Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sneaky Me!

Several people have noted that my blog has been inactive since the penultimate moment, just as Driver and I were banging our way across the decimated pavement toward the Great Wall, for my first experience actually walking on that piece of history. This is not by my choice: the Chinese government blocked access to blogspot just before the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake and the 20th anniversary of Tian'anmen Square.

I waited them out for a while, but I finally decided to dig around and find (with the help of my friend Keenan) a back-door to blogspot. I'm not sure how well it will work, or for how long, but at least now I can resume blogging.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Driving to the Wall

After a quick lunch, I found Driver's glossy tourist brochure and pointed to a picture of the Great Wall climbing up a mountainside

We drove back through central Shanhaiguan, then drove down a rural road past run-down farmhouses. At a big crossroad, Driver stopped the car and ran out with a water bottle to fill the radiator. I hope that the amount of money he overcharged me as I left town was enough for a down-payment on a newer car.

The road out of town would have been rough and unforgiving under the best of circumstances, but for whatever reason it was drilled full of regularly-spaced potholes. These were clearly intentionally drilled, but don't ask me why. If you can imagine a tiny little car that's falling apart to begin with, threatening to stall out if Driver slows down too much, with an oversized American loading down the rear of the car... it's a wonder either of us survived. Driver swerved around, trying to avoid impact, but what's the point? It was like a Vietnamese mine field.

After just a few kilometers, we emerged into a huge and dusty parking lot, nearly filled with cars, with people bustling around everywhere. Also, there was a camel. In case you want to have your kids get their pictures taken on the back of a camel, I know where to send them. By the way, this was indeed a real-live camel.

Driver led me to another ticket window, where there ensued a discussion as to how much I should pay. There was something for 90 RMB, and another package for 150 or so, and Driver was clearly urging me toward the more expensive. I ended up with the cheaper ticket, but I never did learn exactly what I had bought admission to.

It was just a smidge after noon, and driver and I managed to communicate that I was supposed to be back two hours later. I slung my pack over my shoulders and started walking.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Crossing the rocks

Here's one more picture I can't resist showing you. Here is another guy trying to pick his way across the slimy rocks from the beach. There was really only room for one person to pass at a time, so I had to wait for him before I could attempt a passage. I was glad I chose to wear water-resistant boots that day, rather than tennis shoes!

Professor at sea

We parked near the public beach, and Driver led me down along the water. I could see the Dragon's Head off to the right — shrouded in mist in this photo. I wanted to walk there, but Driver steered me to the left, toward a small card table with an old woman selling something for 30 rmb. I resisted for a moment, because I hadn't a clue what I was paying for, and I didn't see anything I thought was worth paying five dollars for. But eventually I gave in and paid. My options seemed to be either that or nothing.

Driver motioned for me to take off my backpack and leave it with him. The woman selling tickets saw me hesitate, pondering whether I trusted him with everything I had brought with me. She laughed and made a little "don't do it!" hand gesture. Driver seemed nice, and I trusted him pretty far... but not THAT far.

A smiling man took me over toward a sort of algae peninsula, at the end of which was a rickety gangplank and a line of little powerboats. I finally realized that I had bought a ticket to walk out this:

To this: 

I handed my backpack to the guy in the waders, waited a moment to make sure he actually put it on the boat before I got six feet out over water on a thin, rickety bridge, then hobbled uncertainly down the plank to the boat. I think my awkwardness was a cause of some mirth among the workers and the other passengers, a young Chinese couple. I sat at the bow and took a good little while trying to wrestle myself into the Chinese life preserver which was designed for... well, let's just say a non-Western physique.

The day was grey and presaged rain, and the wind had blown the sea to a modest chop. The other passengers seemed a little nervous, but I loved it. Since I was a kid visiting my dad's friends in Florida, I've always loved high speed and sea air and, yes, a little chop to shake things up. Blame Joe Lettelleir. As the pilot brought the boat up to speed and we banged over the first wave, I let out a little "Whoop!" and a laugh.

I think the pilot took that as a challenge. He poured on extra power and cut hard into the waves. He adjusted course to hit them at different angles, making sure we got a workout from every direction. I banged around like a pinball, and I'm pretty sure the pilot was testing me. He didn't slam me around hard enough to kill me, but it definitely made me stronger. The girl in the seat behind me was squealing in fear and pain, while laughing at the crazy American on the bow.

Then suddenly we turned around and cut power, and there it was, Laolongtou: the Dragon's Head, where the Great Wall of China meets the Bohai Sea. We sat for several minutes looking at the impressive beast, taking pictures and thinking what it must have seemed like in its early days. I don't know much of the history, so I can only guess at what the area was like — fairly lawless, from what I've read — and the peace of mind it must have brought to the people of the area. 

I've read that the Wall's actual military function was very limited, even in its early days. But the symbol of Chinese military defense must have been priceless!

We banged our way back across the waves, crossed the little gangplank, and picked our way over the algae-covered rocks to land. Driver was there, smiling at me and waiting to take me to the next adventure.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Cows on the beach, cows in the road

We actually had to stop for a half-minute or so, while Driver laid on his horn and shouted for this cow to get out of the road. Meanwhile, to the right, I just missed getting a picture as four calves took off running playfully down the beach. It was surreal.

Driving to the Dragon's Head

The reason I chose Shanhaiguan as the place to first experience the Great Wall is that it is the location of Laolongtou, the "Dragon's Head" — where the Great Wall meets the sea. (It's sometimes described as the easternmost part of the Great Wall of China, but that's not precise. There are other walls, older, I think, that stretch as far as North Korea. But Laolongtou is the easternmost part of the Ming Dynasty wall that is our standard picture of the Great Wall of China.)

By pointing at the glossy tourist brochure, speaking pointlessly in English, and nodding my head emphatically, while  waving off other suggestions, I managed to communicate that I wanted to see Laolongtuo. It's about 20 minutes of rather harrowing driving from the First Pass, where I was staying. 

Shenhaiguan/Qinhuangdao is a beach resort area, and I could see the hotels and apartment buildings getting fancier and pricier the closer we got to the beach.

We drove past the beach and through a gate in the Wall, up a hill that was much too steep for Driver's little three-wheeled taxi. In the chaotic rush that is Chinese traffic, hand-drawn carts, motor scooters, bicycles, city buses, all rushed around each other and attempted to slither through tiny gaps and spaces in the traffic — with one undersized, underpowered cab lugging an oversized an American through it all. With that stolid resolution which is the unique province of the Chinese man, Driver laid on his horn and shoved aside lorries and bicyclists alike. When their resolution bested his and he was forced to slow or stop, the car always risked stalling.

Just on the other side of the wall, there was a gentle decline past a public beach. Improbably enough, a herd of cows was 
grazing in the thin strip of grass between the road and the beach.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Shanhaiguan Museum details

The museum was laid out in a number of courtyards, flanked by houses with ornate bedchambers. The modern museum seemed to preserve many of the internal details (and here, I suspect, the Western-style concept of authenticity was being at least somewhat observed). But related materials had been collected in certain of the houses, to show the metal-working of the day, or the wood-carving, or the pottery. It was beautiful.

Notice the inlaid ivory in this piece of woodwork, over one son's bed. I haven't a clue how you embed ivory in wood like that — and I'm sure that, however it was done hundreds of years ago, it's illegal now.

Here is some gorgeous woodwork, at first at something of a distance...

Then somewhat closer-up. 

Beautiful things

When I had time to take a breath and go back through the museum at my own pace, I could start forming my own understanding of the place. I guessed that it must have been the home of an important person, probably a scholar. The "read-place" was clearly a kind of library, filled with comfortable couches for reading and studying, ink-stained tables and — behind glass — gorgeous calligraphy sets. 

Then a miraculous stranger approached with a bright "Hello!"

Of course, I'd heard "Hello!" before, but this young man followed up with a fair grasp of English. He was a college student visiting Shanhaiguan for the holiday, and he responded as the English-speaking Chinese youth always do when they encounter an American: he quizzed me about America, about myself, and about my experience, in exchange for leading me back through the museum and repeating whatever bits of the Chinese-language tour he could remember.

The museum, as it turns out, was indeed the residence of a prominent man in Shanhaiguan, whose name I attempted unsuccessfully to write down. He had something like five sons and four daughters, all of whom seem to have been housed in this complex. Hence, there are an awful lot of beds and bedrooms, most of which are lavishly carved.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Touring the Museum

My tour-guide, the only one who spoke maybe ten words of English, ran me through the museum complex as if she were rushing to the hospital to give birth. She knew how to say "go straight ahead," "go to left," and "go to right." When we entered a bedroom, she could say "It is sleep place." In a room filled with scrolls and calligraphy sets, she said "it is read-place." As we crossed an atrium, she pointed to a tree and said, proudly, "it is tree." She moved on hastily, as if forestalling any questions about what sort of tree, how old it was, or why it was being pointed out to me. 

She refused to have her picture taken, and didn't want me to take any pictures of anything we saw. I assumed that photography wasn't allowed, but then I saw Chinese tourists taking flash photos of everything. I realized that she was just unwilling to wait long enough for me to take pictures. I think, too, that she felt nervous — as if escorting me through the buildings in English were a sort of Spoken-English pop quiz.

I asked a few questions, tried to be friendly, and expressed my enjoyment of the artisan works all around me. She didn't understand most of my questions, and she couldn't explain to me what the large-ish complex had originally been originally, but she had calmed, and slowed down, considerably by the time we got to the end. 

Finally, she finished her tour: "here there are the two arches, that means health and something," pointed me to the exit, and said "now can take any pictures want to." I thanked her, turned around, and started walking back through the places we'd seen before — this time, luxuriating in the scenery and, indeed, taking any pictures I wanted to.

A few minutes later, she reappeared, smiling, and offered to take my picture in front of one of the buildings.

Entering the Shanhaiguan Historical Musem (I think)

When I finally made myself give up on that "delicious" breakfast, Driver came up to plan my day with me.

The night before, I had presented him with a page in my notebook on which a friend had written instructions to find me a hotel. From the existence of Hanzi in my notebook, Driver seems to have concluded that I knew Mandarin. 

When I finally convinced him that "Wo bu hui schuo putonghua," he decided that I must know how to read and write, but not pronounce the words. So all day, he would grab my notebook from me and write long passages, then pronounce them to me VERY SLOWLY — as if that would help. "Wo bu dong," I told him again and again, "Wo bu ning bai." Whereupon, with paternal patience, he would grab the notebook from me again and begin writing what I suppose was a synonymous phrase — all the while pronouncing it to me VERY SLOWLY. It didn't help.

Finally, in a gesture of supreme, impatient indulgence, he grabbed up a glossy tourist brochure and pointed to a couple of possible destinations. It was printed all in Chinese, no English at all, so I couldn't really tell what he was pointing at, but the first place looked like a historical museum, so I nodded. He shuffled me into his car.

Turns out the historical museum was maybe half a mile away — easily walkable, had I known where I was going and what I was doing. Driver opened the car door for me, gestured for me to exit the car, and pointed me to a window where I was supposed to buy a ticket for thirty kui, in order to see I-knew-not-what.

No one spoke a smidgeon of English, not even the number-words. No one could say "Ticket," or "Over here." No one could tell what I meant when I asked "Museum?" And for sure no one understood when I pointed to something and asked "How old is that?"

When my grandfather was ancient and fragile and Alzheimer's had long-since stolen his comprehension, I watched him be pushed and walked from his room to the bathroom or the dining room in the old-folks home, guided like the stone in a Curling match. I felt a bit like that. I saw the number "30" amid a sea of meaningless characters, so I grabbed out thirty kui and stabbed my hand in someone's direction, and she traded it for a glossy ticket, all in hanzi. 

I stumbled toward what I hoped was the entrance, haltingly, half-expecting someone to shout angrily that I was going the wrong way — which, of course, I wouldn't exactly understand, but would have to guess from their anger and then judge the rightness of my corrections by the decrease in their anger.
Hovering around the entryway to the museum were four or six young girls — tour guides, apparently — garbed uncomfortably and traditionally and, I strongly suspect, wishing they could shuck their gowns for a pair of blue jeans 
and a tee shirt with Mickey Mouse on it. When I brought out my camera, they hobbled swiftly out of sight. My camera caught one of them before they all escaped.

I hadn't a clue what sort of compound I was entering, other than that it had a strong appearance of authenticity. Authenticity of what, I don't know. I'm pretty sure there wasn't a ticket window here, back when this was... whatever-it-used-to-be.

My arrival had caused a frenzy of hiding among the traditionally-clad ladies, off to the right of the picture above, in a deep alcove. The one who seemed to hide deepest in the shadows was the one who eventually got dug out by her colleagues, for apparently she was known to speak some little phrases of English. She appeared, eventually, with profoundly shy reluctance, to announce that "I will be you guide," in about the same tone as I might say, under the right provocation, "I will help you pick poison-ivy leaves."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Breakfast in northern China

Next morning I arose, relatively fresh and ready to explore. I packed up my little day-pack a little early, then went down to wait for Driver to arrive at 8. The restaurant was in the appealing part of the hotel, so I decided to try breakfast there. It was only 5 RMB, so I didn't have much to lose.

The table was huge for one person, and the center was a giant turntable, the likes of which you've probably seen in Chinese restaurants. First, I was served a hard-boiled egg in a little bowl. When I had eaten that, the waitress came by and deposited an array of foods, shown on the left. The white balls on the top right are dumplings. To their left is bean curd. Under the bean curd is some sort of crunchy veggie mix in a strong-flavored vinegar marinade. At the bottom is a plate of peanuts. On the lower left-hand corner, you can see part of a bowl that I had hoped would be some sort of rice-based porridge. I grabbed a handful of peanuts, found them tasty, then started in on the real food.

I bit first into the mixed veggies. Their crunch was pleasant, but the marinade was way too strong and tasted of spoiled curry.

I quickly bit into a dumpling — I've had those before, in Dalian and in various cities of North America, and always liked them. I expected them to be like something one would get at a dim sum restaurant back home: pasty bread on the outside, with maybe some meat or something sweet on the inside. Not this dumpling: it was paste all the way through. Actually, that's an insult to paste: Elmer's Glue has more flavor than this stuff. Imagine that you made bread dough, but forgot to add salt, sweetener, or flavoring of any kind, then took the bread out of the oven half-baked and still a little sticky. That's about what this was like.

Becoming desperate, I lunged at the bean curd. It was yellow, with the texture of tofu. I like tofu. It was covered in red sauce. I like red sauce. I jabbed off a little corner with my chopsticks.

It tasted like gym socks in pepper sauce. Fermented, stinky, and disgusting.

So my choice seemed to be disgusting flavor, or no flavor at all. Surely, the rice porridge would be my solution. I like rice, and surely this was some sort of breakfast cereal that might perhaps have the right combination of flavors.

It turned out to be nothing but rice in water. No salt. No flavor. Just... rice... in... water. It had only slightly more flavor than the dumpling.

I couldn't quite believe that every item on the table except the egg and the peanuts had tasted awful. So I tried everything around the table, one item after the other, thinking that something here must taste good. Then I tried them in different combinations: bite of dumpling, bite of bean curd. Ick! Bite of bean curd, spoonful of rice. Ick! Bite of veggies, bite of bean curd. UGH! Bite of rice, bite of dumplings. Blah. I went like this for some time, chased around the table by my own disgust.

I once rented a room from a woman who had a very spoiled little terrier. When I cooked, as I like to do, the little dog was always underfoot, looking for me to throw him scraps. I accidentally kicked the poor little guy pretty hard a couple of times, because I'm not used to having a dog underfoot while I cook. So finally, to break him of the habit, I decided to try giving him little bits of my food — but first, I would dip it in cayenne pepper sauce. The dog would try it, make a funny face, spit it out. But he would keep eying it, and a few seconds later he would try it, make a funny face, and spit it out. I could see him thinking: surely that didn't taste as bad as it seemed — I must've gotten a bad bite. Maybe if I come at the other side...

Try it, make a funny face, spit it out.

Try it, make a funny face, spit it out.

I felt a little like that little dog. Finally, I gave up, admitted defeat, poured the remaining peanuts into a baggie, and escaped. Driver was waiting for me.

Historical preservation

Before I launch into some of the stories about visiting historical sites, I should remark on the Chinese concept of historical preservation. It seems very different from the American idea.

For example, as I'll discuss in a future blog entry, the parts of the Great Wall I was hiking on have been extensively "restored." What that means, as you will see shortly, is that I have no idea whether a single brick or stone of it is original. When I walked beyond the tourist section to where the wall had not been restored, it was a very different thing. A few brick outcroppings could be seen amid what could otherwise be mistaken for a long, overgrown hill of waist-high grass and shrubbery. To from that, to the "restored" section of the wall, must have been a task more of rebuilding than of restoring.

In other words, "historical preservation" in China has little to do with "preservation."

As I describe the places I visit, I'll try to indicate my best guess as to how authentic they are -- but of course this is only my guess, and I am by no means a professional historian.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Jing Shang Hotel — my room first night

After arriving, exhausted, at a hotel that cost almost 100 rmb more than I'd intended to pay, I was at least pleased to see that it looked decent. Then the little hunched-over woman led me, very slowly, through the courtyard, through a reasonably well-appointed lobby, and up to a room. Not the room I was going to end up in, as it turns out.

In Shenyang, last month, I noticed a pretty cool power-saving method which seems to be common Chinese hotels. The room key there was a plastic card, just like at modern Western hotels, and there was a little slot-reader just inside the front door to the room. All the electricity in the room was turned on by inserting the room key in that slot, and turned off by removing it. I thought this was tremendously clever: we never had to wonder where we'd left the room key, and all the lights popped on instantly when we came back in, tired from whatever activities had occupied us during the day.

This time, when the hunched-over old woman stopped at the first room down a short hallway and attempted to get the electricity to turn on, it didn't work. She took a cheap plastic toothbrush out of its cardboard box, squished down the box until it could fit through the slot. Still, no action.

I was exhausted, and I just wanted to get some sleep. The woman struggled for a long, agonizing time before she finally gave up and took me one door down. When the lights came on in this room, it was a ghastly sight.

I've stayed in some pretty nasty motels, in my time. A twenty-dollar-a-night fourth-floor walkup in Tijuana actually turned out to be pretty nice. Twenty-five bucks got me a night in the Panhandle of Florida, with a cracked neon sign glaring in my window and carpet that covered only about two thirds of the floor. But none of them creeped me out any more than a $42 per night hotel a hundred yards from one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world.

I don't know if this picture adequately conveys the disgustingness of the carpet, which had once been off-white but now was gunmetal grey. Too late, the next morning that I discovered a pair of disposable sandals in little plastic bags. The television was just for show: it didn't work all night.

The beds and other furniture were actually decent-looking, but not especially comfortable. The fluorescent light fixture overhead wasn't wired in, so the power cord ran right down the headboard of my bed. When I plugged it in, it gave the room a frighteningly Soviet look.

Looks like someone wasn't happy!

Notice something missing? There's no shower stall. The shower curtain ran down the middle of the bathroom, to provide rather imperfect protection from splatters.

Not that there was very much to worry about in that regard: this was the strongest stream I was able to coax out of the heavily corroded shower head. At least there was hot water.

I was tired enough, I managed to fall asleep despite the nasty conditions. That night, I dreamed of roaches.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jing Shang Hotel — exterior

I arrived in Shanhaiguan right at nightfall on the first day of the May Day celebration, April 30. I met Driver just outside the train station. He called out "Hallo!" and I showed him the page in my notebook where a friend had written "Please take me to a hotel near the Great Wall where I can get a room for no more than 200 RMB a night." Driver took me to the Jing Shan Hotel, directly opposite the so-called "First Pass Under Heaven," i.e. the first gate on the easternmost point of the Great Wall.

Here is the First Pass, as seen from the front steps of my hotel. This was built in 1381, during the Ming 
Dynasty. 111 years before Columbus's voyage!

The exterior of the hotel was lovely. It's recently built, but made to look like the classical architecture of central Shanhaiguan. The price was a bit more than 
 asked for in my note, 280 rmb a night. That's less than $45, but it's more than a luxury hotel in Shenyang. I wasn't thrilled, but it looked nice, and I'd been on a train for seven hours. The woman at the desk spoke a tiny bit of English, and after showing her my passport (required for all foreigners in any Chinese hotel) and pa
ying her cash for my room (credit cards are
 little-used in China), I was escorted upstairs by a small, hunched old woman.

Here is the courtyard, seen the next morning.

Here is the top berth in a Chinese "hard sleeper" train car.

The "hard sleeper" doesn't refer to the hardness of the bed. It's just that the Chinese Communist Party can't exactly talk about "First Class," or whatever, because that might imply inappropriate class distinctions. The "soft sleeper" costs more money, and it gives you a lockable room with only, I think, three others. 
Here's the bustling mass in the middle of a "hard sleeper" while a few of their friends and family are sleeping above.

I've been told that it's best to get a "hard sleeper," because the guys in "soft sleepers" all smoke vile Chinese cigarettes throughout the trip. Enough people did it on my train ride, despite the abundant "no smoking" signs, that I figured it's a cultural tradition. At least in a hard sleeper there's no door to trap their smoke in with the lone, miserable nonsmoker.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Early departure from Shanhaiguan

I'm back now, after my visit to Shanhaiguan -- regarded as the "head" of the Great Wall, where it meets the Bohai Bay. I had intended to be there for four days, or maybe five, but I ended up being there for only two. It was a sublime experience, in the full meaning of that word. I learned several things:

1) It is not the case that one can find English speakers in every tourist destination in China.
1b) My Chinese language skills are way short of adequate for any basic survival needs.

2) The Chinese people in smaller towns are not your friends. They will rob you silly when it comes time for you to pay your bill for anything, if they can get away with it.
2b) They can always get away with it.

3) I really wish I'd had my backpacking gear, so I could have struck out on my own and not been at the mercy of everyone who thought she could extract some money from me.

4) Surprisingly, I do have the capacity to feel fear. I mean, real terror that I am helpless and alone and unable to get home.

Here is one quick anecdote, before I launch in to the full story: My driver all through ShanHaiGuan (SHG) was a very smiley, friendly Chinese guy who spoke exactly one word of English: "Hello!" 

Here is a picture of Driver, standing next to the three-wheeled taxi he drives. The passenger-side front door does not have a door handle. 

When I first tried to get into his cab, after arriving in SHG, he issued me into the front seat, where I barely fit. I'm not that tall, but I'm a Westerner. It felt as if the cab might flop over to the front-right when I sat down — it definitely lurched that way. My knee changed the radio station and the volume, both at the same time. My backpack hit my chin, until he very helpfully pointed to the back seat, and I moved it there. On our second drive of the night, he invited me to sit in the back seat.

I never learned a name for him, so I can only call him "Driver." 

I must say that he was very helpful to me, taking me to the two sites that I especially cared about: Qinghuangdao (The Dragon's Head), where the Great Wall of China meets the ocean, and Jiaoshan Mountain, which is the first major mountain pass on the Wall.

However... the man knew nothing by means of which we could communicate verbally. 

He did not even know the English numerals. And by that, I don't mean that he didn't know "one, two, three..." I mean, he did not know "1, 2, 3." He did not know that "1" is "yi," "2" is "er," etc. He only knows how to write and read the numbers in Hanzi, not in Western characters. 

This is bizarre to me, especially having lived in Dalian where everyone knows at least THAT much. It took several experiences of my thinking he understood what I meant — accompanied by bobbing head gestures of "yes" — before I realized that he didn't know what I was writing down for a time, or a street number, or a calendar date...

... such as, for example, the date when I wanted to book my train ticket back to Dalian...

I told him very clearly, in English and in my version of spoken Chinese -- and I wrote down the date in English numerals -- that I wanted to come home on May 1 or 2, and no later. By this time I hadn't tasted true fear, but I knew that I wasn't comfortable here being massively overcharged. I wanted to get home, and soon. He nodded, smiled eagerly, and then ran up to the window. He ordered in sharp-toned Chinese phrases, and came back with a ticket.

I thought I was going to lose my lunch when I saw that the date on the ticket was May 18! I can't stay here till then! I'm supposed to be teaching on May 5!

And when I called out, pathetically, "Does anyone speak English?!" with as little fear in my voice as I could manage, it took two or three entreaties before two teen Chinese tourists who spoke VERY little English were able to come forth and get my ticket changed for me. Somehow, though, it worked: I got home.

My driver was much abashed -- but he still managed to extract from me a little more than 30 dollars for 8 hours' work. He's doing well for himself, at that rate.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Heading for the Wall!

I told my students in class today that I will be hiking along the Great Wall this holiday weekend. They burst into laughter and applause. (Chinese students are SO sweet!) One young lady from Beijing gave me her phone number, in case I find myself in any trouble. I had her write "I want to go to the train station" on a slip of paper I can give to a taxi driver, because I don't know what to say.

So now I will close down my computer, sling my pack over my shoulder, and depart for my biggest Chinese adventure so far. I will try to find internet cafes along the way, but I can't promise anything. I need to be back at night on Tuesday, May 5 (which, to quote Ronald Reagan, will be morning in America).

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The great hall from the back side

When Marcy first came to Dalian, she complained. "It's not Chinese enough." She was right — Dalian is basically a European-style city. If not for the Chinese people and the squiggly characters all over the place, it could just easily be in a former Soviet republic.

Shenyang, on the other hand... now THIS is China!

More architectural painting

Everywhere we looked, there was interesting hand-painted woodwork.

Ticket to ride

I found out only last weekend that this weekend is a strange sort of holiday (for an American). We have Friday, May Day, off outright. It's a communist country, after all. But then Monday and Tuesday are borrowed days — not outright holidays, because we must pay them back by working the following weekend. This sort of thing would never happen in the States, but I kind of like it. I'd rather get my days off all in a row, so that I can spend them traveling.

So, as you may know, I decided to take a trip to Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall dips its head into the Bohai Sea.

This is the easternmost part of the Wall, so it's known as the Dragon's Head. And actually, it kind of resembles a dragon's head. Shanhaiguan itself is a smallish, walled village with a handful of hotels and hostels of varying levels. There is reportedly a small Great Wall museum, and one can hike the wall for many miles from there. This is my plan.

I don't have a proper backpack, yet. Hopefully I can get mine from America before I start my big adventure this summer, but for now I've bought a fairly comfortable day-pack. I'll take enough clothing and equipment to last a couple of days, I'll throw in my super-powered water filter in case I can't find bottled water for sale — and of course, there will be a camera. Expect some fun stories and pictures!

It was not an easy thing to get a ticket for the train to Shanhaiguan. Everyone travels when there is a holiday like this. Serena, the foreign faculty "handler" for my Department, tried several options before she finally got me a sleeper on the 12:45 train Thursday afternoon. It cost twice what I would have paid for a simple seat on the same train, and it's going to be tough to get to the station in time for that early train (class ends at noon). But I'm lucky to have a ticket at all.

On the plus side, this is a high-speed train, so it will only take about six and a half hours to travel almost 400 miles.

Monday, April 27, 2009


I know I'm going on and on about the architectural details in Shenyang, but I really found them fascinating. I'm usually not a big fan of over-detailed ornamentation in architecture: I tend toward the Chicago School of American architecture. But Chinese design seems to be somehow both ornate and integrated, and I think that's a crucial virtue. It's the tendency of minute details to overwhelm the grand structure that, I think, makes me dislike it. When it fits the overall structure, an attention to details is lovely.

I was especially impressed by the details on the rain spouts, which I thought were very cool. It's not great art, perhaps, but every piece seemed to be hand-crafted.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

More of Shenyang

I know some people are ready to be done with Shenyang, but there's a ton left to show off. This plaque was in the back reaches of the palace museum.

Here is some more detail. I can't help but be amazed by this image.