Saturday, April 18, 2009

Best Seat On The Bus

"Kuai dianr!"..."Come quickly! This is the last bus back to Chengdu!"

Without a moment's hesitation, the four of us jumped onto the last bus from Qingchengshan to Chengdu. While paying for the ride as the bus began to pull out of the parking lot, Daddy glanced toward the back of the bus. Upon noticing that there were only two seats left, he asked the ayi if there was enough room on the bus for us.

In response, she sent Daddy to the seat in the back of the bus, Mommy to the last seat in the front, and told Z and me to sit on the hump over the engine next to the driver. Z and I were excited to have front row seats and sat down quickly so Mommy couldn't tell us it was too dangerous. When do you ever have the chance to get the driver's view on a bus!?

Well, it was definitely exciting, especially when the bus turned quickly, or when the door right next to us flew open wildly. We rode like this almost the whole way back to Chengdu, and unlike on a normal bus ride, I didn't fall asleep! Sometimes it's fun to be in a place where there aren't any "buckle up" rules!


"I Have Never Seen An American Dollar"

Every now and then, we get asked by people we meet if we have any American dollars on us. Desi, in fact, always has one in her small purse, as she intends to give it to the laoban at one of our favorite Xinjiang restaurants, as he is very curious about all things American, especially things having to do with cash.

This bill, along with some coins, came in handy when we were hiking down Qingchengshan, a mountain outside of Dujiangyan that is the place where Daoism, China's only homegrown religion, was founded. Some workers on the mountain popped the question, and Desi pulled out her little stash. Then it was up to Julie and Z (as depicted in this "unfortunate" picture that we are nevertheless posting) to explain to the small crowd what all the words say and what all the pictures mean.

Actually, speaking for myself, US currency looks kind of strange after carrying around so many Renminbi for so long. (And when living in America, I hardly carry any cash, anyways.) It's much longer and not nearly as fat as Chinese bills. And the Chairman is nowhere to be found...


Reminders of May 12, 2008

As we hiked through the hills of Dujiangyan, there were reminders all around us of the earthquake that claimed so many lives and caused so much damage last year in Sichuan.

You all have undoubtedly seen scenes of the so-called "blue roof" communities where displaced residents have been housed since that terrible day. The one we passed by came complete with a school...Not just a collection of houses, but a real, living community filled with people like you and me.

And then there were the old temples with roof tiles scattered everywhere and damage of a more significant nature. There were construction workers everywhere, trying to rebuild hundreds of years of history.

Perhaps most unusual were the huge boulders we came across. These rocks had obviously been dislodged from their perches on the mountain top, judging by the straight, vertical lines in the forest where there was no significant vegetation. All of the trees and big bushes had obviously been smashed as the rocks thundered their way down. Standing there in the quiet, we could only imagine how loud and terrifying the scene must have been for the people who were strolling by that fateful day.

It may be a year later, but it is clear that the affected areas have a long way to go before they can return to anything resembling "normal."


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

We Get It, But We Don't Get It

Out in the countryside about an hour or so from Chengdu is the city of Dujiangyan. Over 2,000 years ago, this otherwise obscure river town was the site of a water diversion project that changed the course of history in this part of the world.

From the beginning of human history, the Min River has come cascading out of the Sichuan mountains, periodically causing devastating floods. Seeking a way to tame the Min's water, a local official came up with the idea of building a levee in the middle of river, as a way of dividing the water into two separate streams. This artificial island was originally constructed out of long baskets of woven bamboo that were filled with stones and held in place by tripods made of wood.

The benefits of many years of hard labor were felt in a number of ways. Not only did the second stream provide a kind of escape valve for surging flood waters, but it also had the effect of diverting water out to the arid Chengdu plain. This irrigation allowed for the area to be transformed into a fertile region that has long been one of China's most populated and prosperous.

Spending a few hours at this World Heritage Site made for a beautiful outing, although all four of us have to confess we had a hard time figuring out just how Dujiangyan was built and how it actually functions. It's just so much easier for us non-engineers when it comes to a modern dam...Build a wall, and then the water can't get by unless you open the door.

Speaking of dams, I have heard it mentioned that, at least at one point, there were plans to construct a dam upstream a bit from Dujiangyan. Even this non-engineer can understand that the yu zui levee, despite it's other advantages, does not serve as a source of hydro-electric power...


This Is Ma La Tang

Here is a perfect way to end any day in Chengdu...

Find a small, street-side restaurant where you can pull up a couple of plastic stools on the sidewalk.

Walk into the open-air xiao fandian and grab a little basket.

Grab a couple dozen chuanr from the offerings assembled in a series of containers along the wall and in the refrigerator. If you are the Ballas, be sure to stock up on plenty of potatoes and mushrooms, as well as some bamboo shoots and meat.

Hand your heaping basket to the fuwuyuan. Have a seat while he cooks up your skewers.

Get your chopsticks ready when the big bowl full of your dinner (and spicy, red hot oil) is carried over.

Dig in, one skewer at a time.

Wash down with soda or beer.

Go back and get some more!


PS: Pay seven dollars when you are full. (Seriously...)

From Māo To Máo

Probably the most offbeat site we have come across in all of China was an old house located down a small alleyway not far from the center of Chengdu. The story we heard, that led us to seek out this obscure place, goes something like this...

Wang Anting has spent much of his life collecting memorabilia having to do with Máo Zédōng. In a dream, he was apparently instructed by the Great Helmsman to share his collection (which supposedly includes 57,000 buttons) with the world.

The "museum" he created resembles the house of a pack rat who can never throw anything away. Every inch of floor, wall, and ceiling is covered with portraits of the Chairman, statues of the Chairman, and, yes, case after case filled with buttons of the Chairman. At one point, Z and I had to clamber over piles of wood and other debris to go check out pieces on the other side of the room. There was the young Mao, the old Mao, and all of the people who inspired and conspired with Mao, everyone from Marx to Stalin.

As for Wang Anting himself, he is somewhat up in years and is assisted by a younger guy who was all dressed up in full revolutionary era garb...And who was wearing a crucifix and was very happy to tell us about his Catholicism.

I told you it was offbeat...


About Those Teeth And Pseudo-Thumbs

One day with the xióng māo just wasn't enough. No, I wasn't heading back for a private meeting! Somehow, I got over that desire. I did, though, want another chance to get into the nursery to take a peek at the cubs.

As we hurried toward Building 10, it was the same story as two days before. "Restricted Area. Authorized Person Only." This suggests that the building itself is actually closed to visitors (except, of course, the you qian ren). Happily, though, the rooms visible from the outside were filled with adorable cuddlies. One even came up to the window to greet us. He scratched and clawed at the glass, as if to try to get to us. (Yes, I know that's wishful thinking, but it was a special interaction, nonetheless.)

This also gave me another opportunity at a photo session. After writing my last blog, I noticed a lack of detail pictures in my collection...Especially the type that may visually present my next year's bio students some of the adaptations I discuss during our evolution unit. After watching these wonders of nature chow down on their lunch, it was plain to see the advantage they share because of the special design of their hands and jaws.

A beautiful example of how structure is related to function.


PS: Our plan to head to Wolong Nature Reserve was nixed due to the damage and dangerous conditions that still exist there due to last year's earthquake.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Hey Steve, You Have An E-Mail I Think You'll Like..."

I know I do!

This is quite an exciting time for all of us, since we have entered the travel portion of the show. In an attempt to see as much of China as we can in the next few months, we arranged a nice selection to both business and pleasure trips, which will fill the next few weeks. After Chengdu, it's off to Taiyuan, Shanghai, and Guilin (all by mid-May).

So last night, I'm finishing up the last of our tax prep (via e-mails from our accountant back home), and i take a brain break to check e-mail. Checking Steve's first, I notice a message from Sun Yat-Sen University. It went like this...

On behalf of Sun Sat-Sen University, I am very pleased to have the honor of inviting you to deliver lectures at our university as part of the Fulbright Guest Lecture Program. I look forward to meeting you in Guangzhou.

"Hey Steve," I said to the sleeping bundle on the bed, "I'm really excited...It looks like we'll be heading back to Guangzhou." Half conscious, he inquired, and so I read the e-mail to him. "Really?" "Yes," I told him, and reminded him of our love for Taishan, shuang pi nai, dim sum, and, of course, Li Ying. "Let's talk about it in the morning." (I thought, "Not much to talk about here!")

Morning comes, and Steve heads into the shower. I'm ready to go, so I decide to check e-mail to make sure that nothing self-destructed with our taxes overnight, and Steve's e-mail pops onto the screen with an unread message. "Hey Steve, you have another message," I called to him in the shower. "What's up?" I tell him, "You're not going to believe this...Another one!" This time, it's from Ocean University of China, which is located in Qingdao.

Hearing the shower water stop, I hear Steve call out to me to please read him the e-mail. As I read it, I make it clear that there's no way we're not going there! It's one of the next places on our list. (And the home to the German-influenced Tsingtao pijiu.)

I click back to Steve's inbox. "No way!" I announce. "You are not going to believe this! It's another one! And this time it's Xi'an! There's no way we're not going there! You know it's one of our favorite cities in China. After all, Kevin is there and he misses us!"

You've got to be kidding me!

Can we do all three?

Somehow, someway...Thank goodness for home school!


Broken Bus

Just when we thought that bus travel couldn't get any more interesting...

After spending the day with the Great Buddha, and the surrounding parks on the outskirts of Leshan (a two-hour ride from Chengdu), it was time to head back to the entrance gate where we had bought our return bus tickets. The scene was a strip of small restaurants, a stand with a few people selling tickets, a couple of motorbikes and a Jinbei (white van) or two.

We showed up early and grabbed a quick bite to eat. At six sharp, we loaded on to one of those Jinbeis with two other men. Was this our ride back to Chengdu?

Of course not! This was the shuttle to the bus, which took us a few kilometers away to the side of a dusty main road (and an unmarked bus stop?). If we weren't used to this type of thing, we'd have definitely been a bit concerned. Yet, since bus travel, which at times seems to have no real rhyme or reason, is somehow very efficient, we didn't bat an eye.

A few minutes later, a bus pulled up with just enough seats for the four of us and a few others who were also waiting. We loaded the bus and found seats throughout. No big deal...We were all too exhausted to talk anyway!

The bus sped off and entered the gaosu (expressway). Fifteen minutes later, the bus pulled off onto the shoulder.


The driver shut off the bus. Then he tried to turn on the bus. Click, click. Grr, grr. Nope...Try again...No dice...Now what?

Without missing a beat, everyone trickled off the bus and found a place to stand off the shoulder of the roadway. Buses and cars buzzed by and the bus driver (who was on his cellphone, obviously contacting "mission control") flagged one down. A few people ran to that bus and four were able to get seats. Amazingly calm, I wondered if this was the protocol and how many buses would have to come by to accommodate all the rest of us.

Within ten minutes, another bus, this time empty, pulled over and everyone loaded. Reminded of a broken bullet boat of a few weeks ago, this time the Ballas comfortably took over the back row. Where did this bus come from? Are there just drivers and buses at the ready for this kind of situation? For an empty bus and driver to be assembled and sent to the scene in nary fifteen minutes was incredible to me. I thought we might be in it for the long haul, but the situation was quickly diffused.

And the driver, who seemingly felt the need to make up for lost time, weaved in and out of traffic like he was driving a Porsche. After enjoying "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," we were back to Chengdu in no time.

They really know how to move people around this country!


A Big Buddha We Can Show You A Picture Of

As we have traveled around China, we have encountered many big Buddhas. There is one at Yonghegong in Beijing that is made of a single piece of sandalwood. There is an even bigger one in a Tibetan temple out in Chengde, the old imperial summer resort (that we, naturally, visited in the dead of winter!). While we have cool memories of looking up at these dusty old statues, we haven't been able to share any pictures, being that these icons have all been located inside active religious sites.

And so it was with slightly mixed feelings that we set out for Leshan Da Fo, a big Buddha statue located in the countryside a couple of hours outside of Chengdu. On the up side, here was a Buddha we would be able to photograph, as it is located outside, carved right out of the rocks of a cliff. On the down side, as non-believers, how many statues of Buddha can we visit before becoming jaded?

Well, walking to the end of the cliff, I peered over the edge and got my first look...An absolutely breathtaking combination of...

The statue itself. Here are the basics. 233 feet high. Ears that are 23 feet long and can hold two people inside each of them. 1,021 rolled buns for hair. (I'm waiting for Desi to try that style on Julie!)

The stairs at Cirith Ungol. At least that is what the winding steps down the cliff reminded me of, with views not only of Buddha from a variety of dizzying heights, but also straight down into the surprisingly fast current of the river.

Actually, the confluence of three rivers. The city of Leshan, located across the water from Buddha, is actually built where three rivers come together (no, not the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monangahela!)...The Min River, the Qingyi River, and the Dadu River (which I believe is actually the great Yangtze).

Once again, we were thankful not to be on the "march and shoot" tour group circuit. As Desi put it, "If you're going to come all this way, why just take a picture and rush on by?" Sitting at the bottom, we were rewarded when there was a break in the action, and it was just the four of us and a truly impressive thirteen hundred year old Buddha. (Yes...I said thirteen hundred years old!)


Monday, April 13, 2009

An Unusual Easter Dinner, Featuring A Spicy Hot Pot, A Poodle, A Family From The Netherlands, And A Cab Driver Who Didn't Know Where He Was Going

After closing down the Panda Research Base/Giant Panda Breeding Center, our next move was Easter dinner. We had the idea of giving Chengdu hot pot a try, so I asked a cab driver at the front gate to take us to a distinctively local joint of his choosing. Shifu did not disappoint!

Twenty minutes later, the place we walked into was loud, filled with smoke, and definitely promising. In one sense, it was just an ordinary two-hour hot pot feast, similar to the ones we enjoyed for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But four little vignettes reinforced that we were not in Beijing anymore!

When the pot came out, the spicy side barely had any liquid in it. It did, however, come with this big, orange, frozen block, which the fuwuyuan quickly broke into pieces and dumped in. Turns out that, along with a packet of spices that was also squeezed in, this strange-looking stuff was the stock for our dunking pleasure. We watched as the block slowly heated up and changed into liquid form. Seeing all of that oil/grease served as a stark visual for just what it was we were about to put into our bodies!

Another little fascination during our meal were these two poodles who were wandering around the restaurant during our meal. Both dogs belonged to this big group of at least ten people who were dining a few tables away. And these were not just your ordinary poodles. The hair on their heads was dyed orange and pink. As far as we could tell, the poodles were enjoying themselves, as they alternated between sitting on the laps of their owners and roaming the restaurant in search of fallen scraps.

And then there was the moment when a fuwuyuan walked up to us and asked me to come with her. Apparently, there were some waiguo pengyou (foreign friends) who didn't speak any Chinese and who needed help ordering. I did my best to help these nice Dutch folks get the food they wanted...vegetables, no fish, and definitely not a spicy pot! A little while later, I was called back for an encore performance, to overcome an impasse in ordering yinliao (drinks...water, actually).

The night ended with us stepping out into the beautiful Chengdu evening and hailing a cab. Now, as new arrivals in town, we had no idea how far our hotel was from the restaurant. Moments after jumping into the taxi, we began to recognize buildings and almost drove right by our hotel. This shifu, however, obviously had no idea of that fact and kept on driving. We were kind of embarrassed, both for ourselves for not knowing we were steps away from our hotel and also for shifu for being no better informed than us newbies. So we just let him go a few extra blocks, and then jumped out in a random place. This allowed us not only to save a little face for everyone, but also to enjoy one last stroll through Chengdu on a most unusual Easter...


The Zhende Haishi Jiade (Real Or Fake) Series Returns!

While in Chengdu, we took the following two pictures at the Panda Research Base/Giant Panda Breeding Center.

Which of the two pictures is real and which is fake?


PS: The answer will be posted in the comments section soon, once we have some contestants!

It's The Easter Panda, Julie and Z!

All of our normal Easter traditions flew out the fourth floor window of the Jinjiang Inn as we spent the day in search of the Easter Panda. It was an easy find as we're spending Easter Break in Sichuan and, in particular, Chengdu...The home of the Panda Research Base/Giant Panda Breeding Center.

Pandas have one of the most narrow niches of all living things. They are found only in one place in the world in the wild and that's just outside of Chengdu. In their natural habitat, they eat a hearty diet of bamboo, and more bamboo, and...even more bamboo. They have incredible adaptations that make them wonderfully unique, like a jaw that is specially designed for stripping bamboo of it's shoots and a sixth "pseudo-thumb" on each foot for guessed it...bamboo.

While the north end of Chengdu city proper is not the place where pandas are found in nature, it is close enough to that area to be the site of this famous sanctuary. It is home for over 80 pandas who are being studied and bred. Apparently, there are only around 1,600 pandas left in the world so that's a fairly high percentage all gathered in one location.

And while these beautiful animals are usually elusive and solitary, at the Breeding Center, this couldn't be further from an appropriate description, as panda after panda, from adult to sub-adult to cub frolicked and played in enclosures that would make even the fussiest animal advocates happy. This facility is incredibly modern and beautifully maintained.

Were there Chinese characteristics present?

Well, of course!

The story goes something like this...

So we'd heard that you can actually hold baby pandas at this facility. While this is not something I'd normally be "into," the thought of a fuzzy baby panda in my arms was a bit too difficult for even me to pass up.

After some family debate (normally I'm on the other side with Steve on this one...but in this case I was, and still am, weak!), we headed to the nursery for a peak at the babies. There was a big banner in front of the door reporting, "Authorized Personnel Only." This building was closed. I was really bummed since this chance to view pandas at different developmental stages was one of my main reasons for wanting to come to Chengdu in the first place.

So I asked Steve to ask the "personnel" if they would be opening again that day and if this was the place where people could hold the pandas. "You can come in right now and hold one immediately."

Punch-line? Reason that there are no accompanying pictures of me in a blue hospital gown holding a baby panda?

The second part of his sentence was, "one person, one thousand kuai." That's $150 bucks for you and me. A bit steep, no?

Only in China could I have the opportunity to actually hold an endangered species, but I just couldn't do it. All I could think was, OK, if I hold one, then I'd want the kids to hold one, too. That's a lot of Kung Pao Chicken in this town!

I'd love to say that the real reason I didn't do it was because I shouldn't have. In a way, I wish it was, but in this case, though, it was purely financial. How could I justify an expense like this? (Many Chinese people don't make 1000 kuai in a month!) And the thought of perhaps being lao waied (charged an exorbitant amount because I'm a foreigner) never makes me comfortable anyway.

In the end, the chance to watch so many of these awesome creatures up close was an opportunity to see eighty of China's true treasures in action. The place itself is a testimony to China's dedication to the preservation of pandas, the education of the populace, and the realization of the human desire to be close to them. (And, perhaps, the not-so-benign ability to capitalize on that want...But I guess it is a donation to help the pandas...)

See how conflicted I am!?


Scenes From A Chinese Catholic Church

As is the case in any society, churches here in China are institutions that not only shape people, but are influenced by local culture as well. For us, this lesson was reinforced on Easter morning, when we traveled to the the Ping'an Qiao Cathedral for Mass. (A shorter journey, by the way, than our usual jaunt across Beijing...In general, Chengdu feels kind of like a small city to us, even though the total population in the area is something like eleven million!)

For starters, there was the Chinese architecture of the buildings surrounding the cathedral itself. Desi keeps saying how she wants to take that distinctively Chinese style of doing roofs and remodeling our house on Matey Road that way! (You can take the girl out of China, but you can't take the China out of the girl?)

Then there were the local youths who wanted to have their picture taken with Julie and Z. Shortly followed by the mad rush to secure pews immediately after the early Mass let out. As "old hands," we knew the drill and pushed our way in as well, going so far as to take the moveable pews and putting them in an advantageous position where we could see everything. This paid dividends when, a little while later, a friendly Dutch guy named Dmitri wandered in looking for a place to sit. We coached him a bit through the Mass, given that not only didn't he speak Chinese, but also that he wasn't Catholic (Mennonite, it turns out) and needed help with the order of the Mass.

Finally, we can't not mention the "little angels" who processed in with the gifts. No Chinese Mass would be complete without these girls all dressed in white!

So although we did miss the beautiful singing of Kathleen McGovern and the rest of the community at St. Andrew's, we did cherish all of this pageantry of a different sort. As a woman who we bumped into the next day at the bus depot said to us (after telling us that she had seen us at Mass)...Alleluia!