Sunday, September 24, 2006

Putuo Shan: Buddha mountain

We joined a group of my co-workers last weekend for a visit to Putuo Shan, which translates to Buddha mountain. The Chinese pronunciation of Putuo is actually very close to the English pronunciation of Buddha. Putuo Shan is a mountain, but more importantly, it's also an island. It's beautiful, loaded with ornate Buddhist temples, and by Chinese standards anyway, it's unspoiled and not too crowded. There are crowds of tourists, for sure, but the island in general has a slow pace and relaxed vibe that's a welcome change from the hustle of the cities.

The first night of our tour was spent in Zhou Shan (pronounced Joe Shahn), a larger island en route to Putuo Shan, in a rather seedy $15-per-night hotel on the waterfront. Our Chinese friends arranged the whole weekend's itenerary, so I presume this might be typical accomodations for this type of weekend getaway. We enjoyed a late meal under a tent on a mile-long row of seemingly identical outdoor seafood restaurants. The sign on each identical tent reads Seafood Night Snack. For our second night, on Putuo Shan itself, we were relieved to find the hotel had a very nice, almost luxurious lobby, but our hopes for an equally nice room were quickly dashed. We had to settle for a musty smelling, ant-infested room. Nevertheless, I'm grateful to my friends who arranged everything, and I figure I would have ended up with something even worse if I had tried to arrange it myself. It's all part of the genuine Chinese experience, as far as I'm concerned.

Of the dozens of temples we saw, most were centered around a large golden statue of the Buddha or some Boddhisattva (a figure who is on the path to enlightenment -- a future Buddha), the most important one here being Guan Yin, which is a feminine character representing compassion. At each temple, visitors lit incense, prayed, offered gifts and donations, and performed rituals designed to bring good luck, health, or wealth. One of the more memorable scenes for me was a group of Buddhist nuns gathered in a room near a temple, doors wide open, counting a mountain of cash from all the donations, in plain sight of the tourist mob. No bullet-proof glass here!

An interesting note is that the ubiquitous pot-bellied, bald-headed Chinese "Buddha" figure is in fact Hotei, another Boddhisattva whose image was apparently inspired by an actual Chan monk from the Liang Dynasty. This site has an interesting summary of the various Buddha images.

Organized tours are popular here, and annoying. Mobs of Chinese follow their megaphone-toting tour guide to all the big sights, everyone wearing the same cheap hats; the tour companies give everyone the same hats to wear, presumably so it's easier for the megaphone-meister to corral his/her mob with a high-decibal verbal assault.

The island even has a few nice beaches -- with one caveat. The ocean surrounding the island, as far as the eye can see (which is many miles from the Shan-tops), is the color of a mudslide. None of the tourists here will get beyond knee-deep in the water, either. Andrew still had fun in the sand and surf, though, making a major spectacle of himself when he went face first into the shallow water, getting his shirt and underwear (makeshift swimsuit) soaked, and again when mommy stripped him to his birthday suit to rinse off the sand.

A vendor had a bungy-jumping contraption on the beach, and we haggled them down to 20 RMB (about $2.50) per person for a chance to harness yourself in and launch yourself up and down doing kung-fu special effects.

Nanxun: scenes from traditional China

On the weekend of September 16-17, we joined my co-worker Legend Chen (that's his way-cool adopted English name) and his girlfriend Laura on a trip to the town of Nanxun. It's small by Chinese standards, but it's still a bustling city of 50,000 plus, I'd guess. It's not listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook, which means it's a pretty out-of-the-way destination for Westerners, although it's apparently popular with the Shanghai crowd. It's only a few hours from Hangzhou, but the local dialect is different enough that Legend had trouble understanding the bicycle cab drivers. Laura grew up nearby here, and we met her friends Lu Yong Chong and his wife Summer, who live nearby and acted as our local tour guides.

The main attraction here is the old section of the city, dominated by a canal with old stone bridges, the oppulent former Governor's mansion, and a palace of sorts built by some silk baron's family. Lu Yong pulled strings to get us all free entry into the sites and took us to a nice restaurant for dinner. The Chinese are serious about Hospitality; Lu Yong was our host and everything was his treat. We offered to pay for dinner but I've learned that it's polite to graciously accept their hospitality and offer to return the favor later, rather than insist on paying.

At the silk baron's palace, Yu Long used his connections to get us a VIP tour of some rooms and artifacts that are off-limits to the public, including a wood-carved banner which was a gift from China's last emperor. The most interesting part of the tour to me was a plaque which told the story of the site's library, which was so graciously "donated" by the former owner to the goverment after the revolution. Somehow I suspect that wasn't entirely a voluntary transaction.

At the mansion of the province's former Governor, we noticed the elaborate wooden doorways had high thresholds to step over. Legend explained that in China, the high the threshold signifies wealth.

The canals aren't used much for transport these days, but they're popular for doing laundry, fishing, and making money giving gondola-style boat tours to visitors like us. The canal tour is a relaxing way to see the traditional China we often envision, with narrow streets and alleys, ancient stone bridges, and small shops and homes crowded around the canal.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Oktoberfest -- Chinese style

Imagine this: lots of beer, a sea of black-haired people, a live band playing The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, and exotic foods including whole squid on a stick, roasted silk worm, Asian-spiced crawfish and fried scorpion. It's Chinese Oktoberfest!

They don't call it Oktoberfest here, but Wushan Square, in the center of Hangzhou, is the site of a 12-day Beer (pijiu) Festival. That's right folks, you can swill German beer (Hoffbrau, Paulaner and Franziskaner, to name a few) and work up the courage to sample some bizarre Chinese food.

There are over 6 million people in Hangzhou, and a good number of them showed up this Tuesday evening to join the festivities. The beer maids don't quite look like the St. Pauli Girl, but they try their best with the Bavarian Flag skirts. I give 'em an A for effort.

My colleagues bought some "special" food for me. They were reluctant to try it themselves, but after I witnessed someone else swallow it and survive, I gave it a try too. That's right folks - I ate silkworm and scorpion. The silkworm had a crispy shell and (thankfully) no strong flavor. The scorpion? We tore off the tail first, and they tasted like any other crispy deep fried food.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

It's the little things

What I wouldn't give for...

Fitted sheets! They only have flat sheets here. I've heard you can have fitted sheets made if you go to the wholesale fabric market. You pay for the material and then they can turn that into fitted sheets for an extra $3.

A bowl of cereal. We eat A LOT of eggs for breakfast.

Straight hair. My hair is always frizzy in the humidity - and especially when it rains.

A good cup of coffee.

Silence. There is always noise here - and lots of it. The apartment complex pipes in music that it plays near the walkways at night. All the busses have videos playing on them all the time. Everybody has a cell phone and seems to be screaming into it all the time. I watched one man talk on his phone with it held far away from his head. I wanted to tell him that if he held it near his ear and mouth then both he and the person he was talking to could speak a little more quietly - but of course this would have required speaking Chinese.

Things I wish we could get in the US ...

A $5 massage

Somebody to clean my house for $3

Babysitting for $1/hour or day care for $100/month (full time, every day)

I suppose to sum it up - cheap labor.

Preschool - Chinese style

I have quite a bit of work right now which is not very good timing - but since my paycheck goes really far here it is worth it to keep working. The down side of this means that I need to find child care for Andrew so I can get some work done. There is a "kindergarten" just across the street from us and the facilities are beautiful. We put Andrew in the 4 year old class because the teacher in there speaks English. It's a bit of a challenge for Andrew to communicate with the other kids but he manages. I suppose it's a little like when I go to the store. There is only so much you need to verbalize to understand what is required. Overall I think he enjoys going and playing with the kids.

The kids all have clean shoes that are worn in the class room. Whenever they come in the morning or after play time outside they put on their inside shoes. This doesn't surprise me at all. However, One day while I was there observing they had an assembly. The kids came out of the class room and changed into their outside shoes, walked 100 feet or so down the hall to the meeting hall, and then took off their shoes all together to go into the assembly. They sent more time changing shoes than walking down the indoor hall. It was crazy.

The other really interesting thing was filling out forms. First of all, the spaces for the entries were very small. Since a Chinese character represents a whole word a typical name might have 2-4 characters. The 13 letters in Andrew's name took up an awful lot of space. We also had to write down what level of education Brad and I had, though I'm not sure why.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Stinky tofu

What do you when you've got a slab of tofu that's past it's prime? So far past it's prime that it's partially fermented? You can't let it go to waste, so deep fry it and serve it up in the local restaurant! Stinky tofu (chao dofu) is a famous -- or infamous -- local dish. You hear about it soon after arriving and it seems to be obligatory to try it. I'd been warned, but my adventurous curiosity got the best of me and we ordered some last night. Well, the name of the dish is quite accurate, and it basically tastes like rotten tofu. A few people actually claim to like the stuff, though.

The musical street cleaner

The street cleaner here is a big tanker truck that blasts fat jets of water sideways to keep the streets clean. It also blares music, ala the ice cream truck back home, to warn unsuspecting pedestrians and cyclists, lest they get washed to the curb along with the debris. Inexplicably, one of the tunes they play is Happy Birthday to You.

Hupao Spring to Anji

Our first full weekend in Hangzhou (Sept 9 to 11) gave us a chance to see some sights in and around the city. On Saturday, we braved a steady rain to visit Hupao Spring, a place where the water is supposedly so good the locals will hike up the hill and fill jugs full of the stuff to take home. We saw one old man walking up with about a dozen 2-liter bottles hanging from a pole he carried on his shoulders. We stopped in a tea house for a cup of the local specialty, Dragon Well green tea, and heard some live traditional Chinese music while we sipped. After the performance, our little blond celebrity (see: Andrew is a Superstar) enchanted one of the musicians who let Andrew hammer on the big iron bells. Andrew sang Twinkle twinkle little star for her and she accompanied him on a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, something akin to a cello, I suppose.

Sunday, with nice weather, we went on a short hike through some hills to Good Luck park and Yellow Dragon Cave. Good Luck park on Sunday morning is an absolutely mad house. Five or six people were practicing their swordsmanship, waving real swords around as throngs of people walked by and 3 or 4 bands were playing and singing traditional Chinese music. The nearby Yellow Dragon cave was mostly a dud, but we did catch part of performance of traditional Chinese opera. Can't say I'm a fan.

Next stop was Hangzhou's famous West Lake, where Andrew and I strolled along the manicured pathways and dealt with the usual Andrew-paparazzi. Amy, in the meantime, enjoyed a $5 one-hour massage. This is a great place - they train blind people to do massage, where hopefully they make a decent living. Next was my turn for a massage!

The BoldTech office here had a day-long outing on Monday, and Amy and Andrew joined me. We took a 2-hour bus ride (after a 1-hour taxi ride) to the village of Anji, in an area of bamboo-covered mountains. Quite beautiful, although the views were a bit obscured by the every-present fog and pouring rain. The big attraction here is movie sets. A couple of recent big-name Chinese movies were filmed here, and the sets are still in place. Andrew made friends with the kids of a few other BoldTech'ers on the trip - Yaya and Chen Ju Qi, a girl and boy about Andrew's age. Most people who speak English adopt western names, and Chen Ju Qi used "Charlie".

We also joined some other ex-pat friends of ours for dinner on 2 nights. Axel and Kip live in our apartment complex. Axel is a German who works for a company he calls a "haberdashery" and his wife Kip is originally from Malasia. Both speak great English, and Kip also speaks good Mandarin, which is handy.

Five and half days of rain

For five and a half days, it's been raining or drizzling in Hangzhou, with only a few short breaks. I think it's the longest I've ever gone without seeing the sun, and there's no doubt it takes a psychological toll. Now it's Sunday morning and I can actually see blue (not gray) sky, and the sun is shining bright. Ah, the things we take for granted in Colorado.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

It's' the small differences

One of the things that makes traveling so intriguing is discovering all the differences between cultures. For instance...

Small appliances
All the appliances here are small. The fridge is about half the size of a standard American model. The washing machine is tiny, and it has a weight sensor, too. Throw in a single wet towel and nothing else, and it won't start. Did I already mention that we don't have dishwasher?

Laundry service
Due to the small appliances (see above), if you go more than a few days without doing laundry, it's gonna take a while - and a whole lot of tiny loads - to get it done. We decided to try a nearby laundry service, so we dropped off a bunch of clothes and linens. We got it back and all our shirts were pressed, folded and sealed in celophane, complete with cardboard stays for the collared shirts - just like a new dress shirt you buy at a department store. Same for Andrew's shirts, even. Each piece of underwear had a laundry tag sewed into it. The total for all that craziness was about $40 - a helluva lot more than I want to pay for laudry.

No diapers
What do you do with your toddlers if they're not toilet trained and you live in a country with no diapers? Simple! Put them in pants with an open crotch, and they can go whenever and wherever they want! Apparently it's socially acceptable - and not at all unusual - for small kids to just do their thing right on the sidewalk.

Traffic rules
  1. Might makes right. The biggest vehicle wins.
  2. If you wanna cross the street or make a left turn, you'd better have big cajones.
  3. The bus isn't full until it's physically impossible to cram another human body on board
No legal-size paper
Don't get me wront - I hate legal size paper. It doesn't fit anywhere. But today I wanted to print a quick reference sheet that was specifically designed to fit perfectly on legal size paper and fold into a nice little booklet. Forget it. They never heard of legal paper here.

Most Chinese are unfamiliar with the modern home bathroom, or are only recently becoming acquainted with it. So it's not surprising, perhaps, that they haven't mastered the finer points of bathtub/shower drainage. For instance, you want the water to drain into the tub, not into the silicone-filled trough around the tub, which in turn drains onto the floor, which should then make a bee-line for the floor drain -- but only if the floor drain is at the low point of the bathroom floor, which it's not. Of course the result is a perma-puddle on the bathroom floor.

Fat pork
Lean meat might be all the rage in the good 'ol US of A, but not here. A favorite local dish is a hot chunk of pork, a cube about 1.5 inches on each side, which is 95% fat with a thin sliver of lean meat on one side and a thinner sliver of skin on the other, served in a little cup of melted pork fat. In fact, some of my colleagues who lived in the US said they sought out a specialty Asian market to satisfy their craving for fat pork. Artery-clogging goodness!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Andrew is a Super Star

I know every one reading this thinks Andrew is cute - but the Chinese people go nuts over him. Brad says it's almost like they don't believe that white adults come from white babies, but mostly it's just because they don't see very many white babies. People are always touching him and having their picture taken with him and talking to him. At first he really ate it up, but it's gotten to the point where most of the time he wont even look at anybody who isn't speaking English.

The most extreme occasion was one day when Andrew was playing in the fountain in our apartment complex and a couple of people were near by. Pretty soon passers by stopped to watch and then people who had been on their balconies came down with their cameras and started taking pictures of him and calling their friends on the phone to tell them about this crazy white kid playing in the fountain. One of Brad's co-workers saw the whole thing from a nearby restaurant. I really didn't think much of it since I'd seen several Chinese kids playing in the fountain. Soon a lady told me that Chinese children would never run around in the fountain with their clothes on when the weather is like this. I suppose when I think about it all the kids I had seen before were naked and 80 degree weather was a dramatic drop from the first couple of days we were here.

Move over, Louvre!

Among the world's premier museums, world-class destinations such as the Louvre, the Met, MOMA, The British Museum, may come to mind. But there's a grand new challenger for the title of World's Best Museum, and it's right here in Hangzhou.

That's right, folks: the China Finance and Taxation Museum. You've been waiting for this your whole life. Call your travel agent today! Spare no expense! Bring the whole family for the dream vacation of a lifetime!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

No Speeling

They range from amusing to inexplicable. All over China, you'll find billboards, street signs, shop fronts, clothing and product labels, all with jumbled English. Here's one from a bottle of Dynasty (it sure is nasty) red wine:
Constantly drinking this wine is good to your health
Or this stern notice at the exercise area in the courtyard outside our apartment:

Pood, prinks, and rigid objects are not allowed
And my favorite so far is this one, found on a short bridge over a pond in our aparment complex.

When Andrew saw this sign he asked, "what does that sign say?" (as he does for every sign he sees). So we told him "no speeling", to which he replied, "What happens if you speel?". Good question, Andrew...good question.

Update: my friend's wife, Olivia McCorkell, translated the Chinese characters. According to her, it says "No hurdling over".

Lunch - Fear Factor style

If you've ever seen the TV show Fear Factor, you've seen people eat some scary stuff. Eating in China can be an adventure, too. I went to lunch with a large group of colleagues today and we ate family style. Some of the dishes I sampled:
  • Spicy frog stew (in a broth packed with red chiles)
  • Pumpkin coated with a sauce of brined duck egg yolk
  • Spicy stew of unknown beef organs (my friends weren't sure, but they think the organs are from the cow's neck)
  • Chicken feet pickled in rice wine
Have you ever tried to eat chicken feet? Don't bother. As you might guess, there's not much but a few nibbles of chewy skin. And the mystery beef organs? Not bad, actually.

Monday, September 04, 2006

"Early in the morning, we all drink beer"

Those are the lyrics of a new song Andrew invented while eating dinner last night, sung to the tune of "Itsy Bitsy Spider". Maybe he'll be a rock star some day.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Journey to Hangzhou

We arrived in Hangzhou around 6 pm Saturday, via Shanghai and Vancouver. We left the house at 5:20 am on Friday to meet my mom - who very generously volunteered to keep our dog and drive us to the airport. (Thanks, mom!) We had 3 big bags to check, each one of which just barely squeeked by under the 50 pound weight limit.

Thanks to an overzealous gate attendant in Denver, we almost missed the flight completely. You see, we got multiple-entry visas into China, with a maximum 60-day single stay. The gate attendant (let's call him Mr. Stickler) said we couldn't board the plane since our return flight on December 15 was more than 60 days away. With 30 minutes til departure, Stickler told us to go to the United customer service desk, where we were they told us they couldn't help - we had to pick up the phone to talk to someone else. The folks at the friendly skies of United said they couldn't help either, since we booked our itenerary with Air Canada (United operates this leg of the flight). So Amy and I split forces; I went back to the gate to work on Stickler while Amy tried to reschedule our return flight. At about the same time I convinced Stickler to let us on, Amy finally found someone who was willing to reschedule our return flight. With 10 minutes to spare, we boarded our plane to Vancouver.

Shanghai to Hangzhou
It's a 2-hour van ride from the Shanghai airport. Our driver, Shen Ming, didn't speak any English -- as expected, since few people here do. The section of Shanghai we saw was a sprawling jumble of enormous apartment buildings, interspersed with small plots of agricultural land, all obscured by a thick haze - mostly clouds, I think, but part smog too - that reduces the sun to a dull glow. In fact, when Andrew saw the sun through the fog, he said "look, it's the moon!"

I'm surprised by how modernized the country is here - even in the rural areas between the cities. Our aparment is across the Qiantang river from the city center in a booming new commercial district - akin to Denver's tech center, maybe. And I mean booming. There are probably a dozen high rises - both residential and office space - going up within a mile of our apartment, with crews working even at 7 am on Sunday and 6 am on Monday.

Our apartment is nice, and surprisingly roomy - 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. Each room has an air conditioner with a remote control. Good thing, too; it was 36 Centigrade here today (that 's 97 Farenheit) with wicked humidity. We've got about every modern convenience, except a dishwasher. With so many options for cheap food nearby, we'll probably eat out a lot, though. We had our first meal here with Peter Liu, a co-worker who kindly helped us get oriented, at a nice restaurant. The bill for four of us was 138 Yuan, about $17, and that's probably 3 times what we'd pay at the typical local joint.

Here are views of our apartment.