Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday, April 15, 2011 (Singapore)

TRAGEDY PROMPTS THE QUESTION--WHAT'S REALLY IN ALL THOSE CONTAINERS? Today's Straits Times includes a riveting tale of two Bangladeshi dockworkers who, while taking a work (and ganja, or marijuana) break inside a shipping container in their home port of Chittagong, dozed off and did not hear the crate being closed and sealed. The crate ended up on board the Hansa Caledo heading to Singapore. Not surprisingly, cries for help were not heard. The ship left port on April 1; it arrived in Singapore (2,668 kilometers away) about five days later, at the Pasir Panjang terminal. During the trip, one of the men died. The survivor was found Sunday April 10 when a driver of a vehicle moving the container heard the man's banging. The container was about to be put on board a ship heading to Vietnam.

A WELCOME VISIT: Cornell classmate and fraternity brother (Fiji) John Schroeder (Winchester High School, class of 1970) joined Sandy and me for dinner at Indochine's Club Street restaurant--after a beer or two at one of the many Harry's bars in town. It was great to see John, who first came to Singapore in the late 1970s. Yes, LOTS has changed here. He worked for years in Indonesia and even had a stint long ago in Dubai (before it was Dubai). He came here from Kuala Lampur and brought with him a devilish box of Tiramisu almond milk chocolate pieces from Beryl's Chocolates. They are outstanding!

IT ALL ADZES UP TO SOMETHING: In Singapore, I have enjoyed counting the CRANES at the shipping terminal nearby. If I had had my wits about me on this trip outside Beijing, or even just ONE WIT, I would have noticed the preponderance of ADZES or MATTOCKS visible outside of Beijing. I think I saw at least six--either leaning against a wall, or lying in a "wheelbarrow" (right), or being wielded in a field, or hanging from a laborer's back. It's a tough old tool that embodies hard manual labor. Not very high tech. Not something you want to use when working a large field. Some people were.

Thursday, April 14, 2011 (Singapore)

OUR TRAVELERS WERE CAUGHT IN RANDOM POSES IN PLACES THAT WERE FAMOUS, MORE OR LESS, AND IN ATTITUDES THAT WERE FLATTERING, MORE OR LESS, COURTESY OF THE "YOU'RE SO VAIN" DEPARTMENT: Without comment or further ado, here are some places we can prove that we visited together in Vietnam and China. (These also provide further proof that I actually did change my shirt.):

NOW, THAT WAS A DOWNPOUR: We returned very early Thursday morning, and, that day brought with it the biggest rainstorm we had seen since our arrival in Singapore in early February. It struck in the late afternoon. Lightning was persistent. Rain was straight down.
The burst was described in chart form (right). Inside the circle, you can see how the visibility dropped suddenly from about 10 km to half a kilometer. That's why there is no picture.
It turns out that we are now in the "inter-monsoon" season. Friday's Straits Times explained that such a storm is "typical" of this season, which stretches from late March to May and revisits in October and November. This type of daily rain comes between the south-west monsoon season (June to September) and the northeast monsoon season (November to March). Monsoons, from what I am told, are more about wind than rain.
In a nutshell, according to the ST:
The winds come from an area with higher atmospheric pressure--the Tibetan Plateau during the north-east monsoon and Australian region during the south-west monsoon--to an area with lower atmospheric pressure, where Singapore is.
I must remember that umbrella!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011 (Beijing)

A SILKY SMOOTH TRANSACTION: On the day before our fourth wedding anniversary (linen and silk suggested), we headed (for the second time) to a robust silk-product store, Yuanhou Silk. A couple of days earlier (see photo above), we had been there and got a hands-on lesson on how to stretch silk so it can be used for a bed covering. We returned with a vengeance today, buying quite a few Christmas gifts. (I won't mention exactly what we bought, for the sake of any family members who read this; we'd like them to be surprised on December 25. But, psssst, DON'T BUY A SILK COMFORTER FOR YOUR BED BETWEEN NOW AND THEN!!!!!!!) Three boxes will be on their way to Winchester, Mass. It's coming by ship. They guarantee a 40-day delivery. I thought of the famous (discontinued in the 1990s) "30-minutes or it's free" guarantee from Domino's pizza. So, is it "40-days or it's free"? Doubt it.

THE TRIP REVISITED: THANKS TO THE THREE GREAT GUIDES, AND ONE GREAT GREAT-WALL GUIDE: From top to bottom, here's Pham Ngoc MINH (Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam); PAUL Su (Xi'an, China); and LEO Chu, left, and Chou, right (Beijing and the Great Wall). They are all excellent guides and companions!

IF ANY FLIGHT WAS GOING TO BE DELAYED, IT'S GOOD IT WAS THE LAST ONE: After a trip that had some fairly tight scheduling, our good fortune ran out with the flight home. The trip home was a bit longer than we thought it would be. Our Air China flight was delayed twice, meaning we left the ground at Beijing at about 8 p.m. instead of the scheduled 3:35 p.m. Arrival time was 1:44 a.m. It made Sandy's 8 a.m. appointment a little more daunting, but, of course, she made it. It was the guy she was meeting with who was late, by 15 minutes!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011 (Mutianyu and Beijing)

YES, OF COURSE THE VILLAGE HAS SOME FREE WIRELESS COMMUNICATION: We (especially Sandy, above) were happy to enjoy fairly easy communication in our residence, called the Big Rock House because of a large rock that the living room encircles. Our place was in the village of Yingbeigou (aka Beigou). Today, the village loudspeaker crackled to life about 8:30 a.m. All we knew for sure was that the broadcast alternated from a man to woman. There was no urgency in the voices. Rather, it became clear that this was a routine happening. No point even guessing what it was all about. But the voices were clear as a bell and easily heard from inside our residence, called the Big Rock House. As wireless communication, it seemed to work just fine, albeit it was one-way.
This "broadcast" was a loud reminder that this is a Communist country. In fact, one of the village's signs shows how to merge two widely recognizable symbols--the heart and the hammer-and-sickle (right, photo by Sandy). [Yes, Communism can be lovable.) Andrew Herron has provided the translation of the accompanying characters:
"Bohai Township [implied: Communist] Party Member
Educational/Demonstration Village".
During the middle of the "broadcast," we headed to the nearby village of Mutianyu for breakfast at The Schoolhouse. There we asked a longtime resident about the announcement. Our informant told us this is a regular update from local officials for the residents of that neighboring village. The information includes, for example, the practical (how much a vendor can charge for chestnuts that day) and the utterly intriguing (how much electricity certain individuals and families used the previous month). Sometimes music blares from the village speakers.
Villages use this all-points-bulletin resource differently. In Beigou, the officials generally use it every day, a couple of times. On the other hand, the mayor of another village uses the broadcast system much more sporadically, according to one resident. They said, with a wink, the mayor used it only when the spirits moved him.
We found out more about the area and the people behind The Schoolhouse from a 2009 article in China Daily, "Great Wall tourist enterprises engender local support."

A RIDGE TOO FAR: After breakfast, we decided to walk over a ridge and back to our house to pack up for the trip home. Someone gave us a map, pointed to the trail, which began about a half mile down the allegedly one-way street that many merrily use (in both directions). She pointed to the trail head right near the entrance to the Great Wall Hotel. After saying we will really enjoy the 30-minute walk, she then uttered that worrisome phrase: "You can't miss it!" That doomed us.
We made it to the beginning of the trail OK. Then, once among the brambles and stones, we managed to miss the trail--TWICE. We actually scanned the soil each time looking for FOOTPRINTS that were not our own. (I'm fairly certain that the idea of NOT following our own footprints was Sandy's.) We were a couple of regular Kit Carsons on this trek. But we eventually made it (45 minutes or so), thanks in large part to sight lines that were uncluttered by leaves.
It was, despite the retracing, a wonderful walk. You're welcome to try it yourself. Don't worry about the trail. You can't miss it.
As we walked through the village of Beigou, back to the house, we were struck by the quiet. The loudspeaker was off. We passed by some public exercise equipment that looked brand new (left, photo by Sandy), but decided not to climb on board. We had already had enough exercise for the morning. And if I fell off or broke one (remember, I have some girth), I didn't want my name broadcast to the entire village on Wednesday morning. Or, worse, get called to the principal's office before we had time to pack.

A DISH WITH A REAL KICK: We started out for Beijing. After traveling about TEN MINUTES, we pulled over for lunch at a restaurant near Mutianyu (I think the name was Xiaolongpu.) We had had a fairly large breakfast only three hours earlier. But this was part of the tour, so we surrendered to it. Even though we weren't all that hungry, we absolutely had to make room for one of the restaurant's traditional dishes: DONKEY. That's right. DONKEY (aka parent of a mule.
The dish was garnished nicely with a pretty flower (right, photo by Sandy). Actually, it was OK, sliced and pressed like luncheon meat. We doused the pieces in a chilli-based sauce. And we washed it down with some beer, half an acre of beans and some absolutely fabulous grilled trout. Gotta find out where to get some donkey in Winchester. Seemed ideal for a sandwich. Wouldn't you love to pack a donkey sandwich in your child's school lunch bag? (Then tell him or her you did it when they turned 21.)

A NESTING IMPULSE: When we got to Beijing, we took advantage of having an opportunity to get a close look at the Bird's Nest stadium (made famous in the 2008 Summer Olympics, aka Games of the XXIX Olympiad) (above). There are virtually no straight edges in the building's exterior, which makes it quite a challenge for workers who dangle vertically to clean surfaces that flow away from them (right).
In the early evening, Sandy and I headed to the Wangfujing Shopping Street, which was near the hotel. No adzes or mattocks for sale there. Here, Rolex coexists smoothly with Li-Ning and fried insects. We bought some chopsticks (at the Wangfujing Chopsticks Store) and cloth shoes.

Monday, April 11, 2011 (on the Great Wall)

UP AGAINST THE WALL: We got going fairly early on Monday, leaving the house at 7:30. We took a 90-minute drive to the beginning of our trail. We entered the Great Wall hiking area at Gubeikou, after driving through Huairou and Miyun.
We and our tour guide Leo met up with our local guide, Chou (right), who led the way to the east.
Speaking of "sneakers," Chou was nice enough to buy something for me beforehand. When he met with us, he said he had my "sneakers."
I looked down at my hiking boots and thought my footwear was in good hands.
What did he mean? Then it became apparent that his "sneakers" was my "Snickers." He had brought SIX candy bars (at the ever-vigilant Leo's suggestion). Chou, by the way, sported some well-worn green-white-black Nike sneakers (right).
Back to the hike. It was spectacular. We had a rugged go of it, covering the 14 kilometers in about four hours, with a break for a Snickers-enfused lunch.
Both Sandy and I thought it was much more "spiritual" if you will to be on the sections that had NOT been restored.
This was visceral, or something. Walking on the partially ruined section seemed to prompt us to be much more vigilant about our surroundings (e.g., footing, of course) and seemed to encourage us to use our imaginations more to think about what it was like to build, occupy, attack and live in the shadow of such a military structure. Looking for some kind of articulation for this, I stumbled across something in the in-flight magazine for Air China that was on our flight back to Singapore on April 13. It was written by an archaeologist (whose name was in Chinese and is therefore unknown to me). Here goes:
"...however, if we think reversely we will find that under specific conditions the beauty of incompleteness outweighs that of completeness. The charm of 'Venus with broken arms' is well known around the world...."
Maybe there's some thing there. (Source: "The Beauty of Deficiency Exceeds That of Perfection" China Charm, April 2011, pages 99 and 100.) Anyway, this hike was breathtaking. Well worth it. (I ate only ONE Snickers bar, by the way.)
We ended he hike at the Jinshanling section of the wall.

TOTALLY OFF THE WALL: For about a third of our hike, we had to leave the Great Wall and follow it along the ground on the northern side. The reason? China has a military installation that occupies a portion on the southern side (right).
This actually led us to some interesting sights, such as abandoned house. And we saw a nearly-abandoned lamb, which was caught in a thicket. About the time we spotted the animal, we came face to face with the shepherd (above) who towered above us on a hilltop and was about to pry the lamb loose. Also, we saw something we hadn't seen since we left Massachusetts in February: SNOW (below).

Sunday, April 10, 2011 (at the Great Wall)

GREAT WALL: THE INTRODUCTION: Our first brush with the wall was at the Mutianyu section, which is northeast of Beijing. Neither Sandy nor I had ever seen the structure. The sunny day continued for us and the wall and its flowers looked, indeed, GREAT.
We rode up on a cable car. Leo (guide) pointed to a sign on the windshield of the cab that read, "THE SEVENTEENTH LIVING BUDDHA OF TIBET MAGEBA TOOK DESCENDING CABLE CAR ON JAN. 20TH, 1999." To him, this was a good omen.
This is a crisply repaired section of the wall. A stone tells something about the work:
"Once intended to ward off enemy attacks today it brings together the peoples of the world. The Great Wall, may it continue to act as a symbol of friendship for future generations.
"In gratitude for the help provide by the Henkel-Group, Dusseldorf, in restoring this section of the Wall, Beijing, May 1989"
On Sunday afternoon, we appreciated the right angles and smooth surfaces underfoot. We knew our next encounter with the Wall--on Monday--was to be on a less tame version of the structure.
To get down to the staging area, we rode a little sled down a metal chute. Fun and fast. Don't think it was there in case the Mongols broke through, though. And there was no need for the seventeenth living buddha of Tibet to take it. He descended in the cable car, and it was winter, anyway.

A WALL-TO-WALL VIEW: Our lodging in Mutianyu was spectacular. Through the living room windows we had a view of NOT JUST ONE WALL but TWO WALLS (right). One (far in the distance) was the fabled Great Wall. The other was the more familiar one (reputed by Robert Frost to be of the sort that supposedly makes good neighbors--unlike the fabled Great Wall). The house is actually in Yingbeigou village. The property includes forsythia, irises, day lilies, honeysuckle, roses, annuals, chestnuts, pines, a persimmon and a willow. This was, indeed, a choice location. We took note that there's a fairly large tub. That will come in handy for some muscle soaking expected Monday evening.

A NEW KIND OF CALENDAR: The Schoolhouse Canteen was a great place to eat in Mutianyu. This might be hard to read, but I took a picture of something written on a blackboard in the dining room. It gives a traditional farming calendar, presented a bit differently from our regular U.S. calendar and anything Hallmark has in mind. For example:
Feb. 4:Beginning of Spring
March 5: Waking of Insect
April 5: Pure Brightness
May 5: Beginning of Summer
Aug. 23: End of Heat.
Sept. 8: White Dew
Oct. 8: Cold Dew
Oct. 23: Frost's Descent.
Nov. 22: Lesser Snow
Dec. 7: Greater Snow
It was at the Schoolhouse. Glad they didn't test me on it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011 (Beijing)

AT THE SUMMER PALACE, IT FELT LIKE, WELL, SUMMER--IN APRIL: A sun-splashed day brought people out to the Summer Palace in droves. That included us. The scene had kind of a carnival atmosphere, complete with goofy plastic glasses for kids (top). There was some swing-dance lessons in a parking lot (above). Lots of people enjoyed the boat rides on the lake (right). We had a colorful stroll down the remarkable Long Corridor, which stretches nearly 800 yards. And the day was so bright and sunny that even our guide, Leo, pulled out the camera (below). After the Summer Palace, we headed to the Great Wall......

Saturday, April 9, 2011 (Beijing)

FIT FOR AN EMPEROR: The day began with a walk through historic Tiananmen Square, which was absolutely jammed with people waiting to see Mao's body (or "body"). The number of tourists of all ages (right) seemed very high. Don't know if it's the case for the family pictured, but it's a fitting place to bring one of the many "little emperors" in China. Conversation is certainly careful. One person told us that people in North Korea were "very happy." OK. We had a great stroll though the Forbidden City (home of emperors). We resolved to watch The Last Emperor sometime soon.

HAVE THEY EVER PERFORMED TOGETHER BEFORE? In the afternoon, we went to the area around the Temple of Heaven. The park was alive with people. And sounds. "O Solo Mio" for instance. We strolled over to find two singers belting out some grand tunes. A quick glance prompted me to rub my eyes (which are faulty). With a bit of imagination, it looked like a tanned, healthy Elvis and a younger, svelter Leonid Brezhnev were jamming in the park (with a somewhat mysterious assist from one of the bandmates from ZZ Top, perhaps?). They sounded fabulous, and we could have listened for a long time. A show like American Idol could do well to set up shop in a park like this. China's certainly got talent.

MAKING A RACKET: After enjoying the singing, we strolled around the park and found a remarkable range of activities. Clutches of people were playing poker. Another group hovered around a game of Chinese chess (no, Virginia, not Chinese checkers). Perhaps the best of all was the demonstration of a tai chi-related ball-and-racket exercise. It is evidently known variously as Tai Chi Ball, Tai Chi Rhythmball, Taiji Ball, Taiji Ballong Ball or, it seems, Rotoryball. We saw two brothers skillfully and fluidly passing the ball back and forth with small rackets with soft, rubberlike contact surfaces. We had seen a woman doing it solo in Hanoi on the previous Sunday morning. Encouraged by onlookers, Sandy (right) and I (top) tried it out and promptly bought a set of two rackets and two balls and a handy carrying case for 100 yuan (about $15). A quick search of the internet tells us the price seems to be OK and that Professor Bai Rong of Shanxi University evidently invented the activity in 1992. One selling point: “It is exercise without doing exercise.” Who can argue with that?

Wednesday to Friday, April 6 to 8, 2011 (Xi'an)

ROAD WARRIORS TURN INTO TERRACOTTA WARRIORS IN XI'AN: After spending nearly all Wednesday traveling from Hanoi to Beijing to Xi'an, we woke up on Thursday to a heavy dose of history. We visited the Banpo Museum, which deals with a matrilineal settlement from the Neolithic period. Then we went to a shop where reproductions of the city's famous Terracotta Warriors were made. That's where Sandy and I stooped to the Obligatory Tourism Photo Op (above). I think Sandy is an armor-clad general. I think I could be an emperor. Or a eunuch. Or Friar Tuck.
Anyway, it sure is nice to have that Christmas Card already in hand!
We then went to the Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum itself, and it was, indeed spectacular. Inside a hangar-like structure, the warriors of Pit 1 stand, mostly below ground level. Viewers can see some of the warriors in various stages of restoration. The warriors were discovered by farmers who were digging a well in 1974, and the rest, as they say, is history. For reference, check this National Geographic exhibition guide. From there, we went to the very impressive Shaanxi Provincial History Museum.

A TANG DYNASTY PRODUCTION LEADS OUR TRAVELERS ON A MUSICAL QUEST: On Thursday night we attended the Tang Dynasty Theater Restaurant. The costumes (right), music and food was fine. One song jumped out at us. Although the costumes, themes and instruments were designed to evoke the long-ago Tang Dynasty, we caught wind of a VERY FAMILIAR U.S. folk tune, one that's commonly known at "Red River Valley." We were puzzled. After the show I asked Sandy--who, as usual, was walking wired--to Google the phrases "red river valley" and "tang dynasty". I mean, there had to be a connection, right? Was the cowboy-song's melody simply a reworking of a very old, nay, ancient tune? We may have made Google history, for all we know. I mean nobody has ever thought to link those two phrases have they?
The search, of course, turned up nothing of value to us. The question lingered with us--well, me anyway--overnight. Little did we know what awaited us the next day.

WHIP IT GOOD: Thursday opened with a quick, impromptu lesson in top-whipping. As we were about to go into the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda--which I later would discover required climbing 248 steps to get to the top--our intrepid guide, Paul, spotted some activity in a nearby plaza. He wanted us to watch some Xi'an-ers who were top-whipping. We tried it. We liked it. Shockingly, nobody tried to sell us one. We would have jumped at it. By the way, the visit to the pagoda was worth it.

OUR TRAVELERS ARE STARTLED WHEN THE DRIVER AND GUIDE BREAK OUT INTO SONG EN ROUTE FROM THE GIANT WILD GOOSE PAGODA TO THE SOUTH GATE OF THE CITY WALL: Some moments are hard to re-capture. But I'll try. After our visit to the Wild Goose Pagoda, I decided to ask the guide and driver if they knew the song that the woman had sung the previous night, which sounded suspiciously like the "Red River Valley". I started HUMMING the MUSIC, filling the interior of the nine-passenger Gold Cup van with notes that were close to correct. After a couple of bars, the front of the van suddenly erupted in a chorus of humming as the guide (Paul) and driver (Sun) joined in--with gusto. By that time, Sandy started humming too, with a what-the-heck-I'll-humor-the-boys attitude. So, all four of us joyfully hummed our way through the song.
When raucous exhibition was over, I tentatively asked, "So you guys know it, huh?"
Oh, yes, they were both very familiar with it. How the heck....?
Well, further discussion led Paul to speculate that the song was used in the 1940 movie Waterloo Bridge, which has evidently long been a favorite in Asia, certainly in China. I haven't seen the entire movie, but the soundtrack I've seen does NOT include it. (The movie does have Auld Lang Syne, which is also very popular in China.) Who knows? Maybe the 1931 version of the film uses the song.
In any case, the song is known in China as "hóng hé gǔ" (literally Red River Valley). To hear a Chinese version of this song, you can catch a karaoke-type clip on You Tube. Or, you can watch Vivian Chow sing it (starting about the 1:55 mark and lasting for about two minutes) in the YouTube clip below:

THE PART IN WHICH OUR TRAVELLERS CIRCUMNAVIGATE THE CITY AND BEGIN TO PAY FOR THEIR HEAVY BREATHING: Eventually we made it to the City Wall. Despite the heat; despite the pretty oppressive air pollution; despite our age (still younger than those Terracotta Warriors), we hopped on a couple of sturdy-looking Giant bikes and rode the entire length of the oblong-shaped city wall. I think it was about 14 kilometers, which translates to about 9 miles and 2 pulled muscles. I tried to pull a NASCAR trick and draft Sandy but she kept weaving, forcing me to do it all on my own. We had a great time. The heavy-breathing, however, drove lots of micro-particles of some substance fairly deep into our lungs. We think it was worth it. Xi'an was fantastic. Onward to Beijing. Hack, spew, sputter, gag.