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Archive for April, 2008

For several dynasties, Xi’an was the capital city of China, and the focus of immense wealth and political power. There are more imperial burial mounds in the surrounding area than they have time to excavate properly. The site of primary interest and global fascination is of course, the Terracotta Warriors which I go to tour tomorrow. (So excited!) Xi’an is also unique in that it is the only ancient Chinese city with its surrounding fortified wall and moat completely preserved. It defines a vibrant, busy city core, with several historical sites of interest (Drum and Bell Tower, Forest of Thousand Stiles or Writing Tablets) as well as one of the largest Mosques in China. The Muslim Quarter has an active street market which goes well into the evening, with vendors in white caps selling all sorts of preserved fruits, roasted nuts and street food. Indeed, it is reported to have the best street food in Xi’an, but given my nasty experience in Dunhuang, I decided to err on the side of caution and find a proper restaurant with their own bathroom in case I needed it urgently!(yes, that kind of nasty experience)

I wish knew the English name of this place, but all I can tell you is that the last restaurant on the right before you exit the Quarter Market to the north serves some of the best food I have had in China. By the look of the full tables and empty plates that surrounded me, my opinion is shared by many. I decided to stick to appetizers, hoping that would lead to smaller portions. Well, it would have worked, if the main courses here were not portioned to feed 6 to 8. Sigh. The solitary diner is not a concept (outside of a bowl of noodle soup) that the Chinese restaurant can accommodate easily. So you either enjoy a large portion of one thing, or you leave a whole lot of your meal behind. Given that I like to try a number of dishes, I end up most often feeling full but still barely making a dent in the dishes before me. I hope the restaurant staff enjoys what I ordered! So to this evening’s meal.

I ordered 2 cold and 1 hot appetizer. This balance of temperature and food choice is very important to overall digestion and health. I don’t know why, but that’s what the menu said! My first appetizer was black fungus salad in a chili vinaigrette. A standard in Beijing that I have come to look for on menus, this interpretation has a generous portion of the delicate frilled black fungus whose slightly sour taste and sweaky texture contrasts nicely with the crisp shards of sweet white onion. The second course, “Dan’s shredded tofu with vegetables”, was stunning. Thin julienned strips of celadon green celery, mahagony and amber shaded preserved tofu, fresh sweet red pepper, all tossed with a spicey chili oil, and garnished with peanuts and orange-red chunks of dried chile pepper that put me in mind of discarded lobster shells. It was a vertical Jackson Pollock on a plate. Tasty too.

And I was munching away happily when the lamb appetizer was set before me. Ok, this will take some work to describe, but worth it if makes you salivate even a little. Imagine a full rack of a very young lamb (the bones were not thicker than a chopstick so I mean young), leave the fat back on and don’t French the long bones. Cleaver horizontally about 3 times and then again lengthwise so you end up with about 10 or 12 tiny little lamb rib bones. Rub generously with a fragrant Middle Eastern mixture of cumim and corriander seeds and chili pepper and toss in very hot oil until deep golden brown. The delicious result was a crisp, crunchy, spicy exterior while the meat stayed a red rich. Since all of the meat was close to the bone, the flavour and tenderness was just extraordinary. I abandoned my useless chopsticks and dug in with both hands. So much finger licking going on they brought me extra napkins. And all of this from a woman that could barely face Chinese gruel 12 hours earlier. I think I like it here. Perhaps book another day!

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Desperately trying to get out of town but to no avail. My flight here was cancelled which delayed my arrival: my flight out was cancelled which delayed my departure. I guess if the planes aren’t full, they just don’t fly. So an extra hotel night, cancellation and re booking fees from the online booking service for the hotel in my next stop, Xian. So take a deep breath, regroup and find something interesting to do.

I already did the major reason for my visit here -the Caves of Buddhist art. They were magnificent. I have never seen a 2 storey Buddha before, or a reclining one about the size of a basketball court. The painting was exquisite, the colours of lapis blue, Chinese red and jade green still visible though faded in places. They are beautiful now; they must have been a thing of wonder when newly carved and painted, before the Muslims defaced them and the English/Germans/ French/ Americans(in about that order) made off with manuscripts, tapestries and other souvenirs.

In 1900, a hidden cache of over 10,000 manuscripts were found – most of which were sold off to explorers from the West and are now in fine museums around the world. The story is that the caretaker who discovered the sealed up library was cleaning away dust from a wall painting when he noticed that the smoke from his cigarette was wafting up, and apparently disappearing into the wall. Our guide says he walks around smoking all the time now, looking for the next big find (not entirely joking I surmised)

I also discovered the joy of foot massage last evening. They are advertised all over Beijing, but I had not indulged. Well, I am resolved to test the relative merits of foot massage in every city I visit on this trip! After a brief but vigorous neck massage, a small women with hard strong hands plays a sort of drums for an hour on your feet and calves. Remember those Japanese drummers – like that. It’s surprisingly loud, and it feels amazing, especially after a long day of treking on the city streets or desert dunes. Warning: if you have had any knee surgery, she did a couple of pressure moves that would likely send you into the stratosphere in pain, so keep one eye open. She did some very interesting pressure point work around trouble spots like shin splits and ankles which would likely be beneficial for runners.

I also climbed the largest sand dune in the world, and then tobogganed down. I kid you not. If I was not at an internet bar, I would post pics of the climb up and the slide down. Well, it is not a bar; more of a warehouse with dozens of computers, and Chinese men smoking, playing computer games, and watching movies while their cell phones go off and Britney Spears asks to be hit one more time in the background. Needless to say, this will not be a long post!

I have also discovered what it is like to be Queen. Of a kind. I am staying in off season in the best hotel in this part of China. It is very large for the area, over 200 rooms. I am about one of 5 people staying here; I am the only person here for more than 1 night. So with an average staff of oh, 30 that I can see and likely another 20 that are behind the scenes, it is pretty generous staff to guest ratio!. It is also a very lovely property, decorated with light wood Ming style furniture, Persian carpets, slate floors and generous bathrooms. And the towels are plush and new – a treat in China I have learned. A uniformed driver took me out today to 2 additional sites, and walked unobstrusively behind me, opening doors and staying just within call range. When I walk around the property, folks stand when I enter or walk by, and say a polite neehow and bow slightly. The cleaning staff put a gift on my pillow and a note with good wishes for my life. And all of this for 50% off the rack rate! And the hotel food was quite good-I had 2 horrid lunches in town that made me ill even without trying the famous local dish of donkey and noodles. There is a really diverse, exhuberant outdoor market here – I will post pics later. If you are interested in coming here, I highly recommend the hotel: The Silk Road Dun Huang Hotel. There is one English speaking manager level person: her name is Wendy and she made my extended stay a treat rather than a trial.

Aside from the Caves and a few other sites, the town does not have much to commend itself to tourists. It is still a place that travellers stop into on the way to somewhere else. The surrounding red desert, apart from the golden dunes which are spectactular, resembles most closely a large flat gravel pit. No redeeming features. No features at all actually. I saw alot of military trucks on the way out of town; I suspect manouevres up here might include some shelling. Tons of pulverized material out there. So I will hopefully fly out tomorrow-Queen for 5 days might go to my head!

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Well, a part of the Silk Road, since do to the whole thing would take more than the 2 months that I have in China. Indeed, one person or one caravan never completed the entire route: goods changed hands many times from origin to destination. And would I would have to transverse the better part of this hemisphere and well into the West. So called the “Silk Road” by a 19th century geologist, there is much more than one road and many more goods than just silk were transported along its routes, over land and ultimately by sea, as well.

I took a fascinating 6 week course on the Silk Roads at the ROM this winter to prepare myself for China. Practicality would have suggested a crash course in Mandarin, but you go where your passion leads right? Mine led me to a darkened classroom every Sunday afternoon with a group of fellow history enthusiasts, lectured by a passionate professor of religious studies from UofT.

Trade with the West was initially driven by China’s desire for the Ferragamo horses of Central Asia. Tall and swift in comparison to indigenous Chinese ponies, these powerful animals gave the Chinese a decisive military advantage on the battlefield. You will see statues of them depicted in spirited mid stride on sideboards in tastefully decorated Asian style homes. (I am trying to find a way to ship one home!) In turn, the cities of the West and Rome coveted China’s exquisite silk, the production of which remained a closely guarded national secret for centuries. And so went over 1600 years of movement, in goods, people and ideas.

I fly tonight to Dunhuang, my first stop on a 10 day journey. (10 days give or take: I have left the return journey open so as to take my time if I wish to linger along the way) Dunhuang is a strategically important oasis town in Central Asia, as it is located near the point where the North and Southern Silk Roads came together to continue on to China’s capital, Xi’an. (I fly there next) The primary attraction now at Dunhuang are the Mogao Caves: they are part of a system of 492 temples or grottoes, which contain what is considered to be one of the finest expressions of Buddhist art, spanning over a period of 1,000 years. Buddhism is one of the ideas that moved from West to East and morphed and changed along the way. We saw Power Point slides of the Caves back in Toronto which were impressive enough to make me want to fly for 4 hours to see the real thing.

Dunhaung is situated at the edge of the Taklamakan desert. I chose my hotel specifically for its location on the edge of this desert: the sunsets are supposed to be spectacular. Taklamakan apparently translates to “if you go in, you won’t come out”, so no unescorted wandering for me! But perhaps a camel ride is in order.

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One does not readily equate a large, resolutely commercial city like Beijing with tranquility and natural beauty. But that is what you find easily within the numerous parks which punctuate the urban core. Many of the parks were the work of long dead emperors and are laid out in patterns which follow the ritual processions for sacrifice and worship of long forgotten gods. That form results in long winding pathways, and streams and fish ponds wreathed with willows. Formal flower beds are carefully planted and assiduously attended by large busy teams of gardeners. The largest and most elaborate is of course the Summer Palace, which I spoke about in an earlier post. These photos of flowers and kite flyers were taken in Ritan Park. Ritan Park is the oldest park in Beijing and its name means “sun altar” or temple. If you are so inclined, you can join local people at 6 am here, practicing the martial arts of Wushu: you would be familiar with its most common form, Tai-Chi.

Spring in northern China brings peonies and wisteria blossoms, both fragrant and extravagant harbingers of summer roses to come. The peony is one of the most iconic flowers in Chinese art (the other, and more prized historically has been the chrysanthemum, a symbol of long life). The peony is the symbol for nobility, female beauty and fertility, quite fitting to this season of renewal and rebirth.

Of course, I speak of food as well as flowers!

After a visit yesterday to a very good local market, I prepared the evening meal focusing on the first of the season, locally grown produce. Waxy new potatoes tossed with the most pungent mint and rich Irish butter, firm fleshy stalks of asparagus gilded with just a hint of that butter and lemon, and a salad of mixed baby greens with sweet cherry tomatoes. There was some protein in there too; medallions of pork tenderloin in a mustard sauce. And the fridge is full of containers of large juicy strawberries picked by my hosts over the weekend. I can honestly say, my cooking talents aside, that the asparagus was the best example of that grassy, succulent vegetable I have every enjoyed. Fingers crossed for a few more weeks of harvest!

You will note that I said that in Beijing one can find natural beauty: I did not say nature. One of the pronounced cultural differences between us is the almost incalculable value we in the West place on the experience of nature. We seek out nature when we need to be revived, energized or renewed, depending upon our urban malady of moment. For some, we feel closest to the transcendent, a sense of something larger than ourselves, however we define it, only in the presence of nature.

In China, not so much. Nature is that which needs to be, and indeed, must be, controlled, harnessed and mastered. It is emphatically not better left untouched. Better to be bent to one’s will. As I understand it, native Chinese here do not take a walk in the woods, hike in the hills, camp under the stars, or even dine alfresco. In such an ancient civilization, there has been a lot of mastering of nature over the centuries. Given the drive and ambitions of this country to be once again a dominant world power, there will be a lot more. It is not simply a need for ever more resources and power to fuel its exponential growth, although that is an imperative: it is also part of an aesthetic that prefers the tamed to the wild. Yet, there have been parts of China preserved as wildlife sanctuaries or protected zones for species unique or at risk. So perhaps there is a shifting of sentiment, but I do not believe that underlying difference in our perspective with respect to the intrinsic value of nature for its own sake has changed.

The title of this post deals with Roses, although I have not mentioned them yet or included pictures. Roses are the next wave of flowers to bloom here – and I expect a truly breathtaking display. Multiple rose buds on small, large and climbing plants are appearing everywhere – in parks, beside the roadways, ringing public buildings. Roses from China were introduced to Europe in the late 18thC, and they are said to have revolutionized the world of roses. Almost all of what we love about roses: richness in colour, unfurling shape, repeat blooming, and intensity and range of fragrance, we owe to the China genes. I am giddy with anticipation.

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It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, and my host decided that the best way to escape the downpour was round up some Chinese friends and head out for KTV. KTV is Karaoke, that entertainment form which in the West generally sees a group of drunken friends, crowding a microphone and doing their best Steppenwolf/Springsteen/Bon Jovi/Green Day impression, depending upon generation and musical tastes. (They say that one’s taste in popular music is set at around the formative age of 19 – that would explain the wide range of musical options available at Karaoke bars, and why some songs you wish could be expunged from the planet still linger on like the smell of yesterday’s Chinese takeout. Mandy anyone?)
The difference with KTV, is that instead of swaying in front of a drunken crowd in a bar, you rent a private room, complete with your own large TV monitor, 2 or more microphones, and comfortable seating. Indeed, depending on the size of the party, you could have a private bar, stage, musical instruments, hostess, multiple seating areas: whatever your budget can accommodate, there is a KTV option for you. These venues are incredibly popular – in fact, I saw so much money being put through an automatic currency counter yesterday, I was reminded of the casino cages in Vegas. On weekend nights, the reception counters at these giant complexes (often 3 or 4 stories) are pressed with representatives for large groups of friends, waving their cash, seeking entry. You rent the room by the hour, and admission includes snacks, buffet lunch or dinner, or even breakfast for the 24 hour spots.
The song selection is in both Chinese and English, featuring the pop stars of the day for Taiwan, HongKong, China as well as the West. You can learn a fair bit about a culture by observing it’s popular forms – most Chinese girl singers are achingly beautiful in that fragile way, with porcelain skin (white skin is much prized here) full pouts and large soulful eyes. They wear less revealing or overtly sexual outfits than their American counterparts, tending to more feminine skirts or dresses which flow and flutter in the wind. They are all excruciatingly tiny: their legs are about the size of my arms, and I am not large. Most of the lyrics and stories relate to common, and apparently universal themes of boyfriends lost and found. The songs are primarily romantic (sappy comes in mind) in nature, and if they are not, they are more about female strength and power, than in your face sexuality. Mostly. There was a Chinese version of what looked like the Pussy Cat Dolls – Pussy Cat Kittens anyone?
In the extensive song selection (searchable by song title or artist) there are memories of raging hormones to be evoked back to about 1960. Some of the accompanying videos define cheesy – as in bad 80’s frizzy hair, harem pants, big shoulder pads, sparkly hair ornaments, and are just hilarious. Others are the original footage from the 60’s – I sang (badly) California Dreaming along with Mama Cass and the gang. You will find all of the classic Beatles song and of course Celine Dion – the theme song from the Titanic, My Heart will Go On, is reported to be the only English language song that all Chinese can sing along to without a tele-prompter. Now that is a pretty sweeping statement but it is said with confidence. Oh, and they also do the hand gestures complete with dramatic chest pounding at the right moments – now that, I need to see!
We spent 5 hours singing – well, they sang- I squawked through about 5 numbers. The hours flew by, partially because I was listening to 3 good singers practice their favourites and learn new tunes, but also because, frankly, I got into it. The technology smooths out most of your rough spots and if you forget how it goes, or can’t hit the high notes, your potentially embarrassing moment is filled in for you automatically. One benefit of singing with those who take it seriously, and many do, is that you get encouragement and tips along the way. Like most people who have found something they love, they want to share it with you, and have you enjoy it as much as they do. Next time, I am going to bring my ipod so I can find the songs I love faster. I also want to learn to control my breathing and intonation – should tone down the squawking. Oh, and did I mention that all of this entertainment was had without the benefit of alcohol – although that might have improved my performance. However, it’s time to let those Western inhibitions about performing outside my comfort zone go – if not now, when?
There is a seamier side to KTV which you might expect when the words “private” and “room” are put together and offered for sale by the hour. I did see that Youtube has some KTV videos that are restricted: you can assume the rest. I did not see any companionship for hire yesterday, but given that prostitution is pervasive here, and throughout Asia, I am not surprised. There is much that can be said, and has been said already on that unfortunate and some would say inevitable business. But not by me. At least, not today.

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My friends know my passion for food, and that I have been attempting to improve my knowledge and craft by taking cooking lessons at George Brown this past winter. I wanted to take cooking lessons in Beijing, which led me to the home of Chunyi Zhou and her hutongcuisine cooking school. Lessons are given in the tiny kitchen courtyard of her hutong home in the Hou Hai Lake area, a very popular hotspot for clubs and restaurants. Her home is off Nanlouguxiang, a renovated and consequently pretty street with high end craft shops and quirky comfortable café’s – I posted pics from it last week. It is very touristy but up market, so no pesky touts or aggressive stall owners. Since Beijing is the capital city of China, most of the tourists you will see here are other Chinese, and English will be spoken infrequently. In fact, if you are blonde, don’t be surprised if you asked to pose for a photo with Chinese visitors from the rural provinces – yellow and red hair are still a source of wonder there.

The classes are small and intimate – I suspect the most she could handle is 6 students at a time. On Thursday, my fellow devotees were a bejeweled lady from Limoges France, here for her architect daughter’s wedding, and a friendly mother and daughter from Germany. China seems to be a favourite destination for European children of a certain socio-economic group between finishing graduate work in their home countries. European graduate students have to get an internship in another country before finishing their master’s degree. Some of them, like this young woman from the Black Forest, are coming to China, falling in love with the place and making it their permanent home. (Mom was not overly pleased about the change of residence, like mom’s everywhere I imagine) Our menu today was steamed butter fish, Cantonese style steamed pork ribs and black beans, Sichuan style stir fry tofu with minced beef and Sichuan cabbage stir fry. All very tasty and I did discover where I have been going wrong in attempting to replicate Chinese restaurant meals at home. Mostly to do with not enough heat, salt and sugar. She teaches classes every day except Wednesday, and also offers an optional trip to the market and lecture on Chinese seasoning just prior to the main event. The class I took ran from 10:30 to 2:30, of course including lunch and materials and cost 180 yuan or $26, which I consider very good value for a learning experience, lunch and 4 hours of entertainment all rolled into one afternoon.

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As a tourist with no fixed agenda, I spend a fair amount of time observing the passersby, either by cycle, on foot or on the subway. One of the things which struck me as completely unexpected (in a good way) is how affectionate people are with each other. Women and girls stroll along arm in arm. Men as well, walk with an arm casually draped around each others shoulder. And couples of all ages hold hands, cuddle on the subway, hug each other just because. You don’t see much kissing on the street as you might along the Seine in romantic Paris. You know, those couples to whom you wish to shout “get a room people!” No, it’s not sexual that I can see: it looks just like genuine affection. And it’s really quite lovely.
On the other hand, there is something else I have observed which I find quite disturbing. And that is the tendency of many young women in China to dress and behave in the manner of prepubescent girls. Now, I have nothing against femininity in dress: high heels, make up and skirts are part of my attire when not travelling the byways. (Khakis’s, t-shirts and running shoes are more practical when you don’t know where or when your next date with a laundry machine will be!) I have seen a number of very attractive, fashionable women who would be perfectly “on trend” in Paris, New York or London.
But there is a definite tendency to this “girly girl” fashion: ribbons, bows, frills, tight clingy fabrics, short skirts and shorter shorts. Picture impossibly tiny bodies with only a hint of barely budding breast , barely tottering about on impossibly high heels, giggling behind their cell phones. It’s just a bit disconcerting. If we dress for how we wish the world to perceive us, or the reaction that we wish to invoke, then by my eye, these women are dressing to project themselves as sexually available children.
Much of the advertising targeted to women reinforces this ideal: few of the models for “beauty” creams look over 14. Now I know that Western models are often very young, and very thin – but they are deliberately made to look like impossibly beautiful women who are over 21. And if Western pop culture idolizes the womanly body proportions of a Jessica Alba for example, what part of Chinese culture sets these child-women up as the ideal?
I know that my reaction is grounded in my background as a Western woman – perhaps I could be accused of confusing a fashion statement with culture. But one does tend to reflect and reinforce the other – and I find it disconcerting.

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