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The Great Wall and More

We left Shanghai, a vibrant, twitchy city sporting both imperial architecture from the early 20th century and provocative new skyscrapers from the 21st, with the iconic Pearl Tower as an unmistakable exclamation point.  At 23 million, it’s China’s largest city, with 6,000 people per square kilometer (New York has only 1,800 but Singapore is twice as dense at 11,100).

When we arrived in Beijing on the bullet train, we saw a slightly dowdy city (only 17 million, 5,000 per km/sq), a little run down, maybe even a little down on its luck. Not as clean as Singapore, not as stylish as Shanghai, not as noisy as New York.  And under grey skies.  Maybe it was just the weather system – probably not – but the sky was grey and low all the way from Shanghai to Beijing. It wasn’t yellow like Los Angeles, but it didn’t smell good or feel good in the throat, either.

After we arrived and unpacked, we met Sam, our new Beijing guide, for a trip to the roasted duck restaurant for Peking duck in Peking.  As we passed to our table, we saw a chef using a long stick to hang dozens of raw prepared ducks in a big oven with a big fire.  When they came out, they shone a beautiful deep golden brown.Image

The first challenge of ordering a Chinese dinner is deciding on the dishes.  Meats, cold dishes, hot dishes, dim sum, soup, variety, contrast, quantity, likes, dislikes, things to reject on principle (no snake, no intestines) all have to be considered.  And the menu is typically a book that has to be browsed front to back and again to understand the range of choices. What we invariably discover is that no matter what group, a group decision is just impossible.  Someone has to play the host, order for the group, and hope that it all works out.  In this case, even though we were only three (Nancy, Sam the Guide, and me), the rule held. Sam played host, but only until the check came, when it became my turn.  Dinner was: a duck, of course; a cold dish – needle mushrooms; two hot dishes – Chinese broccoli with tree fungus, and pumpkin with lily; rice – the one invariant for a Chinese dinner; and a bottle of Great Wall cabernet sauvignon, which, contrary to all reasonable expectations, worked out just fine.  Good, but Nancy and I agreed that we’d had better Peking duck years ago in Atlanta.

The next morning’s sky was grey and cheerless with a threat of rain.  Our driver and Sam picked us up to drive out of the city to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. After an hour of passing through Beijing’s first through sixth circles (beltways, but might be described as circles of hell), we passed through countryside and finally stood at the foot of a steep hill of hawker stalls.  Everyone wanted to sell us a tee shirt and every other souvenir we wished for “only one dollar.” As we worked our way up the path, the rain started.  Slowly at first, but soon falling quite steadily.  Never mind, this might be our only chance to see the Wall, this section constructed in the 15th century by the Ming dynasty, and renovated in the mid-1980s.  This section stands along the ridge of a very steep hill, so we rode a modern cable car to get to it. A twisting pathway, a climb up steep steps and then …

… we finally stepped, out of breath but thrilled, onto the Great Wall of China.

Now the rain turned into a steady downpour, with our small umbrellas becoming ever less effective.

While not entirely treacherous in the rain, the walking path on the wall rises and falls sharply; the steps are uneven with tiny tops, huge risers, and no hand rails in the most problematic sections.  We hiked to the first watchtower.  A cloud settled over the hill, so we could see only a short section of the Wall at a time.  I thought it was going to be a disaster for pictures, but, with the Wall going on and on into the cloud, some of them turned out to be quite atmospheric.

The rain fell harder, but we hiked on the to next watch tower.  The wall was strangely quiet in the rain—few tourists.  By now, my shirt was wet  More rain, more refuge in the maze of mall rooms in watchtowers, more steps with 12-inch rises, more wet clothes. By the fifth or sixth watchtower, we were pretty well soaked, but not miserable because the rain was not cold, and standing where centuries of ancient warriors had defended the empire was enthralling.

Although we wanted to walk the mile to the end of this section, the rain cloud kept us from seeing any of the surrounding countryside, and after about 45 minutes, we turned back.  Most other visitors had done so as well; very few people remained on the Wall as we headed to the cable car for the trip down.  It was disappointment in the sense that we couldn’t see the whole, long, magnificent wall wind its way into the far horizon, nor could we see the forest that stretches toward the distant and once hostile plains.  On the other hand, most tourists had stayed away, and pictures of the Wall with no people are quite unusual.

We ran the gauntlet of hawkers on the way down, jumped into the car, and drove a little way down the mountain to a restaurant where, some time ago, a collection of heads of state ate dinner.  We thought that might mean over-priced and under-valued, but our roast fish (butterflied rainbow trout with a spicy dry rub roasted in an oven hot enough to crisp the skin), celery with lily, green beans with minced beef, and squash with lily was delightful and reasonable.  We said that this was a California Chinese dinner – a little meat and a lot of vegetables; Sam said that Chinese people typically do not eat much meat at a meal.

Since it was still fairly early in the afternoon, Nancy asked Sam about a representative “Beijing” souvenir – I guess the hawkers had gotten her thinking.

“Silk, jade, and cloisonné,” he said, “but this is not a good place for jade.”

We’d already gotten silk in Shanghai, so off we went to the cloisonné factory. We stopped at a government-owned factory, a dozen and a half small rooms built around an antiquated central courtyard.  It looked like it had been built in the early 20th century and had not seen any refurbishment since then.

We watched artisans of each of the major cloisonné construction steps (except for the final glazing steps which we were told is secret), Wired, painted designs undergo weeks of preparation, layer after layer, before the objects are lowered into gas-flamed pits to be fired seven times.  Before the 1970s, the pits held coal fires.  We learned that all these craftsmen are now subsidized by the government to keep cloisonné making alive.   The work is tedious and only a few people older people still know and practice the art.

We ended at the showroom, of course, and saw a mixture of antique and new pieces—large and small.  It took a while to find our treasure, but we finally managed to provide some support to the Chinese artisan economy.

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There are three things that I never thought I would do in this life: jump out of an airplane and hope that my parachute would open; jump off a bridge and hope that the bungee cords won’t break; ride a motorcycle through traffic anywhere in Thailand.  I guess I’m now down to two.

I walked out of the antique store and met the motorcycle.  And twenty-year old driver.  I wasn’t sure exactly what was the proper etiquette for this.  “Hi.  Nice looking bike,” didn’t exactly capture the moment. “How fast does this thing go?” seemed to be suggestive in the wrong direction. I probably just looked stunned – is this really happening?  But, safety first, they handed me a helmet.  Ha! Safety first, I would have turned around and walked straight back into that shop.  I got on, the engine roared, and we launched into one of the non-existent spaces in the continuous stream of traffic.

How much clearance is there on a motorcycle? After my foot rubbed against a neighbor car, I couldn’t even bear to think how far out my knees were flying.  On the way to the hotel, we picked our way through traffic, dodged a couple of cars that unexpectedly pulled out in front of us, leaned our way through turns (left, right, and U) at full speed, and I had to shout and point directions.  It’s times like this when its wonderful to have training in improvisational theater.  When you don’t know what you’re doing, when you have absolutely no idea of what’s coming next, when your guts are trying to decide whether to turn to ice or explode, that’s when you paste a grin on your face, hope you don’t catch too many bugs, and enjoy the ride. Whew!

We got to the hotel without incident, and I hopped off the motorcycle, praying to any god that would listen that my knees would not turn to water and buckle.  I ran up the stairs, stuffed my passport into a pocket, snapped the pocket shut, and

… thought about it. There were two choices: take the return ride, or hire a tuk-tuk.  I’m not sure I would say that I really enjoyed the ride, but it didn’t scare me completely silly, either.  Tough decision.  I buckled my helmet on my head and hopped on.  We instantly dived into the street traffic, unfortunately going down the wrong street. Quick U-turn, quick left turn, and we were headed back.

There are times when it is good to follow the Buddhist precept of non-attachment and seeing through the curtain of maya.  In this case, it just meant not holding onto the fear and taking the ride for what it was.  Five minutes later, we were threading through the same traffic-choked, shop-lined lane, and two minutes after that, we were filling out the Buddha paperwork, passport in hand.

Motorcycle in Thailand.  It wasn’t on my bucket list before, and now I’ll add it and quickly cross it off.  Been there, done that, don’t need to try again.

For my celebration dinner (celebrating being alive!), I went to the same neighborhood restaurant to return the umbrella, and to sit with a large beer and my open notebook, in the open, across the street from a beautiful temple, watching the traffic and channeling Hemingway.  This would have been his kind of place.  Cheap, friendly, exotic, exciting even if all the tigers are long gone. I started thinking this might really be a good writer’s place.  Good food, friendly people, lots of stories to see and tell.  As I wrote, slowly drifting into a reverie of words, the wind began to blow.  The sky darkened.  That old tap-tap-tap on the awning began, and then the rain came down like thunder, lit by stroke after stroke of lightning. At the restaurant, the girls hustled to tie down the awnings and to keep the settings from blowing off the table. The lights flickered.

“Don’t worry.  We have candles.” As if a candle would stay lit in this weather. One of the girls was completely soaked, but still smiling. And then the other side of the street went completely dark. “Happens all the time. No problem.”

Well, maybe a little problem.  This was supposed to be the night when I picked up my jacket, or had a fitting for any final adjustments.  Not only was the street dark and flooded, but it was still raining like crazy.

“Could I borrow your umbrella again?”

“We gonna call you Rain Man.”

After 20 minutes searching for a way to cross the street to the tailor, I finally rolled up my cuffs and sloshed. The tailor was happy to show me the jacket by candle light, but we agreed that an inspection in the next day’s light might be a better idea.

And then, back to the Night Market. I had had my eye on a particularly lovely carved wooden reclining Buddha, but I finally decided against it in view of the risk in taking it with me.  Had it been seized at the airport, I would have been heartbroken to leave without it. My consolation was the very nice bronze reproduction I’d earned after my motorcycle adventure. There was, however, a particularly iconic Thai painted word figure of …well, it’s hard to describe.  “Thai girl riding a bird while holding a lotus” is pretty accurate, but it doesn’t convey a very good sense of the figure.  I’m still not sure how I will ultimately get these treasures home to Arizona, but I’m sure enjoying the search for them.

One more tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel, where the lights were back. I immediately fell into a deeply satisfying sleep and was surprised when the alarm rang 8 hours later.

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Sultry November

It’s November 8th.  Even in Arizona, things are starting to cool down.  Here, we’re in the northern hemisphere (albeit barely) and by the calendar, we’re deep into autumn (nominally).  I left the office late today (there’s lots of deferred maintenance that was left for me to deal with), but not really that late – only a quarter past seven or so. It was maybe an hour after sunset, I was in a cool office all day, and it looked dim and cool outside.  It came as a big shock when I stepped out the building door, onto the sidewalk, and felt the warmth and humidity of the equitorial rain forest wrap around me like a blanket.  The train ride, directly under an aircon vent, was almost frosty, but by the time I walked my quarter mile home, my clothes had gone from mildly soggy to wet.

Every day, by the time I get to the office, I’m more than a little damp. The shirt I ironed the evening before, which looked pretty good on a hanger in the closet, is beyond limp, and I spend the first five minutes at my desk dabbing at my shiny brow.  A couple of weeks ago, when we first moved into the apartment, I wanted to minimize my commute time. I made the morning walk to the MRT slightly brisk and got there in under ten minutes – sweating like a [fill in your favorite simile].  It took a few days to learn to slow down, and then slow down some more,  and then slow down again.  Now, it takes 50% longer but the sweat isn’t rolling down my face.

As I write, it’s almost 10:00 pm, and Weather.com says that it’s 82 degrees and 84% humidity with 60% chance of rain.  Like every day.  In Utah, the ski resorts are only two or three weeks or so away from opening. Frost has killed the tomato plants.

And we’re in the midst of sultry November, when it rains at least a little every day.  Two seasons – and of the two, hot and wet is cooler than hot and dry. Summer should be interesting.

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Walking in the Rain

Lesson 1: When it smells like rain, it’s probably going to rain. Asian rain still smells like rain, even when it’s close to the equator.

Lesson 2: If it smells like rain, it’s a good idea to dig the short umbrella out of your day bag and take it to lunch with you. Even if you don’t need it to keep off the rain, you can use it to hold a seat at a crowded Hawker center.

Lesson 3: Like so much of life, timing is everything. When it’s raining, stay under cover and start walking  just before the Green Man appears on the crossing light. Hit the street just as the light changes and you minimize your time in the rain. Since predicting the Green Man can be a challenge, it’s a good rule of thumb to start walking when everyone else starts. The longer the distance between dry cover and street, the greater the challenge for everybody.

Lesson 4: Plan your route. Choosing the right exit from the MRT will keep you cool when it’s hot and dry when it’s wet. Most of the buildings on the street have an overhang over the sidewalk; the protected part of the sidewalk will be densely crowded when the rain is coming down, so patience is a virtue.

Lesson 5: Have a good, big, full-size umbrella for the rainy season. It’s on my list for this weekend.

Singapore is a two season kind of place.  Hot and dry, and hot and wet.  During the monsoon, it becomes Singa-pour.  It’s coming soon and I’m not sure what to expect.

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