Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Milan - Il DuomoI was excited to stop in Milan for a few days on our way south to Putignano, if only because I had never been to that city. I was also excited because I just finished reading The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, and I was looking foward to seeing Leonardo's painting of the Last Supper.

On our first morning, we took the subway into the city and walked to Il Duomo. The church has been under restoration and the front of the building was blocked from our view by scaffolding. The rest of the church, however, was uncovered and this picture actually shows the backside of the church. Angela was impressed with the change in its appearance, having seen it many years ago prior to restoration.

Milano - Il Duomo - StatuaAfter walking around inside for a while and admiring the beautiful paintings and religious artwork (It seems as if most churches in this country are museums, even the small ones!), we climbed up onto the roof of the church and walked around, which, if you've never seen it, is adorned with many stautes, spires and other ornate stone decorations. It's really quite impressive. I took many other pictures, if you want to take a look at them. We spent the rest of the day walking around, shopping, and not doing much of anything. The sky eventually cleared up, which made for a nice day, although it was still quite cold. In the evening, we met some of Angela's friends for a little wine and conversation, and then returned to our hotel, exhausted.

Milano - La ChiesaOn our last day, we had made reservations at 9:00AM to see Leonardo's Last Supper and made our way to Santa Maria delle Grazie, which is the name of the church where the painting resides. Here is a picture of it from beneath the courtyard archway behind the church. You must make reservations to view the painting and the curators only allow 20 people in every 15 minutes to view the painting. You'll have to do your own research to view the painting, if you're not already familiar with it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

5th Grade Girls - Scavenger Hunt - Pow WowTyping as fast as possible. I know you've been neglected, but I'm doing my best from another country on a second-hand computer with a few minutes to spare for this kind of frivolity.

School ended last Thursday for me (the kids still had one more half-day on Friday), and we spent the morning working on a scavenger hunt: boys vs. girls. I was the captain of the girls team and, as the girls were faster and much more organized than the hapless boys, we won the contest with 15 minutes to spare.

Spent the weekend visiting friends and going out too much. On Sunday, Angela and me left for Italy, stopping first in Milan for a few days. Now, we're down south with her family in Putignano. It's quite cold here now and has snowed every day since we've arrived.

That's it for now. Not too exciting. I'll tell a bit more about this place in my next post, which should be in a few days or so. I don't have the luxury of having a computer at my beck so I'll give it my best when I get to it.

Monday, January 16, 2006

My null-space was longer than expected. I suppose, after the last series of lengthy posts, I deserved a break. A little bird told me that they were too long, though. What say you vast, masked denizens of cyberphase? How's my pace? Who may answer such a question? The screen blinklessly stares back at me while the computer hums another digital falsetto.

I couldn't access the internet from home since my last post and, while I'm not opposed to blogging at work, I just don't have any time to do it there, especially when my weekends are concerned. I'm not sure what caused the problem at home, but it seems to be fixed now. I came home for lunch where there is almost no food on hand, ate a few sesame crackers and waited for the internet guy. He showed up a few minutes later than he was scheduled to arrive, used an electronic gadget which beeped in a number of octaves as he keyed-in his entries, and then left without explanation. I'm not sure that he could have said anything to me in Chinese that would have left me with a reassuring feeling, but I was wondering if he was going to come back and, if so, when. Would I have to wait here all afternoon? The phone rang one time while he was out and then all was silent again. He returned after a few moments, walked over to the computer, grabbed my attention with a grunt, and showed me that I was connected. I said xie xie and escorted him to the door where he removed his plastic shoe-covers and walked out of the apartment.

Now, I can get back on this horse and catch up on all the e-mails that have been stacking up. During the hiatus, I wasn't particularly constructive with the additional time usually sucked out of me by the computer. Angela and me watched the complete second season of 24 and read a little more from our books. Seems like everything's running smoothly again. That's a relief. Time to get on with more important matters...

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Ping Yao, Part VII: Toward Home

Our ride arrived at about 3:30PM, a little three-wheeled electric taxi with blankets for walls, which made for a drafty ride to the station, but it was free and we didn't complain. We had tried to get a train ticket the day before, but none were available so we were left with our backup plan, which was the bus. The staff at our hotel told us that, after taking a bus from Ping Yao to Taiyuan, we could catch a bus to Beijing every hour until 10PM, so that's where we were headed. Arriving at the station, a bus was nearly ready to go, had enough available seats, and we boarded. 20 RMB each. The price was right, we had seats, and we were happy to be on the road again. Unfortunately, with numerous stops to pick up hitch-hikers, the 45 kilometer trip lasted about two hours.

We couldn't catch our connecting bus from the station in which we had arrived, and learned that we had to walk a few blocks to another bus station, which was did. Once there, we learned that a bus would not be leaving until 10:45PM that night, which was disheartening. It was just about 6:00PM so we had some time to kill. During peak months, there probably are buses to Beijing every hour, but now, in the middle of winter, we were lucky to find one. It was an overnighter scheduled to arrive in Beijing at 5:45AM the next day, which meant sleeping on the bus. With no alternatives, we purchased tickets and held congress in the waiting room, nearly empty except for the staff sitting near the heater and cracking seeds in their mouths.

We decided to venture forth to look for a more comfortable place to wait. After walking a few cold blocks, we thought we would take our chances and see where a taxi driver would lead us. We hailed a cab, hopped in, and, in a matter of minutes, were warmly nestled on plush couches listening to live piano music while drinking Qingdaos and eating french fries in, likely, one of the only Western joints in town. Time passed quickly while we nibbled, reminisced about our short vacation and our lives, or read from our books intermittently, and soon enough it was time to go. On the way to the station, the taxi driver got lost and took us to the wrong station initially, but soon returned us to the right place. We had left our bags in the station, and retrieved them successfully. It was just about 10:30PM and the bus had arrived. We found our seats and, after a few moments, we were off again.

The lights on the bus were on for about an hour and I read during that time. After the lights were turned out, it was impossible to read. Like on any Chinese bus, the little reading lamp above me didn't work and I decided to try to sleep. I nodded off for a few hours and then came to around 1AM. The bus seemed to have come to a complete standstill on the highway. We got passed the jam, the road appeared blocked by a number of military vehicles, and began to wind our way along little sidestreets and dirt roads on the sides of hills through wherever we were. It was impossible to return to sleep. We had no explanation for what was happening and, as usual, no one seemed to want to ask. After about an hour of rickety uncomfortable and slow movement, it seemed like we were heading into the mountains. It seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere. I was a little worried and imagined the whole busload of us being transported off to some forgotten work camp.

It seemed like we were completely lost. Angela was infuriated. We didn't know where Dawn was, sitting somewhere in the back of the bus, or if she was awake or not, but she told us later that she had slept through everything. The bus stopped on a dirt road in the mountain and a number of us got off to smoke. The driver had walked up the road to see what was happening and quickly returned, herding us back onto the bus. People were a little more curious now and the bus attendant informed us that we were taking a detour to avoid the fog and snow on the normal route. It felt like we had driven for hours on these shoddy mountain roads and we could see thick motes of dust in the sporadic headlight light in the air inside the bus.

Things eventually evened out and we seemed to be back on a main road. We tried to sleep and I may have, but it's hard to say really. I woke up for good at around 6AM with no idea where we were. On we went. Eventually, we began to recognize things and by 9AM, we were within Beijing city limits. We reached the station at 9:30AM and were home by 10AM. Angela and me went up to our apartment and made a nice breakfast and then went back to bed.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Ping Yao, Part VI: Our Last 24 Hours

Ping Yao - Me & Chinese CharacterWe made our way back to Ping Yao and sat down at about 4PM to eat in one of the many guesthouses which all looked the same from the outside. After swallowing the lackluster dishes we'd ordered, we left the restaurant at around 5PM to try and catch a few of the sights in the area before they all closed. Dawn returned to the guesthouse as she was carrying around a number of souvenirs she had purchased. Angela and me hit four or five old buildings before catching up with Dawn taking pictures in the street outside our guesthouse. We entered one last in conspicuous attraction, which surprised us with a large temple hidden within, a nice display of foreign currency from around the world and a high tower which offered a fine view of the surrounding rooftops. When we exited, we found Dawn talking in the street with a young girl from Ping Yao. Her English was quite good and all of us joined in the conversation. Her English name was Lynn and she was with her beaming father and mute sister, both on bicycles while Lynn was on foot. We talked for a few minutes and then returned to the lobby of our guesthouse, wishing them a happy new year.

We all sat down to drink a beer and reflect. It was quite crowded in the lobby, but warm and lively. I did a little writing while Dawn and Angela read from their books. After a while, Angela went to our room to catch a few winks, and Dawn and I remained in the lobby drinking and talking and reading. Angela emerged at around 7:30PM at about the same time that Chris walked in. We were happy to see him as we had expected to see him in the morning to join us for breakfast, but he never arrived. Anyway, we all had another beer together and then made our way back to Sakura's to play some Liar's Dice. Chris wasn't drinking any more beer, but the rest of us ordered one. We played a few games and then lost our enthusiasm for it and just talked with each other. Chris was leaving early the next day and soon departed for bed. We wished him well and off he went. The three of us drank another beer and then decided it was time for us to leave, as well. It was about 12:00AM and when we exited the bar we could still hear the music so we, feeling a bit rowdy, danced in the black street in almost complete darkness. The sky had cleared and we could see the stars and some constellations clearly. It was nice end to our day.

Ping Yao - Sakura'sWe woke up at close to 9:30AM the next morning, and I called Dawn and informed her that we were going to go and eat breakfast without further delay. I dressed quickly and went out to the lobby. We were going to eat in our guesthouse again even though it was a little more expensive. The food was just better and it was hot when it arrived. I sat down and ordered for both Angela and myself, and she soon joined me at the table. Dawn was taking a little longer, but we weren't really in any hurry. We had planned to see a few more of the many historic sites around the city. Angela really wanted to see the Confucius temple (supposedly, a structure over 1000 years old), a Taoist temple and the old governmental building, which housed a nice exhibition of old torture and execution devices. We wrapped up our wanderings and returned to Sakura's. We wanted to eat lunch there, take a few pictures of the place, and have a good-bye drink. It was just about 3PM.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Ping Yao, Part V: Qiao Family Residence

By 10:30AM the next morning, after showering and changing, I went down to the lobby to wait for Dawn. Angela had gone down minutes before me and was already enjoying a cup of coffee while surfing the hotel's free internet. I ordered a cup of coffee and sat down to write. Dawn soon arrived and we left to try breakfast at Sakura's. We all ordered an English breakfast, which wasn't that good, if only because everything was cold when it arrived. We had an appointment to meet a driver who would take us to the Qiao family residence, which was a beautiful house where the movie Raise the Red Lantern was filmed, but we called him and changed the appointment to 12:00PM as we were running late. Angela had found him earlier in the morning and he had agreed to take us the 40 kilometers for 130 RMB.

Ping Yao - Gas StationHe showed promptly and led us out of the hotel and down a sidestreet to his waiting car There was a large read balloon arch with meeting dragons over the road, which looked like a giant sausage. It was near the entrance to a house which was decorated in the typical way for a wedding, with red banners pasted around the doorway. We got in and drove through the little dirty backstreets, navigating bicyclists and donkey-carts, until we got out into the open countryside. We stopped for gas at a very small gas station and I got out to take a picture. We were back on the road in no time.

It was foggy and we really couldn't see much. The desolate country on either side of us. There were almost no green plants anywhere, and old dried cornstalks dotted the earthy landscape. Many leafless trees were white-branched with frost and the wasted yellow grasses and small plants were also whitened in this way. We drove between white willow trees which seemed something out of a winter wonderland. My feet were cold in the backseat but, otherwise, the ride was fine. Again, we passed lots of animals: a truck full of pigs, large black cows in roadside pens, a herd of sheep crossing the road, two goats looking for something to eat. We passed, perhaps, four or five other weddings and a wedding motorcade along the way. The driver mentioned that 2005 was not a fortuitous year for marriage and that many people had waited until 2006. It made me feel good about my own decision to get married this coming summer.

Ping Yao - Qiao Family Residence - Red LanternsAfter a wrong turn, the driver had stopped to ask an elderly woman who pointed in the opposite direction, we finally arrived at our destination after one hour in the car. There were hardly any visitors and we passed by the desperate vendors, almost all of which were selling the same old trinkets and replica items. You have to come to China to, at least, get your hands on some genuine knock-off crap. We considered a few items, but held off on purchasing anything until after we had visited the famous residence. We purchased our 40 RMB tickets and entered.

The interiors of the rooms weren't exactly what we had expected, but typical for a Chinese tourist attraction: lots of dust, no lighting, strange displays and recreations depicting historical scenes, and wax figures in traditional costume. The many stone rooms of the house were very cold and our toes were freezing after a few minutes. After walking around for a while, we warmed up a little and the cold didn't bother us. Despite the poor condition of the displays and interiors of the rooms, the exteriors of the various buildings, particularly the entranceways, were very beautiful and elaborate. We were impressed by the intricacy of the designs and the lovely colors painted upon them. The architecture was also noteworthy with lots of ornamental chimneytops and other strange stone carvings and adornments.

Ping Yao - Qiao Family Residence - RooftopAngela disappeared and I was looking for her. An old Chinese man tapped me on the shoulder as I peeked into a room displaying old farm equipment. I looked at him and he pointed up to the rooftop. I turned my eyes to the spot in which he gestured, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Then he motioned for me to follow, pointing to the same place, and I looked up again and saw Angela taking a picture of me from the roof. "How'd you get up there?" I shouted. "Shhh!" she said, and pointed to a stairway below where she was standing. I was surprised because we had asked an attendant if it was possible to get to the upper level, and she had told us that it wasn't--that it wasn't safe. I climbed up and joined Angela. In a few minutes, Dawn had discovered our whereabouts and we were all happily on the roof. It had gotten sunny and it was nice to stand in the sun and take some of the chill off. We roamed around for about 10 minutes before we were found out and escorted off the roof. Happy that we got away with our little indiscretion and a few pictures, we made our way to the exit.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ping Yao, Part IV: New Year's Eve

Back at our guesthouse, we had a few drinks and talked about our plans for the evening. A European man was talking to a Chinese man at a table near the window and we heard him say, "tonight is our European new year," and smiled to ourselves. It was almost 7PM when we went to our rooms, planning to meet in the lobby in about 30 minutes before going out again. We wanted to look for another place to have a drink and, perhaps, eat dinner. Angela and me returned to our room and rested on the kang for about 20 minutes before Dawn knocked on the door. We left the guesthouse and walked up the street, looking in windows for a more comfortable and lively place in which to entertain ourselves. It seemed as if every guesthouse had the same kind of seating—wooden benches, which are not so comfortable to sit on for any length of time. Finally, at the end of the street, we found a place, Sakura's, which looked nice and had padded benches with backs.

A large group had arrived before us and filled nearly the entire room—about 20 of them, and us, looking for seats. There was a large oil drum made into a wood stove and a couple of the waitresses were feeding it long planks of wood. There were many CD inserts decorating the walls and the music was a great mix of old reggae, international music, and alternative rock. Wanting to escape the large group, we walked into the back room, which had many tables and benches and a wide bar with a variety of imported alcohol, but was otherwise quite empty and very cold. There were fire pots filled with coals next to each table in an attempt to warm up the cavernous room, although they didn't seem to help much. It looked like we wouldn't be able to escape the large group in the front room, and we returned there to fight for a table. It was much more festive around them and just plain warmer.

We sat down and ordered beers. After a while, Dawn and Angela wanted to learn how to play poker, and I taught them a number of games: Texas Hold 'Em, 5-Card Draw, 5-Card Stud and Pass-the-Trash. It wasn't much fun to play without anything at stake and, as I had heard some people shaking dice in plastic cups, I suggested a game of Liar's Dice. Angela and Dawn agreed to the idea and the waitress brought us three cups of dice. Near the end of our first game, I noticed a bloke watching us, wished him a happy new year, and Angela asked him if he wanted to join the game. Chris, as we later learned his name, was from Switzerland and beginning a long trip through China and Southeast Asia. We talked together and played a few more games. Chris didn't say much, but he understood the game. We also learned that he was a banker, and he looked like a banker, aside from his clothing. He wore small, thin-rimmed spectacles, had thinning wisps of blonde hair and a scruffy unshaven face. We finished our game and said goodbye as we were going to return to our guesthouse to eat, mentioning that we would probably return here after we ate...

Ping Yao - New Year's Eve - Tian Yuan Kui GuesthouseAngela and Dawn ordered a number of dishes (it was 10PM) while I ordered a magnum of Chinese Champagne: Changyu Sparkling Cider. We didn't know if it would be good or not, but it passed our taste test with flying colors and we were off and running. There was another large group eating and celebrating here, so the atmosphere was festive. About halfway through our meal, the large group began dancing. They had brought their own music and had the volume turned up. It put smiles on all of our faces to see them dancing. Their ages ranged from about 15-50, and it really got us into the new year's spirit. We joined in with their dancing, having decided to stay here for the rest of the evening rather than go back into the cold again, when Chris walked in and sat down with us. We ordered another magnum and danced and celebrated until midnight. The large group (I had spoken with one person who'd said that they were from Holland and Angela had spoken to someone else who'd mentioned that they were from Poland) had a countdown, which seemed a bit premature by our watches. So we waited a few more minutes and had our own countdown.

We moved to the other room to escape from their celebration, which was quite loud. The Dutch/Polish group had also begun lighting sparklers. I was beginning to feel a little sick at that point from having danced too energetically after eating, and wanted to go to bed, spoiling the party a little. Angela talked me into smoking another cigarette first, to which I complied. We wished Dawn and Chris a happy new year, they had ordered another beer, and left them at the table.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Ping Yao, Part III: Literally Around Town

Ping Yao - East WallI woke up around 11:30AM well-rested and refreshed, and went to the lobby to wait for Angela and Dawn. They joined me after a few minutes and we ventured out from the guesthouse once again. "It's like a big surprise out there," I said, as we really hadn't seen anything yet. It was light now and we could see, but foggy, cold and not quite sunny. We walked north along the slushy street looking at some of the Chinese antiques, artifacts and knick-knacks for sale. Dawn bought a few items and we wandered on, surprised at the difference now that there were people and vendors out in the street. It wasn't too crowded and we stopped periodically to take a picture or gaze into a shop. After roaming about in the cold for an hour or so, walking east until we reached the wall of the ancient city and discovering that we couldn't get up onto the wall from this side, we turned north and began a loop back toward our hotel. We were hungry again and stopped for a bowl of noodles in a small dirty shop in which we were the only customers.

It was quite cold inside the noodle shop, as well, and not much relief from the weather outside. A young girl was warming her hands near the stovepipe, although I couldn't feel any heat coming from the stove, which was quite near us and in the middle of the room. There was a young boy, probably the young girl's brother, walking around showing off his cassette player. An older woman, perhaps the mother of the girl and boy, came over to take our order. We'd all ordered a bowl of noodles with beef, a kind of cubed beef which was a specialty of the area, and another dish which the waitress recommended. When she brought the first dish, the one she had recommended, which was a kind of vegetable soup with beef, I noticed that the bowl was cracked and that the broth was beginning to leak onto the table. We called the waitress over to ask for a new bowl and when she tried to pick it up, it split into a number of pieces. We jumped out of our seats, grabbing our hats and gloves and cameras which were on the table, and moved to the only other table in the room, below the television, which was airing a hip-hop dance competition. We eventually finished our meal and bundled up to return to the world outside the noodle shop. The food was good and filling and we were happy.

Ping Yao - West WallWe headed west toward the west gate of the city, which was where we learned that we could ascend the city wall. We purchased tickets for 120 RMB, which also guaranteed us admission to most of the major attraction within the city and for which there was no alternative, and walked up to the top of the wall. We walked the entire length of the west and almost all of the south walls before descending. There were almost no other people on the wall, so we felt like we had it to ourselves, crunching along on the snow-covered path. There were, periodically, a duo of Chinese women sweeping the snow into piles with their small twiggy brooms.

At the focus of our attention during this walk, the ancient city below built up to the very edge of the wall in many places with passages so narrow at some points that only a bicycle could pass. We were flabbergasted to see such dirty, poor living, the earthen houses built of stone or brick, and the bare skeletal trees stuck here and there, seemingly gasping for air. It was not so clear so it was impossible to see across the city, but there was a sameness in everything. Many houses were built around an inner dirt courtyard which contained all variety of junk or trash: here a broom hanging from a tree, there an old wooden cart on its side, rusted bicycles, a plastic bag decorating a tree, piles of coal and wood, old tires and stacks of bricks, and everywhere the thin little stone chimneys poking up through the fog. "There's a woman using the bathroom," I said to Angela and Dawn, noticing a woman hitching up her pants within three stone walls. Angela and Dawn walked over to the edge of the wall to take a look. I started to notice these bathrooms (toilets in all of the other yards) and realized that almost all of the residents had this arrangement tucked into the corner somewhere on their land. I had walked ahead and Dawn caught up with me. "That woman saw me looking at her and she didn't even flinch." "Imagine how many people see them doing it every day," I countered. "They're used to it."

And we continued walking. There were animals everywhere: a mule pulling a cart of coal, a horse ridden by a monkey in a yellow costume and matching hat with pheasant feathers, a German Shepherd licking a plastic bag, another black mutt curled up near a fence post, a fluffy dirty-looking cat perched on the stone roof of one of the low houses, another orange cat stalking it from behind, two cats sitting on a motorcycle seat, little brown birds no larger than baby's fists flitting from branch to roof to ground, black and white pigeons pecking at the roofs, two mourning doves on an electrical wire, an old man feeding a raft of ducks in his yard, roosters crowing and hens perched in trees, a lone woodpecker hopping up the trunk of a tree poking its red head and bill into bits of snow.

At the south gate, an older woman approached me. "Hello," she hailed. "Hello," I returned, walking toward her. "This is where the wall collapsed last year," she informed me, as if I was wondering where that part of the wall might be located. "You can see the new brick there where they repaired it," and pointed to a section of the wall. I thought of something clever to say without being rude and came up with: "Why do you know that?" "Oh, I'm writing a book about Ping Yao," she answered, looking down at some boys who were observing us from below. We talked for a while before Angela and Dawn caught up with us. We had a hankering to swallow an aperitivo and get out of the cold for a bit, and the four of us made our way down to the street. The old woman directed us to a nearby guesthouse and we walked there. She had a fit of coughing and excused herself to track down some cough medicine, wishing us well. We entered and the owner recognized us saying, "Oh! You three." She was the woman who had greeted us at the train station when we had arrived, suggesting her hotel to us. Anyway, we sat down to enjoy a cup of hot tea as there was only Chinese alcohol to choose from, and talked to the owner. We were happy to recognize her, and we talked briefly before heading back to our own guesthouse. It was starting to get dark and we needed to make plans for our evening. It was, after all, New Year's Eve.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Ping Yao, Part II: Tian Yuan Kui Guesthouse

Dawn & Angela - Tian Yuan Kui GuesthouseThere wasn't much to see, initially, as it was still dark and overcast, but as we entered the city, driving past the old wall, we marveled at the old buildings decorated with hanging red lanterns which now surrounded us. There were almost no lights anywhere—no neon lights and no late-night joints open—as we twisted through the narrow winding streets and along the quiet houses and store-fronts. Ping Yao is famous because, aside from the completely intact Ming Dynasy wall surrounding the city, it is probably the most well-preserved ancient city in China. Finally, we reached our destination, the Tian Yuan Kui Guesthouse, which seemed like the only place in town with its lights on, and went inside. Angela talked to the proprietor while me and Dawn sat on a bench smoking and looking around. After some discussion about the price, Angela wanted to go look at the rooms before making a final decision, asking us to join her. Dawn accepted. I said that if it passed her inspection it would be good for me. I wanted to sit there and relax in the quiet.

Outside Our Hotel RoomAll of the furniture inside was made of wood, replicating an old Chinese style. The tables, made of a light brown wood, were large and square with intricately carved dragons, two facing each other with open mouths, along the sides of the table. Between the table top and each leg, a carved dragon in the corners. The seats were low benches, matching the wood of the tables, and looked like elegant sawhorses. The front desk, which doubled as the bar, was made of the same light brown wood as the tables and benches. There were four large Chinese characters engraved within large circles along the front representing, as Angela translated: good luck, success, happiness, and fortune as you wish. The ceiling was made of wood, also. A darker, smoked shade of reddish-brown. Two large posts near the entrance, about one foot in diameter, extended from the floor upward supporting two beams of the same diameter running east to west along the ceiling. There were crossed with many smaller beams about half the size running from north to south. Hanging from these smaller beams were a number of cylindrical red lanterns with gold tassels hanging from the bottoms of the lanterns in a perfect circle. There were also six octagon-shaped lamps with wood-slat lampshades hanging over each of the tables in the room, as well as over the bar. There was also, as we would later discover, the ever-present sound of a cricket chirping from some hidden recess.

On each of the tables, there was a small tray with six tea cups turned upside-down and a matching teapot with a wicker handle. There were off-white in color with a subtle pattern of blue flowers. There was also a large black candlestick on each table and a small, unidentifiable houseplant with tiny, smooth spade-shaped leaves. A wall separated the room from another room of the same size. Where the entrance was in the other room, stood a large refrigerator. A large wooden staircase ascended to an upper level. The walls surrounding the room were black brick up to about my waist, and above that, the walls were flat white. The floor was composed of cubes of smoothed cement with little cracks trailing every which way.

Tian Yuan Kui Guesthouse RoomAngela and Dawn liked the rooms, bubbling with excitement when they returned. They were inexpensive, 70 RMB per night for each of us and we paid for two nights. We collected our things and went to our rooms, Angela and me in one room and Dawn in another by herself, making our way through the beautiful old inner courtyard of the guesthouse. Our small room had a Chinese kang bed spanning the width of the room, an old bed made of stone beneath which hot coals used to be placed to keep one warm at night, and a tiny bathroom with a shower head and a Western-style toilet. After putting our things in our rooms and freshening up a little, we reconvened in the lobby of the guesthouse. Although it was still dark outside, we were eager to look around and left the guesthouse to take a walk in the cold early morning. After walking a few deserted blocks in the freezing cold and fog, we turned back, hungry and tired.

The young girls behind the counter, the waitresses eating sunflower seeds and applying creams to their hands and faces, were wearing thick, red, Chinese shirts, typically worn in the winter, with black buttons in the shapes of leaves along the right side and embroidered roses on the left. They were talking and chattering together happily behind the bar as any group of young girls might. We sat down at a table near the window and ordered coffee, bacon, eggs, sausage and toast, which was served hot and very good. After a second cup of coffee, all of us went to bed, planning to take a short nap before heading out to explore Ping Yao. It was, perhaps, 9:30AM.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Ping Yao, Part I: Departure & The Train

On Thursday afternoon, after Angela found out that she had Monday and Tuesday off in honor of the new year, as I did, she proposed going to Ping Yao. We had planned to do something with Dawn and we all thought it was a great idea so I asked one of my Chinese assistants, Estee, to work her magic procuring tickets for us. Unless you're traveling with a tour group, it's quite difficult to get tickets to popular destinations as the remaining tickets only go on sale a few days before departure and they can often sell-out quickly. Tickets may be available, but we wanted a sleeper car, as we had planned on traveling at night, and those are the tickets which sell quickly. Luckily, tickets were still available and Estee quoted us a price of around 350 RMB. We reserved the tickets and were told that we could pick them up on Friday at work. We weren't sure about the actual departure time or from which station we would be leaving, and Angela was expecting a call from me to confirm these details for her so she could leave work in time to meet us at the station.

I learned all of these details after work on Friday and made a quick call to Angela to let her know. It turned out that our tickets were only going to cost 202 RMB, which was a nice savings on the original quote, but left me feeling a little skeptical about what we had actually reserved. Dawn and me had planned on leaving at 6PM to make our 7PM departure, but Angela suggested leaving at 5:30PM as it was rush hour, Friday, and a holiday weekend. It was good advice. I had things to do at home (put our clothes into backpacks, prepare sandwiches and other snacks for the journey, clean up the house a bit) before heading out so I thought I had ample time, but our boss wanted to pay everyone early, before the long weekend, and we ended up hanging around at work for an extra hour, which killed all of my spare time. I got home about 4:50PM, which gave me just about 40 minutes to get everything together. At about 4:20PM and just beginning to prepare bagel sandwiches for the three of us, my boss called and asked me if I could send a new year's greeting by e-mail to someone on behalf of the school, which I squeezed in. Dawn had agreed to meet me in front of my apartment building at 5:30PM, and she was there when I came down at 5:35PM, a little behind schedule. We caught a taxi to the Beijing West station, and met Angela shortly after 6PM in front of the entrance right on schedule.

Train to Ping Yao - Dawn, Me, AngelaDawn was a little worried about the accommodations on the train ("soft" sleeper, upper bunk, shared cabins with strangers, water closet scenarios), but everything worked out fine and we were all in high spirits. Angela and Dawn were in one room with two older Chinese men while I was in the cabin next to them with a Korean threesome who were already playing cards when we arrived, which didn't bother me. I was planning on returning after they were already asleep. Dawn was especially excited about her first train ride in China and was all smiles as our mode of transport didn't seem too strenuous and was proving to be comfortable enough. After enjoying a beer in the corridor outside of our rooms and talking with some of the other passengers, we made our way to the dining car to do more of the same. Only a few beers and a night of sleep between us and Ping Yao.

Train to Ping Yao - Soldiers in the Dining CarThe dining car was full when we arrived, so we stood near the cash register and waited for an empty space. We didn't have to wait long. Being the only foreigners in the dining car, we were quite popular. All of the people, including a soldier who had joined us at our table, were captivated by us and asking us many questions. We compared cigarettes with a conductor. We drank and smoked with everyone until midnight, and returned to our cabins to get some sleep. The Korean threesome in my cabin had retired already, although they were all reading quietly in their bunks when I opened the door. I climbed up into mine and began recording the days events in my journal while the train rocked me gently and the beer made my eyes feel drowsy.

I woke up around 4:15AM and had to go to the bathroom badly. I was also parched, hot and sweating under my thick comforter. The train had stopped in a station, and all was quiet in the cabin except for my rustlings as I tried clumsily to pull my pants on in a cramped space. I needed to find some water after last evening's bout with Yanjing but, as we were sitting in a station, the door to the dining car and the bathrooms would be locked, so I had to wait. Finally, the train started up again. I hopped down from my bunk and slipped into my shoes, exactly where I had left them. The cabin was quiet in a way that suggested that none of them were really sleeping. I tightened my belt while examining the door handle-ish mechanism in the dark. It was not entirely clear to me how it worked. I tried in without any luck, pulling a lever back and hearing it clack loudly against something. There were a number of other switches and levers, which I felt around for in the dark, but moving them didn't produce the desired effect and the door didn't open. While engaged in this futile activity, the one woman in the cabin leaped out of bed with a grunt, gave the handle a good solid jerk, and freed me of our hot compartment. With a quiet xie xie, I step out into the corridor and notice Dawn and Angela's cabin door open. They were getting their things together. "What are you doing?" I asked. "We're going to the dining car. We're have to get off in about an hour." I said, "Oh," and wandered off in that direction.

We collected our things together and drank a glass of instant coffee in the dining car (never leave home without it, especially in China where it seems impossible to find outside the big cities). The train stopped around 5:30AM and we stepped down into the darkness. It had snowed during the night or early morning and there was a nice blanket of snow on the ground. We were feeling good, even though the train station was not so memorable. A smattering of people were making their ways toward the station and, after the attendant tore our tickets, we walked down the steps toward the waiting taxi drivers who assaulted us with their offers to take us to a hotel. One woman who was particularly persistent, gave us a brochure for the Harmony Guesthouse as we were closing the door. Angela already had the name of a hotel in mind and, after a brief dispute about the price of the fare, the driver took us there.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Arrived home yesterday morning at about 9AM after a nearly 11-hour bus trip, but I'll document that later. I will reveal the first of a multi-part story about our Ping Yao adventure tomorrow. Stay tuned...

Had our first snowfall of the season yesterday. After being indoors all day, it was a nice surprise to walk outside and see a thin layer of snow over everything. Things are good and now it's back to the usual rigmarole for a few more weeks.