Crossing Sri Lanka’s Landscape

Today I’m driving across Sri Lanka from Batticaloa on the East Coast to my home in Colombo on the country’s west side.  Everywhere, the landscape is marked with echoes of the past.

Some of these echoes are visible.  They include checkpoints on the road left over from the country’s civil war, which ended 15 years ago.  The checkpoints have been converted from military to police control.  Two drivers have told me that the main purpose of the checkpoints now is to check for drugs.  When asked whether they find drugs, both drivers shrugged and conceded that they don’t find much.  Their lack of enthusiasm seemed to be matched by the camouflage-wearing young men stationed at the checkpoints, who sit slumped over the sides of the temporary-looking guard shacks.  The guard shacks look like they were thrown together one day using spray-painted corrugated metal and scrap lumber and haven’t been attended to since.  When possible, the guard shacks sit beneath trees to lessen the hotbox effect of the merciless sun.  The young men wear berets and stare down at cell phones, oblivious to the hundreds of potentially drug-loaded vehicles streaming by on the road.

Other echoes of the past are less visible.  My driver, Asela, who seems to be attempting the Sri Lankan equivalent of a cannonball run across the country, points out the borders of old conflict zones, some of which coincide with the checkpoints.  He indicates the location of old army positions and tells me that the army would head back to camp every night at 6 pm, then come back at 6 am to resume their armed struggle against the Tamil Tigers.  It’s hard for me to imagine armed conflict happening on such sleepy ground, but I don’t have the same mental maps that Asela carries.

Even further back in the less-visible landscape is the legacy of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka.  As we drive through a village named after one of the kings, Asela comments on the incredible forward-thinking infrastructure projects, namely the dams and water storage basins constructed centuries ago by the kings of old.  He draws a comparison to the politicians of today, whom he says don’t do anything for the country.  Sri Lanka’s official national sport is Volleyball.  The actual national sport is Cricket.  Next in line is Complaining About Politicians.  Even Sri Lanka’s politicians complain about politicians, but they usually mean The Other Guys.

Farther down the road we stop next to one of the man-made lakes and watch an elephant.  The elephants link the landscape of the past to the present version.  Tourists and locals alike are stopped to observe this giant creature, whose glistening wet skin looks much better than that of the foliage-eating elephants who are chained to trees in Victoria Park in Colombo.  He raises his trunk to his mouth, munching on lakeside grass in the same unhurried manner as his forebears have for centuries.

We pass through hamlets and medium-sized towns.  You can tell which is which because the medium-sized towns have two-story buildings.  Almost all of the businesses are closed.  Half are closed because of hard economic times, the other half because today’s a Poya day.  Poya days are Buddhist religious holidays set to coincide with the full moon.  In days long past, this was to allow safe passage to and from the temple by moonlight.  Now it persists as a matter of tradition.  The fact that businesses are closed due indirectly to lunar cycles is another feature of the invisible landscape, a mark that history leaves on the present.

The landscape undulates gently up and down, alternative between palm tree-dominated rainforest and the marshy rectangles of open rice fields.  In one open field, a man wearing a skirt-like sarong draws water from a concrete half-moon-shaped cistern and shows a naked toddler how to bathe. Roadside vendors sit beneath palm-roofed huts and fading umbrellas, selling fruit and water buffalo curd.  In tourist areas there are clusters of Land Rovers, specially outfitted with 6-passenger raised platforms on the back, waiting to take tourists on elephant-spotting safaris.  Maybe they don’t know about the roadside elephant sightings that are possible.

Following the universal code of road trips, we stop at a Cargills grocery store in Dambulla for snacks.  I get two flavors of cheese puffs (For Science), an Elephant House Ginger Beer (because it’s a local favorite), and a bottle of Kinley soda water (because it’s bottled by an American company, and my tour of the bottling plant gives me a high degree of confidence in the product’s safety).

Periodically, we pass by small clusters of two or three policemen.  They stand in their proud, squared-away olive green uniforms, sometimes next to motorcycles, and keep an eye on traffic while they chat with each other.  Sometimes you can see them talking with a pulled-over motorbike driver, no doubt engaged in some variously-official negotiation over traffic fines.

In the medium-sized towns, loudly-colored signs point to a bafflingly large number of hair salons that seem to specialize in bridal hairdos.  The sheer number of these would hint that most urban Sri Lankan get married at least once a week.  Also high-frequency are Coca-Cola signs and cheaply-printed banner for spas that must be keeping the “back rub stock photo” category alive.

Some of history’s invisible landscape creeps into the present.  One of the medium-sized towns has a concrete wall covered with military-themed murals.  To some who pass by, this is a proud legacy of a not-so-distant martial past that ended in national unity.  To others, the guns on the mural represent subjugation, the death of relatives, or the unsatisfying end of a bitter conflict.

The past’s echoes dull as we enter the highway.  The anodyne ribbon of Chinese-built concrete speeds us past the land.  Safety rails separate us from the trees and fields, which now blur into an impressionist painting mainly done in hues of green.  The highway’s small shoulder and steep side-slopes prevent any vendors from setting up to service passersby.  The country is prettier from up here, but that comes as a tradeoff with the intimacy one feels driving through the towns and lives of Sri Lankans.  Sri Lanka doesn’t have many highways.  All drivers, even lead-footed Asela, drive pretty slowly on highways, compared to the breakneck pace preferred on smaller, more dangerous roads.  

As we near Colombo we wind gradually back into the tangle of surface streets that sprawls far out into the city’s outskirts.  It’ll all look the same for the last 45 minutes of the drive until we near my neighborhood.  This landscape is urban and feels neither ancient nor modern.  The only hints of the past that echo here are the huge banyan trees that occupy large traffic circles in Colombo.  These ancient giants root into both the ground and the past, a longstanding reminder that humans share this space with other living things.

Shaanxi Adventures, Day 5

Waking up in luxury, I decided to rest most of the day and make plans.  Most importantly, I’d run out of clean clothes and needed to wash a few things before I could go anywhere.  By late afternoon I’d had a chance to rest and I had some clean togs to wear – I was ready to hit the town.  By then, I’d found out the bad news that there were no tickets for the next day to see the Terra Cotta warriors.  I’ve been very anxious to see them – they were my main reason for coming to XiAn.  But no matter, there are plenty of other things to see and experience here.  And eat.

So I ventured out into the pre-evening with a successful taxi ride (no drama!) to Muslim Food Street.  I hadn’t done any research into this place before I arrived, so I had no idea what I was in for.   Turns out I was in for rather a lot.  From entry to exit, my fitness tracker counter almost 4 miles, and all of it was pushing through VERY crowded streets.  Food ‘street’ is really more of a walking food district, and it was packed to the gills with people.  

XiAn’s most famous food is Biang Biang Mian.  I’ve become a big fan of the belt noodles, served with oil and meat, from a restaurant near my work in Beijing.  I was excited to come here to the origin of the famous dish and eat the food represented by the most complex Chinese character (shown below).

Biang (regular script).svg

I picked a restaurant because of the presence of a large ‘biang’ character on the sign out front.  The restaurant was greasy, crowded, and high-paced.  The food was relatively expensive, but I was happy to pay the price.  This was clearly a restaurant made for tourists.  No matter – I ordered the Biang Biang Mian with beef and waited for my order.  I took the only open table in the restaurant, sitting next to a large family who was clearly visiting elsewhere on a family vacation.  They were thrilled to meet me, and we struck up the normal conversation: Which country are you from? Can you speak Chinese? Ah, your Chinese is so good! (There are a good many taxi drivers who would disagree with you, I thought.)  Can we take a picture with you and our children?  I happily engaged this family, continuing my one-man mission to spread friendship between the people of China and the people of the United States.

This conversation would repeat so many times in subsequent days that I’ll create a separate  blog post to cover it.

One of the brilliant things I saw, both in PingYao and XiAn, was foot massage stores in the middle of these high-traffic tourist areas.  China is great for massage in general, it being a part of general health maintenance in Chinese medicine.  But the particular placement of these stores was genius – every tourist area in the world should incorporate this.  Disney, please consider it!

After eating, I continued walking down the street until I saw a massive dragon emerging from the mist, and heard the sound of drums banging.  I bravely walked toward the monster’s jaws, then disappeared under them into the mist.  I was in a cave, with light down a short tunnel.  I followed the light and found an empress sitting on her throne, her imperious gaze looking out over shoppers, selecting jewelry and knick-knacks.  I’d just found one of the world’s coolest store entrances, but the end of the journey left me feeling a bit like Ralphie from A Christmas Story when he decoded his message from the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society: “Drink More Ovaltine? A crummy commercial?” I passed up the opportunity to buy some beautiful hand-hammered travel mugs and wandered out of the store and into the street, where the fading light of day was being replaced by the glitzy, commercial light of neon signs.  Further down the street I would find several more such store entrances.  I wondered which one was first, and how they’d felt when others had imitated their success.

I bought an ice cream, which turned out to be based on coconut milk, and delicious.  I meandered around the corner into a less-crowded side street to eat it and accidentally set up my own photo booth.  Freed from the press of the crowds and more visible standing alone, I attracted a line of mothers, bringing me their children for photos and to show off their English skills.  I had to work to maintain my smile – I wanted to be eating that delicious coconut ice cream.  But when duty calls, it doesn’t wait.  

Finishing the photo line, I made a quick departure further down the side street to a less-visible place, where I attracted the other kind of insta-friend: young or middle aged men who wanted to share a cigarette and chat.  Silently thankful for my foolish youthful experimentation with cigarettes, I accepted.  Chinese cigarettes (or at least the kind I’ve been offered) are very thin, sweet, and burn quickly.  This makes for mercifully brief smoking experiences and concomitantly brief conversations.

As I was finishing both, I looked up and noticed where I was: standing in front of the local ministry of justice building.  I also saw a rather serious-looking man staring hard at me, probably wondering why I was  there with a camera.  As I quickly made my exit, I saw him urgently ushing people into the building.  I’m not sure what was happening there; once again I find myself with more questions than answers.  In that moment I realized again my ignorance of this society, and the years it could take to penetrate the bamboo curtain of language and culture to build true mutual understanding.

My wandering continued, and I resolved to walk this district until I came to its end.  I took photos, focusing largely on people.  People working are especially interesting to me during this type of observation, and it probably shows in the picutres I chose to make.  Also, they’re often standing in one place, and frequently in pools of good light.  Patience is required is to wait for a gesture that typifies their skill, activity, or character.

As I explored the extent of the district, I noticed a change in the place’s character.  It became more local and less touristy, and very slightly less crowded.  Finally, a street dumped me out on a main thoroughfare.  I was out of the walking streets and back into the modern city.  I decided to walk the 45 minutes back to my hotel and call it a night.

*Linguistic note: The name of the city XiAn is often spelled with an apostrophe between the first set of two letters and the second set (Xi’An).  This is a concession to clarify in Pinyin and Roman characters; in Chinese, the word is a clean two character set, one for Xi and one for An.  The confusion arises from the fact that there are also a few characters with the sound xian, pronounced as a single syllable.  I’ve chosen to render it XiAn, with capitals representing where the second character pronunciation starts.  I’ve chosen this because other Chinese words don’t often rely on the apostrophe to make the Pinyin work – it seems more respectful to the language.

Shanxi/Shaanxi Adventures: Day 4

*Note on the title: On this day I traveled from PingYao, in Shanxi province, to Xi’An, in Shaanxi province. The naming might seem confusing to U.S. readers, but I’ll remind you that we have a bunch of North/South paired states in the U.S., which might be just as confusing for travelers from elsewhere.

I was tired this morning when leaving PingYao.  I decided to rest and not see any more tourist destinations.  I missed my train by a few minutes, which I assumed would be no big deal, because the train schedule listed another train every hour for the rest of the day.  What I hadn’t reckoned on is that those trains might be sold out.  And, in fact, they were.  So, in a grumpy mood, I booked a train ticket for four hours later.

That is when he approached me.  He had extremely rotten teeth and a completely unselfconscious smile.  I greeted him, as I do everyone who approaches me, with my friendliest smile and a greeting in Chinese.  He is from Chengdu.  He welcomed me to China and strongly recommended that I come to Chengdu.  He said a good many other things, and I didn’t understand any of them, except for a reference to  U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  It made me supremely uncomfortable that this conversation had veered into the politics of the bilateral relationship, and that I only understood snippets of what was being said.  I felt that even polite head-nodding and agreement were likely to have me inadvertantly taking a position that I shouldn’t be taking.  I tried to quickly exit, which was no small feat.

I left the train station with four hours to kill and no desire to revisit the PingYao old city.  I’d made a clear part with her, and didn’t want to have to do so again.  Plus, the taxi ride out and back is a little long and more than a little uncertain.  So I grabbed my luggage and tried to get a taxi to the ShuangLin Temple, which was fairly close to the high speed rail station.  This turned out to be harder than anticipated.  I didn’t want to get a ride from the line of vultures out in front of the train station.  As the only foreigner for many kilometers around, they literally got into arguments with each other over who could take this fare.  It had happened several times before that taxi drivers turn off their meters halfway through the trip, then make up an arbitrary fare upon arrival.  I wanted the comfort of a ride-sharing app, like Didi (China’s Uber) or AliPay or Baidu Maps (China’s Google Maps) or GaoDe.  Unfortunately, this pitted me against my old nemesis, the Chinese taxi driver at the other end of the phone line.  Several called, and again I went through the same dance.  “I’m a foreigner, can you speak slowly? …  I’m sorry, I don’t understand.  … This is embarassing, but I don’t know what you’re saying ….” until they finally just cancel the ride.  After 30 minutes of trying, I finally found a driver willing to take me without a long phone call, and made the 5 or 6-minute trip to the ShuangLin Temple.

The temple itself was a nice experience.  But I was feeling grumpy for having missed my train, tired of being outside in the bitter cold  weather, put out at having to carry my luggage with me, and sore from all the walking.  And I had a caffeine headache from not being able to find any tea or coffee that day.  I decided not to go through the hassle of taking out my camera out to take pictures.   Whether to take pictures turned out to be a more complicated decision than expected.  This temple and its many colorful statues represent centuries of religious art, and they’re really a sight to behold.  I especially appreciated the 3-dimensional nature of many of the displays, with not only 3-dimensional figured on a flat background, but scenes that wrap around on the wall and protrude far out in front of the background plane.  The variety of sculptural styles seen through the ages was impressive.  But every scene bore a sign: No Photos.  I suspect that this really means, “No flash photography”.  The introduction of flashed light could damage the ancient artwork.  Now, I DON’T use flash.  I haven’t done so, apart from portrait lighting, since I took my first photojournalism class at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) 20 years ago.  And there were plenty of other people taking pictures – no one else seemed to heed the signs.  But still, as the only foreigner in a place of religious worship, I didn’t feel right disregarding that particular rule.  Or maybe I was just trying to justify to myself not having to pull my camera out in the freezing cold.

Aside from all the other people taking pictures despite the signs, a drone also hovered over the temple for most of my visit.  Outside of the Beijing area, I haven’t seen any signs prohibiting drones here.  And I’ve seen many of them flying around tourist sites in Harbin, PingYao, and Meng Shan.  Someone is getting fantastic footage in these relatively early days of drone photography.  I predict that drones will become a nuisance as they catch on, and these places will need to regulate their use, as many other places in the world already have (I’m looking at you, U.S. National Park system!).  But for now, I regretted leaving my drone at home.

I was walking along the wall of the temple, trying to kill time, when who should approach me?  The guy from Chengdu.  Not he was pointing me out to other people.  I think he told me that he had followed me from the train station to Shuanglin Temple.  I’m not sure how he got there, but he’s almost certainly better with taxis than I am.  But another  extended, uncomfortable conversation ensued. This timeit  inlcuded the bystanders he’d roped in to take our pictures.  But the bystanders gave me some hope – I could read in their body language that this guy was also making them feel awkward.  With their help, I ended the conversation and walked away this time escaping awkwardness with suitcase-banging trip through the narrow door that leads to the restrooms.

Getting back to the high-speed rail station was another adventure, and it went about like you’d expect: me unable to get a taxi, waiting 25 minutes for a bus that ended up not going where I needed to go, and finally finding a taxi driver at the last minute.  By this time I was so relieved to get a ride that I didn’t even care that he turned off the meter and overcharged me.

I sat in the train station for the next few hours, journaling and watching the crowds.  It was easy to see why the few trains I had wanted to book were sold out: the train station was packed.  It seems that many people are returning home after visiting family during the Spring Festival.  Every once in while I’d look up from my computer to find someone, sitting a few rows away, staring at me.  I always smiled and nodded.

When it was finally time to board the train, I thought I’d settle in for 3 hours of rest and enjoying the Chinese countryside.  I was wrong.  When I got onto the train, someone was sitting in my assigned seat.  No problem, I thought.  There are plenty of extra seats on the train.  I’d just occupy one of those.  I was only right for a little while.  As we stopped as successive stations, more and more people got onto the train.  Again and again, I was sitting in someone else’s assigned seat.  Finally, all the seats on the train were taken.  At long last, I had to return to my assigned seat and compel the guy sitting in it to move so I could sit down.  He was surprisingly cool about it.  I’m not sure where he went, but I spent the rest of the journey sitting next to his girlfriend while she took selfies and posted them on social media.  I’m not clear as to whether I showed up in any of the selfies, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Hitting XiAn was shocking – a journey that only lasted three hours but moved me decades into the future to a cosmopolitan city.  It felt like going from Winterset, Iowa to New York City.  I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of the change.  I was still wearing my snow clothes to keep warm and ratty old running shoes dusty with PingYao’s history.  The people around me were wearing fashionable suits and all seemed to be on the way to Martini bars.  Getting a taxi for the 50-minute ride across town to my hotel was easy, and the driver didn’t seem eager to debate me or attempt to teach me Chinese by brute force.  As we drove, I stared out the windows in mild shock.  There didn’t seem to be an inexplicable construction boom on our route – everything here seemed to have been built, established, and decorated with lots of big city lights.  I couldn’t believe the size of the city – in only a few days I’d habituated to (relatively) smaller towns.

When I arrived at the Sofitel, the contrast couldn’t have been greater.  I was upraded to a suite on check-in and walked my dusty sneakers into the warm embrace of big-city luxury.  I put on one of the (4!) robes in my room and sat down to reflect.  It occured to me that this contrast between places is a feature of China.  Like every country, China isn’t one thing: it contains worlds; people whose lives are so disparate and diverse that they can’t even imagine what it’s like to be in the other’s shoes.

For tonight, though, I fired up the food delivery apps and tried to order a pizza (which was terrible) and a beer (which was great).  I have two more days in XiAn, but I’m feeling the need to rest a bit.

Shanxi Adventures: Day 3

I wasn’t certain where one finds breakfast in a place like PingYao, so I asked the guest house hostess.  She pointed me toward the concierge (the guy who had picked me up the day before, whose lack of teeth did nothing to diminish the beauty of his smile).  He dragged me next door to a small, simple restaurant.  It seemed to be a mom and pop affair.  The pop did the cooking, and the mom did the sales and service.  She was a short, round-faced woman who seemed to be perpetually offering people hard boiled eggs.  I paid careful attention to the other customers.  They used the word for “boss” (lao ban, literally old shift leader) instead of the word for “server” (fu wu yuan, literally service person) when referring to her.  I did the same, and she did, indeed, seem to command this space.

I asked about coffee, and the lao ban just grunted at me.  No coffee here.  I ordered a plate of beef baozi and some tea.  The baozi appeared immediately.  The concierge from next door, who was still hanging around and hopefully got a kickback of some kind for bringing guests here, helpfully brought me some vinegar and hot oil to mix together for baozi-dipping.  I had no idea how much vinegar I would see over the next 24 hours.  The baozi were delicious – perfectly steamed dough on the outside, and a mix of beef and spices on the inside.  I learned later in the day that vinegar is a specialty of this area.  It was, indeed, very good vinegar.  And it complemented the baozi perfectly.

When the tea arrived, it was not what I expected.  It was something called ‘you cha’, which might or might not mean ‘oil tea’.  It was liquid, but that’s where the similarity with other teas ended.  It was served in a bowl with a spoon.  And instead of being a transparent liquid, it seemed more akin to a very thin oatmeal or gruel.  There were seeds of some kind floating in it, and it was lightly sweetened.  Whatever it was, it was delicious.  It was the perfect fuel for exploring PingYao.

PingYao is a prime Chinese tourist destination.  It was packed wall to wall with tourists, mostly family groups enjoying the New Year holiday together.  It was clear from observing the crowds that, in the minds of the Chinese people, the pandemic is over.  Most people were still wearing masks, but that might have been as much a sensible protection from the bitter cold as a matter of infection control.  People didn’t seem nervous about taking off their masks to eat at the many walk-up food stalls clustered along the main streets of PingYao.  Cars and bicycles aren’t allowed in the heart of the old city, making it a friendly walking venue.  

The city is packed with gift shops, food stalls, restaurant, karaoke bars, museums, and vinegar shops.  At night, walking down the streets of the old with with red Chinese lanterns hung all around is a magical experience.  I could tell that my fellow Chinese tourists felt the same way by the frequency with which they pulled out their cell phones to snap pictures and record the experience.  Pairs of young women posed for ultra-cute snaps to share on their social media accounts.  The influencer phenomenon, it seems, knows no geographic bounds.

I walked by, and eventually into, a vinegar museum.  These seem to be everywhere in PingYao.  I later stopped into a second and third vinegar shop.  I tried some sweet apple-based vinegars, and was able to easily taste the difference between 5-year-aged vinegar and 10-year-aged vinegar.  I was sad thinking that I wouldn’t be able to safely transport any vinegar home, so I didn’t buy any.  This ended up being a good decision for reasons that will be apparent later.

PingYao is also apparently famous for its beef.  History (or legend)  records that the empress Cixi was traveling in the area centuries ago and really enjoyed some PingYao beef.  There is now a PingYao beef museum lauding the qualities of this famous dish.  The only beef I tried was chwar from a street vendor.  It was pretty decent.

Everywhere I go, people notice my foreignness.  Many people try to alert the people they’re with, and I hear whispers of (wai guo ren, or outside country person) everywhere I go.  Many people eschew the politeness and just openly point, some staring in slack-jawed amazement.   I didn’t understand this very well until I saw a blonde-headed woman walking through a train station.  It was a jarring sight, and my first instinct was also to wonder, “What is she doing here?”  Children tend to shout “wai-guo-ren” pretty frequently.  In all cases, I smile, make eye contact, and use a word of confirmation that means “it is”.  Many people ask to take a picture with me, a request that I always treat like an honor.  I will often ask if they can take a picture with my phone, as well.  I want people to know that I’m as honored to meet them as they are to meet me.  I know that if it’s the first time people are exposed to a foreigner, the way I act will forever color their impressions of the United States.  This is people-to-people diplomacy in the most literal, tangible sense.  I may be off the clock, but I’m never off the job.  

PingYao only increased in beauty with the coming of evening.  I spent long hours just wandering the streets, taking pictures and observing.  I racked up an outrageous step count on my FitBit.  As the evening drew on, I wandered down dark alleys just to see where they go.  At one point, I saw a hulking shape in the darkness ahead of me.  It was the only time I’ve been frightened while traveling solo in China.  The shape turned out to be my own shadow.  Many of the dark alleys, it turns out, contain guest houses like the one in which I stayed.

I only had a few hours ahead of me in PingYao, so I headed back to rest up and download photos.

Shanxi Adventures: Day 2

On the way to breakfast, I met a young man who insisted on speaking to me in English.  It took a minute to adjust – I kept trying to use Chinese with him.  He repeatedly replied in mechanical, stilted English, “You can just speak your native language.”  He went on to tell me about his time attending high school in Canada.  He especially wanted to tell me about his favorite geology teacher, whose resume he recited to me in exhaustive detail.  He also asked how I was finding the Tai Yuan region’s environment.  When I, thinking that he was referring to the culture or the infrastrucutre, replied with some innocuous pleasantry, he launched into a short diatribe on the mismanagement of mining and coal production.  I’d found China’s lone environmentalist.  I wanted to ask him how Shanxi differed from the rest of the country in that regard, but I refrained.  His life must be hard enough without antagonism from abroad.

The environmentalist wasn’t the only person who wanted to use his English with me.  Everywhere I went, people would smile at me and push their young children forward to show off the English they’d been learning in school.  Not a single child seemed comfortable with this.  But the parents all beamed, happy to have found, in the flesh, an object lesson for their child on the usefulness of their studies.  The parental subtext seemed to be: “What if you come across a foreigner at a tourist destination and need to greet him?  Then you’ll be glad you applied yourself in school!”

Breakfast at Chinese hotels is usually interesting.  This one proved to be no exception.  Chinese people enjoy a range of breakfast options, and the Jinci Hotel seemed eager to cater to them all.  While I would have been happy to have noshed on some jiaozi or suan la tang (hot and sour soup), the attendant who showed me around the breakfast room kept pointing out all the bread options.  Someone must have told her that what foreigners really like for breakfast is bread.  I nodded politely and went off in search of spicy noodles, green tea, and a pair of chopsticks.  Undeterred, she took it on herself to make me some toast.  A few minutes later, she showed up at my table unbidden with two slices of toasted white bread.  I ate one of them, just to be polite.

This morning’s adventure was a trip to the Meng Shan Giant Buddha statue.  It has an ancient body, and a head that was rebuilt from 2206-2008.  It only opened as a tourist destination after the reconstruction of the head.  Security to get into the statue was structurally robust, but procedurally deficient.  Everyone goes through the same metal detector, and everyone sets off the detector.  This is pretty common in China – airports seem to be the only place where metal detectors are used for their intended purpose.  The guards looked me up and down, then asked me one question: whether I was carrying any cigarette lighters.  I considered this for a minute – I had brought a few cigars and a lighter on my trip on the off chance that I’ll be able to smoke them.  But then I looked around – it was 15 degrees below zero.  There was snow on the ground.  It was so cold that my camera buttons froze and stopped working.  The chances of me even getting the lighter out, much less using it for a nefarious purpose, were as low as the temperature.  I’m not sure what they were hoping to prevent; there were many people smoking at all parts of the outdoor exhibit.  So I lied.  The guard grunted and pointed me through the security check.

Any tourist destination with a religous theme will be riddled with irony.  In China, trebly so.  While a site that venerates an ancient religion, a visit to the Meng Shan Giant Buddha isn’t a calming trip away from civilization.  It’s a nice hike up a gorge to see the statue.  But it’s not a serious athletic challenge.  Of course, the presence of an oxygen bar halfway up this low-elevation hike might hint otherwise.  The walk is decorated with plastic animals and plastic flowers.  Poppy, energetic music plays from speakers on the walk up and down from seeing the Buddha statue.  While there are two people dressed as monks at the base of the statue who periodically ring a giant singing bowl and facilitate worship at the base of the statue, they are also selling electric candles for use in your home worship.  You can pay them with WeChat using a convenient QR code.  QR codes for donations also show up on donation boxes in the less-visited temples off the beaten path.  One of the many gift shops, next to the Virtual Reality lounge, was selling wire-framed machine guns.  Despite all this, there were a decent number of actual worshippers coming to venerate the Buddha.  Several of them, after bowing down, came to ask me if they could take pictures with me, too.  

I’d like to take this opportunity to remind the reader that I, like the Buddha Siddhartha, make no claims at divinity.  Every taxi driver I’ve met in China will agree with you.  They universally despise me.  Case in point: the unlucky driver who answered the call to take me from the Giant Buddha to the Tai Yuan train station.  Like every taxi driver, he called me to talk about the ride before picking me up.  You must understand, my Chinese language skills are impressive – if you don’t speak Chinese.  If you do, then they’re somewhere on a range between bewilderingly incomprehsible babble and an outright offense to this beautiful language.  No matter where you find me on that scale, one thing is certain: every taxi driver I try to hire would like to have an ent-length conversation about the ride before picking me up.  Often I won’t answer the phone, but that just makes them more angry.  When they call, I select from a few of my most-used phrases: “This is embarassing, but my Chinese is bad.  Please speak slowly,” or, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.  Can you speak more simply?”  Usually, the response is a torrent of words, possibly an attempt to expose me to every Chinese word at once.  Probably for my improvement.  But I don’t improve.  I haven’t learned any new words from a taxi driver yet.  Talking with one driver on the phone, I said, “The more words you say, the less I understand.  Keep it simple: Are you coming or not coming?”  His response might have been the entire text of ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’.  Or just a version of his family’s history, ending with the reason that he’s on the way to pick up a *bad word* foreigner in a taxi.  My most successful conversations usually end up with me hanging up the phone on the driver.  Often when they see me and realize that I’m a foreigner (wai guo ren, or outside country person), a small light of realization flickers in their eyes, and I get a grunt of absolution.  Either way, I finally connected with my driver after a painful (for both of us) series of communication missteps.  The dropoff happened without any hassle, and I was back into the TaiYuan train station for my trip to PingYao.

It was comforting to be back on the train, navigating a station that was no longer new.  The Swiss have got nothing on China: the Chinese system of high speed rail is impressive.  The trains are fast and comfortable, and ticket prices are cheap.  You can get almost anywhere in the country by rail.  Every train I’ve taken has run on time, to the minute.  Tickets cost about three or four times the cost of most in-town taxi fares.  First class tickets are only a little more expensive than coach.  I settled down for a nice ride.

From the train window, I saw stepped farming. It seemed an attempt to turn the foothills nestled next to a small mountain range into productive land.  All seemed to be fallow, with no sign of crops apart from neatly plowed patterns in the soil.  The small steppes were occasionally riven by what looked like dry river gorges or wide runoff channels.  These, too, were plowed at the bottom.  Snow and small clusters of concrete houses dotted the jagged steppes and the bottoms of the gorges.  Many of the concrete slab houses had solar panels on top, and all of them had traditional New Year’s decorations.  I wondered if the residents use WeChat and AliPay.  From everything I’ve seen so far, they probably do.  

Arriving at PingYao, I saw the same thing I see all over China: endless rows of massive apartment building under construction.  The number of new units being added at any given time must be massive.  I asked a taxi driver where all the people will come from to live in these houses.  As expected, I didn’t understand his answer.

Old town PingYao is fabulous.  Upon arrival, I decided that it’s probably my favorite place in China, and maybe in the world.  My major metric for place-attraction is ambiance, and PingYao has so much ambiance that the word ‘PingYao’ should henceforth be substituted for the word ‘ambiance’ in all future usage.  The entrance gate to which my taxi driver delivered me had a police station and a ticket booth.  It cost 125 RMB to enter the old city, and this seemed to be on the honor system.  So I did what everyone else walking through the gate was doing: I walked by, between the ticket booth and the police station.  

A driver from the guest house met me inside the old city wall, and drove me just around the corner to the hotel.  The place he stopped didn’t seem like a guest house – I couldn’t tell from the outside that the building was even occupied.  But when he opened the door and ushered me in, I stepped into a world of ancient oriental delight.  This is the place that every ancient-Chinese-themed place in the world aspires to be.  Large fish chased each other around a massive fish tank in a corner, right by a table whose design practically announceed that old Chinese men were to use it when drinking tea.  The guest house hostess ushered me out a back door and toward me room, and into a courtyard whose beauty literally took my breath away.  It was nigh on evening, and red Chinese lanterns lit the courtyard, creating a beautiful sense of PingYao.  

All of the guest rooms open to the courtyard, with only large windows and wooden screens creating a small amount of privacy for the guests.  What the rooms lack in modern convenience (nowhere to put clothes, no hotel bathrobes, etc.) it made up for in PingYao, with ancient-looking furniture.  The large bed, which took up most of the room’s square footage, aspired to be a slab of concrete or a hardwood floor.  My Chinese teacher warned me about the use of ‘kongs’ (or traditional hard sleeping surfaces) in this type of guesthouse.  She cautioned me to be sure to reserve a room with a bed and not a kong.  I tried, but I think I failed at this.  No matter: when you’re tired enough, you can sleep anywhere.  And I was tired.

(If you’ve read this far, I have a special message for you: “Hi, Mom and Dad!” If you’re anyone else, please leave a short comment just so I know you’re out there and interested.)

Shanxi Adventures: Day 1

Solo travel in China has been fascinating.  I’m not too far out of Beijing but I’m far enough that I’m meeting many people who appear never to have seen a foreigner before.

Today is the first day of the Lunar New Year, so most Chinese people are recovering from late-night celebrations with their families.  Because of this, I despaired of finding a taxi for the long cross-town trek to Fengtai train station, especially at 5:30 am.  Even the ride-sharing services, at all other times ubiquitous, were not guaranteed.  Enter Mr. Wang.  I texted him the night before, on New Year’s Eve.  He checked with his network of drivers – none of them was willing to be away from their families early on New Year’s day.  So he agreed to drive me personally.  In the morning, he explained that his son is a public servant, a government official (probably at the city level), so his son wasn’t able to join his wife (a housecleaner) and him (an independent driver) for New Year’s Eve.  They ate a nice, small, quiet meal and went to bed early.  In the morning he was ready to drive me on the eerily-empty streets of Beijing.

Arriving at the train station was new to me.  I didn’t know the protocols.  And the checkin procedure relies on a Chinese identity card, a shenfenzheng, that I don’t have.  Luckily, the guards seemed familiar enough with a foreign passport, and getting into the station (and later getting onto the train pokatform) wasn’t a problem.  The train station felt like a more casual version of an airport. I tried to use the first class lounge, but it’s apparently only bookable through corporate buyers.  No matter – the wait wasn’t even long enough to sit down.

For this trip, I decided to travel heavy, bringing my full DSLR kit instead of my small, light Fuji XE-4 camera.  Shooting in the train station, I realized just how out-of-practice I am.  But all the skills come back easily enough, like a language that you haven’t spoken in a while.

I boarded the train and sat in my first-class seat.  It was remarkable how smooth the takeoff and ride were – this is a high-speed train.  It’s part of the network of high speed trains in which China has been investing so heavily for the past 15 years or so.  I rolled through the countryside, trying to observe what I could while simultaneously recording the third Harry Potter book for the little boys.  The countryside, though I’ve never seen it, looked familiar. It was filled with signs of progress (a big field of solar panels) mixed with rural poverty, small manufacturing, and geographic contours that somehow communicate their very ancient nature at a glance.

The trip was over before I knew it, and it was clear getting off the train that I wasn’t in Kansas any more.  I needed even better language skills to get around, and many people I came into contact with seemed like they aren’t used to seeing foreigners.

The hotel I selected is a once-opulent affair.  Apparently built many decades ago (and not improved or maintained since), it’s a conference site nestled at the foot of the hills.  It looks as if its main purpose is to impress provincial-level  government and party officials, who no doubt use it for important meetings.  I chose it for its proximity to the Jinci historic area, and I was not disappointed.  Though there are limousine-length golf carts constantly loitering around the front door and eager to satisfy the transportation whims of guests, the historic area is an easy (and rather pretty) walk front the hotel’s front door.

I skipped the walk at the insistence of a golf cart-limo driver, and he dropped me off at a side entrance to Jinci Temple ‘scenic area’.

At this point, it might be worth mentioning that solo travel also affords me the freedom to indulge my whims, and to see this place on my own terms.  I only share this to explain my lack of understanding about the things around me.  For example, there are guides every few feet at the entrance to the scenic area who were haraunging visitors.  Several of them argued with each other about whether it was worth pitching me.  I moved on before they could settle that dispute.

I decided that, instead of listening to an audio tour, engaging a guide, and reading all the signs (or at least the ones that are translated into English), I would just walk around and let my visual sense enjoy the scenery.  I’d like to walk away with pictures this time instead an an exhaustive (and soon-forgotten) grasp of the finer points of local history.

Jinci Temple park was lovely, and the Duke’s Art Gallery (castle?) was especially impressive.  After entering the old city/museum, I wandered, climbed lots of stairs, photographed, and generally enjoyed myself.  At the end of the day, I stopped in a coffee shop at the museum for a cup of coffee and to process pictures.  The staff, after making me swear that I wouldn’t share it with anyone, was kind enough to give me the Wi-Fi password.

After picking my way back across the vast museum/city and scenic park as the temperature went down with the setting sun, decided to stay at the hotel for dinner.  That was an interesting experience – at first I thought I’d made a mistake.  Dinner was served in a corner of a large conference hall, and the sheer size of the room made for weird ambiance.  Then I looked at the menu, where they featured very expensive delicacies, including the famous bird’s nest soup and the infamous shark fin soup.  I worried that I might be in for a 3,000 RMB dinner full of things that don’t please my palette or my ethics.  Luckily, I found many items on the menu that looked appetizing to my taste buds, my wallet, and my ethical sensibilities.  I put together an order of 5 small items.  The server told me that it was going to be too much food.  She took one of the items off of my order.  I shrugged, said OK, and waited for dinner.  She was right – it would have been far too much food.  And when I got the bill, it was only 30 RMB ($4.42 in USD).  For a delicious, restaurant-quality meal!  I’ve seen this trend elsewhere – restaurants in China tend to price everyday, normal food very low.  Even though it might be delicious or a regional speciality (like the razor-cut noodles I ordered in Shanxi, or Beijing’s JianBing), Chinese people just assume that it’s common food and price it lower than other, less common dishes.

Though I’d decided to eat in, I also wanted to see the city of Tai Yuan at night.  After taking a taxi way into the city and walking around a bit, I met a family of guys heading into a karaoke bar.  They were already half-drunk and in a very celebratory mood.  They invited me to join them, and I decided that I probably wouldn’t get another chance like this.  I accepted, and had a blast singing with them.  It was great language practice and even better diplomacy.  The father, the dominant figure in the group, told me with increasing volume how proud he is of his country.  The background on this phone was a picture of him as a much younger (and much thinner) man, kneeling in fatigues.

Getting home was a challenge – one driver picked me up, drove for a while, stopped, saw where I was going, and loudly complained at me until I got out of the car angrily.  When I finally did get a driver who was willing to make the 20-minute trek to the hotel, we found the large front gate locked and the guard on duty sleeping in the guard house.  An unhappy and bleary guard opened the gate for me, but the driver had already left.  I made the rest of the walk across the expansive hotel grounds in the freezing cold.

YeXian Pagoda hike

A friend invited me to join her on a hike and I said yes! We traveled with about 20 fellow international school parents to hike the mountains near the YeXian pagoda in Miyun District, Beijing. In Beijing, one can travel quite a long time and still be within Beijing’s borders! Since we can’t really travel outside of Beijing right now, I’m thankful we can head up into the hills (or into the city) to explore!

About 1.5 hours from home, we arrived at the visitor’s entrance gate to the mountain/site. Near the entrance, there were religious/cultural statues, beautiful gates, and temples. I’m not sure what religions were represented, possibly Hinduism. There was an altar for those who wanted to burn incense and pray. We trekked up the steps of the mountain, chatting most of the way. Some rested on the switchbacks while others continued hiking to the top. When we got to the pagoda, I chose to hike all the way to the top where there were a few more architectural pieces–a few more pagodas, arches, and a big marble bridge at the tippy top. The uppermost walkway was a recreated Great Wall, which made us chuckle! After having lunch and time to explore the top of the mountain, we gathered up, strapped on protective gear (helmets + elbow/knee pads) and go-carted (gravity powered) down! It was quite a fun and bumpy ride down!

Beijing’s Forbidden City

Finally, after living in Beijing for several months, we made our way to Beijing’s signature tourist attraction: the Forbidden City.

We decided to take a tour with Beijing Postcards, a history-focused company that offers tours and other experiences based on original research into Beijing’s history.

Getting to the Forbidden City presented obstacles typical of being in a new country with limited language skills and `experience. For some reason, I was able to hail a ride in Chinese using Lisa’s phone, but I wasn’t able to call a car using my phone. When we finally got there, we were late for our tour.

Despite all the difficulties, it was magnificent to see one of Beijing’s signature pieces of history, and to learn from a tour guide who both loves his job and is currently engaged in unearthing China’s fascinating history. We’ll definitely be back to the Forbidden City!

(Click on any picture below to launch the slideshow view and enjoy the photos!)

80’s Cartoon Review: Gummi Bears

If you grew up in the 80’s and loved television (howdy, fellow Gen-X’ers!), there’s a decent chance you watched Adventures of the Gummi Bears. If you weren’t savvy and determined enough to record live TV on VHS tapes, this show has faded into the mists of your 80’s childhood nostalgia, along with Reebok Pumps and weekend Blockbuster runs.


Luckily, Ready Player One isn’t the only party cashing in on your midlife income and your craving to foist your childhood memories on the next generation. Disney+ (the OG Plus [yes, Paramount, Hulu, and Peacock – that was a diss]), has thrown open the vaunted Disney Vault to bring back such quality programming as Mr. Boogedy and Chip N Dale Rescue Rangers.

One surprisingly pleasant discovery was Gummi Bears, which I, in my childhood obliviousness, didn’t even encode as a Disney property. As with all things half-remembered from childhood and rediscovered in adulthood, there was a lot more going on than I realized at the time.

The sheer ambition of Gummi Bears’s writers/creators is impressive. Consider the elements that it attempts to pack in:

  • Anthropomorphic bears based on an iconic candy
  • A child-hero bear with no special skills meant to be an avatar of the viewer
  • A young, empowered preteen female heroine bear who wants to be a singing star but lacks the voice for it
  • An old, wise, wizard bear
  • A matronly bear figure that keeps all the bears in line with stern glances and sharp rebukes
  • A manly builder-bear meant to reinforce 80’s American masculine stereotypes, often supporting but occasionally mocking them
  • A fat bear called Tummi Gummi who is voiced by the actor from Garfield, and who apparently shares Garfield’s single-minded comical focus on the next meal
  • Dragons, but not scary ones
  • Ogres that serve as comic villains
  • Castles
  • Knights and knight paraphernalia a la Dungeons and Dragons
  • Princesses
  • Ancient advanced technology
  • Moral lessons that are sufficiently religious-distant to encode 80’s publick morality
  • A robber-baron knight villain with an overly enthusiastic British-adjacent accent, meant to engender a subtle disdain of high-class culture that was so often seen in the 80’s (see: MacGyver’s folksy humility)
  • A class-misfit human child who is in love with a princess, who is the only true believer in the Gummi Bears, and who benefits from the combination of their mythical status and his special knowledge of them
  • Awkward pre-teen love plot lines
  • Gummi Berry Juice
  • Ancient Lore

The ancient lore, discovered by both the viewers and the show’s characters at the same time, becomes a reusable deus ex machina, allowing the show’s writers to insert magic to alter the Gummi’s abilities and pull them out of whatever sticky jam (pun unapologetically intended) they may be in.

The theme song is worthy of mention, because it’s an awkward masterpiece in itself. It attempts to lay out all the elements of the show, unintentionally becoming almost comical in its thematic whiplash. But the best part is a near-religious soaring vocal track that, even in my childhood, seemed inappropriately passionate to be used on cartoon-mythical-candy-bears. I dare you to watch it in the video below and find yourself embarrassed as you try to refrain from whistling it for the rest of the day.

Watching the show with my kids has been a fun return to my own childhood, and has allowed me to see and appreciate the times in which I grew up with the perspective of distance.

Did you watch the Adventures of the Gummi Bears? Are there any other old movies or TV shows that you’ve rediscovered?

Snow Day/Snow Play

Today’s snowstorm in Washington (and the DMV area) is a fun treat for our California-bred kids. For them, snow is something to visit in the mountains in the winter, not a reality to live and play with every day. This morning Joshua and Caleb dragged me to the park to enjoy the magic of the freshest hours of a snowy weekend morning.

(Tip: Click on a photo to open it in a larger carousel view.)