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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Future Adventures, Part V . . .

It's been a reasonably quiet month as I settled into the job and neighborhood a little more. I did walk to the Lama Temple to take photos one morning but otherwise have avoided exploring overly much as the air hasn't looked very inviting.

My first guest helped me sort out what I need to be an adequate host and a dear friend, the Divine Ms. T, arrives Friday for a 10-day visit, during which we plan to visit the Great Wall (in a heatwave, no less, but will take plenty of water), see Cirque du Soleil, go to lots of markets and other tourist spots and eat great food. She also plans a trip to Henan to see the Shaolin Temple and the Longmen Grottoes - my weekends are already booked while she is here so I can't accompany her but I'm trying to talk other friends into visiting so we can do that at a later time. It sounds great - an overnight train trip, a driver/guide for a full day in Henan then back to Beijing on another overnight train.

Other friends from Jeju Island will also be passing through town during the next two weeks so I hope to see them also.

Which means I'd best finish up the Lonely Planet recommended Top 30 Experiences before venturing out to compile my own list.

26. Pingyao, Shanxi

This walled town is yet another of China's entry's on UNESCO's World Heritage List. (There are 45 sites on the list, so I'm not too surprised many of the LP picks are there.)

Unesco says it is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a traditional Han Chinese city, LP says there's not another city in China like it. I may need a few more reasons to put it on my travel plan.

27. Hiking in Jiuzhaigou National Park, Sichuan

Another Unesco site, would you believe, with a number of endangered species, including the Giant Panda. It certainly looks beautiful, as seen in the photo gallery with this National Geographic article (you need to join to see the full article but there is no fee). Even better, since 2009, eco-tours have been available to take you off the the tourist filled boardwalks. I prefer to hike without a guide but in a country as populous as this, appreciate the need to have a monitor in such a place.

I'll go here if I have the time.

28. Chinese Acrobatics

This is one of the suggestions I can take or leave, primarily because it's possible to see outside of China as well. There is a well-known theater not far from me so I may end up going there at some stage,  but it's not on my must-see list. Perhaps the LP writers were getting a little tired at this point.

29. Cruising up Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong

I love Hong Kong, but I don't necessarily need to visit it from Beijing, and it may be easier to do so from elsewhere. I've visited there a few times and am sure to do so again so don't need to try to fit it into my time working here (if only work didn't get in the way of my holidays so often).

30. Beijing's Hutong

These narrow alleyways can be found in much of inner Beijing and range from crowded shantytowns, many of which are due to be torn down and replaced, to upmarket areas with bars, businesses and eating places in teh restored one-story houses. Many expats choose to live in the hutong and a friend who has been here some time has promised to take me exploring those near where she lives.

So that's it - the LP recommendations perused, considered, accepted, rejected or put in the, "If I have time" file.

Stay tuned for more on the adventure as it happens . . .

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Paying it forward. . .

I have my first guest staying at the Beijing apartment (I need to learn the equivalent of “me casa” in Putonghua) and it’s been fun so far. He’s a very intelligent son of friends who is on summer break from his US university and spending it in China. (His Dad is a journalist in Shanghai, and the son studies Mandarin so China is a very intelligent decision for him to make.)

I’d never met the First Guest before the subway stop meet, but have already had fascinating conversations on the United States, China, the world at large, how they interact and how much the citizens of the various countries are willing (or not) to go outside of their comfort zones to complain about things they disapprove of.

So, a very welcome and insightful guest, and I thank you for lending him to me First Guest’s dad. (I give most real people titles on my site as I don’t consider it fair to invade their privacy just because the have the misfortune to know a writer. Of course, if someone really pisses me off, right to privacy be damned – I’ll probably name and shame them then sell their details to ID bandits. Thankfully, nobody has ever annoyed me to that extent.)

Back to the First Guest, who has proved to be a perfect and entertaining guest. He would have been welcome regardless, but it’s refreshing to find he’s someone I would choose to know and converse with. I have traveled much of the world being looked after by friends of friends. My last major indulgence was three months and 6,000 miles on a best friend’s motorcycle on a roundabout tour of the United States, every night of which was spent staying with other friends, or friends of friends. That is something that should, and must, be paid forward. I owe those people much more than I have repaid yet, but have them in mind always in my travels and seek things they would most like to send them. (A warning, you there in Byron, Ar-Kansas – one day there will be a “Knock, Knock, Mo-Fo” at your door, and you KNOW what you’ll be answering it to . . . )

So, I’m hosting my first visitor and practicing for the arrival of the amazing Ms. T next week, and doing okay, it seems. And then I did a damn fool thing, which close friends of mine will not be surprised by, as it’s a regular occurrence. I lost my wallet.

I think the problem is, I don’t really like owning things, because then things begin owning you. So I divest myself of them whenever I can and see what comes back to find me. My long-suffering friends all know this and have trained/bludgeoned me into checking in regularly to let them know I’m okay when I go off the grid – I’ve also convinced them of my aptitude at survival. But I definitely get anxious around possessions that start to matter too much to me. One of the reasons I travel so much is because the moment I feel secure and the place/job/relationship doesn’t challenge me or teach me any more, the instant in which I feel content and think “I could stay here forever,” I realize I won’t be there much longer. The gypsy gene kicks in and sabotages the plan. White picket fences? it asks, let’s see how good a bonfire they can make!

I’m new in China, I speak barely a lick of the language, don’t understand the culture and am just learning the country through my job on the major paper here. Which, being a newspaper, mainly covers bad news stories of crime and corruption. So I gave up hope the moment I realized it was missing, and started making lists of what needed to be replaced, canceled or done without. Thankfully, I’d learned from my last lost wallet episode and don’t keep unnecessary things with me anymore.

I then got a call from one of the amazing admin staff we have here, to tell me a store had found my “parcel.” The “store” manager (it turned out to be a restaurant) had found my health insurance card, called the insurance company, been directed to the admin officer and she had called me. Not bad for a Saturday when nobody is working.

I collected the wallet, with everything intact, which had been found outside the restaurant where my taxi dropped me and I paid and got out. All my cards, all my money, were there (I gave most of the money to the restaurant manager as a thank you).

Thank you also instant Karma, thank you Kharmic credits, thank you to all those who pay it forward. Thank you God, extremely hard-working guardian angel and universe.

I appreciate you all . . . 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Future Adventures, Part IV . . .

I've been in China almost a month now and have not yet been out of Beijing, as there is so much for me to explore here and much to learn in case of the day-to-day logistics of life. I got to the courtyard outside the Forbidden City - No. 3 on the Lonely Planet's guide to China I am taking these "30 Top Experiences" from, and will wait for my fabulous wahine toa (woman warrior in Te Reo Maori) friend to visit early next month to explore the Palace Museum, which is what they call the inner city.

With my work schedule being night shifts Sunday through Thursday and a 1700 start on Sundays, I almost have a three-day weekend each week so, from next month, will plan at least one mini-trip each month. My first, in August, will be back to Seoul rather than traveling here in China as there are a few loose ends I need to tie up there and people to see.

But, on with the Lonely Planet recommendations:

21. Labrang Monastery, Xiahe, Gansu

From Lonely Planet:
"If you can't make it to Tibet, visit this more accessible part of the historic Tibetan region of Amdo in Gansu. One moment you are in Han China, the next you are virtually in Tibet."
There is a Monlam (Great Prayer) Festival in the Tibetan New Year, which will be early March next year and seems an ideal time to visit, so I have time to decide on this one.

22. Dunhuang, Gansu

Also in Gansu but a long way from Xiahe and the Labrang Monastery, Dunhuang was a major stop and natural staging post on the Silk Road. Also known as Sha Zhou, or the city of sands, Dunhuang is an oasis on the edge of stunning desertscapes. Images online show the city and Crescent Lake nestled among soaring sand dunes and caravans of people on camels traversing the desert.

An added extra is the Magoa Caves, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art anywhere, and the lesser-visited Western Thousand Buddha Caves, that are excavated out of the cliffs. 

There is an airport at Dunhuang and I can't resist the idea of being part of a camel caravan so I think this one makes the "to do" list.

23. Cycling Yangshuo, Guanxi

Guanxi is also home to the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces, where I definitely intend to go, and the two are reasonably close. A recommended half-day trip is to board a bamboo raft with bike from Yangshuo to Xingping (15 km) then cycle back south, crossing the Li River by ferry just past Fuli then again by bridge just out of Yangshuo.

That sounds a great mini-trip to combine with the rice terraces -- I just need to research the best time of year to do so. There's an airport near Guilin, which is about midway between the two sites.

24. Mt Kailash, Western Tibet

Mount Kailash is not only considered sacred to four religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and the shamanic Bon-po) but is the source of four major Asian rivers -- the Indus, the Sutlej (a tributary of the Indus), the Brahmaputra and the Karnali (a major tributary of the Ganges).

Buddhists believe a "kora," or pilgrimage around the mountain (three days is the recommended time for travelers but most Tibetans complete it in a 15-hour day), can atone for the sins of a lifetime. (I wonder if that includes sins not yet committed?) Others simply believe the journey will bring good fortune.

Interestingly, Lonely Planet says nomad tents along the walk provide beer as well as other snacks and beverages -- I can see this becoming a Tibetan adventure reminiscent of "The Way," although the ashes will be metaphorical ones of my many sins.

I may have to do this one.

Nos 26 through 30 still to come . . .

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Being strong (take 2) . . .

I received a response to a recent post from a person very dear to me, which commented on how strong I am, and feel the need to respond.

Because, unfortunately, this has become the medium on which we communicate, while he ministers to someone who presents herself as not strong but with whom I have very much in common.

I’m not strong, but I’ve been an actor so I can easily appear to be. Cut me, I bleed; hurt me, I bruise; break my heart, it breaks.


I watched my mother be cut, hurt and bruised by the world, and eventually broken, and I vowed never to have that happen to me. (Apologies to siblings and family, I know we don’t talk about this, but I’m a writer, so that’s what I do.)

I remember coming home at around age 8, and there was an ambulance outside my house loading my mother inside. She had locked the door to the bathroom and slit her wrists in the bathtub. The first responders put my brother (age 10) through the bathroom window to unlock the door – I’ll forgive him anything for that.

The Aunties rallied, as they do, and took us away. I had already seen the bathroom covered in blood, but when they told me my mother was in hospital with flu, I believed it. We were very good at keeping secrets in my family.

Mum came home, life went back to as normal as our life ever was, but her suicide attempts continued. She was an amazing woman who didn’t get that fact. She was also part of the generation that grew up being told being Maori was something to be ashamed of, and she took that on board. Wrong place, wrong time for her – as I travel, I wish she were with me often.

She isn’t.

I was teaching a morning business class in Korea when I answered a call from a brother I barely spoke to. “Mum’s passed,” he said. (For the record, I hate that term – what did she pass? Her university exam? Kidney stones?) He was telling me she was dead, at her own hand. I dismissed my class, went home, then went to the United States to stay with a dear friend and not talk for three months (significant, if you know me). I was too angry with my mother to go home for the funeral, others in the family are still angry at me that I didn’t. I also needed to deal with my guilt at the relief I felt that the regular crises were finally over.

Not that something like that is ever truly over as it leaves scars on all those who remain behind.

So, no, I’m not strong. I am stubborn though, and probably brave (defining bravery as being scared of what life might put in your path but forging ahead anyway). I have seen and experienced some of the worst the world can do (I’m not for a moment comparing my experience to the worst the world can do, but I’m also not sharing the worst of my experiences here), I’ve seen it break a wonderful woman, and I vowed at an early age I would not allow it to do that to me.

It won’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t bruise, bleed and hurt. But I will endure.

I’ve also seen and experienced how wonderful the world can be. I never forget that. I only wish I could have shared that with my mother.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tea and Sympathy . . .

It's the rainy season here in North China, although South China is experiencing a heat wave and droughts, and I woke this morning to another day of constant rain. I was tempted to have a lazy day and stay indoors but broke the top of my glass teapot so decided to venture to Sihui market again to buy a replacement and stock up on some tea. Sihui is a huge market that has it all, including a meat market, a tea market, spices, clothing and household goods, and seems to be a supplier to hotels and restaurants as well as the individuals who go there. I went there last week to purchase linens and bath mats for my apartment and left with a teapot also that was exactly what I'd been looking for at a fraction of the price I'd seen elsewhere (25 kwai rather than 200 and up). At that price, I didn't mind making the trip to replace it.

The shopkeeper recognized me from last week, which probably isn't too surprising as I didn't see another foreign face on either trip, so poured me a small glass cup of green tea (the cup was almost a shot size, but far more elegant) and gestured for me to sit down. Again not surprisingly, she had next to no English and my Putonghua is still non-existent (I keep answering in Korean by accident) so our transaction was conducted mainly in mime, with a few quick looks at my phrase book or referral to my Pleco app. But we got along swimmingly.

I wanted to buy some loose tea as well, and had established last week that she didn't stock chamomile, so I settled on chrysanthemum, of which she had several different types, sorted according to the age and quality of the flowers. I chose some small, high-quality flowers and she told me the price per kilo. A kilo is a lot of tea but, as I said, these markets deal with a lot of wholesale customers. She understood the English for half, but not quarter, so we settled on half-half and she showed me the .25 weight on her scales as she scooped it into a bag for me. She then offered another flower I have yet to work out (the name sounded like huanggang but huang simply means yellow so I'll look more carefully at it once I return home). I wasn't sure so she brewed a pot of the two mixed for me to taste.

And introduced me to the Art of Tea - a serious business in China.

Having read about the Art of Tea on a friend's blog, I already knew brewing tea was an act of ceremony and it was here also, even though performed in a brisker fashion for this laowai. The flowers were placed in a pot and hot water added, then the first brew was poured out on the tea pets.

The tea tray, with tea pets in front left corner

Yes, I said tea pets.

As explained in Brian's blog:

A tea pet symbolises wealth and fortune and is basically a small work of art made of different kinds of clay, just like the tea pots, and is normally placed on a tea tray. During the ceremony, tea is poured over them and over time they darken and mature into …errr… darker and more mature – and even coloured and shiny – tea pets! (I told you it was messy!) Many people have large collections of them. A popular type is Jinchan (a type of three-legged toad, which is said to be able to spit out money - perhaps because it sounds like jinqian - meaning money!

Being an animal lover, I was happy to meet some tea pets myself.

She then refilled the pot, let it sit a little, then poured me a  cup of the tea, which did taste much better than chrysanthemum on its own. She then explained, mainly with gestures and examples, that if I refilled the water more than three times, I should remove or replace the yellow flowers after the third time. And, because I had explained when I arrived that I had broken the lid of last week's teapot, she also told me to hold the top on when I poured my tea. I shall obey both directions faithfully.

I bought 250 grams of the yellow flowers also, paid and thanked her and headed home with a quick stop at the spice store for a large tub of Tom Yum paste.

I could easily start collecting teapots living here.

Another successful mission in The China Project . . .

NB: "Tea and Sympathy" is one of my favorite Janis Ian songs, of which the lyrics are particularly meaningful to me right now.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The winter unpack . . .

One of the amazing staff members from our international office called this morning to tell me I had packages (she actually said a package but I was expecting the plural so misheard her). I asked for a trolley, which she borrowed from the construction team on the sixth floor, and went across expecting to collect the things I left at a friend’s home in Seoul last week and he shipped earlier this week with an arrival date of today.

Instead, I found the box I shipped before I left, “slow shipping” that the post office told me would take two months.

I’m excited about what I thought I would need but could wait on til then, have given up on live blogging on the iPhone, so will do a delayed live blog here.

Going for the scissors . . .

I open it and the first things I see are my cowgal boots, hot water bottle, favorite scarf, Korean wine bottle covers from Barbara and Cheryl Scott and my wish book. All good, but I may have to buy some wine (and not drink it) for the covers. [Which reminds me, beloved, do you still have my bottle of wine? It’s special and needs to be sent somewhere.] I also have to make Fred’s second hot water bottle cover – even if he gives it away to a cat again.

This is becoming like an excavation – I remove the top layer and find more. More scarves, all with memories. And a book that a wonderful, unexpected friend sent me about Kiwis called “Fly” – thank you Kelly, it will go on my wall. And the Good Neighbor Awards booklet – I left the big-ass plaque with a friend but it’s nice to have a reminder. And [by the way, readers, as an editor, I abhor starting sentences with “and’” or “but.” But this is a blog] “The No-Excuses Cookbook” my cuzzy-sis Tania gave me. Memories are made of this . . .

All filed – time for the next layer.

A galot skirt I bought from a designer I interviewed and fell in love with on Jeju-do. A pair of winter pjs I picked up from the Thrift Shop and a crocheted skirt that is far too young for me, but what the hey. You only live once and I like it. It looks great over thick tights in winter.

Next layer, and there’s the thing I’ve been waiting for. Everyone has told me how cold it gets here in winter and that I need a good jacket, I just unpacked and hung my quilted London Fog jacket – I think I’ll survive the cold, if not the smog.

Next layer – shorts, yoga pants, my favorite suede jacket and a pair of skorts. The shorts, yoga pants and skorts aren’t for winter exactly, but I gained weight in my last two months in Korea and knew I would lose it when happy (note to Stuart, alcohol doesn’t solve problems, but it does let you put them on hold until you can solve them).

The next layer is much more exciting. The Harley Owners Group Touring Handbook Bill gave me when I borrowed/stole his brother’s bike and did 6,000 miles in three months (Bill is part of my US family and considers me a hobo or carpetbagger, which is probably correct), a favorite top I bought at Portobello Market in London and another fave I bought in Indonesia. Plus a few other things I love, a cotton top that will be perfect for Beijing’s heat, a skirt that is business-like so useful, and a dress that works for summer or winter..

Time for the last layer.

Another quilted jacket (I do think ahead sometimes), and a sequined cocktail dress (because every female motorcycle rider needs a sequined cocktail dress). Plus a “Power Strip” (workout thing, so I can fit the skorts again), a very old diary, “The Complete Yachtmaster” by Tom Cunliffe (just in case I decide to run away to sea again), and the big-ass medal the four star gave me in Seoul and I thought I had lost.

I didn’t lose it – I packed it!

Looking forward to the other boxes . . .

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Live blogging the unpacking . . .

I know, unpacking is very boring stuff, but bear with me - I'm excited.

Backstory, the international admin office called to tell me I had shipping. I thought it was the things I left at my friend's apartment and he shipped earlier this week priority mail. It was the box I shipped before I left slow mail and they told me would take two months. "That's okay," I thought, "I won't need this til winter.) Let's  see what I packed . . .

[to truly appreciate this experience, you need to be listening to "The Great New ZealandSongbook" as I am - thanks Phil, you will get the first book

Going for the scissors . . .

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Tranquility amongst the throngs . . .

Yesterday, I decided it was time to take a break from my shopping tour and see some of historical Beijing. After days of heavy, haze-filled skies, we had heavy downpours throughout the previous day and night and I woke to beautifully clear skies with the sun shining – perfect weather for exploring the city’s grandeur. What could be grander, I thought, than the Forbidden City, which the Lonely Planet guide has listed as No. 3 on it’s 30 Top Experiences.

(And yes, I still have to write up No.s 21 thru 30, and I plan to get on to that this week.)

Beijing’s subway and bus networks are well laid out and simple to use, as long as you know where you wish to go. All stops are announced in Mandarin, which the Chinese call Putonghua (common speech), and English and every bus stop has a name, as do all the subway stations, obviously. The nearest subway station to my home is a transfer between two lines, which gives me multiple options of how to get to and from different places.

From here to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square is simply eight stops south, a quick line transfer and two or three stops west, depending on which side you wish to approach the two from. (Everyone gives directions in terms of compass points here and the exits from the subway stops are also labeled that way, making it easy to guess the correct exit once you have your bearings.)

So, about 1030 on a Tuesday morning, I hopped the subway to Tiananmen East, and exited on the Forbidden City side of the street to hordes of people. And I do mean hordes, there were tour groups everywhere, school groups from all over the world, families with children and the occasional independent traveler like me. Exiting the steps from the subway was an exercise in itself, as waiting for the throng were vendors selling maps, water, food, ice blocks, trinkets, hats of many kinds and traditional Chinese dress style headbands. Plus many, mainly young, Chinese offering tours of the Forbidden City in fluent English and many other tongues. I’m an old hand at turning down such offers unless I really want to avail myself of them, so simply smiled, held up my hand and said xiexie, wo bu yao (thank you, no). I’d already decided I would use an audio tour for the site, as I could easily ignore that if I wished. 

Leaving the subway

The first thing one comes across is Tiananmen itself, for which the square opposite is named. The name Tiananmen is made up of the Chinese characters for “heaven,” “gate” and “peace,” therefore in English it is known as The Gate of Heavenly Peace, although the original Chinese name is longer and has its own history attached. It’s an impressive building - 66 meters long, 37 m wide and 32 m high, with a portrait of Mao Zedong above the main archway and large red flags flying at either end. The largest and center of five archways was used only for Ming and Qing emperors while the smaller ancillary arches were used by ministers and officials.  A moat in front of the gate is crossed by carved marble bridges, with the widest central bridge again reserved for the emperor.

It's possible to climb the tower above the gate for a small fee, but free to walk through to the Forbidden City which sits nestled behind.  I decided to leave the tower for another visit and headed through the gate with the crowd, wondering if it was some sort of holiday as there seemed to be many school-age children visiting. Chinese use umbrellas to protect them from the sun, so avoiding a spike in the head or eye required full vigilance. 
Crossing the moat to walk through Tiananmen
 Once inside and across the forecourt to where one buys tickets for the Palace Museum, as the Forbidden City is known, I realized it was too hot to wait in such a long, slow-moving line so decided to explore the surrounding area instead. To the east was an extension of the Palace Moat, where I was slightly tempted to don traditional garb and have my photo taken, while on the west I found Zhongshan Park, where there was no queue for tickets (Y3/48 cents admission, Y5/80 cents if you wanted to see the flower exhibitions also). I paid my 5 kwai and walked through the gate, where I found my own version of heavenly peace - just a few people meandering through lush gardens, relaxing in pagodas or cruising on the water in peddle- or battery-powered boats. I was thrilled to find such a tranquil spot in the very center of this bustling city.

A close-up of a building outside the Palace Museum

A wall of the Forbidden City

The moat to the east

Inside Zhongshan Park

Chinese opera singers accompanied by a piano accordion - I also saw a couple playing hulusi - an instrument with three bamboo pipes that pass through a gourdwind chest. It felt rude to photograph them so I simply enjoyed the music.
Detail of one of the many gateways

lotus pool

the Waterside Plants Pavilion

I spent a peaceful few hours strolling around the park and will no doubt go there for some peace when the city center gets too crowded for me, and plan to go boating there with a friend who is coming to visit in August.

I will return to tour the Forbidden City, but plan to do so early in a bid to beat the worst of the crowds, which I have been told will continue throughout the summer.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Dorm, continued, with pics . . .

An addendum to my last post, with photos of my apartment (at the request of Kim and Stephanie):

My apartment is one the 7th floor (four floors from roof), at far left. The windows are the spare room balcony, kitchen and bedroom balcony.

The bedroom

Bedroom closets

Dining room leading to kitchen

Desk and TV in spare room

Sofa in spare room

Messy desk and bookshelves in spare room

Kitchen and washing machine

Stove top

View from my balcony