Tuesday, May 31, 2005

10 Bad Things About Beijing

10) Internet Access - Thankfully, it's available, but the performance is often questionable. Sometimes, it's simply impossible to reach some websites or send attachments. Due to, I assume, the imposed behind-the-scenes filters, pages don't load as quickly as they could and often seem to hang for unusually long periods.

9) Utilities - You pay for a number of increments, impossible to monitor, and when they're exhausted you're out of luck. Pray it doesn't happen on a Friday evening or you'll go the weekend without electricity or water.

8) Smoking - I'm a smoker and generally don't brag about my awful habit or complain about how much other folks might, but smoking is not really prohibited anywhere here. Sometimes, there may be obvious signs posted, although they are generally disregarded. People smoke on buses and in elevators. No problem.

7) Environment - Aside from the whiteout, which is the daily thick whiteness of the air, trash and rubbish are staples of the landscape. It's not uncommon to see an upturned garbage can or a pile of trash.

6) Spitting - Men do it. Women do it. Their kids do it. They're loud and they're proud. They do it inside or out, day or night, rain or shine. And none of it is chewing tobacco induced.

5) Restrooms - They smell bad and are scarily dark, insecty places where people like to spit (see number 7). Don't forget your TP or you're in for another surprise. The restrooms in most homes I've visited usually possess an equally strong smell, too. The plumbing lacks one of those little pipe doohickeys which traps the strong wafting odors.

4) Elevator Curfew - Our elevator stops running at about 12:30AM every day, which is perhaps a safety precaution, although we live in a guarded community, but it's incredibly inconvenient. We're not exactly night owls, but often cut our excursions into Beijing's nightlife short so we can get back to avoid climbing sixteen flights of stairs.

3) Honking - It's like the music of traffic and must be a requisite driving ability here. Most people don't even seem to noticeably respond, dulled senseless over the years.

2) Cuts - This is no place for timid souls. If you don't guard your place in line, someone will simply step in front of you.

1) Blocking - Let me off the bus, train, elevator, whatever! Then everyone can race for that lone seat. At least, it's easy to knock people back when they're trying to climb up onto the bus.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

My father told me he was my one-thousandth visitor, which is cool. He has perhaps visited the site more than 150 times, but that leaves 850 others. I can recognize some of your traces with my cybereye, but I won't expose you yet.

Over the past few months, there has been much more attention to the site for reasons I can't explain. Updating the site a couple times a week helps, I suppose. I would love to update it every day, but I just can't spend so much time in front of the computer anymore. We must not be too preoccupied with ourselves.

Well, that's about it for now. Just wanted to give all of you stat junkies some trivia. Don't miss a single word of me, especially those of you who are planning to visit us here in Beijing. Stay tuned for my next two posts which will detail some of the good and bad about China.

Monday, May 23, 2005

My school is really a special place and I have no reason to complain about it. There are many plants and colorful flowers. The campus is picturesque, especially on clear days and it's a beautiful place to have to go to work every day. That building on the left is the school's cafeteria and, I believe, the other buildings are dormitories. I brought home a bag of cherries today which were picked from the cherry trees on campus.

One particularly unique feature of the campus is the recent addition of an aviary and a number of other animal pens. It seems like they are still continuing to work at building more pens for animals which they haven't yet procured. I imagine not many schools can boast of such an eccentric aspect to their campuses. I noticed a number of months ago that something which looked like a cage was being built out behind the basketball courts, but never thought much of it. Perhaps one month ago, I noticed that something was moving within the cage, which can be seen from my office window, and I thought it was time to investigate.

As I got closer, I could see that it was a habitat for large birds. A couple peacocks and six or eight other birds I couldn't recognize. I was amazed and impressed. A few weeks later, a cage for smaller canary-sized birds, which had been built into a corner of the large habitat, had been filled with an uncountable number of smaller colorful birds. You can see some of them here, although it's difficult to get a good picture through two layers of chainlink. You can view a few other pictures of the birds and some other animals here.

Aside from these exotic birds, there is a trio of geese penned into the cherry orchard. Next to the cherry orchard, there are three or four animal pens which house rabbits, puppies and goats. Across from these pens, there is a small cage which houses two myna birds, a large white cockateil, and another bird that looks like a kind of parrot. The mynah birds speak Chinese and, my coworker told me, they can recite some Chinese poetry.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Shanxi Province - Part VI: Wutai Mountain

The three of us woke up quite early and the weather was spectacular. Wutai Mountain was famous for the large number of Buddhist temples located in a beautiful mountain valley, and we were excited to get started. Me, Angela and Shanmu cleaned up and headed out to find some breakfast. As usual, coffee was the order, but there was no coffee to be found, even the canned variety. I settled for a few hard-boiled eggs and a piece of fried bread with tea while Angela and Shanmu had a kind of Chinese porridge.

After eating, Angela and me left Shanmu who wanted to pray at the temples he visited. We had our own touristic intentions and we all decided to reconvene later in the evening and have dinner together. It was crowded almost everywhere we went and some temples were much more popular than others. When Buddhists pray, they light incense and either hold it or set it somewhere to burn. They believe the smoke reaches heaven. You can see a particularly large pile of ashes here in front of one temple which was especially crowded.

We explored three or four temples before looking for a place to eat lunch. Despite obvious similarities in architecture and intention, I was surprised at how different each temple was from another. Many of the temples could only be reached by climbing many stairs and it was quite tiring, especially under the hot sun. Both Angela and me were also quite sore from climbing a mountain the day before and decided to take it easy in the afternoon. We located a legitimate hotel with a shower in the room, and relocated our things. Shanmu agreed to share the room with us for another night and we all ate dinner together and then went to sleep. Shanmu had visited many more temples than we had, but we were going to stay a few more days while he was leaving the next afternoon and couldn't afford to take his time like us.

It rained and stormed quite violently that night and the temperature had dropped significantly the next day. At least, it wasn't raining when we ventured forth from our room, but it had actually snowed on the mountains! None of us had brought warm clothes and we were desperate for a solution as he wind was icy cold. I noticed that many people were walking around in Chinese military overcoats, which looked quite warm, and we soon found a place where we could rent them, too. We knocked off a number of temples after that and by the end of the day, we had visited around fifteen different temples. Shanmu left at about 5:00PM and Angela and me rested for a few hours before going out for dinner. We had one final night here before leaving on the next day to catch a bus back to Beijing at 4PM.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Shanxi Province - Part V: The Road to Wutai Mountain

The taxi driver who picked us up had to take the three of us back to his office so his employer could write down our names and passport numbers. For such a lengthy trip, they needed to take this extra precaution. It made us feel a little nervous, and it shaved about 45 minutes off of our available daylight, which was rapidly declining, but it was an otherwise painless experience. He asked us for ¥270, roughly $35, for the trip.

We drove for nearly three hours following a dried-up riverbed past lacerated mountains, the black holes of mines were visible almost everywhere, with the rock and sand spilling down the slopes like great trails of light-brown blood, along windy roads which climbed higher and higher toward the summit. The road continued above the tree line and we could still see snow on the ground in some places. The cab driver remarked that he had neither driven so far before nor ever been to the area where he was taking us. His lack of confidence was apparent as he increased his cigarette intake. We felt a little sorry for him, because we didn't know our destination was in such a remote place. He stopped a number of times, handing out cigarettes to old men along the side of the road, to ask for directions. He stopped once and asked some people who were feeding a herd of goats in the middle of the street. He simply needed some reassurance as there weren't really any signs along the way. All of the residential areas were small mining villages but everyone said the same thing, suggesting that we continue in our same direction.

By the time we reached the entrance to Wutai Mountain, the cab driver had to leave us otherwise, we would have had to pay for his car to enter the park. It was dark already and we had heard along the way that there weren't any hotels available in town. Almost everyone in China was traveling now, and Wutai Mountain was a popular destination. Angela and me paid our entrance fees anyway, while Shanmu tried to procure a ride into town. Finding nothing, we had nothing to do but follow the only road down the mountain.

After about 20 minutes, a van stopped to give us a lift. There were already six Chinese people in the van, but they happily made room for us. They were in their late twenties and also, coincidentally, from Beijing, and the driver was taking them to a hotel where they would also find a room for us. The hotel cost each of us ¥50 for the night, which was a little high for what we were getting, but we were just happy to have a place to sleep. After putting our things down, we all went out to eat dinner in town. Dinner wasn't particularly tasty, being typical tourist slop, but we were starving and ate it quickly. When dinner was over, we returned to our hotel and were sleeping within moments.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Shanxi Province - Part IV: The Hanging Monastery & Heng Mountain

After sleeping most of the previous day, I woke up early and, still a little weak-kneed, felt healthy and happy. The weather was already hot and the skies were blueish. We gathered our things together and cleared out, hiring a tuk-tuk on the street to take us to the station.

After arriving, an employee told us to wait behind a couple at one of two open ticket windows, actually escorting us from the entrance to the line. After helping the couple ahead of us, the ticket agent quickly closed the window without a word to us. Disgruntled, but satisfied that neither line had lengthened since our arrival, we moved over to the only other remaining line. When it was our turn, the ticket agent explained that we could actually purchase our tickets on the bus, telling us the price (¥22) and directing us through a turnstyle. We made our way to the bus and boarded. A skinny, talkative man, not the bus driver, asked us for ¥25, but smilingly accepted our ¥22 after a short protest. We were haggling over 36¢.

We were early enough to get good seats, although we weren't going anywhere until the bus was filled. As with our train ride, they were going to do their best to get as many people on the bus as possible. After about 30 minutes, shortly after 9PM, we departed. The skinny man arranged some of the late-comers in such a way as to make it appear that the bus wasn't as full as we actually were. Angela explained that they would have to pay less in fees if they could disguise the actual number of passengers. The bus stopped at the gate, the door opened, and the number of passengers was reported to an old man dressed in dark blue clothing (circa The Cultural Revolution) who glanced up momentarily. The door closed and we were on our way. As we made our way toward The Hanging Monastery, we added, at least, another six passengers who simply stood together near the door, which was the only unoccupied space left. After a little more than an hour, the bus stopped along the highway, and we stepped off along with a number of other passengers who were going sightseeing.

In the quest for information, Angela befriended a Chinese person, Shanmu, an engineer from Beijing, who mentioned he was going to Wutai Mountain afterwards, which was coincidentally our final destination, and we decided to travel there together and share the cost. After touring The Hanging Monastery, which was smaller than I'd expected and lacked in relics, we ate lunch together and rested. Shanmu talked us into stopping at another mountain along the way, Heng Mountain, of which we had been unaware. It sounded good to us and it would be on our way.

It only took us about fifteen minutes by taxi to get to Heng Mountain, which was crowded. From the parking lot, we could see many structures nestled in the side of the mountain. A ropeway ride halfway up the mountain looked more appealing than walking up the hot trail in the midday sun, but the line was quite long and we thought that we had better conserve our money.

We spent longer there than we had anticipated. The mountain, aside from its beauty, was famous for being a large collective of Taoist temples and there were many ancient buildings to explore. It was like a small village high up in the mountains. The weather had become quite beautiful, we were far from the dirty confines of Datong, and we rested frequently as we climbed. By the time we left, it was nearly 4PM and we had no idea how far we had to go to get to Wutai Mountain.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Shanxi Province - Part III: Yungang Caves

It was quite early when we woke up. Something was wrong with me. It felt like something was twisting my stomach. Angela was in a hurry to get going. I stalled for a few hours by sending Angela out to find some stomach medicine, get some breakfast and check about some tickets for our departure at the bus and train stations. I couldn't move and felt as if I would vomit. I only had enough energy to get to the bathroom, where I dealt with the spasms of diarrhea which were wringing me out. Angela found medicine in the hotel lobby, which had no effect as my condition only seemed to worsen. Angela looked heart-broken, sitting on the edge of the bed, envisioning returning to Beijing. I felt guilty for spoiling our vacation and forced myself to accompany her to The Yungang Caves even though I just wanted to sleep it off.

After walking around briefly, and resting on a number of benches, I went to the first-aid station and slept while Angela continued to see the sights. She took some great pictures. While she was out and about, the doctor took my temperature, gave me some medicine which eventually eased my stomach pain and told me to drink lots of hot water. The generic Chinese cure for nearly all ailments. He offered to give me an injection for my stomach, but I opted against it, deciding to take my chances with a more natural recuperation.

Angela returned and we went back to the hotel. Back through the slowly blackening city with its little grey coal villages where the workers and their families lived, back past machine shops and parts dealers, past coal piles and black fields and rock quarries and giant truck graveyards, past smokestacks and the smoking pipes of roadside vendors selling sticky noodles and hot fruit under orange plastic tarps, past the sparklingly sharp military campus where men in fatigues played basketball, past more men in fatigues walking or riding bicycles on the streets with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, past groups of taxi drivers talking on the corners, through swirling dust storms past rows of unreadable storefront windows pasted over with giant red and blue Chinese characters, back to our hotel.

Angela went to eat lunch by herself. I went back to our room and slept. She returned with a bowl of rice, which I enjoyed with a big glass of hot water and then went back to sleep. Angela joined me, taking a nap, and eventually roused herself to go and visit a couple temples before it got too late. I continued to sleep. She returned with a banana, which I managed to eat without incident. It seemed like I was recovering, although I was still weak. If my recovery continued, we planned to resume our journey to The Hanging Monastery and Wutai Mountain, but if I didn't recover, we planned to return to Beijing. We ordered food in our room that evening, watched the news and some women's ping-pong matches on TV and then went to sleep.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Shanxi Province - Part II: Datong

We arrived in Datong around 5:00PM and followed the rest of the people out of the station. We had planned on stopping there for the night, checking out The Yungang Caves (host to many Buddhist statues and sculptures) and The Hanging Monastery the next day before moving on in the evening to Wutai Mountain. There weren't any distinctive features about the train station aside from the fact that it felt like we were being led into a gas chamber. At the exit, someone immediately corralled us into following him to get some information about lodgings and tours.

Lacking a better idea, we followed the man, hurrying on with another tourist, for a few meters until we heard quick footsteps approaching. Susan, one of the students I tutor, who also lives in our building back in Beijing, came running up to greet us with a big smile on her face. I said, "did you follow us?!" She told us that she was going with her parents to see The Yungang Caves, too. We talked briefly, gave Susan our cellphone number and then continued on to the tourist information center, although no one seemed to be there when we arrived. Our primary objective was to locate a cheap place to sleep for the night which, after asking a few of the local shopkeepers, we easily procured in a hotel across from the train station.

Datong, as someone told us later in our journey, is the most polluted city in China, rife with coal mines. Disordered and congested, it seemed like there was a grey film over everything. This picture doesn't really do the ugliness justice as many of the streets and walkways were even more covered with trash. Most of the traffic in the city was either bicycles, taxis, tuk-tuks or buses. We walked around in the center of town that evening, looking for a place to eat and just wandered around for a while. We settled down at a bar to enjoy a beer and eventually made our way to one of the finest hotels in town, where we enjoyed an excellent meal. We made our way back to our hotel happy and satisfied despite the depressing atmosphere of the city. We hadn't planned on staying there longer than one night, but I woke up sick.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Shanxi Province - Part I: Train Departure

Angela and me left our apartment in Beijing at about 8:30AM on Sunday morning, catching a taxi to the Beijing West Raliway Station (pictured here). The sky was clear and blue, and our spirits were high. Our train for Datong was scheduled to leave at 10:10AM, and we arrived with plenty of time to spare. The station was a massive, impressive building, and quite crowded due to the hordes of Chinese people traveling for the Labor Day holiday. Our train, already waiting, was one of the longest passenger trains I have ever seen, and we could see that it was packed. Not only were all of the seats taken, but the aisles of every car were also lined with people. As we walked to car #3, many people were leaning out of the open windows smoking, smoking between cars and on the platform. It was a festive atmosphere and people were talking loudly in the spring heat.

The ride itself was pleasing and I got to see a part of China that was completely different than city life in Beijing. We passed through a number of small villages and towns, most of the buildings built of grey or red bricks. Everywhere, people working in the hot sun: men shoveling rocks, pounding boulders with sledgehammers or laying bricks; older men driving mules, horses and oxen across dry, rocky earth; women carrying baskets on their backs or squatting near plastic basins wringing out their wash. While we were passing through the countryside, I began to understand the Chinese love of plastic. The fields and trees, the bushes and broken yellow stalks of dried plants, the littered ditches along the tracks and roads, the fences and branches all seemed to be clasping onto plastic bags which fluttered as the wind pulled at them. All the colors of the rainbow, like buddhist prayer flags, could be seen as we rolled along the dusty fields and plains.

Angela had warned me that a Chinese train ride was something different, but I really hadn't been prepared for it. We had reserved seats, fortunately, and didn't have to stand for the six-hour trip. The over-booked cars were obscene, though, as people shoved by one another to get to the restroom. One passenger leaned against me, quietly singing to himself, for nearly two hours. By the time we were about halfway through our journey, the train's occupancy had settled down to a reasonable level and we had a little more room to stretch our legs or stand up if we felt like doing so. Angela struck up a conversation with an older Chinese woman from Datong who had been sitting across from us, and who recommended lodgings and a typical dish to try after we had arrived. While they were talking, I noticed all of the trash on the floor of the train: wads of tissue paper, plastic wrappers, glass and plastic bottles and juice boxes, sunflower seed shells, orange peels and cigarette butts. Chinese people don't think twice about throwing something on the ground, inside or out.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

A few new developments. Angela and me returned from our travels in Shanxi Province (map). I will add a number of posts as I get them formatted detailing our trip (including some great photos) over the next few days. Stay tuned...

Couple new poems on the internet. Read Spoke at The Surface as part of a special theme about "The Rise and Fall of God & the Devil." Read H Itch, another poem from my Alphabet Series, which also won an honorable mention in a recent contest held by the same fine magazine, at Poems Niederngasse. There are those of you who may not appreciate some of my references so be warned. I promise I won't think you're bad people.

You should be able to download my most recent e-book, Excess Conceptions Meditations Rapist, if you're in the mood. Don't let the title scare you.

Finally, you can view all of my photos by themselves by clicking My Photos in the sidebar. There might be a few you haven't seen. There's also a new movie review at Reviewed, if that's you're cup.