October 23, 2008
Suzhou, Shanghai, and New York
I am back in New York; I am tired; I am jetlagged.
On arriving at home, I realized that I had left myself nothing to eat and nothing with which to bathe. I put on my coat and walked north to the drug store. At the intersection of Thompson and Prince, they were shooting a new Kiera Knightly film. Paparazzi crowded on a corner. Their cameras reminded me of those of Chinese tourists, though with even longer lenses. I waited as they shot a scene. Actors cris-crossed the street. A cab passed by.
A man yelled "cut!" and then asked the actors to reset. New Yorkers cris-crossed the street. A cab passed by. I couldn't help but notice how stylishly dressed everyone was. I couldn't tell the difference between actors and locals.
This morning I woke at 4. I had gone to bed at 11, after forcing myself to stay awake. I watched a film and thought about watching another. On Monday, I was in transit for almost thirty hours, leaving near midnight from Shanghai Sunday night and arriving in New York Monday afternoon. I had wanted to take the train to the station, but decided to spend more time with C. The airport unspooled before us in the night, its terminals like wings encompassing the lighted ribbons of road wove between them.
I took the subway home. I was immediately struck by the diversity of the people, and within that the general homogenous dress. In a Beijing cab, Ed had noted that while cultures were eager to adopt western dress, almost no culture ever adopts another culture's food. I am now craving Sichuanese food.
Last Thursday I had dinner with a Shanghainese friend. She had suggested we go to Suzhou for a day. She told me that the new Suzhou museum designed by I.M. Pei had opened a few years ago and was certain I hadn't seen it. I agreed and she bought tickets.
We had dinner in a local restaurant in a busy area of Shanghai. I was early and sat in a plaza by a large department store after coming out of the metro. I sat next to a Thai cross-dresser, who chatted with her Thai friend. I watched the crowd of younger Shanghainese coming in and out of the metro station.
My friend L took me to a Shanghainese restaurant and proceeded to order the specialities. I ate. The food was delicious. We caught up on each other's lives and she told me of her friends in Suzhou. She said we'd drink tea and listen to zither music. Her friend was studying to play the instrument on the outskirts of the city. She said we could sit by the water and look at the mountains, but I wasn't sure if she was joking.
We met the next morning at the train station. The trip was a scant 45 minutes on a new modern train. I had remembered the trip taking longer. We walked the length of the station to exit and walked to a nearby bus stop. L complained about how disorderly the Suzhou train station was. She said that cabs would refuse to come to the station because of the frequent traffic jams in and around the area.
The museum was beautiful. It reminded me of the Miho Museum, near Kyoto in its construction and in its spare but very fine collection. Whereas that museum took advantage of its natural surroundings, the Suzhou museum felt like a modernist take on the courtyard houses for which the city is famed.
We had lunch at a restaurant specializing in the Suzhou noodles. L said that they served a particularly fine noodle in their broths. She ordered a fish to accompany her noodes that was very similar to a fried fish in Shanghainese cooking.
We took a bus to Shan Tang Lu. It left us off on the side of a highway and we asked an old woman sitting at the stop for directions. She pointed back towards a bridge we had just crossed, leading back towards the highway. We walked in the direction she pointed. Traffic breezed by us. A man climbed a highway barrier and clambered down an embankment to a small street. We asked the way to Shan Tang Lu. He motioned us to follow his lead and then pointed up the alley.
We walked the length of Shan Tang Lu, which ran alongside a canal. The walk was pleasant and quiet. The older residents of the area sat outside their homes or in pagodas along the water. Here and there people fished. Infrequent tourist boats plied the waters.
At the end of the street we found a three-wheeled moto to take us back to the other end. L squealed as the driver wove through the opposing traffic on the narrow path. People darted in front of him, scurrying to get past. We took tea in the courtyard of an old house that had been turned into a hotel. The place seemed empty, but the attendant told us that they were booked solid.
That night we took a bus to the outskirts of town. L told me that her friends had booked a hotel in the city beacuse they were afraid we wouldn't be able to get back in time for our train the next day from their campus. We checked into a Jin Jiang hotel and prepared for dinner.
We ate in a Sichuanese restaurant just behind the hotel. It seemed we were in the suburbs and I was surprised to find a bustling street of shops and restaurants hidden by the hotel's facade. L introduced me to her friend, whose name translates to Dream Rain, her friend's daughter, and their friend from Beijing. Dream had brought a flask of tea she had brewed just for the occasion (L had told me that she takes frequent trips to Yunnan to buy tea and resell it in Eastern China; later she would give me a brick of tea that they had marketed themselves). She poured it in our cups and bade us savor its flavor and fragrance.
Back at the hotel, Dream's daughter brewed tea. Dream brought out her zither and began to play. L asked about Dream's jade, and soon everyone had brought out their jade while Dream discoursed on the various properties of each. That night I tried to capture everything in my journal, but sleep overtook me.
The next day we met up again in the morning for tea before L and I had to catch our train. We had brunch in town and then took the train back to Shanghai. We went back to Moganshan and L introduced me to some of her friends who were artists and had studios there. The area was bustling with people. A camera club from a nearby university had brought models with them and were posing them around the complex. On a catwalk, another group were photographing each other in cosplay.
I stood outside and watched the people mill about. L and I commented on the activities around us as the sun went down.
For dinner, she took me back to Wujiang Lu. We had talked about having Hunan food at a restaurant near there. The street was packed with people and L kept a running commentary on the various stalls and restaurants we passed. She pointed to one hole in the wall and said that it was a good Sichuanese restaurant that she hadn't been back to in a while. I suggested we go there. She said we'd have to wait, which was fine with me.
There were two tables in front of us. The waitress had us order while we waited. They said that they stay open until the food runs out, which is usually around 9. There's always a line for the restaurant. Inside, five or six tables were packed into a cramped space; you couldn't reach your seat without knocking into someone.
The food was delicious. The spices made my nose run, but I couldn't stop stuffing myself.
After dinner L showed me her apartment. We drank tea and talked about this and that. She said that she wouldn't be able to spend any time with me on Sunday; she was attending a colleague's wedding. The hour grew late and she said the metro would probably stop soon. She walked me down to the street and put me in a cab. I thanked her for her hospitality and for showing me around Suzhou. I waved from the window; she told me to call her before I left the next evening.
The driver was confused. He pulled out a map to find the address and I told him the general area, which he recognized. He knew the main street there and I told him it was the next street over. He put the map away.
Near the Shanghai stadium, traffic ground to a halt. A concert (I think Ayumi Hamasaki) had just let out and stylishly dressed people were scrambling for cabs. My driver rolled down his window to chat with a fellow driver as people waved their arms in the air.
Sunday morning I had breakfast with C. We ate at a nearby dim sum restaurant before she had to go into work. I met up with another friend for coffee. He had been working in Shanghai a number of years and it was interesting to get his perspective on the changes in China. At three, we parted. I was to meet a woman I had met in Moganshan a few days earlier for tea, but something had come up. I went shopping and then to eat dumpings at Din Tai Fung.
I skipped dinner. C and I ate simply at home before walking out to do some grocery shopping. She pointed out some restaurants and stalls recommended by her friends and I made a note of where to eat next time I was in the city. Back at home, I took a shower then sat on the couch, savoring my last few sedentery moments before heading to the airport.
Closing my eyes, I couldn't remember where I was. I thought back over the past five weeks and couldn't believe I had been in Moscow so recently. That city now felt like a mirage. I made a few phone calls and sent some text messages to my friends in China then shouldered my bag and set off.
October 15, 2008
Shanghai art walk
Yesterday, I fell in love with Shanghai. I was leaving the main area of the Moganshan art district and could feel the city begin to open itself up to me.
I got off to a late start. C slept in and I spent the morning lazing around. The sun was shining brightly through the window, and I could see clear blue skies through her living room windows.
I took the metro to the train station, emerging onto the plaza in front of the main hall. It's smaller than Beijing and less crowded, but still swarming with people entering and leaving the city. Some sat and waited.
I walked across the Suzhou River and then along its embankment until I reached Moganshan road. I ducked into a gallery, walking up the stairs to its cavernous space and began looking at the art mounted on the walls. I enjoyed a series by Pan Xiaoxiao and bought some postcards. As I walked away from one wall, it parted revealing bookshelves full of art books. I asked if I could buy one surveying Chinese artists from the 80s. I was told the books were not for sale, but that there was a bookstore on the ground floor of their building.
I asked for a price list for the works by Pan; they were out of my price range. I chatted with the gallery attendant who also liked her works. She was a Japanese fashion design student who had studied in Paris. Her Mandarin betrayed a slight Japanese accent, but was far better than mine. She told me she was from Kyoto and I told her how much I loved the city. She said I should contact her next time I was to go; she goes home during the May and October vacations. I told her if she were to come to New York she should look me up. She gave me her card and I jotted down my contact info for her.
I toured some more galleries, walking up and down narrow stairwells. Some of the original factory ducts and transformers had been left exposed, and labels had been applied to the glass walls explaining their use. The entire area was well-designed and the transformation felt more organic than what had become of 798, though Moganshan was also much smaller.
In another gallery I watched a video installation by Yang Fudong, the six screens alternating and juxtaposing images of life by the residents of Que city in the barren north of China with that of a pack of wild dogs. The black and white cinematography drew me into their stories.
Leaving the galleries I kept walking down the road, pausing to photograph graffiti that had been drawn onto a retaining wall. Further along, a photographer had posed his models against the backdrop of a large green alien attacking the city. I watched as he worked and then moved on.
I walked south to the Jade Buddha temple. There, people burned incense while monks chanted. Tourists took photos. I wandered through the courtyards and halls and then called my friend. She had just returned to Shanghai and asked what I was doing later. I told her I was having dinner with C and she asked if I wanted to meet up the following night. I said that was perfect and we agreed to chat later.
Walking further south I ran into the malls surrounding the snack street. Just behind the main facade, there was a large courtyard with a multi-row housing complex. I asked the guard how much rent was in that area, and he told me to ask the building manager. It was late in the afternoon and I didn't want to spend the time.
I had a quick snack at Yang 'sfry dumplings and then continued walking south. I passed the JinJing towers, where my mother and grandmother had stayed six years ago and I remembered our visit to Shanghai with a mixture of happiness and sadness.
At Taikang road, I turned east and then ducked through a narrow entrance to find myself surrounded by boutique shops. The area was still a residential complex, but the locals had rented out all the ground floor apartments to shops and cafes. The sun was setting and lighted shop signs illuminated the narrow passageways. I wandered in and out of a few stores, and quickly surveyed others with the intention of returning another day.
In one, the shopkeeper started up a conversation. She said when I walked in she had first thought I was a westerner until she took a closer look. She said it was my shaved head and overall demeanor that had lead her astray. She asked me where I was from and when she found out my father was from Zhejiang, she told me she was from Hangzhou. She was a reporter who was in Shanghai minding the shop for a schoolmate. She was thinking of moving up here and was using the trip as a way to test the waters.
We talked about art and design in China. She said it was mostly foreigners who liked the designs in her shop and the art at Moganshan. I showed her the book I had bought of 80s artists and the black and white photos contained therein. She said foreigners seemed to like the gritty documentary photographs as well. It made me wonder what contemporary art artists were making for a Chinese audience.
Later that night over drinks C told me that the art the Chinese buy are still the landscapes depicting mountains and water or calligraphy. We were at People 7, a beautifully designed Taiwanese tucked along a wooded street. I would have missed the entrance if C hadn't told me where to turn. After walking up a short flight of stairs, nine tubes lit from within and arranged in a 3x3 grid presented themselves to you. C told me you had to guess which disc to press in order to open the door. It was a mixture of Roman Holiday and Flash Gordon. I had to try them all before we were granted access; one disc opens another door behind which the word "Gotcha" is etched in glass.
We drank red wine suspended beside a courtyard of bamboo. I was surprised that so much space had revealed itself to me behind the narrow entrance. The bar/restaurant was two floors of heavy concrete lightened by a central atrium and floor to ceiling windows along the courtyard side. Above, they gave way to a skylight suggesting a greenhouse. A full moon had emerged from the skyline, plump and golden, and I held the memory of it in my mind as I gazed up at the tops of the bamboo grove.
October 14, 2008
I am in Shanghai. It's louder and more aggressive than Beijing. It makes the capital seem almost provincial by comparison. I got a taste of it on the overnight train, as a large group of Shanghainese screamed at each other by way of conversation deep into the night. I put my headphones on and tried to sleep.
The soft seats were surprisingly comfortable, and had I a blanket and a pillow I could have passed the night well. The train made no stops and we sped south, reaching a peak speed of 155 km/hr. We arrived exactly at 7:12 in the morning, prompting my neighbor to remark on the train's punctuality.
I took a cab to C's apartment complex. The doorman let me in and directed me to the apartment. The door was ajar and I let myself in. I said hello and called out to C. There was no response. The shower was running. I had a vision of being in the wrong apartment and at the scene that might erupt. I saw an employee badge on the kitchen table and checked the name and photograph. It was C; I breathed a sigh of relief.
She emerged from the shower and went to get dressed. She showed me where everything was and then left for work. I showered and shaved and looked at the maps she had left to get my bearings. I saw that my former colleagues had an office nearby in the Xintiandi area and I decided to pay them a visit.
Not knowing the name of the company, I translated it directly into Chinese and asked the concierge for the floor. He didn't know it, but I found it listed in English in his booklet and he directed me to an elevator. I almost laughed when the receptionist directed me to the office using the translation I had used. No one was home. I left a message and went to explore the city.
I took the metro to Nanjing Dong Lu to walk the Wujiang snack street. I made a beeline for Yang' sFry Dumplings. I paid for one order and got into line. They came out sizzling on a large iron skillet, just as I remembered. A woman slid four onto a plate and I went to find a place to sit. They were amazing. I finished my plate and got back into line for another order. I could have sat and ate them all day.
I walked east to Renmin park. The Shanghai Art Museum was hosting their seventh bienniale and so I went. I toured the exhibits and then wandered to the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art. I asked at the front desk for directions to the Shanghai Museum, but as I approached it, I decided it was too nice a day to spend visiting another museum. I decided to window shop on Nanjing Dong Lu. I took out my guidebook to check my bearings and two Chinese girls stopped.
One asked me in English if I needed help. I asked her the name of the road we were on in Chinese. She was surprised and asked me how I spoke Chinese so well. I told her that I was Chinese, but grew up in the states. She said they were from Xi'an, visiting Shanghai for two weeks. A friend of theirs was getting married, which provided the impetus for their trip. I told them that I was also visiting a friend. They asked if I had been to Xi'an and I said yes. I asked them the way to Nanjing Dong Lu, and they said that the stores there were very expensive. I told them I was only looking with no intent to buy. They pointed to a department store a block away and said that was where it started. I thanked them and bid them adieu.
I wandered into the Nike store and then walked down the broad pedestrian avenue. A woman asked me the way to the Bund. I didn't understand her at first and then pointed the way. She asked if I was alone and whether she could walk with me. I told her that I was going to take photos and would walk slowly. I bid her continue. I checked out the Li Ning store and then continued on. Two women stopped me to ask me where I was from. I told them to guess. One thought I was Malay. I told them I was Chinese and they asked if I was half. I said no. They were surprised at my nose; they said they thought I looked somewhat Western. They asked if they could walk with me and I said that I was meeting a friend. I walked on.
A well-dressed woman asked where I was from. I told her to guess. She was surprised at my Chinese. I told her where my father was from. She seemed confused and began to fall back. I slowed down to see what she would say. She asked if she could walk with me and I told her I was meeting a friend. She still couldn't figure me out and disappeared into the crowd.
I walked along the Huangpu river, admiring the views towards Pudong. The Bund was under construction, blocking access from one side of the street to another. After a while, I left the Bund and found myself back in the city. I wandered through one park and found myself on the far corner of Yu Yuan gardens. I walked south along a back alley and found myself confronted by the full force of the shops that line Zhong Lu. I turned the corner and found myself in front of the temple of the city gods. Continuing down that street, I crossed a few avenues until I found myself by the Dongtai Lu market. I backtracked to peek in on the bird and insect market, finding half of it razed to the ground. Workmen pounded the concrete with sledgehammers while a man in a business suit watched.
I turned towards the direction of C's house. The sun was setting. The air was thick. I wandered through the new Xintiandi development and stopped by a bakery for tarts. The crowds surged then thinned as I walked through the gates of C's complex. The guard greeted me and then I was home.
October 12, 2008
Blue skies, Beijing
I woke up from a morning nap after returning to Beijing. The day was clear and I wanted to be outside. I biked to Bei Hai, paid the entrance fee, and began walking around the lake. I climbed to the top of the islet hill for the views of the lake and the surroundings. The large white dagoba towered behind me. I climbed down to the southern entrance and walked clockwise around the islet, through a colonnade painted with Chinese images. In the lake, people guided boats over the water.
I walked with the crowds, visiting temples and courtyards. On one end of the park, I saw the 9 dragon screen, one of three famous 9 dragon screens in China (and the only one that's double-sided). I had seen a second one in Da Tong (the largest of the three), but I was uncertain where to find the third. A tour guide shouted out the information through a megaphone, but I decided to walk on in search of quiet.
I walked across a zig zagging bridge connecting various pavilions. In each, a group had laid claim to the space. In one, a woman prepared to karaoke. In another, five men sang Chinese songs in loud operatic voices. In a third, women practiced ballroom dancing. I left the pavilions and moved back to the main promenade. A man practiced calligraphy with a large brush dipped in water. He wrote on the black bricks of the walkway. The characters shone in the sun, then slowly evaporated. A few people picked up brushes and tried their hand at inscribing their names onto the earth. I walked on.
In a courtyard, a woman practiced tai chi, a sword in each hand. In another, women jazzercised to a practiced repetitive routine. I walked on.
I found myself on the western edge of the lake. Signs seemed to indicate there was nothing to see. They suggested taking a boat back across the water or walking back the way I had come. I enjoyed the quiet. Willow trees swayed in the wind. Tour groups kept their distance. A western woman jogged along the path.
I exited through the western gate, crossed a busy bridge, and re-entered through the southern gate. I took photos of the dagoba, rising on its island hill above a pond of broad lotus leaves. A man looked at my camera. "Leica!" he said. I looked at his: "Rollei," I countered. We sat down and compared cameras. He said he was a freelance web designer and programmer working for Chinese and European clients. We exchanged information and he told me of a second-hand camera market. He wrote down the name for me and showed me how to get there. He said he had a friend with a darkroom and if I were to return and wanted to make prints, to let him know. He told me that next week the largest camera swap meet of the year would happen at the camera market, but I told him I would be in Shanghai.
We bid each other well. He returned to photographing the trees and flowers. I rode to the nearby Jingshan park to climb another hill for the views over the Forbidden City. The summit temple was crowded with tourists jostling for the same photo. The sun raked shadows across Beijing. Over the shoulder of the Forbidden City, the Egg loomed like an alien spaceship. To the east, the new CCTV tower hooked itself over the horizon.
I had dinner on the northeast corner of Ritan Park. I met up with Ed and T and some of her colleagues. To reach the restaurant I biked through a Russian neighborhood. The signs were suddenly in cyrillic, and I could see Russians walking into restaurants or waiting cars.
The next morning I looked through concert listings for something to do in the evening. We had thought about seeing a show at the Egg, but the listings didn't sound very interesting. Browsing the web I saw that Diana Krall was playing a concert in Beijing. I knew T enjoyed her music from her ipod, and I bought tickets for Sunday's performance.
That afternoon, Ed and I took a cab to the Fragrant Hills. We left late, and it was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived. Walking to the main gate, we felt like salmon swimming upstream through a river of people. Once inside the park, the buzz of conversation made it sound like we were at a rock concert. We climbed 45 minutes up stone steps to reach the summit where we had sweeping views over the city. It felt like we were in the Hollywood Hills looking out over Los Angeles. The CCTV building gleamed in the setting sun.
Sunday, we went to the Panjiayuan market. It was surprisingly orderly, selling the usual Chinese bric a brac, but in the back we found an interesting book market. Stalls lined the back wall of the market, tucked in an alleyway bounded by the rear of shop buildings. From there, we took a cab to the antique furniture street where Ed and T checked in on the cabinets they were having made.
That night we ate dinner at a Zhejian restaurant near their house. The food was fantastic, perhaps the best meal I have had on the whole in Beijing. We took a cab to the expo center and raced in to find our seats. Outside, people sold lighted devil horns and binoculars. Scalpers lined the access road. The start time was listed as 7:30 but as we took our seats, we saw many empty seats.
Ten minutes later, a Chinese announcement told us to turn off cell phones and to not take photos. A flash appeared from the audience. People began to get up and move up to empty seats. We got up to move. A western man sitting beside us stood and asked if they had announced we could change seats. We said, no, people were just doing it. He sat back down.
We found ourselves with great seats in the front of the second section. The concert began and the audience welcomed her to Beijing. She sang beautifully; her phrasing was impeccable, though her piano solos seemed to get away from her. She said it was great to be in Beijing and said it was interesting to arrive at the theater and have someone try to scalp her tickets to her own concert. She joked that she had to argue with him to make sure she got a good price.
During "Devil May Care" she donned a pair of devil horns and said that it appeared that she was the only person who bought them. She said Halloween was coming up, so she thought it appropriate. She talked about her children and her marriage to Elvis Costello, and about Canadian Thanksgiving. It turned out that the concert fell on that holiday.
She played standards and she played "A case of you." The latter she played solo, accompanying herself on piano, and I was amazed what a beautiful rendition it was.
After the concert we walked back around to the front of the expo center. A large plaza built over one of the ring roads was packed with people enjoying the warm evening. In front of the expo center, people flew kites, attaching strings of flashing lights to the kite strings. In the hazy sky, they twinkled like stars.
October 10, 2008
Beijing Da Tong Beijing
I took the overnight train to Da Tong, leaving at half past eleven. I was in a middle bunk. I had remembered that they were more spacious; I couldn't sit up straight, though perhaps I had become accustomed to the more comfortable Russian trains.
I had had dinner the night before at the Passby Cafe, allowing myself an hour to get to the Beijing West train station. As the hour grew close, my dining companions began to fear that I might miss the train. Dinner ended early, and we all left for our prospective destinations. I hailed a cab and arrived at the station with ten minute to spare.
For the second time, I found myself waking up in Da Tong. On the train ride from Mongolia, I had awoken as we pulled into the station. This time, heading west, we were awoken so that we could exchange our bunk chits for our train tickets. We had arrived slightly ahead of schedule.
Just inside the exit I found the Chinese International Travel Service office. I booked a tour for the Hanging temple and the Buddhist grottoes in Yungang. I was told the tour to meet back at the office at nine. It was barely seven.
I walked out into the square in front of the train station. Groups of people had gathered to wait for their trains, some with heavy bags on which they sat or slept. The day was overcast and I walked along one of the broad avenues to see where it would take me. I ate a delicious stewed pork bun with hot peppers from a street vendor and peeked into a gated apartment complex before it was time to head back to the office. There, the man talked to me about stocks. He had lost a lot of money in the Chinese stock market. I said I had lost a lot in the American stock market, but was afraid to look at how much the recent falls had cost me. We waited for another tourist and then headed for the van. I asked if CITS worked with mainly western or Chinese tourists. He said that CITS was mainly westerners since they employed English-speaking guides. I asked if the costs between Chinese tour operators and tour operators that catered to Westerners were different and he said not really anymore.
The driver and tourguide were both from Shanxi, and they spoke to each other in the native dialect. I sat in the front and chatted with the driver. He told me he had just come from Beijing the day before. It took him three hours; he had driven 160km and hour the entire way.
We drove through the city and he pointed out the newly expanded avenues. They hadn't finished putting in the streetlights. Traffic lights had been wheeled into the intersections. In some areas, rubble lined the avenue. The driver, Mr. Li, told me that they had destroyed the run down houses and were putting in new larger housing complexes. We drove out of the city and into the surrounding countryside.
A light rain came and went as we drove. Mr. Li lamented the rain. He said it was the most dangerous kind, because it mixed with the oil in the roads and made them slippery; a downpour would wash the oil away. As we headed into the hills I napped.
Mr. Li exclaimed, tearing me from sleep. He had just seen a van head into the ravine through his rear-view mirror. A truck tried passing a car, but didn't see the van headed up the mountain. The truck hit the brakes, but its tail end skidded along the road striking the police van, and sending it over the edge. Mr. Li immediately slowed down. I asked if we should call the police. He said they'd have it in hand. Shortly, a police car passed, followed by an ambulance. I was surprised that the response was so quick. Mr. Li seemed nonplussed and pointed out more emergency vehicles arriving along the road.
The Hanging Temple was surprisingly evocative. It clung to the side of a cliff, and narrow stairs and passageways linked the various rooms and altars. Our tour guide sped through the temple. I walked a bit ahead. She explained the rooms and functions to me in Chinese and repeated herself in English for the rest of the group. As we were about to leave, the tour buses started to arrive. Our guide was relieved we had beat them.
We ate lunch in a restaurant catering to tour groups and then drove back to town. Passing the site of the accident, he stopped the car to look into the ravine. The police van was badly damaged but still intact. A man crawled around inside. Mr. Li called down to ask if anyone had died, but the man didn't hear.
Back in Da Tong, Mr. Li pointed out the best hospital in the city (where he guessed they had taken the victims of the accident) and the future site of a 5 star hotel. New trees were being planted along the main street. He told me that in the past the street had been very run down, but they had a new mayor who was affecting change. He also asked me to give his name and number to any friends who might be coming to Da Tong and needed a driver. I asked if he usually worked with CITS and he said no. He said there are 40 tour operators in Da Tong and he works with whomever calls, in which case it is all about contacts. I told him I would pass on his information.
As we left the city, he pointed out the coal mines, including one visited by all the major dignitaries. I had asked about them before and he said that they were mostly worked by people from other provinces, especially that of Sichuan. I was interested in visiting them and he said I could, but alone. He said that usually the people who went to the mines were good-for-nothings.
The Buddhist caves were impressive for the sheer number of carvings. Some caves had been fully excavated with almost free-standing structures inside. One or two had been painted. The majority were showing the signs of wear. The day had cleared and blue skies had opened up above our heads. The sun shone on the sculptures, bringing out the warmth in the sandstone.
Mr. Li dropped me off in the middle of town. The guide pointed me in the direction of the 9 Dragon Screen and the upper and lower Hianyuan temples. She said that I could visit the upper one; the lower was of less interest, but had an ok museum. They had been separated by a new construction project which was ongoing. I mistook her advice and visited the lower temple and then the upper (which had a beautifully painted wall, but was difficult to see given the low level of light inside the main chamber) before continuing on to the 9 Dragon Screen, the largest of the three in China.
At the 9 Dragon Screen temple I paid my admission and went in. At the back of a courtyard stood the screen. Behind the screen there was a wall. I was surprised that there was no temple.
From the 9 Dragon Screen I walked to the drum tower and then along a road lined with people selling food and vegetables from carts, which lead back to the Huanyuan temple and a slightly more touristy street selling jewelry. I began to walk back towards the train station. Night was falling and I was hungry. I stopped in a buffet restaurant that seemed popular with the locals and ate a plate of kung pao chicken because I saw they had just brought out a bowl of it along with a small fish for about four dollars.
Back at the train station I waited and tried to catch up on my sleep. They had sold out of sleeper tickets for the train to Beijing and so I had settled for hard seat. I knew it'd be a long night. When the train was announced, there was a crush of people at the gate. I made my way to the train and found my seat. We set off at eleven pm and I tried to sleep. The people around me tried to sleep. The people standing in the aisles sat on the ground and tried to sleep. Everyone had sprawled every which way.
I didn't sleep much. In Beijing, I eschewed the bus and took a cab. It was just past five in the morning. The night was clear and dawn was coming. I could see it in the lightening of the sky. The city still slept and the roads were clear. My driver asked by which way I wanted to go. I said it didn't matter. I was just looking to be back home and in a prone position. It had been a long day. And an even longer night.
October 6, 2008
The sun streamed through the windows. Next door, a baby cried. Its mother tried shushing it in a high pitched voice. It felt they were in the house with me.
I am staying in a renovated courtyard house in a hutong to the northeast of the Forbidden City. After arriving Saturday and putting down my bags, I had a simple lunch of leftovers with Ed in his kitchen. I almost cried at how flavorful the food was. He laughed and said it was what his ai yi would make on a regular basis, but he sympathized. He had spent two weeks in Mongolia earlier in the year and could attest to how bland the food is.
We left his house and wandered up the street in search of a bicycle. I had planned to purchase one and leave it with Ed, but the models we saw were too new and expensive. We asked if the proprietor had any bikes for rent. He pointed us to the next intersection and told us to look by the entrance to the subway. We thanked him and walked on.
By the station entrance a woman watched and rented bikes. She showed us some new models with advertisements threaded through the spokes of the rear wheel. I wondered if they'd be targets for thieves. We asked if they had any older bikes. She looked around and dragged out a beat up yellow bike. On the frame was written "Pleased." She was offering to rent us her own bike.
I tried it out, wobbling my way around the immediate area. I asked if we could move the seat up, and she said the bolts were too rusted. Ed said we could take it back to the original bike shop to try their tools. The woman told us she'd rent it to us at a discount for the week. We agreed. She said they were open 24 hoursthe attendant slept in the small standbut not to bring it back too late since she needed her sleep. I assured her we would.
With bike in hand, we walked back to Ed's house. T had come back from her errands and we made plans for dinner, choosing to bike to the Guizhou restaurant from the house. There, we had a sour/spicy fish soup along with vegetables and rice. The fish was still breathing as the soup cooked.
After tasting the dish, I said that I thought it was the same soup I had had with Teresa in Moscow. It had a similar southeast Asian flavor and color. Ed was shocked. He'd never had the dish before and was surprised I had had found it in Moscow. I wondered if the cook from that hole in the wall had come from Guizhou.
A light rain had begun to fall. The waitress urged us to bike home soon before it became heavier. We packed up some leftover spare ribs, thanked her, and wound our way through the alleys and streets back home.
The rain continued into Sunday. We got up slowly and hung around the house, finally deciding on dim sum at the Kerry Center. No one had been, but the restaurant had an 88 kuai all you can eat special and we were sold.
We took a cab to the area. As we neared, the new CCTV tower loomed ominously in the distance. The cab let us out at the base of the Kerry towers in a desolate area of town. Ed said they had considered an expat apartment in the area, but felt it wouldn't be as interesting. I compared it to living on Wall Street.
The restaurant looked fancy. We sat down and a waitress handed us a sheet of paper on which we could select what we wanted. We chose six or eight dishes and waited. We were surprised at how good and delicate they were. We ordered a second round of dim sum. Still unabated, we ordered a round of dessert, selecting every sweet option on the menu. A highlight was a grass jelly served with honey from Beijing. The jelly was bitter; the honey surprisingly sweet and fresh. We asked for the brand, and a waiter brought us a slip of paper with the name written on it.
The day had not cleared and rain continued to threaten. In the morning I had suggested going to the 798 art center in an attempt to escape the rain. We hailed a cab and set off towards the northeast.
A gate prevented the taxi from entering the compound, and so we alighted. Guards let us through and immediately it felt as if we were in an art theme park or campus. Signs pointed the way to galleries; the streets were full of tourists. Sculptures dotted the walk, and a large bulletin board advertising shows stretched along one side of the road leading to the main gallery area.
We toured a few photo galleries, buying a couple books, and paused to have a coffee at one of the many cafes. Chinese tourists with expensive cameras took pictures of everything. I did my best to keep up. We wandered further and further into the area, and soon found ourselves at the edge. Unreclaimed factory buildings surrounded us, their steel structures casting haunted silhouettes against the sky. Ed and I pulled out our cameras and shot what we could. The light was failing fast.
As we prepared to leave, a dog appeared out of nowhere and began to follow us out, soon changing its loyalty to a Chinese couple. We walked back towards the main road in the dark and took a cab home.
That night we met up with G for Beijing roast duck. The restaurant he had suggested proved to be a fancy place filled with foreigners. We ordered duck and eggplant and mustard greens and two types of rice and prepared to feast. G explained that the art center had prospered there because the state needed a way to pay employee pensions.after the factory had been decomissioned so they began leasing it to the galleries. I asked what the factory used to make. He didn't know, but thought that at one time it had been weapons.
The food was delicious and after the duck had been finished, I kept eating the pancakes, dipping it into the sauce and eating it whole.
Today, I spent biking through the city. I biked to the Forbidden City and through its courtyard, which was streaming with tourists. The sky was a pale blue, and the sun warmed the square. I biked past Tienanmen square, still decorated for the Olympics with floats and banners and flowers. The square was packed with people. I biked to the new home of the National Theater of the Performing Arts and admired its beautiful facade. I went in search of the hutong I had stayed in five years ago. I asked whether there used to be hutongs where we stood and a policeman told me yes. All the hutongs on that plot of land had been destroyed.
I biked through the hutongs that remained. The walls facing all the main lanes had been given a smooth cement coating and painted grey. They felt lifeless; the textures that used to tell their age and character had been washed away. On the plus side, new toilets had replaced the old stone sheds, but looking into the family courtyards, one could see that the changes had been cosmetic and only to the parts of the hutong that were outwardly facing.
I asked a man about a roast duck restaurant I had remembered in the hutong, and he told me there hadn't been one five years ago. He had lived 30 years in the hutong and did not know of one. I wondered if I was in the wrong hutong. He pointed me to the major intersection a few hundred meters away where a huge roast duck house was situated. I asked him if it was good. He said it was famous.
I biked to the new Qianmen area, where a new "old street" had recently been erected. You could almost smell the fresh concrete along the broad brick lane. The facades had been finished and gleamed (all of Beijing now seems to gleam), but most were unoccupied. Where there were restaurants, lines formed. I followed the crowd and stood in line in front of one restaurant where they were selling lamb skewers. The man in front of me ordered six. I got the last one in the tray. The cashier assured the rest of the people in line that there would be more in three minutes.
I ate my skewer and walked along to the lanes beside the new construction. There, the old stores remained, haphazardly piled one against the other. They were full of merchandise and the narrow street was crowded with shoppers. I let myself be pulled by the tide back to where I had parked my bike.
I rode home back along the wide avenue alongside Tienanmen square. The sun was setting, and the tiled Chinese roofs were silhouetted against the orange skies. In the square, children flew kites. I was amazed at how open the city suddenly felt. It was as if Beijing were yawning, letting as much of the sky spill over the squares and streets and people as it could.
October 4, 2008
Ulaan Batur to Beijing
In Ulaan Batur the day broke cold but clear. I gathered my bags and prepared myself for the trip to Beijing.
At the station, the train had not yet arrived. People milled about in the terminal to keep warm. Workers swept the platform.
As the train arrived, the crowds moved with the train, following their car numbers. I walked up to the second car and settled myself in my cabin. A young Mongolian couple laden with luggage appeared. They filled the space below one of the beds, they stuffed their daypacks into the upper compartments. The conductor came to take our tickets and we were off. Passengers lined the aisles to wave to their friends and family or take a last look at the station. The couple from my compartment waved to a group of people. One man followed the train, looking up and waving to them until we had left the station.
The city gave way to the endless plains. I asked the conductor when the next stop was. He told me it would be at noon. He said there were only two station stops in Mongolia. There wasn't much out there.
We moved further from the capital towards Beijing. The landscape remained desolate. Signalmen would stand in the middle of nowhere besides the motorcycles they had to ride to get to their posts. Occasionally sheep or horses would dot the plains. The rolling hills gave way to more plains.
My compartment mates turned out to be Mongolian students from Ulaan Batur studying in Istanbul. They are no direct flights from Ulaan Batur and so they were en route to Beijing to catch a flight from there. Flying to Beijing was expensive, and O's mother was afraid of her flying out of Ulaan Batur.
They chatted en route. She was energetic and excited; he was taciturn. They reminded me of the couple in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train.
We rode on. At the border, Mongolian officials collected our passports and the train moved back from the station towards a train shed. There, each of the cars was lifted off of their wheel bases so that the bogeys could be changed. The gauge of track differed between China and Mongolia and so all trains had to go through the process of changing their wheels at the border. It was fascinating to watch the workers go about the process.
Back at the station, officials walked through the train distributing passports. On the other side of the border, Chinese officials repeated the process. Then we had 20 minutes to use up our remaining Monglian money at the duty free store. We left the station at one in the morning. Looking out the window I saw a building lined with blinking neon. I knew I was in China.
When I woke up the landscape had changed dramatically. Fields were cultivated. Trees ran alongside the train where only telephone poles had stood. Buildings crowded out the landscape. We had descended from the steppes and entered China.
The carriage slowly woke up, but soon people lined the aisles, watching the mountains and river pass by the window. I asked the conductor if we could see the Great Wall coming in. Looking at the fog, he said no.
The Beijing train station was a crush of people looking for the exit. In front people looked to find their friends or rushed to leave the area. I asked where I could make a phone call and was directed to the west side of the plaza. A man pushed in front of me. I thrust my number at the attendant. The man asked what my hurry was. I told him I was there first. He backed down.
The attendant dialed the number and I asked for Ed in Chinese. When he answered I switched to English and everyone turned to stare. He was in front of the station, among the throng. We decided to meet in front of KFC.
He emerged from the crowd and we embraced. I smiled and almost laughed with joy. I had arrived in Beijing, the culmination of the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian train trip from Moscow. I had spent some 140 hours on a train. I had traveled through three countries and five time zones. I had said hello and goodbye to people in three languages. I was ready to eat.
October 2, 2008
Back from Terejl, bound for Beijing
After a shower and shave I walked down Peace Avenue bound for Sukhbataar Square. I had planned to spend the next day in a nearby national park in a traditional ger and stopped by a cafe recommended by Ed to set the plan in motion. I sat down and ordered buuz, a meat dumpling billed as the national fast food of Mongolia. They were out. I ordered a French breakfast. I ordered an English breakfast. My waitress nodded.
I looked around the cafe for tourist literature. A woman emerged from the kitchen and I asked her about booking trips to the park. She said the woman in charge of that wasn't in that day. She'd be back tomorrow. I thanked her. I ate my eggs and toast and thought about what to do.
I walked to the square. Along the way I bought postcards and stamps. Knowing I had but three days in the country, I needed to get cracking. In the square, I took pictures of the government building. I decided to walk back across town to visit the Gandantegchinlen Khlid, the largest Buddhist monestary in Mongolia.
Monks strolled the grounds. Visitors fed the pigeons. Children aggressively tried to sell bird food. I walked up to the main temple and entered, circumambulating the temple to turn the many prayer wheels that lined the main chamber.
Coming out of the temple, I ran into M&£151; and J&£151;. We had met in Irkutsk. I was arriving just as they were leaving, and again, I was seeing them as they were about to embark for Beijing. We caught each other up on our travels, and they mentioned they were staying at the same guesthouse as me. They had booked a trip to Terejl through the guesthouse and had nothing but good things to say about it. They also mentioned and Englishwoman on the same schedule as I, and said she was looking for people to round out her party. I thanked them, bid them bon voyage, and returned to the guesthouse.
There, I told the proprietor about my desire to see Terejl. He said to meet at 9:45 in the morning at the office and things would be arranged. I thanked him and went to visit the National Museum of Mongolia.
In the morning, a group of five had gathered in the office. At 10, we boarded a dilapidated van and began the 80km journey into the northwest. We stopped along the way to put oil in the engine.
The ger (a large round tent) was set up in a valley right by Turtle Rock, a large formation that appeared as though a turtle were peeping out of its shell. A number of tourist camps dotted the plain. Just to the north, a number of stables and corrals had been set up, but the animals were out to pasture. We ate lunch and were took on a horseback ride around the area.
Afterwards, we relaxed in the ger. A fire was lit in the stove, and the ger quickly warmed. As night fell, the cows returned from pasture. I hiked a bit up the surrounding mountains for the view. A dog from a neighboring ger joined me, pausing and then running up ahead whenever he saw me continue my journey.
A light rain began to fall and I returned to the ger. We had dinner and sat enjoying the fire. Outside, a horse whinnied. Dogs tussled. Night fell. We all turned in early. One over-eager member of our group piled wood on the fire and soon the ger was stifling. I couldn't sleep. I unraveled myself from my sheets and sleeping bag and waited for the fire to die out.
In the morning the ger was cold. Outside, the sky was clear, the day crisp. The sun cast long shadows across the fields and lit the yellow pines on fire. We breakfasted on bread and jam and then I took a hike across the valley to a nearby meditation center. The dog joined me, running up alongside me or across my path, sniffing out this and that.
At the center, the dog ran off behind a building. I climbed the steps and surveyed the impressive surroundings. I walked back down and followed another road continuing around the valley. The dog was nowhere to be seen. I walked back around to Turtle Rock, and then back through our camp. I climbed to a small pass behind our camp to see the next valley and then returned to camp for lunch.
A car picked us up at 2. In Ulaan Batur, we hit traffic and inched our way back to the guesthouse. I took a shower and shaved and then walked back along Peace Avenue towards the square. I had hoped to tour the Natural History Museum but it had just closed. I stood on the steps trying to decided what to do. A Mongolian couple entered the museum and I paused to see if they'd be treated differently. The walked out seconds later.
I walked behind the government building and then back down the square along the other side. A wedding party was posing for pictures in front of the statue of Ghengis Khan. Kids ran around the square in their wedding outfits chasing balloons. The sun cast long shadows across the square. The sky, a clear blue, seemed to go on endlessly.