Friday, May 25, 2007

Lost Retooled?

I see from my iTunes that the two-hour season finale of Lost has been downloaded and is now waiting for me to have a free moment to watch it. In the meantime, I have seen that there are a bunch of twists to the episode, some of which have had people scratching their chins trying to make sense of what happened. I hope that this little video is not an indication of what we can expect from the next season of the series, which I have to wait until FEBRUARY to see.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Shanghai Photos

If you want to see photos from our tour of Jewish Shanghai, look here.

It's noon, so this must be Guangzhou

Yesterday was a notable day in my stay so far in China. Now, bearing in mind that I met Natalie Portman the previous day, that is quite a statement, yet it's true. What made it notable was that it was the first time I can recall where I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner in three different cities, none of which was closer than 1000km from the others. The morning began in Shanghai, where we had breakfast at the hotel before heading out to the airport for our flight to Guangzhou. Then, we had lunch in our van in Guangzhou while visiting potential sites for our new facilities. Finally I returned to Beijing, where I had dinner at an Indian restaurant with an old friend from my time in Hong Kong. Quite a busy day!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Tour of Jewish Shanghai

As part of my travels with our Board of Directors, I not only got to accompany them to the signing ceremony for the establishment of our latest venture, a managed health clinic in the town of Wuxi, attend a 3-hour snoozefest about the performance statistics of our two hospitals, and do a drive-by of sites for our prospective new facilities in Shanghai and Guangzhou, but also got to attend a 3-hour tour of Jewish Shanghai.

During the tour, which is led by an Israeli freelance journalist based here for the past 5-6 years, we learned about the important role that Jews played in the growth and development of Shanghai from the very beginning, with the Sassoons, Kadoories and Hardoons building the trading houses, real estate and other things that made the city great, all the way through the arrival of the poorer Russian Jews during the post-Russian revolution period, up to the mid-1930s when the refugees from Europe started to come in. We saw also the area in Hongkou District that housed the poorer Russian Jews and that later became the 'ghetto' after the Japanese acceded to part of the Nazis' request to isolate the Jews (though they did so only to the stateless Jews of Central Europe; the earlier arrivals, who had passports, were left to live as they did before).

The tour was very interesting, but there was more to it to keep our attention--also on our tour was none other than the actress, Natalie Portman, who is apparently on vacation in China for a month or so. She was very nice, and even chatted with us (particularly after she was shocked that my colleague and I speak Chinese). We made no fuss over her, which perhaps she appreciated, and when the tour was over she paid her Y400 like everyone else.

Photos of the tour to come after I get back to Beijing.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Washington Post's Take on Beijing

The following is an interesting article from the Washington Post travel section on Beijing.

Beijing's pre-Olympic construction frenzy includes restoration work affecting almost every major tourist attraction, including Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, above. The 2008 Summer Games are seen as the city's global coming-out party.

Beijing's Moment
A first-time traveler to China's capital discovers a city on the move. But not too fast for him to catch up.

By Ben Brazil
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 13, 2007; P01

Beijing was growing on me.

At first, I couldn't see anything but the sprawl, the construction and the vicious, honking traffic that squeezed the slow streams of cyclists in the bike lanes. Then, gradually, I quit fixating on Beijing's immense proportions and began to notice its human details.

There was the man with the wispy Confucian beard engrossed in Chinese chess on a street corner. There was the food frying on street-side griddles and the impossibly long chains on the bicycle carts. Most important, though, there were the parks in the morning.

Beijingers -- especially, but not exclusively, retirees -- use the city's parks to sing, dance, exercise and generally be together. When I walked into Beihai Park shortly after dawn, I immediately passed about 20 people silently making the slow pivots of tai chi. Elsewhere, solitary individuals did comically serious deep knee bends by a fence.

It was a nice setting for a workout. Beihai Park centers on one of the peaceful, willow-lined lakes that dribble across central Beijing. To the south sits Zhongnanhai, the off-limits Communist Party compound. To the north lies Houhai, or the Back Lakes, which are surrounded by waterside restaurants and bars with too much neon. I'd had a good meal and a leisurely drink there, watching the wind ruffle the water.

But Beihai Park is about movement. I watched about 40 women flick fans and scarves in a sort of line dance, then walked on to discover a calligrapher brushing Chinese characters on the sidewalk in water. As the morning stretched on, old men waddled around with wire bird cages in hand. An expat had explained the rationale of "walking" a caged bird: The bird's exercise comes from gripping its swaying perch.

My favorites, though, were the singers. I have seen few things as nakedly joyful as a group of neighbors gathered in the slanting light of morning to sing their lungs out. Watching them, cynicism became impossible.

How can you not appreciate a city that, even for a moment, allows you to feel that way?

* * *

For much of my life, China was a hazy place of contradictory associations -- cute pandas and pro-democracy protests crushed with tanks. In recent years, though, reports of the country's economic boom and rising world clout made it clear that the future was being forged, at a frantic speed, in China.

Of course, it's not just China's growing importance that has put it on many travelers' itineraries. With such iconic attractions as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City -- and that's just in Beijing -- the country will be the world's most popular tourist destination by 2020, according to the World Tourism Organization. The fact that Beijing will host the 2008 Summer Olympics has merely drawn attention to the obvious: Right now, China is where the action is.

Fittingly, it was an item of business news that provided my excuse to book a 12-day trip to the Chinese capital. Earlier this year, United Airlines won the right to offer new service from Dulles International Airport to Beijing, giving Washington its first nonstop flight to China. The victory came at the expense of Continental, American and Northwest, which wanted to offer China service originating in Newark, Dallas and Detroit, respectively. China restricts inbound flights, so the U.S. Department of Transportation doles out new routes via an application process.

If you don't believe that United's victory was a big deal, you weren't at Dulles on March 28 for the inaugural flight. The boarding process featured a free buffet, Chinese-style drummers and a fluffy yellow dragon leading speech-making dignitaries down Concourse C.

Unfortunately, there's only so much glamour one can attach to 13 1/2 hours in economy. I read, had a Scotch, dozed and looked out the window until I finally saw it: Beijing, a 15-million-person megalopolis undergoing what has been called the most dramatic transformation in history.

Which is why it surprised me. I expected a futuristic world of glittering glass and kaleidoscopic light, the cutting edge of human endeavor. Instead, my first impressions were of a flat, dusty city filled with grim rows of identical, Soviet-style apartment blocks.

Construction cranes perched on the skyline like flocks of gargantuan, robotic flamingos, and the air was sepia-toned with smog and dust. Walking Beijing's expansive avenues, widened under Mao Zedong, I felt a heavy sense of anomie.

In part, the feeling came from the city's sheer size. Beijing municipality, which includes rural and urban areas, is bigger than Connecticut. The city's urban core and inner suburbs are about the size of New York's five boroughs, but with much more limited subway service.

Yet I quickly discovered that no city moves so quickly between massive and modest, between anonymous and intimate. On my first day, for example, I drifted south from the vast, gray expanse of Tiananmen Square into the narrow hutongs, or alleyways, of the Qianmen district.

Immediately, the traffic noise faded. Low, gray-walled courtyard homes lined lanes that were often too narrow for cars but dotted with decrepit bicycles. Through an open door, I glanced at a group of friends hunkered over a board game. Farther on, meat sizzled over small braziers, its aroma mixing with a less pleasant sewer smell. A cat crept over a rooftop.

Then, a few steps farther, this charmingly run-down neighborhood turned to rubble. While a few hutongs have protected status, scores are being leveled -- and their residents forced out -- to make room for high-rises.

It was tragic, but these demolitions helped me understand that my pre-arrival expectations were not entirely wrong. It was as if Beijing were plowing up a charming old garden and sowing high-rise seeds in its soil. And now those seeds were sprouting everywhere, in jagged, unfinished stalks of concrete and steel.

I decided I was less wrong than premature: The city I'd imagined was being created before my eyes.

* * *

Imagine throwing a party so big, so important, that you decided to remodel your entire house and school your kids in a new set of manners. Expand that philosophy to an entire city, and you've got Beijing's approach to the 2008 Olympics.

The Games are widely understood as Beijing's global coming-out party, and the city is preparing like a newlywed out to prove itself to a nit-picking in-law.

It's not just the yet-to-be-unveiled subway expansions or the surreal new sports venues, which include a stadium that resembles a steel bird's nest. It's also the odd attempts at social engineering, such as the campaign to discourage Beijingers' habitual, sinus-clearing spitting.

There's also the campaign against bizarre "Chinglish" mistranslations -- an "anus hospital" is now a "proctology hospital," to use an oft-cited example -- and a quixotic attempt to teach cabdrivers English. In my 12 days in Beijing, a single cabdriver told me "Good evening." The rest suffered, with varying degrees of patience, while I jabbed at maps and made incomprehensible attempts at basic Chinese.

For visitors, though, the most annoying part of Beijing's pre-Olympic frenzy is the restoration work affecting almost every major tourist attraction. Even Mao's Tiananmen Square mausoleum was shuttered, cheating me of a chance to see the pickled remains of the Great Helmsman.

The situation is not too grim, though, because Beijing has enough painted eaves, swirling dragons and outsize golden Buddhas to exhaust even the most earnest sightseer. The less dedicated might be content with just the Forbidden City, which extends over an area the size of 135 football fields.

Located just north of Tiananmen Square, the palace was home to the Ming and Qing imperial courts from the 15th to the early 20th century. Here, you'll find Beijing's architectural drama of vast vs. intimate reflected in gold gilt and red lacquer.

The complex's three great halls (one was closed) preside atop a spine of marble staircases and balustrades. Impressive, but I preferred the smaller residences and courtyards at the edges of the inner palace, where the audio guide told of court intrigue and murderous rivalries between concubines.

For a more religious vibe, I tried the Lama Temple. A Tibetan Buddhist complex, it hosted a handful of bowing worshipers cloaked in clouds of sweet-smelling incense. It was fabulous, but so were all of Beijing's temples, and I was starting to sleepwalk through them.

The Summer Palace woke me up.

An imperial retreat to the northwest of central Beijing, the palace's magnificent buildings get trumped by its enormous lake and relaxing gardens. As I walked a lakeside trail beneath graceful willows, Beijing seemed, for a moment, to pause for breath.

Then I left the palace gates, and the city was off again.

* * *

I have a theory that every country changes you in one specific way, making you a slightly different person while inside its borders.

Actually, I just made that up. I still need a decent explanation for how Beijing transformed me, a cheapskate and a hater of shopping malls, into someone who was untrustworthy with an ATM card. It wasn't just a few articles of clothing and a knockoff purse for my wife. I bought a piece of furniture. In China. No, delivery is not free.

At the genteel Chaowai Furniture Warehouse, I had fallen in love with the merchandise -- Ming- and Qing-era antiques and reproductions. Elsewhere, I became fascinated by the remarkably ruthless haggling.

Understand, first, that this sort of negotiation involves more than price. It is also about feigned camaraderie, implied debts and subtle emotional manipulation. If you don't feel like a heartless, exploitive, colonialist sleazeball after buying something, you can know one thing for sure: You have drastically, embarrassingly overpaid.

I'm exaggerating, but slightly. As proof, consider my experience at Xiushui Silk Market, six stories of clothing, jewelry and accessories, many of them name-brand knockoffs.

I was at the market near closing time when one of the many teenage saleswomen offered me a leather jacket for a ludicrous $750. Semi-interested, I countered with $6.

That was fine. My mistake came when, as I tried to walk away, four more saleswomen tugged at my arms. With playful bravado, I asked the young women if they really believed they could stop me, a 6-foot-3 man, from leaving the market. They said they could.

We were all laughing -- and I was gasping -- as the girls moved in for the kill. Two grabbed my wrists. One placed the jacket in a plastic bag and tied it to my forearm. The rest slapped my arms until they turned red.

"You are stingy!" yelled the original saleswoman. "You are stingy!" When I protested that she was the stingy one, another girl clamped her hand over my mouth and yelled, "No more talking!" I fought on, but eventually shut up and shelled out $18 for the jacket, hopeful I'd fought my way to a deal. The girls' gleeful smiles, unfortunately, suggested otherwise.

But there was one sort of purchase I never regretted: street food. At first, it's an adventure. You approach a street-side griddle, point at some fried thing and hope for the best.

But I have limits. At the tourist-packed Wangfujing Snack Street and nearby Donghuamen Night Market, conventional beef kebabs sit side by side with skewers of cicadas, starfish, sea horses and other instances of "nasty on a stick," as one Beijing expat put it.

After a visit, I asked an employee at my hostel about the sticks of small scorpions, which crawled blindly at the air while awaiting the griddle. He explained that, in traditional Chinese medicine, the poison from the scorpions counteracted the poison of illness.

Or something like that. I didn't believe him anyway.

This was the same guy who insisted that the grasshopper kebabs were good with salt.

* * *

Despite cultural differences, there are certain human universals. One is that gritty art districts will eventually attract pleasant cafes, chic boutiques and reputations for being overrun by yuppies and tourists.

This is the story of Dashanzi, also known as Factory 798, a place I absolutely loved.

Dozens of galleries, restaurants and trendy shops populate what at first appears to be a postindustrial nightmare, a warren of skinny smokestacks and hissing pipes that lies just off the highway to the airport.

Dashanzi's art was hit-and-miss -- some artists have apparently balked at the tourist influx and settled elsewhere -- but the atmosphere never faltered. A former electronics factory, Dashanzi has ceilings made of heavy concrete arcs that still bear Maoist slogans. Light pours in through slanting banks of windows.

The photography galleries pulled me in, and I found myself studying images of modern Beijing shot by an artist named Qiu Zhen. They showed the photographer holding hands with a mannequin bride -- its face blurred or hidden -- that represented Beijing itself.

"She" was a hazy place that was "hard to get hold of," according to the artist's statement. The city was "a place between reality and dream."

I particularly liked one photo that showed the couple holding hands on construction scaffolding, Beijing tumbling out below them. It seemed to capture the contradictory, kinetic spirit of this city of grimly communist architecture, magnificent palaces and men walking birds in cages. Even when it was winning me over, Beijing seemed a little beyond my grasp.

"I love this city," Qiu Zhen wrote, "but I also live in it with panic."

I knew exactly what he meant.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sichuan Face Changing

At dinner at Ba Guo Buyi Sichuan restaurant tonight we were treated to a show of Sichuan face-changing, an old Chinese traditional art form. Also, the food was very good, and pretty reasonably priced!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Sichuan Face-Changing

For dinner tonight with our visitors we chose Ba Guo Buyi, a Sichuan restaurant from Chengdu with several branches around the country. The one we went to, on Di'anmen Dong Dajie, has a Sichuan face-changing show nightly, where a performer dances and changes his face masks very quickly. It's a pretty impressive performance, and we could not figure out how he did it.

Friends' Visit to China--Part 4 (Yangshuo)

(For photos, click here)

The only reason to put up with a night in Guilin, in my opinion, is to get out of the city the next morning and head to Yangshuo, a four-hour journey by boat down the Li River. We had a nice simple breakfast across from our hotel of buns and dumplings before getting in a cab for the ride to the boat dock. Unfortunately, after getting our stuff into the trunk of the cab he named a ridiculous-sounding fixed price and I could not even be bothered to negotiate with him so we pulled our stuff out and got into another cab.

The boat terminal was pretty far from town, so whereas we thought we’d have time to kill at the dock we ended up boarding right away. Our boat, even though we had asked for a Chinese boat, was largely populated by foreigners, which turned out to be OK, since we still got a good ticket price (thanks to our hotel owner in Yangshuo, who arranged them for us) and yet our fellow passengers were very well behaved. We staked out spots in the prime viewing area at the earliest opportunity and parked ourselves up there for the duration of the trip, foregoing lunch and braving the hot and bright sun for the whole trip.

The scenery along the river is stunning, particularly when there is no haze, but even with the haze, like we had this day, it is amazing. It really looks like a brush painting, and is the sort of thing that photos cannot do justice for.

When we arrived in Yangshou the hotel sent a girl to lead us to their place, which we were thrilled to find had working air conditioning in the rooms. The girl who helped us was a real charmer, and she and I joked quite a bit while she tried to get us checked in, and then again when we waited for our companions to come down to head out for lunch.

For lunch we wanted to go to a place that we ate in in 2005, though we feared that the rapid development of the town might have meant that we would find it gone. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case, and the people there claimed to remember us (I think it’s unlikely). They serve one thing at this place—sand pots filled with rice on which they add a bunch of toppings of your choice (meats of various kinds and vegetables), the number of which is determined by how much you want to spend, anywhere from Y6 to Y10. We went for Y8 bowls (as we did last time), and I then helped our friends to figure out what they wanted to put on (or more likely, avoid what they did not want put on). In the end though, they served all four bowls sort of randomly, so for all we know we mixed our orders up a bit. In any event, all of us liked it a lot, and the Chinese patrons were tickled silly about foreigners eating there at all, much less Chinese-speaking ones.

It was hot as hell after lunch, so we took a break at the hotel before continuing to explore the town. Unlike my previous two or three times here, this time the place is PACKED with visitors, and most of them Chinese spending the May Day break. West Street, the main pedestrianized tourist street, was full of people milling about, making navigation a bit difficult. Luckily we knew where we were going, and got to our old tea shop easily. The young guy working there remembered us (and even remembered that J2 is a dentist) and served us several types of Yunnan Pu’er tea, both raw and processed, aged and unaged. After sitting and sipping for nearly an hour, I bought a disk of 4-year old raw dish tea that I was told not to drink for another 8 years or so. We then stopped at the shop of the artist from whom we bought a painting last time, Du Ping, sitting with him and his wife for more tea while our friends looked at some paintings. He’s a very nice guy, and enjoys chatting with us, so he did not seem to mind when we left empty-handed, though we promised to come back after dinner to look at some paintings.

Dinner was at the night market near the bus terminal, where stand after stand serve more or less the same stuff, so picking out a stand is more a matter of establishing a relationship with the staff than anything else. We established such a connection with one stand when it turned out that the woman drawing patrons in was from Beijing. As Landsemen she promised me a good price, so we ordered a bunch of dishes, including the local beef fish and some other fishy items. All of it was pretty good, and she gave us a very good price, so I left happy. She also introduced us to a guy who offers hot-air balloon rides over the area, which we decided to book for the next day, provided the weather was good. The rest of the evening was spent walking the streets, which were amazingly crowded, and then having a drink at a bar before retiring.

The next morning we did not get a call from the balloon people, since there was a big thunderstorm overnight that precluded ballooning. So we woke up relatively late and had after breakfast decided we’d rent bikes and head to the nearby town of Baisha to visit it on a market day. There we met a woman who offered her services as a guide, and I figured we’d hire her, since it would take the pressure off me to lead the way. Lucy initially got confused about which town had its market today, thinking at first that it was in Fuli, despite the fact that the guidebooks all say that Baisha has its market on days whose date ends with 1, 4 and 7 like today. After a quick ride toward Fuli she realized her mistake and we changed direction, much to Barbara’s consternation, since we had just gone down a bit of a hill.

The ride ranged between easy rides on asphalted roads that were unpicturesque and that had loads of traffic, and rutted dirt roads with deep puddles from the overnight rain, with many medium-quality roads in between. For the most part the ride was pretty easy, and the scenery was almost universally spectacular, with orderly rice paddies reflecting the dramatic mountains. We made a couple of stops at various towns, including the Baisha market, where Barbara’s bag almost got stolen from the back of her bicycle, and another town where a gang prevented people from passing the road to visit their sole site of interest, an arched bridge over the river, unless they paid an extortionate fee. Lucy took it upon herself to report them to the tourist police, though we did not ever end up seeing the bridge.

After around five hours we were back in Yangshuo, a bit sore but in one piece. After a quick wash, and a rather simple lunch at a random place, we decided it was a good time for a massage, so we headed to a place that another guest at our hotel recommended, for a Y40 one-hour Miao nationality foot massage. The masseuses were very friendly, and chatted with us while they did their work, and when they were done we felt quite a bit more refreshed than when we went in.

Thus rejuvenated, we returned to Du Ping’s gallery, where we had some more Pu’er tea and where both our guests bought paintings and one got a lovely jade pendant. We invited Du Ping to dinner at the place he had taken us to in 2005, across the river at a very local place so we put on some long pants and bug repellant and headed off. Getting into the little ferry that would take us across the river was a bit precarious, since there was about a 2-foot gap between the pier and boat, but we all made it, and the dinner on the other side was worth it—a far better beer fish than the one we had the previous night, and a not-too-chewy local chicken. After dinner we returned to the town for a dessert and a drink, and to pay the deposit for what we hoped would be the next day’s ballooning excursion..

Indeed, at 5:15 the next morning we got the call that our trip was on. We knocked on our friends’ door and met downstairs in time for our 6am departure for the balloon take-off area, along a stretch of road outside of town. The town was much quieter at this hour than it is during the rest of the day, in fact so quiet that we could not even find an open place to grab a baozi or something for breakfast. We boarded our little basket, which was barely big enough to accommodate us and the pilot, and before long we were aloft. The weather was a bit misty and cloudy, so shortly after we took off we were in among the clouds and completely whited-out, unable to see anything. This made one of our friends a bit nervous, judging by the whiteness of his knuckles grasping the edge of the basket, but before too long we descended again to a level where we could see. In fact the mist surrounding and wending through the peaks was very lovely, and we got loads of great photographs during our hour’s ride. Landing was a bit of an experience, since the pilot had a hard time finding the road that they wanted him to land on. When we finally found the spot, it was festooned with telephone and electric wires, making the descent kind of challenging. Eventually we hit the ground, though we would have had to climb up a pretty steep dirt embankment to reach the road, so we convinced him to ascend a bit and have the trackers pull him over to the level of the road. By this time we were the main source of entertainment for the villagers of the area, all of whom came out to watch the contraption from the air come down and let out a bunch of Chinese-speaking foreigners.

When we got back to town we had a local-style breakfast of noodles, rice dumplings etc before cleaning up and preparing to head out again with Lucy, though this time not on bicycles, to some other sites around Yangshuo. Our first stop was the Fuli market, which includes a livestock section where we could see cows, water buffaloes, pigs and chickens for sale. The way the Chinese treat their livestock is a bit horrifying, though, so we did not last long here before asking to leave. And since our experience with the Baisha market the previous day included a potential robbery, we opted not to bother with the Fuli main market.

From Fuli we drove to some town, another 1500-year old town like one we saw the previous day, to walk around a bit and then catch a boat to head down the Li River for some scenery viewing. The boat was WAY overpriced, charging Y100 per person, and the trip was both slow and not that pretty, compared with other parts of the area. But according to Lucy, that was the price, since they had initially raised the prices from Y50/person to Y80 last year, and during the holiday they raise it temporarily even more.

At the town where we docked, Longfeng Village (?) we looked around a bit before getting in the car again for the drive to Yueliang Village, where we had lunch at Lucy’s house, prepared by her husband. In addition to acting as a guide, Lucy also does cooking classes, and her husband did a great job preparing a bunch of excellent dishes, including yet another Li River beer fish and another local chicken, though this fish was a bit different and the chicken was prepared as a sort of braise. All of the dishes were very good, and their home-made wine was pretty good, too, though very potent.

We then drove up a very bumpy road from Yueliang Village to the Yulong Bridge, which we had visited the previous day, to catch a bamboo raft to drift down the Yulong River. This is something we had done in 2005, though at a time of year when there was a bit less water, so that the rafts would often get caught on the little dykes that are set up along the length of the river, meaning we’d have to get out of the raft to help get it over the edge, and then jump back on as it descended down to the next level. This time the water was higher, so we slid over the dykes pretty easily. The view is extraordinary, and the water was cool, so we enjoyed it, despite the enormous number of people out and the annoying vendors and regular requests from our pilot for extra money.

The raft trip ends near the Yueliang Mountain, so we drove there so that three of us could climb up the 888+ steps to the first viewing area, just where there is a moon-shaped hole in the mountain. The climb was pretty easy, especially since Lucy had led us to believe it would take 40 minutes (it actually took closer to 15), and the view was great. We could have climbed to the very top, above the moon-shaped hole, but that looked sort of precarious to me, and we were already tired, and our fourth person was waiting for us at the car, so we decided to leave that for next time.

Back in Yangshuo we all needed to bathe before dinner, which we had arranged to have at the hotel’s restaurant, where the owner, Frances, was going to prepare her favorite Hunan dishes herself. We could not have asked for a better dinner—we all were in the mood for something spicy, and something that would go well with beer, and this fit the bill perfectly. It was also very reasonably priced, at only Y110 or so for the three of us with more than enough to eat and drink. A perfect way to end a great day.

Friends' Visit to China--Part 3 (Guilin)

(For photos, click here)

We had a very nice flight to Guilin, seated as we were in an exit row with sufficient leg room. Once there we managed to find a very nice cab driver who agreed to take us to our hotel for whatever price the meter read (most drivers want to charge a flat fee). Along the way we started chatting, and he offered a lot of advice on dining, entertainment, etc and offered us his services for the rest of the afternoon. We accepted, so after checking into our hotel (the pretty nice, and very convenient, Guilin Grand 0773 Hotel) we headed with him to the Du Xiu Feng (Prince’s City Solitary Peak Park), site of Guilin’s tallest peak. The park itself was pretty lame, but the peak was nice, and you could climb it for a nice view of the city.

The driver had tried to convince us to book tickets for a 2-hour show of minority dancing, which was my cue that he was not to be relied upon for authentic recommendations, so we freed him at the park and opted instead to meander through the city. The view of the peaks from the riverbanks is lovely, and with all the people in town for the May Day holiday, the joint was jumping. The one famous site along the river in town, the Elephant Peak, is blocked off from view from the river bank in order to motivate people to pay the entrance fee to the sole part of the river from which it’s visible, but we withstood the temptation. Instead, we wandered through the pedestrian area, sampling a few skewers of lamb and baby birds to stave off our hunger until we finally decided it was time for dinner. Along this area we were swarmed by people wanting to practice their English against us, which got more and more annoying as the evening progressed. Finally I simply answered them in Russian to see if that would send them away, and it seemed to work.

When we decided it was time for dinner we started to head to a restaurant where we ate last time we were here, in 2005, but along the way we were swayed by a guy on the street to go to his restaurant instead. He promised authentic, and clean, Guilin food, so I should have sensed trouble when the place he took us to had huge signs advertising Korean food, which was most of the Chinese clients inside were eating. But we persisted, letting the waitress/manager help us through the menu. It sounded like we were ordering far too much, but most of it was pretty good, though not memorable really, and they did not serve as many dishes as I thought we had ordered, which I considered a good thing. When the bill arrived, I was shocked at the price—Y440 (around $55)—and took a look at the itemization on the bill to see what had happened to make it so expensive. There I found that they had charged us for the drinks that we had brought in with us, for dishes that we did not order, and for dishes that were never served. I got angrier and angrier at the place and started getting louder and louder as I debated the bill with the manager, attracting the attention of several other foreigners in the place, none of whom spoke Chinese and some of whom had asked our help with the menu. In the end, while I debated, J2 went to those other tables to warn them to check their bills carefully (not that that would be easy, since the bill was in Chinese). Then I finally told the manager that the most I’d pay was Y300, which she could either take or call the police to resolve the matter. The combination of the threat of getting the police involved, and J2’s warning the other foreigners seemed to convince her that her best course of action was to get me out of there, so she took the money and off we went.

At this point, I was fed up with Guilin. I have never liked Guilin, even when I first visited it in 1988, and it has only gotten worse, with the people all looking to take advantage of visitors. To help calm me down, we went in search of a place for a quiet drink but even that was fraught with trouble, since such places are few, as most bars involve “massagey” which did not interest the three of us guys on this trip. Even as we walked along a less touristy street, guys would come up with us making rather obscene gestures with their hands while saying “massage” , implying that these massages would come with a “happy ending”. I told them (in Beijing slang) that we were not the kind of guys who would find that appealing, but they persisted, perhaps not understanding the concept of homosexuality, or perhaps just not understanding my slang. In any event, we eventually found a quiet-ish place along the river, where we had our beers.

Friends' Visit to China--Part 2 (Xi'an)

(For photos, click here)

After acclimating a bit to the time we headed out to Xi’an, China’s ancient capital and now the capital of Shaanxi Province. We had a bit of a problem with the transport to the airport—our driver was a no-show (turned out he overslept) so we had to rush out and find a cab at 6:15 in order to reach the airport in time for our 7:25 departure. We ended up cutting things pretty darn close, and wound up arriving at the check-in desk just as they were closing our flight, and were among the last to board the plane. But we made it, and so did our bags, so no complaints in the end.

After a relatively pleasant 2-hour flight, we arrived and were met by the driver that the CEO of my company recommended we use, a guy named Clarence. He took us straight to the terracotta soldiers, which fortunately were not too crowded, despite this being the day before the official start of the May Day holiday. We opted not to bother with a guide, since J2 had practically memorized everything that our guide in 2002 told us about the place. There have been a few changes in the museum since that visit, though, the most significant for us being that you can now take photos of the soldiers. We had a very local lunch at a nearby restaurant after our visit (noodles of various kinds, along with a braised pork and yam dish that you eat with steamed bread, and a dish of eggs scrambled with some leafy vegetable, all very good) and then visited an area just outside of Xi’an where many of the people’s houses are actually caves. One of our guests had wanted to see how people live in China, so we figured this would give her a pretty unusual taste, though it was a bit sad to just traipse into someone’s house and gawk (and out of all the places we have seen so far, this is the only one where no one pulled out a camera).

Once we settled into our hotel (the Melody Hotel, just across from the Drum Tower) we walked around a bit, visiting the Bell and Drum Towers and wandering through the maze of streets behind the Drum Tower that leads to the Great Mosque, China’s oldest and biggest (dating to 742 A.D). By this time, Barbara had given up on her camera completely, opting instead to rely on getting copies of our photos, so she made sure to point out to us the things that she’d have snapped if she had had the means. On the way to dinner we stopped at a stall in the market just outside the mosque where the proprietor seemed like a very nice guy, pointing out to us the “good stuff” and quoting very reasonable prices on everything. After we made our purchases (J2 and I bought a pair of antique locks and an antique traveling scale; our friends bought a bunch of jade and jadeite pieces, along with some other things) the vendor explained why he gave us such a good deal—he could tell we were Americans who lived in China, and he has an American friend who has been sending him gifts for his daughter annually ever since they met some time ago, but he has no way of thanking him, so instead when nice Americans come in to his shop he makes sure to treat them well.

For dinner we booked a table at Defachang, a place specializing in “dumpling feasts” where the dinner consists of about 16 to 25 types of dumplings (depending on how much you spend) of various types, each one shaped more interestingly than the last. We had dumplings shaped like fish, frogs, chickens and other animals, and other ones that were folded so intricately that the tops looked like a flower or something. Most were also delicious, though the spectacle alone would have made it worth coming here. After dinner we wandered around the night market just north of the Drum Tower to sample (and buy) some of the peanut and sesame-based sweets that James became so fond of in 2002, and also to shop for tea.

The next day we started off in search of local breakfast, but ended up first having coffee at Starbucks. We couldn’t find anything promising to eat so we got in a cab to head toward our first destination of the day, the Big Goose Pagoda, figuring there’d be something good there, but when we got there we found that the only vendors were selling tourist kitsch rather than food. So we decided to just visit the pagoda, and to eat afterwards. We also decided to have a guide take us around, figuring we might as well learn something about the place, rather than just wandering blindly. The guide was very good, too, and pointed things out that I’d have missed for sure. Three of us also climbed the pagoda’s 248 steps for the view of the city (it being a pretty clear day, we figured we’d better take the opportunity while it lasted), the fourth not being sure she’d make it (though during the climb we noted a 80-year-old-plus woman with a cane making it up without too much difficulty).

Finding a place to eat was a bit more difficult than we had anticipated, though we ended up finding a place for dumplings and rou jia mou (Xi’an bread filled with braised beef). Thus refreshed, we continued on our way to the next site, the Shaanxi Museum of History, which our guidebook said was a real treat. Unfortunately, we did not find it so interesting, but it was still worth the stop.

From the museum we opted to head to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, driving to the area of the city wall (China’s largest and oldest extant city wall) and then walking along a street lined with artisans plying traditional Chinese crafts, including calligraphy, caramel shaping, and others. The pagoda was nice, though not as nice as the earlier one, and we chose not to climb to the top this time. Then we continued to the Forest of Steles Museum (Beilin) where we hired a guide since J2 and I really enjoyed it the last time we were here in 2002, but felt we were missing some of the information. Indeed this was a good move, since our guide was pretty knowledgeable and made the visit a lot more fulfilling. The museum is on the site of a Confucian temple, so her tour included information about that, as well as about the stone tablets of calligraphy that form the basis of the collection.

After the visit to Beilin we were all very hungry, but I was determined to eat a bowl of biang biang noodles in Xi’an, where they are from, so I made us all walk a good ½ mile to a place that I had vague knowledge about from a conversation with a cab driver earlier in the day. Eventually we found it, and the noodles turned out to be outstanding—homemade thick noodles topped with a very tasty mix of meat, sauce and vegetables. And for Y5/bowl for a large serving, we could not complain.

We did not know what to do after lunch, but we had heard from several people during the day that a visit to Xi’an is incomplete without seeing Han Yangling, an excavated Han Dynasty tomb that is supposed to be far better than the terracotta soldiers. None of our guide books mentioned the place, but we figured it was worth a look-see. Our original plan was to stop there on our way to the airport the next morning, but with time to kill we figured it was a good time to go, so we hired a cab for the evening and headed off. It was about an hour’s drive to the site, and we arrived around 5pm, so we figured we did not have a lot of time to visit. It turns out that the museum consists of two parts—the original museum, founded in 1999, and an underground museum where you actually view the excavation from a glass-bottomed floor (for which you have to wear little plastic overshoes to keep the glass from getting scratched). The excavation is pretty interesting, and the way they have done it you get a much better sense of the place than you do at the terracotta soldiers. The older part of the museum shows some of the pieces up close, and also gives a bit of a perspective about the period. It was not overall as impressive as the terracotta army, but we were all glad to have gone.

When we got back to the city we walked from the hotel to Lao Sun Jia, an old Muslim restaurant noted for its yang rou pao mo, a dish of lamb with noodles and broth into which you break pieces of bread that then soak up the broth. Along with bowls of that we also had several other dishes, all of which were pretty good. Not as interesting as the dumpling feast the previous night, but a bit more like regular people’s food.

The following morning we decided to take it relatively easy, walking from the hotel to a street of breakfast vendors where we found a range of treats to sample, including roasted bread filled with meats and vegetables, fried dough filled with meat, and soy bean milk. We followed this with the traditional Starbucks coffee, before heading over to the Temple of the Eight Immortals (Ba Xian An), which on Wednesdays and Sundays has an antique market of some note. It was not long before J2 and I saw some items that we could not pass up, a “Warring States period” bronze he vessel (a three-legged vessel with a phallic-sort of spout used to serve wine) and a “Qing Dynasty” bronze face of a monkey. We are not convinced that these items really are as old as they told us, hence the quotation marks, since they were pretty inexpensive for something that could be more than 2000 years old in the case of the he and over 100 years in the case of the monkey, but we liked them so we bought them.

The temple, which we also found time to visit, was very interesting to see. It’s a Taoist temple, so different from the Confucian temple we saw the previous day, and it’s also functioning, so we got to see it in action, with people coming to make offerings and pray for whatever it is they were praying for. This temple was also walking distance from another, Buddhist, temple, the Wang Ji Temple, so we stopped there on the way back to the hotel before heading to the airport for our flight to Guilin.

Friends' Visit to China--Part 1

Our friends Barbara and Alan came for a visit during the May Day holidays. Since this is likely to be one of very few opportunities that they’ll have to visit us in China, we wanted to make the most of the trip, and organized a basic “getting to know the Middle Kingdom” itinerary that would incorporate the key things you need to see in the country. Those things broke down into three categories: modern China, ancient China and scenic China, so we chose the following three locations for them to visit:


Beijing needs no introduction. As the capital and one of China’s largest cities, it is a showcase of the achievements of the People’s Republic, while also showcasing some of China’s history, including the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Xi’an is known to most people as the home of the Terracotta Army, but it was also the country’s capital for a long time during some of the most illustrious times in China’s history, and thus has a large number of wonderful museums and sites to see. Guilin and Yangshuo in the south of the country are famous for their scenic beauty—any Chinese restaurant you’re likely to visit likely has a scroll painting of the dramatic mountains in this area or of the fishermen fishing the Li River with the help of cormorants.

First Stop: Beijing

We spent quite some time working out an itinerary in Beijing that would ensure that our friends got a good glimpse into all that the city has to offer. What we came up with were most of the “usual suspect” sights: Forbidden City, Great Wall, Lama Temple, etc., but with the added twist of showing them these things with a bit more depth, and avoiding (in the case of the Wall) the parts that are over-touristy. We also made a point to have meals that were very local and that would span the range of cuisines across the country.

During the first few days of the trip, when we figured jet lag would mean that they would be waking up early, we focused on those things that required a relatively early start—a visit to Prospect Park (Jingshan Park, just north of the Forbidden City), where an early arrival means you get to see the locals dancing, singing, doing calligraphy, etc among the peonies and other flowering plants, for example, and driving up to the Great Mutianyu, which is almost two hours away from the city.

We also used this time to get the acquainted a bit with the shopping that Beijing has to offer, taking Alan as soon as he arrived to buy sunglasses at the optical market and then taking them both to the Dirt Market (Panjiayuan) for some curio shopping. They made out like bandits there, picking up some chops from my friends, the chop carvers, and also loads of jade, porcelain boxes, Mao watches, and other knick-knacks. Our tailor also got to do some business, since Barbara had long envied one of our cashmere coats that we had made in Beijing some time ago.

Meal-wise we started out with some real local-style places. Our first night we took the first guest to arrive to dinner at Kong Yiji, an old restaurant named for a character in a story by one of China’s leading playwrights, Lu Xun, that serves traditional Zhejiang cuisine (Zhejiang being a coastal province just south of Shanghai). Not being too familiar with Zhejiang food, we let our waitress guide us, and overall she did quite well, though there was a bit of an issue with a fish dish that took more than an hour to arrive, by which time we had finished all our other dishes and could not eat it. But the other dishes were very good, and we really enjoyed the huangjiu (yellow Chinese wine) that we drank warm out of little ceramic cups that nestled in a cup holder filled with warm water.

We also visited our favorite dimsum place for Chaozhou-style dimsum for lunch one day, and had dinner at a Chongqing-style hotpot and hot-and-spicy crayfish place on Guijie, the stretch of Dongzhimen Neidajie that is lined on both sides with countless restaurants, all serving more or less the same things. The place we chose turned out to be among the best that I have tried for this type of food, and it really gave our guests’ taste buds and chopstick skills a workout. Also, for lunch after our visit to the Great Wall, we stopped near the hospital for Uyghur food from China’s northwest Xinjiang province. Though one of our friends said she did not like lamb, it turned out that she liked it the way this cuisine prepares it, and indeed they did do an excellent job. Our last dinner in Beijing was at the city’s leading Tibetan restaurant, where the food was very good (sort of a cross between Chinese and Indian, and very heavy on yak meat and yogurt) and they give a pretty entertaining show that includes a good bit of audience participation.