October 31, 2006

Speedy Pilgrims of Tibet

Standing still in the current of chanting Buddist pilgrims, people continued to flow around me as I tried to take in the scene. We were in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in front of its holiest place, the Johkang Temple.

The Johkang dates to the 7th century, an imposing white and maroon stucco structure. It appears little has changed since then. 20 foot tall incense burners billow out plumes of smoke from burning herbal offerings, and colorful prayer flag columns reach even higher into the sky. Pilgrims of all sorts, from frail solitary figures to entire families tugging toddlers briskly march clockwise around the Temple, while chanting mantras, counting rosaries, spinning small prayer wheels in their hand, and constantly moving. It is a flurry of color and sound and movement, against a background of an unbroken row of stalls, with merchants hawking prayer flags, yak butter, beads, scrolls, wood carvings, and more. (Check out Jonathan’s great photos)

The truly dedicated prostrated themselves around the entire quarter mile long kora that surrounds the Temple, standing, bowing, then sliding along the ground one body length to stand and repeat. Some of the pilgrims have special pads for their hands, a block of wood with a piece of metal attached on one side, to slide smoothly along the paved street.

The pilgrims struck me as extremely busy – or as people with a bit of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Everything had to be touched, in the correct order, while chanting the correct mantra. Each Buddist deity inside the Temple had to be bowed to, presented with yak butter to fuel the candles, and given a small donation of cash. There are half yuan and 1 yuan notes everywhere, stuffed at the feet of buddist statues, in their hands, in glass collection boxes, and slipped onto window cases in front of the deities. And with some Temples having dozens of internal chapels housing specific deities, the pilgrims quickly did what they needed to do and moved on in a matter of seconds, while the tourists stood still, admiring the artistry.

The Buddist monks and nuns were a treat to see in their traditional saffron and yellow robes, yet sporting Nike knit hats and chatting on cell phones. We were told that monks (especially at the better known temples) received a stipend for their work, and although not allowed to have worldly possesions, cell phones were somehow completely acceptable. Maybe they’re chatting with their girlfriends – evidently not all monks need to be celibate. :)

Tibetan Buddism was strangely reminsicent to me of South American Catholicism, with its pilgrims, elaborate and ornate holy shrines and idols, patron saints and gods, hierarchical clergy, sets prayers and rosary beads.

We discovered (although it shouldn’t have been surprising) that no pictures of the Dalai Lama are allowed in Tibet by the Chinese government. I found it odd that one of the very few things I knew about Tibetan Buddism was what the Dalai Lama looked like, and yet many of the monks did not. I didn’t understand the harsh impact of this simple act until I learned that portraits of lesser Lamas were allowed, and were displayed prominently next to the Buddist statues that the Lamas were supposed to be reincarnations of. Not knowing what the present reincarnation of the leader of the Tibetan Buddists symbolically seems to say that there is no head, no leader. Buttons with the picture of the Dalai Lama and flags of Tibet were freely available in Nepal, but the border crossing from Nepal to Tibet is one of the most well guarded and tightly regulated in all of China.

The Chinese presence here is made very clear, a sharp contrast of language, of culture, and of time. While the Barkhor and the Johkang Temple remain mostly unchanged for the last 1000 years, the rest of Lhasa looks exactly like a newly developped Chinese city, with its white tiled buildings, neon signs, traffic lights and restaurants. The ultra modern concrete “Liberation of the people” monument in the center of the city stands in stark contrast across the street from the 7th century Potala Palace, the traditional seat of the Dalai Lamas.

I am glad that we were able to see this point in Tibet’s history – clearly change is afoot, with the opening up to tourism and the completion of the new train direct from Beijing. The Chinese tourists who are here stand out. They are clearly the most affluent in an increasingly wealthy population, dressed either in suits or jeans, fleeces and high heeled boots, toting HUGE lenses and mini video cameras. The Tibetans we encountered, whether pilgrims or Lhasa city dwellers, were astoundingly tolerant of photos and tourists. Let’s hope that they can hold out against what will sure to be an onslaught of new Chinese migrants and tourists.

October 28, 2006

Xi’an Terracotta warriors

Talk about a massive ego…

The army of terracotta warriors guarding the tomb of the first Emperor of China have stood in battle ready formation for over 2000 years. It remained undiscovered in the Xi’an countryside until the 1970’s, reportedly because the Emperor had all the artisians involved with the construction of his tomb killed.

All of which got me to thinking… What kind of objects could I be buried with, that 2000 years later when my grave is “discovered”, would people say, “Oh my God, that is sooo amazing!” ? I mean, really, even given unlimited wealth (ala Bill Gates), what could one do to top this? Buried with jewels and riches? So done. Buried with your concumbines? Hardly novel. Buried underneath an enormous pyramid? Practically cliche…

But an entire stone army…very cool.

The scale of the project is almost unbelievable. There is a large diarama mapping the area excavation and the surrounding countryside. The actual tomb of the Emperor Qin is 1.5 km to the east of the terracotta warriors. Since they have unearthed some terracotta warriors only 200 meters from the tomb, it is likely that there are guards all the way to the tomb itself. A mindblowing use of human sweat and resources, of thousands of hand forged bronze weapons, complete with copper chariots drawn by stone horses, including bridles and reins.

Besides the sheer numbers of statues created, each individual life sized terracotta warrior is amazing in detail. They are so life like, each with unique facial expressions, hairdos, armor and hand gestures that I felt sure that when I looked away, they would move. The silence that settled when large tour groups moved on was eerie.

Likewise, the scale of the archeological dig to unearth these warriors is as impressive. What really struck me was the condition they found the warriors, sometimes fragmented into hundreds of tiny pieces. Various displays around the pit showed the warriors in states of repair, and the painstaking work of reconstruction.

What I didn’t know before was that they haven’t even scratched the surface on excavation. Half of Pit 1, the largest one where most of the pictures are taken, remains under tarps, and x-ray imaging has even revealed more pits.

What a way to go!

October 10, 2006

Beijing New East Culinary School

Uniting two of my passions, cooking and learning, into a single activity (namely a cooking class) is one of the most wonderful ways I can think of to spend my time.

I’ve been really interested in finding out about what foods were typical of the northern region of China. Being the imperial capital of China for the last 500 years, I thought that there must be a very distinct style and dishes that were typical of the city. This was the home of the dowager empress Cixi, who was infamous for having over 100 dishes prepared every night that were never eaten, simply to satisfy her eyes.

I found a culinary tour of Beijing online, which included a translator and driver. I thought it would be much like the other cooking classes I had taken, where 8-10 people show up, you cook at individual stations while a teacher in the front does the demonstrations.

Upon being picked up by our guide, I discovered that Jonathan and I were the only 2 people in the “class”. We pulled up to the Beijing New East Culinary School, and was met by the manager of the school. We were led on a brief tour of the school, passing through an open courtyard where 40 students were practicing their chopping skills.

I will never forget the unsynchronized thwacking of 40 cleavers on wood blocks.

We took a peek inside one of the teaching classrooms, where at least 50 students each stood by a wok and prep station, cooking up a storm. By this time, we had gathered a crowd of students, mostly young men, openly staring at us and wondering who we were. I began to understand why, as we were ushered into a room where 4 chefs in full European chefs uniform complete with white toques were standing there waiting to receive us. They had set up a table with 2 plates and chopsticks in the middle of the room, and behind us were a few rows of chairs. As we entered the room, the entire back of the room, which is glass, was gathered with curious students. Who were these two?

The master chef Xu Yongli was personally doing the demonstration, with 3 of his sous chefs. Along with that was the manager who accompanied us in, the translator and driver, and another administrator who was videotaping us. All for my cooking class!

A sous chef turned and wrote the names of the dishes that they would be preparing on the blackboard. It was worst Chinese handwriting I’ve ever tried to read, really resembling chicken scratch. I was a little disappointed when I found out it would be Kung Pao Chicken, Sweet and Sour pork, and Steamed Fish. I was assured that these were typical Chinese dishes. Oh well…while I was hoping for more regional food, I was sure I would learn things nonetheless. (I’ve since found out that Beijing really lives and dies by its street snacks).

I got a blow by blow tutorial from the master chef, with (barely adequate) translation from our tour guide, who was clearly not a cook. When I said that to her, she enthusiastically said “No, but I like to eat!”.

While I am familiar with the basics of Chinese cooking, I learned a lot on how to prepare and present fish, to increase surface area of meat for frying, and how to use some new condiments. One distinct difference between Cantonse cooking is the use of vinegar. I watched as he stir fried the chicken, double flash fried the pork and steamed the fish. They do have incredible fire, as the stoves are powered by propane tanks in the corner. The wok gets HOT! Not one of those sissy Viking stoves…

As I was intently watching the chef, Jonathan was intently taking pictures. When the chef was finished preparing the meal, he asked if we would like to try to prepare the sweet and sour pork. Jonathan had no interest, so I stepped behind the counter.

This was quite a bit more intimidating than I was expecting. The master chef is watching me, along with his three sous chefs, the guide, the driver, the two managers and Jonathan with his giant lens. There is a row of curious students crowded in the doorway. He hands me his cleaver and I get to work.

It was alot of fun as I learned how to properly hold a cleaver, tenderized and sliced pork, dredged it in a mixture of cornstarch and “custard powder”, got criticized on my prep of the pepper (too big!) and double fried the meat. I watched his technique for putting ketchup into the wok directly, and made a passable sweet and sour sauce.

The chef was very polite, as we sat down to a huge meal containing both his and my sweet and sour pork. He sampled mine and said “Good!” Nice try, but not even close – my pork cubes lacked the crispy exterior of his, due to my cutting them too big, and the sauce was a bit ketchupy, but overall not too bad.

There was definetly a moment there which reminded me of my father. I asked the chef how he knew the oil was ready for frying – expecting him to say something like “I intently watched for the size of the bubbles”, or whatever.

He just chuckled at the translator, and replied “you just know”.

The Photographer

Tagging along on Jonathan’s photographic tour of the Beijing hutongs with the professional photographer Mr. Stone made me realize that there are core characteristics that all photographers share.

Mr. Stone was quick, and energetic. He was charming and could sweet talk strangers into smiles and into welcoming photos. He had a complete disregard for rules, blithely pushing aside doors marked “Private, No entry” and strolling into people’s courtyards. He had no hesitation about manipulating his environment for his photo – move some bikes out of the way, position me to block some uneven light, open some doors, hold up wires in the way. Being a funny guy, he even mimed trying to push a van out of the way of his picture!

It was fascinating to watch him work, creating shadows using a towel, or using light (attached to a briefcase sized battery pack) to create the effect he wanted. He carried a towel with him so he could squat, sit, lay on his belly or on his back, all to get the right shot. Need a ladder to get closer up to a roof tile? Just use the ones that are there!

I have seen all these characteristics in Jonathan, but had no name to put to them. Now I have one – Photographer. My reaction was much like when I met other Entrepreneurs in YEO – oh my god, there are more of them?!

About 3 hours into our tour, Mr. Stone glances at me, and says “My wife doesn’t like going on photo trips with me either.” :)
But I can’t complain too much – the upside is that I will have wonderful photos to remember our travels.

October 9, 2006

Why can’t you speak??

In the classic science fiction novel “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, all it takes to acquire new knowledge is to go to a clinic and have it directly uploaded into your brain.

Sadly, listening to Pimsleur’s Mandarin Chinese Lesson 4 while lying in bed is nowhere near as efficient.

Although I speak fluent Cantonese, trying to understand Mandarin is tougher than I was expecting. It is hard when everyone I encounter already expects me to be able to speak. After all, if I am Chinese, then it follows that I must speak Mandarin. When I stand frozen like a deer in headlights because I have absolutely no idea what was just said to me, the expression goes from confusion to suspicion.

It is even worse if I get out (rather smoothly if I do say so myself) the phrase I learned in my tapes “I don’t speak mandarin. I can speak guangdong hua (cantonese)”. At this point, it is really confusing, since it has been almost 10 years since Hong Kong has been handed back to China, and with Mandarin as the primary language of instruction, there isn’t anyone who lives there who doesn’t also speak Mandarin.

The killer thing is that Jonathan (who can say hello, thank you and no thank you, and is more naturally outgoing) gets radiant smiles when he attempts anything at all in mandarin, something it seems few foreigners try.

And when he can’t get his point across, they look at me, as if to say “Could you please speak up and rescue me from having to decipher this person?”

So, I revert to pointing, and speaking in Cantonese, hoping that some of the cognates will be recognizable. It’s a bit like speaking Spanish to a French person. Although the written language is almost identical (Hong Kong and Taiwan hold out using unsimplified characters), I am only learning characters now, chugging away at learning to read via flashcards. With about 200 characters under my belt (a working vocabulary requires about 2000), I can figure out only the most basic things, read some road signs, tell the differences between hotels and restaurants. Although this will prevent me from looking at a menu and not ordering beef when I want chicken, whether I am getting gelatinous chicken, chicken feet or chicken gizzards is a bit beyond me at this point.

So much to learn! Hopefully being in China for a month will help me solidify what I already know, and undoubtedly will teach me more than I bargained for…:)

October 5, 2006

Good times, Foot Massage and Big Plate Chicken

Michael and CaraI’ve found in our travels that talking to people offers unparrallel insight into a place. So thanks to Seth Golub, who hooked us up with his friends Michael and Cara, two ex-pat diplomats living in Beijing.

They were warm and friendly, and really went out of their way to make us feel welcome and give us a glimpse into working and navigating Beijing. What was funnier is that they both speak better Mandarin than I do, which should not be surprising since then have taken months of formal language training. Yet when the four of us went out, all of the vendors kept trying to speak to me — and I kept pointing to Michael.

Certainly, I would unlikely have even thought to have, or indulged in, a Chinese foot massage had Cara not invited us along with her. A foot massage, I found out, included a shoulder, back and leg massage, while having unlimited drinks brought to you for an hour and a half – total pampering. The massage itself was both pleasant and a little painful, yet soothing afterwards. They really massaged out foot muscles I never knew I had. And wow, are they strong! There was lots deep specific kneeding followed by foot slapping.

Traditional Chinese medicine believes that the entire body is mapped on the soles of the feet, and anything tight or out of place in the foot relates to the specific part on the body. Jonathan’s masseuse kept telling him about specific ailments he had – did he have phlem in his throat? Jonathan, being a smart ass, answered with a coughed out “No”.

Another truly wonderful experience was being taken out for Muslim food in Beijing, where they ordered a dish typical of the far western Xinjiang region (borders Kazakhstan). “Big Plate Chicken” is a sumptous, spicy(!!) chicken dish with mounds of red dried chilies, green chilies and potatoes in a rich thick sauce. Michael and Cara had a great vacation in the region, and had been telling us about this dish, with piles of chicken enormous enough to feed 6 people. Which made it all the funnier when the dish appeared on the table, well proportioned to feed, say, 2 people. They looked at each other, and Michael began discussing the size of the dish with the waiter. The exchange went something like this:

Michael: I thought we ordered Big Plate Chicken.
Waiter: You did. This is Big Plate Chicken.
M: But this plate isn’t very big.
W: Sorry?
M: This is supposed to be “BIG” plate chicken (motioning with his hands)
W: Well, I could put it on a bigger plate.
M: No, when we ordered this in Xinjiang, it was a very big plate of chicken (now some arm waving).
W: Yes, but this isn’t Xinjiang. We are in Beijing.

Eventually, Michael convinced the waiter to add some more chicken to the dish, and we did indeed get our Big Plate chicken, thrown in with some noodles on the bottom to soak up the sauce. Delicious, and spicy to the point of painful, it was fabulous.

So thanks to Cara and Michael, who really showed us a wonderful time in Beijing. They have their own entertaining blogsite detailing their experiences in Beijing too.

Forbidden City and Tourism

Despite my mother’s worrying, we decided not to book a tour to see the sights in Beijing. Even though we had traveled through South America, and made our way overland from Tanzania to South Africa, through big sprawling cities and tiny roadside villages, my mother was worried about my being in Beijing. She’s read stories in the newspaper, she says. But Mom, I told her, I’ve been traveling independently for a while now, through places in Africa which were much less developped. Never mind that she says, with a tone of parental omniscience – this is China.

I needn’t have worried…like any city with major tourism sites, it was easy to hail taxis, use the Beijing Metro, and figure out the ticket offices. Viva good hotel receptionists and Lonely Planet guides!

The major obstacle was my being obviously Chinese to the locals, yet not being able to speak Mandarin – mass confusion ensues, but more on that in another blog post.

Our first day in Beijing, we made our way to the Forbidden City, the seat of imperial China for the last 500 years. The sky was deep blue, the sun was shining, and it was a beautiful autumn day. I had been there before, yet it was still an impressive sight. This time, however, I did not have the 25 companions of a tour group, did not have to find a tour leader touting a flag and bullhorn, did not have to wear a stupid cap, and did not have to be hustled out of the site to get on the tour bus so we could have lots of time at the state run tourist souvenir shop. Hooray!

We picked up audio tours for an extra $5, and got a so-so treatment of Chinese history from a soothing female voice with a slightly British accent. The incredibly beautiful architecture and snippets of history sparked my imagination what it must have been like to live there in the western palaces, and to be received at court.

Ten years ago, I was surprised at the sad state of disrepair the buildings were in. No efforts had been made at conservation, as tourists streamed in and out of rooms, smoking, snapping photos with flash, and brushing up against 300 year old delicate wood panels.

This time, we could no longer go into the buildings, just allowed to look in through a doorway or a plexiglass window. Smoking is not permitted, and the main largest hall (Temple of Harmony?) was being entirely renovated. An inconvinience, but well worth it, as we saw the sections which had been restored, breathtaking in revealing the intricate detail and the vibrant colors of the red laquer and gold gilt.

The Forbidden City is an enormous complex, yet almost completely lacking in informational plaques. The ones that are present only state the name of the building, but little else. So, I found myself wondering at the differences between the “Hall of Preserving Harmony” and the “Hall of Supreme Harmony”.

So, of course, in swoops privately sponsored plaques, from… American Express! They provide a little bit of history for the major buildings, in both Chinese and English, and end the description with the little blue Amex logo. Sigh…I can understand why putting plaques on a major cultural site is not top priority for the government, and at least someone is doing it. But it is a little jolting, as there is no other advertising inside the walls.

I remarked to Jonathan how weird it would have been to be someone who lived in Beijing while the Forbidden City was, well, forbidden. It is so giant, and so off limits to normal citizens. Jonathan then pointed out that we have lots of places that are “forbidden” to us, such as military bases and government buildings, etc. Oh, yeah…

October 4, 2006

Mooncake Frenzy

Haagen Dazs Moon Cakes It is very festive being in Beijing with the upcoming Mid Autumn Holiday – the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, aka August Moon Festival. I have never seen more mooncakes on sale in my life. They are everywhere, and people are bustling to and fro carry multiple bags of them as they head off to visit relatives and lavish these mooncakes onto their bosses and friends. The China Daily newspaper reports that the Chinese ate 200,000 tons of mooncakes last year.

The mooncakes I’m familiar with have lotus bean paste, and if you spring for the “good” ones, have several preserved egg yolks inside. I like them, but they are really rich, and really sweet – once a year is enough. Since it is obligatory to have and to give mooncakes during the holiday (think Christmas fruitcake), everyone and their brother is in on the cash cow.

There are mooncakes with extensive packaging, and new styles for every taste. One store is offerering moon cakes packaged in boxes shaped like the return cabin of the Chinese spaceship, with two mooncakes inside. They range in size from as small as a beer cap to a meter in diameter, with an amazing variety of fillings – among the crazier ones are cheese, rose, black plum, dried scallop, cranberry, and Peking duck. Asparagus mooncake, anyone?

Of course, the western chains in Beijing are also in for some action. Starbucks offers coffee flavored mooncakes, while Haagen Dazs offers several varieties of chocolate covered ice cream filled ones. Since Haagen Dazs was out, and I was determined to try some, we found some at a TCBY. Very cleverly presented, the box of 4 had several flavors of yogurt wrapped in a thin chewy dough. They even simulated the traditional preserved egg yolk in the middle with a little ball of orange sherbert.

So, sadly, I am not in Boston with my family on the holiday of family reunions, but I am taking in and filling in my knowledge of Chinese holidays and customs. I am looking forward to the 80-90% reduction in price after the holiday to try more of these goodies – sort of like my hanging around the Lindt store the day after Easter. Now, off to find some chocolate moon cakes…

Beijing Bursting Forth

We were lucky to be in Beijing for National Day, commemorating the 57th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Huge red laterns and enormous banners in red and yellow hung everywhere in the city. Hundreds of thousands of potted red and yellow flowers were arranged in enormous formations in Tiananmen Square, along with huge displays of the “Friendlies”, the 5 mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Families are everywhere, with many people getting the entire week off from work, and the festive and optimistic mood is contagious.

But my oh my, Beijing is very little like I remember it 10 years ago.

Beijing TrafficMy first thought was -where have all the bicycles gone??! Although there are bike lanes, the number of cars easily outnumber bikes 15 to 1, whereas I remember that cars were once forbidden during rush hours. And unlike in Europe, where they have mini cars, every car is a 4 door sedan. The traffic is unbelievable, at all times of day, crawling along the roadways at 5 miles an hour. Often we would budget an hour when going anywhere in the city from our hotel. We also heard that for the Olympics, residents will be forbidden to drive to see the games, in an attempt to try to reduce the congestion. Given that they are mostly new drivers, and many are cabbies, it is more than a little stressful to try to cross a street, dodging the bike lanes, the taxis, the buses, and the thousand other people trying to do the same.

The next thing that really struck me was the way the women were dressed. 10 years ago, local women were mostly wearing floral print skirts with pantyhose, layered with ankle hose in low pumps. Today, the younger women are almost indistinguishable from women in any large metropolitan area in the western world. Sporting tight blue jeans and little T shirts, with red highlights through their hair, they teeter on pointy high heels while chatting on their cell phones. With jeans and a polo shirt on, I’m a little stunned how much I look like I fit in here.

Lastly, it’s impossible to be in Beijing and not see the explosion in real estate development. Huge glossy billboards advertise high-rise, high-end modern apartments. Older builidings and the hutongs are reduced to piles of rubble, hovered over by the enormous cranes setting up the supports for the new buildings. Shiny buildings of glass, and high rise apartments…it really reminds me of Shanghai and Hong Kong. With the demolition of builidings within the 2nd Ring Road, residents are forced to move out to the “suburbs”. One of our tour guides told us that buying a car is now within the reach of most working urban families, with a base price for a car about 5000 yuan, or ¼ of an annual salary. An expense, but with the sprawling city, a necessary one.

The subway is definitely the easiest way to get around the city, especially in rush hour. With the 2008 Olympics looming, the city is in overdrive, trying to complete an incredibly ambitious subway routing, adding about 70% more subway coverage of the city.

And when I question my various tour guides, so far who are all young female recent University graduates, about the changes from 1997 until now, they simply shrug, and say, yeah, it’s changed. No sweat. I suppose it’s what makes time lapse photography so interesting…I only have two points to compare, whereas they have lived it every minute.