Sunday, September 17, 2006

Epilogue: Shameless Self-Promotion

"And having no further concern, he and his companions sought adventure in the West. Many wars and feuds did Conan fight. Honor and fear were heaped upon his name and, in time, he became a king by his own hand... But that is another story."

I'm now back in the United States working my way through a more regular life, but that doesn't mean the saga ends here. I want to thank anyone who read along as I sorted my way through China and blogging, and if anyone wants to continue enjoying a mirror into my thoughts I'm starting a new blog which you might find at You'll still get some China stuff there, but a lot more other random pleasure and insanity.

Now, for a final farewell and an obvious ploy for hits, commence with the rambling of names and places that people might be searching for in Google! If you were looking for something substantive, Fooled you!

byfield newburyport boston andover massachusetts washington dc arlington beijing harbin qingdao jinan qufu taishan shandong yunnan kunming lijiang dali shaanxi xian shenyang hangzhou hong kong shenzhen guang dong guilin guiyang chengdu jiuzhaigou sunshine international language center teaching english in china joe day graham norwood dave rice yannick dingle alex mantel dan moger fred flather eugene cho jp chisholm chris chen angus dwyer colin dinneen barrett hamilton ted berg ted burke saxacenter glenn galloway matt holt annie witten trudy garber jenny cosco scott weiss bridgit kearns rich story mason ayer david rossi eric rahn sarah hamilton nso keith gerarden pat byrnett david hugoniot crystel myers stacie longworth jordan moore sean obrien jay slothouber frank nagle jenn colpitts summer natalie trevor ralph rachael givens chinese train schedules eating in china harbin institute of science and technology hust water contamination benzene ice festival dvd america

Friday, September 15, 2006

You Begin at the Beginning and You End at the Ending

The worst thing about Good Times is that the Good Times all have to end. Such came true to my wandering around China. Such came true to my entire experience this time 'round in China.

From JiuZhaiGou I made that same twelve hour journey back to ChengDu, in reverse this time, and with my knees bent up upon my body as I booked passage on a sleeper bus (where they stacked us two high in three columns down the bus, each bed shorter than I am long, my space blockaded on either side by a vertical beam making it even more narrow than my fellow passengers'.). Back and forth up that same pass, then down; around the gorges; past the abandoned irrigation systems; suddenly back in the city. A ticket purchased to BeiJing for the next morning. A suite purchased (the most craptiatical suite I've seen) for a few hours rest before boarding.

The train ride is uneventful, as are most endings. I spend a lot of time staring out the window at the canola flowers that snake their way into each valley and as far up each mountain as the terrain allow. Any other time I dedicate to Karl Popper and his "Unending Quest." I send text messages to a high school friend I have recently learned is in BeiJing. We make plans to meet.

I meet my friend in BeiJing, after having bought a ticket leaving for Harbin that night. The situation with my high school friend is surreal: I had first traveled to China with her back in 1997; my Mandarin might now be on par with hers despite her upbringing in Hong Kong; I am introduced to other Americans (of Chinese descent) who are making it big in the new Chinese economy through their western education and eastern heritage; we find ourselves at a chic BeiJing eatery I would never have found through my habits of street-level exploration. I must leave festivities early to catch my train to Harbin.

As trains pull into Harbin from a southern approach, much of my China-life will pass by the window. My local super-store, that where I supplied myself with a hearty flow of Dewars. The island that housed the wonderous ice scupltures and snow wonderland of the winter. My school. My apartment building. My local KFC. Two more KFCs after that. And then we pull into the station.

The end is near. I feel triumphant, more so than this conquering hero haas ever felt before. I feel the need need to march. I strut with chin up down the final mile of this journey, blasting "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" the entire way.

"My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

I left Harbin over a month ago with a dear friend on a mission to obtain her chance to come the the US. I succeeeded.

"He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored!"

I met my parents in BeiJing and gave them a whirlwind tour of the east coast of China, hand over hand, and making an indelible mark upon their worldly experience.

"He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword!"

Left in Hong Kong, without manner of making it to my point of destination, I managed a political fiasco, a social barricade, and thousands of miles of geography while taking in stories and sceneries unimagined... the entire time ALONE."


Strutting down Harbin's TieLuJie (Literally "Iron Road Street," or better put, "Railroad Street") the smile wouldn't leave my face. The wind blew and the cold sunk to the bones, but the warmth of personal victory would never fade. I found myself enlightened by a delight that I would never soon forget. My sack pulled high on my back, my grin wide across my face, my fleece hugged close to my skin, I eventually reached the building housing my school and the elevator that would take me home.


The elevator doors open. I walk out into the lobby. Apple, the Chinese manager, is on the phone. She drops the receiver. I'm hugged. Apple is joined by Christine. Some new girl sits and stares, aghast that such intimacy exists between a foreign teacher and the Chinese staff. She doesn't understand. Questions are asked. I laugh: loud, boistrous, with all the soul and heart that I deserve to laugh these laughs with. The teachers and TAs will tell me later they heard my jubilee while giving their lessons down the hall and instantly knew that the origin was my own mouth and they knew I had returned from my sojourn. I am honored by such identification. I sit in with some of my old classes, at times stepping on the toes of the new teacher. I make time to travel cross-town to my warehouse store for a final bottle of Dewars. I start that bottle before the final class I need to say farewell to.

Dinner that night is at the ol' Chinese BBQ where I sloppily say goodbye to some of my favorite waitstaff with my fellow foreign teachers. The next night, throughly hungover, I say goodbye to my Chinese TAs over a meal of hotpot mixed with other treats. I wonder why no one else seems to bridge the gap between the two nights. I decide that it is not worth the end of my time pondering such a query.

The Day of departure arrives in a cloudy haze. I make a few quick runs to have breakfast at Hemamas (my coffee shop in Harbin, the one owned by my Papa New Guinea friend where I pick up my final cranberry cheesecake), grab a few last DVDs, and say goodbye to some of my neighborhood friends. Returning to the school (where I had been crashing in the dormitory) I learn that I'm going to be ripped off one last time by my employer, but at least I learn it from a bevy of friends wishing me a fond farewell. Cookies, cakes, and other treats for the travel (none of which will be allowed on the plane) find themselves heaped into my arms. My boss's wife (Boss can't be there, as he owes me mucho dinero for his shitfuckiero un visa) presents a medallion with tears. I climb into the sedan to head to the airport.


The airport is a mess. I won't comment. But I get to South Korea, where I purchase Steven King's "Salem's Lot" for the long haul home (I had donated my replacable books to a burgeoning library at my school). Vampires and DirecTC haunt the flight to LA, and again to Boston.

LA is not my home. LA is another world; unfamiliar. But landing in Boston there is an unmistakable quality of HOME. And I am there.

But there is still China, still Harbin. And even though I was only there a year out of my 25, it is now a home; just like DC, just like Andover, just like Byfield. I can't let it go, nor let it be forgotten.

I know one day I'll be back on the mainland. Why, I don't know. I'd guess that the first reason might be tourism in 2008, but I'd love to be back sooner for business. But I'll be back I got to replace that book I lost in KunMing. I need to check in with my friends in Harbin. My Mandarin always needs more practice.

I'm tied to that country in more ways than Lao Zi might count.

Stay tuned.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

They Call It Fairyland

Take a pot. Add an unemployed, over-zealous, over-educated mind. Season with prep school and near-ivy league. Let simmer in China. Bring to boil with a caseful of the Banquet beer (Coors Oringinal, to the heathens). Thus comes the following entries. [UPDATE: The following entry which has now been edited by a morning-after mind.]

There were months of expectations leading up to JiuZhaiGou... finally walking through the entrance gorge brought that same giddy expecation [EDITED BY AUTHOR]

Most of my time in China had been spent on foot. I know my feet. I trust them. They've been with me as long as I can remember. Things in China? Anythings? Well, most had no longer than a year of trust, if even that. Buses fall into that "less than" category.

So I ventured forth into JiuZhaiGou. On foot.

I would soon learn that the BUS would take me deep into the beauty of the park. And save me a lot of trouble.

But the story is in the adventure! And as I headed out, mind clouded from the previous night's dinner festivity, the road was long and winding. And first it brought me to a temple where I, the lone traveler, made conversation with a park ranger who illumintaed me unto the details of the park.

And lo, by myself, was I ignored by bus after bus as I futilly thumbed rides to the end point of the park. Lugging a small pack and venturinging wherever I might, the journey continued on.

Passing a few villages along the way, I eventually ventured down a path that took me over hill and dale, through waterfall and glen, and along the forgotten bank of lakes that kept themselves in private till they blossomed in excellence for the prim and proper of the spring season.

But I was alone.

And I took that path less traveled.

As you look upon the pictures that adorn this entry, note, they do no justice. This adventure brought so many colors, so many instances, so many paths and adventures... no one picture will ever capture the experience.

I trekked on. Over hill and dale. Hill. Lagoon. Dale. Chip. In the end, Time clocked in as god, and the experience had to end. Prematurely. Were it not for friends back in Harbin who deserved a final "Goodbye," I might have stayed a second day. But it wasnt in the cards. I headed to the gate via public bus. I hiked back to the long distance bus station. I boarded my ride home.

From ChengDu it was a straight shot to BeiJIng, from there to Harbin.


Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Road to Fairyland

I woke up before dawn broke over the cozy and sociable courtyard-style hostel I had found in ChengDu. The bus for JiuZhaiGou left at 6 AM and from the other end of town... if you could even consider that far out being the same town or not.

The bus gave no comfort. The seats small, threadworn, and a far cry from comfortable. My seatmate chewed on something that reminded me of furniture polish and gave an acrid and pungent offense with each glob of spittle that he expunged upon the floor. I think his excretions eventually ate a hole through the bus.

Outside the confines of this vehicular wonder is where the story took place. Over 430 Km lie between ChengDu and JiuZhaiGou and within that stretch a profusion of landscape. We wove in and out of mountain tunnels and over precarious gorge-spanning bridges around the DuJiangYan Immigration System. I only figured out what this was later when I sat down with a map for at the time it seemed nothing more than a graveyard of concrete monoliths, abandoned tracks of aquaducts, drill-head syphons and other industrial detritus. Seemed like something out of Myst, but even more puzzling.

The country flattened out for a bit, but the mountains came back with a vengeance. Soon enough we zig-zagged back and forth up an incline so steep that I refuse to believe it was the easiest way. In retrospect I'm guessing this was ZhenJiang Pass, but I give no guarantees.

At some point before or after ZhenJiang Pass we stopped for lunch at a roadside chuckhouse complete with pay hole-in-the-ground and junk merchant. Thus the setting for another "foreigner on his own" story is set. Being the first in and out of the hole-in-the-ground shack, a local got in my face demanding money for the use of his hole-in-the-ground. As Chinese were entering and exiting as he pressed his argument, I retorted quite angrily that he was only trying to rip me off because I wasn't Chinese. Meanwhile more tourists were going in and out, paying no money, but snickering quite heartily. The debate came to nothing as I walked away, then flagged over by the junk dealer.

"You speak Chinese quite well!"
"Yes. Thank you. [Insert routine intro conversation.]"

While the pleasantries were exchanged I rummaged through his table, mostly full of the crap I'd seen everywhere else, though maybe a bit more Tibetan in flavor. Prayer bells, some fabric, etc.

"If you can speak Chinese I know something you might like!"
"OK. Show me."

I was kinda hoping he'd pull out some sort of Sword of Destiny or maybe some Dong Tea, but instead i got something I wasn't expecting at all. At first glance it seemed like nothing more than a Jacob's Ladder of sorts, then I realized it was carved from bone (yak bone, I'd learn). THEN I realized each side of each panel carried a carving of some different sexual act! The junk dealer quivered with laughter as he pushed the sale, but I had to pass. Why I didn't buy it, I dunno. In retrospect, it was such an odd and grotesque icon of perversion... seriously, why didn't I buy it?

Side note: the Chinese can certainly match the Japanese with sexual weirdness.

Continuing on, we hit some sort of plateau that almost seemed desert-like, but flanked on the west were those Tibetan mountains that carved their way around the SiChuan border, rising clearly off the plain hundreds of miles away. But even though the land for an hour or so seemed barren and lifeless, this is where we saw more settlements spring up than anywhere else during the journey. And as soon as we began some sort of descent we entered a forest of pine trees. Also odd about this juncture: It began to snow. Earlier in the day I had been sweating, and now, out of no where, the heaviest snow I had seen in China. Where the hell was I?

Twelve hours after departing ChengDu the bus pulled in front of the JiuZhaiGou gate. I purchased my ticket back to ChengDu for the next day (time was ticking till my plane departed for the US only 5 days later and I had over half of China to cross before then) and took up a persistent but friendly tout on a hotel room. Tossing my bags down I wandered up and down the street, sandwiched within a gorge between peaks, and put myself down in front of the largest hot pot I'd ever seen. Yak meat was plenty, as was the spicy, and beer had to follow. Some other Chinese took note of my solitude and invited me over to some toasting. I eventually stumbled back to the hotel.

In the morning I'd enter Fairyland.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Days of High Adventure...

It is said... long ago the peasant mortal Da-Ge found his heart captured by the beauty of the goddess WoLuo SeMo. In lavishing gifts of his adoration upon her, each failed, only serving as a further testament of the goddess' beauty as each appeared as nothing more than paltry trinket within her radiance. Upon much meditation, Da-Ge discovered that nothing could match WoLuo SeMo aside from WoLuo SeMo herself. Using great ingenuity, Da-Ge crafted a mirror great enough to frame the glory of his love. But the mortal world is not hospitable to such truth, and before the gift might be presented an unnamed evil swatted the mirror to the ground, shattering the glass into 114 pieces upon the rough earth. These shards, having only glimpsed at the beauty of WoLuo SeMo, would become the lakes and rivers that brought life to JiuZhaiGou.

It is said... that during an age of great prosperity, the people of the GuGe Kingdom suffered a forgotten tragedy that forced an exodus from their homelands in Tibet. As the diaspora moved from land to land, the people growing ever further from their kind and kin, a promise was made. A sign would be set, a sign that would lead the peoples of the GuGe Kingdom to reunite; if not in this world then in the next. So it was declared that wherever they roamed, when they found hospice the universal name would be given to the settlement. That name is YangTong, a name scattered amongst the beauty of JiuZhaiGou like snow on the early winter's earth.

It is said... that one day I will finish this travelogue, and dagnabit, I'm going to. So if anyone is still reading out there, I'm making the big push to the end. I'm sure thats why I'm put it off, or at least one good reason, as with the completion of these accounts I close a chapter of life that meant a lot. Luckily the book still has a lot left in it.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Just ChengDu It!

The train arrived in GuiYang before I had a chance to enact revenge upon Senior Fartypants. I found a hotel and bedded down for the night. My next train left early the following morning; destination: ChengDu, the capital of SiChuan (or "Szechuan," for those of you who enjoy the Taste). GuiYang, or at least what I witnessed, was pretty much gross incarnate. What did strike me as odd was how the entire world of the omnipresent Chinese street market was actually 30 feet below street level. Maybe the modern city had been built above the traditional areas of commerce, but regardless, a deep trench that ran alongside each major thoroughfare gave light to a bustling stall economy that I would have explored given more time (lost due to that damn HK snafu). I did enjoy a tasty dish of huiguorou (twice cooked pork), a favorite of mine and indigenous to the region I was headed towards.

My fellow passengers on the train to ChengDu were kind and courteous, and I'll speak no ill of their company. The story here passed outside the confines of my car and was told through staccatoes of steep mountain and fertile valley, with accents of small, isolated villages and an ongoing theme of rape.

"Rape: not being in the "raping and pillaging" sense so much as the "canola oil" sense. Though canola oil can get surly at times...

But winding through the numerous hamlets between GuiYang and ChengDu it took no imagination to see how the Chinese view their spoken language as being split in a thousand different directions, just as it might have seemed obvious to QinShiHuang, the first emperor of China, how the written language itself varied with each hill and dale. I was glad I didn't have to deal with this division so much, as my Chinese was as clear and state-mandatedly uniform as a foreigner could hope to be.

But now I come to ChengDu. A few notes before we start, courtesy of my friends at Wikipedia, one of my favorite blocked-by-the-PRC websites (my own included upon this list), have to say about ChengDu and the province of SiChuan:
- The area lies in the Sichuan basin and is surrounded by the Himalaya to the west, Qinling Range to the north, and mountainous areas of Yunnan to the south. The Yangtze River flows through the basin and thus is upstream to areas of eastern China. The Minjiang River, in central Sichuan is a tributary of the upper Yangtze River, which it joins at Yibin.
- Sichuan is known as the "Land of Abundance."
- A number of China's rockets (Long March rockets) and satellites has been launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, located in the city of Xichang.

Mostly poxy babble as far as my tongue was concerned. Here are two notes that got my buds flowin':
- The Sichuan cuisine is famous for being very spicy, but in fact only slightly more than 30 % of dishes officially labeled "local" rely on chili pepper. The reputation for hot food is, however, much older than the use of peppers, which became common only in the 17-18th century.
- Chengdu's cuisine is considered to be one of China's most outstanding. The many local specialties include Grandma Chen's Bean Curd (Mapo doufu), Chengdu Hot pot, and Carrying Pole Noodles (Dan Dan Noodles).

Thank you, Wikipedia. This blog brought to you by the letter "C."

Arriving in ChengDu I needed my plan. The next goal, a goal that was the big reason for traveling to this corner of China, was JiuZhaiGou. Finding the long distance bus station, consulting the timetables and my own schedule, and it was ruled that I had a day in ChengDu. Best to do all I could.

First was housing. Going to my trusty Lonely Planet, I found a hostel that suited my needs. Located down a muddy alley-way, I got a bed in a shared room for about $3. My roommate was cool (he had been bumming around Asia for 4 months at that point, had 2 more to go) but the magnificence came in the structure of the place. Built in the traditional courtyard style, the 4-tiered establishment had only two bathroom areas and a kitchen with spotty hours but life that kept going 24 hours a day. People gathered in the center picnic table area to practice languages, play chess, share a beer, or just trade stories. I gave a few of my own (most centered around "Your Chinese is ver good!" and "I could never travel around this country alone like you are!") but didn't care to dillydally. I had limited time in ChengDu.

And hysterical signs to photograph.

No comment. Or too many.

Being known for the cuisine, I beelined for a restaraunt to treat myself to some good lunch. Finding one, and a table, I ordered what became a 12 (count it, 12) course lunch. One thing I love about Chinese food is that they will serve you many many dishes, giving you an opportunity to enjoy a great variety of flavor in one sitting. And since little of it is incredibly filling, getting most of it down isn't too difficult. I wish I could give more detail towards what I ingested that day, but now, a few months later, and menus being my weakest point of Chinese, I couldn't say much without authority except that it was delicious.

Lunch took court in the center of ChengDu, which I am sad to say looks like the center of any Chinese city to me by now. Statue of Mao, Dior outlet. Big outdoor square, McDonalds and KFC. Lots of neon. Great. Homogenization. While I am happy that I might find a Starbucks for a caffeine fix when I crave one, I do wish the world offered more of the delights of individuality that flourished prior to the sweep of globalization.

But I digress.

After the greatest lunch of China it was a temple stop, and like most temples by now, it wasn't much to impress. The shock came outside the walls, and its not too pleasant of one, so skip the next paragraph if you're squeamish.

You were warned, and this might not you as it hit mon capitain, but its a story nonetheless. Outside the temple were beggars, but the most disfigured beggars I'd seen in China. Sad to say, but according to stories on the street and urban legends, folks of this kind are usually rounded up and sent away from the eyes of tourists and Olympic Committees. ChengDu's must have slipped through the net. Often I can pass by with indifference, maybe through the spare coins rattling my pocket to the least annoying of a bunch, but one here actually frightened me. It was a woman, and if you kept your eyes below her neck you'd take her to be as any other over-plump Chinese mom. But here face... well... imagine the almost faceless represenation of "Pink" from one of my favorite albums, "The Wall." The dark, empty black eyes, the motionless mouth, the formless nose. Now burn the christ out of the eerie flatness of that face so that the skin melts and drips down upon itself, to the point that certain tendrils dangle from the bone structure's most precipitous points. Add a voice that wails and shrieks in undiscernable waves and you've got the nightmare I found hard to face outside that temple. The emotion that gurgled in my bowels didn't make me proud.

But inside the temple's walls were oddly (yet pleasingly) manipulated trees! Yay!

There was another temple after that, the second of the day being a Daoist. I hadn't seen many a Daoist temple during my travels, and this one proved elegantly interesting. Then there was a woman who could bring you past St. Peter's Gate through what she could do with your feet, and even some Kung-fu tea service, a local tradition where the server pours the boiling water into your cup through a series of acrobatic positioning. A haircut was involved. Dinner too.

Dinner gave the last interesting story of ChengDu. I found a greasy chopstick down the alley from my hostel, one that looked promising (the name didn't incorporate "fish" or "noodles," neither of which I wanted). Sitting down and asking for a menu, it was quickly realized, yet again, that this foreigner spoke Chinese.

"What do you want, sir?"
"I don't care. Make it spicy. ChengDu is famous for spicy foods, so give me something spicy."
"How spicy?"
"Very spicy. The spiciest you've got."

Well, I got what amounted to a bowl of peppers with some chicken floating within, and a few hallucinations later, it was delicious.

But the best part came in the company. Spotted by a mother, some young boy came over to my table and muttered some English. I spewed Chinese (remember, Sichuan spicy food --> hallucinations... it was like being drunk on spicy) and quickly had a friend who wanted to prove all his English through song and dance. Basically a floor show. As I clapped and dazed along, his mother joined me at my table, gifting a few beers. We talked about education and the state of China's children, the boy sang the alphabet, and in the end I was smiling like a Cheshire Cat. And that mother even paid for my dinner. Belly full, feet tired, hair cut; sleep came to ChengDu.

Friday, July 07, 2006

...High On Methane

There are certian sensibilities which I believe are accepted world 'round. "Thou Shalt Not Kill," I think, is a good example. No culture that I know of smiles upon senseless/useless killing (thus excluding deaths under warrior codes and religioius sacrifice).

I'd like to add another axiom to this list.

"Strangers* Shalt Not Fart On Strangers."

After a relaxing trio of days in GuiLin, time came to head on with my journey. Pressed for time thanks to the annoying Hong Kong hold-over, I decided to bee-line for ChengDu, bypassing a trip into the GuiZhou country-side to mingle with minorities. But to get to ChengDu I needed to swap trains in GuiYang, maybe 15 hours away. So early that morning I cabbed to meet a 5AM train (it came late) and eventually nuzzled into the bottom bunk of my sleeper berth.

I couldn't sleep too long, however, as around 730AM I found a hefty middle-aged man sitting on my legs. I knew he was on my legs because not only did his girth keeep me from turning around, but it kept the blood from my lower extremities. I don't like losing the feeling in any part of my body, especially not while sleeping, so I did what I could to crane my neck in his directions and politely informed him that he was sitting on me.

He just giggled. He didn't laugh, or question, or answer. He giggled. Like a 50ish, overweight, Chinese schoolgirl.

So I repeated that he was on my legs and it wasn't very comfortable. Could he please move?

He giggled more, pointed at me, then ripped on. Straight up, no holds barred, fart. Right on me.

For a moment I wanted to be back in Hong Kong. And I wish I could say the guy got no more annoying throughout the rest of the day, but that'd be a lie. He continued to sit on me, and even played poker on my ass. Eventually he wised up that I spoke Chinese (he had been bad mouthing me all day) and started asking me loaded questions that I obviously was not going to answer. Questions like "If the US and China went to war during the Cold War, who would win, and who would the USSR ally with, and would Americans still like KFC?"

Man was I glad to get to GuiYang, even if it was a dump.

*I say "strangers" because otherwise I'd be putting myself in self-incriminating position. I am the oldest of four children, I did spent five years (4 in high school) living in dorms, and I do like Terrence and Phillip.