Saturday, May 30, 2009

China! Day 3: Beilin (Xi'an)

The Beilin (Forest of Stele) really deserves its own post.

We went there in the grey and drizzly later afternoon. We had to wander around in scholar street again to find it, which was quite a pleasure in itself.

First there was a garden with little pavilions, mostly closed up.

I guess these housed the less exciting steles.

Then outside the main buildings there was a block with carving from the Classic of Filial Piety. Here is a kid looking seriously up at it while his mother looked on.

Here is a detail view of some characters on it, including the characters for "filial child".

Inside the hall were the remnants of the Tang dynasty "stone classics." I was a bit blase at first, then I got more and more excited.

Here's me looking quite unstable in front of the Classic of Changes stones.

We saw stones having to do with Xuanzang, the historical basis for the monk in Journey to the West. We saw a Nestorian Christian stone carving, which is historically important... at least to people who are interested in the history of Christianity. I had worried that Pocket of Bolts would be pretty bored, but he had charge of the camera and seemed to enjoy taking pictures of things and of me looking at things. Here is a picture he took playing with reflections.

There were also a lot of pictures that came about because I said, "Hey Pocket of Bolts! Come here and take a picture of this one!" Here is one that PoB found all on his own though. He doesn't know very many Chinese characters, but he can recognize many of the numbers. This is the so-called "autobiography of Confucius": "When I was 15, I set my heart on study" and so forth.

By the last hall I was really worked up. That hall was thick with the smell of ink, and there was a team of people making rubbings.

They also had stele with pictures on them, which I liked a lot. In the end, I even had to buy a rubbing of this one. It's the God of Literature pointing at the Big Dipper (with his foot). He's all made of Chinese characters.

The whole Beilin experience made me quite excited and overwrought! Pocket of Bolts was highly amused, but also pleased.

Friday, May 29, 2009

China! Day 3: Xi'an

As the price of our hotel in Xi'an did not include breakfast, we decided to go out in search of some. It was seven in the morning, but it does not seem an especially early-rising sort of town. The Starbucks was still closed. We rambled around the Drum Tower. Some shops were just starting to open, but nothing food-related. Pocket of Bolts saw a woman eating something as we walked by. He said, Whatever she has looks really good. I hadn't seen it clearly, so I decided to go back and ask her. She was not a young woman, and not a wealthy one. She grinned at me with very bad teeth and said something of which I understood barely a word. By her gestures, though, I gathered that one could buy the kind of thing she was eating in the alley behind the Drum Tower: go straight down there and turn left, something like that. She seemed tickled that we had so much interest in her breakfast.

The narrow streets behind the Drum Tower did indeed turn out wonderful. We ended up with two youtiao ("oil-sticks", rather like deep-fried croissants), two of the things the woman had been eating, which proved to be jiabing (kind of like a pita sandwich but deep-fried, and containing vegetables and meat and glass noodles), a cup of sour plum juice, a sticky rice ball that was not all the way warm so I ate part of it and threw it away, and a large bag of peanuts fried with red peppers. When we were buying the youtiao, I asked in Chinese for "two sticks" and the guy selling them laughed. I said "two pieces?" and he laughed more. The woman standing by considered the question seriously and pronounced: either one is fine.

Later in the morning, we went up the city wall of Xi'an.

It was a grey, windy day, pleasantly cool. We thought we'd just walk a bit, take in the sights, not worry about going all the way around.

After a while, though, we were tempted by one of the bike rental places. It was interesting biking on the rough cobbly wall. Pocket of Bolts, who was a little too big for his bicycle, complained of a sore ass. Meanwhile I, who have been suffering a bit of tendonitis in my wrists, started to get itchy all over my arms from the vibration. Peculiar.

Nonetheless, it was really fun and we saw many interesting sites.

One of these was a lone half-demolished house in a field of rubble. In front of the house, there was a man taking a dump.

We made it all the way around the wall in the 100 minutes for which we'd rented the bikes. Then we headed down. We were heading for a lunch place recommended by the guidebook, First Noodle Under the Sun. On the way, we happened to stumble on a wonderful little street, which Pocket of Bolts dubbed "Scholar Street"--or perhaps "Culture Alley." It was a marvelous place.

Here are some birdcages hanging up near there.

A grave, dignified fellow doing calligraphy.

I was quite distracted from my hunger. Scholar Street eventually petered out into a more ordinary little street. Ordinary people walking along it. One man dropped a pack of cigarettes on the ground. We and an old woman saw it at the same time. I picked it up. It was empty. "It's empty," I told her in Chinese, showing her the pack. "Too bad!" She laughed and said, "I think so too!" It was a random interaction but amusing somehow.

We had a very noodly lunch at First Noodle Under the Sun. The starch o.d. made us sleepy and we went back to the hotel for an afternoon nap--on vacation after all...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

China! Day 2: Shanghai --> Xi'an

We were tired enough to sleep most of the night: woke up briefly at 2 AM or so, but went back to sleep and slept until 6. Then we uploaded pictures onto the computer and looked at them, drank tea, did various small things. Around 7 we went down to a sumptuous breakfast buffet in a sumptuous hall. Dumplings (both baozi and jiaozi), cooked vegetables, rice porridge, soy milk, cereal, pastries, fruits (including dragon fruit and dried kiwis), bacon and sausage, toast, cheese, hot chocolate, noodles, interesting breads, carrot/apple/orange juices. We ate many helpings until we were quite stuffed full.

Then we took off for a walk down East Nanjing Road, a nifty pedestrian zone that people have begun using in particularly wonderful and ebullient ways.

There was a long row of signs with cartoons on how to be "wenming" (civilized and polite) for the upcoming Expo.

Many were very funny.

Just as funny was this fellow who was gravely examining them.

Here is me hugging a magnolia flower.

After this nice walk, we headed back, checked out of the hotel, and went to the airport for the flight to Xi'an. As before, I was impressed by how even on a short two-hour flight, we got served a sumptuous lunch. Chinese domestic flights are so much more awesome than their US counterparts.

In Xi'an, a bus took us straight to our hotel. We had paid a bit extra for a room with a view, and it does not disappoint.

The Bell Tower, with its ring of flowers, is a magnet for swooping swallows by day and fluttering bats by night. When I am awake at 2 AM (as seems to be a regular occurrence, unfortunately), I like to look at the taxis going around and around the rotary. Actually, they are probably not going around and around, but because all taxis look the same, that's the impression I got.

We checked in and rested a little, then headed down to Lao Sun Jia restaurant for a Xi'an specialty dish called Yangrou paomo. Aside from some little cold dishes, that's the only thing the restaurant serves. First we each got a bowl and two dense white breads. We were instructed to tear this up "small small." We started in, rather naturally, tearing them in halves, then quarters, then smaller.

We had scraps about the size of pennies by the time a guy at the neighboring table (pictured in the background above) peered over and scolded (in Chinese): "Too big!" I said, "Still too big?" And he said grumpily, "It won't taste good that way!" He held up his bowl which had bread pieces about the size of crumbs. His dinner companion, whom he seemed to have brought along to help with the bread-tearing, since she was working on his breads too, was scraping minute pieces off a mostly intact half-bread. Hmm. Pocket of Bolts and I had a lot more work to do.

We were down to about the size of peas when PoB voted for quitting. He said the people at the table behind ME were less perfectionistic about the whole thing, and they seemed to be enjoying it fine. Actually, they were a boyfriend and girlfriend having a big fight. (I couldn't see them, but I could hear them.)

When the bread was torn up enough, we took the bowls up to the front counter and they filled up the rest with a kind of stew, lamb and glass noodles. We had condiments we could add ourselves: chopped cilantro, red pepper sauce, and pickled garlic. The overall effect was surprisingly successful. It tasted like a comfort food, so warm and starchy.

After eating it, though, we were deeply full. We walked around the neighborhood a little bit, trying to drum up some interest in dessert, but not succeeding. Pocket of Bolts: "My stomach is like, 'What? Did you just eat a loaf of bread?'" Incidentally, so far our stomachs have been just fine.

Around 8 I got deeply deeply sleepy again, so we headed back to the hotel where I could barely summon the energy to brush my teeth and get into bed before I was out cold.

By the way, blogger access is blocked here. I can only post this by logging on to the VPN from school. I am curious whether the e-mail-to-post option would work, but a bit too busy right now to find out.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pictures from the Bund

Chairman Mao surveying the skyline.

I encounter a lion.

Man making leaf animals. The snakes were particularly wonderful.

Monday, May 25, 2009

China! Day 1: Shanghai

...And we're off to China. Both Pocket of Bolts and I have been very ready for a vacation, and here it is. It's fun going to China not to learn anything in particular or to do any difficult things, just to have fun.

Our flight from Chicago to Shanghai was very comfortable. We got to sit in a two-seat row by the window, and there were little personal TVs with a variety of movies and TV shows. We got fed quite regularly, and when I felt sleepy I curled up and slept. I sleep curled up anyway, and it's singularly handy for plane rides. I didn't even touch my computer or the novel I had brought, just watched TV, read travel guides, and slept.

The first thing that happened in Shanghai was that some health inspectors came onto the plane (we were sternly enjoyed to stay in our seats) and took everyone's temperature with an infrared guy pointed at the forehead. They were ludicrously shielded from exposure, white-clad from top to toe and even wearing funny masks. Happily, our plane was declared healthy, and we were allowed to get off. Another line to turn in our special health declaration forms, and more infrared temperature taking.

That was the only unusual bit. The rest was as always, immigration, baggage claim, customs. From the airport, we took the very fancy new Maglev train. What fun! Its speed peaked at 420 km/h, pretty respectable. It was very quiet and fast. From there, a taxi into the city.

We stayed at the Astor House hotel, one of the oldest in the city if not the oldest. It was really nice though, renovated and all. Our room was not the typical boring little box, but odd-shaped, with nooks and crannies.

We took much-needed showers, then successfully resisted the temptation to nap. Instead, we went for a walk across the Waibai bridge and down along the Bund. The skyline over the river was a fine sight.

The entire area along the Bund was being renovated for the 2010 Expo, which will be held here. Bad luck. But I'm sure it will look cool when it's done.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Welcome to the Groove

Everything I normally care about is let fall. I eat at random and don't exercise at all, let fun daily projects lapse. Dishes pile up and the bathroom gets filthy. The husband does more housework than he should be made to do. The hermit crabs don't get fresh produce. E-mails lie in my inbox unanswered, classes go unattended, plans go unplanned, other deadlines approach. None of it matters. When the work flows, it flows. I run with it.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Sometimes I think that feelings are a little like colors. We all use the same words for them: happiness, melancholy, excitement, irritation, and so on. We all generally agree on what these words describe, just like we all generally agree on that the grass is green, the sky is blue, the tulips are red. But just because we agree, does that mean we actually see the same colors? do we actually feel the same happiness? Of course colors have a wavelength and are objectively determined in that way, at least as I understand it. Maybe feelings have a wavelength too? but I suppose it would be hard to measure.

Also, feelings are like colors in that happiness is spring green and sky blue and tulip red. I have been so ready for winter to be over.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Dream Neighborhood

When a person at my stage of life finally manages to secure a decent job, the first thing they seem to want to do is start house-hunting--at least with the market like it is. Pocket of Bolts and I are no exception. We have been checking out neighborhoods on the weekend, which is exceptionally pleasant given that spring has finally arrived. All the trees are in flower. The air is pleasingly warm. And yesterday we suddenly found the perfect neighborhood. Compared to all the other places we've walked around in, which were okay but seemed like a compromise in one way or another, this one just clicked. Both of us, we just knew right away: yes! this is exactly where we belong. Of course, it would have to be a neighborhood where most things are just slightly above our price range, even in this market... but that's good right? Aren't you supposed to buy the humblest house in a gorgeous block rather than the most gorgeous house on a humble block? Suddenly, I am full of impatience. I want to get started. Now. But Pocket of Bolts points out that we are about to be gone for a month, and it makes much better sense to start in late June, after we get back. He has a point, but I am filled with impatience.