Sunday, May 30, 2004

Back from Mt. Taishan, Tai'an, and Qufu

I made it back safely though it was really an adventure. We left Friday night on the train in what they call "soft" seats, this is quite an exaggeration. The train takes over 6 hours to get to Tai'an, at the base of Mt Taishan, so we got into the hotel just before 5 in the morning. Since it was already beginning to get light out we opted for an early start to the day. A quick breakfast of steamed bread stuffed with a spiced pork filling, accompanied by a grain soup, we began our ascent of the mountain.

There is the option at the Midway to Heaven gate to take a cable car to the top of the mountain (or close to the top anyway) but I was determined to climb the 7000+ stairs. I have known of Mt Taishan for the better part of two decades, and for me this was the primary destination for the trip to China. To do anything other than climb the stairs would for me, have taken away the authenticity of the visit; I would have missed the very point of being there had I simply taken a cable car to the top. So I started up the stairs.

Along the path there are hundreds of inscriptions, carvings, and hisotrical sites, unfortunately the ancient Chinese were not so considerate as to write in English, so most of these were lost on me. However there are a number which are of note, and which are explained in books and on the net, if not on the mountain. The one that comes immediately to mind is The Five Pines. These pines once protected the emporer during a thunderstorm which came in while the emporer was ascending the mountain. In thanks for their protection, he granted to the pines the status of Fifth level Ministers. There are also the welcoming pines that appear to be reaching out to shake hands. There are caves, sacred temples, historic locations, and vistas that no camera can truly capture.

There are merchants along the stairs selling almost everything imaginable. Fortunately one of the things that they sell is water. I cannot say how many bottles of water I went through, but but I can say that being overweight and out of shape is not the way to ascend Taishan. The merchants sell prayer flags/ribbons, incense, and other religious paraphenalia, along side the souveniers that you might well expect to see. At one point an older man in what we in the west see as the traditional Chinese garb comes over and shakes hands, then hugs us. He spoke no English, and I speak no Chinese (okay a few words but not enough to converse) but the welcome was obvious and sincere. He and another man were telling fortunes, and selling religous items just in front of a cave which was clearly also a temple. We had him tell our fortunes, in a way to thank him for his welcome. Quite detailed, interesting, and novel to say the least.

At another point, much farther up the stairs, I was greeted by a fellow with a monkey. He was offering the opportunity to have photos taken holding the monkey. The dangers briefly crossed my mind as I welcomed this opportunity that I would not find again, certainly not in the west. So he showed me how to stand, how to hold the monkey and I have it recorded digitally for proof. A side note I have to make here: Jeremy, the monkey experience was at least in part for you.

The stairs are neverending and it is not possible to get more than a small number of the stairs in any one photograph. I have taken many pictures, which will be posted once sorted, but none of them give more than the slightest glimpse into this unique stairway. I will say more on this journey later, when I can put words together in a more appropriate way to convey exactly what this experience has been for me, but for now allow me to reveal the end: I made it to the top. I was tired, sore, thirsty, out of breath, soaked in sweat, but most of all I was elated, moved, and completely lost in the moment. This was something I never expected to do, and certainly am not in the physical shape to do, but when the opportunity arose, I found it in myself to climb Taishan and the 7000 stairs. I cannot truly express what this accomplishment means to me, but there is something that tops even this. My father, my 60 year old father, who fully intended to ride the cable car up after going only as far as the Five Pines, decided to continue with me up the mountain. He made it to the top as well, and he did it on crutches.

Along the way, we received stares as we always do, but he received more than normal given the crutches. Many people let us know, usually through hand gestures, that they were encouraging him to make the climb, and reaching the South Gate of Heaven, the entrance to the top of the mountain, we (I was a few steps behind him) were greeted with resounding applause, welcoming hands, and cheers. I cannot express the emotion tha this brought to me, for my father as well as for the Chinese people who were so encouraging, positive, and enthusiastic.

There is far more to tell of that day, for when we reached the South Gate of Heaven it was only 11 am, this tells just how early we began our day. For now I need to leave off so that I can begin to organize photos, and prepare presentations for this week.

From Tainjin all my best,


Thursday, May 27, 2004

Yesterday was a full day, as expected. The morning came far too early with the latest presentation at Tianjin Normal University. That said, the presentation and discussion went well. The students asked excellent questions, and I am certain that my answers were not always what they expected. As with each presentation prior to this one, I was asked about Bush, and to no one's surprise to those who know me, I condemned his murderous ways and lack of understanding of the law, the US Constitution, justice, legitimacy, and honesty. Given the actions that Bush and his cronies have taken against the people of the world, including the Chinese people, these statements went over well here.

The questions were not limited to politics, to tell the truth these were always in the minority. Other questions concerned philosophy, business, general attitudes (in the US), and any number of other topics.

I have been asked back once again to do a presentation on Business Ethics for another class, an offer I readily accepted. These talks have been a wonderful, though completely unexpected, addition to the trip to China.

After this talk, I met Summer in the technology district so that I could buy another card for my camera. I decided though this is a short trip to Mt Taishan and Qufu, I want to make damn sure that I have enough room on the camera. Also I want to increase the quality setting to the highest available for the shots of Taishan. For those who do not already know, this was the one thing that I put forth as a place to see while in China. Taishan is the holiest of the five holy mountains in China, and as I have been reading of it for close to two decades, I could not pass up the opportunity to see it while here. Qufu is the home of Confucius (Kong Fu Tze), so as a philosopher, this too holds some special meaning to me.

The afternoon was taken by Dad's talk on Quality and Customer Service, again at Tianjin Normal University, which was met with eager students who asked very good questions. The presentation went quite well and he has been asked to do another one next semester.

Today will be spent in preparation for the trip to Mt Taishan; we leave by train at 10:00pm tonight, arriving in Tai'an just after 4am. One day on the mountain, and another in Qufu, returning on Sunday afternoon.

Because of the trip I will be out of touch for a couple of days, so until I return I wish y'all all the best.


Tuesday, May 25, 2004

On Monday I had the pleasure of judging a contest for spoken English. I was invited to be a consultant, to offer advice as to how to speak English better, but when I arrived they asked me to judge the competition. With the exception of maybe two or three, the students spoke well and were easy to understand. As with any foreign language, vocabulary was the real challenge.

The contest consisted of two parts, the first being a reading exercise where the students were given a few paragraphs of an article and they were to read as much as possible within two minutes. In the second half of the contest the student was given a question on which they could speak for up to five minutes. All in all it was very interesting.

Following this Ms Zhou (Ms Jo) and I went to a foreign language book store to get a Spanish textbook (in Chinese) so she could begin to learn spanish. While there we found several books in English (as well as Mandarin) so I picked up a few of special interest to me, and perhaps other philosophers (Mencius, some Kong Fu Tze, and a book entitled "tending the roots of wisdom" which is largely unknown but is wonderful.)

Another wonderful meal ended the day (two kinds of shrimp, some beef dish, a fried eggplant that was actually delicious (not like eggplant at all), corn soup, and as always a host of other dishes).

Yesterday was spent relaxing and reading, as well as doing a bit of preparation of material for my lecture tomorrow morning at the university, as well as the talk I will be giving at BHA at a later date.

A final note before I go, here is a link I believe is of worth a moment of your time, especially in this all too political season:

Also check out the book Dissenting Electorate: Those Who Refuse To Vote and the Legitimacy of Their Opposition for more on this subject.


Saturday, May 22, 2004

Finally went to Gou Lou (Culture street/drum towers) though we did not fully explore it today, I will be returning on my own to walk the streets and look more closely into the markets, shops, galleries, etc. There is some quite unique art items there, as well as practical items that are also art pieces. I had a chop made (a chop is the chinese way of marking a document as official, rather than using signatures) out of stone, and will likely have more made using other names/words.

I have a few photos which I will post asap, probably monday local time.

I also picked up the two shirts I had made. While they did not exactly match my instructions, they are very nice, fit wonderfully, and look a good deal better than either I or Dad expected. These two are made from a blend of linen and silk that feels very nice to the touch. Perhaps tomorrow I will commission more shirts, of a different style and fabric, and some slacks. This assumes that we can find the fabric I want.

Finally we looked for turtles for Summer, but did not find any she liked. One comment about the pet market we were at. First it is not one store, but as with all things in China, it is a collection of small shops. Because of this nature different items will be sold at different shops though there is a tendency to bring together like items in a given part of the city. So walking through the pet market I noted the sale of silverware at one shop.. make your own conclusions..

Also the pet market opens out onto a food court (for lack of a better term).. again draw your own conclusions..

Speaking of food, I realized that I had not yet commented on something that might well be on the minds of some. I have been using chopsticks at every meal, with very little difficulty. I use them when in the states for certain meals so I have had some practice, apparently enough that a few individuals here have commented on my abilities with them. Yeah I am proud and rightly so, given that the meals are such that one must work more to get food here than in the states. All the plates are brought out, and usually placed on a lazy susan so that everyone can just spin it and get what they want. You do not take a dish of something, you just grab a bite or two with the chopsticks.. sometimes this means skinning and deboning a fish with them, other times it means cutting (tearing apart) meat with them.. everything except soup is done with chopsticks.

And still speaking of food, today we ate at a restaurant owned by a friend of Summer (she has lots of friends..). The style is Hunan (I think) The meal we had was composed of a noodle dish, and what they call a hot pot. The hot pot starts with a broth (chicken and mushrooms for us) to which other things are added as the meal goes along. This is an interesting change from our normal meals, and the flavors are wonderful (which itself is not a change). Also we had as an appetizer of sorts, some dried beef (think beef jerky, but high class and flavor) and soybeans (no one calls it etimome here or in Japan, so I am told by the Chinese and Japanese here)

That is all for now.. tomorrow we are going to go to Textile City and look for fabrics, then return here so that I can give spanish language lessons and prepare for my presentations.

Oh but before I close this, I believe that I have not commented upon this yet, but I fixed a meal for us (Summer, Dad, and myself) on Friday, because Summer insisted that I cook for her (again). I have not fixed Texas Hash in several states, and three separate nations. For some reason it gives me joy to spread this dish, perhaps because it is a family dish that is found in no cook books, but is a fine example of a satisfying dish, as well as "peasant food." I even showed Ms. Jong (the housekeeper) how to fix it as well, so it is my hope that others in China may come to experience it.

And on that enjoyable note, I will leave off this post.

All the best to all.


Thursday, May 20, 2004

Today was an interesting day. Upon waking up, much earlier than I wanted to, I got myself and the computer ready for the talk I was to give at the university today. I walked to the university, a few miles away but it was a nice day for walking, though certainly taxis were readily available. I gave a talk about critical thinking, with the briefest of introductions to logic, and then opened up the time for discussion of absolutely anything that interested the students. The questions ranged from my ideas on self expression (from a wonderfully creative young lady), to the problems of getting visas to visit the US (Thanks Bubba Bush!) to pop culture and the situation with Taiwan.

This lecture was in part to give the students an opportunity to hear english from a native speaker (I did not bother to tell them that there is a difference between English and Texan, though I have dialed down the accent as much as possible), so this was a more informal presentation than what I expect I will be doing in the future. Tuesday however will be another mostly informal session, though I am going to focus more on critical thought and sound reasoning as the more I have learned of the educational system here, this is lacking in the system here at least as much as it is lacking in the US system. Nonetheless it is interesting to me to get the questions, and to see what is on the minds of these students.

With that in mind, I agreed to meet with the English club (here that does not have the negative implications (nerd, etc) that it has int he states.. :) ) to help them prepare for an upcoming contest in speaking English. I am hoping that this will be a great deal of fun. I suspect that some of the questions will be different given that it will not be a classroom environment (at least I expect that it will not be) and there will be no professors around.

One more comment on the presentation, I was greeted by the entire staff of the department and given an incredible gift of some painted jars. These are small jars, originally snuff jars, which have become true art pieces. The interesting thing is that the painting, which is quite detailed and exquisite is on the inside of the jars, not the outside. I cannot even begin to imagine the patience and ability it takes to make such pieces. The work was done by the most famous artist of this sort in Tianjin, and I am truly honored to have some of his work. If I can get some photos that look right I will post them.

On giving talks and presentations, I have gotten a bit more good news on this front. I have been asked to give a formal presentation to BHA the international aerospace partnership here in China. Though there is some pressure, especially given some recent problems which motivated the request, I look forward to the opportunity to speak on business ethics, and how this is important as well as applicable to the work here.

Time will tell where all of this will go, but right now it makes for more intersting and enlightening experience in China.

All the best to those back home, be that the Great White North, or parts farther south.


Monday, May 17, 2004

Still updating photos so check the galleries that you may have already seen!

Last night we had dinner with some academics who have asked Dad and I to give presentations at Tianjin Normal University. It is possible that this could turn into many presentations, which could be interetsting. So far they have left open my topics, though I am planning on focusing on business ethics at some point, what may surprise many in the states is that they encouraged me to speak on supposedly forbidden topics such as government, freedom, democracy, even the problems of the cultural revolution. I found this interesting not because of the rhetoric we hear about China, but because it can be difficult to speak on those topics in the US, unless one is toeing the party line.

The first talk, which will be Thursday morning, I am probably going to avoid those topics in favor of some basic differences between China and the US as well as some talk of critical thought and the importance of critical thought in education and employment.

For those who have been following my accounts of the food, first I apologize for the incomplete nature of those accounts. There is simply too much food to recall what we had at any given time. For instance, last night there were four of us dining together, but there were 12 different dishes of food.

The housekeeper fixes a meal for one, and Dad and I share it, when we eat dinner at all, and are satisfied. I have said it before, but it deserves repeating: these folks eat more than any 2 people I have known.

Time to return to uploading photos. I will try to get some of the university on Thursday..

All the best,


Sunday, May 16, 2004

Photos: Ran into a couple of snags when uploading the latest batch of photos. The first problem has been weather which interferes with the speed and connection to the net. The second is a greater problem, I believe, and that is that the new photo files are larger in size and so they take far longer to upload. I am working to resize the photos and hopefully cut down on the file size so that I can post a great many more photos here, but if not then I will have to wait until I return to the states and the borg that is our home before I can post all of the rest of the photos.

That said, I will still be posting new photos of the same file size as the first few batches whenever I can. The difference is the use of different digital cameras, so all of the photos from my own camera I will be posting, but those from my father's may not get posted until I return. Clear as mud?

I have also chenged some of the layout of the gallery, and have been adding photos to the Danxia-Yellow river gallery, so check these out. The layout change was in part due to the possibility of creating a special gallery for my father to post his photos of China from before and after my visit.

About future events: we are in the planning stages of the trip to Mt Taishan as well as a trip to one of the summer palaces in Chengde. The former is the holiest of the five holy mountains in Taoism, as well as Buddhism. Both will be reached by train, with the trip to Chengde going along the Great Wall for some portion of the trip. More information on these as they develop.

All the best to everyone.

Update: I think that I have found a way to more quickly load photos, so with luck a great many more will appear over the next couple of days.

Also, I have opened up the comment option, so I welcome any comments, questions, or observations from anyone. If I do not respond to a some question or comment, feel free to email me to make sure that I can see it, since for some strange reason some of the Blogger pages are blocked (by the government)

Saturday, May 15, 2004

NEW PHOTOS! Well new photos are coming soon. I intend tomorrow to post more photos in the galleries already there from the Qinghai trip. That said, my own intentions are easily and often overruled by dictate or circumstance while I am here.

I apologize in the gaps between blogs, but everyday life has been quite uneventful. I have spent some time reading some texts I have had for some time, were it not for the distractions at home, ine I cluding working. Here I am in "communist" (they are more capitalists than the US is!) China, enjoying every word I am reading from Lysander Spooner, thanks for that recommendation Mac!

But some interesting things have happened. Last night I enjoyed the best sashimi I have eaten. The tuna, salmon, and well, I do not know the other fish, simply melted the moment you put it into your mouth. The octopus was delicious and not the least bit rubbery or chewy. The clam too was like butter. Some of the rest I did not recognize, but it was all worth the "expensive" price tag, which was maybe a fifth of what we pay in Austin for sashimi that is good, but not quite on par with this. Sorry folks.. :)

Where we were eating is a Japanese restaurant here, with full regalia, customs, and atmosphere. And the sashimi was but one of many, perhaps too many dishes that we enjoyed. If I have not mentioned it before, the Chinese eat far more than I at least am accustomed to eating. So back to dinner.. we also enjoyed sushi, tandori, squid (served cut but with everything in place as if it just swam onto your plate) and as I said a host of other dishes. It is difficult to keep up with everything one manages to try here when you have a native ordering for you. Also, it is not uncommon to simply not recognize the dishes they serve to you. So you just eat them, enjoy them, and try to survive the pressure to always eat more.

This morning began with an early trip to the traditional medicine hospital for accupuncture. While this was ostensibly for my father's hip (accident involving a cattle pen, boots, and haste..) as this is his regular visit, I too went under the needles. And many of you, if not all know that despite my size I am not the best person in the world with needles... however I considered it almost a necessity to try while here, and besides my feet have been bothering me for months, and though I am not inclined to believe it, they claim (and I know some people who have gotten results) that accuncture can help you lose weight. So.. I did it. Naturally I did not watch them going in, and while I have had worse pain, neither is it true that it is entirely painless. The feeling is probably more peculiar than painful however. So I got a half dozen needles in each foot (the tops even though the bottom is what was hurting.. go figure) and oh fifteen or so in my stomach.

The doc makes sure that the needle has reached what he wants by moving it about some after it is in. This is again peculiar and somewhat disconcerning, but any pain is minimal. However one thing I have not mentioned yet is that this is a teaching hospital, so there are a half dozen students or so watching and helping Doctor Wang (pronounced "wong"). So after the doc is satisfied, he has each of the students tap then move each needle so that they can get a feel for it as well. This fun just goes on and on.. :) Dr Wang also checked my heart and had them do this as well. The place is probably not like what you have in mind, it is in many ways much like a western hospital in that it is very professional. However it differs in many ways as well. The doctors treat you with respect, listen to you (even when you do not speak the language) spend time with you, and they do not take every dime you have for providing that service.

The treatment lasts about an hour before they remove the needles. I figured I could handle watching them remove some of the needles, but then regretted it (yeah so I do not like needles.. ) when I saw just how far in these needles had been. Believe me, they do not just sit on the surface. The television shows and movies just have it wrong! These suckers are in several inches. Oh and if they hit a nerve it is amazing how much reaction one of those little needles can cause. The doc nearly got kicked putting on in my ankle when he hit some spot that causes a reflexive action.

After they pulled the needles, I was a bit slow to get up again (you are laying down for the treatment) but this was normal from what I observed of other patients. Once up again, Summer (who was there to translate for us.. she has been very kind and helpful) took me into the lobby to show me the Guiness Record accupuncture needle, which comes in just a hair (literally) under 2 meters long.

Returning to the treatment room I watched as they applied "cups" (glass globe like jars" to my father to help bring blood to the injured area. What they do is put a torch into the "cup" to heat it a little, then quickly place the cup onto the skin. As the globe cools it holds itself to the body through suction which also accounts for the drawing of blood into the region. Do not worry, they are not hot enough to burn the skin.

Once we left there, we did a little scouting for furniture for Dad's home to be built in the states, (Bryan, your couch would run maybe $1000 here.. maybe) and then off to lunch: fish (fried by not like we are used to.. very crispy skin, moist meat, and done whole.. the heads are considered the best part) some sort of young bean plants (older than sprouts, but still young) shrimp (fried maybe with rice flour and wonderful spices) a seafood and beef dish served with what we might call baby bok choy or some relative of that plant, 7 mushroom soup, and as always even more that I cannot now recall. This was for three people, when any one of the plates of food would be considered enough for one back home. And these people are THIN! Summer weighs maybe 45 kilos.. She is always telling me to eat like her to lose weight, but I tell you I could not afford to eat like her, or any of the Chinese we have shared a meal with. Not only that, but I would make myself ill from eating too much. I just do not see how they do it.

After this feast, that they call a simple lunch, we went to the wholesale district to check on fabrics for some shirts for me. I am hoping that for once in my life I might own some clothing that actually fits properly. I ordered two shirts made to a custom design of my own, taking inspiration from the shirts of warm climates such as Cuba and south America, made from a linen/silk blend. One is to be white with a pattern in the cloth, and the other maroon again with a pattern in the cloth. If these turn out as I hope, then I will have more made, perhaps of a different style also. I also intend to have some slacks made, and if I can get a good description I hope also have some casual pants made to fit as well.

As you all know I am not a clothes horse, but I figure that this is a rare opportunity that few people can truly appreciate since almost everyone I know can simply buy clothes off the rack to fit. I do not have the luxury. I usually cannot even find clothes in the speciality stores, so custome tailored clothing is one of the few options I have. That said, I am both too cheap and too poor to have this done in the states, so I am taking advantage of it here. The cost looks to be what most people pay for off the rack clothing, once I pay for the material (sucks to by material by the meter when you are tall!) and the labor. However since labor makes up about one third of the cost, it is easy to see why I would take advantage of the opportunity, even with my scottish nature.

By this time much of the day was gone, so we returned home watched a movie, and skipped dinner, which would be a problem if we did not eat like the Chinese do! Jeez!

Tomorrow we are going to be planning out at least a portion of the remainder of my visit, including the trip to Mt Taishan which is of special importance to me.

From Tianjin, All my best to the folks back home, no matter where that home may be.


Wednesday, May 12, 2004

I have spent most of this week taking it easy and trying my best to simply enjoy the vacation. I have also finally been able to get to some books that I have had on my list for some time, something that I intended to do on this trip.

That said, I pulled up some links to the sites in Qinghai that we saw for background information, and more photos for those who are interested. Ta'er monastery is the same as Kumbum monastery so just click on the Ta'er links for that visit. This page also has a link to Bird Island and Qinghai lake, which we visited.

Right now we are in the planning stages for the rest of my trip here. Mt Taishan is of primary importance to myself. It is the holiest of the 5 holy mountains in Taoism. Some info:

Other than Taishan, we are planning at leat one more jaunt into Beijing to see the typical tourist sites: Great Wall, Forbidden City, etc.

This leaves a bit of time for other exploration, but I do not know where all we might consider. As always suggestions are welcome. :)

Sunday, May 09, 2004

A couple of background comments that I may have overlooked but may assist in trying to understand where I am and what is going on around me here in China. First, we have all heard the warning "Do not drink the water" well here that is quite true. Even the locals do not drink the water. The only water we drink is bottled water. Unfortunately it seems that the idea of drinking water has not really caught on in China :) instead they drink beer or tea, and in my very limited experience they prefer the beer.

The result on my part is that I cannot imagine craving a beer and when I am out I would about kill for a simple glass of water. That said, I have really come to appreciate the subtleties and various flavors of Muslim style tea as well as flower tea (much like what we would call herbal tea). Muslim style tea includes many fruits, flowers, and whatnot. The cup has not handle, and it comes with a lid which is used to push back the contents which are loose in the cup. If you ever get a chance to try Muslim style tea, do so without hesitation.

One of the other background elements about which I should comment relates directly to this blog. Though I can post to the blog, for some reason (government blocks) I cannot view it myself. This being the case, I ask for some understanding if I repeat myself, or miss some spelling or error in grammar, as I am not able to check the site myself.

Conditions are very different from that which many of us, myself included, take for granted in the western world. In some ways this means greater opportunity, in others it means conditions that are surprising and undesirable. In the day to day life of the average Chinese citizen, at least as far as I have seen thus far, there is a great deal more freedom than in the US. Fewer laws, fewer police, fewer restrictions on activity. That said the activities that are restricted are restricted absolutely, as with the blocking of web sites.

But do not believe all of the US government rhetoric about religion being forbidden, or the people of China being held down. Religion is abundant, open, and very obvious. There is no hiding, nor the need for it. As for the Chinese people.. well they are the biggest threat to complacency of the west, particularly with regard to capitalism. They are in general far far better and more devoted capitalists than any other people I have encountered, and that of course includes my 30+ years experience of living in the supposed epitome of capitalism.

Just to be clear I am not trying to express a preference for one group over another, or to insult any nation or its people. Rather I am simply stating some of the common misconceptions and false assumptions that have been the norm for far too long. Things simply are not as they have been described.

Other background info.. while it is very difficult to get around and communicate when you do not speak the language, I have found on a few occassions a welcoming nature and the ability to interact, even have some fun, without that common language. The Chinese people have been warm, welcoming, friendly, and interested.

Enough for now.. Time to return to my solitude (Dad is still in the US) while it lasts. Solitude can be difficult to come by, especially with such an energetic and wonderful friend/guide as Summer, who is always worried that I might be left alone. Community, comraderie, family, and socializing is far more important here than it is in the states, and since I am basically anti-social even in the states, it can be even more difficult for me, despite the fact that all intentions are well meaning.

All the best to all, and keep the email coming. It is good to hear from home..

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Yesterday Summer took me out of Tianjin to her Aunt's house for a wonderful lunch of what they call dumplings. They are more like what we know as ravioli, in this case stuffed with herbs and pork. They are then steamed until done and served with a special vinegar. Quite delicious. As always, everyone tried to get me to eat more of them, and despite the fact that I skipped breakfast, after we returned home I had no interest in dinner either as I had eaten as many of the dumplings as I could. Still Summer ate more, and she weighs a third of what I do.. I have no idea where she puts it all.

In this community there are small private homes with courtyards, but unlike our homes in the west (to a large extent anyway) these homes are all connected by common walls. They are concrete structures with a couple of outbuildings which house the kitchens (or at least a cooking area) and what else I do not know.

While walking around the community I was invited in to a pool hall, where the tables were far larger than the standard tables I have seen in the states, and about triple the size of the bar sized pool tables. I played with several of the fellows there, though we did not share a common language. Sadly, though I came close I could not pull off a single win. I blame the different size tables.. :)

After spending the day out of Tianjin, we returned and I simply took it easy. Her uncle drove us to the bus stop in a three-wheeled "car" which is more like an enclosed motorcycle than a car. The doors were quite small so I had some doubts about getting in and back out of the thing, but fortunately that turned out to be an unfounded concern. The cars here are of many shapes, styles, and forms. Some of the trucks for hauling are also of a three wheeled design, and you will also see what appears to be a multi-task engine connected to a cart to form a crude vehicle.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

I know that I have promised to update the blog, and that I have not done so upon returning from Qinghai province.. I could offer dozens of excuses, like the connection is slow, my time online is very limited, and such.. but the truth is that I have been recovering from several days at altitude running around all of the time. Xining where we were staying was over 8000 feet, and we just went up from there.

I have posted many new photos, with still more to come of these areas in a week or so.

We arrived in Xining on the first of May. About Xining, it is located approximately in the center of China. However it is considered part of western China. Think Wichita Kansas as a geographical comparison, as China is almost exactly the size of the US. Xining sits on the Tibetian Plateau, which marks perhaps the first difference between Wichita and Xining: the altitude. Xining is at about 8200 feet above sea level. We were greeted by wind that was again like that of Wichita, and along the road from the airport (in fact everywhere we looked) the people were growing wheat (like Wichita) and barley. The main difference here is that the wheat and barley are grown on the sides of steep mountains, which last I checked Wichita did not have.

That afternoon we visited the largest park where an annual tulip festival was being held. Xining claims to be the origin of tulips. Some of the varieties were certainly incredible. Of special note was the purple tulip, which was entirely new to me. While we were walking through the park, a photographer from the paper took our photos and told Andy (Mu) our guide that we would be in the paper the next day. From the park we went through a market area that specialized in animals for pets. As with everywhere else I have been here, we attracted at least as much attention as did the animals for sale. Something about a couple of tall white guys that seemed out of place to them. :)

A stroll through another market, the largest general market street (alleys) in town. Just about anything you want can be found in these markets in China, except for something that will fit me. :) After a dinner of local cuisine we called it a night.

The next morning, that of the 2nd of May, we awoke to snow and cold temps. Strange thing to see on the second of May, especially for a guy from Texas. Fortunately the wind had calmed down, so though it was cold, it was still bearable. This day after a traditional Chinese breakfast (not much different from the other meals) we headed out to Kumbum monastery, an ancient Tibetian Buddhist monastery. The monastery was built to remember and mark the birthplace of the first teacher of the first dali lama. Kumbum sits about a thousand feet above Xining (so over 9000 feet for those who are keeping track). The monastery dates back to the early 1300's which lead me to a thought that I could not shake throughout the tour: I was walking in buildings older than the US itself by a long shot.

The monastery is still in use, and serves as a university as well for at least medicine and astronomy. There is not much I can say to do justice to the place, and though the pictures do not provide a full view either, I defer to them. One thing I will add is that walking through the monastery, climbing the stairs and such, I felt every inch of the altitude.

Even here in what most would consider the back country of China we were occassionally greeted with "hello" or "how are you?" from visitors, and even one monk. In the original temple building, in front of the stupa that first marked the spot, as I walked out of the building I found several people running their hands on my jacket. Perhaps they mistook me for Buddha.. all of us fat guys must look alike to them :)

After leaving the monastery we headed out to the Tu village of Huzhu. The Tu are an ethnic minority here and live in what is called an "autonomous region." I suspect that this is similar to the Indian reservations in the US. We had a late lunch at the village, where we were toasted by the locals (which means that they serve you three cups of alcohol which you must drink three times for each toast) until we could not drink any more. The alcohol was potent if not tasty. The meal was of special note: chicken and peppers, large thick noodles, barley porridge, a barbeque dish that was most likely yak, and a wild vegetable collected in the mountains. This was the second such wild vegetable we had had by the point, the first from the previous night was near as I can tell lichens. This one I could not identify, which has been the norm so far with much of the food I have had on this trip.

That said, the food was delicious.

May 3rd:

We headed out to Qinghai lake, a large salt water lake which is considered holy by the Tibetian people. In one of the photos you can see the altitude (in meters). After a short stop to admire the lake, and to get lunch (definitely had yak this time as well as yak butter, along with mutton and an assortment of vegetables, fish soup, and more food than 12 people should eat. Nothing was left...)

From there we continued around the lake (or inland sea if you prefer) to Bird Island. This is a protected place where many birds come to lay eggs. Lots of birds..

From there we continued around the lake to the gold and silver grasslands, though these grasslands were to be white for us because of the snow. They get their name from the flowers that bloom there later in the year. This return trip to Xining was so far the most senic yet. First were ranges that are reminiscient of Wyoming or Montana, then mountains that would leave the Rockies in their shadow. The photos do not do justice to the mountains, and I fear that nothing could.

Late arrival in Xining after a long day of several hundred kilometers. This seems a good time to comment on the roads.. they are less than pleasant to use, often containing missing sections, pot holes, uneven surfaces, and just about every problem or defect you can imagine. So what might take us just a few hours in the states will take far longer here. Sitting now in the comfort of the house, it is easier to see this fact as part of the charm.

May 4th:

We headed out to Kanbula national forest, a journey of a few hundred kilometers. This trip was to be south and so the land was green and growing, not smothered in snow. At least this was true at the beginning of the trip. As we neared the forest, as we climbed in altitude, the snow returned. This trip was to be the most intense in many ways. The views were more spectacular, the Danxia landform (Stone "forest") was breathtaking, the dam on the Yellow river quite impressive, and the "road" to the forest... well though the experience is one that I would not trade for anything, the drive to the forest up the mountain "road" which we were told was built but five months earlier, raised my blood pressure off the charts. First the road is not complete. It has no guard rails, no safeguards. We got stuck in one spot and were moving towards the edge while the driver was gunning the engine. Another part of the road was so narrow and ran along the top of a ridge that was so narrow and steep that you could not see the mountain sides on either side of the vehicle. We drove over or around rockslides, construction areas, snow falls, yaks, sheep, and people. I almost get the same nervous adrenaline surge just writing about it now. To give you an idea of just how steep these mountains are in places, I suspect that one could base jump off the side of the mountains, the same mountains that the Tibetian people are farming.

When we reached the top of the road, near as we can estimate we were at 14-14.5K feet. And there was another village there.. Truly amazing. The forest was interesting an the Danxia landform impressive. I will again let the photos speak for me of these.

After coming down off the mountain, we stopped at the Yellow river and walked along its shores (and occassionally in the river accidentally) This really seemed strange at the time to be on the banks of a river about which I had read so much, one which has played a role in the histories, and the philosophy of China. This was a great moment.

From there we found a local restaurant that the guide and driver believed was good enough and safe enough for us. Another wonderful meal of notable variety: mutton (with chili sauce), fish (we let Summer have all of the heads), mushrooms (the chinese have great mushrooms of many varieties), vegetables, barbeque yak..

Back to Xining where we did a little shopping (I picked up a couple of decorative knives, and we found Summer an outfit at an incredible price.) Women you do not want to know the prices on the clothes, it would bring tears to your eyes...

We met with a friend of Summer's, Traci, who was also visiting the town (and her boyfriend). Watched a small band, then a talen show, then a few singers. Turning in around 11 we called it a day.

May 5th:

Flew in to Beijing, found the hotel for my father who was to fly out to the states the next day, then went to the train station and bought tickets for Summer and I to Tianjin. After this we went to Silk Alley, where the sellers are very aggressive, and convinced that a large size shirt will fit me. For the record, it won't. Interesting place, and it was strangely comforting to see other westerners again. The alley is quite near many of the embassies, including the US embassy.

For dinner we went to Schindler's Tavern. Doesn't sound Chinese? Good reason for that: it's German. The food was excellent and the Weizen Dunkle was great (dark wheat beer). Following dinner we dropped off Dad at the hotel, went to the train station, pushed and shoved our way onto the train (A scotsman greeted me with "nothing like being crushed in China") then an hour and a half ride back to Tianjin. A cab back to Dad's house and I was once again in something which somewhat resembles a western environment. At least the bed was more comfortable and I do not have to worry about the quality of the facilities.

May 6th:

I spent the day resting. In the evening I caught a cab, gave him the cell phone to talk to Sumnmer who told him where to take me. This was an experience. After much confusion as to the destination (which I myself did not know) I found Summer and her friend Stoneman (I think that this was the result of a bad translation of the name "mason"). They showed me around Tea City, a bunch of tea shops in the same building. Then off to dinner at a local place with interesting food, but of course the food as been consistenly interesting. Back to Stoneman's place for a bit. This is a small room in an older building with no lights in the stairways and only crude facilities. After watching some videos of the Backstreet boys (The chinese like them... dunno why.. ) we called it a night.

Today I have tried to take it easy still and rest so thus far nothing of note.

I hope all is well with everyone back home.