I need to tell you about our trip to Hangzhou, and in particular about the baffling Rube-Goldberg machine that was our journey from the train station to our hotel rooms.  And I need to tell you about the eating of animals in China. I also need to tell you about the Chinese marketing of maple syrup, and about my enthusiasm for squat toilets. I can’t right now though. I’m flying to Boston early tomorrow morning for a conference (I know, right?!) and need to get ready for that. Herewith then is a promissory note for four new posts. I know, I know. None of these promissory notes have worked out in the past. Ssshhh. Don’t think too much about that. Just look at these beautiful pictures of things I’ve been eating and drinking instead.

 

A steaming plate of sliced potatoes in a rich sauce, a green salad in the background.

Kazhak style potatoes from our neighbourhood Xinjiang restaurant. Do you see how they glisten and steam? Would you like to see them again from a different angle?

 

Three dishes. One holds sliced potatoes in a rich sauce, one holds a green salad, one holds golden flatbreads crusted with sesame seeds.

 

Oh! Here they are again, with their friends sesame nang and salad (sort of Xinjiang version of katchumber salad) See how happy they are together? Oh wait. You want more?

 

Two dishes. In the foreground, strips of eggplant and green peppers in a rich, dark sauce. In the background, sliced potatoes in sauce.

 

There’s our old friend Kazhak potatoes in the background. But look — who’s this? Ah, eggplant and (hot) green peppers! Hello again. It’s good to see you. The Chinese word for eggplant is “qiezi” (茄子). It’s pronounced sort of like a lispy tyed-ze. When Chinese people have their pictures taken, they say “qiezi” instead of “cheese”. Try it. It does the same thing to your mouth. And, of course, foreigners in China are always being asked to have their pictures taken. Thus, in our first summer in China, I had been saying “qiezi” for quite a long while before I learned that it meant something besides “strained fake smile.” Imagine my delight when I realized that saying this by then familiar word would magically cause delicious things like the dish pictured about to arrive at my table!

Two plates piled with spring rolls in a brown gravy. Each plate is garnished with a piece of gai choy.

 

 

Hey! Here’s something new! Amazing vegetarian spring rolls from our trip to Hangzhou. They’re really chewy and savoury and filled with tofu skin and wonderful mushrooms. And they’re served in gravy! Holy comfort food. It was crazy hot and humid when we were in Hangzhou. Our solution was frequent stops in air conditioned restaurants for cold beer. At some point, some clever person suggested that we might consider having some food with our beer. That’s how we discovered these lovely rolls. They were on the menu at Lo Wai Lo, Hangzhou’s oldest restaurant — a huge affair by the water. From our window seat, we could look out over West Lake. The lake is ringed by mountains, the mountains studded with pagodas and temples. On the near shore, on one side are great rafts of lotus plants, some still in bloom, some producing fruit, and nearby are pleasant walking paths and ornate bridges. On the other near shore, to the left, one can see the modern skyline of the city proper. Slow, human powered boats crisscross the lake itself, sightseers sitting inside, fanning themselves to seek relief from the heat. We got to drink all this in as we nibbled our chewy Hangzhou spring rolls and quaffed our cold Hangzhou beer.

 

A glass full of bright green kiwi juice. Beside it, a mug full of bright green matcha latte.

 

And here we are back in Shanghai at our favourite local over-priced coffee place. On the day this photo was taken, the Kid and I were seriously into bright green drinks. Freshly squeezed kiwi juice for me, matcha chai latte for the Kid. Have you ever had freshly squeezed kiwi juice? If not, drop whatever you’re doing and go find some right now. Oh my God, it is the most delicious thing ever. Ever!

 

In the foreground, a cafe table with a teddy bear on it. In the background, a stylish cafe.

 

Here’s another shot taken at the same swanky cafe. Bears are kind of their thing. They have bears on their shop windows. They have really big (like, child-sized) teddy bears sitting at some of the tables. Sometimes, customers show up, grab a bear from one of the tables, and cuddle with them while they (the humans) have their coffees. And, when you place your order, they hand you a bear, which you place on your table. Then, when your order is ready, they bring it to your table based on the colour and attire of your bear. Attire, you might be asking, what attire? The bear in the picture is naked. Yup. There is just one naked bear in the store. The others have stylish t-shirts. For some reason, they always give the naked bear to me. What should I make of that?

…By the way, see those books in the background? Not books. Boxes. Boxes manufactured to look like English language books and used to decorate stores, cafes, bars, and (one assumes) homes. Many of these fake books are fake books about furniture. Furniture. Really? If I were going to fake read a fake book, it would about something much more august than furniture. But then, I am probably not their target demographic.

 

 

Sure, I like the printer paper, but what kind of dog is that?

 
A smiling teenager holds a ream of printer paper adorned with a photo of a shih-tsu and the word "shih-tzu"

 

 

What’s that ampersand-thingie called anyway?

A skeptical looking teenager displays a notebook adorned with both an ampersand and the phrase "at sign"

 

Oh, China. You’re silly.

We don’t have kitchen this summer. We are eating out every single day. (!) So, I wrote some restaurant advice for the Guy’s colleagues. Who knows? Maybe the advice will be useful or interesting for others. So, here it is…

SECTION 1: Pleasant nearby restaurants

I’ll start with pleasant, reliable (if not quite award-winning) restaurants within walking distance of ECNU, organized by location.

Global Harbor Restaurants (the big new mall at the corner of Jinshajiang Lu and Zhongshan Beilu)

Spicy dip. Our favourite place in the big food court on floor 1B of Global Harbor is Spicy Dip. The deal is, you take a tray and fill it from an array of noodles and raw foods on skewers. You hand the tray to the customer service person. S/he asks you something like “la da ma?” (spicy?), you nod or shake your head as appropriate, you get a tag with a number on it, and the tray goes in a queue with others. When your turn comes, true to the name of the restaurant, the cook dips all the ingredients you selected into a boiling broth until they’re all perfectly cooked, then fills a bowl with them. You trade your numbered tag for the bowl, and then add whatever toppings you like. Really tasty, and no language skills in particular required. Two warnings: (1) They don’t accept cash. You must go to the cashier just outside the food court and purchase a card. This reloadable card is good for any of the restaurants in the food court. It’s a handy card to have in this neighbourhood. (2) The spicy sauce really is spicy, as are both of the types of chillis available as free extra toppings. Start conservatively and then ramp up the spicing once you know what you’re dealing with. Cost about 25-30 RMB per person (without a drink).

The Japanese udon noodle place also in the Global Harbor food court is quite good, authentic tasting and cheap (about 15-30 RMB per person).

Spicy. Global Harbor has a new restaurant (on the 3rd floor, I think, but I might be misremembering) called Spicy. The menu looks great – mostly Hunan and Szechuan food (see South Memory entry below for notes on Hunan food), with English translations in the menu. We tried to go last week, but it was bursting at the seams with customers, with easily 20 people sitting on benches outside the restaurant waiting to get in. Not having tried it yet, I can’t endorse it, but the combination of the good menu and the eager crowd waiting for seats suggests to me that the food is good. Worth a try. Prices looked to be around 75 RMB per person.

* * *

Jinshajiang Lu Restaurants (All of these are on the same side of the road as ECNU)

Muhamat Restaurant. Food from Xinjiang Province in China’s northwest combines elements of central Asian and Han cuisine, as well as introducing some novel elements of its own (chewy hand-pulled noodles and black lager are two examples). In general, too, Xinjiang food is halal due to the province’s large Muslim (mostly ethnic Uyghurs) population. So, expect lamb, not pork, if meat’s your thing. Muhamat is probably the best Xinjiang restaurant very close to ECNU. They have a varied menu (with English!) of meat and veg dishes, and a Xinjiang version of a tandoor out front, where they bake their flatbread and cook skewers of meat to order. We love the eggplant and green peppers, the spicy green beans, and the Kazhak style potatoes. The meat-eaters among us love the fresh and varied meat skewers. About 50 RMB per person. Jinshajiang Lu near Yangliuqing Lu.

Uyghur noodle place. I don’t know this restaurant’s name because the sign is in Chinese only; so, here’s a photo: A small shop front with an illuminated Chinese sign This place, located right beside a small electronics store a stone’s throw from Global Harbor (the restaurant isn’t far from Zhongshan Beilu on Jinshajiang), is cheap, fast, friendly and tasty. Uyghur noodles (or rice, if you prefer) topped with various tasty stews and things. No English, but there are photos on the wall you can point to. (The dish with the potatoes, the photograph of which hangs over the tiny kitchen, is delicious!) About 15 RMB per person.

Snoodle. Nothing special, but it’s pleasant, easy, consistent and completely non-scary. A bright, cheerful little noodle chain restaurant with friendly , helpful staff, cheap, tasty comfort food, English in the menu, and low prices. And it’s just around the corner! Jinshajiang at Zhonghan Beilu.

* * *

Zhongshan Beilu Restaurants (i.e., the road under the elevated road) All of the places listed below are located between Jinshajiang and the campus main gate.

Christine’s. Downstairs, you can get decent western sandwiches for 20 RMB (and other Western goodies, at various counters on the main floor). Upstairs, there is fast, free wifi, tons of comfortable seating, wall sockets, coffee and other beverages, and hardly any other customers. It’s a quiet comfortable place to work, and they’ll let you sit as long as you want if you buy a drink. The chrysanthemum tea is really lovely, lightly sweetened and with other flowers added to the chrysanthemums.

1 *something something* Kitchen. I don’t really know the name. Here’s a picture: IMG_20140706_192638[1] Foodwise, this place is just ok (but it really is ok). What it has going for it is that it’s easy for non-Chinese speakers to wrangle. Pick up a tray and move along the cafeteria style counter, pointing at the things you’d like. Pile them all on the tray, and then pay a pittance for them at the end. About 20-25 RMB per person. If you buy a drink and you want it cold, be sure to point to the fridge. The default setting for drinks here is room temperature.

Delicious street grills. Ok. Not really a restaurant, but you could do worse than selecting a bunch of tasty skewers from a street vendor like the one pictured below (the Kid thinks this is the best street grill kiosk on Zhongshan Beilu) and have him grill them off for you over open flames. If you want ‘em spicy, point to the salt shaker thingy. Super cheap – about 1-2 RMB per skewer. A young man cooks behind a large outdoor open flame grill. In front of him is an array of raw vegetables and meats threaded on skewers awaiting cooking.

James. A big, comfy ex-pat bar that opened just a month ago. Very cheap Western food and drinks, and nightly special. Cheap mojitos on Tuesdays. Wednesday is ladies night – “ladies” who wish to do so can pay 50 RMB for unlimited cocktails between 8pm and midnight. American and full English breakfasts earlier in the day. Billiards, big screen tvs (perfect for the remaining World Cup matches) ersatz karaoke from time to time… Staff is very friendly and accommodating.

* * *

SECTION 2: Really good (but generally affordable) restaurants easily accessible by metro (All of the following restaurants have English menus.)

The Tandoor (Indian). French Concession. This  is the very best Indian food I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a lot). The spices are wonderfully rich and complex. The service is impeccable too. It’s pricey, though. A fairly restrained dinner for two with a couple of drinks could easily cost 700 RMB. Still, well worth visiting at least once when you’re in Shanghai if you enjoy good Indian food. 59 Maoming Nanlu. (Inside the grounds of the JinJiang Hotel.) 021 6472 5494. Accepts foreign credit cards.

Southern Barbarian (Yunnan). French Concession. Yunnan cuisine is quite distinctive among Chinese regional cuisines. It’s delicate, well-structured and fresh. Key Yunnan ingredients include flowers, wild mushrooms and shreds of Yunnan ham.  Southern Barbarian has a wonderful, varied menu, and the food is great. The atmosphere is clean and minimalist. The spotless kitchen is enclosed in glass; so, you can even watch your meal being cooked. An evening meal costs about 100 RMB per person, including a domestic beer. (Lots of great import beers on the menu if you don’t mind the prices (45 RMB and higher). The restaurant is hard to find. It’s inside a kind of “art mall”, up on the second floor. You have to walk through the mall to a kind of inner courtyard to reach the stairwell to the restaurant. Don’t let the smell in the staircase put you off. There’s a wc at the bottom that kind of stinks the place up. But SB itself is really clean and lovely. Small and popular; so make reservations or go on the off-hours. Enter at 56 Maoming Nanlu or 169 Jinxian Lu (after 9pm use Jinxian Lu entrance). 021 5157 5510. Cash only.

Xibo. (Xinjiang) Jing’An District. There’s lots of quite tasty Xinjiang food available near ECNU. Xibo is a bit more sophisticated, though. It’s kind of “Xinjiang Fusion.” The atmosphere is sleek and hip. The food features all the Uyghur favourites and some inventive twists. We loved the surprisingly light pumpkin dumplings, and the delicate olive pancakes (sort of Chinese soft tacos). I’m a vegetarian but my omnivorous fellow diners went mad for the flat bread stuffed with lamb and cheese. About 150-200 RMB per person, including drinks. The service is great too. The restaurant is spacious, but super popular; so reservations are a good idea. 3rd floor, 85 Changshu Lu. 021-54038330. Accepts foreign credit cards.

New Age Veggie. French Concession. (Asian vegetarian) A wide range of Asian and non-Asian dishes cooked in the Buddhist vegetarian tradition. One of our very favourite restaurants in Shanghai. We’ve been utterly wowed every time we’ve gone, as have our guests (regardless of whether or not they’re vegetarian). Frankly, the chefs must be alchemists. There is no other explanation for the amazing flavours and textures they are able to produce using solely vegetarian ingredients. Even their vegan salmon sashimi (!) is plausible and tasty. Wonderful teas and fresh squeezed juices too. Wonderfully flavourful, satisfying food in a comfortable atmosphere with a great view of Huaihai Zhong Lu and all its swanky stores. Note: no alcohol served here, although they do offer de-alcoholized wine and beer. No reservations necessary. About 100-150 RMB per person. 5th floor. 988 Huaihai Zhong Lu. I don’t know whether they take foreign credit cards, but I’m guessing not.

South Memory (Hunan) Multiple locations. South Memory is a wonderful chain of Hunan restaurants with tasty food, very good prices and a nice atmosphere. Hunan food is very spicy. Pork, fish and chillis are the most popular ingredients (although there is plenty at South Memory for vegetarians like me to enjoy).  South Memory does a really good job of what are arguably the two most popular and iconic Hunan dishes – fish heads with two colours of chillis and noodles, and spicy eggplant with ground pork. Everything else at South Memory is yummy too. South Memory is one of my family’s go-to favourites when we’re in Nanjing or Shanghai. About 50-100 RMB per person. No foreign credit cards.

Lost Heaven (Yunnan). Huang Pu District. See all the notes about Yunnan food above. I haven’t tried the food at Lost Heaven. Marcia has. She said it was delicious, but expensive by Chinese standards. The atmosphere is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and the location is great for Bund-walking and Pudong-watching. While I haven’t tried the food, I’ve been to the rooftop cocktail lounge a couple of times. It’s wonderfully luxurious — burbling fountains, live bamboo clusters, big couches with beautiful, embroidered cushions, dim lighting and tastefully ambient music. And you can see the lights of Pudong  and a few Bund rooftops from your seat. The cocktail menu is extensive and inventive, if pricey – about 70-80 RMB per drink. 17,Yan’an Dong Road,Shanghai.  021 63300967. Foreign credit cards accepted.

Legend Taste (Yunnan) Jing’An District. Another really tasty Yunnan place. This one has a kind of chill, batik, hippy vibe. It’s on a ground floor in a quiet, tree-lined neighbourhood and (if memory serves) it has a small patio. Lovely, hospitable service. Our favourite dish when we went last year was a cold tofu and eggplant dish. While you may not think you want either of these ingredients cold, the dish is a knock-out. Reservations are a good idea. 1025 Kangding Rd. 021 5228 9961. I don’t know whether or not they take foreign credit cards, but there’s a pretty good chance.

Last night, we went out to the French Concession for upscale, super swanky Xinjiang food. We had amazingly light pan-fried pumpkin dumplings, delicate warm crepes filled with Chinese olives, chilli-fried green beans, mint and chickpea salad, roasted flatbread with sweet vinegar dip, chewy hand-pulled noodles, tall glasses of fresh pomegranate juice and bottles of black lager.  The meat-eaters at the table also had a rich beef and tomato stew, warm flatbreads stuffed with lamb, cheese and herbs, and braised duck.

Then, we headed to the Bund to gawk at the futuristic, colourfully-illuminated skyscrapers of Pudong. Next,we sipped outrageously decadent cocktails while snuggled into embroidered cushions on the comfy couches of a very elegant Yunnan-themed rooftop bar. The Kid, ever the sophisticate, had a watermelon and coriander margarita, then a pisco sour. (We were with our new Peruvian friend, which made Molly’s first taste of Peru’s national cocktail even more exciting.) I, ever the cartoonish galumph ordered the novelty drinks — a “paper bag” daiquiri and a pina colada served in a massive coconut with a little paper umbrella. Others at the table had very good whiskey sours, a caipirinha that wasn’t *quite* as good as the ones I make, but was still pretty good, a “zen-tea-ni” and a kind of Tennessee version of a cuba libre.

This morning was our first late, lazy morning since we left the U.K. — a much-needed rest after a whirlwind couple of weeks. Then, this afternoon, I got to talk philosophy with a Shanghai Peirce scholar and an American Wittgenstein scholar over a pot of the most delicious chrysanthemum tea.

Week one in Shanghai is done. It was great. Bring on week two.

For the first time since we began coming to China, our accommodations are on-campus.  They’re not residence rooms, exactly. We’re living in a better-than-dorm on-campus hotel that seems to target visiting scholars and conference attendees. The East China Normal University (ECNU) campus is pleasant, green and quiet. There are lots of trees and a couple of pretty little canals. Near the canals, there are little stone tables and stools from which one can observe the fish and the birds (and sometimes humans) who feed on the fish.

Just off-campus, though, the calm evaporates. Putuo (our neighbourhood) is a hustle and bustle of traffic, restaurants, food stalls, street vendors, and shopping. Just under a year ago, the local shopping went super upscale with the opening of the 480,000 square metre Global Harbor mall — a six story mall and entertainment complex whose Blade Runner-esque LED animated exterior was designed to look like a ship with two massive masts, and whose interior decor ranges from faux classical to ersatz rococo. If you enjoy looking at dreamy paintings of rich, old-tymey white ladies in tiaras to the sounds of elevator salsa music whilst surrounded by empty Dior, Dolce and Gabbana and Cartier stores and countless upscale coffee shops, then Global Harbor is for you.

Here are a couple of quick interior glimpses:

IMG_20140701_141829[1]

 

view from below of ornate sky-lit four story atrium with two tall palm trees in the foreground

 

a sculpture of two reclining classical figures, back to back

 

Swanky, huh? Nice as Global Harbor is, though, it is awfully…  I mean, it’s just so awfully, um… well, really just awfully…

a store-front. The sign says "Awfully Chocolate."

 

Not interested in Italian shoes or French couture? Prefer a proper British store? Not to worry.

a Tesco sign with some merchandise in front of it

 

Or, perhaps, seeing as it’s Canada Day today, you’d prefer to shop for Canuck products? Here’s one!

image from the back cover of a student notebook. On the left is a picture of an antique car with the caption "antique car." On the right, in large letters, it says "CANADA". Beneath it in smaller printing is a little motto about Canada (reproduced below on blog post).

 

That photo shows the back cover of a student notebook. Among the other notebooks in the same line is one that says “Italy” and has a picture of the leaning tower of Pisa, captioned with the words “Statue of Liberty.” But enough about Italy! Today is Canada Day. Although I am far away from my native land, as a proud Canadian, let me just say:

 

CANADA

Whatever you can do, or dream you can,begin it.

Whereever you want to go,

I hope I will accompany you.

(P.S. London. Antique car.)

Don’t eat the street food!

Yesterday afternoon, the Kid and I ran errands. Afterwards, as we stepped off the bus at our place, there was a new street food vendor right there at the bus stop frying up gorgeous golden and crispy veggie dumplings and selling them slathered in chilli sauce — 10 dumplings for $1 (or 50p).

We’re so lucky that our hotel is just behind a street food area with tons of veggie options. Amazing giant flatbreads flavoured with various combinations of chives, scallions, sesame seeds, garlic and minced chillis; fresh veggies threaded onto bamboo skewers and flame broiled to order then slathered in oil and spicy seasoning; crepes stuffed with fried egg, fried lettuce and chilli sauce; noodle bowls wok-fried from a tiny cart, with veggies and nice salty, oily, unctuous sauce. Lots of other stuff too… Most of it less than 50p. And two iced tea/milk tea/smoothy/lassi kiosks in the midst of all this for a sweet chaser. Yesterday, I had a lovely apple lychee iced “fibre” tea. (Don’t ask me what the fibre is. I have no idea. It’s all about trust.)

One of the first things that SIE (the company I taught for in Nanjing in 2012 and 2013, and for whom the Guy is teaching this year in Shanghai) tells the new arrivals is DON’T EAT THE STREET FOOD. We’ve eaten it every day (sometimes multiple times) since we got here. Life’s too short not to eat the street food.

 

Two great Uyghur places

A friend has been insisting that I post photos of food. But I keep forgetting to take any. The lovely food arrives and all I can think of is eating it. Tonight, though, halfway through my dinner, I finally remembered to take a pic.

IMG_20140630_202729[1]

 

What you see here are yummy hand-pulled Uyghur noodles topped with a rich, smoky potato stew. Three of us had lovely noodle dishes like this one (one with potatoes, one with eggplant, and one with lamb), along with three bowls of  lovely clear peppery broth, a boil of peanuts, and three adorable little glass bottles of soda pop for a total of just over $8/₤4. For all three of us!!

After dinner, a stern-looking black-hjiabed Uyghur woman, who seemed to be associated with the owners, but who wasn’t doing too much in the way of work, specifically moved to a different seat so that she could get really close to the Kid and closely scrutinize her blue hair and her up-gauged ears and her various facial piercings. Then, a young girl (of perhaps 12?) in a beautiful silky pink hijab covered with glitter and golden jewelry joined the woman so that she too could give the Kid a good once-over. They both stared at her so unabashedly and with such open, genuine interest that the Kid and I halted our conversation so that she could turn to them and give them a closer look. Thus began a sweet, animated, giggly conversation between the Kid and the young girl, the young girl gently touching the Kid’s piercings and the woman looking on rather sternly all the while, until at last one of the men in the kitchen yelled at the girl to (one supposes) get off her butt and clear the tables that had just been vacated. As the Kid and I left the restaurant, we heard peals of laughter (but not unkind laughter) erupt behind us.

This was, in fact, our third Uyghur meal in two days. We’ve just found a new row of restaurants really near our hotel. Last night, five of us shared Kazakhstan style potatoes, wonderful chunky little egg noodles, glorious fatty spicy braised eggplant with sweet peppers, dry-fried green beans in Szechuan peppercorns and chillis, a Uyghur version of katchumber salad, sesame nan (called “nang” by the Uyghurs), amazing veggie fried rice hash-fragrant with smoked cumin, and gai choy with black mushrooms, with bottles of kvass and black beer and, for the meat-eaters, half a dozen massive skewers of lamb — all consumed amidst chandeliers and rich brocades and brooding, cigarette smoking men, and confident, happy toddlers. About $50/₤25, all in. (We went back to the same place for lunch today and shared kvass, ma po tofu, fat dry-fried noodles with celery and fresh and dried chillis, and more sesame nan: $10/₤5.)

On the way home from last night’s rather grand Uyghur restaurant, we passed tonight’s much more down-market one — a bright, cheerful little place staffed by wiry young men in white taqiyahs and tunics, and (as we discovered tonight) by the young girl in the glittering hijab. Last night, as we passed, she was reclining on a motorcycle in front of the restaurant, looking for all the world as if she was waiting for someone to pop a date in her mouth. I so wanted to look at her — her beautiful head-scarf and her imperious but playful air, but I didn’t want to be rude. So it was great when she was even more interested in the Kid than I was in her. We all got a good look. The Kid’s appearance really makes her stand out this year. Last time I posted, I said that it will make it harder to observe people unobtrusively. As I learned tonight, though, there is no need to be unobtrusive in one’s observation when one is herself the object (of the mother of the object) of scrutiny.

 

Huh.

So, it turns out that eleven months ago, I promised that my next post would be about Shanghai. It’s true, but not for the reasons I thought when I wrote that sentence. Time raced, I didn’t get around to posting, a year passed, and now we’re back in China — this time spending the summer in Shanghai while the Guy teaches classes on English composition and film. No time just yet to write a new post, but here, for my non-Facebooky friends and for posterity, is a lightly edited compendium of my first few substantive Facebook posts about our time here since our arrival three days ago.

“You can pull a cow with one of those.”

Yesterday, the Kid and I and two new friends were wandering around People’s Square when we spied some men gambling. The new friends, who’ve spent less time in China than the Kid and I have, were interested in watching the game; so the Kid (in her really quite impressive Chinese) asked the men if they’d mind if we watched. The men said it was no problem. But, as soon as they’d caught a glimpse of the Kid, the game fell apart anyway. Who was this confident, butch, blue-haired girl with all the piercings? Abandoning the game, the men encircled the Kid and began to interrogate her about where we were from and, especially, about her piercings. As she chatted with them in Chinese, more men gathered, forming a crowd. They genially teased her with the grandfathers-everywhere joke about pulling cows by their nose rings. They asked her how much each of her piercings cost, counted her piercings and worked out the total, then (grandpa-wise) offered to provide her with new piercings at a much-reduced rate. One of our new friends, a warm, funny Peruvian who (it seems) needs no common language to communicate effectively with anyone he meets so expressive and disarming is he, joined in the fun and mimed using various power tools on the Kid, to the delight of the Shanghai gamblers. One tough-looking young guy, himself pierced and tattooed, asked the Kid to show him the weird little piercing she has inside her upper lip, and then acted all freaked out when she showed him. the Kid’s language skills were awesome and her broad smile was, as always, warm and charming. She much enjoyed this bout of celebrity. But, it’s clear that she is far too interesting looking to be a very effective ethnographer here. This summer, she will be the observed rather than the observer.

* * *

Vegan Shanghai

No kitchen in our hotel rooms (we have two!) this year, but restaurants are really cheap and street food is plentiful; so, it will be easy to eat well. We splurged tonight, and paid a little more than will be typical for us — went out for amazing Buddhist vegan food in the French concession. Vegan braised rockfish, vegan salmon sashimi (!), vegan sweet and sour steak, unctuous hand-torn noodles, pot stickers, braised eggplant on a bed of crunchy bean sprouts, spinach and “cheese” risotto, spring rolls and amazing freshly squeezed juices — orange and lemon and matcha-pineapple. Followed by matcha pudding topped with red beans and coconut jelly. A massive feast in a posh restaurant. Just over $80 or ₤40 for five of us!

* * *

Other people’s diaries

Last year, we tried to go for drinks in the well-known French Concession bar called Yin Yang, but it was closed when we got there. We went back tonight. It’s a dark and ambient basement bar with deep reds and wooden floors and panelling, and a few framed socialist realist paintings. When we arrived at 9:00 or so, it was chill, with just two older men drinking and smoking, and the staff preparing for their Saturday night shift. After our cocktails, the owner showed us his impressive collection of personal diaries spanning the period from the revolution to the 1970s. For years, he has bought them at markets and antique shops. At first, he was puzzled by how many of them contained very little writing. Over time, he came to realize that left-wing diary owners recorded their thoughts expansively, but right-wing diary owners were more circumspect, fearful of having their writings used as evidence against them. He now organizes the diaries in bookshelves on two opposing walls — one wall is devoted to the diaries of the loquacious left, the other to those of the laconic right. Today, he has a special place in his heart for old empty diaries. He thinks that the emptiness expresses as much as written words do. But he’s finding it increasingly difficult to find old diaries for sale. “Do you keep a diary?” I asked him. He replied that he doesn’t keep a diary, but that every ten years he spends a year writing, “So, that’s a kind of diary, isn’t it?”

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 off 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 eight 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 lay 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” I 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.

 

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