Friday December 21, 2012
Asia 2012: Sketches, Part 1
I thought I would try something different while on our trip to China and use some of the idle time to sketch scenes in a notebook. Visiting the art supplies store, I managed to buy four items there, a small sketch book, 12 coloured pencils, a microfine ink pen and a brush pen. The latter was a suggestion of the slightly dazed clerk, who said they were awesome, especially for comics and manga. The 60 year old lady in the aisle with me, also looking at technical pens, did not seem convinced. Regardless, my set of art supplies was about $12, a reasonable price for an experiment in travel drawing. The coloured pencils was a bust. 12 colours, all bright and primary, are pretty useless filling in the drab, smoggy landscapes of China.
On the other hand, the brush pen, was, correctly stated, awesome. I could fill in large areas in black very quickly with it and I really enjoyed using it. So, here is the first attempt, looking over Beijing from a hotel room.
( Dec 21 2012, 03:27:48 AM EST )
Friday November 02, 2012
Asia 2012: Day 14
These images are from Hong Kong.
( Nov 02 2012, 07:01:26 AM EDT )
Saturday October 27, 2012
Asia 2012: Day 13
In 1986, my parents took the family to Vancouver for Expo'86, the World Exposition on Transportation and Communications. That trip perhaps began an interest in these two areas which would follow me to this day: I still find people movers, high speed trains and airplanes fascinating, while I ended up working in the telecommunications business as a professional career. In 1986, idealism for new forms of transport was running high, especially those using magnetic levitation. While Boeing featured a giant 747 nose, France a mockup of the then new conventional TGV train and our own Canadian effort brought Vancouver a brand new SkyTrain automated rapid transit system, the future was trains running on the power of magnets, free of wheels and friction.
Japan demonstrated their High Speed Surface Transport concept, with a working maglev transporting visitors a very short distance. But it was the German effort, the TransRapid system which captured my attention. I read the pamphlet, detailing the TransRapid concept as envisioned by MBB/Thyssen Henschel, over and over, back to front. Of course, almost every maglev project proposed, even in Germany itself, never materialized. That is, until the Shanghai Maglev in 2004.
I guess I now hold the unusual nerd-party trivia record of riding all two commercial maglev systems currently in operation, the Japanese HSST-03 Linimo at Aichi, built for Expo 2005, and the German TransRapid08 maglev in Shanghai. This morning, we took the Shanghai Metro to Longyuan Road station, which allowed us to switch to the new Maglev line to Pudong Airport. This line services a 30km stretch at 430km/h, although today it runs only at 300km/h during non-peak hours. The Maglev station seems a little sad, with a few travellers each run. Quiet as it is this Friday morning, the train is an impressive achievement. Boarding and seating is similar to a TGV or ICE, with airplane style seating. The eight minute journey begins slowly, then accelerates to TGV speeds within a seconds. While a little more rough than I imagined after years of reading about maglevs, the acceleration pushes you into your seat, as if flying just above the ground.
As we leave Shanghai, and China overall to go home via Hong Kong, I am left with the impression of the country being a vast and diverse place, still changing. It is a country known for ancient treasures yet wants and celebrates a maglev train: Of course the first one would be built here. As friends noted, they moved here because China was changing and always different, and it's easy to see why they're excited to live here. China has been eye opening, exhausting, intriguing and exciting.
( Oct 27 2012, 10:18:09 PM EDT )
Thursday October 25, 2012
Asia 2012: Day 12
In the rain, the Nanjing Road shopping street seems less impressive. We walked to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center today, which features the story of Shanghai's history through pictures, models and interactive exhibits. A huge model of the city fills the third floor, while individual models of the new Pudong Airport, as well as the Bund and other locations show detail of how the buildings are laid out. If our trip in China has shown one thing, it is that the country is changing very quickly. The museum shows the city's historic path and its forward looking future.
Shanghai is different than the rest of China: Our guide told us it is the most Western of China's cities, but we think he meant in terms of Starbucks and Forever 21's. I've found as we walk around that Shanghai there is less honking, more Western style traffic patterns and more structure.
We then moved to Xintiandi, an area formerly known as the French concession, but now is an upscale boutique shopping district. For lunch, we went to Din Tai Fung to have Xiaolongbao in a slightly more refined setting: We had baskets of pork and crab, vegetarian chive and pork and chive dumplings along with noodles. Along the walls are Chinese celebrities, their portraits drawn in caricature style, each signed and dated by the actual person, presumably. Xintiandi has malls and shops lining it's streets, offering strange retail experiences: A "international supermarket" offers British cola at about six times the regular price, a store that only sells Maneki Neko beckoning cat figures, and a shop that sells postcards and coffee, which is looking to hire a barista/graphic designer. By the way, that person needs to know Adobe Illustrator and presumably how to pull a espresso. The latter store has a cute feature: A wall of postboxes allows you to send a postcard in the future to someone, a delayed mailing. However cute, it is working: On a Wednesday afternoon, the place was filled with young Chinese, decorating postcards and enjoying hot beverages.
As we walked along the former French concession, we saw unusual mixes of stores: Live hairy crabs in plastic bags and fish in water filled styrofoam crates, next to an imported wine store. Young men examining fashionable sneakers in a sliver of a store only an aisle wide. French bistros and hair salons. Little kids doing their homework on a desk outside, while the parents sell fruit or fix bicycles on the sidewalk.
After a French dinner, at a bistro hosted by a Cuban expat, we returned to the Bund to see the skyline lit up. Unfortunately as I took the modern new side of the city, across the river, I didn't manage to shoot enough of the old buildings on the Bund. I like the old and the new face each other across the river, it personifies Shanghai for me.
( Oct 25 2012, 09:40:18 PM EDT )
Wednesday October 24, 2012
Asia 2012: Day 11
Today is our last day on this tour in Shanghai. Walking out to the Bund, the riverside boardwalk that fronts the city skyline, we found the majestic skyline of Shanghai, standing proud in the morning sun. The city has experienced great growth these past years, with skyscrapers jutting from the ground almost as we stood there.
On the other side of the river, where many of the new buildings stand, I went up the Jin Mao Tower, to the 88th floor observation deck. While the huge, record breaking structures are interesting, albeit par for the course for someone from Toronto and its own CN Tower, what is amazing is the number and size of buildings around Shanghai. Looking out into the distance on all 360 degrees from this deck, you see hundreds and thousands of buildings stretching out into the horizon, grey monoliths in the fog. Almost like gravestones in a misty cemetery. They are too numerous to count.
When I was a kid, my favourite game on the old Amiga was SimCity. For those of you who calling me old right now, SimCity was a simulator which allowed you to lay out blocks of land and make a virtual town. One of the first things I'd always do was to mark out a giant grid of houses to stimulate an economy. Looking out at Shanghai, hundreds of identical low rise housing blocks stood in a similar grid, with identical coloured roofs, sometimes punctuated by an identical apartment building or a street.
In the afternoon, we went into the local bazaar, nearby the traditional gardens of Shanghai. Despite the hawking of everything from small toy helicopters to three dollar MP3 players, we managed to get to try Xiaolongbao, dumplings with pork and shrimp inside.
We also visited a tea house, where a demonstrator showed a number of different teas to sample. I think the general idea was you paid a small fee to try the teas, then visitors would typically buy some tea while they were there. Unfortunately being from Toronto, a city with hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants, Chinese tea is far too common for us to buy and bring home from abroad.
( Oct 24 2012, 10:27:40 PM EDT )
The day ended with dinner at a nice Szechuan restaurant, just off Nanjing Road. We tried pork liver, duck and shrimp, all covered in spicy chili.
Asia 2012: Day 10
Tonight we walked across the neon lit Nanjing Road in Shanghai, Western brands intermixed with Chinese cultural displays. However, the day started in a much different China, one up on the hills of Longji, Ping An still hidden in fog as the sun rose and immediately diffused on the clouds. As we made our way carefully back down the narrow twisting footpaths of the village, the town was still asleep save a band of roosters crying out in the morning stillness. We eventually got to the bus stop, where we met a French family also on vacation. They were waiting at the plateau as well, and soon the bus came, on schedule to pick us up for the half hour ride down the mountain. Eventually we made it to Guilin after a second bus change.
As you approach Guilin Airport there is a sole road with a single lane, shared by motorbikes, cement mixers and tour buses. Eventually the road turns into a modern street as you get within a few hundred meters of the facility. Inside are several vendors, much like a bazaar than the typical retail found in airports we know. Judging by the items on sale, people like models of airplanes, playing cards with famous Western celebrities, and cigarettes.
Getting to Shanghai was more of a challenge as the plane was delayed. We have been very lucky here in China as we have faced almost no travel delays, but once in the air, everything was back to normal. The Shanghai Airlines 757 took to the sky, again clean, efficient and courteous. A hot meal of rice, winter melon, and sausage was served, complete with pickles and chilis.
Shanghai was a complete contrast to Guilin Airport: Very modern and sleek, it's grey/silver walls and posts efficient, it's selection of retail international and au courant. A KFC greeted us as we exited the building. On the streets of Shanghai, monsterous towering skyscrapers mixed with older French and international modern style buildings from the early 1900s. It is a strange mix: The old buildings recall a city like Alexandria or Cairo, the new, like Hong Kong or Dubai.
By dinner time, we had made it to Nanjing Road, a mile long stretch of pedestrian shopping. As the sun had set, the neon signs, stories tall, had replaced it, shining brightly overhead. Shopping malls are set up in a strange way-- they look like department stores, but seem to have stores within stores, each independently branded and presented. Each "shop" has an individual sales person who knows the products and helps with your selection. Yet the "shop" does not have an independent till, which implies a central payment and management. It is very strange: There is a Lego "shop" with Lego branding and ads, Lego products and Lego displays, including a vacant playtable with no pieces in its bucket, and next door is a Tomy "shop" with little Japanese trains and cars.
For dinner, we had dinner at a French restaurant which served fondue, steak and tarte tatin, as interpreted by Shanghai. Some were pretty good, while other courses were a bit of a miss. But all said, it was reasonable for the price and location. After dinner, we continued back on Nanjing Road, serenaded by public performances of many different kinds. In one, Chinese opera was performed, in another, it was open mike karoake night to anyone who walked up to the hastily arranged laptop and amplifier. In front of the Sephora, a crowd of had gathered to watch two men singing folk songs, bringing their own loudspeakers and microphones. Similarly, a crowd of line dancers, again all middle aged Chinese women, had formed a true flash mob, hundreds dancing down the street. The contrast of traditional Chinese instruments in front of Western brands and retail stores was intriguing.
Today, as a transit day, showed us the wide contrast between rural and urban China.
( Oct 24 2012, 09:58:11 PM EDT )
Tuesday October 23, 2012
Asia 2012: Day 9
Ping An is a very small village tucked into the creases of the mountains here in Longji. Upon steep mountainsides, villagers farm rice in terraces which were constructed nine hundred years ago. Like corrugated cardboard, the sides of the hills are carved out in steps with irrigation so that water can be flooded into them in the springtime and the rice harvested later. They are a sight to see, even at harvest time this October where the farmers are out cutting down their crop.
To get to Ping An, one must take a bus up the mountainous roads, filled with switchbacks and drops, hairpin turns and chicanes. Even getting to the bus station/visitors center requires a two hour ride from Guilin, which in turn was two hours from Yangshuo. But once here, the bus ride up the hill, however bumpy and scary, offers captivating glimpses and previews as the trees clear temporarily. At the top, a village sits in the crevice of a valley, little guest houses, restaurants, homes and businesses, constructed of wood and stone, sit on the side of the hill. Their straddle water piping, sewers, power and walkways, creating an organic arcology of living spaces pushing horizontal planes like shelves into the diagonal mountain. All the walking paths are slate pieces, sometimes rickety, and they form small public spaces for people to congregate and chat, however precariously.
The Yao people live in these hills, the women wearing characteristic long hair, often tied up in a turban like headpiece for practicality. Only a few hundred live in the village, and they belong to a handful of families all with the same surname, Yao. They work the land, sell souevnirs to tourists, and run the hospitality industry of guesthouses and restaurants. One unusual specialty here seems to be cooking rice in bamboo, pieces of the trunk are sawn and filled with rice, then sealed and cooked over fire. The blackened cylinder is then cracked open revealing moist contents for lunch.
In the afternoon, we went on a two hour hike around Ping An, walking up to one peak, then over and around to another, then eventually coming back down. The terraces trace out the topology of the mountainside, line after line defining the shape of the hill. As we walked around, villagers were harvesting with sickels, cutting the rice plants down and placing them with their tips overhanging the terrace to dry.
At some points, enterprising locals had set up stands to sell drinks and souvenirs to tourists: Some were built on wooden stilts off the main walking path, with a folding table of combs, scarves and bracelets, and foam cooler to keep the beverages cold. At the top of one peak, a small photo studio consisting of a computer, an inkjet printer and a laminator stood waiting for group shots and souvenir photos.
( Oct 23 2012, 09:52:07 PM EDT )
We greatly prefer Ping An to Yangshuo. It is quiet and tranquil, calming in its isolation. At night, there is little light and the view over the hills is completely dark. A few voices cry out, as villagers hustle materiel and pipes through the village, but for the most part the night is quiet until the crow of the roosters the next morning. Over the years, tourism has become a major part of the economy, but they still farm the land. Ping An is a wonderful place to visit.
Sunday October 21, 2012
Asia 2012: Day 8
Our eighth day here in China began with a bike ride through Guangxi province, around the countryside. The limestone karsts tower above the farmland here, almost as if someone had dropped these high rise buildings in the middle of a field. Of course, the karsts have been there for ages, their limestone rock sawn and worn down by hydrology: The farmland has been built around them. Imagine standing at the intersection of Bay and Bloor at home in Toronto and staring up at the Manulife Center or other tall towers. That's how these outcroppings feel as they arch over and above you.
The towns dot the side of the road, tourists joyriding on bicycles parade through each hamlet of a few houses, each with an open living room and some snacks and beverages set aside should one of them stop for a break. Families live outside, either in front of their house, inside for shade, or out in the field. In one field, a woman washed her clothes while her water buffalo took a quick bath and drink. Another villager brought her buffalo for us to see, prompted by someone in our group to even put it on show atop a concrete bridge that spanned over a road-flanking canal.
At the Li River, a concrete bridge was frequented by tourists, motorcycles and livestock, in ascending order of importance. A natural break in the flow of the river with a small waterfall, local skiff captains got their tourist passengers up and down stream by the means of a motorized conveyor belt, which pulled their boats across the break from each level.
A couple of hours of cycling and I was beat: I couldn't find a gear that allowed me to keep my legs moving, nor could I sit appropriately in the seat without pinching some part of my body I didn't know I had. We found ourselves at the Moon Hill, a very tall karst formation with a bridge between its two spires. I wish I had an image to show you, but as I attempted to climb the eight hundred odd steps, I found myself at my limit. I ended up making it up half way, which was perhaps better than some of the tour group who elected to enjoy mango and coffee drinks, and worse than the other half of the group, who made it up to the top and even a bit beyond.
We rode back into Yangshuo, where after a break, we went for a rather delightful Chinese cooking lesson. We first went to a local market, which was decidedly not for tourists, vendors selling eels to live chickens and rabbits. The hermetic cleanliness of modern Chinese Canadian supermarkets was quite a contrast to these local sellers. The lesson, at a very clean and modern establishment with a beautiful view of the Li River, included making chicken with cashews, wok fried greens, steamed vegetables filled with pork and green onions, and most notably, the local specialty, beer-fish, a local river catfish fried and steamed with garlic, ginger and tomatoes in a beer broth.
( Oct 21 2012, 11:12:51 AM EDT )
Tomorow will bring us to Longshen, a small rural town, then eventually out of the countryside to modern Shanghai.
Saturday October 20, 2012
Asia 2012: Day 7
We woke up early this morning to leave Xian and fly to Guilin, a two hour flight south of Xian. The streets were deserted at 5:00 AM as the bus took us out of the city core, past industrial areas towards the airport. Xian's airport is modern and sleek, and as the sun rose, the tails of China Eastern's Airbus 320 fleet came visible, parked at the shiny gates.
The whole airport outside was covered in a haze, as a A320 hit rotation speed and pulled up, disappearing quickly into the grey void. China Eastern's plane was clean and bright, its attendants very friendly, almost stereotypically nice. When one saw Siobhan reading, she turned on the overhead light for her. Two hours later, we landed into Guilin, a town 1500 km south of Xian.
Guilin is hot and humid, its airport almost tropical and small compared to Xian and Beijing. Driving out to Yongshuo from Guilin took us into the rural side of China, farmers fields dotted by giant limestone boulders the size of apartment buildings. It's hard to understand how these miniature mountains came into being, their shape being so irregular that they seem like some sort of science fiction element, like a primitive tribe living on them.
Yongshuo is kind of like Wasaga Beach: A bit of a resort town, it's filled with thousands of tourist, mostly Chinese, aiming to see the landscape and travel around on the river. This afternoon we went on the river on a cruise, travelling up and down the Li River, watching fishermen by the banks, casting their nets; and the waterborne tourist traffic, skiffs rushing by down the river, waving to us as they go along.
The night in Yangshuo is again, resort like. A long street named Xi Jie is set aside for pedestrians, and throngs of tourists mosy along the length, looking into shops and restaurants, or the many bars and clubs with promoters outside pulling people in. Xie Jie has much of the feel of New Orleans' Bourbon Street, though with less jazz and more Chinese.
( Oct 20 2012, 10:32:12 AM EDT )
While in Beijing, motorized scooters, cut out of the 1980's in fibreglass fairings and trim, are the standards, and in Xian, it's three wheeled trikes with home made frames of plexiglass and steel, the bike of choice here is something akin to a 1950's British bike like a Triumph. I've seen them before, in the hills of Egypt, though those too were manufactured here in China.
Friday October 19, 2012
Asia 2012: Day 6
Siobhan has convinced me to wake up at 6AM this morning to take a tour of Xian in the morning. Shops still closed and morning deliveries still being made, our small group walked out to the side of the city wall to catch Xian's residents exercise in the park. Some made use of the multitude of public outdoor gym equipment-- leg bending, back twisting jungle gym items meant for adults to get a workout. Others played ping pong or danced to modern Chinese music. Still others formed in groups to perform with wooden swords or physical exercise regiments learned in elementary school.
One group, flanked by old men chanting out their frustrations towards the canal, performd tai chi, led by a master who offered lessons. Their colourful clothes contrasted against the gray walls of Xian's old medieval embankments.
The highlight of the day was visiting the famous Terracotta Warriors site outside of Xian. Built for China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, these six thousand figures made of clay were buried underground to defend him in the afterlife. The figures are life sized are frighteningly detailed and realistic: I expected more generic figures, but each in fact is unique and individual. No too are alike, though many share similar poses based on rank, function and position. For example, the cavalary have headpieces and hands placed as if pulling the reins of a horse. Of course, there are horse statues as well.
Pit 1, the main excavation find, contains intact figures and some areas still unexcavated. Pit 2 appears to be fragments of figures. Pit 3 is much more random, suspected to be a formation of officers in some sort of command and control function.
After returning from Lintong District, about an hour from Xian, we went to find the supposed Chinese Hamburger. This delicacy is in fact referred to as Fanji Braised Meat in Preserved Sauce, but actually tastes like a Chinese version of pulled pork, put on an unleavened, pretzel like bun. It was so good, we went back after eating the first standing outside the shop. We also went back to the noodle house and had another bowl of hand pulled noodles.
( Oct 19 2012, 12:09:35 PM EDT )
Walking through Xian tonight, we realized so many of the unusual contrasts this town has. Beijing is a government center, the capital, with formality and suitable pageantry. But Xian seems different, a strange blend of modern Asia and it's commercial excess combined with down to earth street life. Xian represents the excitement of where the country is going.
Asia 2012: Day 5
We woke up this morning, light streaming in through the edges of the curtain aboard a train bound to Xian, twelve hundred kilometers southwest from Beijing. The previous night, we rushed through the Beijing West train station, after finishing dinner at a restaurant in the lobby of the Railway Hotel, a chain of lodging near railway stations. The station was enormous, with trains arriving and departing to all points in China. A seat of people headed to the gates from the massive plaza, and a good thousand sat in the waiting room for trains to depart. I can't imagine all the platforms, as we only could see the one train we were about to board.
The train itself was a sleeper which I'm told was an eighteen car consist. Each of the soft sleeper compartments held four beds, which were nicely fitted with linens. Getting to the top bunk was a gymnastic affair which involved a foothold at chest height and spanning the gap between the top two beds.
Xian, home to eight million people, is truly a blend of modernity and history. It is a city filled with tall modern buildings, its own fake Apple Store, and a Prada boutique, all next to an ancient city wall built in the 1300s. The wall is the largest in the world and is square to the cardinal points. This morning, we got the chance to go up on the wall, which is about as wide as a regular city street, and ride rented bicycles around the perimeter. A total of thirteen kilometers, we drew a square around the center of the city, part skyscraper and commercial building, part park and lowrise housing. The bike ride was a lot of fun as it brought a very human scale to the wall, offering perspectives on the people below living their daily lives as well as the giant buildings which form Xian's skyline.
The Liuxiang Noodle Restaurant is a noodle house situated near the city center. It has an air like Schwartz' Deli in Montreal: It's got a garish flourescent lighting and pale tile walls, it's filled with locals, and they only serve one thing: In this case, hand made noodles in a beef broth. Your only choices are size of bowl (small or large), extra meat, and plum juice or orange soda. We chose a large to share and later I grabbed a bottle of Ice Peak, the local orange soda. It's not bad--sweet and carbonated. The staff pound out strands of noodles, pulling them manually and tossing them into a large vat of boiling water. The cooked noodles are then put into bowls with waiting beef stock and pieces of meat and vegetable.
A small army of waitresses take the bowls and shout your order number, delivering your bowl of noodles to your table. The pasta itself is thick and regular texture and shape and broth is salty and tasty, with a hint of mint or spice. Overall a very unique experience.
The afternoon was spent going to the Muslim Quarter, where a mosque is surrounded by hundreds of food and trinket vendors. We returned to the Muslim Quarter later in the evening for dinner, when it was lit up with a bright mixture of coloured LED signs, bare incandent bulbs and compact flourescents in some sort of lighting turf war between street sellers. For dinner we ventured to find Jiasan Guantang Baozi, a famed dumpling restaurant owned by the Jia Brothers.
To order, you speak with an attendant, who takes your requests and money. She gives you a receipt, which you give to the bus boy/girl once you find a spare table in the busy cafeteria style room. He or she then retrieves your order, while you wait at the stainless steel table. The dumplings are served in a large steamer, and you eat with chilis and vinegar. No bowls or dishes are provided, but the dumplings are good. We also had a few skewers of barbecued meat, with spices similar to the kabob places near the office at home.
Xian was covered in haze this morning, where the tall buildings couldn't be seen much further than a kilometer away. The haze at night makes for an even gradient that renders as a pink or lavender in photos. At night, the multiple floor shopping arcades and buildings stand as walls on the sides of six lane main streets, with a very wide pedestrian sidewalk sometimes filled with vendors. In comparison, the Muslim Quarter is at a much more personal scale, where the crowd weaves between sellers offering snacks of fresh and dried fruit, barbecqued meats and stews with noodles being made out in the open air. Occassionally you see the jet engine like exhaust of a gas burner firing into the crowd at knee level, only protected by an upturned stool. This is of course, dodging the three wheeled miniature delivery trucks bringing people, packages, recycled garbage and once in a while a twin sized mattress with Hello Kitty linens down the swarm of tourists.
( Oct 19 2012, 10:45:18 AM EDT )
Thursday October 18, 2012
Asia 2012: Day 4
If the mountain ranges near the Great Wall were parallax scrolling layers as if in a video game, the distant apartment blocks of Beijing's outer suburbs, divided into rings were like a different level in the same game, just a new set of bitmaps loaded into memory. The haze of the sky here makes them appear warm orange and brown in the rising sun of morning.
Our fourth day in Beijing began with a visit to the Yonghe Lama Temple, a monastery for monks of Tibetan Buddhism. Most of the buildings we've seen so far follow a very similar architectural style, most being built in the Qing dynasty. I suppose architects and engineers, even ancient ones, are a pragmatic bunch: If a style and a technique works, don't change it unless you need to.
Amongst the five halls of this temple, monks tended to the altars, while visitors came to pray and offer incense. The largest of the temple buildings holds a 26 meter tall Buddha, carved out of sandalwood. What's really unusual is the main structure has two side structures connected by what appears to be skywalks around the second floor.
All around Beijing is constant construction. The sound of construction, drilling and hammering, of large pieces of metal clanking on the ground and jackhammers in the distance, is non stop.
Our next activity was to visit a hutong, which is a communal style of living with small single floor residences, each gathered in a small grouping usually around a courtyard. These residences brought together several families, living together in a very small space. Nestled in the city, quietly isolated from the main streets, the whole of Beijing used to have thousands of such hutongs. Many were demolished over time as new buildings were built. The owners of this particular community, near the drum and bell tower in the north part of the downtown core, have offered tours as a business: You get to ride around on a small tour, and visit a family house for lunch, where they show you how to make dumplings by hand. We were sitting in the bedroom of the owner, his fiancee in the other room showing other tourists how to form dumplings in what appeared to be the living room.
The hutong has everything one needs for daily life: One store has building supplies, another giving haircuts, several more offering food. In the streets and public space, old men play chess or mahjong outside. After the tour, we ended up walking the length of the community, guided by GPS until we found the subway station at the edge of the encampment.
We finished our last day in Beijing by returning to Tiananmen Square, and finding a McDonalds where we had a taro root pie for a quick snack. This evening we drove to huge Beijing West Railway Station, to catch the Z19 sleeper service to Xian overnight. The railway station is the largest in Asia, dwarfing the Kyoto station in Japan which was the largest I'd ever seen.
( Oct 18 2012, 11:59:34 AM EDT )
Tuesday October 16, 2012
Asia 2012: Day 3
The heavens opened up as we left the hotel this morning, drenching Beijing in a grey rain, washing away its streets and cyclists. Today we left the city for Mutianyu, a section of the Great Wall of China about two hours away given the traffic of Beijing. The Great Wall overall is a 6000km long fortification, but today the wall segments are whats left. As we piled out of the van and walked up, we had two options: Walk up to the wall, or take a cable car to Tower 14, midway along. We opted to take the cable car, as the wall itself would pose its own challenge. The rain was still coming down though light was starting to shine through.
Standing up on the wall, looking at its wavy, organic path along the spine of the mountain top, was an absolutely breathtaking moment. It also happened that the rain stopped minutes later, clearing the wall of throngs of tourists but leaving a foggy, somewhat magical mountain perch for us to walk along. Despite my 5D incorrectly exposing the overcast light, I preferred this because it was damp, yet cool.
Siobhan and I walked along the wall top, its crooked tiles undulating up and down, sometimes converting to steps as we reached an angle too high for level stone. The towers themselves are built of stone, each with a panoramic view from its roof top. The valleys on either side were shrouded in fog, covered in a lush carpet of trees now turning warm shades in autumn. Mountain ranges stretched out towards the horizon, silhouettes layered into the distance. We decided to go as far as we could, to the twenty second tower. It seems to be perched at the very end on top of a very steep mountain, which required an absolutely grueling climb. Just before on another watch tower, a local sells beers and snacks before you finish at the top.
The climb up the mountain on this section of the wall was painful, at least for my untrained self, carrying two full frame camera bodies and four lenses. However, after several pauses, I managed to get to the top. I was enjoying the beautitful vantage from this final tower, when up came a group of Type A corporate personalities, screaming accolades and self affirming team building business cliches. Every few seconds, the serene peace of this stunning vista was pierced by their self congratulatory screams, and repeated chants of the 1998 World Cup song, "Hey Baby!". As we began to return down the hill to avoid them, they formed a human pyramid, took a picture and then planned to go past the warning signs off the uncharted parts of the wall.
A brigade of souvenir sellers encamps on the base of the mountain here. They're not as bold as the sellers in Egypt, but they do like to show you their wares, including a portrait of Obama wearing a Red Army hat.
The lunch options, as suggested by our guide, are not numerous in Mutianyu. We ended up in Subway, where the staff proceded to confuse my order, then scrape off the previous order and put my actual order back onto the bun. However, given the three hours of hiking along the wall, I would have eaten a horse.
In the afternoon, we visited the Summer Palace, built by the Empress Dowager as a vacation retreat. As we walked along the long corridor, we drew a path around the lake, the main temple on the hill basking in the setting afternoon sun.
( Oct 16 2012, 08:56:26 PM EDT )
Tonight, we went to Da Dong Duck, a famed local roast duck restaurant, with Alvin Chin, former student of Mark Chignell's. Alvin now works here at Nokia's development center in Beijing. The food was exquisitely prepared and visually presented, but perhaps the best part was to talk to him and his wife, who moved here a few years ago and gave us an intriguing personal view of life in this city.
Monday October 15, 2012
Asia 2012: Day 2
Today we joined our tour of China, starting with the Temple of Heaven. As we drove from the hotel, I noticed the checkers players as seen last night were still playing, same spot, same game, but perhaps different participants. The Temple of Heaven is a set of buildings built in the 1400's for religious prayer activities by the Emperors of China. They would go here to pray for good harvest, at a circular altar, about three platforms tall. The building that we think of as the Temple of Heaven is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, which I learned from Wikipedia after the fact.
As the day started, many Chinese seniors took to the parks in this complex to exercise. While some of them played a hacky-sack game with a feathered weight, probably trying to encourage tourists to buy one, others danced to electro-infused Chinese folk music, oblivious to the hundreds of onlookers. One old man, swerved around visitors on home made skates, his own music playing and having a great time. Another set of couples, danced ball room style.
They say that when you carry a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Today I swapped my 24-70mm for a 17-40mm early on and as a result, I began to take overly wide photographs of monuments. I also found my 5D overexposing everything, though that could be the unfortunate overcast day here in Beijing.
At lunch, our tour took us to a nearby mall with fast food options in the basement as a matter of convenience. While we were discouraged from buying anything, walking around the stalls brought a wide variety of usual and unusual items for sale. Some stalls had cheap gadgets and watches for sale, others cell phone cases. On the other hand, they also sold a variety of expensive digital cameras. But my favourite was by far a stall where the owner would sculpt a small figurine of you, bobble head style in half an hour while you had lunch. I absolutely loved this guy--in a sea of fake watches and generic mass produced products, he'd tapped into the tourist market with a unique and creative, though wacky, business.
For lunch, this mall seemed to cater to tourists based on proximity to historic sites, and as a result, offered DQ, KFC and McDonalds. However, in the basement was a Xiabu Xiabu hot-pot restaurant, a large chain where you sit down with a hot-pot and make your own lunch by adding raw vegetables and meat to the broth. Hot-pot is fairly common in Chinese Canadian restaurants and families, but I've never seen one so oriented to fast-food eating. Siobhan and I had a great time with it, despite not speaking any Mandarin.
In the afternoon, we went across Tiananmen Square, covered in flowers and flanked by the national assembly and museum, to the Forbidden City. This is the imperial palace of the Ming to Qing dynasties. That Grade 5 project came to life as the hundreds of buildings, each with their ornate roofs and interlocking terraces unfolded. Despite being a cloudly day, thousands of visitors joined us, making it difficult to get clean photographs.
Our guide offered to take us to the 2008 Beijing Olympic site to see the Water Cube and Birds Nest, the Beijing National Aquatics Center and Beijing National Stadium. Getting there was quite a challenge, in the traffic of Monday night rush hour. We got in line for a city bus, where a man was barking orders for transit patrons to stay in line. Powered by a small speaker over his shoulder and an official flag used as a pointer, he forcefully and skillfully shaped up the waiting lines, ensuring everyone got onto the bus in time and in an orderly fashion. While a little loud and comical, I'm sure it'd be chaos without him.
Driving through the city at night brought little vignettes of daily life--people bringing home groceries and getting around for dinner. The Olympic site, in comparison, was quiet. The Olympics long gone, the buildings are visited tonight by visitors like us, poking around and taking photos of themselves with these giant architectural marvels. I'm sure they are used in the day time, but at night they seem a little lonely, waiting for the spectators and athletes to return again.
Tonight I pulled out my new tool in long exposure photography without carrying around a heavy and bulky tripod: A Manfrotto Superclamp with a ball head on it. Useful? Well clamping to poles, gates and benches makes for solid camera support. The problem I've found is they don't tend to put these things in the center line of major subjects. Verdict is still out of it made sense to bring this.
( Oct 15 2012, 05:31:44 PM EDT )
I ended up out for dinner in a small restaurant nearby the hotel with the tour group. Next door to the checkers players, games still continuing, we had wok fired dishes, grilled chicken and lamb, and of course, tea and rice.
Sunday October 14, 2012
Asia 2012: Day 1
Every city around the world aims to impress with a modern new airport. Airports are monuments to advancement and gateways to trade, so it makes sense to build a new and exciting one. Beijing's Capital Internatonal Airport was certainly no disappointment, its clean modern gates and sinuous ceiling arching across the sky. As we landed around midnight, the gates were deserted, save a Emirates crew disembarking, walking across the customs area with their neat uniforms.
What was really impressive about the airport wasn't that it was modern or stylish, but that as we got onto the automated people mover, I realized its size: Gate after gate whisked by in the night, as we moved from terminal to terminal. As we drove into the city, flyovers and apartment buildings similarly dominated the horizon, astouding in sheer number.
Shaking off the jet lag, we decided to venture out into the city with the goal of trying to get to the China Railway Museum. What used to be out in the countryside near the airport is now engulfed by new apartment buildings and development. Our first task was to walk to the subway station. Beijing now has 192 subway stations on 15 lines, mostly built in the past ten years. The lines span 372 km, stretching out in every direction. In comparison, Toronto's subway has 69 stations over 70 km of track. Walking along to the subway stop was a mix of modernity and tradition. Along the streets in this part of town, the images of waves of only bicycles are now replaced by the 4.5 million motor cars in town, intermixed with pedal and electric bikes. The streets are filled with the cacophony of horn honks, as vehicles mix in and out and the sounds of construction.
The route to the subway seemed to be filled with congregations of stores of a certain type. One street was only musical instruments, shops festooned with violins or drums. The next appeared to be a monument and award street, with shop fronts displaying plaques, trophies and commemorative nameplates.
The first line of the subway was built 1970's, but as we made interchanges to lines going out of the city, the stations became modern. In some cases, the signage seemed almost temporary, with station names affixed on labels where changes would soon be made. On a quiet Sunday, the subway was still busy. We found ourselves in the area of Wangjing, a newly suburb--surrounded by blocks of apartments and greeted by the gleaming corporate headquarters of multinationals like Microsoft, Daimler, Nestle and Caterpillar. I thought it would be a good idea to walk for bit to see what regular people do here--on a Sunday, it seems everyone was out with family.
The main road here had a real estate office, a 7-11, and some street vendors selling potatoes. About a block or two further along, a modern and new shopping arcade had places like KFC, McDonalds and Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain. Some people here had the unmistakable tribal plumage of a corporate ID card, hung around the neck with a lanyard with logos. Probably a lunch place for the office workers.
By now it was noon, so we sat down at an interesting restaurant named Royal Dumplings, which seemed to blend traditional dumplings made with cornmeal skins and the branding of a large multinational food chain. The Royal Dumplings staff didn't speak English or Cantonese, which made us seem probably seem a bit arrogant to try. Here, my lack of Mandarin makes me worse than Siobhan as at least with her, they understand why she doesn't speak the language. Regardless, we did manage to order two plates of dumplings and a plate of solid tofu cut in strips with pea shoots.
Getting to the museum became a journey in itself, watching people out and about, in hair salons and riding to their next destination. Eventually we came to an industrial area with garages and metal workers, some fixing cars or welding together steel frames, others just shooting the breeze with their friends.
The Railway Museum is quite a walk away once past the interesting suburb. Eventually we found ourselves at a huge warehouse, but only with a few indications a museum was inside: First, there were several tracks leading into the warehouse, despite the wall being blank. Ths meant the doors didn't open often. Second, Siobhan spotted a stroller and a family bringing their kids inside. Once we paid our admission, inside were several rows of old steam and diesel electric locomotives.
It's funny how despite cultural or language differences, people fall back to the same inordinate truths and values. First, kids love trains, so any Sunday, whether you're in Halton or Beijing, it's fun to go see them. Second, every train exhibit, in English or Chinese, will need some Thomas the Tank Engine playing, in this case in Mandarin. And third, everyone loves to sit in the cab of a train, even if the train is not moving, so you'd better have one of the locomotives open for visitors.
It was interesting to see that China imported locomotives from different countries--West Germany and Croatia for example, as well as inherited them in its past--notably Japanese steam. It was also interesting to see steam engines only ended production in 1988, decades after the end of steam in the West. The fourth inalienable truth of rail fandom: People love steam: A row of photographs of old locomotives, smoke billowing from the smokestacks, driving across the Chinese landscape, were presented for visitors to see. They were really beautitful.
The rows of massive diesel freight locos and huge big iron of steam engines are interspersed with memorabilia: Coffee cups with the railway logo, old timetables, official station keeper stop watches, and badges and uniforms. Someone has carefully kept all these things and collected them for show. And perhaps the fifth truth of all railways: People are proud of powering the engine of a nation, in this case, the state railway.
We took a taxi back to the subway station and returned to the hotel. By now, a dinner rush had swamped the subway, with thousands of people in the stations. Getting caught in this wave of people meant being swept up like little fish and transported downstream.
Today has been a bit of study in contrasts: We've seen the state railways, the light industrial quarter, the corporate international area, and on the way home, a tourist/commercial district.
( Oct 14 2012, 08:54:33 PM EDT )