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.