Saturday, July 21, 2012

Xizhimen At Night

There is this plaza over in the Xizhimen section of Beijing that is mostly empty by day, but really comes to life in the evening.

For years, we have driven by this plaza at night, usually on public buses coming home from 6pm Sunday Mass at the North Cathedral. But, until the other night, we had not gotten off the road and checked out the scene for ourselves.

It is, once again, a case of what initially appears to the untrained eye as chaos actually turning out to be a rather organized way of doing business and having fun.

There are merchants, selling cheap goods on blankets and out of the backs of carts...All lined up in a row that is marked out, naturally, by the different colors that the builders originally used when constructing the pattern on the plaza's ground.

There are these really cool three-wheelers that have compartments on the back. Open up the compartments, and there are karaoke machines inside. All of these are located in one corner of the plaza where they can be plugged in.

And then there are the roller skates. Hundreds of pairs for rent, with most of the skaters zooming around in a counter-clockwise circle in an impromptu roller rink. Once again, the chaos of all of that motion is stripped away to reveal a large section of the plaza, about the size of an actual roller rink, where there is order to the proceedings.

As Z wondered out loud..."How is it that all of this just emerged, without any central organization?" An interesting question, indeed...


Alligators, Lambs, Villas...Oh, My!

During a recent visit to a hospital where the child of a friend is staying, we found ourselves astounded by a number of aspects of the facility's back story.

For starters, there was the pet alligator that is kept in a glass container in the lobby of one of the hospital buildings. It is apparently a pet of the head doctor.

Then there was the herd of lambs being shepherded right on the facility's property. Apparently, the head doctor likes his meat fresh.

Finally, the head doctor maintains a villa on hospital grounds. Although we have seen such villas at other hospital facilities, the contrast between the meager-looking hospital operation and the sight of a pair of minivans parked in a residential driveway was rather disorienting.

Then, to top it off, several of the patients in this hospital (really, a rehabilitation center) had come all the way from Russia. They don't speak the language, the facility looks pretty basic (I would imagine shocking to some), yet there are nevertheless foreigners who have come a long way to receive care in this setting.

The education of the Balla family continues...


Crescent's Cameron Crazy

We're sure going to miss Cameron. It was a wonderful ten years.

~Steve, Desi, Julie, and Z

Varnishing Furniture On The Outskirts Of Beijing

Who knew that we would have to come half way around the world to have our first experience in varnishing outdoor furniture? (Our patio table and chairs back in the States are the cheap plastic kind.)

When a friend asked for our help in negotiating the local hardware marketplace, we jumped on the chance to learn some new vocabulary. They don't teach the Chinese word for "varnish" in ordinary Mandarin classes!

Plus, Z was able to apply his bargaining skills to a whole new set of products. In addition to varnish, there was thinner and sandpaper, as well as a couple of paint brushes. We think we did alright, as our total cost was RMB180, compared to RMB200 for a single can of varnish at a store that caters to English speakers.

Now let's see how long our varnish job actually lasts...


Friday, July 20, 2012

Franklin and Marshall Takes Beijing By Storm!

There we were, sitting in one of our favorite little noodle joints, when in walked a family consisting of what looked like three generations...grandparents, mom and dad, child.

Incredibly, all of them were wearing (presumably) knock-off Franklin and Marshall outfits, complete with light-blue t-shirts and tan-colored shorts. The whole setup!

Julie, who already owns fake F&M gear from China, will be all over those outfits if she comes across them in a market someplace in Beijing!


Chairman Mao's Identical Twin?

The National Museum, located just off Tian'anmen Square, reopened (last year, I believe) after a long renovation that began before we moved to China in 2008.

In one sense, the National Museum is an impressive place. High ceilings, enormous floor space, 5000 years of history to draw from.

Deep down, though, my take is that there is no pressing need to go out of the way to pay a visit to the National Museum. As we have judged typical of Chinese museums, this grandest of showcases is not all that interestingly curated. We felt our minds numbing as we strolled from prehistoric times up through the Qing Dynasty, looking at artifact after artifact, many of which we felt we had seen in other museums, both in China and abroad. (Three-legged vessels are cool to look at, that's for sure, but...)

For us, perhaps the most interesting (and puzzling) experience was walking into a room decorated with huge portraits depicting Chairman Mao during different key moments in his life. The puzzling part was that one particular portrait was hanging in two different spots, catching your attention right as you stroll in. This portrait shows the Chairman, I believe, announcing the founding of the People's Republic of China. Now, I get the seminal importance of this moment, but why hang identical copies of the same painting in the same room? Is it about some kind of symmetrical presentation designed to impress the visitor? Take a look at the accompanying photos and judge for yourself.

In the end, my view has always been that China itself is a museum. Why look at multiple copies of the same painting when you can cross the street and stand in the exact spot where Chairman Mao announced the arrival of modern China?


Anti-Explosion Security Check

As seen on the way into the recently-reopened National Museum...


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Julie And Z On The Crumbling Great Wall

It was worth the hike!


Wednesday, July 18, 2012


If you want proof as to how hard it can be to find the "real" Great Wall, then look no further than these pictures.

We set out one day from Sancha village to stand on a section of the wall that predates the archetypal Ming Dynasty version, with its ramparts and guard towers. Depending on who you are speaking with, there is a section of the wall that dates back one thousand, perhaps two thousand years. This section is nothing more than a twenty-foot high pile of rocks. No bricks or mortar, or anything like that (once again turning our notion of the Great Wall on its head).

Our path that day started by leaving through the back door of the home of the family we were staying with, and then on to some trails that are ordinarily used for farming purposes. At this time of the year, as we quickly discovered, the trails can be rather overgrown and covered by encroaching plants (can you find Z in that one picture that Julie snapped from a few feet behind?).

In fact, things we so overgrown that we eventually decided that, with no machetes to use to hack through the brush, our best option was to turn back.

We know the Great Wall is out there...


Nature (And Man) Is Reclaiming The Great Wall

Apart from a few, small areas that have been restored for tourism, the Great Wall is crumbling and receding from view. Trees are growing on it and around it, making it hard to find. Villagers are using its stones to build houses. Wind, rain, and snow are exerting their influences.

Here are a couple of glimpses into what many here in China call the "real" Great Wall. You may have to look especially long and hard at the left-hand, upright picture...


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fresh Fish

The family we stayed with in Sancha has a small concrete pool in which they raise rainbow trout. And so for lunch one day, the preparation went like this...

Use a net to grab a fish out of the pool.

Bang it over the head on the concrete.

Gut it, season it.

Grill it.

Eat it.

The whole process took maybe a half an hour.


Drying Nectarines In Sancha

A family of villagers down at the bottom of Sancha were drying some nectarines over the course of the two days we were visiting. The top picture is day one, while the second picture is day two.

We ate a bunch of locally grown nectarines and plums, and boy are they good!


The View From Sancha

Aside from the historically ordinary ways of making a living in the Chinese countryside (farming corn, walnuts, and other crops), some residents of Sancha have seized upon its proximity to the crumbling Great Wall as a means of sustaining their lives.

The top picture is the view from the home of the family we stayed with for two days. A spectacular vista that, when inspected more closely (the second picture), reveals the remains of a section of the Great Wall.

The real gem is another crumbling piece of the Great Wall that is located at the top of a mountain behind Sancha village. It is that piece that we came to hike out to and walk on...


Staying In Sancha Village

Here is what a village in the mountains north of Beijing looks like. We had the chance to return to Sancha after a three-year absence. By one resident's count, there are twenty-six people living in this collection of homes, up at the very end of the road (you literally cannot drive any further) and under the shadow of the crumbling Great Wall (more on that later).

The second picture is the kitchen building of the family whose home we visited for two days, staying in a guest room (that's the third picture), eating simple and delicious country cooking.

Only several hours, but a world away, from Beijing and its many millions...


Monday, July 16, 2012

The Best Architecture Theory Is In China

I'm just putting that out there...


My Day Is Their Night

So the reports continue to come in from the other side of the world. I guess it's time for an update from the West...

Originally I was going to title this blog, "Never a Patient, Always a Dog," since so much of my focus right now is on Cameron. When we decided not to treat Cameron for lymphoma, the decision was based on painstaking discussions about what was best for him. As a ten-year-old Golden Retriever, we knew upon his diagnosis that he is already edging the beginning of normal life span and that cancers are common. Not that we like either of those statistics. In any case, after watching Duke's decline from hemangiosarcoma (yet another common cancer in Goldens) ten years ago, despite surgery, blood transfusions and chemotherapy, we have been determined to keep Cameron in our care at all the comfort of his home, providing the dignity that our sweet puppy deserves.

That said, the torrent of emotions that have surrounded this entire situation have been extreme. From the second that Steve and the kids got into the car, it has been very difficult, given that I have never been separated from them like this before.

Yet within all of the distress, I have been able to count so many blessings. First, I have had wonderful days with my mom. She was kind enough to come down immediately and so we have spent time having short outings and getting involved in projects around the house that have been long overdue.

Second, I have been able to spend some summer time with the flora and fauna that are in the neighborhood. There are flowers that I have literally not seen since around 2008.

Finally, there is the sweetness that is Cameron. Despite his prognosis of four to six weeks, he has exceeded that both in time and manner. The daily surprises that he provides for me have made this separation one that I have difficulty regretting. While I know the seriousness of his illness, I delight in the little things he does each day. From stealing my watermelon off the table to finding and bringing me his ball from the middle of the backyard (not a big deal for a dog that can see, I know, but the organs that this disease has had the most severe effect on for Cameron are his eyes...he is virtually blind), to staying close to me, no matter where I am in the house or outside, there have been so many opportunities to recognize how much the little things can matter.

In all, there is no doubt that this situation is, well, I can't even think of a word to describe it...but the comfort that I have felt inside at each step helps me to know that our decisions have been the right ones. While Steve and I are planners, we have been forced to take things day by day by day. This has undoubtedly helped all of us understand the true meaning of patience...and the true value of long distance phone cards.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Subway Etiquette In Beijing

In a subway system known for massive crowds that push their way on and off trains, the authorities in Beijing would seem to be fighting an uphill battle in their current quest for changing the rules of the game.

There are the uniformed subway employees who attempt to enforce lining up at train doors for boarding passengers. For the most part, riders seem to obey, except for this one group of teenage boys we watched cut to the front of the line. The ayi wasn't happy, but there was little she could do.

And then there is this cartoon series, which features a young couple riding the subway in a number of difficult situations. In the series depicted above, the man is running to make the train before the doors close. Although he makes it, his female companion does not, getting wedged in the doors. In another episode, our friend tries to bring a drink and a knife through the security checkpoint. Once again, the outcome is shame for him in front of his female friend.

Although these kinds of efforts appear to be making a difference at the margins, the larger issue, of course, is the sheer number of riders squeezing onto trains. Even with all of the ongoing metro construction, the system is literally bursting at its seams. In that sense, the DC system should be so lucky...


The Olympic Green, Old And New

Nothing new here with the Water Cube and Bird's Nest, although the two always make for stunning vantage points.

That tower under construction is, according to a local friend, going to be an observation deck that will allow views of the entire city skyline. Looking forward to heading up there at some point down the line...


The Water Cube Water Park

You remember the Water Cube, that crazy, innovative piece of Olympic architecture where Michael Phelps won all of those gold medals. Well, come on down to the Water Cube and have some fun yourself, not breaking world records, but frolicking and splashing in one of the coolest, weirdest water parks you'll ever visit.

The Water Cube's water park features a huge wading and swimming pool that turns into a wave pool once every hour. There are also water slides, a lazy river, and plenty of other fun attractions for family members of all ages.

The wave pool is quite an experience, apart from the fun waves themselves. The whole wave period is livened up by an entertainment program. There is a stage at the head of the pool, and at first we wondered what use the stage might have. Well, cue up load, throbbing techno music, and bring out an emcee in a dapper hat. Our emcee's job was to get the crowd really into it, spurring us on to splash each other, wave our arms in the air, and scream on command.

Then out came the dance troupe, young women dressed in provocative clothing, gyrating to the beat. Wholesome family fun!

There was also a clown who threw balloons out into the crowd, as well as a dashing young male singer for the females in attendance.

What a scene! And it repeated every hour, with costume changes and different performances, including a belly dance at one point.

And we were just getting our day started. The Water Cube water park features a host of water slides. We had two favorites in particular.

The first was a four-person raft that wings down an enclosed tube, eventually plummeting down a short, straight drop and into a funnel, where the raft goes back and forth until it eventually disappears into the bottom of the funnel and splashes down in a pool at the bottom. Click here to see a picture of the funnel.

We also really enjoyed the red tube that is visible in two of the adjoining pictures. For this slide, a single person enters into an enclosed capsule way up at the top. There is an ominous countdown..."" Then the floor of the capsule suddenly opens and the rider is sent plummeting straight down in an almost free fall. The tube then slopes upward, as the slider has enough momentum from the drop to be carried against gravity. Then there is a turn and a splashdown at the very bottom. A unique (for us) experience, with the added benefit of the line for the ride being very short. Not a very risk-taking group, the patrons of the Water Cube water park.

At 200 kuai per person, the Water Cube water park is not cheap by Chinese standards. Yet it was rather crowded, with a full pool and lines for the major attractions. And we didn't even go on a weekend...


PS: Check out the jellyfish hanging from the ceiling...