This past weekend, we took our third ever trip to Shanghai. Having been twice before, we were keen to discover some cool places off the beaten path. The Mulan Hua Ge Curio Warehouse definitely qualifies.

I’d read about it in advance on various blogs that said things like the following:

Mulan Hua Ge Curio Warehouse is a unique shop that has one of the city’s largest collections of antiques and collectibles. Offering a wide range of architectural salvage mainly from the pre-revolutionary period, the shop offers 20-meters-high piles of old trunks, chairs, tables, ladders, stools, musical instruments, old radios, televisions, Oriental screens, Buddha statues and many more. (My City Antiquing)

and

 Many visitors go to the huge XinYang Market which is under the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum (line 2 metro station of same name) in Pudong. It contains a large range of souvenirs along with clothes and electronics but is essentially for Westerners and similar to Beijing’s Silk, Pearl and Yashow markets.

For something more authentic (but always double check), visit the Mulan Hua Ge Curio Warehouse at 1788 Ji Yang Lu, near Shangpu Lu, exiting at Lingzhao Xincun metro station on Line 8, in Pudong, near the Lupu Bridge. This unique shop has one of the city’s biggest collections of antiques and collectibles in Shanghai. (10 Hidden Gems in Shanghai)

I probably should have paid more attention to Smart Shanghai‘s description:

If you’re looking to satisfy your sense of adventure, spend an afternoon in Outer-Pudongland, sifting and pouring through the wonderful mountain of crap and curiosity at this offbeat antiques and furnitures market. The name just rolls of the tongue — the Shanghai Mu Lan Hua Ge Jia Ju Li Curio Company. And sure, it involves a trek out to the wilds and it’s almost impossible to find, but that’s half the fun. Builds character.

In particular, this advice would have been helpful to note in advance:

The best way to find the place is to show someone the name (in Chinese) when you get off the metro.

Somehow, I missed that advice. Instead, I consulted Google maps:

a location marked on a map

Right beside a metro stop. Not so bad, right?

Yeah, except that it’s literally a gazillion miles away from everything else in Shanghai:

a city map on which an area at the top is coloured orange and marked with a large black arrow. The pin noting the sought-after location is at the bottom of the map.

See all those little orange dots? They’re the other tourists. See that pin a gazillion miles south of the orange dots? That’s us.

We got out at the metro station and began to search for the shop, to no avail. And then the rain began. A massive downpour that went on for a long time.

We almost certainly wouldn’t have found the shop if not for a lovely man who, despite the rain, despite the fact that he was on duty at his traffic stand (where he had initially offered us shelter from the rain), and despite the fact that he neither spoke any English nor had ever heard of the curio shop, nonetheless took on the mission of guiding us to our intended destination, a role that he assumed with unparalleled tenacity (even though we didn’t really ask him to take it on).

Here he is with the Kid just before the 30 minute long adventure in the rain that would ultimately leave him and us considerably damper:

A Chinese man in a uniform smiling with a blonde teenage girl

…So, thirtyish minutes and six soaking wet feet later, down an unmarked alley we went, past barking dogs and piles of rubbish until at last we arrived at our destination. There’s not much to say about Mulan Hua Ge that wouldn’t be better expressed by images. …except for two things:

1. When the Kid finally found the place (Cab and I sensibly sent her ahead as scout and stayed behind, out of the rain, at the metro station), the owner bought a broken umbrella from a neighbour and ran back to the metro station with her, partially sheltering her from the rain.

2. When we entered the shop, the younger of the two proprietors silently sprayed down our exposed skin with something from an unmarked bottle that stung for an hour afterwards. Insecticide, one assumes. As Cam noted, this may have been a literal flea market.

And now, the photographic evidence.

First, some exterior shots:

An address roughly painted on the side of a buliding

How could we have missed the address when it’s so clearly marked?

Mu Lan Hua Ge painted roughly onto the side of a building

Every business needs a sign!

a scruffy little dog

…and maybe a guard dog!

A shack surrounded by rubbish, with a large, blue tarp covering its entrance

Here’s the whole store front.

Now, for a few glimpses of the wares:

a dirty, dark aisle crowded with old junk

A typical “aisle”

a crowded aisle with a lit window at the end

…this one has some natural light

brass objects, including Mao figurines, buddhas and temple bells

Maos, temple bells, buddhas…

cluttered shelves with dusty old brassware

dirty stacks of wooden furniture

Part of the “furniture section”

a pile of textiles surrounded by junk

Clothing section!

blue porcelain bookends shaped like children reading books

a pile of antique cracker tins

Cracker tins!

drums and a Guanyin statue

Drums and Guanyin

an accordion, an old electric fan, and other stuff...

a doll and a camera on a Buddha statue with an accordion nearby

Buddha, dolly, camera, accordion

metal stairs stretching upwards

There’s an upstairs too!

Last but not least, the “adult” section:

a brass Buddha figurine with an erect penis and large testicles

A well-endowed Buddha. Nearby, there were other brass figurines that interlock with the aroused Buddhas, with complementary orifices and arms that twine around the Buddha’s torso.

a hand-carved wooden sculpture of three figures, two male and one female, having sex

This one was hand-whittled. Three figures — two male, one female (on the bottom) — in flagrante delicto. I can’t believe I didn’t buy this. What was I thinking?

Ok. While the Mulan Hua Ge warehouse was *clearly* the very best thing we did in Shanghai, there is much more to report from Shanghai. I’ll devote my next post to that!

Good Lord, the time flies quickly here. It seems like Putuoshan was ages ago, and already we’re embarking on our next side trip – a long weekend in Shanghai, starting tomorrow. Before that trip eclipses all of the post-Putuoshan memories, here’s a quick round-up of what we’ve been up to.

Last week, we discovered with some disappointment that our favourite Nanjing Turkish restaurant, Café Istanbul, is closed for summer vacation until just after our departure date. What a let-down! Last year, we loved their gorgeous zucchini fritters, their delicious hummus, their light and zingy carrot dip, and their laid-back cosmopolitan cool. Everyone in there spoke at least three languages and was completely chill about everything – despite the often oppressive heat. We loved it there. Ah, well. Next year, perhaps.

Well, when one door closes, another one opens. I remembered that we last year missed out on a local Saudi place because it too was closed for vacation; so resolved to find it before its proprietors absconded. I didn’t find the Saudi place (I think it’s gone), but in searching for it, I found a Syrian restaurant, Barika. I went to Barika on my own for lunch and had a very nice falafel sandwich with homemade pita and lovely crunchy vegetables (a nice change from Chinese veggies, which are always cooked). On the side: mint black tea. Very nice and only 18 RMB for the meal (about $2.50) – a bit pricier than Chinese lunch, but much cheaper than most foreign food.

It was a cool enough day (maybe 30 degrees Celsius) that I was able to sit on the small patio with my bike parked beside me. As I ate, a worker napped across the street on the side of the road and a mother walked her daughter to school. Overhead, the cicadas buzzed electrically.

That night, the Kid and I resolved to move beyond our comfort zone and discover some new cheap “alley food” for dinner.  In China, alleys are as busy with industry as roads are. They are marked on maps just like streets. The alleys are crowded with cars, bikes, people, restaurants, food stands and shops. Just like streets, but cheaper and more crowded. As we headed down an alley near the university, flames caught the corner of my eye. A woman was stir frying noodles in a wok over an open flame on an outdoor stand. We weren’t really planning to eat there, but, fascinated by the leaping flames, we slowed our pace enough that the owner of the stand rushed over to wipe off a folding table for us and to proffer us stools. How could we refuse such hospitality?

A woman stir-frying at an outdoor stand -- flames leaping into the air

There was no English on the menu; so we asked “Do you have vegetable dishes?” (Much alley food is meat-based in Nanjing.) “Yes, we have vegetable noodles,” they replied. By that point, the Kid had already eaten noodles twice that day. So she asked, “Do you have vegetable dishes that are not noodle dishes?” “We have vegetable noodles,” they replied. So, vegetable noodles it was. As the woman fried them, flames shot high in the air. Meanwhile, inches away from us, a car unable to get past the bulldozer and the motorcycle that bracketed that stretch of road brayed its horn. We shifted our table an inch or two closer to the building. With much manoeuvring and honking and yelling and revving of engines, eventually all of the vehicles somehow made it past each other, just in time for us to enjoy our delicious, hot, savoury $2 dinner.

The next night, five of us went back to Barika. We feasted on very good lentil soup topped with fresh lemon and fried pita crisps, pine nut hummus, falafels, fatoush, baba ganoush, a kind of Syrian cucumber raita and muhammara. On the side, we had an assortment of middle eastern sodas and other cold drinks, including homemade mint lemonade so thick with mint that it looked like green pea soup. The food was in general quite good, if a bit pricier than a Chinese dinner. The baba ganoush was worth the price of admission. It was smoky and rich, perhaps the best baba ganoush I have ever had.

After dinner, the women came to our room for our first (and maybe last? the clock is ticking…) “girls night.” We made watermelon daiquiris and banana-rum drinks garnished with waxberries and preserved mandarin oranges, and nibbled fresh fruit and potato chips while playing Texas Hold ‘Em. The day before, the Kid and I wandered all over looking for poker chips, but none were to be found; so instead with played with multi-coloured fruit mentos. (A poker-playing student of mine confirmed the next day that it’s impossible to find poker chips in Nanjing.)

The next day, cousin Rob arrived from Japan. The Kid and I met him at the Nanjing train station, with only a few hiccups along the way. Then, we headed off to a banquet held by SIE in a private room at a fancy hotel near the university. The food was gorgeous – one of the best meals I’ve had in China. Ma Fei, the director, is at last figuring out how to feed vegetarians (of which there are five or six this year – apparently the highest proportion of any of the SIE campuses). We had the most delicious braised mushrooms, and cold wood ear fungus salad, and sesame pastries, and dumplings and cabbage, and cold tofu skin, and countless other delicious things delivered to the table in a steady stream for over an hour. And, there was more mint lemonade, and watermelon juice, and cold beer… There were amazing things for the omnivores too. A “lion’s head,” a local Nanjing specialty – a huge meatball, almost as large as a midsized dog’s head, if not a lion’s, that gets shared among the diners. And prawns, and jellyfish, and many different soups, and ribs and rich stews… It was a great introduction for Rob to real mainland Chinese cuisine.

After dinner, seven or eight of us headed to the top of the Zifeng tower for cocktails and lounge music. We must be going there too often. When the waiter came to the table, he asked the Kid: “Margarita?” And to me: “Mojito?” It’s probably more worrisome that he knows the 16-year-old’s order than that he knows mine.

The next morning, we went to the Presidential Palace, which combines lovely gardens and ponds with great exhibits about (inter alia) the rise and fall of the nationalist Kuonmintang party of Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek. Of particular interest to Rob, who has Taiwan connections, was the prominence of the Taiwanese flag throughout. Of course, when Mao took over, Chiang fled to Taiwan where he established the Republic of China (as opposed to the mainland’s People’s Republic of China), enshrining the Kuonmingtang flag as the flag of Taiwan.

After lunch (or rather, while eating on the fly a huge batch of dumplings), we headed out of the city to nearby Tang Shan hot springs. We were ushered into a fancy hotel and spa, where we were issued with waterproof bracelets that registered any charges we incurred for massages, drinks, etc. Then, outside to the sixty or so baths of varying temperatures (and ingredients!) at the spa – a milk bath, a rice wine bath, various medicinal herb baths, the surprisingly lovely celery bath, a watermelon bath and a lemon bath, baths built into faux mountains with waterfalls tumbling from above, others where you could push a button and trigger a steady wall of hot water to press upon you from above… And, most excitingly, the kissing fish bath, filled with hundreds (thousands?) of tiny fish that swarm the bathers and nibble off their dead skin. The young women with us briefly tried the bath, then screeched and ran away. The men and I loved it. It took me a few minutes. At first, it was difficult to relax in a bath full of tiny carnivores intent on devouring me. But, eventually, I gave myself over to the weird pleasure of being nibbled. Later, after the others had tired of the baths and were seeking massages and other spa treatments, I immersed myself for a long time in the fish bath and let the fish swarm all over me, even nibbling my face. Such an amazing sensation! Apparently, some folks warn against taking kissing fish massages. The fish can, they say, spread diseases as they travel from one body to the next. I should probably care, but in China this seems like far from the greatest risk to health and safety. And, I’m determined not to let fretting bloggers detract from my immersion – in fish baths or the country simpliciter.

On our return, we filled up on Uyghur noodles before heading to the Confucius Temple district to look at the canals, the bright lights, the lanterns and the people. While there, we got drinks – for me, a coconut with a hole deftly bored into it by a tiny woman with a pocketknife, for Rob a fancy milk tea. As the Kid ordered the tea (all in Chinese — her Chinese is getting *so* good!), a pushy woman shoved in front of her and thrust a handful of money at the attendant. The Kid turned, looked her in the eye, and firmly, in good Chinese, said “Wait.” The woman look gobsmacked, but she backed off and hovered at the outskirts of the line until we were leaving, not wishing to tangle with the formidable foreign kid a second time.

The next day, we took Rob on a whirlwind tour of Nanjing sites: the Yangtze River Bridge, the Jiming Temple, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. Then, Sunday night, we headed for a second time to seek the Castle Bar, this time in hopes of seeing South Korean rockabilly band The Teddy Boys. This time, we were in luck. We found the bar, but the band hadn’t started yet; so we had a quick dinner around the corner… with mixed success. We tried to order beans, but got potatoes; tried to order bok choy, but got chives. Worse news for Rob: he tried to order a beef and mushroom dish, but the beef (or something?) turned out to be offal… and also, apparently, awful. Taking little pleasure in the food, we derived what satisfaction we could from the pun and from ribald speculations about exactly *which * body parts Rob was eating.

Then, back to the Castle. The large bar was almost empty – there were maybe a dozen people there — as we arrived. We took seats at a small round table at the front of the house just as the Teddy Boys were coming on stage. And, let it be said, the Teddy Boys *cooked*! The band was tight and super high energy with a great repertoire of what I take it were original tunes, most of them with a cool psychobilly, Cramps-sounding, vibe. But the audience didn’t quite know what to do. One young man was super excited and kept getting up to dance but wasn’t quite sure how to proceed with it. He tried to get his smiling but reluctant friend to join him. The latter was even more out of his comfort zone and resisted. The other audience members were attentive and clapped warmly, but sat still and looked nervous about the dancing. Periodically, the incredibly hard-working, engaging front man would urge the audience to dance, whereupon people would stand, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, near the dance floor until they felt they could get away with sitting down again. The three of us foreigners danced, feeling a bit of a duty to carry the rock and roll torch.

At first, I thought the Teddy Boys were actually making fun of us foreigners by their clichéd poorly pronounced Chinese-for-tourists utterances. Then, it dawned on me that *they* were the tourists. They sounded like tourists not because they were mocking us but because they were strangers to China and to Chinese.

Two guitarits playing rock and roll

The Teddy Boys!

After a tight 45 minute set, the band left the stage. The audience didn’t seem to know to ask for an encore, or didn’t know how. I was tempted to try to get one but thought there might be no encore convention in China. As I sat debating the point, one of the guitarists peeked out from backstage and flashed his guitar at us suggestively. A couple of us resumed clapping; others eventually joined in, rhythmically shouting “one more! One more! One more!” And then the band reappeared. “Do you know the Slam?” asked the frontman? “Do you know the Slam? …The Slam?” No reply. “Wait. Do you mean ‘slam dancing’?” asked Rob. “Yes! Slam dancing!” replied the singer. “Do you know slam dancing?” Only Rob and I nodded. “Ok. Come here, come here, I will teach you slam dancing!” said the singer. And so we slam-danced – Rob and the Kid and I slamming into each other and into the enthusiastic guy and his reluctant friend while all the other bargoers shrunk away in apparent horror at what was happening on the dance floor. And it was hot and we were sweating! And then the front man was on the floor, slamming into us and the enthusiastic guy was at the mike, singing his heart out. And then it was done. “One more” really was just the one more song.

A group photo of a band and two fans

The Kid and Rob with the Teddy Boys

And then it was suddenly over. The band packed up. Despite the efforts of “Candy”, a glamourous young woman handing all of us her business cards and hailing taxis as she tried to foment an after party with the band and the audience at her bar in Xinjiekou, the band went home. And then, so did we.

The next day as I was biking to work in the throng of rush hour cyclists, I saw a man standing stock still in the middle of the separated bike lane. What on Earth was he doing risking collision with all those frenzied bikes? As I approached, I saw the lines of bikes and scooters part to avoid the man, who, it turns out, was standing there precisely for that purpose. At his feet, an older woman lazy dazed beside an overturned e-bike. She must have taken a terrible spill. He was making himself a pylon to protect her from the bike traffic.  It’s the first such incident I’ve seen here this year in this land of aggressive cyclists and no helmets. There have been some near misses and scrapes though. …Cyclists and pedestrians who’ve been cut off by drivers and punish them by punching their fenders. The dust-up the Kid had with an e-bike when she borrowed my bike for the ride home one afternoon. They collided, but with no injury apart from the Kid’s injured sense of justice: “He totally cut me off!” I’ve only once come near to hitting anyone. Interestingly, that was Alice, as she walked in one morning. As I passed her, she drifted cloudlike to her right and we very nearly collided. I noticed then that foreigners move differently than the locals. They haven’t been embodied their whole lives in this swarming bustle. Alice floated like a cloud. The locals dart among each other like fish. I can easily anticipate their moves and dart like another fish around them. It’s harder for a fish to avoid a cloud.

A teenage girl on a bicycle, seen from behind.

Two nights ago, the Kid and I went looking for some new street food, this time exploring the area south of Xinjiekou rather than Gulou district. After a few false starts, we found an awesome back alley food stand — an amazing array of veg, fruit, starches, tofu products, meat and seafood all on bamboo skewers. You choose what you want, put it in a basket, and they deep fry it for you in a wok over open flame. Then, they smother it in sauce and very spicy spices. So delicious! We gorged ourselves on lettuce, beans, peppers, cauliflower, lotus root, potatoes, taro, tofu skin, stinky tofu (it’s fermented, we think), and other unidentifiable tasty things and paid 21 RMB (about $2.50) for the two of us. So good! On the way home, we bought a big bag of fresh mangosteens from an old woman on a street corner for 20 RMB (<$2.50). There’s so much amazing fruit available in Nanjing this time of year. The next morning, I asked my students what region the food I’d had the night before came from. It’s too spicy to be Jiangsu food, I think. They didn’t know. When I described the food, they’d never heard of anything prepared in that way.

A woman sitting outside, eating a skewer of food

The next night, we brought three more people back to the same stand. Cab, in particular, has been looking for spicy vegetarian protein he can just point at, and has been complaining about a lack of depth in Nanjing spices. We thought this would be, ahem, up his alley.

When we got back to the alley, there was at first no sign of the stand. Where had it gone? We started to walk around the area surrounding its previous position. Then, one of the local residents, sitting outside, yelled to the stand’s proprietor, who was, unbeknownst to us, preparing his nightly wares just out of sight. The neighbour must have said something like “Your white women are back and they’ve brought more foreigners!” because the whole family (the mother and father who run the stand and their son and daughter who hang out nearby during the stand’s operation) all magically appeared and signalled to us that their stand would be ready soon. We walked around the block, peeking in restaurant windows and wondering about the “Business Club” with its fancy entranceway and scantily-clad, tiara sporting young female staffers. Wondering too about the big restaurant with the Arabic writing on the sign just below the Chinese. It didn’t look middle eastern. Maybe Uyghur? Or some other Xinjiang cuisine? We’ll check another time.

We returned to the stand and ordered five full meals. A huge sale for the proprietors, who presumably are more used to selling one or two skewers than entire feasts. It came to about 60 RMB ($10) for the five of us and there was so much food we couldn’t finish it. We sat around the counter on little stools, tasting each other’s skewers and cooling off the spice with yogurt drinks. (Jamie ordered her skewers without spice. They were delicious and saucy too, but the rest of us loved our burning lips!) As we ate, the stand’s patriarch came over to offer us cigarettes. He kept pressing them on us, but none of us smoke. We felt sad declining. He was clearly extending very warm hospitality to us, probably because he was pleased to have gluttonous new regulars with fat wallets and a clear appreciation for his culinary wizardry. When we didn’t take the cigarettes, his wife instead brought us a hot dish of complimentary spring rolls, a lovely little treat not on the menu, made just for us. Such lovely hospitality! As we left, I was feeling effusive and told the owners in my best caveman Chinese “We love this [gesturing toward their food]. Thank you , thank you. We love this!” Now, I know that the “love” is used is erotic love so deep that one only expresses such a sentiment towards the love of one’s life and, even then, only once or twice in a lifetime. But, I didn’t have any better words available to me. And, the owners understood what I meant. It’s kind of liberating to communicate in a way that is, in strictness, completely wrong and yet feel confident that, practically, it works just fine. Kind of the opposite of what I do for a living…

Ok. That’s more or less it for last week. Off to Shanghai tomorrow morning, where we’ll spend time with Cab, Alice and Rob. It’s the third visit for the Kid and I; so, we’re hoping to find some out of the way treasures. Stay tuned…

Sat., July 13 – A tropical Buddhist paradise

I have just showered off most of the grime and opened a cold beer after 12 hours of glorious outdoor adventures in improbably gorgeous weather.

We started off with a street food, seaside breakfast of doughnuts and chive crepes filled with fried noodles, eggs and hot sauce. As we ate, a line of monks and pilgrims slowly filed past us, every few steps lying down in oblation.

Then, we took a pleasant 20 minute seaside walk past lush flora to the first of many temples we would visit. This little island has two monasteries and over 200 temples. We explored as many as we could, spending most of the day surrounded by monks, nuns, pilgrims, incense, icons and altars. So much beautiful art and architecture. For hours, we alternated our attention between temples and nature. We saw massive waves crashing against towering cliffs, lush bamboo and palm forests, birds, fish, turtles and insects as brightly coloured as jewels. We had many long, hot, sweaty climbs – sometimes to a shrine, sometimes to a natural vista. Then, there’d be cold water and cool ocean breezes as we caught our breath. We saw – and heard! – a pilgrim playing beautiful traditional flute music, monks chanting mantra, pilgrims dancing ecstatically before the giant golden statue of Guanyin.

A giant golden statue of Guanyin Boddhisattva

We had lunch at the monastery – a simple meal of rice with a savoury stew of tofu, mushrooms, cabbage, turnip, bean thread noodles, carrots and more (10 RMB, or about $1.70) each).

A bowl of vegetarian stew

Then more climbing, sweating, gawking… more moments of stunned silence. After lunch, we took advantage of the island’s excellent network of shuttles to explore the further reaches of the island. We got the best views – panoramic views of forests, cliffs, ocean, fishing vessels, temples, villages, pagodas and the stunning Baotuo Temple – from the cable car ride to the top of the sacred Mount Putuo.

View from a cable car to a temple and shoreline below.

And then, despite being “templed out,” we explored the indescribably exquisite Baotuo Temple. It is without a doubt the most exquisite place of worship I have ever seen. It may be the most beautiful, impressive complex of buildings I’ve ever seen. Neither the Forbidden Kingdom nor the Temple of Heaven hold a candle to it. It is utterly astonishing in every respect. And yet, it’s empty. No tourists besides us. Just monks and a couple of workers. We’re the oddballs here. The monks take *our* pictures.

the intersecting perimeters of several brightly coloured temple roofs

Exhausted, we bus back to the hotel and cool off in the lobby with cold beer before heading for dinner at a little seaside stand. We have hand pulled noodles in broth with bok choy, mushrooms and fried eggs. Cab, the historian, has three kinds of cold marinated tofu with stir-fried beans and rice. Alice, the art historian, supplements her soup with razor clams stir-fried with garlic and chillis.

Afterwards, we buy ice cream and popsicles (watermelon popsicle for me, coconut for the Kid) and walk back along the beach. Cab and Alice head back to the hotel. The Kid and I head toward the water one last time. It’s low tide and we want to look at the tide pools before it gets dark. We see tiny crabs, and huge skittering bugs that look like crustaceans. We chat with the locals and admire the sand castles. It’s not until we get back to our room that we discover how tired, dirty, blistered and sunburned (despite multiple sunscreen applications) we are. It was a tremendous day, and one with nary any sign of the typhoon, now a mere tropical storm. A really good day… few better.

Sun., July 14 – The journey home… eventually

Heading back to Nanjing today. Looks like we’ll meet what remains of Soulik there. A bit nervous about the boat ride back to the coast, but otherwise feeling fine.

[…]

Well, *that* was a day! I woke up this morning listening to see if the typhoon had struck. (Our hotel room had many merits, but a view wasn’t one of them; so, looking out the window wasn’t a weather-checking option.) I decided to make myself a cup of coffee, pack up, and then head outside to look. Before I could execute step three, one of our travelling companions knocked on the door to tell us about a hitch in our day’s plans. “All of the boats off the island have been canceled because of the typhoon,” she reported, “but we might want to get the Kid [now our usual translator] to talk to them.” We did. And yes, all boats – the only way off the island – had been canceled. Just to be sure, we phoned a Chinese colleague so that she could speak to the front desk. Same story. We made hasty arrangements to cover our Monday classes and rebooked our rooms for another night. Although the boats were canceled, the weather was fine – windy, but warm and rainless, with a blue sky and radiant sun overhead. I reflected that being stranded in good weather on a tropical island has never numbered among my worst nightmares.

Hungry, we headed toward the dock to buy breakfast – the local doughnuts, and Guanyin pastry (flat bread filled with vegetables, in this case seaweed, a Putuoshan specialty and often eaten by pilgrims to the island). Breakfast in hand, we decided to walk to the ferry station to see what time the first Monday ferry would depart. When we arrived, we saw many travellers with heaps of luggage waiting to depart. Why were they at the dock? Didn’t they know the boats were canceled? At first, we thought they were just planning on spending the night at the ferry station to avoid paying for another night’s hotel and to get an early start the next day. But, inside the building, there were long line-ups of people who seemed ready to embark. A quick conversation with a staffer with smatterings of English informed us that the previously canceled boats had been uncanceled when the typhoon failed to hit the area as hard as feared.

By this time, we were hours later than our intended departure time. We had originally planned to take an early boat from the island and spend a few hours in Ningbo in time for our 5:24 train to Nanjing. It was no longer clear that we’d be able to make a 5:24 train. Would we be able to unbook our extra night at the Putuoshan hotel? Would we make it to the train on time? We worked out that if everything went seamlessly it would take four or 4.5 hours to get to the train station. Once there, we’d have to find our platform and go through security. And, it was already after noon. …and nothing ever goes seamlessly in China.

Cab and I were much inclined to stay on the island an extra day as planned and leave on the first Monday boat rather than spend the day racing around in the heat among other travelers displaced by the typhoon only to be stuck overnight somewhere between Putuoshan and Nanjing, as seemed most likely. But Alice – possibly because she is the only pre-tenure one among us and feels a tad less professional entitlement than we do – was anxious about missing her classes and encouraged us to venture home. So, we did.

And then, astonishingly, almost everything went smoothly. We got a refund from the hotel and smoothly checked out. At the ferry station, we tried to buy tickets for the port we’d come from. No, they told us, that one’s not running today. After 15 minutes of fractured cross-linguistic discussion, we purchased passage on another boat that seemed, from what we could tell, to be heading in the same general direction. And, it was a faster, more comfortable boat than the one we’d arrived on. From there, we found a different shuttle bus route than the one we’d arrived on, but it seemed to be going in the right general direction. And, it was cheaper and more comfortable than the one we’d taken on Friday. From there, it was an easy matter to buy the next set of tickets. And so on. At each step, even when we had to deviate from our previous route, things worked out swimmingly. And every time we showed up anywhere with a ticket, the mode of conveyance had room for us and was just about to depart. One walk, one boat, two buses, one cab, one bullet train, one subway and tons of good luck and helpful people later, we were back in Nanjing, refuelling with dumplings and cold beer. Over the whole trip, we never encountered a drop of rain or made a single disastrous misstep.

And the people were lovely!

The shaggy Swedish youth on the first bus who is on his way to North Korea, then Thailand. His goal is to visit every country in the world for at least 24 hours. He’s come to Putuoshan following a rail journey from Sweden to Beijing and travels around China. He is going to North Korea because he hasn’t been there yet and wants to check it off his life list. There, he will visit the border with South Korea, and the world’s tallest arch and the world’s tallest flagpole. He tells us that South Korea has a very high flagpole and when North Korea saw it, it couldn’t abide the thought of South Korea flying the higher flag. So, up went the higher pole. He seems wealthy but frugal. He complains about the price of food on Putuoshan but doesn’t balk at the $4000 he spent getting from Moscow to Beijing. “It was a fair price,” he tells us, “It included everything but liquor.” He launches into a well-informed, articulate, ideological tirade about the U.S. Federal Reserve. I ask him whether he’s an economist, a political scientist or an amateur. He’s a political activist back in Sweden, he tells us. He and his Chinese companion help to get us to the next step on our journey; then, he’s gone before we can say goodbye.

The Ningbo cab driver who insists to us that Canadians and Americans are great and that China and the Chinese suck. “China is good!” I insist. “Not good, not good,” he replies, hurling invective at his countrymen, and in particular casting aspersions at their sanity and good judgment (from what we can make out). “Putuoshan is beautiful,” we say. “Ah, Putuoshan…  Guanyin,” he replies, “Yes, it’s good, but China is not good.” “Tell him we saw many temples,” I tell the Kid. “I don’t know how to say ‘many’, she replies.” So I try: “We saw temple and temple and temple and temple and temple,” I tell him. He laughs, a warm belly laugh. “Do you understand?” I ask. “I understand,” he replies.

Later, on the train, we sit beside a driving instructor from Nanjing who asks the Kid where we are from, what we do, how old we are, and tells us the same about himself. We are beautiful, he tells us. “Bu shi, bu shi (we’re not, we’re not),” I reply, having learned last trip the Chinese game of giving high compliments and energetically denying them when you are the recipient.

At the Nanjing dumpling joint at last, starving, we order four dozen dumplings for the three of us. It’s easy now. The Kid’s Chinese is good and the staff knows us well. Later, as we’re waiting for our food, a staff member comes over and asks the Kid to come and help at the cash. There’s a foreign couple and they need the Kid to translate. The couple is African. The Kid translates. The sight of the blue-eyed boygirl with the facial piercings translating for the very dark skinned couple is one of considerable fascination for the locals, who circle around the spectacle to watch, broad smiles all round. The Kid looks at home. She is warm, confident, and expressive, nimbly mediating between the staff and the couple, who are grumpy about the menu. Afterwards, the original staff member comes to the table several times to chat and express her appreciation.

We emerge from the restaurant, which is in a metro stop, onto the steamy Nanjing streets and are, as usual, surrounded by beautiful women in fancy dresses, e-bikes, cars, and hawkers of lotusfruit and panty hose. On the corner, a ponytailed man in a yellow track suit is singing passionately into a mike, his feet planted wide apart, to stabilize him (it seems) during the song’s more passionate moments (of which there are several). It’s a crowded, hot, noisy, overwhelming city. And, as much as I would have loved another day on the seashore, I’m immediately delighted to be back in Nanjing. I love it here. It feels like home.

 

Thurs., July 11 – Heading for Putuoshan

After work today, hopping a bullet train to the coast, then taking a bus/ferry combo to a tropical island in the East China Sea. No big deal.

[…]

Uh oh. Apparently, we’re not the only ones who may be headed for the Zhoushan. Super typhoon Soulik is also moving toward the east coast of Zhejiang. They call ‘em super typhoons when they’re awesome and well worth seeing, right?

[…]

Stage 1 of our adventure complete. We’re spending the night in the very pleasant, prosperous seaside town (pop. approx. 5 million) of Ningbo, in a bright, cheerful hotel on the river. Oranges and cold water in reception. A beta fish with a friendly note in our room.

A beta fish in a glass fish bowl beside a Rubik's cube and a note with a prominent picture of a fish on it.

Outside, it’s a clear night — the sky is full of stars. The hotel fronts (and our window overlooks) a wide, lazy river lined with willow trees. A cool breeze blows off the river, a break from Nanjing’s stifling heat. On the tidy, thoughtfully developed riverbank, young people loll around chatting, singing and snogging. The locals we met are laid back and cheerful. Real southerners. A night heron (I think) lands in the nearby reeds. Across from the river, in front of the hotel, street vendors cook delicious things over open flames. We opt for skewers of grilled tofu, green beans and cucumber. The tofu is a miracle. So tasty. We can’t believe it’s tofu; we’re sure it’s swordfish or similar. Nope. It’s tofu. The cook insists. All three things are served piping hot, glistening with oil, with wonderful charred and spice flavours. We get six skewers for 10 RMB (about $1.67).

A teenage girl outside at night eating grilled green beans on a skewer.

We admire the tasty noodles being stirfried at the next stand, but opt instead to buy cold drinks — orange soda for the Kid and fizzy pink grapefruit with brandy (!) for me. it sets us back a further 11 RMB (just under $2) for both. We chill by the river before heading up to our room. No sign yet of Typhoon Soulik, but we’re feeling equal parts optimism and apprehension. The storm is a monster and is gonna do some damage. But, as long as it doesn’t change course, we’ll be safe and will get to witness some very impressive waves out our hotel windows. As far as I can tell, our going to Putuoshan as Soulik bears down on Taipan is more or less like going to Cape Cod as a major hurricane heads toward South Carolina — more interesting than dangerous. We’ll be in communicado now for at least 17 or 18 hours. I’ll report in again once we have internet, but not until after we’ve had a swim in the East China Sea. …because this much is clear — whatever happens, we won’t be swimming on Saturday when Soulik hits the PRC!

Fri., July 12 – We arrive on the island!

What an amazing day! Our travel here went of without a hitch. Easily found the long distance bus terminal and enjoyed a pleasant 2 hour bus ride along the bridges (and land) of the Zhoushan Archipelago. Then, easily transferred to a bus to take us to the penultimate island. From there, it was only a short wait for the slightly terrifying, but super cool boat ride to Putuoshan. Then, as if by magic, friendly folks swept us off to our very comfortable hotel. It’s a tropical island devoted to nature, swimming, Buddhism and seafood. So lush and green and lovely, with amazing fragrant flowers, iridescent insects, tons of frogs and many very pretty birds — some likely blown in by the typhoon. We immediately ran to the beach after checking in. The water was warm and inviting, but the beach was shallow and the water concealed rich mud flats. So, no swimming there, but plenty of splashy fun. Then, we walked around the island for a couple of hours, at first looking for somewhere else to swim. Unfortunately, no swimming for us. The other (magnificent) beaches are closed because of the impending typhoon. But we didn’t mind. It was enough to walk on the seashore, seeing amazing, giant surf break beneath misty mountains dotted with temple after temple. And, on one beach, there’s no one to prevent us walking along the shoreline, so we do. There, even with the water only a few inches deep, the pull of the surf is almost strong enough to tug my feet out from under me. We keep walking, up hills, through woods… So many pretty twists and turns on our walk, and very little traffic — motor vehicle, bike or pedestrian. We pass a bunch of really, really pretty wild pigeons, in mating mode. The males puff up their chests and follow close behind the smaller females, both of them bobbing their heads to seal the deal. …The air is such a comfortable temperature after Nanjing. The sky is brilliant blue and the sun hot overhead. The people are friendly and good humoured — teasing me good-naturedly for my terrible Chinese. It’s a very Chinese place too. We don’t see any other Westerners, and people are clearly surprised to see us. We shower off the mud and sand, then sip cold beer and lemonade in the lobby before heading out to look for dinner. By this time, the whole island has become one big seafood restaurant. In front of each restaurant are bins filled with water and live fish, crustaceans and molluscs. Nearby, fresh vegetables are displayed. You point out which ingredients you want and sit down. They kill and prepare your choices lickety split and serve them to you piping hot.

Three rows of plastic bins filled with live sea creatures in water

We opt for vegetarian all round, and find a congenial little outdoor place on a narrow alley up a hill. We choose eggplant, bok choy, green beans, potatoes, peppers, cauliflower and noodles. In no time, we’re gobbling all of this up along with cold beer and, to the amusement/amazement of the resto staff, hot sauce. It’s 180 RMB for four people – about $7.50 each. Expensive, by Chinese standards, for such simple food. But we don’t begrudge it. It takes some trouble to get the produce to the island, and food is always pricier at vacation spots. Afterwards, we wander the modest shopping area, admiring mala beads and linen clothing, and watching a Uyygur cook pull noodles. Amazing! Then, it’s ice cream on the beach under the stars, sounds of karaoke nearby, tons of people on the mudflats with flashlights, looking for clams, we think. Not much sign yet of Soulik, other than the beach closures. We resolve to start early tomorrow so that we can see as much as possible before the storm relegates us to our rooms. Speaking of our rooms, here’s one oddity worth reporting: the mini bar has available for sale, among other things, two gas masks. What do you make of that?

Oh, dang. It looks like either one of the hotel housekeepers, or some interloper who took advantage of the open door during my room’s cleaning, stole my crappy old phone. It’s crappy and old, and I have a new one; so, I don’t care about the phone. I was just using it as an alarm clock and repository of rabbit photos. But now I don’t know what to do about the room. If the cleaners are either stealing stuff or leave rooms unguarded and vulnerable during cleaning, then I ought to say something about it so that the remainder of our and our fellow guests’ time in the hotel is more or less secure. However, in a country like China, there are no employee rights. They’d probably all just be canned — and maybe end up destitute — rather than the hotel making any effort to see what happened. And, it might well have been an honest mistake, like inadvertantly bundling my phone of with the laundry. (But I’m pretty sure the hotel and the cleaners would be unwilling to admit to such an error, even if though I wouldn’t mind at all.) Really struggling with this one… (In other news, since my old phone served as my alarm clock, and since I misprogrammed the less familiar replacement alarm, I overslept this morning and missed coffee and breakfast. Grrr… Grumpy Shannon.)

Tues., July 8: Heat, trains, dumplings and a mysterious bottle

The heat has kicked in. Everyone, Nanjingers too, is sweating buckets. I like it, but I am in the minority…

Bought train tickets today for this weekend’s exciting trip to Putuoshan. The SIE staff are all aflutter about the adventurous philosopher who’s dragging her colleagues (three of them, plus some offspring) to the temple island in the East China Sea. One young employee — a guy in his early 20s — approaches me and says, “So, are you really going to Mount Putuo?” I confirm it. He tells me that he went there when he was in middle school and it’s not great — just nature (i.e., one of China’s four sacred mountains, two of Asia’s best beaches and lots of gorgeousness in between) and temples and stuff. I tell him that nowadays they haul cold beer and karaoke machines to the beach at night and sing under the stars. “Oh, then the island’s gotten better since I was there,” he says.

The bike ride to and from work is getting more complicated as more and more streets get ripped up by construction crews. There are currently two metro lines in Nanjing. Next year, the city will host the world Junior Olympics. At some point, some government official or another promised Nanjing 13 new subway lines to handle demand during the Junior Olympics. And then, they didn’t get built. Recently, some municipal official demanded the promised 13 lines. Shazaam — all the streets get ripped up. Folks hereabouts believe that there really will be 13 new subway lines by next summer. 13! On the way home, I wend my way around cars, bikes, e-bikes, motorcycles, mopeds and pedestrians, not to mention food and bike repair kiosks, construction equipment and a scruffy stray dog who has clearly just had a litter of puppies and who trots along in front of me on what her confident gait suggests is her usual route. My bell fell off the other day so I stop at one of the bike repair kiosks and, for 10 RMB ($1.70) I purchase a shiny new bell and the woman running the kiosk installs it for me. Her husband sets the price — quickly enough that I assume he’s overcharging me and wants to propose the outlandish price to me before his wife tells me the real price. I could haggle, but don’t have it in me to withhold 30 or 40 cents from the ragged, kindly old couple. At the main intersection, a clutch of tour buses blocks the way and all the other vehicles — motorized or not — begin to crowd in to the narrow spaces that remain in the heart of the intersection. Bikes laden with furniture and other cargo squeeze between the tight bumpers, apparently unconcerned about how vulnerable they will be when the logjam breaks.

When I arrive in the hotel room, I discover that the Kid, ever the anthropologist, has a bought a bottle of grain alcohol because she wanted to know whether the campus school supply store really sells what appears to be hard liquor alongside the soda pop for 4 RMB  (about 70 cents) a bottle. Yup. It does. Oh, China.

Chinese fast food for dinner: 30 vegetarian potstickers + 2 cold drinks = 28 RMB (approx. $4.70). Afterwards, we splurged on more drinks — kumquat iced tea (mine had coconut jelly!) = 25 RMB (approx. $4.50). If not for the fancy drinks, this would have been our cheapest dinner so far on this trip! P.S. At the dumpling place, a pleasant man in a tidy uniform pushes a cart around the restaurant and visits each of the tables. He has a stack of ramekins, a pitcher of sweet rice vinegar, a pot of garlic puree, and a pot of chilli and soy bean paste. You tell him which of the three ingredients you want and he prepares a little custom ramekin of dipping sauce for your dumplings!

Wed., July 9: Sweet 16!

Today, the Kid turns 16. Birthdays are low-key here. They don’t celebrate every year — certainly not those associated with inauspicious numbers. The usual birthday food is noodles — you’re meant to slurp up a whole noodle a la Lady and the Tramp without biting it or tearing it; this is supposed to ensure your longevity. And, the typical gift is a red envelope containing a small amount of money — enough for a t-shirt, say. For our part, we’ll celebrate with some spicy Hunan food and then head to the Zifeng Tower for cocktails. Perhaps,there will even be a red envelope before the night is through.

 

Ah, it’s been tough finding time to blog. Here, for those of you who haven’t been able to follow our adventures on Facebook, is a round-up of my latest Facebook posts, lightly adapted.

Wednesday, July 3 –  Bikes, clowns, noodles, heat wave…

I biked in to work this morning for the second day. I’m still amazed by how safe it feels. (Because it looks super scary when you’re not doing it.) I love it! Today, I even got up the nerve to do the thing that yesterday I swore I would never do — I turned left going through a major intersection during rush hour. And I survived! They think I’m a crazy Canuck here. I don’t think of myself as brave, but I’m finding that each day here I do something that I was previously afraid of. Who knows? Maybe I’ll come back with some scarification and some sky diving stories! (Don’t worry, gentle reader, the Kid and I are being super cautious about everything. I swear! *coughs*)

[…]

So, we’ve decided that it’s time to discover Nanjing’s nightlife. The local ex-pat blog, Hello Nanjing, reports that a Shanghai dubstep band, The Buck’Em Clowns, are playing at Castle Bar Saturday night. The Kid and I have decided to go. I’m not sure if I’m a dubstep person, but I’m looking forward to experiencing the Nanjing club scene.

[…]

The Kid and I had the most wonderful Uyghur lamian (hand-pulled noodles) tonight. Uyghurs are a (Muslim) Turkic ethnic minority from northwest China — the area bordering Kazakhstan. Their noodles are a miracle of nature. So good. We started with two bowls of lovely, clear, fragrant broth seasoned with various spices and fresh coriander. Then we had two lamian dishes — one with marinated cabbage and a spicy rich sauce, the other topped with the most delicious potato threads. And, we each had a drink. We brought home a doggy bag because there was too much food for us to get through, even though we started off really hungry. The bill came to 24 RMB, or about $4. And, the owners were so lovely and hospitable, the restaurant so bright and cool and cheerful.

Apparently, China’s having a heat wave. It’s hot, but I like it and didn’t notice that it was hotter than last year. Apparently, it will be temps in the high 30s (so, is that like mid-90s or so in Fahrenheit?) for the rest of the week. The news is showing people cooling off in air raid shelters, and playing mahjong while sitting in a lake. I’ve just been cheerfully sweating and drinking beer.

A tin of banana juice

Banana juice is also refreshing during a heat wave!

Thursday, July 4 – Strange fluids

Have I mentioned yet that the bell to mark the beginning and end of class periods at Nanjing University sounds exactly like a mechanical music box playing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory”? Oh, China. You just insist on being so Chinese.

[…]

Had an amazing dinner tonight with The Kid and colleagues at Wu Shang Vegetarian — a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant in a green, quiet, broad-avenued part of town near the old Ming palace ruins. The restaurant is a huge vegan buffet place with an extraordinarily inventive menu. We recognized some things, but some flavours and textures were utterly novel for us. We gorged ourselves on vegan sashimi, the most exquisite cold tofu barbecued pork, gorgeous fresh veggies and tofu that we selected and they custom stir-fried for us, amazing soups, dumplings, steamed buns, salads, tofu gelato. And the oddest beverages — neon coloured “shooters” that seem to have been made from fruit reductions and bright, clean vinegars. Emboldened by the strangely enjoyable vinegar drinks, I even had a warm “red jujube and fungus” beverage. It was… well, it grew on me. (No pun intended.)

Friday, July 5 — Rainy day art gallery

Day off yesterday. I slept in, and woke up to what sounded like a bomb going off. It was actually a terrific clap of thunder in the midst of a massive downpour. (When it rains here, it really rains. I still have nostalgic memories of last year’s typhoon, and our wonderful, ill-considered venture out for French food and ping pong in the middle of the storm.)

Starving. I quickly sated myself with sea salt dark chocolate dipped in peanut butter — not a perfect breakfast food, but I was starving, I had both ingredients ready to hand, and it was *delicious* — then made myself a proper breakfast of left-over Uyghur lamian and good strong black coffee (yay for my French press!).

A small sausage in a plastic tube.

The Kid’s breakfast — a tub of ramen — came complete with this little sausage. Surprise!

After a late start, the Kid and I gathered some colleagues (we’re their unofficial tour guides) and headed to the Nanjing Art Museum to see the travelling ink arts exhibition by Zhang Jiangzhou. Beautiful, unusual drawings on a massive scale.

The show, called Life Whispers, is Zhang’s effort to come to grips with the Wenchuan Earthquake of 2008 that killed some 80-100,000 people in Sichuan Province. In elegant, spare brushstrokes inspired by traditional Chinese landscape art, the drawings picture groups of people, most of them eyes closed, most of them floating, with fragile limbs dangling relaxed at their sides. There is no trace of injury on any of the figures, and no direct evidence of the disaster. Instead, the drawings convey a sense of many people floating in a kind of limbo. The work is very affecting, and very well rendered. Zhang explained when the show launched that he did not want to represent the earthquake; rather, he sought to represent mourning.

The other art was beautiful too, but as our colleague the Art History prof noted, devoid of any conceptual aspects. …like dozens of Chinese William Morrises.

Then, we were off to the 1912 district for a late lunch in a stylish tea house type restaurant. I had iced milk tea with tapioca pearls and an order of Taiwanese style deep-fried silken tofu with chilli sauce and pickled vegetables. The Kid had a massive chocolate ice cream type dessert– it was billed as a rocky road smoothy, but almost everything about that appellation was false. Others at the table had noodles, hot chocolate, fresh pineapple juice with tapioca pearls, and gorgeous little rice and coconut cakes, served warm and filled with a marvelous house-made mango compôte. Everything was delicious.

From there, we headed past Nanjing’s massive futuristic public library, past the park where people gather for tai chi and dancing after dinner every night, and descended into Carrefour, the three storey *underground* department store, for a bit of shopping. The Kid asked a store clerk to find her size in a stylish pair of oxfords she’d been admiring. No dice. Strangely (except that everything, and hence nothing, is strange in China), the clerk, instead of suggesting other oxfords, proceeded to urge upon the Kid first a pair of velcro sandals and then a pair of running shoes. The Kid didn’t bite.

After a cocktail break (and a quick raingear photoshoot) in our hotel room, the Kid and I headed out again to the nearby Deji Plaza to have dinner at our favourite nearby Hunan restaurant, South Memory. We’re regulars there now — from what we can tell their only white regulars — so they greeted us with excitement and kept coming by our table to chat in fragments of English and Chinese and to drop off delicious complimentary snacks. Here’s what we got for about $15 total: a spicy cucumber and chilli salad, light and buttery scallion pancakes, spicy eggplant, green beans and chillis in a rich dark sauce, pickled vegetables and house-boiled peanuts, two bowls of rice, iced kumquat green tea, fresh watermelon juice and a plate of watermelon slices.

A photo of Shannon on a bike in a large raincoat

Ready for monsoon cycling! Check out my stylish raingear.

Back home, we skyped with the Guy before snuggling into the big bed to watch Akira. A very good day.

Saturday, July 6 – Alas, no Buck Em Clowns

Today is rainy again. We’ll stick close to home for most of the day, but tonight we’re going to have dinner on the very flashy and well-illuminated pedestrian Hunan Road before heading to the nearby Castle Nightclub to see a show by the new Shanghai dubstep outfit, the Buck Em Clowns.

[...]

We had a lazy day in our room before heading out with colleagues for dinner on Hunan Pedestrian Street. We had very good Indian food, and then parted ways with our friends so that the Kid and I could head to Castle Bar to watch the Shanghai dubstep outfit, Buck Em Clowns. Alas, after an hour of searching, we were forced to abandon the project. The bar could not be found. We spoke to several locals, two of whom eventually let us know that the bar had moved. So, no Buck Em Clowns for us, but the Castle is now our holy grail for this trip. We won’t rest until we find it. We began our search riding someone’s free in-room wifi at the Intercontinental Hotel as we sipped mojitos and martinis on the 78th floor of the Zifeng Tower. Tomorrow, we’ll get an earlier start. We are taking colleagues first to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, a moving and beautifully executed museum, and then, after lunch, to the Cloud Brocade Museum. And, our plans for next weekend’s trip to Putuoshan, an idyllic Buddhist island in the East China Sea, are firming up. We’ll be staying on the beach, beneath the giant statue of Guanyin Buddha, at the Purple Bamboo Hotel. Can’t wait!

Sunday, July 7 – Brocade and noodles

Sunday night. This morning, we took colleagues to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. It was way more crowded than last time we visited, but still very affecting. After lunch at a nearby Hong Kong place (unremarkable except for our new discovery there — deepfried corn kernels, something that seems more Iowa than Hong Kong), we went to the nearby Yunjin Institute, where Nanjing’s distinctive “cloud brocade” is made and studied. We got to watch artisans making brocade on huge looms that require two people to operate. One person crouches on top of the loom, perhaps 15 or 20 feet in the air, and controls the tension of the threads while consulting the pattern to guide the worker below; the person below sits at the loom, like a church organist, with bamboo poles for pedals, and weaves the shuttle back and forth while pushing pedals and strategically adding brightly coloured thread to the thread on the shuttle.So impressive. We ogled brocade clothing and decorative pieces costing as much as $20,000. So beautiful and well wrought.

Two people weaving brocade on a large wooden loom

Then, back to the hotel room for a little while for a cold beer and some cards with the Kid, and then — yay! — I booked the hotels for next weekend’s tropical island adventure. Then, we met up with the gang again to take them out for Uyghur food. Stopped and bought big, juicy grapes from a street vendor on the way home. Now, tucked up in our room, chilling, waiting for bedtime…

Postscript: From travelogue to food blogging

As I go over the last week’s posts, I notice how different the tone is from last year. We feel so comfortable and at home here this year. I have much less of the sense that I formerly had of visiting a wonderland whose every exotic idiosyncrasy must be catalogued. China is still amazing and impressive, but I confess to feeling less like an anthropologist/adventurer and more like a food writer than I did on the last trip. (Fortunately, there is much delicious food to describe; so…)

A bicycle

 

Oh, man. I just bought me a sweet, sweet ride!

It took several hours and two attempts, and — because we’re in China — a Byzantine process. But now I’m ready to tear up the streets of Nanjing. I can’t believe how fun and liberating my ride home was!

I thought cycling in that wild river of e-bikes and motorcycles and mopeds would be terrifying. Indeed, I swore I wouldn’t do it. But it actually feels safer than walking — perhaps because I’m travelling closer to the same speed as the rest of the river.  Like a little fish in a school of other fish.

And it felt so rock’n’roll! Foreign women don’t cycle here; so when my Slovenian Sociology colleague and I biked home together, everyone turned and stared, and I felt like a star!

Riding a Dutch bike (more or less) makes me feel even more European than I already do here. I’m ambivalent about this. I feel a bit like Lawrence of Arabia or Paul Bowles. I feel exotic and brave. But, I feel guilty about this too. I’m so aware of all of the gendered, ethnocentric, imperialist baggage to those romantic conceptions of the foreigner abroad.

Some of my colleagues (other than the sociologist) are skeptical about the whole bike thing. They describe me as having “gone native.” I don’t mind that one bit. I want to experience a China as close to the one the Chinese experience as possible. A bike alone won’t do the trick, but for now it’s a start. (And it sure gets me around faster than I ever could when I was a pedestrian ducking to avoid the ubiquitous oncoming bikes!)

 

Everything here is so interestingly inconvenient. Tried to buy a bike this morning. The impossible dilemma is (more or less) between a marketplace at the other end of town where they sell stolen bikes and buying a new bike closer to campus and navigating the kafkaesque bike licensing system. We spent a couple of hours this morning working on the project, finally deciding (not only for moral reasons, but also for infrastructure ones) to buy a new bike close to campus. We waited a long time for service and were eventually told that the staff member who sells the bikes had left for a bit and we’d have to come back in the afternoon. We’ll try again in a couple of hours. Same trip, we bought a sim card for my new phone, only to discover that it’s twice as big as now-standard sim cards. Two options: you can get the standard size by going to a proper China Mobile store, where it is extremely difficult for a non-resident to buy a card (everything here requires a Chinese identity card) or you can get a local MacGyver to cut your big card up with scissors until it fits. With some trepidation, I went with the MacGyver. (An earring was also necessary for the project.) Shockingly, the phone works.

In other news, today I went for lunch on my own and had a series of successful conversations in Chinese. I’m at the cash looking over the menu, but I can’t see what I want. “Excuse me,” I ask, “Do you have noodles with vegetables?” “Uh huh,” she says, pointing them out on the menu. “Good,” I say, “and a Coke.” She hands me a large bottle of Coke: “No, small,” I say. She switches the bottle for a can. There’s nowhere to sit except for a table where a man is alone, checking his phone, not eating. “Excuse me, may I sit?” I ask. “Sit,” he says. After he leaves, a man who’s ordered take-out is looking for somewhere to sit. “Please sit,” I say, gesturing toward a chair at my table. Later, the waiter comes out with the noodles. “Who ordered the noodles?” he calls out. “Here!” I reply. You have no idea how much easier it is to be here when such intreractions are possible. The noodles were delicious, and the whole meal came to 11.5 RMB or just under $2. Of course, I then wasted all my savings by going around the corner to buy a coffee at 20 RMB (just $3.30). :-/

A package of Chinese brioche, with a detailed description on the label

“If they cannot afford bread, why not take Brioche!” said by the famous Queen Marie, wife of Louise VXI in 18 century. And as a consequence of this, the French revolution broke out. Originated from Roman Empire traditional holiday delicacy, Brioche became the representative snack in later French palace.

In 1860, Bloom brothers, who were born in French imperial chef family, left the imperial cook position handed down by fathers and founded a hand-made bakery named “Brioche”, which served the Pairs new rich after industry revolution with insist using high quality materials and pure hand making techniques. With 150 years non-stop developing, Brioche, the French-style bakery, finally finds the love of new people in Pairs.

Worth of Having, Taste the sweet of Life – Brioche, the French-style bakery.

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