Saturday, November 28, 2009

From Wuhan

 We had a lovely float down the Yangtze. Aside from the tourist-trap ports along the way, we mostly sat in our cabin watching the scenery go by and eating oranges and roast chestnuts we bought on the dock. Our Thanksgiving feast included kungpao chicken, bak choy with mushrooms, and a clear tomato and egg soup. The dining room was awfully smokey (as is just about everywhere here), but I suppose that's a better Thanksgiving than last year (we went to McDonalds). On the last morning we discovered some small, furry abomination must have sneaked into our room as we found two of our sausages had been nibbled open. If it had to happen, I'm glad I didn't know until the morning we were disembarking. Shudder.

Today we're in Wuhan, which is big and shiny but not much else. We're taking a night train to Nanjing, we'll be there about a day and a half to see Sun Yat-sen's mausoleum and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Then on to Shanghai, and in about a week I'll be home!

This morning we took a bus to Hubuxiang Snack Street. Americans really need to catch on to the "snack street" thing. We ate roast lamb skewers, garlic oysters on the shell, fried pork-filled pancakes, dumplings, spicy peanut oil noodles, fresh orange juice and egg tarts. Chinese people have much more liberal ideas about what's acceptable breakfast food.All that decadence before noon made me preemptively sad to be separating myself from Chinese food. On the other hand, I'm looking forward to pimento cheese sandwiches, guacamole, homemade cookies and brownies, etc. Can't wait!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Quick update

Writing from the itouch, so will make it quick: we're in Chongqing now
CKS's war-time capital, then known as Chung King. It is an amazing
city. Maybe my favorite so far.

Tomorrow evening we leave on our three gorges tour. Chinese boat,
first class. Met a nice lady from Iceland who took the same tour,
third class. She said the first night she took pain killers to go to
sleep and the second night passed out drunk topside and had to be
carried below. With that testimonal and our train ordeal behind us, we
paid for the nicer bunks.

Seen and done a lot of great stuff this week. Probably will post about
it from the states with pictures.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Day Out in Chengdu

Today we walked to People's Park in downtown Chengdu. I don't get too excited about parks because I - being American - naturally assume they'll be full of drug dealers and vagrants. But not so in the PRC!
First off, we made for the children's area because Lonely Planet said it had some sweet rides. Sweet rides weren't LP's words, but that's how we interpreted it.
We tossed down $20 RMB for a whirl on this rotating car contraption attached to a track about 12 feet off the ground. It had an engine/no engine option so you could pedal or just enjoy the ride - and it was horrifying, my stomach was full of butterflies. Not whee-I'm-upside-down butterflies, ah-I'm-on-a-ride-in-the-people's-park-in-western-china butterflies.
After that we went to one of the park's several tea houses. We sat by the koi pond and watched steam curl off our cups for a couple hours, there were people chanting/meditating a ways distant the whole time. A couple fortune tellers came up offering their services. I told the first one "we're Christians" and he ran off like he was afraid I might start sharing the good news. The second wouldn't be dissuaded and pitched us for a good three minutes despite repeated attempts to make her go away. I think I need to stop smiling when I say "No." The trick is to be gruff about it, it seems mean - but you save them the time.
On our way out we passed a dozen groups of old Chinese ladies dancing, brass bands playing, people singing, and a few impressive games of badminton. It was wonderful.
Afterward we walked to a Buddhist temple and ate imitation twice-cooked pork (potato) in the attached vegetarian restaurant.
And that was our day! We're off to the Sichuan hinterlands tomorrow, probably out of blog contact for awhile.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Baby Bearcat!

Today we got up early and went to the Chengdu Panda Research and Breeding Center in time for feeding hour! They were so cute, we watched them strip off the bamboo leaves with their lil' panda thumbs. The best was the nursery where we were just a windowpane and some inches away from the baby panda crib! It's impossible not to smile watching a 4-month-old panda toddle along his crib railing. Never have I felt warmer and fuzzier.
Then we watched a panda documentary with footage of a momma panda who had just given birth swatting away her tiny,  bald, mouse-like panda newborn because she was scared and didn't know what to do with it. In captivity, the handlers try to get in and scoop the baby away as soon as possible, but it's dangerous to enter the cage when the panda is upset. So so cute, so so stupid.
What wasn't cute was the spicy hot pot hangover that befell us at the Center. See, the problem with chili oil is it's delicious! And the consequences don't present themselves until 12 to 14 hours after the fact. Which is just enough disconnect to keep me eating it. But if you'd like the details of any - or all - the ladies rooms on the Panda Center premises, just ask.
Poor James wound up yakking. When we got back to the hostel I forced him to eat soup because he didn't eat breakfast. He got halfway done and ran to the bathroom. He's sleeping it off now. After this, his intestinal bug before we left, and a bout of food poisoning in Taiwan - I have surpassed him in the steel-stomach category. I don't want to brag too much because I'm superstitious and don't want to get sick too.
So now I'm in the hostel lounge waiting on laundry and plotting my return to China. I can't wait to see my family, but this is such an exciting place to be, and I'd like to come back and work and continue studying Chinese. Then again, I suspect prospects for print journalism majors are bad on both continents, so I'll take what I can get. Just no more English teaching.

Monday, November 16, 2009

24 Hours of Squalor

Spent our last days in Xi'an tooling around the Muslim Quarter, eating mutton served by Chinese men in skull caps, and popped down to the Tang Dynasty Paradise Theme Park which inspired James to croon, "Your body is a Tang Dynasty Paradise" ad nauseam. Ugh, John Mayer.
At 6 p.m. yesterday we left the hostel for what we thought would be an easy overnight train, arrive in Chengdu at 11 a.m. the next day. What followed was hands-down the filthiest 24 hours of my life.
We bought hard sleeper tickets - 6  bunks to a compartment, no doors - despite warnings from family and friends. The price was right, and Lonely Planet didn't have DIRTY in caps when it described hard sleepers. I thought we'd be fine. Ho ho...
I was also feeling bold because of all the traveling we did in Taiwan: bus, plane, train, taxi, boat. I thought I could handle it. But everywhere in Taiwan has a basic, tenable level of cleanliness that China sometimes lacks.
If you want to see glitzy, rising-power China, the flagship areas and tourist attractions deliver. If you want not-quite-there China, look no further than Xi'an train station.
The trashcans were all overflowing, there weren't nearly enough seats so people squatted on floors and slept on windowsills. Aaaand then our train was delayed three hours.
I passed the time watching a 2-year-old who was banging on a teapot, yelling at his friends, and generally having a fabulous time. It was all adorable until he whipped out his baby penis and pissed on the floor. His mother re-aimed him so he'd miss a man's shoes. But that was it. No clean up action. A man wiped his nose and threw the tissue in the pee puddle. Because, why not at that point, right? Around 10 p.m. James and I made instant noodles for dinner. Another man seated next to us took off his shoe and sock to pick his foot while we ate.
I felt relieved when our train was finally called at 11 p.m. (snow storms were the cause of delay). But that relief only lasted from platform to carriage, as our bed-pod was equally disgusting.
There weren't any lights, but we had to roust the people sleeping on our bottom beds and send them to their top ones. Apparently our bunkmates graduated from the "fuck it" school of hygiene: We picked orange rinds, half-empty pepsi bottles, chocopie wrappers and used tissues off the sheets. Surprisingly, we weren't sharing with feral children, just adults who couldn't be bothered to drop their snot rags on the floor instead of our beds. There was a mountain of trash on the shared table. The overhead bed creaked when the train came to a sudden halt and my first thought was, "If the overhead comes down and breaks my neck I will go to heaven and not have to be on this train for the next 16 hours."
I laid my sweatshirt over my pillow, slept on top of the blanket, and tried very hard not to touch anything while sleeping. The ride was closer to 18 hours (ugh, snow). Our bunkmates weren't any more enjoyable while awake. The woman in the middle bunk chewed sunflower seeds from her bed and spit them into a bag on the lower table, occasionally missing the bag. They also took time out to clean their ears and clip their toenails, charming people. Did I mention there was no flush on the toilet and the sinks ran out of water?
By the time we got off the train and to our hostel, it was 6 p.m. - the journey took a full 24 hours.
The takeaway is we'll be buying soft sleepers from now on (only four to a pod, doors that lock) though they cost twice as much. We had to make our own mistake, it was an experience. And I now know just how far my spirit of adventure extends.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bing Ma You!

Got up and caught a bus to Bing Ma You (terra cotta warriors). Would've liked to sleep on the bus, but the conductor and a passenger were having a shouting match half the way there. I couldn't understand much of it except "qu si," go die.
The warriors are amazing. They were discovered in the 1970s when a farmer was digging a well and found a warrior instead of water. They've uncovered two thousand and expect there are 6,000 warriors total.
The first pit is located under what looks like a huge airplane hangar. Row upon row of warriors. We spent a couple hours wandering and taking pictures.
Like all major tourist attractions, we had to face the gauntlet of hawkers on our way out. It's exhausting. And they prefer me to James. I can shake my head, not make eye contact, and people will still follow me for 50 feet - Hello, hello, lady! LOOK! VERY CHEAP!
Our trip is about half over. Dare I type it - neither of us have gotten sick yet. I'm hoping we can keep it up. We read the other day that 2,000 Americans have been quarantined in Beijing at some point since the H1N1 outbreak started, which makes me doubly glad we stayed in Taiwan when James had his stomach thing.
We have two more days here. Still mulling our options for tomorrow. We could make a pigrimage to Famen Temple, home of a Buddha fingerbone. Or there's a panda reserve. Or the cheeseball-but-compelling Tang Dynasty Theme Park.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


The night train was two hours late arriving because of snow. And it's snowy/slushy/wet here in the old capital Xi (Western) An (Safety). This was where the ancient Tang Dynasty was HQ'ed, so we've been looking at lots and lots and lots of old stuff. I wish I knew more about Chinese history. Today we hiked up the seven-story "Big Good" Pagoda. Tomorrow we're trekking out to see the terracotta warriors.
What's impressed me most about China so far is how many cranes we see everywhere we go. Everywhere there are cranes and unfinished skyscrapers - and not just one skyscraper, batches of them!
We're both feeling the Facebook withdrawal. Before we arrived we contemplated the likelihood our hostel would have one of those sneaky servers that reroutes the Internet through a different country (allowing access to the sites that are blocked here). It doesn't.
Our hostel does have one free beer a night. And right now it's beckoning. So more after we see the warriors!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Magic Words

Today we went to the Pearl Market looking for a mini DVD player so we can start watching all the Chinese movies we're snatching up. It's all about the bargaining - hawkers started by quoting us 800RMB, and we couldn't seem to get anyone below 400, which was more than we wanted to pay.
Then we found a woman who got down to 400.
Could you make it a little cheaper? I asked her.
You speak Chinese, I wouldn't cheat you! She replied.
She offered to throw in a carrier case, we began to walk away.
390! She called.
370 I said.
Its only 20 dollars more, she said.
Then I remembered the last advice James' sister gave me before we came to the mainland: Make sure you say, "Be a friend!" My mom's friend always does that and she always gets the best price.
"Zuo yi ge pengyou."
The lady laughed and exchanged looks with her colleagues. She gave us our price. I don't like bargaining, but it's really satisfying to walk away successful. Thanks, Ellen!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Crab Walking the Wall

We arranged a Great Wall tour through our hostel. We were supposed to hike 8 km of the Wall today (with drop off and pick-up), but we got halfway there and it was sleeting.
Our driver pulled over and announced it was too dangerous to hike. A whiny Brit in the back of the bus demonstrated his ign'ance by declaring he knew it was going to snow today and that's why he chose to go. Surely we're all dressed for the weather and have walked in the rain before, he proposed.
There's a certain grim satisfaction that comes from being an Alaskan (or from anywhere, I suppose, that has real weather) and watching someone broadcast such stupidity.
So instead we just went to one sight, Simatai, and took a cable car up to the wall. We were initially told we'd take the cars up and then make a 90-minute walk down. From what I hear, there are typically two ways to do the Wall: You go to one of the postcard-picturesque sections and it's a madhouse, or you go to a dilapidated, less impressive section for a quieter experience. We got to go to the former, sans crowd due to weather (the sight will be closed for snow tomorrow).
My heart dropped when we arrived on top. It's really an awesome view. Then James and I had the unique and rather hairy experience of being the only people to walk down the wall.
We were tramping around, taking pictures, and then figured we better start walking down. I thought everyone else had started to walk down too and we were just behind. But really everyone else chose to take cable cars down. If I'd known, I would've taken them down too: There were sections of tall, steep, narrow, icy slick steps that slanted downhill. No handrails. But once we started, we weren't going to climb back up those same steps. For parts we crab walked, some we slid on our butts, and others just clung and sidestepped. I never felt panicked, but I did feel very nervous a time or two.
And that's how we got to walk down the length of five towers, completely alone with all that history. At the bottom of the section we took a zip line down to the parking lot ("very safe! Walk down 25 minute, fly down only 5!")
Great pictures to follow when I get back to the States.
Tomorrow we take the night train to Xi'an.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Square One: Censorship

Six months ago we met a Beijing-based producer. She - I believe - got excited about our writing, and gave us some censorship pointers for the China market. But we have so far failed to come up with something that could run in theaters here.
Today she told us ours seemed like a solid Hollywood-type script. But not for China.
I wouldn't try to write a black family movie without watching everything Tyler Perry ever made, so how could we write a Chinese outline without a comparable education? It seems obvious in hindsight, but we went in figuring we knew something about action movies. But action movies aren't Chinese action movies. Infernal Affairs and Election don't count. That's Hong Kong.
And the censorship issues are almost insurmountable (which is why Hong Kong is the center of Chinese film making, and the mainland comes out with few action movies): the police must solve the crime, if a character commits a crime it's because he was forced to, anyone who commits a crime will go to jail or die, adultery is tricky to include, and the "independent woman" as we know her in the States doesn't exist. In our defense, it sounds like the producer is also still trying to feel out the censorship boundaries. She says a lot of filmmakers from Taiwan are coming to Beijing, this is an exciting time, everyone wants to get in on the market.
On the other hand she has a director who submitted a script several times to the censorship bureau. He's been working on it for two years. The first few times it was flat rejected. The last time it came back with 50 notes. That's considered a good result.
But what's really ridiculous is despite all that censorship for local-made movies, we walked into a few stores today and saw pirated copies of Surrogates, Jennifer's Body, and Michael Jackson This Is It alongside a dozen other recent releases. You'll never see Jennifer's Body in theaters here (horror is a no-no), but you can buy it illegally anywhere. AGEH!
The producer had on ankle boots and a knee-length tweed coat, Chanel bag in hand. She's off to Nanjing this week to scout a location. She'd been having brunch in the upstairs lounge with a cadre of international film-types while we waited in the basement McDonalds wondering what are chances of having a movie made were. Fitting, no?
The good news is we still have the contact, and the company wants to make this kind of movie. Possibly the one we've been working on. It just has to be redone - again - in a way that's really going to get past the censors. So the first order of business is to watch a whole bunch of Chinese movies. And not Johnny To Hong Kong stuff. We have to figure out how it's done in the mainland.
At the very least, it's been a good, emboldening experience. I'm energized and ready to keep scratching away.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

In the Flesh

Woke up early yesterday to stand in a huge line for a 10-second glimpse of embalmed Mao. Beforehand I imagined myself peering over a glass casket into the empty eyes of a mass murder. But the casket is behind a glass enclosure, so you can't get any closer than about 8 feet.
He looked like something straight out of Madame Tussaud's - could've been wax. But I guess he's the real deal - dressed in his uniform with a hammer and sickle blanket draped across him. They have lights shining on his face so it looks like it's glowing - altogether very weird. It was interesting to watch all the Chinese people laying white flowers and bowing below his statue outside the viewing room.
After that we took a bus to the summer palace. We stayed a couple hours. It was cloudy so the lake was obscured. Empress Cixi's marble boat was quite a sight though.
Later we were walking down the street and this old man with funky teeth came up smiling to us saying some word in Chinese neither of us understood. I think he was trying to tell us he was stoked we were a couple. He grabbed our wrists and clasped our hands together and made as if to push us off the curb into oncoming traffic. Then he walked away smiling. I've noticed we get a lot of double takes here ("Asian guy! White girl!") but that was a first.
In the evening we went to see a Chinese movie called Radish Warrior, or The Stubborn Robot, or Radish Solider [sic] depending on which key art or trailer was advertising. It wasn't bad! More on that later. Movie meeting today, wish us luck!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Team America

Back in Beijing and full of duck, but I thought I'd put in a little entry before bed. This is my first time trying to email post from China. Mom, if you can read this, please email me.
The train back was full, but the ride proved interesting. Around 3 in the afternoon - in the middle of nowhere, still hours from the border - James and I headed to the dining car, craving amusement more than food.
And that's what we got. The moment we sat down a drunk Estonian plopped down beside us. We only understood about half of what he said. At one point he winked at James and said in Irkutsk, "There are some girls who are very good at holding their breath underwater." Then he invited us to join an international omelet-eating contest at 4. James rather reluctantly accepted the offer (they needed an American).
 A portly guy the Estonian introduced as "Slovak bastard" showed the dining crowd the prize - a portable shower apparatus he'd carried in his backpack for weeks to no use.
Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Slovakia, Mongolia, South Africa, England, Australia, China, Singapore, Scotland and then James. The waitress said there weren't any omelets. So the contest became a soup eating one instead. The hour arrived, and James took his position amidst the beefy, boisterous crowd of mostly Europeans. The Slovak passed out shots of vodka from a liter plastic bottle as contestants requested. Two older ladies - one from Chicago, one from Prague - judged. The Estonian implored the Chicagoan not to show favoritism to James.
But there was no need - James killed it in the  first round. No one was even close. "Make me proud, baby! AMERICA!" It felt almost unsportsmanlike as I was cheering: The men from South Africa and Norway were still blowing their spoons as James scraped his bowl dry.
Everyone clapped. Four continued to the final round - James, Mongolia, Australia and a European. There wasn't any more soup. The Estonian decided it had to either be a cracker-eating or a beer-drinking round. James voted for crackers, and he told me I had to make a point that he isn't usually one for drinking contests, but beer won the vote. And James won again! Australia came in a solid second.
It may have just been a friendly multinational game conceived out of boredom - taking place somewhere in eastern Mongolia - but we play to win.
James gifted the shower bag to the nice overseas Chinese lady from Mongolia in our cabin. We didn't want to carry it around for a month.
Other cool thing - this time we got to stay on the train as they changed the bogies at the border. Interesting stuff! Pictures next month.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Last UB Post

This morning we set out to find the Lenin Statue in "Liberty Square."

We followed Lonely Planet's directions and neither Lenin nor his museum were anywhere to be found. Maybe they were scrapped? Maybe we're just extremely directionally-challenged? Anyways, we didn't find him.

Next stop was the Lama Temple Museum. Tibetan-style Buddhism sure has a lot of monsters. The temple of Mercy was full of hell tapestries and God heads with skull crowns and decapitated human head necklaces. Yikes.

Went back to the expat place we liked for lunch. Last night we went to Strings, which was like a Hard Rock Cafe with a Filipino band doing great covers of American rock. Apparently killer cover bands are one of the Philippines chief exports.

Unfortunately, it was all over by 9 p.m. Five people died of H1N1-related pneumonia here last month, and therefore all restaurants that serve alcohol must close at 9 p.m. until further notice. We see lots of masks all over Ulan Bator. We had to buy them just to go into the movie theater. And a nice souvenir shop lady gently suggested I wear one. Damn my cavalier American ways.

Tomorrow we're back on the train to China. Despite the censorship problem, I've set up my account so that I think I'll be able to blog through email - though I myself wont be able to see the page in a Chinese browser.

Fingers crossed, I'll blog again soon!

Monday, November 2, 2009

UB Update

Well I spent enough money on trinkets today to make up for the week of spending almost nothing out in the boonies.

Thankfully, it warmed up. Yesterday it got down to 0 F/-18 C. Unfortunately, we chose yesterday to go to one of Asia's largest open air markets. It was fun to see the rows and rows of ger-making supplies, but my fingers and toes hurt.

Today we had lunch at an expat. hangout, I had fun eavesdropping. It was mostly businessmen, but interesting nonetheless.

After that we went to the Political Persecution Memorial Museum. The museum is housed in the home of the former Mongolian prime minister who refused to carry out Stalin's purge on his people (so he was taken to Moscow and executed). The curator said about 30,000 Mongolians were murdered between the late 1930s and up until the 1960s, the majority of victims being Buddhist lamas. Mass graves were being discovered as recently as 2003.

There wasn't much English. But there was a case of skulls - each with a bullet hole through the forehead, top or side.

It was a sobering stop. Communism is so evil. I had professors in college who smirked at that kind of rhetoric like it's hyperbole, but it's not.

Tonight we're going to check out a microbrewery which, according to Lonely Planet, serves some of the nation's best beer. Exciting!