Archive for July, 2008

Tour Is Always Be Stupid

July 30th, 2008 8:54 am by Dave from here

Ray has been writing to a nice young man we met in Beijing in Beilin Park, commenting on the eclipse tour we’re now on. He wrote back with an e-mail with the above title.

Tour, in fact, is always be stupid. When you have 48 people in two tour buses, you can only eat at places which will accommodate that many people in a hurry, and in most cases, that means lots of pre-prepared food which is not piping hot. Since we haven’t been served tripe or donkey, one has to assume that someone purposefully ensured that the menus would be somewhat consistent and “palatable to Westerners”, robbing us of much of the variety we could have experienced were we not on a tour.

Also, we are in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. A large percentage of the population is Uighur, and several other Islamic minorities. Yet almost all of the food we’ve gotten on the tour is your basic Han Chinese tour food. We see all this wonderful bread and delicious kebabs cooked on the street, and served in Islamic restaurants, but the only time we get to eat it is when we bail on a tour meal and go get it ourselves. And the way the Uighurs are presented is a little “cleaned up” from reality. Ray writes:

Is it acceptable again for the majority race to engage in blatant racial stereotyping nonstop? I know that Richard Pryor and everybody reclaimed some images but jeezis. I know that a tour guide must encapsulate the experience of a territory the size of Western Europe into 6 words for variety of people who speak a variety of English but jeezis. Wherever we weren’t being sold jade, we’re being told that Uighurs are a happy hospitable people and born dancers. About 6 times a day. No exaggeration. We went to a Uighur “home” today. Our guide said we were invited. We were not invited. The contempt on the faces of our nominal hosts will show up on every photo these Eurotrash put up on flickr. The Uighur were militarily defeated by the Han Chinese and they dance for money. Some of them plant bombs when they get tired of grinning back at the stern billboards which dot the landscape showing Han Chinese members of the People’s Liberation Army and their dedication to protecting the peace and social order of the former East Turkestan.

In addition to the stupid food, the weather has been somewhat stupid — the clouds have continued to make our tour through the desert quite a bit more pleasant than it would be if they weren’t there (30 degrees C instead of 40) but clouds are a bit of a bummer for an eclipse. There is a weather forecaster on the trip, who is quite convinced that the clouds will disappear tomorrow and be gone by Friday. So we all have to be optimistic.

The stupid weather feeds into the stupid Chinese or Xinjiang governmental restrictions: there is one viewing site in this area of the eclipse zone, and we can’t watch it anywhere else. If the weather is bad, we can’t try to go somewhere else. (Of course, this could be true anyway, because there aren’t many roads, and the clouds are usually nowhere or everywhere, but there are more than zero roads, and discrete puffy clouds are possible). We’ll get to the site tomorrow (which won’t have any Internet). Apparently there are many tents for many groups, but our tents will have restricted access to us. There are a few large viewing sites, but we have a small viewing site to the west of all of them. We can bring as much water as we want into the tent area, but not into the viewing area. (We should be able to see the eclipse from the tent area, so it’s not obvious we even have to bother with the viewing area). Our viewing area is restricted to us, but we should be able to view from the general area as well. I appreciate how people with cameras will like not having them overrun by thousands of locals, but I kind of like hanging out with locals during an eclipse, to show them what’s going on, and to see their reactions. So we’ll see how things look once we get to the site.

The people on the tour are generally pretty nice, and there seem to be only two eclipse virgins among them (plus the Chinese tour guides). One of the tour members was on the tour with us in Niger. I wonder how many from that tour are on the tour in Russia put on by the same company; if we’d known about the Chinese restrictions, and if it had been advertised sooner, maybe we would have gone on it instead. Probably half of them are from the Netherlands, nine from the US, a lady from Sydney, and the rest from elsewhere in Europe.

The tour has been to many tourist attractions which have the usual jade and silk shops attached, or, if out in the desert, lots of little stands with people selling various kitsch. We saw the Xinjiang Museum in Urumqi which featured dessicated corpses from the desert that were many hundreds of years old; we went to the Heavenly Lake outside of Urumqi which was a beautiful green lake at the foot of a snowcapped mountain range; we moved to Turpan, a desert oasis town 100 meters below sea level which is a huge grape-growing area, currently for raisins, but like all grape-growing areas I expect them to learn a thing or two more about wine. At Turpan, we saw the ruins of two nearby ancient cities. The thing that struck us about Jiaohe was that it was located on a high plateau that was almost exactly the same shape as Manhattan — we walked from Battery Park up to Lower Harlem. Several of the tour members have rebelled at some of the more touristy sites, and requested stopping the bus in some somewhat more “real” places in order to take pictures of people or cemeteries or beds on roofs or whatever looks interesting from the windows of the bus.

Now we’re in a little town called Shanshan, and tomorrow we head to the Official Viewing Site. As long as the weather is good, and we’re reasonably comfortable, we’ll try hard not to complain. But it comes so naturally…

Unexpected Attractions

July 25th, 2008 9:03 am by Dave from here

I didn’t have very high expectations about our last day in Dunhuang.  After we checked out of the hotel, we took a taxi to Yungguan, which like the Yumen Pass, is a ruin of a tower.  But when we got there, there was a four-year-old museum, with an English-speaking guide.  The museum had lots of interesting things, including little sticks which had been used as passports in the Han dynasty, a scale model showing all of the alternate routes the Silk Road took over the years, and many other artifacts.  When we went up to see the actual ruin, there was a place to stand and see a stretch of the actual Silk Road — it’s a real road, not just a concept.  After returning to the museum, we were of course taken to the rooms selling handicrafts.

The Mogao Caves we’d visited a few days earlier had several hundred rooms which had been very well protected.  I’d heard the Western Thousand Buddha Caves were in much worse shape, and that there was much less to see, and this was in fact true:  they were next to a river, and the direct face of the caves had been weathered much worse than Mogao.  But seeing them was a fascinating experience anyway.  The guide spoke only Chinese, but there was a guy who was also visiting who was an amazing polyglot.  He’d talk to the guide in Chinese, and then tell us what the guide said in English, and then tell his friend what the guide had said in Japanese.  Any questions either of us asked were translated into the other two languages, as well as the answers.  There were some very different styles of paintings there, and some instances of incomplete sketches of figures which were only shown in their complete state in Mogao.  The multilingual fellow was in China to be a field producer for the Olympics, the first visitor we’d met intending to see the Olympics.  His friend was in China to see the eclipse, the first visitor we’d met intending to see the eclipse.

We returned to town, went to the Luminous Cup Factory Outlet Store, and bought some jade cups which were nicer and half the price than those offered at the museum, had some simple food, and went to the train station.  The station just opened in June, and is quite a large building with not much traffic.  Despite the fact our destination was several hours to the west, the train went east for about two hours before joining the main line.

We saw several interesting things from the train, including an oilfield which looked like West Texas, a windmill farm which looked like Tehachapi, only flat, and Ray noticed that the station signs were no longer in Chinese and English, they were now in Chinese and Arabic.

We arrived in Urumqi, and took a taxi to the Super 8 Hotel, which is quite nice.  Free internet that Just Works, breakfast included, less than $40 per night.  And Urumqi has quite a bit of coffee — I’ve had no problem feeding my addiction here.

What it doesn’t have is much English — lots of Arabic, quite a bit of Cyrillic (we’re quite close to Russia and Kazakhstan).  We prowled around on the Internet to find especially good restaurants, and noticed one site called “fubar”.  Fu means “lucky” or “wise” in Chinese, so it’s the “Lucky Bar”.  Anyway, it’s run by a guy from New Zealand, and we passed it walking to our hotel, so we stopped in for a couple beers, and let the owner give us advice and tell us about his life.  He sent us to a Uighur restaurant which was very authentic, very tasty, but which had someone who spoke pretty good English.  The restaurant guy was so thrilled to meet Americans (the previous time was two years ago) that he took a couple hours off today and showed us around the market.  Between the lunch we had before that, and the melon and ice cream and fresh baked roll we had at the market, we’re probably too full for dinner.

Tomorrow we join the eclipse tour, and move to the Xinjiang Grand Hotel, which was allegedly abandoned by Holiday Inn a few years ago because it was used as a bordello.  We’ll see.  The eclipse is being viewed as a serious income opportunity by the Xinjiang government — in the last few days they’ve issued a bunch of rules including requiring a $45 ticket per person to enter the eclipse zone, and in the interest of “security” (their financial security, of course) one is not allowed to bring water into the zone, you have to buy it from them.  This seems to me as if it decreases my personal security (what if they don’t have enough, etc.), but whatever.  Again, we’ll see how things proceed from here.

Should we flood the Sistine Chapel…

July 22nd, 2008 8:05 am by Dave from here

In the 1960’s some publicist working for the Bureau of Reclamation decided to tout the benefits of flooding yet another part of the Colorado River, by announcing with a flourish that boaters would be able to get closer, to appreciate what remained of the landscape.  The Sierra Club responded with advertisements under the headline, “Should we flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get a better look at the ceiling?”

This phrase might return to mind on viewing the Yadan landforms west of Dunhuang.  The yadan are siltstones eroded by wind and water into fantastical shapes, but unlike the spires of Bryce, they only rise a few meters above a sea of sand, giving the impression that Cedar Breaks or Pinnacles has been flooded by some mad dam project and you’re seeing only the top of what remains.

A couple days ago the hotel told us it would cost 800 yuan to take a car out to the Yadan Landforms Geologic Park, the local Monument Valley. A travel agency said 700. Yesterday we hailed a taxi outside the hotel and the driver said 400. Cool. She drove to some obscure side street, and switched drivers (I’m guessing her husband), who topped off his diesel tank and his natural gas tank, and drove us 180 km out into the desert.

On the way out, we stopped at the Yumen Pass, a ruin of a small fortification, and a section of the Han Great Wall, a ruin of a six-foot thick structure made of mud and straw, nothing like the wall near Beijing pictured above.

At Yadan Park, we were herded onto a small tour bus, which drove too fast over too bumpy roads to take any pictures of the beautiful scenery; it stopped and within five minutes they wanted us back on the bus. So it went for an additional stop.

At the third stop, a few people who knew a few English words told us the guide had said “thirty minutes”. So we started hiking out into the pretty rocks, got some nice pictures and some exercise in the hot sun, and returned pretty much on time.

There was a quick fourth stop, and then the bus drove back to the visitor center. But we wanted more. So we hung around and looked confused, and finally someone told us we could go out in a Jeep for 300 yuan (about $45, pretty expensive fun) for an hour. And it was fun, and we got some more nice pictures, and the thrill of almost getting stuck in the sand, but alas, it was over way too soon.

We could have gotten the Jeeps at the third rest stop, but didn’t have the language skills to figure that out in the first place.  We wouldn’t have gotten the long walk in the rocks, but we might have gotten to see more in the Jeep.

It was a bit of Utah or Arizona in a trip which has been largely Nevada for the last several days. The park isn’t open at sunrise or sunset, the best times to take pictures of eroded geography, but the discrete puffy clouds were making some nice shadows anyway.

On the way back, the driver asked if we wanted to see Hecang City, a ruin of a Han storehouse 13 km off the road, and we said OK.  We took some pictures while the driver talked to an old lady who lived in a house next to the ruin.  When we were done, he invited us up to the house, split a melon with us, bought a huge bag of salt from the lady, and refilled all our water from her well.  She had a pretty good-sized garden.  The house was an adobe just like anywhere in New Mexico.  She also had a bunch of potted cactus plants which she’d better not let out into the wild or else they’ll take over.

So after having made the taxi driver wait for our extra jeep ride, and after having the delightful visit at the lady’s house, we gave him 600, and he seemed happy.

Today was spent mostly in the hotel writing postcards and sleeping — tomorrow we won’t have one and I wanted to take advantage of it.  In the late afternoon we went to Dunhuang’s major tourist trap, the Crescent Moon Lake and Singing Sands Mountain.  $20 per person to get in.  Once you get in, you can pay even more for camel rides on the dunes, to walk up steps on the dunes instead of on sand, to toboggan down the dunes.  It was pretty cute, but we did get some major exercise eschewing all of the above and just walking to the top of a ridge.  They must not have many sand dunes and camels in China, since it seems like such a big deal here.  The tourist map lists stuffed camels as one of the major things to shop for here (along with “luminous cups” made of jade).  It also lists dried apricots as one of the major local delicacies, and we bought a bag.

We’ve eaten in the hotel restaurant the last couple nights, which specializes in Sichuan cooking, a destination that was sadly dropped from our plans during the visa confusion.  Ray is very smart and insists that we only order two things because that is all that is possible to eat due to the huge portions.  But I like variety so I often order three or four, hoping against hope that one or two of them will be small.  Tonight, after all the sand dune exercise, we got tofu soup, greens, a mushroom clay pot, and twice cooked pork with wheat buns.  Everything was enormous, and we weren’t able to finish.  Sigh — I hate to throw away food.

After we check out of the hotel tomorrow morning, we’ll explore some other random attractions, and then get on the overnight train to Urumqi, a city in the province of Xinjiang where we’ll join the eclipse tour.

Air Quality

July 20th, 2008 7:49 am by Dave from here

There was a news article today that Beijing just started trying to improve its air quality before the Olympics by instituting odd-even driving restrictions: if your license plate is odd, you can only drive on odd days, etc. When we were there, the air quality was quite nice on Sunday, but really smoggy the other days. In Xi’an, it was really smoggy. In Xining, it wasn’t so bad, but it was cloudy about half the time.

Cloudy is a bad thing when you’re going to see an eclipse. We hoped that once we hit the desert, the skies would be clear all the time. And indeed, most of the time in Qinghai, they were, though there were occasional cloudy days. And not discrete puffy clouds — whatever one part of the sky decides to do, the rest of the sky decides to do the same thing. It is the Chinese cultural influence.

Now we’re getting pretty close to where the eclipse will be, and today it was cloudy all day. This made it a comfortable 85 degrees instead of 100, but still — if today had been eclipse day we’d have been out of luck. The eclipse tour people have reported that the Chinese want our tour to observe the eclipse in an “official viewing site”, but if the weather is bad, I hope they let us drive off away from the clouds, if that’s even possible.

Other than the clouds, Dunhuang has been a pretty nice place so far. Today we got up early and went to see the Mogao Caves, which is one of the most incredible things we’ve seen this trip. A few hundred rooms were dug into the side of a cliff about 1500 years ago, and the walls were decorated with elaborate murals depicting Buddha, his Bodhisattvas, and many flying Apsaras. Many of the rooms have statues, and there are two enormous Buddhas, one of which was claimed to be the third largest in the world (it was fourth, but the Taliban moved it up to third a few years ago). It has been very well preserved due to the dry climate, and many of the paintings have been restored over the years by various dynasties. Tomorrow we’re going to the Gansu version of Monument Valley.

With so many local tourist attractions, this is an easier place to find an English menu in a restaurant, or at least one with pictures. The last two nights we’ve eaten in the “night market”. You sit down at a table with six lounge chairs, and order from a menu which consolidates offerings from many small kitchens. There’s one attendant per table who fetches your drinks, and delivers your order to the appropriate kitchens. Most of the items on the menu have pictures, and English names which are pretty funny — “the unofficial receipt grasps”, “cram food into one’s mouth pit meat”, to name a couple. Last night we had some great noodles (“Dunhuang ties the knot” or something) kind of like spaetzle, and a very scrawny leg of lamb with a few skewers stuck into it. Tonight was less successful — a plate of corn and pine nuts that was sweet like Jolly Green Giant, and pork and fennel dumplings in which we didn’t taste any fennel. But they were good anyway.

The second day of our recent drive across the desert was complicated for me by the fact that the hotel at Qinghai Lake didn’t have coffee. So I think I was suffering a little from a combination of caffeine withdrawal, dehydration, and high altitude — I felt feverish and headachy. The hotel in Golmud didn’t have coffee, either, but by then I’d bought some packets of Nescafe, preblended with milk and sugar so it doesn’t taste so bad. It seems to have done the trick. This place is certainly different than the center of Xi’an, where there are four Starbucks within a half a mile of each other. But there’s hope — our tour guide in Xining showed us the business card of a Starbucks executive he’d showed around.

A Tale of Two Deserts

July 19th, 2008 7:55 am by Dave from here

Before we left, Ray arranged a road trip to several places:

  • Qinghai Lake, the largest lake in China, whose western edge has a site called “Bird Island”.
  • Chaka Salt Lake
  • Golmud, where one previously would go to catch a bus to Tibet.  Now people can just take the train directly from Beijing, which started running fairly recently.
  • Dunhuang, where we are now

Our driver knew a few dozen words of English and basically didn’t try to talk to us the whole time.  But the vehicle was a good Toyota Land Cruiser, and he was quite competent at Chinese driving, which is to say, using your horn as you pass a truck on a blind curve to alert anyone that might be coming the other way (and to encourage the truck to stay in the lane).  In the first three hours of the trip, we saw the remains of two massive truck accidents.  Perhaps it just takes them a really long time to get them off the road.  And the roads don’t have shoulders — if people stop, they usually just stop in the lane.

The guidebook suggested that there were places to hike around Qinghai Lake, and the plan was to spend two nights there.  But once we got there, we were pretty much funneled directly to Bird Island, which consists of a “blind” at a place called “Egg island” where you can watch various waterbirds through your binoculars and see several large unattended egg shaped objects of dubious validity, and a hillside next to two large rocks where hundreds of common cormorants nest.  It was a nice enough afternoon, but one’s options were pretty limited.  And it didn’t really look like there were any hikes to be had — certainly no information in English about any — so we decided to just spend the one night and continue on.

The guidebook suggested that the tour at Chaka Salt Lake included a ride on a freight train, a visit to a “salt house”, and an optional cruise.  But after paying the 20 yuan ticket price, we were dropped off at the grimy outskirts of a salt factory.  There were micro train tracks amid industrial detritus.  We wandered out on the train tracks a ways, watching several small trains hard at work bringing out huge buckets of wet salt.  Nobody offered to let us ride any.  No ferries or salt houses in evidence.  No stunning vistas, just a lot of the usual strange colors you see in dense saline water mixed with litter.  Our driver did not seem to know any more about the site than we did, so we continued on.

This entire portion of the trip was on the northern Tibetan plateau, in Qinghai province.  It looks a lot like Nevada — a large empty space punctuated by the occasional ridge of mountains — but it all happens at 11000 feet (instead of 3500 for most of Nevada).  The temperature was pleasant and the air was dry (as it had been in Xining as well) instead of the sweltering mugginess of Beijing and Xi’an.  Not long after leaving the salt lake, we were on roads which would go on for 40 miles without a curve, then shift to a different bearing for several more miles to avoid the nearby mountains.

Golmud still seemed to have quite a bit going on — perhaps there were lots of people going to Tibet before the Olympics.  We were turned down at the first two hotels we tried, but got into a third which was cheap but didn’t have air conditioning.  The dry air let us do some laundry even though we were only there one night.

The original plan for the tour supposed it would take two days to drive from Golmud to Dunhuang, and the driver estimated “10 hours”.  But it all happened in seven hours.  There was not a single town  in between Golmud and Dunhuang which was large enough to support a hotel in any case.  The only accommodation evident was tent cities for the workers who are rebuilding the road.  It looked like they might make it four lane.

The first five hours or so continued along the Tibetan plateau, passing another salt lake with an even more gigantic factory, crossing long dusty flat deserts and occasional ridges of mountains.  But at one point we crossed a pass, and descended to about 3500 feet and completely different scenery, including lots of sand dunes.  Someone walking by the side of the road had distinctly Mongolian heavy clothes (he must have been very hot in them).  Also the temperature became a lot more like Phoenix.

Between the skipped day at Qinghai Lake, and getting to Dunhuang in one day instead of two, we’ve gotten two more days to spend here — it’ll be nice to be in one place for four days.  There are said to be a lot of interesting things to see and do around Dunhuang, and we’ll let you know how they turn out.

One Country, Three Systems

July 19th, 2008 6:24 am by Dave from here

For the past few days, we’ve been on a road trip to tiny places without internet access, much of which seemed to Ray like the China he remembers from 1986.  Now we’re back in Touristia, in a nice hotel which has wired internet access in every room.  But, like all of the other places, it Didn’t Just Work.

In Beijing, it Didn’t Just Work because there was no DHCP server — someone had to come up and type manual IP information into the Network preference pane.

In Xi’an, it Didn’t Just Work because we needed a name and password, both of which turned out to be our room number.

In Xining, it Didn’t Just Work for awhile, but they fixed something on their end and then it did.

And now, here in Dunhuang, it Didn’t Just Work because I didn’t realize, and they didn’t know how to tell me, that it required using PPPoE on the in-room ADSL modem, something I’ve never had the opportunity to bother with before.  Once that got straightened out, things were fine.

So now that we’re connected, we’ll be able to post impressions of our road trip, and whatever touristy things we end up doing here.

The Xining

July 16th, 2008 7:28 am by Dave from here

(pronounced “shee ning”…)

We’ve been spending a few days in Xining in Qinghai province.

Things continue to get less and less Western as we continue west from Beijing.  For a fixed $50-$60 a night, as we progress from Beijing to Xi’an to Xining, the hotels get fancier (i.e. providing “more services”), but the actual quality goes slightly down.  This trend will definitely continue — our next two nights will be in a “tent hotel” by Qinghai Lake, and then we’ll be staying in some small towns as we drive towards Dunhuang, a small city.  Presumably the hotel rates will subside as well.

China has four kinds of accommodations on their railroads, literally called “hard seat”, “soft seat”, “hard sleeper”, and “soft sleeper”.  The Qinghai Hotel in Xining is definitely a hard sleeper — the bed is pretty equivalent to the floor.  On the train, we’ve been in a “soft sleeper”, a compartment with four people.  We got stuck with a snorer the first night, but Ambien solved that problem for me.

All of the hotels we’ve stayed in have had wired internet in the rooms, something I haven’t really ever seen anywhere else.  None of them “just worked” — some kind of service call has always been required to get stuff set up.  But it has been nice to be able to communicate.  I expect that this, too, will be our last opportunity, probably until we get to Urumqi in about a week.

There’s a great restaurant, Ming Hao Seafood Restaurant, right next to the hotel here in Xining with no English menu, but with a picture for pretty much every item.  Uncharacteristically, we’ve been eating there each night instead of walking twenty minutes into town and gambling on finding a good one.   One of the head waitresses (in black, not red or yellow) knows a lot of English food words, and has been very helpful to our picking stuff out.  It may be our last opportunity to have fancy city food for awhile — we’ll probably be having Muslim Uighur street food most of the next several days (actually, we had a little this afternoon in a market we were walking through).

Yesterday, we arranged for a tour of the Ta’er Si Lamasery and the North Mountain Temple.  In Xi’an, our three-day tour included an enthusiastic young guide and a driver with a car.  His English was pretty good, and he encouraged our corrections to his pronunciation.  We got along so well that he hung out with us an extra three hours after the tour was over, and had dinner with us.  Our guide here in Xining, Niu Xiao Jun, was a “recommended by Lonely Planet” guide/interpreter, but the experience was much different.

He showed up at our hotel with no transportation, and suggested that it would be cheaper to go on the bus.  We walked a few minutes to a bus stop, and got a bus which was leaving to stop and wait for us.  There weren’t enough seats, and though people got up so Ray and I could sit down (we look “old”) our guide stood in the aisle.  They’re not supposed to do this — three times they saw a policeman up ahead, and had everyone in the aisle get out and walk or something while we zoomed ahead.  It took an hour and a half to get up to the lamasery.  It struck us as odd that a tour guide would place such little value on travel time.

When we got to the lamasery, he pointed out that the $11 for his ticket wasn’t included in his price, but he was willing to wait if we didn’t want to pay it.  Gee, what’s the point of having a guide?  Telling us where the bus stop is?  We bought the tickets and he showed us around.

Inside, there were lots of little temples with various Buddhas and arhans and other dieties and demons.  By far the highlight was the 10 x 30 foot double-sided sculpture mural made out of yak butter, kept in a refrigerated room.

The guide came in handy when Ray took a picture of a statue, which angered some monk; he insisted that Ray “cancel” the picture.  Ray told the guide to tell the angry monk that he had.  While all this was happening, a couple other monks gave us the “we love your beard can we get a picture with you” gesture that we’re pretty used to now, which made the angry monk even angrier.

We took a taxi back to town, which went directly on the freeway, and went to the Northern Mountain Temple, a Taoist temple built into the base of the mountain next to the city.  It had plenty of interesting images, and unfortunately is crumbling in many places — we weren’t able to go to the most precarious areas.

Today we decided to visit the little provincial museum, and the great mosque.  On the way to the museum, we noticed that the road we were walking along had ropes strung along it, and that it was closed to traffic, and people were lining up.  What was happening — a parade?  The next clue was a sign mentioning a “race”.  Soon after some VIP cars drove by with spare bicycle wheels and Trek logos.  OK, so it was a bike race.  Actually, it turned out to be the Tour of Qinghai Lake, a multi-segment race like the Tour de France except that it all happens at an average of 3000 meters above sea level.  We hung around and watched about the first 50 riders complete the stage, which was probably about 30 km or so.  Then we visited the little museum, which has many more English labels since the guidebook was written, and the mosque, which indeed had a mixture of Arabic domes and Chinese eaves, but which was pretty opaque to non-Chinese non-Arabic speakers like ourselves.  There was a guy with a fabulous three-color beard, and a kid visiting from near Shanghai who was the only one who could speak to us in English.

Tomorrow we get picked up at 8 in the morning for the drive to the lake.  It may be awhile before you hear from us again.

The Terra Cotta Warriors

July 14th, 2008 7:09 am by ray from here

It’s important to make sure that the top of the water bottle in the pack is screwed on tight.  We almost ruined some Archival Souvenirs when it spilled.  The Rough Guide was partly soaked; but pulling apart each of the last two hundred pages gently by hand in the parking lot in the sun is a pretty good excuse not to go into the Silk Demonstration Factory Store and listen to the story of how silk is made and how you can take some home for a few hundred yuan per meter.  They could have made a sale if they had had a couple of yards of the right color but there wasn’t that much of a selection of fabric bolts, compared to stores in the US.  I assured the lady that all the silk I would buy at home would be from China so they would get their money.  Why they want US currency instead of silk I don’t know.  The silk is a lot prettier.

It seems that if you have two worms in a cocoon it is used for quilting, but if there’s only one worm, it becomes thread.  A single cocoon makes 1200 meters of 8 ply thread.  Unbelievable that a little worm can spit out so much.

The excuse I use never to buy shirts is that the pockets are never sewed on so that the pattern of the fabric on the pockets lines up with the pattern on the rest of the shirt.  People usually take some pains to make the pattern line up where possible on other parts of the shirt, but almost never on the pockets.  It’s weird.  You take this fine expensive silk and then make it look stupid by having a randomly positioned pocket pattern.  It really doesn’t matter but you can put the onus on them for your not buying things, and they can’t put it to cheapness.  I like that the Chinese word for “stuff” is “dongxi”, i.e. east-west.

The practice of wrecking nice material with bad workmanship extends to the gift shop of the Terra Cotta Warrior museum.  There you can purchase, for $50,000 US or more, a full size jade replica of a terra cotta warrior, but the delicacy of carving is no greater than you find in the little clay creatures in every shop in town.

The unexpected highlight of the trip to see the Terra Cotta Warriors was getting our souvenir book signed by the farmer who originally discovered them while digging a well in 1974.  The guide book indicates that he doesn’t show up all the time.  You aren’t allowed to photograph him, in case you should discover that he is a stand in.  He has great big glasses that make him look like a Pixar character.  His calligraphy is done with a magic marker.  He must be tired by now.

The hall in which the warriors have been reconstructed is impressive in itself, particularly when you consider that they didn’t really have the option of sinking any part of the foundation into the funerary structure itself.  Also, most of the tumulus has not been excavated.  The air pollution generated by coal fires and exhaling tourists could well end up destroying the statues that have been put on display, it is good that some are being saved for a future, cleaner time.

After the Terra Cotta Army visit, and the water damaged silk factory visit, we were taken to Hua Qing Hot Springs, another site (like the Ming Tombs) which would not be nearly so famous if it were not within easy reach of a site with genuine tourist pull.  The Hua Qing Hot Springs are a Tang Dynasty imperial resort.  It has intermittent history.  In July of 756, the powerful concubine Yang Guifei was sacrificed to put down a rebellion, and in December 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was prevailed upon by his own generals to suspend his war against Mao and unite in an anti-Japanese front.  In between those dates, the springs maintained a constant temperature of 43°C.  For one yuan you can run your fingers in it.

After a rush hour drive back to town, and a brief rest, Tom got us ringside seats at an after dinner theater of Tang inspired dance and music.  The dinner was dumplings, somewhat worse for wear owing to having to be carted up four stories and distributed among hundreds of foreign tourists.  The theater is the sort that I found intolerably stupid when I was little and merely find stupid now as my intolerator is worn out from Yahoo News.  The feathered hats would not be out of place anywhere on the Strip, and I doubt that there were flashing lights in the eyes of monster masks during the Tang Dynasty.  Maybe there were.  Directors have always been creative.  When the musicians were in front it was interesting to hear them play.  They are not unskillful.  But the dancers were accompanied by music that reminded you that even during the Tang Dynasty, factory presets were the easy solution.

Whenever I hear a singing commercial, I visualize the recording session and the doo wop girls singing the praises of Washington Mutual Bank or OnStar.  What did they think they would attain, when they were 14 and entering upon drama club?  I feel certain they imagined themselves at the Lincoln Center, not singing the blues about Coffee.  These dancers, they realized a while ago they wouldn’t be on the A list of Olympic cheerleaders and acrobats.  But still they manage to make a career of it, like the farmer-painters who never became Grandma Moses, and they must be happy for that.

The next day the tour called for biking with Tom around the top of the City Wall (13.7 km, not all the bricks are smooth, and the bikes have one gear), and being taken to the Shaanxi history museum, and later to the Wild Goose Pagoda.  The Shaanxi museum has a collection of artifacts from the Tang Dynasty, when Xi’An was capital of various fractions of China.  It is well captioned in English.  Solid gold bowls and perfect celadon pots are described as having been found in hoards in fields and in villages.  The whole place sounds like Rome, where every gardening project is in danger of being suspended while an inventory is made of a newly discovered imperial bedroom.  The museum itself is the project of Zhou En-Lai.  Wikipedia says it the style is evocative of Tang Dynasty architecture but it looks more like a state college with a couple of flourishes.

The Great Wild Goose Pagoda is closed since the Sichuan earthquake.  This afforded more time to explore the modern temple which surrounds the base of it.  There’s an incredible carved jade mural of the life of Buddha, carved wood murals of the life of Xuanzang, and modern buildings to house Buddhist scholarly functions.  It’s nice to know that people are still building and carving fancy stuff for future generations to tour the ruins of.

Xuanzang traveled from Xi’An to India in the 7th century A.D., 600 years before Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, 1200 years before Richard Burton, 1300 years before Tony Wheeler.  He brought back loads of Buddhist texts, whose translations put Chinese Buddhism on a much firmer foundation than it had previously been.  He also wrote a story of his travels, which really puts into perspective the ATM machine that stole $300 from me in Beijing; although it’s hard to know how I could have applied to the machine the Buddhist precepts with which Xuanzang dissuaded robbers in the Gobi Desert.  Non-attachment, I guess, but that seems so flip.

We had signed up for a three day tour of Xi’An, which included four meals.  Most of the meals our guide did not eat with us, which is a shame; but I have to keep reminding myself that hanging out with tourists is overtime for him.   But the last day, after the tour was over, we met up with another guide friend of his named Phoenix, and had noodles and kebabs for dinner again in the Muslim quarter, at a place which was somewhat less observant and served beer to several parties of noisy locals.  And so to Xining.

The Origin of Horrible Chinese Food

July 14th, 2008 6:54 am by ray from here

The place that you can’t go except in your imagination is back in time, so you must close your eyes and pretend that you are in The Rickshaw restaurant on Pacific Avenue in Stockton, California, about 1958. Unless you were an overseas Chinese or the friend of one, or lived in a big city on an internationally recognized coast, this is what your first impression was of Chinese Food: gray bean sprouts and bamboo shoots tasting of tin, weird crunchy curlicues tasting not even of salt, but leaving a coat of grease on your lips, fried rice interspersed with reddish ham and Bird’s-Eye frozen peas and carrots, omelets with the bean sprouts in them, Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice, and most famously, hunks of breaded pork infecting a vermilion cornstarch organelle that tasted of white sugar and Heinz white vinegar.

This food had to come from somewhere. It was in imitation, or maybe even a memory, of some dish in some province that a real ancestor of the restaurant owner had eaten, and it was what all of them in the collective wisdom of the imitative market had decided Americans wanted to eat when they went out for Chinese Food in Stockton, or in St. George, Utah, as recently as the 1980’s.

Now everything is simultaneous, self-referent, nostalgic, and ironic and you can get this sauce at Jing Jing in Palo Alto under the name of “American Sweet And Sour Pork”. But last night in Xi’An, we were served it in its home.

There is a lot of sugar here. Our hired guide for Xi’An, whose American name is arbitrarily “Tom”, ordered for us the food that he grew up on in Sichuan for breakfast (even though it was dinner), which is a porridge of rice kernels floating in a glossy rice starch clear broth, with fruits and nuts. Also, as we wandered through the street, we were instructed to try dried persimmons, fried and stuffed with liquefied dates, and something that tasted like warm flat Dr. Pepper. As you can tell, we aren’t being very tourist-halal.

Speaking of halal, the sweet and sour red sauce had chicken bits in it. We were at a Muslim restaurant in Xi’An, so much so that it didn’t serve beer, on the first day of a guided tour we contracted for over the Internet some weeks ago. So far it’s been pretty successful. Tom is a nice guy whose English is good enough. In the course of the afternoon, he took us to the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower, and the medina, a total distance of about 800 yards. We aren’t moving fast.

In the medina is the Great Mosque of Xi’An. Islam came to China along the Silk Road in the first century A.H., and has been reinforced by periodic invasions. There are a lot of things to note about Chinese mosques. The Arabic script in some places gets wadded up into little squares that look from a distance like Chinese. The dragons on the floor indicate the approval of the emperor. You can’t walk under the main wooden gate because it was damaged in the Sichuan earthquake in May. (There are also cracks in the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower). The imam says “Allahu Akbar” with a Beijing “r”. (We were there at the time of afternoon prayers. Xi’An, like all China, is on Beijing Time; we are far enough west now that it feels like Daylight Time and will get even weirder later.)

The curiosity that our guide repeatedly noted was that any of these monuments existed at all. Tom carefully explained under what ruse the three places that we went had been preserved from the Red Guards, China’s Taliban during the Cultural Revolution.

China’s Gen X doesn’t even remember the Cultural Revolution, let alone Tom, who is 23. The line taken on postcards of Mao is that it was a mistake. A lot of it is recycled as kitsch. We have Dick and Jane, they have Thinking Of The Consumers As We Grow Vegetables. If we wanted to come back with a suitcase full of bronze Mao busts we could, except, excess baggage. They won’t go up in value; there are hundreds of millions of them.

The Red Guards systematically destroyed everything older than 1949. It’s an old trick — the founder of the Qin Dynasty did the same, the Taliban did the same with the Buddhas, the Americans made it illegal to speak Indian languages and in many cases to physically survive: one must not underestimate the effect that having a 25 cent bounty paid on the scalps of Indians can have on relations with indigenous people, and this was the official US Government policy for a long time. Maybe the Chinese will try it in Tibet, since we seem to be taking pages from each other’s torture manuals these days.

What is with the Indian masks in the shops in the medina? I saw several, with feathers and stuff. Where are we, Germany?

And so, as with every facial representation that survived in the museums of Kabul, and every Albigensian relic that survived the Middle Ages, there is a story behind each surviving Chinese building. The ones in Beijing were too close to the seat of power. The Chinese government was not about to have rowdy Hitlerjugend of any nominal opinion rampaging in the actual capital. In Xi’An, the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower were both converted to office buildings. The Great Mosque became a warehouse. The warehouse was used to store furniture stolen from Chinese kulaks when they were sent off for re-education, and in the case where they didn’t come back (Nazi art collectors will recognize this part) the furniture is still there, and forms a substantial collection which is on display in the secular parts of the mosque.

In the mosque we were asked our religion. Outside we got a Santa Claus (a man ran up to sell us Santa Claus trinkets), a couple of Marx-Engels which in the local pronunciation take some processing to get, and a Leonardo da Vinci, which I hadn’t heard before but Dave said he had.

Keyword: FSOJ, Fresh squeezed orange juice, Xi’An

July 12th, 2008 3:33 pm by ray from here

“Star Ferry” (24 hour dim sum restaurant) across from McDonald’s at the Drum Tower.

later edit…..the GPS reading of 34.26071 N,108.93935 E is what I read on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, where the old lady offers to sell you a city map.  Mapquest puts this reading on another street.  But Star Ferry actually is on the south side of Xi Da Jie across from McDonald’s.  No wonder Rough Guide has such a tough time keeping current.