rounded wall named the "echo" wall. People screamed into it to see if others could hear, paying scant attention to where people should stand. Messages were hollered and answered with little help from the wall's echo.

We left by the eastern gate and took the subway to Renmingren, a park and gardens built on the ruins of a former palace gardens. We walked along the ponds, covered with lotus leaves. The ruins were swarming with tour groups, megaphones blaring. One pond boasted black swans and I stood enthralled by them as they swam up to the shore to feed.

That night we had roast duck and dumplings in a restaurant located in the renovated shopping area. At night the streets are lit with lamps and the street car groans its way down the avenue. The sounds of construction continue throughout the night. It feels as though the area is behind schedule, already a shadow of what it was imagined to be.

Posted by eku at 8:27 PM | Comments (2)
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