Tag: travelogue


Aug 2018

Down Time in Japan

It’s been a busy summer so far, so it was nice to pop over to Fukuoka for a week to unwind a bit. I ended up doing a lot of thinking about Japan and China. More on that next week.


Gen on the Path

Forest Buddha

River Crab

P.S. River crabs (河蟹) are totally real in Fukuoka and actually crawl all over the mountains!

Taito Game Station


Apr 2017

Xiamen (take 2)

I don’t write about places I visit much these days… I’m a grumpy old man now, and it’s all “been there, done that!” I feel that Xiamen is worth a special mention, though. I’ve now been there twice, and I really enjoyed it both times, especially the small island called Gulangyu (鼓浪屿).

The reasons I like Gulangyu are not really typical ones, though. First a few pictures, then the explanation…
















Thoughts on Gulangyu

OK, first let me get a few things out of the way… I’m not a big fan of Chinese seafood (we have a bad history), and I don’t find any of the food on Gulangyu particularly good. So reasons for liking Gulangyu have nothing to do with food.

The main reasons:

  1. The island is just fun to explore… Lots of little twisting roads, interesting architecture, tunnels, beaches, little mountains. It’s a fun place. (Reminds me a little bit of Lijiang in this way, but obviously it’s a very different setting.)
  2. The place is pretty packed with tourists during the day (all clamoring to sample not-great seafood), but at night the place has a special charm. It’s fun to walk around after dark. The roads are well-lit, and surveillance cameras are everywhere (it’s a little disconcerting, honestly), so the place feels quite safe.
  3. No cars are allowed on the island, nor are scooters. You barely see any bicycles, even. Honestly, this might be a huge part of why I like the place so much… it’s hard to say how much this influences my feelings.
  4. The weather is great. The first time I went around Chinese New Year in 2016, and I just went again around the beginning of April this year. Very comfy (unlike Shanghai in winter and early spring).
  5. Lots of little independent shops and restaurants. No Starbucks on Gulangyu. Yes, there is a McDonalds and a KFC,
    but there aren’t so many chains, compared to some places, and the little hotels, teahouses, cafes, and restuarants all feel quite distinct (shout out to “Jia Nan D Lounge” (迦南D Lounge)… cool bar, and super friendly staff!).

So, Gulangyu in Xiamen: worth a leisurely visit, in my humble opinion.


Jul 2014

Clean Water in China?

Last week AllSet Learning staff took a team-building trip to the mountains of Zhejiang in Tonglu County (浙江省桐庐县). It was a nice trip, and one of the things that struck me most about the natural beauty there was the lack of litter and crystal-clear water. Anyone who has traveled much in China knows that it’s a beautiful, beautiful country, but disgracefully covered in litter in so many otherwise breath-taking tourist destinations. Not so in Tonglu!


I was also surprised to learn that the locals there drink the water straight from the mountain streams without treating it at all. They don’t have “normal” plumbing, it’s all piped from the higher regions of the flowing mountain streams. I have to wonder: with so much of China so heinously polluted, could this water actually be safe to drink?


Anyone else want to weigh in with some facts or links?



Dec 2009

Bits from Beijing

I just got back from a business trip to Beijing. I was representing ChinesePod at the Hanban’s recent “Exhibitions of Resources of Confucius Institutes and World Languages.” Despite having lived in China for over 9 years, it was my first time in northern China in the winter. Here’s what I noticed:

– Chinese 暖气 (central heating) is awesome. I’m used to winters in Shanghai, to only being warm for short periods of time during the winter, to the floors being freezing for months on end… so I was not prepared for my hotel being “boxers and a t-shirt” warm the whole time. And the floors weren’t cold at all. (Now I also see why visitors from the north are so wimpy here in the winter.)

国家会议中心Wow, the former Olympic Village is a desolate ghost town (but the “You and Me” theme song is still playing on a loop there). It’s such a huge space; you’d think that it would be utilized a little better post-Olympics. The exhibition I attended was in the “National Conference Center,” but drivers didn’t even know where that was; when I asked to be taken to the 国家会议中心 (National Conference Center), I was invariably taken to the nearby 国际会议中心 (International Conference Center). I guess even the massive new conference center isn’t getting much use yet.

LED ChristmasThe world’s largest LED screen at “The Place” is impressive… but it’s kind of sad. That mall doesn’t seem to have a ton of traffic still, and the screen already has more than a few dead pixels. (The screen faces downward, by the way, and it’s only on at night.)

"Hawaiian Pizza"When I ordered a “Hawaiian pizza” at a cafe, I got a pizza with spam, dragon fruit, banana, apple, and kiwi fruit on it. Yikes.

(Normal blogging to resume soon… Recent spottiness is due largely to lots of time spent on some “new research.”)


Sep 2009

Weekend in Beijing

Light posting lately… I just got back from a weekend in Beijing. No sightseeing, no business… just hanging out, taking it easy, and seeing a few friends. Got together with Pepe, Brendan, Joel, Syz, Dave Lancashire, Roddy, and David Moser. And also happened to bump into Rob of Black and White Cat.

My wife and I spent most of our time on Bei Luogu Xiang (北锣鼓巷) or Nan Luogu Xiang (南锣鼓巷). We stayed in a nice little 四合院 hotel in the area called 吉庆堂. Thanks to Brendan, we ended up at a bar called Amilal both nights, which was a pleasant 20-minute walk from our hotel.

We had a good time, and my Shanghainese wife is liking Beijing more every time we go.


Jul 2009

America through In-laws

It was a great trip to the States. I had been bracing myself for wacky cross-cultural antics, but nothing particularly noteworthy transpired. I didn’t have many surprises of my own, either. Rather, this time I enjoyed seeing my country through my the eyes of my in-laws.

Here are a few little notes:

– My father-in-law cooked himself a waffle at the hotel breakfast buffet and then ate it with salt and pepper, lamenting that there was no hot sauce.
– On the very first day in Tampa, I woke up to my Chinese family all watching TV. Curious what show they had been sucked into, I was amused to discover that it was Jerry Springer. “Why are these people so angry?” they wanted to know.
– When there’s no common language, gestures can be quite misleading. Trying to communicate, “I’m full and it was a great meal, but I need a toothpick” can somehow become, “I have heartburn and I need medication immediately.”
– My in-laws exclaimed at how crisp and sweet fresh American corn is. I was horrified to learn they preferred it mushy and/or chewy.
– American food comes in enormous quantities, and is frequently way too sweet. (My wife demanded to know why American cake always has so much frosting… which she weirdly calls 奶油, a word which more commonly means “cream.”)
– No one would go on the Montu at Busch Gardens with me except for my mother-in-law. That was pretty awesome.
– My father-in-law, who thought he could eat spicy food, has a newfound respect for Mexican chilies, courtesy of a dish called camarones a la diabla, from Del Valle on Fowler Avenue, Tampa (best Mexican food I’ve had outside of Mexico!).
– In the absence of a gas range, an electric wok is pretty all right for home-cooked Chinese food.
– My in-laws were impressed that total strangers kept greeting them everywhere they went. The friendliness of strangers was something they felt they could really get used to.
– No one took much notice of how fat Americans are.


Apr 2008

A Trip to Anji

My wife’s family got their tomb-sweeping done early (apparently that’s allowed), so we used the three-day weekend for a trip to Anji (安吉), Zhejiang Province’s bamboo wonderland.

Anji Tourism Map
Anji Tourist Map [click here for another version]

It has been a while since I went on a trip like this on China, so I was reminded of an important fact: When you go as an uninformed tourist, you get the full tourist experience. We didn’t do a whole lot of research before going. My wife found a pretty nice place to stay online, and the “mountains + bamboo” scenery was great, but we ended up visiting various locations as just two more cogs in the tourism machine. If we ever go back, we’ll remember to do it a bit differently. The following are some of my observations for those of you that are interested in Anji.

Early April was a good time to go because it wasn’t too hot and the crowds were tolerable, but the mountain waterfalls are a little less full, and the bamboo a little less green this time of year. It’s a trade-off.

Bamboo Forest

The place with the most attractive name, 中国大竹海 (Great Bamboo Sea of China), was something of a rip-off. I think my wife’s observation was pretty astute: “they’re just trying to make a tourist buck off of their bamboo production land.” True enough. They also rely heavily on being the bamboo forest location in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. (See image below)


The text on the billboard which greets you when you arrive reads:

> 《卧虎藏龙》、《像雾像雨又像风》等影视作品拍摄地

A rough translation:

> Filming location of cinematic works such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Love Story in Shanghai
Chow Young-fat, Zhang Ziyi came,
Zhou Xun, Chen Kun came,
Stephen Chow, Liu Dekai came,
Hey, the stars all came — what are we waiting for?

We didn’t go too deep in, because we didn’t like what we saw in our first hour there: truckloads of cut bamboo on their way out (which tourists had to dodge), fairly thin bamboo forest, bamboo in the forest marked for cutting in big black characters, and tourists frenziedly trying to find and dig up new bamboo shoots (which they’re told they can have if they find). Other random additions included a mini roller coaster and an alpine zipline.

We tried the roller coaster (40 RMB per person), and it was pretty fun. What was interesting is that it had a hand brake. Fortunately my wife let me man the brake, because I was determined to use it as little as possible (whereas must of the Chinese tourists seemed to be applying it right away on the initial descent). It did raise the troubling question, though: is this hand brake here for tourists’ peace of mind, or can this track really not handle us going around the corners at full speed? There was a net along the sides of the track in some places, but not others (including a few tight turns), and the end of the ride requires the riders to brake themselves.

Break now! Roller coaster car

竹博园, something of a bamboo-themed botanical garden, was also pretty lame. You get to see lots of different types of bamboo, but it wasn’t looking very beautiful. There was also a fair amount of random park-like stuff, including the inflatable bubbles on the pond, and even a stage for performances, which radiated loud annoying techno-pop (not the best thing for the atmosphere).

We stayed in the 九龙峡 (literally, “Nine Dragon Gorge”) scenic area, where we saw 白茶谷 (literally, “White Tea Valley”) and 藏龙百瀑 (literally, “Hidden Dragon Hundred Falls”), which were both pretty decent, scenery-wise. The area at the top of 白茶谷 was still under construction, so we couldn’t go all the way to the top. We only went as far as a Buddhist temple about 3/4 of the way up. We had some 白茶 (“white tea”) on the mountain, and it was tasty.

Don't pick the tea!

We didn’t go all the way to the top of 藏龙百瀑 either, because we were both a bit tired from our first mountain climbing experience that day, it was getting dark (no lights), and everyone said the best spectacle was the waterfall halfway up.

Anji in general is still rapidly developing for tourism. I talked to a worker on the way up 藏龙百瀑 who told me the mountain paths (cement/stone stairways in the mountainside) were all only 7-8 years old. (That is, probably not so coincidentally, right when Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon came out.)

Overall, a pleasant visit, but be prepared for the stuff that comes with a newly developing tourism industry, and learn from my mistake: do your homework first! We only saw a few parts of a large beautiful region. There is still lots to see.


Oct 2007

Tipping Hell

I grew up in the US, so when I’m there, I know how to tip. It’s not too hard to know how to tip in my adopted home, China, because you just don’t do it. You almost never tip in China. Easy. Thus, I was totally unprepared for Turkey on the tipping front.

Somewhere around the year 2002 I abandoned the Lonely Planet and guidebooks altogether. I figured it’s more fun to just get by on scattered intelligence gleaned from friends, random strangers, and haphazard internet searches. This has always worked. But when I got to Turkey, I wasn’t sure what to tip.

I’ve got to say, not knowing what to tip really sucks. We couldn’t tip like rich foreigners on vacation because (1) we’re not rich, and (2) for a while we were having problems getting our Chinese credit cards to work, so we were tight on cash. So we were trying hard to tip only when we needed to.

At one restaurant, though, we clearly under-tipped. We didn’t realize it until we were already on our way out and we the waiter’s reaction to what we left. Man, that does make you feel like a jackass. We were at the point where it was too late to add to the tip, and we didn’t have the change to do so anyway (you don’t supplement a lousy $3 tip with $50).

For days, we were caught in this tipping hell.

Lesson learned: get the tipping rules straight before you go. (You gotta love China!)


Feb 2007

Like a Hamster Ball on the Water

While in Chongqing we went to a carnival by the river side. There was one event that got our attention immediately. It looked like people running around inside giant hamster balls on top of water. What fun!

Playing in Bubbles

A thought immediately came to my mind, though: how do they get fresh air in those things? It turns out they don’t. They fill the balls with a big blower, then zipper them shut and put a big piece of tape over the zipper to keep it water tight. You’re only allowed in for 5 minutes, after which the carnies reel you in (the ball is tethered to the shore). It cost 10 RMB.



Feb 2007


My wife and I had a nice time in Chongqing, even though we saw only a sliver of what the city had to offer. We took Matt Scranton‘s excellent advice and checked out 瓷器口. There were so many cool snacks to try that we couldn’t even eat lunch, and a little later we wound up lost in a maze of twisting old alleyways up on the mountain. We also went to 洪崖洞, which was nothing special.

We spent a lot of the afternoon and evening with my wife’s relatives, where I got a good earful of the Chongqing dialect. I was amused that her uncle’s pronunciation of 美国 (the USA) sounded a lot like 玫瑰 (a rose).

There was so much we didn’t do (we didn’t even have hot pot there!), but we didn’t want to pack too much into the little time we had. We had a nice time, and I wouldn’t mind going back for more. Here are a few pictures.

Miscellaneous Spiciness

Cool Chongqing Dog

Riverside Carnival

Play with Fire

(Click through to the Flickr pages for explanations of the photos.)


Jul 2006

Lanzhou, Lanzhou, Lanzhou

I’m going to steal from Talk Talk China‘s comments section again. This time it’s a comment from Kimmor in a hilarious (but apparently earnest) description of the Chinese city of Lanzhou. I found this interesting because I was just talking with a Chinese co-worker from Gansu about Lanzhou (and yes, its noodles) the other day.

> Lanzhou, Lanzhou, Lanzhou. Was there for two weeks. When I returned to Guangzhou I deposited the suitcase (contents included) that I had taken with me into the dumpster before I even put the key into my apartment door. I remember thinking the day I arrived, “Wow, people here really like brown clothes.” Two days later I had joined the ranks of those sporting the brown from head to toe look. Imagine the duststorm we had this April in BJ. Now imagine it every day. Now imagine it an even more flourescent shade of yellow. Welcome to Lanzhou. Nothing redeeming about this city at all. No need to bring up the obvious, “What about the famous Lanzhou beef noodles???” They are great, ANYWHERE but Lanzhou. To eat beef noodles in Lanzhou involves opening your mouth. Opening your mouth in Lanzhou involves inhaling even more ochre-tinted-sulfuric kryptonite dust. Believe me, the Lanzhou beef noodles in your town are much better, even if your town is Wuhan. Wuhan is just like the Pittsburgh (US) of China. Lanzhou is like the…well, like the inside of your hepa-filter vacuum cleaner of China. I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing extended stays in many of China’s “second tier” cities. I do really like China and always manage to find interesting things to see, do, buy or eat wherever I go, but Lanzhou gets the big N-O.

I might have to visit Lanzhou now just to verify this account…

Related: a similarly enthusaistic account of Zhuhai


Apr 2006

Toenail Terror in the Foot Bath

OK, we all know how we are supposed to trim our toenails, right? Always straight across. eHow says:

> Cut toenails straight across and avoid cutting them too short; otherwise, you might get ingrown toenails (a condition in which edges of toenails push into the skin).

Just to make this absolutely clear, let me provide a visual aid:

Right Wrong

Recently I went on a trip to Wuyuan with some other ECNU students, and I went to our hotel’s foot bath with a friend. At one point during the soaking/greasing/kneading process they asked if I wanted my toenails trimmed. I said sure. Why not?

It wasn’t until a few days later that I even noticed how they trimmed my big toenails:

Before After

I sure hope I don’t get ingrown toenails because of how those clowns trimbed my toenails! So if you ever get a foot bath in China, watch out.

[Incidentally, another thing I should warn you about is pictures of toenails. I used Google Image Search to search for toenails (and other variations), and I got quite a few eyefuls of some naaaasty stuff. Interestingly, when you search for toenails in Chinese on Baidu (脚趾甲), you get only pretty toenails, interspersed with hot chicks, puppies, sunsets, pandas, cherries, and other happy images. If this is the CCP’s vision of a cleaner internet, I think I like it. Anyway, that’s why I had to draw my own toenail images.]


Mar 2006

Making Money on Roadkill

So in Jiangxi on the way back from Wuyuan our bus got stopped for 30-40 minutes at a toll booth. It turned out that a ways back our driver had hit a dog. He knew he had, but the dog had come out of nowhere, and it definitely didn’t make it. We kept going. The owner saw the bus hit his dog and took off after our bus on his motorbike. He caught up to us at the toll booth.

The owner demanded 500 rmb as compensation for the dog. Now, I love dogs, and my sympathies are with the owner, but 500 rmb is an outrageous amount. The dogs in the countryside are all mongrels that just roam around.

The owner’s motivations were clear. We wondered if he was even the owner. He might have just been a guy that saw the dog get hit. None of the dogs we saw in Jiangxi wore collars or anything. Some of my classmates were joking that maybe he raises dogs just to chuck them in front of out-of-town tourist buses.

The taxi driver and the dog owner argued for quite some time while we all sat in the bus. Eventually police came to mediate. In the end the driver had to pay 300 rmb.

I felt a little bad about assuming the guy was merely a blatant opportunist. Maybe the dog actually did mean a lot to him. But then as we pulled away I got a look at him. He had quite a grin on his face.


Feb 2006

Riding with Strangers in Yunnan

It was 2003, and I was spending my Chinese New Year vacation in Yunnan. I headed out there with a Chinese friend, but after hanging out in Dali (大理) and Lijiang (丽江) some, we soon found our vacation mindsets quite different, and we went our separate ways. I was more than happy to be wandering wild crazy Yunnan on my own. I headed to Jinghong (景洪), the starting point for most “treks” in the southern Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) area of Yunnan Province.

I won’t go into the details of the trek in this post, but it was a 40 km trek. It was supposed to take two whole days, but since I was doing it alone, I figured I’d start early, walk a little faster (at 6’4″ I have long legs), and do it in one day. The night before the trek I stayed in a pretty miserable little town and slept in a dirty little bed that was overpriced at 40rmb. I was off at dawn.

As the sun was setting, I had made it to the end of the almost 14-hour trek. I found myself walking through some little town, but evidently I was still a ways off from the bus stop that takes you to Jinghong. After walking through that town for about half an hour with blistered feet, I asked and determined that I was still 10km away from the bus station, so I caught a ride. I arrived at the station just in time to see a bus pulling away. Guess which one it was? Yes, it was the last bus to Jinghong.

At that point I had to make a decision. I had already paid for that night at my hotel in Jinghong. It wasn’t really a lot of money, but it seemed stupid to spend the night where I was. Although I really enjoyed the trek, there was no disguising the squalor of the villages. The people there understandably saw foreigners as money-making opportunities, which didn’t allow for many meaningful interactions. I was sort of getting into a “get there, understand, get out” mentality. I really felt I didn’t belong, and I was ready to go. Maybe I was experiencing the onset of travel fatigue.

If I didn’t want to spend the night in that village, though, what options did I have? The last bus was already gone. Seeing a fairly nice car coming down the road the bus had just left on, I did something impulsive. I went over to the car and asked the two men inside if they were going to Jinghong. They were. I asked if I could get a ride with them.

I have to explain here that I’m not the type of person that hitchhikes all the time. I’ve certainly done a fair bit of hitchhiking around Japan, from Tokyo to Fukuoka, but that’s Japan. That’s pretty much the only place I feel hitchhiking is really safe (at least for a big male foreigner like me). Yet that night in Yunnan, a sort of desperation came over me. I felt I just had to get out of there. I imagine it’s the same sort of feeling China as a whole gives some foreigners. We all have our own thresholds. Anyway, catching a ride in Yunnan with two men I didn’t know really didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time. They looked like decent guys.

So I got in their car, and we started chatting. They had driven down for the day on business. They had to collect gambling money for the boss or something like that. It was soon pretty obvious that these guys were some kind of gangsters. I had hitched a ride at night with gangsters in China’s drug capital.

It was really dark. There are a lot of remote roads in Yunnan, and not enough public funding for street lights. I really had no idea where we were going. I just knew that the two guys had said they were going to Jinghong when I asked. I tried not to think about it. It was well into the trip, when we were driving down a desolate tree-lined road that one of the guys turned to me and asked, “do you know where we’re going?”

“Jinghong,” I told him, trying to disguise a rising feeling of alarm.

“Jinghong, huh?” he replied, smiling. He gestured to the road ahead and the spookily lit trees, cradling the dark road like claws. “Does this look like the road to Jinghong?

I don’t even remember how I replied. The two were looking at each other and laughing. I wasn’t sure what to think or what to do. The guy didn’t say much after that.

As more time passed, it became clear that we were almost to Jinghong. The guy had been joking with me. He and his friend’s chatter about drinking, gambling, and whoring hadn’t exactly assuaged my fears that these guys were dangerous, but at least they really did intend to take me all the way to my hotel as they promised. They tried to get me to go drinking and whoring with them, but those invitations were easy enough to deflect. I slept really well that night.

Yeah, I have to say, hitchhiking in China isn’t the best idea. I’m lucky all I got was a scare. I don’t remember what the guys looked like, but I very clearly remember that dark road, and the guy asking me, “Does this look like the road to Jinghong?”

That trip to Yunnan was pretty awesome.

Related Link: Yunnan photo album (2003)


Oct 2005


When I visited Yunnan in February 2003, I was, of course, interested in seeing something of the lives of the minority people that live there. I didn’t want to participate in exploitation, but I wanted to satisfy my own curiosity and learn something about their ways of life.

A unique opportunity presented itself when I had dinner with my Japanese friend at a local restaurant in Jinghong (景洪). It was one of those minority-themed restaurants you might expect to find in an area with a large minority population: the servers are of the minority, wearing traditional dress, serving traditional minority dishes (undoubtedly modified to suit Han Chinese palates). They even had minority music and did minority dances. The complete minority entertainment package designed to satisfy the Han tourist.

My friend and I arrived as the entertainment was ending. Everyone else, it seemed, was in the restaurant because that was where and when their tour group dictated they would be getting their dose of evening cultural and culinary nourishment. At the appropriate time, they all filed out. At about that time, our food was served. As we ate, the staff cleared all the other tables. We exchanged some friendly small talk.

On the way out, we passed a table where the entire staff was gathered, eating their own dinner. I noticed it was a little different from what they had been serving everyone. They explained that it was the real thing, and they invited us to join them. We had just eaten, of course, but we were delighted by their friendliness and sat down for a chat.

The next day my friend left Xishuangbanna. I had some time to kill in that area, so I found myself showing up at that restaurant at their dinnertime for several more chats. I can’t say I learned about their way of life in a way that no other tourist did; I merely talked with them on a few occasions. But they seemed to appreciate my sincere interest, and I ate up a pure friendliness unmotivated by the desire to sell me anything.

My last day in their town, I stopped by the restaurant one more time. I wanted to get a picture with them. On previous visits I had felt that it was somehow exploitative to want to take pictures of them, but I felt it was entirely harmless to take a picture with them before I left. They agreed, with an expression I couldn’t quite interpret.

After I took the picture, they asked if I would send the picture to them. I said I would. “Really?” they asked, apparently unconvinced. “Many other travellers have taken our pictures before and promised to send them to us. But they never do.” What assholes those other travellers are, I thought.

“Yes,” I told them. “I will send you the picture.”


I moved from Hangzhou to Shanghai in January, 2004. I gathered a lot of papers in my stay in Hangzhou, and it all had to be sorted through before the move. On one such afternoon of tedious sorting, a tattered pink slip of paper caught my eye. Opening it up, I realized it was the address of the restaurant in Jinghong. I had carelessly misplaced it upon returning to Hangzhou, which meant I had been unable to send the photograph. But here it was!

I was about to move to Shanghai. I had a million things to do in the next 48 hours. Yet, this pink slip of paper represented an unfulfilled obligation that really bothered me. It would not be ignored or further postponed. Its time had come.

I looked at the pice of paper and remembered what the girl had said. Many other travellers have taken our pictures before and promised to send them to us. But they never do.

What assholes…

I slowly crumpled up the pink slip of paper and dropped it into the garbage bag, paused for moment, then hurriedly continuing my urgent sorting.


Apr 2005

Suzhou: any good?

I spent Friday and Saturday in Suzhou with Carl and his parents. Carl took his parents for sightseeing, and since I’d never been, decided to tag along.

Suzhou has always been paired with Hangzhou in my mind, due to the famous Chinese saying:

> 上有天堂,下有苏杭。
> Above there is Heaven,
> Below, Suzhou and Hangzhou.

Living in Hangzhou, I had this verse cited to me countless times. Hangzhou was not quite Heaven, but it was a pretty nice city as Chinese cities go. I was always just a little curious to see how Suzhou compared. I finally had my chance.

My first impressions were not good. The touts at the train station in Suzhou are particularly aggressive and annoying. These touts learn a few phrases of English just so they can rip off unwary foreigners. After finally convincing them we REALLY had no interest in their services, we got in the taxi line. It was extremely long.

Then we had trouble finding the hotel we wanted to stay at. That may very well be the Lonely Planet’s fault; who knows. We ended up getting off somewhere and walking for quite a while. We walked through Suzhou University’s campus, which was quite nice. Very green campus, with interesting circle-inspired architecture. Eventually we decided on a hotel right off Suzhou’s shopping/bar street (十全街).

The first touristy place we went to was the maze-like “Garden of the Master of the Nets” (网师园), which was supposed to be the most famous of Suzhou’s legendary gardens. The admission was 30 rmb. Wow, what a let-down. Not interesting, not beautiful. Not even very green. I guess maybe I’m bringing in my own Western ideals of what a “garden” should be, which does not necessarily jive with China’s version throughout its history, but so what? We didn’t like it. Carl, always looking for the good in things, made the comment, “this place would be good for playing paintball.”

That afternoon we sipped freshly harvested Suzhou green tea and played 五子棋 (traditional Chinese “Connect 5” boardgame) while having a nice chat in a teahouse.

That evening Carl and I checked out the bar scene on 十全街. The bars all seemed to be hostess bars or dead. All the bars we came to would be either (a) absolutely lifeless and uninviting, or (b) filled with provocatively dressed girls that tried to pull us in as we passed. I guess that’s just how 十全街 is. We saw a lot of foreigners on that street. A staggeringly large amount.

Carl and I settled on Venice Bar, killed some time there, and then later went to meet up with Matt (of Chabuduo). We chatted at his place for a while with him and his charming young bride Wang Ying, and then we headed out to a nice pub Matt knew (which, thankfully, was not on 十全街!). We had a good bilingual conversation there (Matt, as expected, speaks some good Chinese), put away a few beers, and then headed back into town for a late-night snack of 麻辣烫 (a kind of DIY spicy soup, or “the poor man’s hotpot,” as I think of it). I passed on the 麻辣烫, which for some reason disappointed the others. I’m just not a big fan of it. Then we said bye to Matt and Wang Ying and promised to meet again, probably in Shanghai next time.

The next day the only thing we did of mention before coming back was visit “The Humble Administrator’s Garden” (拙政园), which charged a steep 70 rmb admission. Wow, what a difference from the “Garden of the Master of the Nets”! It was sprawling, very green, had interesting landscaping, and flowers were in bloom everywhere. Carl and I spent a pleasant hour and a half there before the tourist crowds got to be too much and we headed back to Shanghai.

If I had to compare Hangzhou and Suzhou, I’d have to say that Hangzhou would win, hands down. Suzhou may be greener than your average Chinese city, but it certainly isn’t doing much about its pollution problem. The canal that ran by our hotel (which is in a major commercial area, mind you) absolutely reeked, and at one point we saw the green murky water bubbling. Furthermore, Suzhou’s attractions are its gardens, but those are walled off and isolated from the rest of the city, plus admission can be pretty steep. Hangzhou, on the other hand, makes West Lake its public tourism focus, and, indeed, the center of its city planning. The bulk of Hangzhou’s touristy spots radiate outward from West Lake, and the parks are free. Hangzhou has its problems, but it’s on the right track. In any case, it’s closer to “Heaven” than Suzhou. If not for the promise shown in “The Humble Administrator’s Garden,” I probably wouldn’t even recommend Suzhou as a sightseeing destination. And if I did recommend it, it would have to be a spring trip. Even so, I feel no compulsion to see the rest of Suzhou’s gardens.

Conclusion: best two things about Suzhou (that Hangzhou hasn’t got): Matt and “The Humble Administrator’s Garden.”


Apr 2005

Dezhou 2

Paji looooi!” the vendors cried as I stepped from the train. Hazy memories from almost a year ago quickly came back into focus. I was in Dezhou again.

My company had sent me for the second time to the mid-sized Shandong city for a day of teacher training. It’s a 14 hour train ride to Dezhou, and the train leaves Shanghai at 8pm, which puts arrival at 10am. The only problem was the training was scheduled to begin at 8am. The solution? I arrived a whole day early. I originally thought I’d be either taken sightseeing or allowed time to myself to study. That was really overly optimistic of me.

I was given a soft sleeper ticket, which meant a nicer bed and a more private sleeping chamber. Unfortunately I wound up with three men who snored like banshees. (“Banshee” may seem like a strange choice of words, but you really should have heard them. One seemed to have some weird lung condition, and another was really more moaning than snoring. It was very creepy.) Still, I managed to pass 13 of the 14 hours prone in my bunk, never coming down once. Time passes by much faster when you’re as good at sleeping as I am.

The afternoon of the first day was spent making last-minute trips to random kindergartens. It scored our agent gratitude from the schools, as most of the children had never seen a real live foreigner before. My task? “Teach them something.” “Play with them.” It didn’t really matter what I did anyway. My victory was ensured by my mere presence. Still, we had a good time, and I daresay the kids may have learned something from me.

I think the hardest part about company trips is the dinners. Almost every night it’s another big formal event at a fancy-schmancy restaurant with multiple guests of honor. Of course, I have to talk to these people, tell them “no, my Chinese is really quite terrible,” how long I’ve been in China, that I like Chinese food, and what the difference is between China and the USA. I’m supposed to flatter them shamelessly, but I never do that. I just play my foreigner card (read: different culture, incomplete mastery of the language) and try not to gag as everyone fawns all over each other.

And then there’s the liquor. There are always many, many toasts. You can’t start eating until the first toast has been made, and the last toast signals the end of the meal. If I’m lucky the alcohol is beer or red wine, but every now and then I’m forced to drink the vile baijiu. Shandong is one place where the people are especially insistent about the baijiu imbibing.

The first night I managed to talk my way out of baijiu (they get more forgiving when you’re willing to down a cup of beer for every sip of baijiu they take), but I thought I was going to lose it when one guy brought up the issue of Japan. He was obviously looking for a “yeah, we hate those Japanese bastards!” out of everyone, but before he could get it, one of my co-workers helpfully offered, “hey, you know John speaks Japanese. He even studied there for a year.” Then all eyes were on me. Great.

“You studied in Japan?” he asked me.


“So, what do you think of the Japanese? No, wait… What do you think of Japan as compared to China?”

“Well, do you mean the countries or the people?”

“The people.”

I hesitated slightly. “They’re both good.”

He leaned forward, intense. “They’re both good?


He looked around incredulously at his audience. They all seemed ready to change the topic. Before giving up on his hatefest, though, he just had to make a comment about how he was teaching his nephew to hate the Japanese because they’re an evil race.

That night I went to bed fairly early. One of the last things I noticed before going to bed was the sticker on the telephone: Please remember to inform your family of your safe arrival! Cute. What a nice hotel.

I was awakened briefly at midnight when they called to ask if I needed a girl to service me.

The next morning found me at the hotel’s free breakfast buffet. I’ve never had much appetite for breakfast in general, and never been a fan of Chinese breakfast in particular. I typically just have an egg or something. I’m glad I did a full tour of the dishes offered, however. Whoever translated the Chinese dishes’ names into English decided to chuck tradition out the window and make the dishes’ names into complete sentences. I discovered “It is hot to fry the white flower” (À±³´°×²Ë) and “The green pepper fries the meat” (Çཷ³´Èâ).

Training went fine. I was surprised that Mr. Japanese-hater showed up. He wasn’t a teacher, but he had been invited the night before (merely out of politeness, I thought), and he actually showed.

That evening I was taken to a middle school as a favor for one of the agents who taught there. Although they had been studying English for three years already, none of those kids had ever spoken to a foreigner.

First on the agenda were two short English plays put on by the students. The girls did one about shopping that didn’t seem to have any intelligible plot. The boys, however, decided to do a version of “Stone Soup.” Their take? It took place in post-war Vietnam with a stranded American soldier the guy who made the stone soup. Yeah… I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean either.

After fielding the usual questions, I was expected to play some sort of game with them. I was amazed and delighted that the kids had never played hangman. I had to explain the game to them, but then they got really into it. Their first guy got hanged, but the second one survived. My two phrases? The East is Red and The truth will set you free. I’m rather sure my choices were entirely lost on them.

That night in my hotel room when I went through the hotel’s informational brochure I discovered an interesting special service. “Please dial 50118 and ask the front desk for help you to avoid disturbing the telephone. Have a good time!

A quick scan of the Chinese revealed what this message meant: “Please dial 50118 and tell the front desk if you do not want to be disturbed by phone calls.

In plain English, they meant: “Please dial 50118 and tell the front desk if you won’t be needing us to solicit you for sex by phone.” There’s never any direct mention of such hotel services.

I noticed a new, smaller sticker on the telephone as I went to bed that night. It was a telephone number for “health entertainment” (¿µÓé). I guess that’s about as overt as they’re willing to be.

I wasn’t able to leave until the next evening because an extra morning of training had been tacked on to the first day’s. I was promised the afternoon off, though.

At noon I had to schmooze with more “important people” over lunch. Apparently this one guy was super important. I was told flat-out that I should kiss up to him. I managed a “I think you look like a Chinese Tom Cruise” (he actually kinda did). Everyone loved that one. Mr. Important liked me so much that he talked the agents into letting him borrow me for several hours. That’s how I wound up at another school that afternoon for more unprepared “Teach them something” and “Play with them.”

Before getting on the train I had one last dinner in Dezhou. Mr. Japanese-hater insisted on treating me, the agents, and the Chinese trainer to a meal.

He didn’t beat around the bush much. He brought up Japan almost right away. I cut him off to tell him, “Look, I don’t like the Japanese government either. But I don’t believe any race of people is ‘bad.'” He smiled, nodded, and said no more. He was able to meet me halfway on that. So then the beers started rolling in. Big bottles of cold Yanjing. If I hadn’t been pressed for time, I’m sure I would have gotten pretty wasted.

Something weird happened that meal. I actually started to like the guy. He was an interesting character for sure, but what really struck me had nothing to do with politics or prejudices. He was sincere. He was quite possibly the only part of my trip that was 100% real.

Mr. Japanese-hater insisted on seeing me off to the train station along with the agents. I kind of wished I had more time to understand the guy a little better. As I stepped on the train, the last thing I heard out of Dezhou was “Paji looooi!


Mar 2005

My trip, his lens

I was in Taiwan recently, visiting Wilson. I didn’t take any pictures; I left that to him. He has a great camera and better photography skills than me. Plus I’ve been on this extended “I’m too lazy to take pictures” kick.

I put together the Junk Food Review 2 from the pictures we took of Taiwan snacks, but it was up to Wilson to construct online abodes for the rest of his Taiwan photography. While most of us struggle just to “get the pictures online,” Wilson approaches his photo albums with a kind of artistic perfectionism, involving extended graphical negotiation with Photoshop for each image. He tells me my work on JFR2 added to the pressure.

Anyway, Wilson has finally unveiled his latest collection: Taipei. There’s another Taiwan album coming soon.

I should also mention that those who were interested in the human bite Wilson received in Taipei will find fascinating his photographic tribute to my blog entry “Taiwanese Men Bite.” The rest of you, of course, will be repulsed.

If you have comments on the photography or views expressed on Wilson’s pages, feel free to leave comments on Wilson’s blog. If you have comments or questions for me, obviously this is the place to ask. (Note: this weblog is not the place to debate some of the controversial political views Wilson presents within the album!)

UPDATE: The pictures are now also on Wilson’s Sinosplice mirror for your unblocked viewing pleasure. One new picture was also added.


Mar 2005

Wuhan and Auspicious Beasts

I just got back from a business trip to Wuhan (武汉). I took my fickle camera, which may or may not work at any given time, but I never bothered using it. That’s me being lazy.

I had been to Wuhan once before, just passing through on the way from Shiyan to the airport. It’s really a massive city (or “metropolitan area consist[ing] of… the ‘Three Towns of Wuhan,'” you might say). At dinner on Wednesday, one of our hosts — a native of Hubei — made an interesting comment: There are only two truly big cities in China. Shanghai and Wuhan. I smiled at the comparison. You can bet the Shanghainese don’t make it.

I couldn’t get used to the one-character province abbreviation Hubei uses on its license plates: . Why? Well, first, it makes me think of 鳄鱼, which means alligator. Second, it has that double 口 on top, which makes me think of and , neither of which are very nice characters. It even contains , which in simplified Chinese means something like “to lose”. To make matters worse, Wenlin tells me that 咢 alone is another form of , which can mean “shocking, frightening, suffering from bad luck.” It doesn’t seem like the greatest character to combine with 阝, which here means “city.” These are just musings, mind you… I claim no authority on this. But such are the things I ponder in long car rides in Wuhan.

The sightseeing portion of the trip took me to Guiyuan Temple (归元寺). Our host hired a guide, who explained everything about the temple in detail and never failed to encourage us to (donate) and (worship) at each major Buddhist statue. As a member of another religion I was exempt from that, but it seemed my Chinese companions did a bit more 拜ing (and especially 捐ing) than they originally planned.

The guide also told us a story about the head monk of the temple, 昌明. He had become quite a famous calligrapher, but felt that his hand was only mimicking the works of the greats. In order to let his true nature come out in his calligraphy, he started using his left hand instead of his right. Thus, the various calligraphy works of his were identified by our guide as having been written by his right hand or his left hand.

In the temple gift shop I discovered another legendary Chinese animal of which I had previously been unaware. I knew about dragons, phoenixes, qilin (麒麟, AKA “kirin,” as in the Japanese beer), and even that tortoise with the dragon head (whatever it’s called). I hadn’t ever heard of this one, however.

It’s called a pixiu (貔貅). Dictionaries don’t help much on this one. Wenlin’s definition of qilin as “Chinese unicorn” may be forgivable, but pixiu is defined as “fabulous wild beast.” My big fat Chinese-English dictionary’s definition of “mythical fierce animal” isn’t much better. In the gift shop I picked up a free information card with this description:

It has the head of a lion, the body of a pig, and the tail of a phoenix. It has either a single deer’s antler (天禄) or a pair of horns (避邪).

My Chinese companions got pretty excited about the pixiu figures; three out of four of them bought one. On the way out of the temple one of them told me that pixiu are such powerful charms for financial success that they are banned in all of Macau’s casinos. Whaaat…?

Too bad I had so little time to enjoy it; Wuhan seems like it’s worth exploring.

If you’re curious, try this Google Images link: more pictures of pixiu figures.


Feb 2005

Hong Kong Update

I just got an e-mail from my friend Katherine, whom I met up with in Hong Kong on Friday:

katherineYou should definitely come back to HK and we’ll eat some real food. There is this place i was thinking of taking you for dim sum, and yesterday afternoon this hit man carried out a killing right in the restaurant! How crazy is that? Who carries out hits in HK??? in the middle of the afternoon in a dim sum restaurant??? Now we have to go. My mother is going to freak when she hears about this, we’re always eating dim sum there.

Crazy Hong Kong.

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